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

Karen Chen breaks U.S. Champs scoring record; Ashley Wagner, Gracie Gold trail

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KANSAS CITY — A skater broke the U.S. Championships women’s short program scoring record Thursday night, but it wasn’t Ashley Wagner or Gracie Gold.

Karen Chen, a 17-year-old former junior star who struggled the last two years, tallied 72.82 points at the Sprint Center to lead going into Saturday’s free skate (8 p.m. ET, NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app).

Mirai Nagasu, a 2010 Olympian, is second, .87 of a point behind.

That leaves Wagner and Gold, who combined to win the last five U.S. titles, in third and fifth, respectively.

This is concerning for Wagner (1.88 behind Chen) and Gold (7.97 behind) given U.S. Figure Skating can send three women to worlds in two months. That selection will be made this weekend, primarily — but not totally — based off U.S. Championships results.

Tessa Hong is in fourth place, but at 14 years old is too young for senior worlds.

Full results are here.

Though Wagner and Gold are usually higher placed, the biggest surprise was Chen.

“My body’s still trembling right now,” she said, two hours after her performance.

Chen skated a clean program Thursday, rare for her in the last couple of seasons. Chen burst onto the scene as a 15-year-old two years ago, finishing third at nationals behind Wagner and Gold.

She was too young to be selected for the 2015 Worlds team. Little has been heard from Chen since.

She dropped to eighth at the 2016 U.S. Championships and came into Kansas City as the seventh-ranked U.S. woman this season. Struggling to find comfortable boots — a common skater problem — has plagued her. She went through 14 pairs in a four-month stretch.

“Everyone has doubts, and I certainly do as well,” said Chen, who choreographed her short program. “But I just kept pushing and telling myself that I’m gaining more experience, I’m learning about everything in the process and I’m just going to keep getting better.”

Wagner bounced back from her last outing — her worst Grand Prix finish in 25 career starts — with a decent program. She needed to save a double Axel near the end of her short. The 2016 World silver medalist was the pre-event favorite.

“People do not understand how difficult of a position I am in,” said Wagner, a 25-year-old bidding to become the oldest U.S. women’s champion in 90 years. “It might seem like I’m on top of the world, or second from being top of the world, but this is a very tough position to be in. It’s mentally been weighing on my shoulders all season. To be able to come out and show people I am a fighter, I’m really proud of that.”

Gold needed to show a fighting spirit given her well-publicized disaster of a fall season. And she did. Her only miss in the short program was doubling a planned triple flip.

“I can feel a huge improvement as a skater. I think everyone can see it,” Gold said. “I have made comebacks before. This doesn’t feel like a major comeback in some ways, because I felt pretty solid. … A long program is worth a lot of points, and I can certainly deliver some good long programs. I kind of feel like I’m due for a good one.”

If Gold doesn’t improve in the free skate, she could be left off the worlds team for the first time in her senior career. However, Gold believes her strong credentials in recent seasons merit consideration.

“We’ve seen different controversies where people aren’t on the [nationals] podium, and they’re still selected for events,” Gold said. “Michelle Kwan has not gone to nationals and been selected for an Olympic team [in 2006]. I believe that I deserve to be on the world team, but I’m not on the selection committee. Of course, every athlete feels like they should be on the world team.”

Earlier Thursday, the pairs short program produced surprise leaders.

The U.S. Championships continue Friday with the short dance and men’s short program. A full broadcast schedule is here.

MORE: U.S. Figure Skating boss wants Russia out of PyeongChang

Women’s Short Program
1. Karen Chen — 72.82
2. Mirai Nagasu — 71.95
3. Ashley Wagner — 70.94
4. Tessa Hong — 65.02
5. Gracie Gold — 64.85

 

Gwen Jorgensen pregnant, to sit out 2017 triathlon season

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 20: USA's Gwen Jorgensen followed by Switzerland's Nicola Spirig Hug (L) compete in the running portion of the women's triathlon at Fort Copacabana during the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro on August 20, 2016.(Photo by Jeff Pachoud-Pool/Getty Images)
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Olympic triathlon champion Gwen Jorgensen is pregnant and will not compete this year.

“Just kind of take this year a little bit easier,” Jorgensen said in a video posted on Facebook on Thursday.

The baby is due Aug. 3, according to Jorgensen’s social media.

Jorgensen, 30, became the first U.S. Olympic triathlon champion in Rio after going in as the heavy favorite. She has said for months that she planned to take time off to have a baby before returning to defend her Olympic title at Tokyo 2020.

Swiss Nicola Spirig, the 2012 Olympic gold medalist and 2016 silver medalist, is reportedly expecting a child in May.

In Jorgensen and Spirig’s absences, the top triathletes going into the season are defending world champion Flora Duffy of Bermuda, U.S. Olympians Katie Zaferes and Sarah True and Britons Vicky Holland and Helen Jenkins.

Jorgensen’s last competition was the New York City Marathon on Nov. 6, when she finished 14th in her first running race longer than 10 miles.

The World Triathlon Series kicks off in Abu Dhabi the first weekend of March.

MORE: Triathlon federation boss wants Olympic races shortened