Michael Phelps

Michael Phelps gets serious in return to U.S. Championships

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IRVINE, Calif. — This week’s U.S. Swimming Championships will include nearly 1,000 competitors, as young as 13, but one stands out above the rest.

Michael Phelps will dive in the Woollett Aquatics Center pool on Wednesday for his first Nationals since the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials. Four-time Olympic gold medalist Missy Franklin put the atmosphere in perspective Tuesday morning.

“Where else do you have the opportunity to have high school basketball players play in a game with LeBron James?” she said.

It’s the fifth meet of Phelps’ comeback after a 20-month competitive retirement following the London Olympics. It’s the most important of the handful so far with spots at stake for the year’s biggest international meet two weeks later, the Pan Pacific Championships in Gold Coast, Australia.

Times from the U.S. Championships and the Pan Pacific Championships will determine who makes the team for the 2015 World Championships in Kazan, Russia, the biggest meet between now and the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Here, Phelps is entered in the 100m freestyle Wednesday, 100m butterfly Friday, 100m backstroke Saturday and 200m individual medley Sunday.

Universal Sports will have coverage from 9-11 p.m. ET on Wednesday. NBC picks up weekend coverage from 4-6 on Saturday and Sunday.

Phelps will make the Pan Pacific Championships team if he finishes in the top two of any one of those four events. He would likely also make the Pan Pacs team if he finishes third in a single event. Once a swimmer makes the Pan Pacs team in one event, he or she can enter additional events at the meet in Australia.

That takes a bit of the pressure off, but Phelps is still treating the meet with respect. He said he enters a meet shaved for the first time since the London Games, where he won six medals to bring his career tally to a record 22.

On Tuesday, Phelps, tanned and dressed in a neon green Under Armour tanktop as if he had just strolled in from Newport Beach, paraphrased the lines he’s stressed throughout the comeback.

He has unfinished business — which he won’t divulge — and is training different now at 29 than during his dominant days. Fewer yards under the eyes of longtime coach Bob Bowman in Baltimore and healthier eating to shed those retirement pounds.

Phelps said he just finished a six-month stretch avoiding red meat, just to see what it would do to his body. He’s been pleased with the progress of his return, particularly since high-altitude training in Colorado Springs in May and June.

At his last meet, Phelps beat longtime rival Ryan Lochte in three head-to-heads in Athens, Ga., in July. Granted, Lochte had not competed in three months due to injury.

“After this week we’ll have a good picture of if he’s ahead, behind,” Bowman said of Phelps, the 10th-oldest swimmer in Irvine.

Tuesday was significant for two other reasons. Phelps announced he signed a new swimsuit deal through the 2020 Tokyo Games, and the date marked two years to go until the Rio Olympic Opening Ceremony.

One couldn’t imagine Phelps diving in for a sixth Olympics at age 35 in six years. Even for No. 5 in Rio, he and Bowman wouldn’t commit.

“We’ll see how it goes this week, and then maybe if there’s anything after that, we’ll see how that goes,” Bowman said.

Two years to Rio Olympics: Swimming storylines

Kerri Walsh Jennings, April Ross win World Series of Beach Volleyball

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Rio bronze medalists Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross bounced back from an Olympic upset to win the biggest annual tournament in the U.S. on Sunday.

Walsh Jennings and Ross captured the Asics World Series of Beach Volleyball title in Long Beach, Calif., for the second time in three years. They beat Spanish pair Liliana Fernández and Elsa Baquerizo 21-16, 21-16 in the final.

“We love those girls so much, they are dear friends of ours,” Walsh Jennings said. “We wanted to beat them down.”

Absent from Long Beach were Olympic gold medalists Laura Ludwig and Kira Walkenhorst of Germany and silver medalists Ágatha and Bárbara of Brazil.

Walsh Jennings and Ross, who lost to Ágatha and Bárbara in the Olympic semifinals, dropped a total of two sets in seven undefeated matches this past week.

They earned their fifth international title of the year after winning none in 2015, last season shortened by Walsh Jennings’ fifth right shoulder surgery.

In the men’s final, Brazil’s No. 2 pair, Pedro and Evandro, beat top U.S. pair Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena 19-21, 21-17, 15-9.

Olympic champions Alison and Bruno of Brazil did not compete in Long Beach.

The beach volleyball season continues with the FIVB World Tour Finals in Toronto in two weeks.

MORE: Tough for Misty May-Treanor to watch Kerri Walsh Jennings in Rio

Monica Puig’s unlikely Olympic tennis gold reminded her of ‘Miracle’ scene

Monica Puig
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NEW YORK (AP) — Monica Puig gazed out at her fellow Puerto Ricans jamming the parade route, and in their eyes she saw hope.

They hailed her with “a sense of satisfaction,” she recalled Saturday, “and a sense of belief that things are going to get better.”

Throughout her stunning run to the Olympic tennis gold medal, Puig embraced the symbolism of each upset victory. An economic crisis is devastating the island of her birth, and she appreciated that if she could prove the impossible is possible, that message would reverberate far beyond sports.

“If Puerto Rico channels that same energy and belief that things will get better and working for the better of the island, the better of the community, things will improve,” Puig said four days after the U.S. territory honored its Olympic team and, above all, its first gold medalist.

“I really hope I gave them a lot of confidence moving forward,” she added, “that things will actually get better.”

The world’s 34th-ranked women’s tennis player met with a roomful of reporters Saturday, exactly two weeks after she beat Australian Open champ Angelique Kerber in three sets in the final in Rio de Janeiro. Poised and philosophical in ways that bely her age, the 22-year-old realizes some people deem her gold medal “a fluke.”

After all, Puig has never made it past the round of 16 at a major. And at the U.S. Open, which starts Monday, she’s never advanced beyond the second round. Puig is already bracing herself for the reality that her run at Flushing Meadows could fall well short of what took place in Rio.

“I’m 22 years old. There’s still a long way for me to go, a long stretch of career,” she said. “If anything happens, any kind of slip-up, it’s not really going to be a big deal, because I have a process and I have a long-term view of where I want to go.”

Which isn’t to say she expects a slip-up.

“I know that the Olympics wasn’t a fluke for me, because I have worked very hard to get to where I am,” Puig said. “I know the hours and the tears and the sweat and everything that’s been put into my practices. It’s been very difficult for me.

“But that moment, nobody will be able to take away.”

Even she considers that Olympic moment to be like something out of a movie script. When spectators chanted “Si se puede!” (“Yes you can!” in Spanish) during the final against the second-ranked Kerber, Puig flashed back to a scene from the film “Miracle” about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team.

With fans roaring “U-S-A!” coach Herb Brooks tells his players: “Listen to them. That’s what you’ve done.” As Puig said Saturday, “I needed to listen to the crowd.”

Her gold might not have been quite as unlikely as the Miracle on Ice, but it wasn’t too far off. The night after her victory, Puig slept with the medal on her nightstand, waking up every few hours to make sure it was real. She still feels the need to check up on it during the day.

“I see the videos and I’m like, ‘Did this really just happen?'” Puig said.

When they showed the clip of her medal ceremony when she was honored in Puerto Rico, she started crying again. Through it all, she insisted Saturday, she felt she kept her focus, knowing the U.S. Open was looming.

After Rio, Puig spent some time with her family in Miami, where she lives. Then it was on to the island “where the big party was waiting.” It’s been hard to squeeze in sleep and alone time and practice — all the things she needs to recover from one big event and prepare for another.

Puig faces 60th-ranked Zheng Saisai, who upset Agnieszka Radwanska at the Olympics, in the first round Monday. She originally wasn’t seeded at Flushing Meadows, which meant she could have faced a top player in her opening match, but she moved up to the final seed when Sloane Stephens withdrew because of an injury Friday.

It’s the first time Puig has been seeded at a major, and in what was a breakthrough season even before her golden moment, she’s starting to grow comfortable with those sorts of roles.

“I feel like I finally understand what I’m doing when it comes to tennis,” she said.

MORE: U.S. goes one-two in Olympic mixed doubles