Michael Phelps

Charlotte Grand Prix preview, swimmers to watch

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Michael Phelps takes his comeback to Charlotte this weekend, leading a field of Olympic and world champions at another Grand Prix meet, his second competition since the London Olympics.

Phelps, the 22-time Olympic medalist, is entered in the 100m butterfly and the 200m freestyle. Both events are on Friday, which increases the chances he could drop one of the two as he is still ramping up his return.

Phelps will be without longtime friendly rival Ryan Lochte, who pulled out of the meet due to injury Tuesday.

Phelps’ events go off at the following times Friday (ET):

200m free heats — 9:16 a.m.
100m butterfly heats — 10:25 a.m.
Finals session starts at 6 p.m.

Universal Sports will have coverage of Friday and Saturday finals sessions on TV and online at 6 both nights. Entry lists for the meet, which runs from Thursday through Sunday, are available here.

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Here’s a look at five swimmers to watch:

Michael Phelps

The meet headliner will look to build off his performance at the Mesa Grand Prix from April 24-25, where he finished second to Lochte in the 100m butterfly and swam butterfly in a 50m freestyle heat.

If Phelps keeps the 200m free, it could be quite enticing to see him race against the reigning world gold and silver medalists, training partners Yannick Agnel and Conor Dwyer. Phelps won bronze in the 200m free at the 2004 Olympics, gold in 2008 and dropped the event from his 2012 Olympic program after winning it at trials.

In the 100m butterfly, it’s better to compare Phelps not to his competition, but to his time from Mesa (52.13, making him No. 6 in the world this year). The top seeds in the event are Eugene Godsoe, who won the 2013 U.S. title, and Tim Phillips, who was second in the 100-yard butterfly at Winter Nationals.

Katinka Hosszu

The Iron Lady of swimming is entered in seven events in Charlotte, after not competing in Mesa, and is the top seed in four of them, including the 200m and 400m individual medleys that she swept at the 2013 World Championships.

The Hungarian Hosszu is not the fastest woman in the world this year in either event, though. Australian Alicia Coutts is No. 1 in the 200m IM (2:08.89). Chinese Olympic champion Ye Shiwen is No. 1 in the 400m IM (4:30.84).

Hosszu will be challenged by U.S. Olympic and world medalist Elizabeth Beisel in both IMs (as well as other Americans Cammile Adams and Becca Mann in the 400m IM). Hosszu is also entered in the 200m and 400m free, 100m and 200m backstroke and 200m butterfly.

Yannick Agnel

Agnel, like Hosszu, did not swim in Mesa. Since they are Europeans, we will not see either at the biggest international meet of the season, the Pan Pacific Championships. So this will probably be the most attention Agnel will get in competition to U.S. fans this year as he builds for the European Championships in August.

In fact, plenty of interest in Agnel this year has been about how his presence as a Phelps training partner, being the best 200m freestyle swimmer in the world the last two years, will have helped the comeback American.

Agnel is entered in five events in Charlotte and is the top seed in his two key events, the 100m free and 200m free. He ranks third in the world this year in the 200m free at 1:45.63.

Allison Schmitt

The five-time 2012 Olympic medalist is the U.S. female headliner of the meet with Missy Franklin and Katie Ledecky staying home. Schmitt is looking for a bounce-back year after surprisingly missing the 2013 World Championships team.

In Mesa, Schmitt won the 100m free (54.46) and was second in the 200m free (1:56.90). In Charlotte, she’s slated to go up against Hosszu in the 200m free, Olympian Jessica Hardy in the 100m free and Danish distance great Lotte Friis in the 400m free.

Nick Thoman

The 2012 Olympic 100m backstroke silver medalist took nine months off after London, didn’t enter the 2013 U.S. Championships and suffered a dislocated shoulder in February.

If it’s tough to gauge what to expect from Phelps, it’s even fuzzier for Thoman, who is entered in all three backstroke events in Charlotte, where he also lives and trains. His biggest competition will come from 2012 Olympic 200m back champion Tyler Clary, 2013 World Championships 100m back silver medalist David Plummer and double 2008 Olympic backstroke bronze medalist Arkady Vyatchanin.

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World Figure Skating Championships women’s preview

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Ashley Wagner has not watched any of Russian Yevgenia Medvedeva‘s programs this season, but this much Wagner knows without looking:

“She is technically flawless, and if there is an athlete that we should be chasing, obviously it’s Yevgenia,” Wagner said.

Medvedeva, a 17-year-old from Moscow, is the biggest favorite across all four disciplines at next week’s world championships in Helsinki (broadcast schedule here).

Ashley Wagner is the 2016 World silver medalist, the first U.S. woman on the podium in 10 years, but it would be shocking if she upgrades to gold next week. Realistically, she’s at best fighting for a silver or bronze along with Russians Anna Pogorilaya and Maria Sotskova, Canadians Kaetlyn Osmond and Gabrielle Daleman, Italian Carolina Kostner and Japan’s Mai Mihara.

Medvedeva is in her own class.

Undefeated since November 2015. Winner of her last 11 events in her first two seasons at the senior level. She can become the first woman to repeat as world champion since Michelle Kwan in 2001.

In fact, another gold would give Medvedeva the most dominant two-season stretch by a female skater since Katarina Witt‘s stronghold in the mid-1980s.

“I really appreciate her in the sport because she is a set bar that everybody is chasing after, and I think in years past that bar was always changing,” Wagner said.

What sets Medvedeva apart is that she has been polished, from her triple-triple jump combinations and spins to her performance quality, since turning 16 in her senior debut season a year ago.

And her consistency. All other recent Russian stars — 2014 Olympic champions Adelina Sotnikova and Yulia Lipnitskaya and 2015 World champion Elizaveta Tuktamysheva — simply could not put together two straight world-class seasons at the senior level.

Given that history, Wagner is not fully sold on Medvedeva.

“Time will tell,” said Wagner, who has joked that she needs to skate like “a robot” to compete with Medvedeva. “She is not part of this normal cycle of Russian athletes. I feel like they have one or two seasons of dominance, and then they kind of disappear. So we will see what happens to her, but she seems to be going very strong.”

Medvedeva, whose mom was a skater, started in the sport at age 3, inspired like many by the great Yevgeny Plushenko.

Figure skating is popular and storied in Russia, but Medvedeva is rarely recognized back home, where she still spends weekends watching cartoons. She does have more than 100,000 followers on Twitter and Instagram, though.

Medvedeva’s scores from her four international competitions this season are the four highest scores in the world, all above 220 points. This despite falling at one competition, having one jump called under-rotated at another and stepping out of a landing at another.

Nobody else in the next week’s field has cracked 217 points — in their careers.

At December’s Russian Championships, Medvedeva added a second triple toe loop onto a triple Salchow-triple toe loop combination, knowing she would get zero points for the superfluous jump. She did it three minutes into her free skate (with controversial music from a film about Sept. 11, 2001), when most skaters would be tired.

Medvedeva has shown disappointment when not breaking records and talked about adding a quadruple Salchow to her arsenal. She speaks some English in interviews, even though she hasn’t taken English classes in two years, according to Icenetwork.

“Sometimes I feel like I am two people: the grown-up and the kid,” she said in the fall, according to Icenetwork. “The first one is able to understand and execute difficult programs, while the other one is just like … watching cartoons all the time!”

Medvedeva was last outscored in the short program at last year’s world championships in Boston. She placed third behind Gracie Gold and Pogorilaya, with Wagner in fourth.

In the free skate, Medvedeva and Wagner climbed to gold and silver, respectively. Wagner tallied personal bests for both programs at the 2016 Worlds, yet still finished 7.47 points behind Medvedeva.

Wagner has been unable to replicate those kinds of skates this season. In two international events, her best total is 196.44 points, which seeds her eighth going into worlds. She was also beaten by surprise Karen Chen at the U.S. Championships in January.

“This year is not the year I’m planning on peaking,” Wagner said. “Next year is the year that I am like in it to kill. … This year is my chance to work out all of the kinks, figure out where I want to be mentally going into next year and even though to some on the outside looking in, it wouldn’t look like it was the most successful season for me. I think at the end of the day this season has been exactly what I needed it to be.”

As noted, the pressure is on Wagner to lead an inexperienced U.S. team of three women in Helsinki. She’ll be joined by training partner Mariah Bell and Chen. The two worlds rookies have been less impressive than Wagner internationally this season. They’re seeded 10th and 16th.

The two best results out of Wagner, Chen and Bell must add up to no more than 13, or else the U.S. will only get two women’s spots at the Olympics for the second time in the last six Winter Games.

There is an outside chance of a Russian sweep, given the second-best skater this season, Japan’s Satoko Miyahara, withdrew due to injury. Pogorilaya, the 2016 World bronze medalist, has the next two highest scores this season after Medvedeva and Miyahara.

Russia also has Sotskova, the most impressive of the first-year senior skaters.

The experienced category is led by Osmond, having her best results since debuting as a senior in 2012, and Kostner, the six-time world medalist back after two years off. They’re seeded third and fourth.

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U.S. women’s hockey players show solildarity in portraits

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The U.S. women’s hockey team is … family, powerful, united, strong, brave, together, limitless, fierce, bold, historic, ambitious, resilient, fearless and devoted.

All 23 players on the U.S. roster planning to boycott the world championship that starts in one week posted portraits on Twitter on Friday morning. Each player held a paper with a one-word descriptor.

The players plan to boycott the world championship tournament in Plymouth, Mich., unless their wage dispute with USA Hockey is settled.

The players believed they reached an agreement with USA Hockey in a 10-hour-plus meeting Monday, but USA Hockey’s later counter offer “didn’t reflect the progress of the negotiations,” according to the players’ representatives.

USA Hockey said Thursday that it will start reaching out to potential replacement players, but it still hopes to come to an agreement to field its original team in Plymouth.

“As we have maintained from the beginning, this issue is about more than the compensation of the current team: it’s about equitable treatment for female players now and in the future,” the players said in a statement Thursday. “A forward-looking agreement will benefit the next generation of players even more than the current players. For that reason, and the fact that the younger players identify with us, we are confident that they [potential replacement players] would choose not to play.”

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