- Jeff Merron
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Every four years, the women's Olympic competition gets better, even as more and more events are added. Don't have unlimited leisure time? Here are the must-see events:
Devers tries again (hurdles)
Is five the charm? Gail Devers has been, for the past 15 years or so, the best 100-meter hurdler in the world. She has already been to four Olympics, but for a variety of reasons, has never medaled in the event. (She did pocket back-to-back golds in 1992 and 1996 in the 100-meter dash.) Devers, 37, is a favorite again in Athens -- her 12.50 in Jamaica last month is the second-fastest in the world this year. Her main rivals: Canadian Perdita Felicien, who has run a 12.46 and a 12.52, and U.S. teammate Joanna Hayes, who lost to Devers by two-thousandths of a second in an Olympic trials photo finish.
When to watch: Aug. 24.
Life is sweet at 16 feet (pole vault)
The women's pole vault, which didn't become an Olympic event until 2000, promises to be one of the most hotly contested in Athens. Stacy Dragila, the American record holder and a fan favorite, will be up against Yelena Isinbayeva and Svetlana Feofanova, who've been trading world records all summer. Both Russians have topped 16 feet; Dragila's best is 15 feet, 10 inches.
When to watch: Aug. 24.
Savannah's super Cheryl (super heavyweight lifting)
Cheryl Haworth, a lifting phenom when she arrived for her first Olympics in Sydney as a 17 year old, returns to the Games as a veteran with something to prove. In 2000, the 5-foot-8, 325-pound Savannah, Ga., native won the bronze medal, but she has undergone shoulder ligament surgery since then.
A beloved student at the Savannah College of Art and Design, Haworth is the U.S. record holder. She could win gold in Athens, but China's "dream team" is formidable, and it's also possible that she'll perform well and still finish sans medal.
"There are six super heavyweights who can win," U.S. team coach Michael Cohen said recently, "and, without question, it's the tightest, thickest, deepest class in the Olympics, male or female."
When to watch: Aug. 21.
The three C's vs. Khorkina (all-around gymnastics)
At 18, Courtney Kupets, who has won the national all-around title the past two years and the all-around at the trials this summer, is the "old" lady among the three Americans who could grab gold in the marquee event.
Carly Patterson, 16, tied with Kupets for the 2004 national title, and won a silver in the 2003 World Championships. But she fell off the beam twice during the trials to finish third. Finishing second: Courtney McCool who has already competed at the Athens venue, which, in a close contest, could provide a decisive advantage.
But gold isn't a given for the strong and deep U.S. team: Russia's Svetlana Khorkina, who won back-to-back golds in the uneven bars at Atlanta and Sydney, has three all-around world titles to her name, but has never won gold at the Olympics. Khorkina, 25, is ancient by gymnastics standards.
When to watch: The team competition on Aug. 17 will provide a terrific preview of the individual all-around battle (Aug. 19).
Wide-open race (swimming)
Nobody's a lock in the big women's swimming events this year, and there are sure to be some unknowns coming home with a couple of golds. Four must-see swimmers:
Inge de Bruijn: She took home three golds in Sydney, and this year the "Flying Dutchwoman" is favored in the 50 free and the 100 fly. She could win -- or finish sixth -- in the 100 free, which will be the most hotly contested race in Athens.
Natalie Coughlin: The American is going for five golds, but she's only swimming in two individual events. Coughlin's the clear favorite in the 100 backstroke; she's the only woman in the world to have broken the one-minute mark, and she has done it three times. She'll also be in the 100 free, and could win ... or finish sixth.
Amanda Beard: Beard has been on the world scene for a long time. Eight years ago in Atlanta, she drew crowds as a 14-year-old phenom clutching her teddy bear; she picked up two silvers in the breaststroke and a relay gold at those Games. Now, she's a favorite in the 200 individual medley, but is probably a little worried about …
Katie Hoff: The 15-year-old phenom defeated Beard in the 200 IM at the Olympic Trials, and won the 400 IM. She has the fastest 400 IM time in the world this year and the third-fastest time in the 200 IM.
When to watch: Aug. 14-21; 400 IM on Saturday is the first individual final.
Last stand for Mia, Brandi and Julie (soccer)
It's hard to believe, but five years have passed since the U.S. women's soccer team has won on the world stage -- you remember the 1999 World Cup? Five players remain from the great team that had its genesis during the World Cup run of 1991: Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain, Julie Foudy, Kristine Lilly and Joy Fawcett. Athens is likely the last time they'll play together in a big competition as Hamm, Fawcett and Foudy have already said they'll retire from major international events. But don't get too lost in nostalgia, because there's a new wave on the scene. Abby Wambach, 24, is the team's leading scorer; defender Cat Reddick of North Carolina is the best college player in the country.
The combination of experience and youth gives the United States a great shot at the gold, but they're not the favorites. Last year, Germany won the World Cup. Sweden and China could also take the gold.
Among the international individual stars to watch: Germany's Birgit Prinz, Sweden's Victoria Svensson and China's Fan Yunjie.
When to watch: The U.S. kicks off the prelims against Greece on Wednesday; gold medal and bronze medal games, Aug. 26.
Retracing the steps of Phidippides (marathon)
Paula Radcliffe is so far ahead of all of her competitors -- her 2:15:25 at London last year broke the world record by three and a half minutes -- that it seems like the marathon should be a lock. Add to that Radcliffe's own painful experience of finishing fourth in the Sydney 10K, after leading much of the way, and you would think that Radcliffe is both far superior to the rest of the field and very focused on proving it on the world stage.
You'd be right. She's training harder than ever, and this summer Radcliffe has proved she's at her peak, notching the year's fastest 10K and third-fastest 5K on the track. But her nemesis is the road: her biggest challengers will be the marathon course, which is uphill for the first 22 miles, and the heat, which will probably be in the mid-80s at the 6 p.m. start.
If Radcliffe falters, anything goes -- the marathon is probably the most unpredictable of all the track and field events. The woman with the best chance to beat her is Catherine Nderaba of Kenya, who has run three sub-2:20s. Deena Kastor, who ran 2:21:16 last year to set an American record, could also medal. She's in top form; last month at the Olympic trials, she won the 10K by 48 seconds, but she'll forgo that event in Athens to focus on the longer distance.
When to watch: Aug. 22.
Battle below the boards? (basketball)
Former WNBA MVP Lisa Leslie leads the U.S. hoops team against reigning WNBA MVP Lauren Jackson of Australia
The U.S. women are the strong gold medal favorite, but don't believe that the 30, 40, and 50-point exhibition blowouts mean cakewalk. Dawn Staley, Tamika Catchings and Leslie lead an extraordinarily deep team. But Jackson will lead the Australian team along with Phoenix Mercury star forward Penny Taylor. The Aussies are in the opposite draw, meaning a great semifinal or final matchup.
When to watch: Preliminary play begins Saturday; semifinals, Aug. 27; finals, Aug. 28.
Misty May's had a bad June and July (beach volleyball)
Kerri Walsh and Misty May are the world champs of the sand and the top seed in Athens, but many wonder whether May, who has battled abdominal injuries, will be able to play at top form throughout the 10-day tournament. The duo won 90 consecutive matches before being defeated in June, and in late July withdrew from a tournament after May reaggravated the injury. Two Brazilian teams are poised to strike for gold if May falters: Adriana Behar and Shelda Bede (seeded No. 2) and Ana Paula Connolly and Sandra Pires (seeded No. 3).
When to watch: Semifinals, Aug. 23; finals, Aug. 24.
Barb's and Sheila's Vouliagmeni adventure (triathlon)
Barbara Lindquist and Sheila Taormina have a couple of things in common: both are 35 and have been world class swimmers. Taormina, the world champion, won gold on the 800 freestyle relay team in Atlanta, while Lindquist was one of the leaders of the 1991 national champion Stanford swim team. Lindquist has been among the world's best triathletes for the past five years, but this is her first Olympics. Taormina finished sixth in the Sydney triathlon.
Look for each to be at the front of the pack at the end of the swimming leg on the course at Vouliagmeni, 28 miles from Athens. But they'll both be challenged by Australian Loretta Harrop, who finished fifth in Sydney and second in this year's world championships.
When to watch: Aug. 25.
Jeff Merron is a staff writer for ESPN.com.
Gail Devers' continuing quest, as well as Mia Hamm's final international competition, are among the top storylines for female athletes in Athens.