Katie Ledecky, Missy Franklin

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

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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?

Watch NBC Olympics Thanksgiving promo video

NBC Olympics Promo
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Actress Eva Longoria narrates the newest NBC promo video for the Rio 2016 Olympics.

The 60-second spot features several athletes with their families in their home countries, including:

Simone Biles (USA, gymnastics)

David Boudia (USA, diving)

Genzebe Dibaba (Ethiopia, track and field)

Murilo Endres (Brazil, volleyball) and his wife Jaqueline Carvalho (Brazil, volleyball)

Dylan van Baarle (Netherlands, cycling)

Kerri Walsh Jennings (USA, beach volleyball)

The promo will air on television on Thanksgiving day towards the end of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

“The spot reflects the crucial role that family plays in the journey of so many Olympic athletes,” said John Miller, Chief Marketing Officer of NBC Sports Group. “With the Games being one of the few family-viewing experiences left on television, we felt this message was appropriate for the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.”

VIDEO: 2016 Rio Olympic Games: One year out promo

Wagner, Asada, Hanyu headline NHK Trophy in Japan; Grand Prix Final berths on the line

Ashley Wagner
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Three-time U.S. national champion Ashley Wagner looks to qualify for her fourth consecutive Grand Prix Final at this weekend’s NHK Trophy in Nagano, Japan. A medal of any color should be good enough to get her to Barcelona, but she faces a tough field.

Japan’s Mao Asada returned to competition this season and is poised to qualify for the most elite competition since the Sochi Olympics (where she finished sixth) and 2014 World Championships (which she won). Finishing on the podium would earn a berth to the final for Asada. Also in the field are Americans Mirai Nagasu and Courtney Hicks, Japan’s Satoko Miyahara, and one of Russia’s darlings from last season, Anna Pogorilaya.

Olympic champion and last year’s Grand Prix Final winner Yuzuru Hanyu, surely to be the overwhelming crowd favorite in the men’s field, will look to improve his short program results from his other Grand Prix appearance. At Skate Canada, two of his three jumping passes recceived zero points. He rallied in the free skate, finishing second behind Canada’s Patrick Chan. Chan is essentially a lock for the final, while a top three finish would seal the deal for Hanyu.

MORE: Javier Fernandez qualifies for second straight home Grand Prix Final

Other men in the hunt for Grand Prix Final berths competing in Nagano include China’s Jin Boyang and Russia’s Maxim Kovtun, who also need podium finishes to lock up spots in Barcelona. Jin’s and Kovtun’s finishes will likely dictate whether or not American Max Aaron qualifies to the final. More on that process here. No U.S. man has qualified since Jeremy Abbott did it in 2011.

MORE: Jason Brown withdraws from NHK Trophy

Reigining U.S. pairs champions Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim can make the Grand Prix Final with a medal in Japan.

The U.S. is sending three ice dance couples to Japan, of which two have a shot at qualifying for Barcelona. Siblings and Sochi Olympians Maia and Alex Shibutani can finish in any 1-2 combination with Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue allowing for both duos to qualify for the final. Madison Chock and Evan Bates, U.S. ice dance champions, already qualified.

Icenetwork.com will stream for subscribers live coverage of men’s, women’s, pairs and ice dance short programs and free skates. NBC and NBC Sports Live Extra will have coverage Sunday from 4-6 p.m. ET.

Men’s short program — Friday, 2:10 a.m. ET (start order here)
Women’s short program — Friday, 5:05 a.m. ET (start order here)
Men’s free skate — Saturday, 2:30 a.m. ET
Women’s free skate — Saturday, 5:35 a.m. ET