Michael Phelps

Can Michael Phelps excel in comeback?

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Michael Phelps is slated to return to competition next week for the first time in nearly two years will, of course, be at least slightly different from the Phelps who won six medals at his last meet, the 2012 Olympics.

He turns 29 on June 30. Phelps has been training, lightly by his standards, for much of the last year, but who knows what his form will be when he dives in at the Mesa Grand Prix in Arizona next weekend.

Or how long it will take the 22-time Olympic medalist to reach a satisfactory level to continue competing with an eye on the Rio Olympics in 2016. Those would be his fifth Games, the same number as Dara Torres, whom Phelps called “mom” at his first Olympics in 2000. He was 15. She was 33.

“We have discussed a long-term plan in general terms, but until he swims in a meet we’re not going to know,” Phelps’ longtime coach, Bob Bowman, told the Chicago Tribune on Monday. “Will he be eighth? Second? Sixteenth?

“I think he certainly won’t be embarrassed swimming in [Mesa], and I think he will be competitive.  The difference is he is doing half the training he used to.”

Doubters can bring up Ian Thorpe, the man whom Phelps usurped as the world’s greatest swimmer a decade ago. The Australian emerged from a four-year retirement in 2011 and flopped, failing to make the 2012 Olympic Team.

Thorpe, like Phelps, was 28 when he came back, but he had barely competed since the 2004 Olympics. This is a vastly different scenario.

“If [Phelps] decides to go for Rio, he will definitely win more medals,” NBC Olympics swimming analyst Rowdy Gaines said on “TODAY” on Tuesday. “There’s no question in my mind. He will win a lot more medals.”

Phelps is expected to swim short distances, at least at the outset, in this go-round — the 50m and 100m freestyles and the 100m butterfly, perhaps, in Mesa. The 200m free could also be in play later if speculating about the Olympics, given it’s a relay distance.

The prospect of adding to his record Olympic medal count is twofold. The U.S. has won a medal in every men’s relay since the boycotted 1980 Moscow Games. Generally, the top six in the 100m free and the 200m free at the U.S. Olympic Trials make those respective relays.

Individually, it’s tougher. The U.S. has been improving in the sprint freestyle events, and shorter distances are trickier to predict.

Nathan Adrian, 25, is the reigning Olympic champion and world bronze medalist in the 100m free. Jimmy Feigen, 24, won 100m free silver at the 2013 World Championships. Cullen Jones and Anthony Ervin are also contenders, though both are older than Phelps. Internationally, France, Brazil and Australia pose threats.

Phelps won three straight Olympic titles in the 100m butterfly, an event with a less crowded field of Americans. Ryan Lochte was the only U.S. man to make the 100m fly final at the 2013 World Championships, but he has little history of swimming it at major meets.

The 100m fly king in Phelps’ absence has been South Africa’s Chad le Clos, who is merely 22. Le Clos won the 2013 world title in a national record 51.06, bettering Phelps’ 51.21 from the 2012 Olympics.

In Phelps’ corner is a Frenchman. Olympic 200m freestyle champion Yannick Agnel has been training in Baltimore and under Bowman since last year.

“So Michael knows exactly what is the benchmark nowadays in swimming,” Dutch legend Pieter Van den Hoogenband told The New York Times. “If he is not good enough during the training sessions with Yannick, he knows OK, ‘Now, my time is over, and I have to step aside and make way for the next generation.’ But if he can train with Yannick and he is still at the same level, he’ll be able with his mentality and talent to win even the Olympic gold.”

Photos: How Michael Phelps spent his retirement

Yevgenia Medvedeva wins season opener in rout

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Olympic figure skating favorite Yevgenia Medvedeva, imperfect by her standards, still won her first international competition of the season by a whopping 36.74 points on Saturday.

The Russian tallied 146.72 points in her free skate at Nepela Trophy in Slovakia — lower than her median score over her two-year winning streak — and 226.72 points overall. 

Video is here. Full scores are here.

Medvedeva had a wrong edge call on her triple Lutz, stepping out of the landing. 

Judges gave her a negative grade of execution for it, snapping a streak of more than 60 straight jumps with positive grades dating to December.

No matter, the 17-year-old still had the highest free skate by 23.23 points.

It was 13.72 points shy of her world record set at the last competition of the 2016-17 season.

She distanced Japanese Rika Hongo and countrywoman Yelena Radionova, the only woman to beat Medvedeva in senior international competition in November 2015.

Medvedeva entered the free skate with a 13.51-point lead in the low-level event. That was via recording the second-highest short program tally under a 13-year-old judging system on Thursday.

Her flawed free skate still earned more points than any of her rivals racked up last season. 

All of her jumps except a double Axel were in the second half of her program to earn bonus points.

However, another Russian posted a higher free skate score last week.

That’s 15-year-old training partner Alina Zagitova, who was .45 better at a low-level event in Italy. 

It’s not entirely fair to compare scores from different judging panels at these early season competitions, though.

The first of six Grand Prix series events is Rostelecom Cup in Moscow in four weeks, featuring Medvedeva and Radionova.

Medvedeva and Zagitova could go head-to-head at the Grand Prix Final in December and should definitely both be at the Russian Championships later that month.

The figure skating season continues next week with Nebelhorn Trophy in Germany, the final Olympic qualifying competition. 

North Korea could clinch its first spots in any sport for the Olympics in the pairs event.

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VIDEO: Nathan Chen makes more history at season opener

Yuzuru Hanyu opens Olympic season with record score

Yuzuru Hanyu
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A sore knee didn’t hold Yuzuru Hanyu back. A record score to open his Olympic season.

The Olympic and world champion from Japan hit a pair of quadruple jumps in his short program at the Autumn Classic, a lower-level event in Montreal.

He was rewarded with 112.72 points, the highest short program score recorded under the 13-year-old judging system. Video is here.

It looked like a home competition for Hanyu.

Upon finishing, he bowed toward one set of bleachers (maybe a dozen rows) at the Sportsplexe Pierrefonds. More than two dozen Japanese flags made it hard to see most of the faces.

He bettered Javier Fernández, a two-time world champion and training partner, by 11.52 points. Fernández also landed two quadruple jumps to tally 101.2.

Full scores will be here upon the conclusion of the short program. The free skate is Saturday at 8 p.m. ET. A live stream is here.

Hanyu now owns the three highest short program scores under the 13-year-old system. The other two were set in the 2015-16 season.

Showdowns like Hanyu-Fernández are usually reserved for, at the earliest, the Grand Prix series in late October and November.

Hanyu and Fernández are very familiar with each other, having shared a coach in Canadian Brian Orser, the 1988 Olympic silver medalist, since 2012. They train in Toronto.

In that time, Hanyu became the first Japanese man to win an Olympic title (and the second teen from any nation to do it). He followed it up with world titles later in 2014 and this year.

Fernández achieved unfathomable success for a Spanish skater — world titles in 2015 and 2016, overtaking Hanyu in the free skate both times.

In PyeongChang, Hanyu can become the first man to repeat as Olympic champion since Dick Button in 1952. Fernández can become the third Spaniard to earn a Winter Olympic medal of any color in any sport, and the first since 1992.

The figure skating season continues next week with Nebelhorn Trophy in Germany, the final Olympic qualifying competition. North Korea could clinch its first spots in any sport for the Olympics in the pairs event.

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