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

14 Olympic silver medalists with best chances for gold in Rio

Silver medalists
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The difference between winning and losing can be minuscule. Olympic gold could have easily been silver if not for an inch here or another second there.

While some athletes can seemingly win gold every time they step into competition, other Olympians are left collecting silver. They’re still remarkable athletes, but gold eludes them.

Some of the world’s best have another shot (for some, their last) at claiming the cherished Olympic gold medal over the next few weeks in Rio. Here are 14 such athletes to watch, in no particular order:

Tony Azevedo, United States, water polo
He’ll become the first five-time Olympian in U.S. water polo history, and he was born in and resides in Rio. It’d be a great place for Azevedo to win his first Olympic gold medal. The U.S. won silver in 2008 before a disappointing eighth-place result four years ago. The American men aren’t favored for gold like their female counterparts, but after taking second in the 2016 FINA World League, they’ve got a shot. Maybe Azevedo’s last shot.

Jordan Larson, United States, volleyball
The third-leading scorer for the U.S. women in 2012 as they fell to Brazil in the second consecutive Olympic gold-medal match, Larson will be just one of four women in Rio from that silver-medal squad. They’re favored to win the first Olympic gold for U.S. women’s indoor volleyball, being the top-ranked team in the world and reigning world champions. But to get that gold, Larson and the U.S. will likely need to take down Brazil in front of their raucous home crowd.

April Ross, United States, beach volleyball
She took silver at the London Games with partner Jen Kessy, losing to compatriots Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings in the final. But Ross is now teamed up with Walsh Jennings, who’s looking for her fourth straight Olympic gold medal. They’ll be the No. 3 seed in Rio –behind two Brazilian teams who, again, will have a boisterous crowd on their side.

Sarah Hammer, United States, cycling
She left London four years ago with two silver medals, but heads to Rio with two chances to grab gold. Hammer placed second the omnium and was on the women’s team pursuit unit that placed runner-up to Great Britain. But Hammer and three new teammates are the reigning team pursuit world champions. She also took bronze at the 2016 Worlds in omnium, so gold in that event in Rio wouldn’t be out of the question either.

Neymar, Brazil, soccer
He was supposed to get his gold in London, but the star-studded Brazilian side was shocked by Mexico, 2-1, in the final. So Neymar is back, competing as one of his team’s three over-23 players, seeking Brazil’s first Olympic gold in soccer (men or women). He was second on the squad with three goals in London; more in Rio would help his nation end the drought.

Marta, Brazil, soccer
A five-time FIFA World Player of the Year, Marta is a two-time Olympic silver medalist. She helped Brazil to runner-up status in 2004 and ’08, before struggling to sixth in 2012. The U.S. won each of those gold medals, as well as the 2015 World Cup (where Brazil was eliminated in the round of 16), leaving it as the decided favorite for Rio. But Brazil seeks its first Olympic soccer gold medal, playing the country’s most popular sport in front of the world’s most passionate fans, so Marta and Brazil certainly have a shot.

Alison Cerutti, Brazil, beach volleyball
He nearly had gold in London with beach legend Emmanuel Rego, but the Brazilians fell in the third set in the final to a German pair. Now, Alison has Bruno Oscar Schmidt by his side and the reigning world champions will be the No. 1 men’s seed on home sand at Copacabana Beach.

Yohan Blake, Jamaica, track and field
The runner-up to compatriot Usain Bolt in both the 100m and 200m four years ago, Blake did win a gold medal with Bolt on his team in the 4x100m relay. But he’s never won individual Olympic gold. He owns world championship gold, as Blake took the 100m at the 2011 Worlds after Bolt was disqualified for a false start. But Bolt may be at his most vulnerable in his Olympic career, so Blake, three years younger, hopes to capitalize.

Anita Włodarczyk, Poland, track and field
She’s the world record holder in hammer throw and favored for gold as the reigning world champion, especially considering the defending Olympic champion is Russian and won’t be present in Rio. Tatyana Lysenko won gold in London after defeating Wlodarczyk by .58 of a meter, but her country’s doping scandal will keep her home.

Caster Semenya, South Africa, track and field
Known for a gender-testing controversy that has followed her since 2009, Semenya is the favorite in the women’s 800m, and she could race the 400m too. She took silver in the 800m at the London Games, finishing behind Russian Mariya Savinova and ahead of Russian Ekaterina Poistogova. Neither of those women will be in Rio due to Russia’s doping scandal. Semenya owns three of the four fastest 800m times this year.

Laszlo Cseh, Hungary, swimming
Were it not for a guy named Michael Phelps, Cseh would’ve won three gold medals at the 2008 Games. Instead, he owns five career Olympic medals (three silver, two bronze) all in races won by Phelps. But Phelps enters his final Olympics not nearly as intense as in years past. That could be a good thing or a bad thing, but Cseh has a shot at knocking off Phelps in the 100m and 200m butterfly. Phelps holds the best time in the 100m since 2013 (50.45) while Cseh is third (50.86); Cseh owns the best time in the 200m since 2013 (1:52.91) while Phelps is second (1:52.94).

Qiu Bo, China, diving
Of the eight diving events at the Olympics, China won gold in six at the 2012 Games and claimed silver in the other two. Qiu Bo was one of the two to take second, as he was edged by American David Boudia in the 10m platform. Qiu has since earned gold at the 2013 and 2015 Worlds, relegating Boudia to silver both times. The two should do battle again in Rio.

Pau Gasol, Spain, basketball
Gasol’s chances of obtaining gold are slim considering the U.S. men’s dominance in international hoops, but Spain’s chances of cracking Team USA are better than anyone else’s. Spain has met the U.S. in the past two Olympic finals and actually stayed with the Americans until the fourth quarter both times. The 2016 U.S. team is thought to be its weakest since 2004, though it’s still heavily favored.

Lee Chong Wei, Malaysia, badminton
Lee owns two silver medals after losing in the 2008 and ’12 Olympic finals. He also holds three silver medals from world championships, falling in the final at the past three such competitions (2011, ’13 and ’15). Lee was knocked off by China’s Lin Dan in four of those events, including both Olympics, and by China’s Chen Long at the 2015 Worlds. But his hope for Olympic breakthrough comes from these rivals’ most recent meeting at the 2016 Asian Championships – Lee took out Lin in the semis and defeated Chen in the final. Lee will be the No. 1 seed in Rio.

MORE: Rio Olympics schedule highlights, daily events to watch

Anderson Varejao will miss Olympics

Anderson Varejao
AP
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One of Brazil’s most recognizable Olympians (to a U.S. audience, at least) will miss the Rio Games.

Golden State Warriors big man Anderson Varejao will miss the Olympics due to a back injury, the NBA team said Wednesday.

The Brazil men’s basketball team is now down two of its top four scorers from the 2012 Olympics.

The team was already without Atlanta Hawks big man Tiago Splitter, who underwent NBA season-ending hip surgery in February.

Splitter and Varejao were the third- and fourth-leading scorers on Brazil’s 2012 Olympic team that was eliminated in the quarterfinals after not qualifying for the Games in 2000, 2004 and 2008.

Brazil’s Olympic roster includes four other NBA players — Leandro Barbosa, Marcelo HuertasNenê and Raul Neto.

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