Michael Phelps

Michael Phelps still fueled to win going into second comeback meet

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Michael Phelps said he felt like a kid in April, when he swam in his first meet since the 2012 Olympics and uttered the word “fun” repeatedly in interviews.

Phelps, a man with 18 Olympic gold medals and 26 World Championships, won zero events at the Mesa Grand Prix last month, essentially dipping his toes back into competitive waters with a shallow one-and-a-half-event program.

Phelps’ second comeback meet is the Charlotte Grand Prix, where he swims two events, both Friday. He was questioned on Thursday if his competitive fire is still there, 21 months since he last stood atop a podium.

“I don’t want anybody to beat me,” Phelps said. “Nobody.”

In Mesa, Phelps took second to Ryan Lochte in the 100m butterfly and then swam the butterfly stroke in a 50m freestyle preliminary race, where he finished seventh and didn’t make the evening finals.

It’ll be a slightly heavier load in Charlotte. Phelps plans to swim the 100m butterfly again but this time pair it with the 200m free in the same preliminary session.

“I guess now I’m moving up to the big leagues,” said Phelps, dripping with hyperbole. He isn’t sure he will swim both finals Friday night.

Lochte isn’t swimming in Charlotte, but Phelps’ penchant for winning will be tested in the 200m free by the gold and silver medalists from last year’s World Championships. They happen to be his training partners in Baltimore — Yannick Agnel and Conor Dwyer.

“I really started feeling better freestyle-wise in workouts over the last week or so, so it will be interesting to see how this 200 goes,” Phelps said. “It will be fun to hop in and really race these guys in their best events. The biggest thing is to just to see what kind of shape I’m.”

Charlotte Grand Prix preview, schedule

Remember, Phelps showed up to last year’s World Championships as a spectator in a walking boot. He gained 30 pounds in retirement but has shed most or all of it since returning to training last year, at the approval of his longtime coach, Bob Bowman.

“The reason that I guess I sanctioned this activity, whatever it is, I don’t know what you want to call it, is because he’s doing it the right way and for the right reasons,” said Bowman, who often sits or stands next to Phelps in interviews, as he did Thursday. “When he comes in the door, he’s got a smile on his face. I don’t have to force him to do anything. So as long as it continues like that, I think we’re good, because that’s the only reason he should do it. If he loves to swim and he wants to do it, I always said Mozart should make music as long as he wants to make music. He shouldn’t have to retire just because he’s 30 or some age, but by the same token it should be good music.”

Last year, Phelps communicated his desire to return to swimming in typical 18th-century composer fashion — by text message to Bowman. He said he had interest in going to a training camp at altitude in Colorado Springs, the kind of grueling trip Phelps wasn’t exactly enamored with over his four Olympics.

That perplexed Bowman, a man with a university degree in developmental psychology and a minor in music composition.

“Since he has kicked and screamed going to Colorado for the last decade, I’m not really sure why he wanted to do that,” Bowman said. “So that’s kind of how it started.”

They had a serious talk last August, laying out the conditions, and the coach/swimmer relationship, once fraught with hassle, is now more easygoing.

“We’re not quite so … ” Bowman began, searching for an adjective. ” … urgent.”

If training isn’t perfect, Bowman doesn’t lose sleep over it like he did for 16 years during Phelps’ ascent from the rankling little brother of a 1996 Olympic hopeful to the most decorated Olympian of all time.

But at some point the pressure will rise, if Phelps wants to go to his fifth Olympics and win more gold medals in Rio (to which he hasn’t yet committed).

“We’ve got to balance that [competitive fire] with the amount of work we want to put in to swim whatever program might end up being,” Bowman said.

That line perked Phelps up, sitting next to Bowman at a table in Charlotte.

“There goes the word, ‘program,’ start it now,” Phelps said, drawing laughs, of the term Bowman has long used for Phelps’ outline of swimming six, seven and eight events at major international meets.

“We’re going to find out a little bit more about the program tomorrow, and then we’ll know more,” Bowman said.

That drew an inevitable, jocular, follow-up question.

What is the program for Rio?

“There is no program for Rio,” Bowman said. “There’s just a program for Charlotte.”

The Phelps-Bowman back-and-forth continued when Phelps said swimming now is “a lot funner than golf.”

“You guys are writing that down?” Bowman told reporters.

Phelps, a poker nut, also went all-in on golf during his retirement, playing in European celebrity events (including sinking a 51-yard putt in St. Andrews, Scotland) and learning from Hank Haney in a Golf Channel series.

“It was all downhill after that putt, right?” Bowman joked.

“I actually should have just retired from the sport after that,” Phelps said.

But he hasn’t. Phelps lamented that he still hasn’t broken 85, though he did shoot 43 for nine holes recently and worked more with Haney in Cabo earlier this month. He has goals left in the sport, just as he does in swimming.

“I’d still like to get down to a scratch golfer,” Phelps said. “I have learned, just like anything else that you do, you have to play a lot. You have to play every day.”

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Ted Ligety out for rest of season

SOLDEN, AUSTRIA - OCTOBER 25:  (FRANCE OUT) Ted Ligety of the USA takes 1st place during the Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup Men's Giant Slalom on October 25, 2015 in Soelden, Austria.  (Photo by Michel Cottin/Agence Zoom/Getty Images)
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Ted Ligety will undergo back surgery and miss the rest of the Alpine skiing season, the latest in a series of health setbacks for the double Olympic champion, according to his social media.

Ligety, who won the combined at Torino 2006 and the giant slalom at Sochi 2014, said he had “stabbing (nerve) pain all the way down my leg” since the season-opening race in Soelden, Austria, on Oct. 23.

“That has no (sic) allowed me to ski at the level that I expect of myself,” was posted on Ligety’s social media Monday. “I have seen many doctors and therapists, undergone an array of treatments and therapies to no effect. Unfortunately surgery (microdiscectomy) means my season over … I will be back strong and fast again.”

Ligety also ended last season prematurely, after tearing his right ACL on Jan. 27. He also suffered three herniated disks in his back and tore a hip labrum in 2015.

Of his last seven giant slaloms dating to last season, Ligety has failed to finish four times and placed fourth, fifth and 11th.

Ligety’s World Cup giant slalom podium drought is his longest since he notched the first top-three finish of his career in 2006. He racked up 40 podiums in a decade.

Ligety, 32, also owns the last three world giant slalom titles, plus five World Cup season titles in the discipline, in addition to his Sochi gold.

If healthy, Ligety would have tried next month to become the first male Alpine skier to take gold at four straight world championships.

With Ligety’s absence, the U.S. will have zero past men’s Olympic or world gold medalists at a world championships for the first time since 2001.

Worlds are in St. Moritz, Switzerland, from Feb. 6-19.

MORE: Franz Klammer stars in commercial with Alpine skiing champions

Ashley Wagner, Nathan Chen make for contrasting favorites at U.S. Championships

Ashley Wagner, Nathan Chen
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Ashley Wagner and Nathan Chen trained on the same ice for the last three years. They enter this week’s U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Kansas City as favorites, but took different routes to arrive there.

Wagner, 25, seeks her fourth national title, following the worst Grand Prix result of her 10-year career.

Still, Wagner is the 2016 World Championships silver medalist, which carries the most weight of all with the PyeongChang Olympics coming in 13 months.

Wagner, the most accomplished U.S. women’s singles skater in a decade, can become the oldest U.S. women’s singles champion in 90 years.

“Mentally, I’m feeling very confident,” Wagner said last week. “At this point in my career it is very easy for me to get mentally worn out and worn down, but I usually feel strongest when my training is backing me up and when I know that I am physically fit.”

Chen, 17, is an even bigger favorite in the men’s field. The Salt Lake City native is already one of the most accomplished young skaters in U.S. history, taking two novice and two junior national titles.

In this his first senior international season, Chen had the best fall series of a U.S. man since Evan Lysacek won gold at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Chen’s autumn culminated with a silver medal at December’s Grand Prix Final, beating the reigning Olympic and world champions in the free skate.

This week, Chen can become the youngest U.S. men’s singles champion in 51 years. He would do it one year after taking bronze and suffering a hip injury later that day that required season-ending surgery.

“I never thought that I would get there that fast,” Chen said.

MORE: U.S. Figure Skating Championships broadcast schedule

Chen was already working with Armenian coach Rafael Arutyunyan in Los Angeles when Wagner joined the training group in the middle of 2013.

Chen was barely 14 years old at the time, but Wagner, by then already a two-time U.S. champion, had learned about him back in 2010.

Wagner saw Chen win the U.S. Championships novice division at age 10, beating skaters six and seven years older than him, including her younger brother, Austin.

“And my brother retired after that year because of Nathan Chen,” Wagner said with a hint of humor.

Under Arutyunyan, a noted jumping technician, Wagner developed into the top consistent challenger to the dominant Russians.

She endured failure — finishing fourth at the 2014 U.S. Championships and last-place programs at the Grand Prix Final. She experienced success — national and international feats not done by an American since Michelle Kwan.

Most of the U.S. skaters whom Wagner came up with have retired. Her closest recent domestic rivals — Olympic teammates Gracie Gold and Polina Edmunds — struggled with poor performances and injury, respectively, in the last year.

If Wagner prevails as she should in Kansas City, the next step is returning to the podium at the world championships in two months in Helsinki, where three Russians, three Japanese and a Canadian will try to keep her off of it. A second straight world medal would make Wagner the best U.S. hope for an Olympic women’s singles medal since 2006.

“The biggest thing about her is her mental toughness,” Chen said of Wagner, “especially when she goes to competitions and zones in on what she wants to do and comes out with the result she wants.”

MORE: Gracie Gold makes desperate move after rock bottom

Mental toughness is something Chen hopes to develop with experience. He already owns the physical tools, most notably an arsenal of quadruple jumps.

Chen, whose adorable 2010 U.S. Championships exhibition at age 10 aired on NBC, is now electrifying. He attempts six quads combined in two programs.

At his last event, the Grand Prix Final in December, Chen recorded the highest free skate score, bettering Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan and world champion Javier Fernandez of Spain, who both were off their game. He finished second overall behind Hanyu, becoming the second-youngest men’s medalist in the event’s 22-year history.

NBC Olympics analyst Tara Lipinski, who took 1998 Olympic gold at age 15, has, like Wagner, known about Chen since 2010. Lipinski was in Spokane, Wash., for those U.S. Championships seven years ago.

“I remember thinking, oh boy, this kid is so talented, but not really thinking much of it because he was itty-bitty,” Lipinski said of Chen, who has grown a foot since 2010, to 5 feet, 5 inches. “Over time and with growth spurts, everything can change. But that’s why he’s so special. Every year, he improves. You talk about this quad revolution. He’s leading it.”

Chen responded to critics of his artistic skills this season by spending weeks away from Arutyunyan, which the coach supported.

“There is a brain of an adult in this kid’s head,” Arutyunyan said.

Chen went from Los Angeles to work in Michigan under Marina Zoueva, a Russian known for coaching the last two Olympic champion ice dance teams.

NBC Olympic analysts Johnny Weir and Lipinski saw an upgrade in Chen’s artistic components in his fall competitions. If he can challenge the top international skaters artistically, he can beat them with his jumping strength.

“The way that men’s figure skating is progressing, it’s about the quad game and how many you can do,” Wagner said. “It’s starting to look a little bit like ping-pong on the ice. … Going into the next couple of years, the ones that are going to stand out are the ones that do quads and are able to have a full, well-rounded program.”

In Sochi, the U.S. earned no singles figure skating medals for the first time since 1936.

The U.S. hasn’t earned men’s and women’s figure skating medals in the same Olympics since 2002, but it’s certainly looking possible with 13 months until PyeongChang.

“Of course, my goal would be to win the Olympics,” Chen said. “I feel like that’s everyone goal. It’s still a goal for me, but we’ll see how realistic it becomes over the next season.”

MORE: Jason Brown again slowed by injury going into U.S. Championships