McKayla Maroney

What to watch at USA Gymnastics National Championships women’s competition

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HARTFORD, Conn. — The larger commentary surrounding this week’s U.S. Gymnastics National Championships may center on the lead up to Rio 2016, but in the year directly following an Olympic Games, the World Gymnastics Championships are comprised of individual events only, no team final, and the uniqueness of an individual world championships makes the gymnastics season following the London Games largely stand alone.

Take this bit of history: not a single woman on the 2009 World Championship squad made the 2012 U.S. Olympic team. That included all-around champion Bridget Sloan and silver medalist Rebecca Bross.

This year is all about table setting for Team USA and identifying the potential (but surely not certain) foundation of the next Olympic team. Four women will be sent to Antwerp, Belgium, for worlds Sept. 30-Oct. 6. That makes room for two all-around gymnasts and two event specialists.

Podium training at the XL Center on Wednesday gave a peak into which gymnasts that team may be made up of. The women’s competition begins Thursday (8 p.m. Eastern time, NBC Sports Network and online here) and concludes Saturday (8 p.m. ET, NBC and online here).

The old guard came on strong with Olympian Kyla Ross, 16, assuming her new role as seasoned veteran. She looked even across all four events, showcasing her steady skills and her impeccable execution. Ross won last month’s U.S. Classic, a qualifier for this meet, and barring injury she should punch her ticket to Antwerp as an all-arounder by the end of the weekend.

Olympic teammate McKayla Maroney should join her. There wasn’t an “unimpressed face” to be found in her first competition since the Olympics at the U.S. Classic last month. There weren’t any Wednesday, either. Maroney doesn’t look like an athlete coming back from two leg surgeries in the last year. She is stronger than ever, showing improved power on floor exercise, in particular her double Arabian tumbling pass, which has caused her trouble in the past.

“It’s just been a lot of hard work, after coming back from the surgeries I had to do so much conditioning, more than I’ve ever done in my life to get where I need to be really fast,” said Maroney, the reigning world champion on vault.

Maroney trained all four events Wednesday but is competing only vault and floor to make the worlds team as a specialist with the goal of defending that vault title from Tokyo in 2011.

There were some surprises Wednesday. Lexie Priessman, the 2012 U.S. junior all-around champion, pulled out at the last minute due to an Achilles strain after looking great in early training sessions. This will effectively end Priessman’s debut senior year and open up the door for others to challenge Ross.

Like Peyton Ernst, 16, who won balance beam gold and all-around and floor silver at the U.S. Classic. The Kim Zmeskal protege showed up with even more difficult routines this week and plans to compete in the all-around.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was Elizabeth Price. The 2012 Olympic team alternate was white-hot after the Games, winning back-to-back World Cup titles to round out her year. She fell off the radar after pulling out of the American Cup with a hip injury. Wednesday, however, she effectively “won” podium training, looking phenomenal on all four events.

Nonetheless, Price, who trains with legendary coaches Bill and Donna Strauss at Parkettes in Allentown, Pa., said she’s only been back training 2 1/2 weeks and will compete on only two events, vault and uneven bars (where the U.S. is weak). She plans on being able to do the all-around before the final selection camp for the World Championship team in three weeks.

One of the most anticipated performances Thursday will come from tiny dynamo Simone Biles. Biles, 16, burst onto the scene this year with her big, energetic smile and even bigger gymnastics.

A fan favorite, Biles boasts the difficulty to contend for a world all-around title and then some, however, she has yet to put it all together in high-pressure situations, falling at the American Cup and counting three falls before scratching the last event at the U.S. Classic.

Biles was clear in her goals for Hartford and Antwerp.

“To hopefully be top three here, to make the world team and be top three at worlds,” she said.

To get to Belgium, Biles must prove that she can hit her routines consistently over two sessions in Hartford.

Dark-horse contenders this weekend will be steady all-arounder Brenna Dowell of Odessa, Mo., and mega trickster Mykayla Skinner of Gilbert, Ariz., who is one of two women in the world currently performing a double twisting double layout on floor.

Even with all the new faces, the 2012 Olympians are poised to take the spotlight in Hartford, which they’ve grown accustomed to after walking red carpets, attending award shows, appearing on TV and penning books.

The Fierce Five will reunite Friday to be inducted into the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame.

All but Ross have turned professional, picking up agents and endorsements. Her focus remains on competition and retaining her NCAA eligibility — at least for now. The rising California high school junior may be the center of attention come Saturday, should she take the all-around title.

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Federica Pellegrini hints at retirement after beating Katie Ledecky

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The stylish Federica Pellegrini is going out on top.

The Italian superstar said after beating Katie Ledecky in the world championships 200m freestyle that she believed it would be the last 200m free of her career at the highest level of swimming.

Pellegrini, a 28-year-old fashion lover, would leave as the greatest women’s 200m freestyler ever.

Her 200m free world record from the 2009 World Championships — where Pellegrini was the main attraction in Rome — is the longest-standing mark in women’s swimming.

Pellegrini burst onto the scene by taking Olympic silver in 2004 one week after turning 16 years old. She was dubbed the “Lioness of Verona” because she used to hang pictures of lions up in her room and watch “The Lion King.”

She remains the youngest Italian to earn an individual Olympic medal in any sport.

Pellegrini then captured gold at Beijing 2008, breaking the world record in the first round and the final and becoming Italy’s first female Olympic swimming gold medalist.

Pellegrini missed the Olympic podium in 2012 and 2016 but among her four Olympics won world 200m free medals every odd-numbered year from 2005 through 2017. No other swimmer has earned a world medal in one event seven times.

Pellegrini is so highly regarded in Italy that the nation’s daily sports newspaper, Gazzetta dello Sport, honored her twice as the world female athlete of the year in 2009 and 2011. She is the only Italian athlete — male or female — to receive the global honor twice from Gazzetta, which last year bestowed a special “legend” award to her and Olympic Alpine skiing champion Alberto Tomba.

Pellegrini said as far back as 2014 that she planned to retire after the Rio Games to start a family with longtime boyfriend and swimmer Filippo Magnini. But after a post-Olympic break she was reported in Italian media this spring to say she eyed the 2020 Tokyo Games.

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Katie Ledecky beaten in 200m free at world championships (video)

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Katie Ledecky didn’t feel like herself. She didn’t look it, either, as another swimmer chased her down.

Ledecky lost an individual final at a major international meet for the first time in 14 tries, taking silver in the 200m freestyle at the world championships in Budapest on Wednesday.

Italian world-record holder Federica Pellegrini won in 1:54.73, which was .04 slower than Ledecky’s semifinal time Tuesday.

Ledecky and Australian Emma McKeon tied for silver in 1:55.18.

Ledecky had won all 13 of her individual finals at the Olympics, world championships and Pan Pacific Championships before Wednesday.

“I just didn’t feel really like myself in the middle of that race,” Ledecky said on NBCSN after going slower in an individual final than in early rounds for the first time at a major international meet. “It felt like I was scrambling a little bit at the end. That hurts a little but, but I’m going to come back stronger and be really good in that event the next couple of years.”

In other events, South African Chad le Clos went out hard and held on to win the 200m butterfly in 1:53.33. That time would have beaten rival Michael Phelps by .03 in Rio. It was Le Clos’ fastest since upsetting Phelps at the 2012 Olympics.

The U.S. mixed medley relay team lowered the world record in the preliminary heats and the final Wednesday, beating Australia by 2.65 seconds.

China’s Sun Yang failed in a bid for a fourth straight world title in the 800m free. He finished fifth, eight seconds behind Italian winner Gabriele Detti.

Brit Adam Peaty repeated as world champion in the 50m breaststroke, a non-Olympic event, after lowering his world record in the prelims and semis.

But the women’s 200m free was the showcase event Wednesday.

McKeon led Ledecky by .01 after 150 meters, but the veteran Pellegrini surged past both swimmers with the fastest final length by seven tenths of a second. Ledecky told media in Budapest that she didn’t have “that extra gear” that she normally summons.

Ledecky’s quest to match Missy Franklin‘s female record of six gold medals at a single worlds is now over. She can still win five gold medals this week.

Ledecky has the 4x200m freestyle relay Thursday, where the U.S. is a heavy favorite, and the 800m freestyle on Friday and Saturday, where she holds the 13 fastest times in history.

Ledecky has been between one and two seconds slower than her times at the Rio Olympics in three events at worlds. This doesn’t count the 1500m free, which wasn’t swum in Rio. She can get away with that in distance races, but not in her shortest individual event, the 200m free.

Ledecky saw major changes since Rio, moving from the D.C. area, enrolling at Stanford and swimming under a new coach for the first time in four years. Then she swam a full NCAA season in the fall and winter.

“Maybe I haven’t been quite on point as much as I would’ve hoped to have been this week, but I’ve still been feeling good,” Ledecky said.

Pellegrini, whose 200m free world record from 2009 is the oldest female mark still standing, became the first swimmer to earn seven world medals in a single event. Pellegrini also earned Olympic silver in 2004 at age 16 and gold in 2008, but was fifth in 2012 and fourth in 2016.

She said after the race that it would be the final 200m of her career “at this level.”

“I honestly thought the one to win the race would be Katie,” Pellegrini said, according to The Associated Press, “and it wasn’t.”

Ledecky’s biggest rival in the 200m free, Swede Sarah Sjöström, chose not to enter the event in Budapest as she focuses on the 50m and 100m butterflies and freestyles.

Sjöström clocked 1:54.08 for silver in Rio (.35 behind Ledecky) and 1:54.31 leading off the 4x200m free relay at 2015 Worlds (.85 faster than Ledecky’s winning time in the 200m free final which Sjöström also skipped).

In Wednesday semifinals, Americans Caeleb Dressel and Nathan Adrian were the second- and third-fastest qualifiers into the 100m freestyle final Thursday. France’s Mehdy Metella qualified first by .01 over Dressel.

Chase Kalisz, the Olympic 400m individual medley silver medalist, qualified fastest into Thursday’s 200m IM final.

Olympic champion Mireia Belmonte of Spain and Hungarian Katinka Hosszu were among the qualifiers into Thursday’s 200m butterfly final.

Women’s 200m Freestyle Results
Gold: Federica Pellegrini (ITA) — 1;54.73

Silver: Katie Ledecky (USA) — 1:55.18
Silver: Emma McKeon (AUS) — 1:55.18
4. Veronika Popova (RUS) — 1:55.26
5. Siobhan Haughey (HKG) — 1:55.96
6. Leah Smith (USA) — 1:56.06
7. Katinka Hosszu (HUN) — 1:56.35
8. Charlotte Bonnet (FRA) — 1:56.62

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