The highs: Caeleb Dressel
“New Michael Phelps” is an eye-grabbing headline but could use more nuance. What the US really needed was not someone to rival Phelps’ medal haul - because no one can - but a new male talisman, a figurehead to stand alongside Katie Ledecky and capture mainstream attention. And, of course, a few medals.
After two relay golds in Rio, the 24-year-old Floridian won his first three individual Olympic titles in Tokyo. Add in two more relays, and Dressel lived up to the hype. The world’s fastest swimmer and a seven-time Olympic gold medallist? That’ll do nicely.
And his frankness shouldn’t be overlooked in a Games where the pressures on athletes have come to the fore. Thoughtful, sensitive and honest, he’s disclosed that he often cries, gets nervous and sometimes feels under strain. He’s articulated levels of emotional honesty and self-awareness that Phelps, now a mental health advocate, would no doubt applaud. That’s a valuable contribution in addition to his medal haul.
An event predicted to be one of Tokyo’s most foregone conclusions proved anything but when Simone Biles withdrew from the women’s individual all-around gymnastics competition. Yet was American greatness was on display all the same, as Sunisa Lee took gold.
The 18-year-old Minnesotan, the first Hmong American Olympian, has a powerful personal story that includes recent family tragedy. “This medal definitely means a lot to me because there was a point in time when I wanted to quit and I just didn’t think I would ever be here, including injuries and stuff,” she told reporters.
Not only did Lee extend the US’s winning streak in the high-profile event to five successive Olympics, she also earned silver in the women’s team contest and bronze in the uneven bars.
It’s not a sport that gets much attention in the US, for reasons that go beyond its limited televisual appeal. Even the governing body’s website describes its athletes as “misunderstood, under-recognized and somewhat ill-perceived.”
Still, at the time of writing, the shooting team had enjoyed its best results in decades and contributed the second-highest number of medals to Team USA’s overall tally (second to swimming) with three golds, two silvers and a bronze.
Two titles came on the same day, as Vincent Hancock and Amber English won their skeet competitions. And that’s even without the participation of six-time Olympian Kim Rhode, a legend for her ability and her longevity, who traveled to Tokyo as an alternate.
The tarantula-loving fencer and medical student defeated ROC’s Inna Deriglazova, the defending champion, to win the women’s individual foil. She seemed momentarily stunned, which is unsurprising given the context.
While the sport is niche in the US, with a collegiate tradition closely associated with the Ivy League, it’s still remarkable that Kiefer’s was the first Olympic foil title for an American. After all, there’ve been chances; fencing has been held at every Games from the first in 1896. The three top nations - Italy, France and Hungary - have racked up a combined 131 golds. The only other American gold medallist besides Kiefer is the five-time Olympian Mariel Zagunis, the sabre champion in 2004 and 2008.
Kiefer, 27, hails from a family with a fencing - and medical - background. Her father is a neurosurgeon, her mother is a psychiatrist, her sister is a doctor and her brother is a medical student. And her husband, Gerek Meinhardt, won bronze in the men’s team foil event. The couple are both students at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine.
The lows: swimming relays
The spectacle of Dressel frantically trying to overtake seven women amid the chaos as he swam the anchor leg of the 4x100m mixed medley made for one of the best – and surely the weirdest – races of the competition. But the huge gap he was unable to make up (the US finished fifth) represented tactical failure. “Unacceptable”, Dressel described the result.
That was a new event; the Dressel-less men’s 4x200m freestyle, also won by Great Britain, was an historic disappointment. Staggeringly, it was the first time in 96 attempts that a US relay team failed to win a medal. There were still golds in the men’s 4x100m freestyle and medley. Overall in the Aquatics Centre, the US swimmers ended with 30 medals (11 gold), down from 33 medals (16 gold) in Rio.
That was still table-topping, as usual, though overall this was an excellent but not imperious meet for the US. A resurgent Australia and a strong British team were big factors in that, but the relays played a role. The US won only two of seven, compared with five out of six in Rio.
One of the sleeper hits as it debuted in Rio, the Eagles didn’t provide much incentive for fans back home to stay awake for the action in Tokyo. The women’s and men’s sides targeted medals but were both knocked out in the quarter-finals by Great Britain.
Nor was the tournament much of a spectacle, heart-warming tales of Fiji’s triumphs over adversity aside. This was an event that suffered more than others from the absence of fans, with the echoing emptiness of the 50,000-capacity Tokyo Stadium making for about as much atmosphere as outer space.
The format is undeniably capricious, with an unfocused couple of minutes or a sudden momentum shift being enough to spell doom, but given the positive momentum before the pandemic – both American teams ranked as high as second in the world – the Olympics represented a missed opportunity. And the manner of the men’s team’s exit, losing 26-21 after frittering a 21-0 lead, was particularly galling.
An Olympic bronze? Check. Silver? Twice. World titles? By the bucketload. World number one ranking? For sure. Appearance on Fox & Friends urging his fellow Olympians to stick to sports? That too!
There’s not much Brady Ellison hasn’t achieved in archery, but the man who credits a Slovenian natural healer for his recovery from a career-threatening hand injury arrived in Tokyo aiming for his first Olympic gold.
The 32-year-old, nicknamed “The Arizona Cowboy”, lost his individual quarter-final to the eventual winner, Turkey’s Mete Gazoz, and fared no better in the men’s and mixed team events. Team USA’s best finish was Mackenzie Brown’s fourth place in the women’s individual, meaning that the Americans bowed out of the Olympics without a medal for the first time since 2008.
The USWNT were stuffed by Sweden in their opening group game, they only made it past the Netherlands in the quarter-finals thanks to the penalty-saving heroics of Alyssa Naeher, and now it’s bronze at best after Monday’s 1-0 semi-final loss to Canada, a performance so stagnant it’s a wonder algae didn’t start blooming on their kit. That magnificent 2019 World Cup campaign feels a long time ago, even with a similar roster in Tokyo. So does 2012, when the US won their third straight Olympic title.
At least they made it to Japan, eh, USMNT?