Missy Franklin

Swimming world championships preview: women’s storylines

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1. Eight events for Missy Franklin. The quadruple 2012 Olympic champion is in line to attempt what Michael Phelps never did — swim three events in one semifinals/finals session at a major international meet.

Franklin, 18, qualified for five individual events at nationals in June — the 50, 100 and 200 back and the 100 and 200 free. Via her wins in the two freestyles, she qualified to swim in all three relays in Barcelona as well.

“It’s definitely a lot,” Franklin said at a press conference in Barcelona on Friday. “But those are some of my favorite races.”

No woman has won more than six medals at a single world championships.

Franklin swam five events at 2011 worlds, her breakout meet, and then did seven at the 2012 Olympics. At neither of those competitions did she swim three events in one night.

Here, the schedule on Aug. 1 calls for the 100 free semis, 50 back final and the 4×200 free relay final from noon to 2:10 p.m. ET. FINA’s site has the 100 free semis listed first and the relay listed last in its order of events, with the 50 back separated from the relay by only the men’s 200 back semis.

Could Franklin podium in every event and join Phelps in the eight-for-eight club? Undoubtedly. She’s ranked second in the world this year in both the 100 and 200 free, two events she failed to medal in at London. She leads the world in both the 100 and 200 back, her specialty stroke.

That leaves the 50 back, a non-Olympic event, that could give her problems. Fifty-meter swims are always tough to predict because the eight finalists should finish within one second of each other. Franklin is ranked ninth in the world in the 50 back, but she’s only three tenths of a second out of third. She could very well medal — as she did in 2011, taking bronze — or she may not make the final.

Then there are the three relays. The U.S. should podium in each one, as it did at 2011 worlds and the 2012 Olympics, with Franklin playing key roles on all three.

source: Getty Images2. The return of Ye Shiwen. You may remember Ye from the 2012 Olympics, where she swept the individual medleys at 16 years old. She even swam the final 50 meters of the 400 IM faster than men’s champion Ryan Lochte, completing a world record that prompted heavy scrutiny.

Ye enters these championships with the second-best time in the world this year in both events, but it’s hard not to deem her the favorite given her dominating performances in London.

In the 200 IM, she trails Australian Alicia Coutts, who won silver behind Ye in London. Brit Hannah Miley (fifth in London) has the fastest time in the 400 IM. Americans Caitlin Leverenz (200 IM) and Maya DiRado (400 IM) and Elizabeth Beisel (200, 400 IM) are also medal threats.

Ye’s also a dark horse in the 200 back. She’s the Chinese national champion in the event and ranked ninth in the world this year. How exciting would it be to see Ye and Franklin in close proximity on the final 50 in that final?

3. Natalie Coughlin like we’ve never seen her. Coughlin, 30, is the most decorated female world championships swimmer of all time with 18 medals. After skipping the 2009 worlds during a post-Beijing break, she came back in 2011 to win three medals — gold in the medley relay, silver in the 4×100 free relay and bronze in the 100 back.

Coughlin failed to make the 2012 Olympic team in an individual event, taking third at trials in the 100 back, but still won her 12th career Olympic medal as a preliminary swimmer on the 4×100 free relay team.

She’s taking a different mindset after her third Olympics, choosing to focus on the splash-and-dash 50 free. It’s a wise move given the rising U.S. depth in the 100 back and a shallow pool of talent in the short sprint. She won the 50 free at trials in June and qualified for the 4×100 free relay again.

She should win worlds medal No. 19 on that relay, but a podium placement in the 50 free will be difficult. She’s ranked No. 11 in the world this year in the event, more than a half-second behind favorites Australian Cate Campbell and Olympic champion Ranomi Kromowidjojo.

4. Is Dana Vollmer still lord of the fly? The American was unstoppable in the 100 butterfly in London, breaking the Olympic record in the prelims, going a half-second faster than everyone in the semis and then dipping under the world record in the final, which she won by nearly a second.

A new year has brought new competition. Vollmer won nationals in 57.53, good for No. 3 in the world. The Australian Coutts, who took Olympic bronze, just might be the favorite with her world-leading 57.18. Another American, Claire Donahue, actually led Vollmer off the turn at trials.

No woman has ever won the world title in the 100 fly a year after winning the Olympic title. It looks like Vollmer has her work cut out for her to make that history.

5. Which nation is No. 1? The U.S. women broke away from rivals Australia and China at the last world championships and Olympics following the post-Beijing lull.

Here’s the breakdown:

2008 Beijing: 1. U.S. (15). 2 Australia (14). 3. China (5).
2009 Rome: 1. Australia (11). 2. U.S. (8). 3. China (7).
2011 Shanghai: 1. U.S. (15). 2. China (9). 3. Australia (8).
2012 London: 1. U.S. (14). 2. Australia (7). 3. China (6).

Can the Americans keep the momentum they’ve built, or will the post-Olympics worlds again see other nations catch up and perhaps pass them?

I still see the U.S. leading the medal count, but Australia should be closer than in 2011 or 2012. The Aussies — both men and women — put up times to start this year that look like the whole nation is on a mission after a forgettable Olympics. (though Aussie early-year times are strong given the change in seasons)

Australia arguably has the world’s best sprint freestyler (Campbell) and butterflier (Coutts) as well as medal threats in the middle-distance freestyles (Bronte Barratt) and the backstroke (Emily Seebohm). 

In the relays, the Aussies could be called favorites in the 4×100 and 4×200 free. The Campbell sisters (Cate and Bronte) are a one-two punch no other nation can match in the 4×100. Australia is even more dominant in the 4×200 with four of the top 10 swimmers in the world this year.

The U.S. still owns the medley relay, however, given Australia hasn’t found a strong replacement for Leisel Jones in the breaststroke.

FINA approves mixed-gender relays; which nations would win?

Kristi Yamaguchi tells Nancy Kerrigan to ‘break a leg’ on ‘Dancing with the Stars’

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Kristi Yamaguchi told Nancy Kerrigan to “break a leg” on her “Dancing with the Stars” debut, an innocent tweet between friends that generated plenty of reaction.

“So excited for you @NancyAKerrigan ! Can’t wait to see you grace that ballroom floor, break a leg! #DWTS,” was posted on Yamaguchi’s account Monday morning.

It generated more than 6,000 likes, 3,000 retweets and 1,000 replies, many referencing the horrible attack on Kerrigan before the 1994 U.S. Championships (where Kerrigan’s knee was bruised, but not broken).

The tweet conjured memories of T-shirts sold leading up to the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics with the words “Harding-Kerrigan” on the front and “Norway ’94, Break a Leg!!!” on the back, reported by major media 23 years ago.

Yamaguchi and Kerrigan shared world championships and Olympic podiums in 1991 and 1992 (Yamaguchi winning both times; Kerrigan with bronze).

They remain friends. Kerrigan said she spoke with Yamaguchi, a past “Dancing with the Stars” winner, about the experience, according to TeamUSA.org.

“I said to Kristi, ‘You’ve seen me at shows, Kris, how demanding is it?’” Kerrigan said, according to the report. “She said it’s very demanding, but you have to do it. She’s like, ‘You’ve been through worse, you have to do it, it’s such a great experience.’”

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VIDEO: Nancy Kerrigan’s first ‘Dancing with the Stars’ waltz

Pressure on Ashley Wagner at world championships

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Ashley Wagner‘s four-year plan has her peaking in 2018, not at the 2017 World Championships, but many call Wagner to carry the U.S. women at worlds in Helsinki next week.

“Next year is the year that I am, like, in it to kill,” she said. “This year is maintaining. This year is my chance to work out all of the kinks, figure out where I want to be mentally going into next year.”

Wagner, the 2016 World silver medalist, is the only skater of three American women on this year’s worlds team with prior worlds experience. She is the only one ranked higher than 20th in the world this season.

Normally, figure skating is an individual sport. But next week, the top two U.S. women’s results must add up to no greater than 13 (Wagner places third, and either U.S. champion Karen Chen or U.S. bronze medalist Mariah Bell places 10th or better, for example).

If not, the U.S. will have two rather than the maximum three women’s entries at the PyeongChang Olympics. The U.S. had three spots at four of the last five Olympics.

Anything less than three in 2018 would mean the U.S. is not keeping up with world power Russia and maybe even Canada and Japan. And it becomes that much harder for Wagner and everyone else to make the Olympic team.

“I know that I have a huge role in these three spots at these world championships,” Wagner said. “I need to set this team up as good as I possibly can, so that way the pressure’s off the other girls.”

The others are the 17-year-old Chen, the surprise winner at the U.S. Championships in January, who then placed 12th at February’s Four Continents Championships, an event that doesn’t include Europeans. Chen said she suffered from nerves, a flu and foot pain caused by broken boots at Four Continents.

And Bell, who took silver at October’s Skate America behind training partner Wagner. Bell, 20, finished sixth at Four Continents at the 2018 Olympic venue in South Korea, where she competed with an amount of pressure she had never before felt.

Of skaters entered at worlds, Bell has the 10th-best total score this season. The skater with the 12th-best total in the worlds field is more than nine points shy of Bell. Chen comes in seeded 16th.

“The tough thing about this worlds is that we have two rookies going into a very stressful event,” Wagner said. “So these two girls are in a really tough position, and I really feel for them. It’s kind of like you have to buckle up and deal with this, and that’s like your only option.”

There is reason for optimism, should Wagner put up something close to the performance of her life from last year’s worlds, where she became the first U.S. women’s medalist in a decade.

“Success in Finland is getting onto that podium,” Wagner said.

But Wagner is nearing the end of her (so far) least impressive season in probably six years. She is seeded eighth at worlds by this season’s top international scores.

She failed to qualify for December’s Grand Prix Final for the first time since 2011. She was beaten at nationals despite longtime rival Gracie Gold underperforming.

However, Wagner’s goal at nationals wasn’t to win, but to finish in the top three to make the worlds team. She called the runner-up result “perfect.” She focused the last two months on firming up the areas where she lost points.

“Even though to some on the outside looking in, it wouldn’t look like it was the most successful season for me,” Wagner said. “I think at the end of the day this season has been exactly what I needed it to be.”

The favorite in Helsinki is clearly Russian Yevgenia Medvedeva, who hasn’t lost since November 2015 and can become the first repeat world champion since Michelle Kwan in 2001.

Wagner said she hasn’t watched any of Medvedeva’s programs this season.

“The only thing that I know about is her long program music is not my favorite piece of music,” Wagner said, alluding to Medvedeva’s choice of sound from “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” a 2011 film relating to the 9/11 attacks. The music includes, at one point, the voice of George W. Bush declaring that two airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center.

But Wagner was effusive of Medvedeva, the latest in a string of Russian Olympic and world champions dating to the Sochi Olympics.

“She is a set bar that everybody is chasing after, and I think in years past that bar was always changing,” Wagner said. “Now it’s one set thing I know exactly the quality of skating I have to reach, I know exactly the technical program that I have to be able to accomplish.”

Wagner, a seasoned 25 years old, noted a key point this week. She is the only active women’s skater in her class, with her length of experience, who hasn’t taken a break.

Italian Carolina Kostner is 30, but she’s competing at worlds for the first time since 2014, following two seasons off. Japan’s three-time world champion Mao Asada is 26, but she took a season off after Sochi and this year failed to make the worlds team.

Wagner reflected on her world silver medal and her three national championships. She knows they mean nothing next week.

“I have to prove myself all over again,” she said.

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NBC Sports researcher Sarah Hughes contributed to this report.