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.”

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How to watch U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Saturday

BOSTON, MA - APRIL 02: Ashley Wagner of the United States warms up before the Ladies Free Skate program on Day 6 of the ISU World Figure Skating Championships 2016 at TD Garden on April 2, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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U.S. Figure Skating Championships coverage continues Saturday, live on NBC and streamed on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app, starting at 3 p.m. ET.

The pairs free skate, free dance and women’s free skate are scheduled in Kansas City.

The NBC Sports All-Access page will provide live scoring and more all week.

Pairs free skate, free dance
3-6 p.m. ET
STREAM LINK | PAIRS SKATE ORDER | DANCE SKATE ORDER

Women’s free skate
8-11 p.m. ET
STREAM LINKSKATE ORDER

In pairs, the first-year team of Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc leads Skate America silver medalists Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier by 3.96 points going into the free skate.

In dance, world silver medalists Maia and Alex Shibutani hold a 2.46-point lead over world bronze medalists Madison Chock and Evan Bates after breaking the U.S. Championships short dance record.

Karen Chen, 17, is the surprise women’s leader after the short program. Three-time U.S. champion Ashley Wagner is third, and defending champion Gracie Gold is fifth. Wagner and Gold might not be able to afford mistakes in the free skate if they want to make the world championships team.

The U.S. will send two pairs, three dance couples and three women to worlds in Helsinki in two months. The team selections made this weekend will be based largely — but not wholly — off U.S. Championships results.

MORE: U.S. Figure Skating boss says Russia shouldn’t be in PyeongChang

Lindsey Vonn wins, cries in second race back from broken bones

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Lindsey Vonn was in tears. It’s easy to see why.

In her second race back after the most painful injury of her career, Vonn notched her 77th career World Cup victory, taking a downhill in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, on Saturday morning.

Vonn screamed repeatedly after crossing the finish line and seeing she was .15 ahead of Swiss Lara Gut. She cried and then waited as skier after skier tried to beat her time. No one did. Full results are here.

Vonn called it the most emotional victory of those 77, according to the Austria Press Agency.

“I feel like, sometimes, I come back so quickly, everyone forgets how much time and energy and blood, sweat and tears it takes to come back without any training and jump in there,” Vonn said, adding to the BBC, “I just put it all on the line. I tried to risk more. I tried to really believe in myself. I did more than I expected.”

This month marked Vonn’s full return from two injuries — suffering three large fractures in her left knee in a Feb. 27 race crash and breaking her right upper arm in a Nov. 10 training crash. Vonn has said the latter was the most painful injury of her career, causing nerve damage that limited mobility of her right hand.

Vonn’s first race back was last Sunday — after less than two weeks of ski training — and she finished 13th in a downhill in Altenmarkt-Zauchensee, Austria. Her lack of training showed. A lack of aggressiveness and speed in turns.

“I honestly wasn’t sure after Zauchensee how long it would take me [to win],” she said. “I definitely struggled finding that confidence, but I did it today. I tried to have as much courage as I could and push myself to the limit. I think I still can ski a lot better, but I think this is more in the direction of what I used to do. So I’m getting back.”

Vonn has two primary goals left in her decorated career — to ski for gold in the 2018 PyeongChang Olympic downhill and to break the World Cup wins record of 86 held by Swede Ingemar Stenmark.

Vonn can go for win No. 78 in a super-G in Garmisch on Sunday, streamed on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app at 6 a.m. ET.

If Vonn stays healthy and continues to win at her normal pace, two big “ifs,” she will break Stenmark’s record next season.

“I still don’t have much training, so, super-G, I really don’t know what to expect,” Vonn said.

MORE: Vonn sets date on proposal to enter men’s race