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.

Lindsey Vonn wins 78th World Cup race (video)

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Lindsey Vonn‘s latest comeback victory, one that reinvigorated her Olympic medal hopes, came at the venue where her Olympic bid died four years ago.

Vonn overcame early season back and knee troubles to win her 78th World Cup race — and first in nearly 11 months — a super-G in Val d’Isere, France on Saturday. NBCSN will air coverage at 5 p.m. ET.

“I guess I’m not a washed-up old hag,” Vonn said, according to the U.S. Ski Team. “I think I proved myself, and karma definitely comes back around. I’ve got some good karma coming my way.”

She prevailed by .31 of a second over Italian Sofia Goggia and .39 over Norwegian Ragnhild Mowinckel. Vonn has won World Cups here six times before, earning cows as prizes.

Vonn put in a scare, nearly skiing out at the bottom of the course, but let out her usual victory screams in the finish area and grabbed a TV camera, repeating, “Yes!”

Full Results

Vonn is now eight victories shy of the record she covets — retired Swede Ingemar Stenmark‘s 86 career World Cup wins. She has said she hopes to break the record by the end of next season, after which she may retire.

First, her Olympic return in PyeongChang, four years after missing Sochi. The final straw came at this French resort in December 2013, where Vonn skied out with MCL and joint damage on top of a previous ACL tear.

Vonn’s PyeongChang medal hopes rode a roller coaster the last year.

A broken arm in a Nov. 10, 2016 crash. A win in her second race back in January, plus podiums at the world championships and at the Olympic venue in February and March.

Then a crash and a fall in two of her first three speed races this season. And last Saturday’s back injury and the images of being helped to walk with supporting poles in St. Moritz, Switzerland.

She withdrew from Sunday’s race — which was eventually canceled due to weather — flew to Austria and received therapy.

“It was mentally challenging to overcome that and be able to trust myself and push myself, even though I’m maybe not moving as well as I normally do,” Vonn said, adding that her back loosened up Saturday after the first few gates. “That’s been the biggest thing the last few weeks is just keep going, keep fighting, keep trying, keep picking yourself back up.

“I knew that the results would come eventually, but the important thing was just to continue to be tough.”

Vonn’s dad was waiting for her in his first visit to Val d’Isere.

“It was really cute when he was crying in the finish,” she said.

There was reason to doubt Vonn at age 33, given her extensive injury history. Only one woman has won a World Cup race at a more advanced age — Austrian Elisabeth Goergl in 2014.

Now, she has two months to stay healthy before the Olympic speed races, where she is a medal favorite in the downhill and super-G.

“I’m back on track,” she said. “[This win] proves what I already knew, that my skiing is good.”

First up is another World Cup super-G in Val d’Isere on Sunday (4:30 a.m. ET, Olympic Channel, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app).

World Cup overall leader Mikaela Shiffrin is skipping this weekend’s races to prepare for upcoming slaloms and giant slaloms.

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Val d’Isere Super-G
1. Lindsey Vonn (USA) — 1:04.86
2. Sofia Goggia (ITA) — +.31
3. Ragnhild Mowinckel (NOR) — +.39
8. Laurenne Ross (USA) — +.97
22. Alice McKennis (USA) — +1.62
24. Alice Merryweather (USA) — +2.03
34. Stacey Cook (USA) — +2.63
38. Breezy Johnson (USA) — +2.86
45. Julia Mancuso (USA) — +5.56
DNF. Jackie Wiles (USA)

Canada beats U.S. for third straight time in hockey rivalry

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SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — Haley Irwin and Sarah Nurse scored in the second period, sending Canada to a 3-1 win over the U.S. in the penultimate Olympic tuneup between the world powers in women’s hockey on Friday night.

Marie-Philip Poulin also scored for Canada, and Ann-Renee Desbiens made 25 saves.

Brianna Decker opened the scoring for the U.S. with a power-play goal early in the second. Alex Rigsby stopped 33 shots in defeat.

Poulin made it 3-1 with her goal 55 seconds into the third.

“I’m really happy with our process and where we are at as our team continues to grow,” Canada coach Laura Schuler said. “Also happy with our girls and their buy-in with what we’re trying to accomplish.”

It was the seventh of eight meetings between the rivals — and Canada’s third straight win — as they prepare for PyeongChang. They play again Sunday night in Edmonton, Alberta.

Canada leads the series 4-3.

“We just have to be better in the red zones — that’s the difference between winning and losing,” U.S. coach Robb Stauber said. “We’ll give some focus and energy to some things we think we can do better, and we’re going to go into Edmonton and see what that end result looks like.”

The last four Olympic gold medals in women’s hockey have gone to Canada, but the U.S. has won seven of the past eight world championships.

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