Santa Clara International Grand Prix - Day Four

Five swimmers at nationals who could be next Olympic stars

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When watching this week’s USA Swimming national championships, take a minute to think about the year 2001.

A boy named Michael Phelps began his record-smashing career in earnest the year after the Sydney Olympics. He set his first world mark in the 200-meter butterfly at the 2001 spring nationals, then did it again to win the world title in Fukuoka, Japan, four months later.

Certainly it’s ambitious to predict a Phelpsian feat at the IUPUI Natatorium in Indianapolis this week, but what happened 12 years ago shows that seeds for the next Olympics can be planted three years early.

That in mind, here are five U.S. swimmers who may not be familiar names yet, but they might just be setting the table for Rio with their performances this week and at the world championships next month.

Chase Kalisz: Fittingly, the list starts with a North Baltimore Aquatic Club product. No doubt if you follow Phelps on Twitter, you’ve seen Kalisz’s handle. Kalisz, 19, began training with Phelps between the Beijing and London Olympics and reached the finals of the 2012 Olympic trials in two of Phelps’ events – taking fifth and sixth, respectively, in the 200 and 400 individual medleys. He’s seeded third in both events in Indianapolis. It wouldn’t be a shock to see him pass gold medalists Tyler Clary or Conor Dwyer (Ryan Lochte might be a stretch) to snatch a world championships spot.

Becca Mann: Could 15 be the magic age for U.S. female swimmers? Seven-time world champion Katie Hoff made her Olympic debut at 15. Missy Franklin was 15 when she swam in her first major international meet. Katie Ledecky won 800 free gold in London at 15 as well. Mann, a novelist, tried to beat them all by flirting with the London Olympic team at age 14 last year, making three trials finals with two fifth-place finishes. She’s already on the worlds roster for open-water swimming and has five more events to try to make the team in the pool. Her best shot may be in the grueling 1,500 free, a non-Olympic event where she’s seeded third.

Maya DiRado: No U.S. woman has medaled in the 200 butterfly at an Olympics since Misty Hyman stunned Sydney in 2000. It’s the longest drought for USA Swimming in any individual event – man or woman. DiRado could be the answer. She’s shaved five seconds off her personal best in the event in 2013, capped by a second-place finish to make her first world championship team Tuesday. The Stanford star is scheduled for several more swims in Indianapolis, including the 400 IM, where she’s seeded fourth.

Jack Conger: Conger, 18, was a high school sensation in the D.C. area and will begin swimming for NCAA powerhouse Texas next season. On the national scene, Conger’s task is tough. Of his four events at nationals, he was seeded highest in the 200 backstroke – third – looking up at the last two Olympic champions Clary and Lochte. There’s also his prep rival, Florida’s Ryan Murphy, to contend with on the road to Rio.

Kevin Cordes: If there’s one opening for a young U.S. man to break through internationally, it’s in the breaststroke. It’s the only discipline Phelps and Lochte haven’t taken up at major meets. It’s also lacking star power with Brendan Hansen and Eric Shanteau not competing this week. Enter the Arizona Wildcat Cordes, 19, a threat in the 50, 100 and 200 breast. How good is he? Cordes won the 200-yard breast at the NCAA Championships in a time two seconds faster than anyone else ever and lowered his American record in the 100 en route to being named NCAA Swimmer of the Year – as a sophomore.

Ryan Lochte ‘wipes away the past’ in Power Bar video

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For the second time in as many months, Ryan Lochte stars in a jocular ad making a veiled reference to his Rio Olympic gas-station incident.

The swimmer wipes away “the past” on a foggy bathroom mirror and throws a blond wig out of a sunroof in a one-minute Power Bar video published Tuesday.

The company’s tag line in the video is “Clean Start.”

“For example, I am going to recommit myself to water sports,” Lochte says in the spot.

The ad follows a December video for Pine Bros. Softish Throat Drops, where Lochte starred in a spot with a closing banner that read, “Pine Bros.: In this Season of Forgiveness.”

Lochte had previously lost sponsorship deals, including with Speedo, after his Rio Olympic gas-station incident for which he was suspended through June by USA Swimming, plus for the world championships in July.

PHOTOS: Lochte set to be a father

U.S. Figure Skating Championships men’s preview

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The stage is set for Nathan Chen in Kansas City this week.

The 17-year-old is arguably the biggest favorite of any senior discipline at the U.S. Championships, looking to become the youngest U.S. men’s champion since 1966.

Chen, who boasts six quadruple jumps between his two programs, broke out at the Grand Prix Final in December by taking a silver medal. That propelled him to the top of U.S. men’s skating.

He outscored the reigning Olympic and world champions in the free skate at the Grand Prix Final in the best U.S. men’s international performance since Evan Lysacek won Olympic gold in 2010.

Chen’s chances for gold this week were boosted by the withdrawal of 2016 U.S. champion and training partner Adam Rippon due to a broken foot. And by 2015 U.S. champion Jason Brown‘s recent right leg injury.

Brown is still in the field, though, as is 2013 U.S. champion Max Aaron. Chen, Brown and Aaron are vying for two spots on the team for the world championships in two months in Helsinki.

“Those are the very clear top three,” NBC Olympics analyst Johnny Weir said. “It’ll take a disaster or a performance of a lifetime for anybody else to get into that top three.”

Friday
Men’s short program — 8:30 p.m.-midnight ET, Universal HD
Sunday
Men’s free skate — 4-6 p.m., NBC

MORE: U.S. Championships broadcast schedule
PREVIEWS: Men | Women | Pairs | Ice Dance

Nathan Chen
Age: 17
Hometown: Salt Lake City
2016 Grand Prix Final silver medalist
2016 U.S. bronze medalist
Two-time U.S. junior and novice champion

Chen came back strong this season following the first major injury of his career suffered at least year’s nationals exhibition. Hip surgery kept Chen from making his world championships debut in 2016, but he’s now poised to lead the U.S. men into Helsinki, trying to earn three Olympic berths. First, Chen goes for his first senior national title.

Tara Lipinski’s Take: Nathan is the star of the show this year. The type of talent he has doesn’t come along every day. He possibly could be on the Olympic podium next year with the technical skating he’s giving us. Artistically, his component scores, if you look at him from last nationals to this nationals, he’s a different skater. He may not be [Olympic champion Yuzuru] Hanyu yet, but he has all the makings of a great, artistic male skater. I think he’s already giving us enough, to be honest.

Jason Brown
Age: 22
Hometown: Colorado Springs
2015 U.S. champion
Fourth at 2015 World Championships

Don’t forget that Brown was one spot off the podium at the 2015 Worlds. It’s been mostly a nightmare since for the 2014 Olympic sensation. Brown missed the 2016 U.S. Championships with a back strain and revealed last week that he was off the ice for the last two weeks of December with a stress fracture in his right fibula. Brown is the only man in this week’s field who has been within 40 points of Chen’s best total score this season.

Johnny Weir’s Take: Now that Adam Rippon is out, the artistic challenger, if he can land a quad, is Jason Brown. He’s won the national title before. He knows what it takes and what that kind of pressure feels like. That is an advantage he has over Nathan Chen. If he lands the quad and creates that artistic moment, he is very favored in the U.S. by the judging panel. He will need a quad toe loop if he’s going to hold off Nathan Chen.

Max Aaron
Age: 24
Hometown: Colorado Springs
2013 U.S. champion
2015 Skate America champion

Aaron may be the best pure athlete in the field. He has finished in the top four at nationals each of the last four years, but it’ll probably take top two this week to earn a world championships spot. He’ll likely have to beat the injured Brown.

Johnny Weir’s Take: He has great skating skills. He’s a wonderful athlete. But I don’t think his free program especially is strong enough choreographically to challenge either Nathan Chen or Jason Brown.

Grant Hochstein
Age: 26
Hometown: Artesia, Calif.
Fourth at 2016 U.S. Championships
10th at 2016 World Championships

Hochstein was placed on the 2016 World Championships team after Chen withdrew due to that hip injury. He finished a respectable 10th in his worlds debut but dropped to 11th in each of his fall Grand Prix starts. Hochstein ranks seventh this season among men in the U.S. Championships field.

Tim Dolensky
Age: 24
Hometown: Kennesaw, Ga.
Seventh at 2016 U.S. Championships

Dolensky had his best U.S. Championships finish last season and ranks behind only Chen, Brown, Rippon and Aaron among U.S. skaters’ top scores this season.

Vincent Zhou
Age: 16
Hometown: Riverside, Calif.
2013 U.S. junior champion
Fifth at 2016 World Junior Championships

Zhou would be a bigger threat if he hadn’t pulled out of his last event in December with a leg injury. Still, he has the jumping firepower, when he lands them, to contend for the podium when healthy.

MORE: Wagner, Chen share training ice, favorite status at nationals