Tokyo Summer Olympics 2021: Day 7 Highlights
We're officially through one week of the 2020 Olympic Games, and despite the lack of crowds, they're as engaging and unpredictable as ever.
In the "business as usual" category, the U.S. women's basketball team continued its Olympic winning streak, beach volleyball juggernaut April Ross and Alix Klineman powered through rain showers and advanced to the knockout round, and the first full day of track and field saw fireworks from morning till night.
As for the more exciting results, the USWNT needed penalties to advance to the semifinals, Novak Djokovic lost in both singles and mixed doubles, New Zealand dominated in rowing, and Great Britain medaled in BMX cycling for the first time.
So, let's walk through all you may have missed from last night and this morning on Day 7 in Tokyo.
USA's 'A-Team' in a Torrential Downpour
It would be a substantial understatement to say that the weather conditions at Shiokaze Park early on Day 7 weren't great for beach volleyball. It was raining sheets throughout the pool-play showdown between Team USA's April Ross/Alix Klineman and Sanne Keizer/Madelein Meppelink of the Netherlands.
Unless there's lightning in the immediate vicinity, though, the show must go on.
And, initially, it was a tough show for the “A-Team.”
Near the end of a back-and-forth first set, Alix and April were ahead 19-18 when the Dutch reeled off four of the next five points to take the opening set 22-20. It was the first set the A-Team lost at these Olympics, and when they fell behind 12-9 in the second set, it looked like they were going to lose their final match of pool play.
Out of nowhere, Ross and Klineman somehow caught fire in the rain. They won seven of the next eight points, took the second set 21-17 and cruised to a 15-5 victory in the tie-breaking third set. Netherlands was called for a couple of controversial lifts (holding the ball too long on a set attempt) and Klineman added several soul-crushing blocks in that third set.
The Americans were already going to advance to the knockout round regardless of the outcome. However, thanks to the comeback, they improved to 3-0 to win Pool B and should get a more favorable draw than they would have with a loss. We won't know what the bracket looks like until around 10 p.m. ET on Friday night, but the A-Team will definitely be a part of the puzzle.
Rikke Moller Pedersen's World Record in Women's 200-Meter Breaststroke Goes Down
Through the first six days of the 2020 Olympics, the Tokyo Aquatics Centre had been a safe space for world records in swimming. There have been a handful of Olympic records broken, but world records were unblemished until Tatjana Schoenmaker got into the pool to swim the final of the women's 200-meter breaststroke.
Early in the swim, it looked like Team USA's Lilly King might be the one to break the world record. The two-time Olympic gold medalist got out to a lightning-fast start and led Schoenmaker by 0.59 seconds at the midpoint of the race. At that point, she was well ahead of the superimposed world-record tracker.
But the South African not only overtook the American but left King swimming in her wake.
Schoenmaker won the race by almost a full second with a time of two minutes, 18.95 seconds. That broke the nearly eight-year-old record of two minutes, 19.11 seconds set by Denmark's Rikke Moller Pedersen on August 1, 2013.
Behind the new record holder, King took silver while fellow American Annie Lazor earned the bronze. It's just the second time that Team USA put two swimmers on the podium for this event, matching the silver and bronze won by Kristy Kowal and Amanda Beard, respectively, in 2000.
Also in the pool on Day 7:
- ROC's Evgeny Rylov won his second gold and third overall medal of these Games, besting Team USA's Ryan Murphy by nearly a second in the men's 200-meter backstroke.
- Australia's Emma McKeon took gold in the women's 100-meter freestyle for her fourth medal of these Games and the eighth of her Olympic career.
- China's Wang Shun had a dominant closing freestyle leg of the men's 200-meter individual medley to win the first gold medal of his Olympic career.
New Zealand Rowing Cruises
Heading into these Games, New Zealand had never finished atop the rowing medal table.
The Kiwis had won at least three medals in each of the previous three Summer Olympics, but it was never enough to catch Great Britain in first place. Prior to that, they had won just 13 medals in Olympic rowing history, never enough to have the highest medal count.
And heading into the final day of rowing in Tokyo, New Zealand's odds of finishing in first place were...not great. With only four events to go, New Zealand had just two medals in the first 10 events, well behind the Netherlands' five and Australia's four. So, not only did they need at least three medals, they basically needed both of those countries to get shut out.
Ask and you shall receive.
In the women's single sculls, New Zealand's Emma Twigg obliterated the competition. The first medal of the 34-year-old's Olympic career was a gold, and she won by more than three seconds.
New Zealand didn't have a finalist in the men's single sculls—making the chance of finishing in first even more unlikely—but they did have a boat in both the men's and women's eight, winning gold in the former and silver in the latter. (In the women's eight, Team USA took fourth, ending a streak of three consecutive Olympic gold medals.)
In the process, neither Australia nor Netherlands was able to secure a medal, moving New Zealand into a 5-5 tie with the Dutch for first place. But with three golds to the Netherlands' one, the Kiwis win that unofficial tiebreaker.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Team USA was completely shut out of rowing medals, which had never happened before in a Games that it competed in rowing.
Great Britain Breaks Through in BMX Racing
Cycling has been part of the Summer Olympics for well over a century, but BMX racing has only been an Olympic discipline since 2008. And in those three previous Games, the breakdown of the 18 medals awarded to men and women went: USA (five), Colombia (four), France/Latvia/Netherlands (two each) and New Zealand/Australia/Venezuela (one each).
Notably absent from that list was Great Britain, which had won 87 overall medals in Olympic cycling history through 2016. Only France (91) had won more, and Italy (59) was nowhere close to joining that two-horse (two-bicycle?) race.
Great Britain ended that mini-drought in BMX racing, though, earning gold in the women's race and silver in the men's race.
In the former, Bethany Shriever stormed out to an early lead before just barely holding off Colombia's Mariana Pajon, who won Olympic gold in this event in both 2012 and 2016. The British cyclist won by nine-hundredths of a second.
In the latter, it was a similar margin in the opposite direction. Great Britain's Kye White did everything in his power to catch Netherlands' Niek Kimmann from behind, but he missed out on the gold by 0.114 seconds. He wasn't bummed out, though. The men raced before the women, and after Shriever's gold medal, he scooped her up into his arms as they each celebrated their achievements.
In much less positive news, Team USA's reigning Olympic gold medalist Connor Fields was involved in a horrific three-bike crash in the semifinals before being stretchered to an ambulance. He qualified for the finals because of his performances in the previous heats, but he was unable to compete in the finals—which took place less than an hour after his crash.
Shortly after that, Australia's Saya Sakakibara suffered a similar fate in her final heat of the women's semifinals. Thoughts and prayers to both cyclists for a speedy recovery.
Novak Djokovic's Tough Day
Though it was sad to watch Naomi Osaka lose in the third round of the women's singles tournament, it made sense. She'd been away from competitive play for two months and wasn't at her best. But the same thing couldn't happen to Novak Djokovic, right? He was in top form, trying to complete the first "Golden Slam"— winning all four majors and Olympic gold in one calendar year—since Steffi Graf in 1988.
However, the way these Olympics are going, no favorite is unbeatable, and Djokovic learned that Friday, losing his Golden Slam bid to Alexander Zverev (1-6, 6-3, 6-1). He then lost in mixed doubles with Nina Stojanovic 7-6, 7-5 just hours later. For Djokovic, a 20-time major champion who hadn't lost in almost three months, it was a shock to the system.
"I feel so terrible right now," he said after the singles loss. "I can't be positive right now."
A one-time Olympic medalist (he won singles bronze in 2008), Djokovic has a chance to add two more to his sizable awards collection Saturday, playing for bronze in both singles and mixed doubles. He can also still claim the relatively more common calendar Grand Slam by winning the U.S. Open next month. But for an all-time great, coming so close to a rare feat like the Golden Slam and falling just short must hurt.
USWNT Wins a Nail-Biter
It certainly wasn't pretty, but the USWNT got a win this morning, drawing 2-2 in the first 120 minutes but outscoring the Netherlands 4-2 on penalty kicks to advance to the semifinals.
If you thought a 6-1 drubbing of New Zealand would be enough to jolt the USWNT back into tip-top shape for the rest of the Olympics, think again. This was a physical, often careless showing by the Red, White and Blue, garnering 14 fouls and two yellow cards from a particularly stingy crew of refs who also disallowed two U.S. goals thanks to offsides calls.
Thankfully for the Americans, however, goalie Alyssa Naeher was outstanding in this match. Other than allowing two strikes to Vivianne Miedema, she was nearly perfect, recording five saves, stopping a Lieke Martens penalty kick in the 81st minute and standing tall in the late-match PK session as well.
The USWNT may not be long-term victors, because they're clearly very beatable right now. But a win is a win, and we'll see them against Canada on Monday with an Olympic Finals berth on the line.
U.S. Women's Basketball Cruises
The show goes on for U.S. women's basketball, who dispatched Japan 86-69 to win their 51st consecutive Olympic game.
It wasn't smooth sailing the entire way, as the host nation led 30-28 after one quarter and forced 17 total U.S. turnovers. However, the Americans soon turned up the pressure, limiting Japan to just 10 points in the second frame and 34.6 percent shooting overall.
And as to be expected against a team whose tallest player is just 6'1", the U.S. dominated inside. A'ja Wilson led six Americans in double figures, recording 20 points, and both she (10 rebounds, three blocks) and Breanna Stewart (15 points, 13 rebounds, six assists) notched double-doubles. Brittney Griner added 15 points and five rebounds as well.
Overnight on Sunday, the U.S. women next take on France, a Group B rival who crushed Nigeria 87-62 this morning as well. Though Les Bleus are not expected to be a significant threat to the Americans' pursuit of a seventh straight gold, it will be a good barometer to see where they stand against a knockout stage-caliber opponent.
American Track Stars Come Through
Friday morning saw the first slate of track and field action at the Tokyo Games. And while the stakes were generally low throughout, this being a day full of preliminary heats, the numerous American stars dotted throughout the morning got the job done.
Likely the most prominent name of the bunch is 400-meter hurdler Rai Benjamin, who cruised to a 48.60 time and victory in his heat, keeping a much-anticipated final battle with Norwegian record-holder Karsten Warholm right on schedule.
Also advancing were all three women's 100-meter runners (Javianne Oliver, Teahna Daniels and Jenna Prandini), all three women's 800-meter runners (Athing Mu, Ajee Wilson and Raevyn Rogers) and, among others, high jumper JuVaughn Harrison, who's also set to compete in the long jump later this week, becoming the first American man to do both since Jim Thorpe in 1912.
Besides the soon-to-retire Allyson Felix, U.S. doesn't have many household-name track stars at the moment. But if this morning's events are indicative of anything, we might be on our way to minting some more.
Maggie Steffens and U.S. Women's Water Polo Bounce Back
One of the lesser-known American Olympic dynasties is women's water polo. Their loss to Hungary on Wednesday was the team's first in Olympic play since 2008, and they're 131-4 in all competitions since the Rio Games. This only added pressure to their Friday afternoon matchup with the Russian Olympic Committee. How would they bounce back from such a shocking defeat?
The squad answered such questions as emphatically as possible, crushing the R.O.C. to an 18-5 final. And in the midst of such a dominant victory, a major record fell.
Team leader Maggie Steffens scored four goals on the day and notched her 48th Olympic score in the third quarter, breaking a tie with Italian Tania Di Mario. A two-time gold medalist, Steffens is still just 28 years old and has a chance to put the record completely out of reach by the time she retires.
With today's win, the U.S. has now clinched a spot in the quarterfinals. After responding so well to the first bit of adversity they've faced in years, a third straight gold is within sight.
Ethiopian and Rwandan Distance Runners Crush the Field
With reigning two-time gold medalist Mo Farah failing to qualify for Tokyo, the men's 10,000-meter podium seemed fairly wide-open. And in our first men's track and field medal event, we got a race for the ages.
Through much of this six-and-a-quarter-mile race, the humidity and heat seemed to hold the runners back from going their hardest, but over the last 400 meters, those concerns dissipated. The front-runners began to sprint, and over the last half-lap, a poetic image emerged, with the top four finishers representing Ethiopia, Uganda, Uganda and Ethiopia, respectively.
Selemon Barega, just 21 years old, succeeded Farah atop the medal stand and became the youngest man to win this event in 33 years. World record-holder Joshua Cheptegei and half-marathon world champion Jacob Kiplimo claimed silver and bronze for Uganda, while American Grant Fisher finished fifth.
Let's hope the weather is more favorable for distance runners through the rest of the Games, but on one of the toughest days we've seen during the Olympics, these 10,000-meter runners still gave us a thrilling, historic ending.