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

Several women’s players spurn worlds inquiry from USA Hockey

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As sports organizations and notable hockey figures express support of the U.S. women’s team, several players say they rejected overtures from USA Hockey to serve as replacements for the upcoming world championships.

Two players told The Associated Press on Friday that USA Hockey reached out to them to gauge their interest for the worlds, which begin next week in Plymouth, Michigan.

Brittany Ott, a goaltender for the Boston Pride of the National Women’s Hockey League, and Annie Pankowski, a junior forward at the University of Wisconsin, said the email from USA Hockey was not an invitation but rather an inquiry about their availability.

“I responded to that email and I said I’m not willing,” Pankowski said.

A third player, goalie Lauren Dahm, told the AP on Saturday she also turned down an invitation. Dahm plays for the Canadian Women’s Hockey League Boston Blades.

The U.S. team has said it plans to boycott the worlds over a wage dispute with USA Hockey, which confirmed Thursday it would begin reaching out to potential replacement players. Several players posted messages on social media saying they support the national team and would decline or have declined any outreach from USA Hockey.

“From a personal standpoint I have never been invited to a USA Hockey series or camp or anything like that and I would honestly love to be invited to something like that,” Ott said by phone. “However at the current time, this is a fight that I believe in and I’m definitely going to stand up and help fight as much as I can.”

Many players posted a version of a Jerry Rice quote on Twitter on Friday: “Today I will do what others won’t so tomorrow I can do what others can’t. I said no to USAH & will not play in the 2017WC.” Not all players who tweeted that message were asked by USA Hockey if they could play.

On Saturday, NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith joined the chorus of support for the players, saying on Twitter the organization stands behind their pursuit of fairness and equality.

“These women understand inequality when they see it and are expressing their right to be treated fairly as athletes and workers,” Smith tweeted. “Of course, they have the NFLPA’s support in daring to withhold their services until a fair agreement is reached.”

Philadelphia Flyers coach Dave Hakstol posted his support on Twitter, calling players competitors and role models.

On Friday, the NHL Players’ Association and Major League Baseball players posted messages of support. The NHLPA posted on Twitter that it supports players and panned USA Hockey’s bid to stock the team with replacements, adding that the decision “would only serve to make relations, now and in the future, much worse.”

The MLBPA encouraged all female hockey players to stand united behind their national team colleagues.

Players are seeking a four-year contract that includes payments outside the six-month Olympic period. The sides met for 10-plus hours Monday, but players have called USA Hockey’s counterproposal “disappointing.”

USA Hockey said Thursday its priority was to have all the players selected for the national team on the ice March 31 when the tournament begins. But the organization added that it informed players’ representatives it would begin reaching out to potential replacements with the tournament coming up.

Star national team forward Hilary Knight said last week she wished USA Hockey luck putting together a suitable team of replacements to defend the gold medal because the player pool was united in the dispute. Ott and Pankowski said they had not heard from any players expressing a willingness to play in worlds.

“It’s a very unified front,” Ott said. “It’s a tight-knit community that we have in women’s hockey here. This is definitely a big opportunity for us to make a big change and have a big impact on our sport and have it grow. We’re all standing together.”

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World Figure Skating Championships pairs preview

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Volosozhar and Trankov couldn’t do it. Neither did Shen and Zhao. Nor Gordeeva and Grinkov.

Canadians Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford can win a third straight pairs world title next week, a feat not seen since Irina Rodnina and Alexander Zaitsev of the Soviet Union won six in a row from 1973 through 1978.

But they don’t feel like favorites.

“We’re coming in a little more under the radar,” Radford said.

They lost their two most recent international competitions — third at the Grand Prix Final in December; second at the Four Continents Championships in February.

Duhamel and Radford are seeded fifth by best international scores this season going into the world championships in Helsinki (broadcast schedule here).

“Sometimes it feels like worlds last year was so long ago,” Radford said.

Last year in Boston, Duhamel and Radford had the performance of their seven-year partnership in the world championships free skate. They tallied a personal-best 153.81 points, more than seven points clear of their previous best.

It was easily enough to overtake Chinese short-program leaders Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, who were relegated to silver behind the Canadians for a second straight year.

This season, Duhamel and Radford haven’t come within 13 points of their 2016 World Championships total. Duhamel went through “an unforeseeable circumstance” in her personal life in November that she chooses not to reveal.

They implemented the throw triple Axel, but Duhamel fell three times in a four-event stretch this fall. They lost by nearly 13 points at December’s Grand Prix Final, which ended with a Duhamel backstage meltdown.

“We never fell like that at home [in practice],” Duhamel said on the IceTalk podcast. “It started to shake us up a little bit.”

They replaced the throw triple Axel in their program. Without it in February, both skaters had trouble with jumps at Four Continents at the 2018 Olympic venue and finished nearly 13 points behind Sui and Han.

“We kind of went back to square one, to the drawing board after Four Continents, reassessing what’s gone on this season, why are we underperforming, why are we not succeeding in competition the way we are training,” Duhamel said.

They made program changes, notably on their throw and jump entrances and overhauling the footwork in their short program.

Duhamel adopted a rescue dog from South Korea. Radford, who had surgery over the summer to remove a cyst from his ankle bone, leaned on a sports psychologist.

“I personally feel a lot more relaxed and seemless,” Radford said. “That feeling has come a little bit later this season.”

Five pairs could take gold in Helsinki in perhaps the most wide-open event.

Germans Aliona Savchenko and (French-born) Bruno Massot won both of their fall Grand Prix events but missed the Grand Prix Final after she tore an ankle ligament. They returned to take silver at the European Championships in January with the best score of their two-year partnership.

Young Russians Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov stepped up to win the Grand Prix Final, the second-biggest annual competition, and then the European Championships. But free-skate struggles have dogged them this season.

Another Russian pair, Olympic silver medalists Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov, are perhaps the biggest wild card. They missed the fall season due to Stolbova’s left leg injury, but then beat Tarasova and Morozov in their season debut at the Russian Championships. Stolbova fell on their throw triple flip in both programs at the European Championships in January, and they finished fourth.

Then there are Sui and Han, looking to break through for a first senior world title in their sixth try (though Sui is just 21 years old, and Han 24). They missed the fall season after Sui underwent right ankle and left foot surgeries last spring. They returned at Four Continents and posted personal-best free skate and total scores, ranking only behind Tarasova and Morozov for the season.

U.S. pairs Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim and Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier have both missed significant time due to injury in the last two years. They are behind the top pairs from Canada, China and Russia.

The U.S. hasn’t put a pair in the world championships top five since 2006, and that doesn’t figure to change next week.

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NBC Sports researcher Sarah Hughes contributed to this report.