Michael Phelps

Two years to Rio Olympics: Swimming storylines

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Michael Phelps, who won six medals in London to become the most decorated Olympian ever, swore he would never swim again. Less than a year later, there were whispers. He faced comeback speculation while attending the 2013 World Championships as a spectator, even from FINA’s president.

Finally, on Oct. 18, the reports started coming: Phelps was training again. He re-entered the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency drug-testing pool, clearing the way for a return to the sport. He raced for the first time in 20 months at a meet in April and has competed every month since, getting closer to that 2012 form.

Phelps is entered in four individual events at this week’s U.S. Championships in Irvine, Calif. He has not committed to competing through the Rio Olympics, and it appears he won’t swim as many events as he did in 2004 (eight), 2008 (eight) or 2012 (seven).

Ryan Lochte entered London 2012 as the world’s best swimmer but won fewer medals than Phelps at the Games. With Phelps’ retirement, Lochte had the mantle to himself again.

He won four medals at the 2013 World Championships, his fewest at a Worlds since 2005, and then suffered major knee injuries when a fan ran into him in early November.

Lochte came back too early, missed more meets and returned in July and was beaten by Phelps in all three of their races. He arguably has more to prove than Phelps going forward, beginning with the U.S. Championships this week.

Two years out: Rio’s readiness | Storylines: Swimming | Track and Field | Gymnastics | More Sports

Missy Franklin‘s rise continued after she won five medals (four gold) as a 17-year-old at London 2012. In 2013, Franklin finished high school and then became the first woman to win six gold medals at a single World Championships.

This year, Franklin won an NCAA title at California and is again among the fastest freestylers and backstrokers in the U.S., despite a late start to the Grand Prix season due to classes.

Katie Ledecky, a rising high school senior, has been the most impressive swimmer this year, two years after winning Olympic 800m free gold at age 15. She was arguably more impressive than Franklin last year, too, winning the female World Swimmer of the Year, USOC Sportswoman of the Year and USA Swimming’s female Athlete of the Year.

A Stanford commit, Ledecky broke two distance freestyle world records in June. She’s lining up to potentially swim four events in Rio, including, perhaps, a 200m free showdown with Franklin. U.S. women’s swimmers haven’t gone one-two at an Olympics or World Championships since 2000.

Around the world, China’s mercurial Sun Yang remains the dominant distance force. James Magnussen, the poster boy for Australia’s 2012 Olympic shortcomings, has rebounded to lead a resurgent contingent. Many eyes in Rio de Janeiro are on Cesar Cielo, the 2008 Olympic and 2013 World champion in the 50m free.

The world’s best female all-around swimmer is Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu, the reigning World champion in both individual medleys. The U.S. women beat Australia in all three relays at 2013 Worlds, but the Aussies just broke the 4x100m world record, led by superstar Cate Campbell.

Major swimming events before Rio 2016:

2014 U.S. Championships — Wednesday-Sunday, Irvine, Calif.
2014 Pan Pacific Championships — Aug. 21-24, Gold Coast, Australia
2015 World Championships — July/August, Kazan, Russia
2016 U.S. Olympic Trials — Omaha, Neb.

More Olympic distance-running medalists banned for doping

Gamze Bulut
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MONACO (AP) — Turkish runner Elvan Abeylegesse has been banned for doping and stands to lose two Olympic silver medals.

The IAAF says Abeylegesse tested positive for the banned steroid stanozolol in a retest of a sample she gave at the 2007 World Championships.

She has been banned for two years and had her results wiped out from 2007-09.

Abeylegesse won Olympic silver medals in the 5000m and 10,000m at the 2008 Beijing Games and silver in the 10,000m at the 2007 world championships.

The IAAF also said it had imposed a four-year ban on another Turkish runner, Gamze Bulut, for a violation of its biological passport program. Bulut won 1500m silver at the 2012 London Olympics.

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Maria Sharapova not fully committed to 2020 Olympic run

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The rumors and reports have been out for months, but asked directly, Maria Sharapova wasn’t immediately quite sure how to answer when asked about going for the 2020 Olympics.

“Ooh, I don’t, umm,” Sharapova said, laughing lightly, sitting across from retired U.S. Olympic soccer champion Julia Foudy at a conference in Rancho Mirage, Calif., on Tuesday (video here). “It’s a question I’ve been asked, and I’d love to sit here today and say yes, in three-so years that is where I want to be. But it’s hard. It’s hard to look that far, also being a woman that’s also [turning] 30 years [old in three weeks]. I want to have a family. I want to be a mother. Those are definitely long-term goals of mine. But of course to compete in another Olympics, that’s an athlete’s dream. I’d love to be a part of that.”

Sharapova is set to return from her 15-month meldonium ban next month. What stings the most about her suspension?

“Something was taken away from you that you’ve done so passionately since you were a little girl,” she said. “Although I’m at a stage and an age in my career and in my life where you’re closer to the end than you are to the beginning, you always want to end your career or a chapter in your life on your terms and in your voice. And to be in a moment where you feel or you felt like it could have ended on someone else’s voice and someone else’s terms was very difficult to accept. That’s why I fought so hard for the truth to be out. You don’t realize how much you love something and how much something it means to you until you lose it for some time. It gave me a chance also to live.”

Sharapova joked about going to Coachella last year.

“There’s 120,000 people doing drugs that I’m not aware of?” she said, laughing. “And completely being out of my element. I was like, OK? … I’m skipping Coachella this year, because I got my day-job back.”

The fans’ reaction when she gets back on the competition courts?

“I don’t know if there’s much that I can control,” she said.

Earlier this month, her agent reportedly said he thought that Sharapova will play through the 2020 Tokyo Games if healthy.

Sharapova will be 33 years old come the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, two years older than any previous Russian Olympic tennis player. She will likely have to be ranked among the top four Russians in the world in spring 2020 to qualify for the Games outright.

Sharapova’s passion for the Olympics is well documented.

She carried the Russian flag into the London 2012 Opening Ceremony and carried the Olympic flame into Fisht Stadium at the Sochi 2014 Opening Ceremony, where she worked for NBC Olympics.

“It was the one thing that my parents allowed me to watch on TV late into the evening was the Olympics,” Sharapova said Tuesday. “I grew up watching figure skating and hockey and a little bit of tennis. … Just capturing the Opening Ceremonies and seeing all the countries and the little hats that they wore, and I, as a little girl, I just imagined that maybe it would be me. But I never, ever thought that I would be carrying the flag.

“I received that [flag] honor in a text message, which is a very Russian way of communicating. I originally thought it was a joke, a big fat joke. Then I showed it to my mother, and she [said], no, they probably wouldn’t joke like that.”

In February 2016, Sharapova entered a Fed Cup tie, despite saying she was injured, in order to receive Olympic eligibility.

One month later, her failed drug test was announced.

Two women’s players, Steffi Graf and Serena Williams, have achieved the singles career Golden Slam — winning all four majors and the Olympics. Sharapova, beaten by Williams 6-0, 6-1 in the London 2012 final, is a Tokyo title away from joining them.

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