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

U.S. Olympic marathon trials women’s preview, contenders

Shalane Flanagan, Kara Goucher, Desi Linden
AP
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In a contrast from the men’s race, the U.S. Olympic women’s marathon trials outlook is not all that different from four years ago.

In 2012, Shalane Flanagan and Desi Linden (then Davila) entered as favorites to make the three-woman Olympic team and delivered a one-two finish in Houston.

Kara Goucher was certainly in the mix for an Olympic place as well, arguably a favorite to join Flanagan and Linden in the top three, and she did just that, taking third.

The younger Amy Cragg (then Hastings) and the older Deena Kastor (American record holder set in 2006) just missed, placing fourth and sixth, respectively.

Going into Saturday’s trials (NBC and NBC Sports Live Extra, 1-4 p.m. ET), the four U.S. women who have clocked sub-2:28 since Jan. 1, 2014:

  1. Shalane Flanagan — 2:21:14 (Berlin 2014)
  2. Desi Linden — 2:23:54 (Boston 2014)
  3. Amy Cragg — 2:27:03 (Chicago 2014)
  4. Deena Kastor — 2:27:47 (Chicago 2015)

The biggest question again is who is favored to finish third. Six top contenders, including five Olympians, are outlined below:

Shalane Flanagan
Age: 34
PR: 2:21:14 (Berlin 2014)
2014 Berlin Marathon — third place
2012 Olympics — 10th place
2012 Olympic marathon trials champion
2010 NYC Marathon — second place
2008 Olympics — bronze medal (10,000m)
2008 Olympics — 10th place (5000m)
2004 Olympics — first round (5000m)

Four years ago, Flanagan entered the trials with one marathon (a 2:28:40) under her belt (plus that decorated track career). She pulled away from Linden in the final two miles in Houston to win the trials by 17 seconds.

Now, Flanagan enters as the second-fastest U.S. woman ever, following a 2:22:02 with a 2:21:14, both in 2014. Linden is the only American within five minutes of those times in the last two years.

Her last marathon, Boston 2015, was not as fast — 2:27:47 — finishing as the second American behind Linden. Plus, she’s dealt with “a lot of hiccups” in training, specifically back and Achilles pain, according to Runner’s World.

Desi Linden
Age: 32
PR: 2:22:38 (Boston 2011)
2012 Olympics — DNF
2011 Boston Marathon — second place

Linden was second at the 2012 trials but pulled out of her Olympic debut 2.2 miles into the race with right hip pain that had affected her training, what would later be diagnosed as a femoral stress fracture.

It took more than one year to return to her top form after the London injury. Linden made it, finishing as the No. 1 American in her last two marathons — Boston 2015 (over Flanagan and Cragg) and New York City 2014 (over Kastor and Goucher).

Kara Goucher
Age: 37
PR: 2:24:52 (Boston 2011)
2012 Olympics — 11th place
2009 Boston Marathon — third place
2008 NYC Marathon — third place
2008 Olympics — 10th place (10,000m)
2007 World Championships — bronze medal (10,000m)
2004 Olympics — ninth place (5000m)

By qualifying times, Goucher enters the trials seeded No. 43 overall. The qualifying window was Aug. 1, 2013, through Jan. 17, 2016. Goucher’s only marathon in that stretch was a wall-smacking 2:37:03 at cold-and-windy New York City 2014, her slowest career marathon.

But in her previous two marathons before 2013 and 2014 injuries, she finished in 2:26:07 at the Olympics (16 seconds behind Flanagan) and 2:28:11 at Boston 2013 (63 seconds behind Flanagan).

After the London Games, Goucher changed coaches, training locations and sponsors and underwent knee surgery. Optimism finally returned in November and December, when she won half marathons in 1:11:13 and 1:11:10, her fastest since 2012.

“This is literally a last chance for me,” Goucher wrote on a Jan. 12 blog.

Amy Cragg
Age: 32
PR: 2:27:03 (Houston 2011, Chicago 2014)
2012 Olympics — 11th place (10,000m)

At the 2012 trials, Cragg (then Hastings) was part of the four-woman lead pack through 19 miles before fading and finishing 71 seconds behind third-place Goucher, just missing the Olympic team. Not bad for her second career marathon.

“I cried every day for a month,” Cragg said, according to Agence France-Presse.

Like Dathan Ritzenhein, she dusted herself off to make the Olympic team on the track in the 10,000m six months later.

Cragg failed to finish her 2015 marathon, in Boston, dropping out in the 22nd mile with leg cramps, her then-coach said, according to LetsRun.com. Unlike (her new training partner) Flanagan, Goucher and Linden, she has only one strong marathon finish since the 2012 trials (Chicago 2014),

Deena Kastor
Age: 42
PR: 2:19:36 (London 2006)
2008 Olympics — DNF
2008 Olympic marathon trials champion
2006 London Marathon champion
2005 Chicago Marathon champion
2004 Olympics — bronze medal
2000 Olympics — first round (10,000m)

The American record holder and last woman to earn an Olympic marathon medal was thought to be done contending in elite marathons. Until Oct. 11, when Kastor clocked 2:27:47 in Chicago.

That made Kastor the second-fastest U.S. woman for the year (behind Linden). It was her first time breaking 2:30 in six years and her fastest time since her American record in 2006.

If Kastor can follow that up with a top three in Los Angeles (one day before her 43rd birthday), she will become the oldest U.S. Olympic runner of all time.

Misiker Demissie
Age: 29
PR: 2:25:45 (Ottawa 2013)

The former Ethiopian runner has the best PR of the remaining field, though it came three years ago. Her qualifying marathon was a 2:29:03 in Shanghai in 2014. She also clocked an uninspiring 1:13:38 half marathon on Jan. 17.

“She’s more of a long shot than what her PRs are,” Scott Simmons, a coach in Demissie’s training group, said, according to Runner’s World.

MORE: Boston Marathon film to go beyond 2013 attacks

Rafael Nadal should be Opening Ceremony flag bearer, Spain Olympic chief says

Rafael Nadal
AP
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Rafael Nadal should carry Spain’s flag into the Rio Olympic Opening Ceremony, but the nation’s flag bearer will be decided in March, Spanish Olympic Committee president Alejandro Blanco reportedly said in a video interview with Libertad Digital published Monday.

Nadal, the 2008 Olympic singles champion and a 14-time Grand Slam singles champion, was previously named Spain’s flag bearer for the London 2012 Opening Ceremony one month before those Games.

But Nadal withdrew from the 2012 Olympics one week before the Opening Ceremony for health reasons.

Nadal is ranked No. 5 in the world and has discussed playing doubles for Spain in Rio with countryman Fernando Verdasco, Verdasco said, according to Marca.

Rio Olympic tennis will be played on hard courts rather than Nadal’s preferred clay surface.

MORE TENNIS: Denmark chooses flag bearer