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.

WATCH LIVE: Big Air at Fenway — 8:30 p.m. ET

Fenway Big Air
Fenway Big Air
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Fenway Park will host some of the world’s best snowboarders in the one-of-a-kind Big Air at Fenway, live on NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra on Thursday night.

Snowboard big air riders will descend from a jump that’s four times higher than the Green Monster inside the hallowed Boston Red Sox home.

The finalists include U.S. Olympic slopestyle champion Sage Kotsenburg and women’s Winter X Games champion Spencer O’Brien of Canada. U.S. Olympic slopestyle champion Jamie Anderson was eliminated in earlier qualifying.

Snowboard big air, like slopestyle except riders get one jump per run, will debut at the Olympics at Pyeongchang 2018.

WATCH LIVE: Big Air at Fenway — 8:30 p.m. ET

Big Air at Fenway continues with ski big air Friday at 9 p.m. ET on NBCSN and Live Extra.

World Anti-Doping Agency investigates Kenya

Kenya
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The World Anti-Doping Agency says Kenya is being investigated for breaching the global anti-doping code.

WADA says an independent compliance review committee will now evaluate Kenya and make a recommendation to WADA’s board on whether the country should be declared non-compliant with the code.

WADA says it asked Kenyan authorities to show commitment to setting up a national anti-doping agency, but “we have not yet received the details nor the assurances we need from Kenya and, therefore, this is now a matter for our independent compliance process.”

Although being declared non-compliant is unlikely to bring sanctions for athletes, it would be another embarrassment for the East African country, which is under severe scrutiny for its doping record.

WADA expects a decision on Kenya’s status in a few weeks.

MORE: Kenya banned athletes allege doping bribery