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

Nick Goepper opens Olympic qualifying on podium; contenders crash out

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BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. — U.S. Olympic men’s ski slopestyle qualifying is underway with Sochi bronze medalist Nick Goepper delivering the first blow.

Goepper finished second at Dew Tour Breckenridge, taking the early edge in Olympic qualifying.

With a victory at any of the remaining selection events, Goepper would be looking good for one of up to four spots on the team for PyeongChang.

“I was really hoping to ski my best today, and I think I skied 98 percent,” Goepper said. “The Olympic selection podium is a bonus and eases the pressure a little bit for the next couple, but the pressure wasn’t really there. I’m just thinking of these as individual events [instead of Olympic qualifiers].”

Alex Hall (fifth place) and Sochi silver medalist Gus Kenworthy (sixth place) also got their Olympic qualifying attempts off to a decent start, but in order to be automatically nominated to the Olympic team, skiers need a minimum of two top-three finishes among five selection events.

Goepper was the only U.S. skier able to crack the podium in Breckenridge.

Sweden’s Henrik Harlaut (first place) and Norway’s Oystein Braaten (third place) played the role of spoiler for the rest of the U.S. team. Harlaut and Braaten are both considered medal contenders for PyeongChang.

Crashes took their toll on several U.S. Olympic hopefuls.

McRae Williams, the reigning world champion, was forced to drop out after crashing on his first run. Colby Stevenson and 2014 Olympian Bobby Brown also did not finish the contest after taking spills of their own.

The contest also missed the reigning Olympic gold medalist. Joss Christensen sat out the event as he rehabs from a torn ACL but plans to return in January for the final four selection events.

On the women’s side, Maggie Voisin remains on track for a nomination to the U.S. Olympic team.

She finished fourth, best among Americans, in the Olympic qualifier at Breckenridge on the strength of a run that featured three 900s.

Voisin won the first qualifier for women’s slopestyle, which was held last season.

She still needs one more top-three finish at any of the three remaining selection events to be eligible for an automatic nomination, but she has consistently been the top performer among the U.S. women.

With two-time X Games gold medalist Kelly Sildaru sidelined with a knee injury this season, the field looks wide open for PyeongChang.

Voisin, then 15, was slated to make her Olympic debut in Sochi as the youngest American in any sport but was injured just days before the competition.

As long as she stays healthy, she will be a medal contender in PyeongChang, as will Norway’s Johanne Killi and France’s Tess Ledeux.

Killi narrowly edged out Ledeux, who recently turned 16, for the victory in Breckenridge. Sarah Hoefflin of Switzerland rounded out the podium.

Four U.S. selection events remain for the men, and three events remain for the women. Olympic qualifying resumes in January with a series of contests in Aspen, Colo., and Mammoth Mountain, Calif.

U.S. Olympic Qualifying Standings
Ski Slopestyle 
(women through two of five events; men through one of five)
1. Maggie Voisin — 150*
2. Devin Logan — 82
3. Darian Stevens — 81
4. Taylor Lundquist — 52
5. Nadia Gonzales — 28

1. Nick Goepper — 80*
2. Alex Hall — 45
3. Gus Kenworthy — 40
4. Bobby Brown — 32
5. Cody LaPlante — 29

**Has automatic qualifying minimum of two top-three results.
*Has one top-three result.

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MORE: List of athletes qualified for U.S. Olympic team

Maame Biney, J.R. Celski join U.S. Olympic short track team

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Maame Biney will become the second African-born athlete to compete for the U.S. at the Winter Olympics and the first black woman on a speed skating team.

J.R. Celski, a three-time medalist, is going to a third Winter Games.

Biney, Celski and Aaron Tran qualified in short track at the Olympic Trials in Kearns, Utah, after the 500m on Saturday.

The team is now at five skaters — John-Henry Krueger and Lana Gehring qualified on the first night Friday.

Three more skaters will qualify Sunday after 1000m races — two men and one woman.

One of Katherine Reutter-Adamek and Jessica Kooreman, the top U.S. women at the last two Olympics, is guaranteed to miss the PyeongChang team.

Neither could keep up with the 17-year-old Biney, who moved to the D.C. area from Ghana with her father at age 5, on Saturday.

Biney swept the 500m finals, taking leads from the start and holding off more experienced women. She actually fell — while celebrating after crossing the finish line in the last race.

Afterward, NBC Sports’ Andrea Joyce told Biney that eight-time Olympic medalist Apolo Ohno believes Biney doesn’t know how good she is.

“People have been telling me that forever, and I think right now I’m kind of seeing it, but I feel like I have a long ways to go, but thanks Apolo,” said Biney, who won a junior world championships bronze medal last season.

Celski did not win the men’s 500m, where he is the world-record holder. Krueger did, with Tran in second.

But the fact that Krueger finished in the top two in Friday’s 1500m and the 500m means that Celski gets on the team via his second-place finish in the 1500m.

Celski won two bronze medals at the 2010 Olympics and another relay silver in Sochi.

He took a full season off after Sochi — undergoing hip surgery — and overcame further knee and back injuries the last two years to return to the World Cup podium this season.

Celski is the only American to earn an individual World Cup medal this season (a bronze) in 24 total races.

Celski won’t be able to race the 500m in PyeongChang if Thomas Hong makes the Olympic team on Sunday.

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MORE: U.S. Olympic short track skater gets 4-year doping ban

U.S. Olympic Short Track Trials

Day Time (ET) Events Network
Friday 6:45-8 p.m. 1500m rounds STREAM LINK
8:30-10 p.m. 1500m finals NBCSN | STREAM LINK
Saturday 12-1:45 p.m. 500m rounds STREAM LINK
2:30-4 p.m. 500m finals NBC | STREAM LINK
Sunday 10:15 a.m.-12:15 p.m. 1000m rounds STREAM LINK
1-3 p.m. 1000m finals NBC | STREAM LINK