Katie Ledecky, Missy Franklin

Missy Franklin, Katie Ledecky finally give U.S. women’s swimming a one-two punch

Leave a comment

IRVINE, Calif. — Heads turned when Missy Franklin entered the dance room at Irvine High School on Tuesday morning. One belonged to Katie Ledecky.

The last two Female World Swimmers of the Year hadn’t seen each other since 2013, Franklin believed. They embraced and exchanged how-are-yous inside a makeshift media center at the U.S. Swimming Championships, which begin Wednesday.

Franklin, 19, and Ledecky, 17, make up the changing wave of U.S. swimming, which has benefited from the popularity of Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte more than any other athletes over the last decade.

Franklin and Ledecky follow an exceptional line of headlining U.S. women’s swimmers, including Amanda BeardNatalie Coughlin and Katie Hoff.

But the difference is Franklin and Ledecky seem to be on similar trajectories, hitting new peaks every year and pushing each other. Their specialties are vastly different — the backstrokes for Franklin and distance freestyles for Ledecky.

But they meet in the 200m freestyle, which gives swim fans who relish the Phelps-Lochte duels something to savor after the leading men step away.

It could also bring history over the next couple years. The last time U.S. women went one-two in any Olympics or World Championships event was 2000 (Brooke Bennett-Diana Munz 400m freestyle in Sydney). U.S. men have gone one-two 25 times in the same 14-year span.

The 200m free is Thursday at the U.S. Championships, perhaps the most star-filled event at the meet factoring in Olympic champion Allison Schmitt.

When Ledecky was 14, she first came to know Franklin on TV, tearing up the pool at the World Championships in Shanghai and beaming with excitement that her parents brought her brand-new Colorado driver’s license to the meet.

Franklin and Ledecky first crossed paths at domestic meets in early 2012, but Franklin said she didn’t really get to know Ledecky until the 2012 Olympics.

“She really came on the scene like March of 2012, and so I think all of us were just starting to meet her,” Franklin said. “She’s just one of those personalities where she just fits right in, just one of the new people on the National Team, and she came in and just molded with everyone.”

Ledecky, nearing 6 feet, can tower above the student population at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart, an all-girls, Catholic preschool through 12th grade institution in Bethesda, Md. She is entering her senior year and committed to Stanford.

She is slightly shorter than the rising Cal sophomore Franklin, who met skyscraping expectations by winning five medals, four gold, at the 2012 Olympics.

Ledecky stroked away a little more under the radar in London. She was no less impressive in her only event, winning the 800m freestyle with the second-fastest time ever.

Franklin won the year-end Female Swimmer of the Year awards.

In 2013, Franklin raised the bar by becoming the first woman to win six gold medals at a single World Championships. But it was Ledecky who was awarded a special FINA trophy as the female swimmer of the meet, winning four gold medals with two world records.

Ledecky, whose dryland activities include repairing bikes that are shipped to developing countries, took the honor with humility.

“Missy deserves this probably more than I do,” she said, pointing to the trophy at the Barcelona meet, according to Reuters.

A grateful Franklin said that was tough to hear.

“I want Katie to feel like she deserves it because she absolutely 100 percent does,” Franklin said. “Her summer was unbelievable. Her summer before that was unbelievable. And her summers for the next 10 years are going to be unbelievable.”

Ledecky also swept FINA and Swimming World‘s year-end awards, over Franklin. In June, Franklin heard that Ledecky broke another world record at a small meet in Texas, via a text from Franklin’s mom, and said she started “freaking out” at dinner.

“[Ledecky’s] accomplishments over the past two years have been unreal and she just keeps getting better, which is so incredible,” Franklin said. “She’s an inspiration for me just watching her race every single time with so much passion and just fierceness.”

Franklin and Ledecky are obviously thrilled to be teammates, cherishing prep and college competition so much that neither has turned pro yet.

But in an individual sport they are also competitors. And they go against each other in the 200m free, where Franklin is the reigning World champion.

Ledecky, though, has improved greatly in the event, the shortest on her program, and is the fastest American this year in the 200m free. She finished second in the 200m free behind Franklin at last year’s U.S. Championships but dropped it from her Worlds program because it conflicted with the 1500m free.

The 1500m free is not an Olympic event, however, meaning Ledecky could be inclined to swim it at the Rio Olympics.

When you ask both Franklin and Ledecky about the 200m free, neither thinks about the individual race. Their answers immediately go to the 4x200m free relay, where they bookended the U.S. gold-medal team at Worlds last year.

“The more we push each other the faster we’re going to go,” Ledecky said, “and the faster our relay is going to be.”

Will Rio de Janeiro be ready for 2016 Olympics?

U.S. figure skating could have its best world team since 2006

Nathan Chen performs during the men's free skate competition at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, Sunday, Jan. 22, 2017, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
AP
Leave a comment

KANSAS CITY — U.S. figure skating has a shot at medals in three of four disciplines at the world championships in Helsinki in two months, which hasn’t happened in 11 years.

Before this year, the U.S. men and U.S. women hadn’t boasted simultaneous medal contenders in a decade. Johnny Weir and Evan Lysacek spent the 2010 Olympic cycle in the world elite, while the U.S. women faded. After they stopped competing, Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold moved into the women’s medal field while the U.S. searched for a new leading man.

He’s arrived. Nathan Chen confirmed he is one of the world’s best male skaters by landing a record seven quadruple jumps between two programs at Sprint Center this past week.

The 17-year-old already made the podium in an event that featured the world’s best, earning silver at the Grand Prix Final in December. Chen struggled with his short-program jumps at the Grand Prix Final and attempted one fewer quad overall yet still outscored everybody but Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu.

Of all of the U.S. medal hopes at worlds, Chen may face the stiffest trio of challengers. Not only is there Hanyu, but also two-time reigning world champion Javier Fernandez of Spain, plus Japan’s Shoma Uno, all of whom rank higher than Chen in best total scores in international competition this season.

MORE: Chen believes Olympic gold is possible after U.S. title

Wagner, who shares a coach with Chen, did not have her best nationals. She finished second to surprise winner Karen Chen (no relation to Nathan), who has yet to factor internationally.

But Wagner said before and after the U.S. Championships that her focus was to peak for the world championships. The goal for nationals was to make the world team, which required not winning but finishing in the top three. Mission accomplished.

The concern with Wagner is that she hasn’t produced a world medal-caliber result yet this season. Her best score from the fall ranks her sixth among women going to worlds. But Wagner has shown in the last few seasons that she can pull it together for major events. There’s her 2016 World Championships silver medal, plus her three straight Grand Prix Final medals from 2012-14.

At worlds, Wagner will have to deal with a Russian trio capable of sweeping the podium, three strong Japanese skaters, plus the revelation of this season, Canadian Kaetlyn Osmond.

VIDEO: Wagner passed Puffs in emotional press conference moment

The U.S.’ strongest discipline continues to be ice dance. Maia and Alex Shibutani and Madison Chock and Evan Bates finished second and third at the 2016 World Championships. They went one-two at the U.S. Championships this past week.

But two ice dance medals don’t appear to be in the cards in Helsinki. That’s because Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who earned gold and silver at the last two Olympics, came back this season after a two-year break.

Virtue and Moir broke international scoring records in the fall, sweeping their four starts. The two-time reigning world champions, Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France, also beat the U.S. couples at the Grand Prix Final.

The Shibutani siblings and Chock and Bates have never finished ahead of Virtue and Moir in competition. Neither has bettered the French since the December 2014 Grand Prix Final, either.

But all it takes is one dance medal, plus Chen and Wagner at their best in Helsinki, and the U.S. could go into the Olympic year in its best place since 2006.

MORE: Gracie Gold comments on split from coach Frank Carroll

Laurie Hernandez discusses life after Rio, new book on TODAY (video)

Laurie Hernandez
TODAY
Leave a comment

Laurie Hernandez‘s book, “I Got This: To Gold and Beyond,” is out Tuesday, and the Olympic champion gymnast stopped by TODAY on Monday to discuss its contents and life post-Rio.

An excerpt on Hernandez’s experience in Rio and the story of her floor-exercise wink to judges, is here.

On TODAY, Hernandez discussed another interesting anecdote from the book about tissues.

“Before Olympic Trials, we went out to eat, and I had a little breakdown because practice was really rough, and my routines weren’t coming the way I wanted them to,” she said. “This poor waitress kept bringing me over piles of tissues. … We were leaving, and my sister [Jelysa] told my dad, I’m going to save these tissues. I’m going to give them to her when she makes the team. I’m thinking to myself, you guys are crazy, this is not going to happen.”

Hernandez went on to finish second to Simone Biles at the Olympic Trials and make the five-woman Olympic team as the first U.S. female Olympian born in the 2000s.

The family celebrated the achievement, where Jelysa handed the tissues to Hernandez in a bag.

“Even when you fell, you couldn’t believe in yourself, we were there for you,” Jelysa told her.

“So it was a really defining moment,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez is away from gymnastics while promoting her book and touring with “Dancing with the Stars,” but she is expected to return to the sport at some point.

MORE: Hernandez explains 2017 goals: First date, driver’s license, Law & Order