2014 Phillips 66 National Championships

‘Assassin’ Katie Ledecky beats Missy Franklin at U.S. Championships

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IRVINE, Calif. — A college coach recently visited Nation’s Capital Swim Club and walked away, shaking his head over Katie Ledecky practicing with men’s swimmers.

“She just chases those boys up and down the pool, doesn’t she?” the coach told Ledecky’s coach, Bruce Gemmell.

“I like to call her quiet like an assassin,” Gemmell says.

Ledecky smiled and joked with Missy Franklin before heading out for their anticipated showdown in the 200m freestyle at the U.S. Swimming Championships on Thursday night.

When they reached their side-by-side lanes, Franklin started dancing to a Backstreet Boys song playing on the outdoor pool’s PA system (the band formed two years before Franklin’s birth and four years before Ledecky’s).

Ledecky turned less expressive during introductions, focusing on the 50m of water ahead.

The assassin then flung off the starting block and chased Franklin down the pool. She quickly caught the four-time Olympic champion, passed Franklin and distanced herself to win by 1.24 seconds.

Ledecky is a rising high school senior best known as the world-record holder in the 800m and 1500m frees and the American record holder in the 400m free. She often wins races in those distances by several body lengths.

Ledecky, who came out of nowhere in 2012 to win Olympic 800m gold, had never owned the 200m free until Thursday. Not enough room for the distance swimmer to catch the field.

But she had been chasing the best Americans in the event since finishing ninth at the 2012 Olympic Trials.

And now she’s the U.S. champion, adding to her arsenal in dominating fashion at Woollett Aquatics Center.

Ledecky, the reigning Female World Swimmer of the Year, clocked a personal best 1 minute, 55.16 seconds. Franklin, the 2012 Female World Swimmer of the Year, took second in 1:56.4.

Ledecky was two seconds faster than Franklin in separate morning preliminary heats. In this distance, she’s known as a faster swimmer in the second half of the race compared to the field.

So when she touched the first 50m wall just .11 behind Franklin in the final, it was clear Ledecky was in great position to knock off the reigning World champion in the event.

She passed Franklin and led by one tenth at 100m, then by four tenths at 150m. Finally, Ledecky, who repairs bikes for charity in her spare time, dropped Franklin for good by swimming three-quarters of a second faster on the final 50m.

“I did a really good job of increasing my tempo throughout the race,” Ledecky said. “My arms didn’t really die.”

The U.S. Swimming Championships are a qualifying meet for the biggest international competition of the year, the Pan Pacific Championships in Gold Coast, Australia, in two weeks.

Ledecky and Franklin had already qualified for the Pan Pacs team via their wins in the 800m free and the 100m free, respectively, on Wednesday. They are open to swim any events they want at Pan Pacs.

The 200m free is the only individual event where Ledecky and Franklin intersect, though Ledecky guessed they’ve only been in the same race a handful of times.

“I knew we’ve been about the same times this year,” Ledecky said. “I knew it was going to be close. I think we both relish that opportunity to put down some good times.”

In 2013, Ledecky qualified to swim the 200m free at the World Championships but scratched it in Barcelona because it conflicted with the 1500m free.

“In all honesty, I preferred last year that she do the 200 over the 1500,” Gemmell said. “But either wiser heads or cooler heads or Katie’s head prevailed, and we swam the 1500 and dropped the 200.”

The 1500m free is not an Olympic event. That in mind, Ledecky has said the 200m free is more in play for Rio 2016.

The anticipation for a Franklin-Ledecky Olympic head to head would be boosted by the fact no U.S. women have gone one-two in an Olympics or Worlds event since 2000. U.S. men have done it 25 times since 2000.

Franklin, who beat a sluggish Ledecky by two seconds in the 200m free at last year’s Nationals, said she’s still learning to race against Ledecky.

Ledecky is pushing Franklin out of her comfort zone, maybe not before races on the deck, but certainly in the final 50 meters.

“It’s a nice little kick in the butt to be like, hey, you can’t just wait and then try and catch her,” said Franklin, who later won the 200m backstroke Thursday, a little over an hour after the 200m free final. “Because she’s going to be right there, and she’s going to be going.”

In other events Thursday, Olympic champion Tyler Clary came from behind to win the men’s 200m back over Ryan Lochte, who faded badly to finish third.

Matt McLean won the men’s 200m free over World silver medalist Conor Dwyer.

Kevin Cordes maintained his breaststroke dominance, winning the 200m breast by just .14 over Nic Fink, closer than expected.

World bronze medalist Micah Lawrence had more breathing room winning the women’s 200m breast by 1.11 over Olympian Breeja Larson.

The U.S. Championships continue Friday, with Michael Phelps returning for the 100m butterfly, the second of a planned four events.

Phelps was seventh in the 100m free Wednesday and has yet to qualify for Pan Pacs.

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Kerri Walsh Jennings, April Ross beat top-ranked Brazilians for first time

Kerri Walsh Jennings, April Ross
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Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross beat Brazil’s best beach volleyball team for the first time and extended the longest winning streak of their partnership in winning the Moscow Grand Slam on Sunday.

“That just shows our growth,” Ross said. “We’re still on the up and up.”

Walsh Jennings, a three-time Olympic champion, and Ross, an Olympic silver medalist, beat Olympic qualifying top seed Larissa and Talita 22-20, 21-17 in the final for their third straight international title.

Walsh Jennings and Ross have now won 22 straight FIVB World Tour matches, the best run of their three-year parternship. Walsh Jennings last reached a streak this long from 2007 to 2010, when she won 78 straight international matches with Misty May-Treanor and Nicole Branagh, according to BVBInfo.com

The Americans had lost all three of their previous matches (one a one-set exhibition) versus Larissa and Talita:

Feb. 27, 2015 — 26-24 in Rio de Janeiro
Aug. 23, 2015 — 21-18, 21-16 in Long Beach, Calif.
March 20, 2016 — 22-20, 21-19 in Vitoria, Brazil

“You know what makes me happy? This is done. Now we’ve done it, we’ve beaten them and put it to rest,” Walsh Jennings said, according to USA Volleyball.

Larissa and Talita, seeking to become Brazil’s first Olympic women’s beach volleyball champions in 20 years, have won 12 of their 20 international tournaments since pairing in July 2014.

The FIVB World Tour continues in Hamburg, Germany, next week, the final event in Olympic qualifying. Walsh Jennings and Ross are expected to play there.

Walsh Jennings and Ross and Larissa and Talita are already qualified for the Rio Games.

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Star goalie Ashleigh Johnson set to make U.S. Olympic water polo history

Ashleigh Johnson
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LOS ALAMITOS, Calif. — Donna Johnson just wanted her five children to be safe around the pool at her Miami home. That was it, really, the first step in Ashleigh Johnson‘s path from prodigy to USA water polo.

Swim lessons turned into meets when their instructor told Donna Johnson her children were so good she had nothing left to teach them. When Ashleigh and her siblings continued to show athletic potential as they got older, Donna Johnson, a single mother and nurse from Jamaica, delivered a simple message to them.

“For everything that they do, it’s not about pressure, it’s about maximizing your potential,” she said.

Now her oldest daughter is about to make history this summer. Ashleigh, a goaltender blessed with jaw-dropping athleticism, is a lock for Rio de Janeiro, putting her on track to become the first black woman to play water polo for the U.S. Olympic team.

While this is just the fifth Games for the women’s tournament, Johnson’s ascension to elite goaltender is a welcome development for a sport looking for more diversity and growth outside of water polo-crazy Southern California.

Each of Johnson’s teammates is from the Golden State, and the same three Pac-12 schools — UCLA, Southern California and Stanford — dominate the roster. Seventy-five percent of USA Water Polo’s roughly 42,000 members live in California.

After starring at Ransom Everglades High School in Florida, Johnson opted for Princeton instead of USC.

“I think Ashleigh Johnson’s the future of our sport in the U.S.,” USA Water Polo CEO Christopher Ramsey said. “She’s an out-of-California athlete who grew up in Florida. She went to Princeton, high academic achiever from a different background than a lot of traditional water polo families are from.”

Just a short while ago, Johnson, 21, wasn’t interested in that future, at least with the national team. The thought of moving away from her tight-knit family and joining a new team in California wasn’t appealing to her, but several conversations with coach Adam Krikorian helped change her mind.

“I didn’t really know that the Olympics was a possibility for me,” Johnson said. “I thought it was just like coming and training like I had been doing for years, but just living out here, and he made me realize that the Olympics was a great opportunity and a possibility for me.”

Krikorian first heard of Johnson about 10 years ago when he was the head coach at UCLA. Nicolle Payne, one of his assistants with the Bruins and a former national team goaltender, was working a camp in Miami when she sent an email to Krikorian about America’s next great goaltender.

“She said, ‘Adam, keep this name in your mind,’ and she told me her name — Ashleigh Johnson,” Krikorian said. “‘She is the most amazing goalie I have ever seen.”‘

It’s easy to see what got Payne’s attention.

The 6-foot-1 Johnson has long arms, perfect for firing outlet passes for U.S. counterattacks and guarding the top parts of the goal, and she cuts through the water with impressive ease. Sick of swimming in high school, she was offered an out by her mother and coach if she won the 50-meter freestyle at states as a sophomore. So she won and walked away.

She collected 54 saves while helping the United States qualify for the Olympics at a tournament in the Netherlands in March, including 10 stops in an 11-6 victory over Italy in the final, capping an 8-0 performance for the Americans. But that gifted sprinter is still inside her.

At a recent practice, assistant coach Chris Oeding gave the team a chance to cut short the swimming portion of training if the players could assemble a sub-1:40 200-yard freestyle relay team. Krikorian and assistant coach Dan Klatt offered a nodding Johnson as a candidate, but four different players were chosen.

They made the time, but Johnson stole the show by swimming the second leg alongside the relay, leaving Krikorian and Klatt shaking their heads as she churned through the pool like a motorboat.

“She’s a freak,” Princeton coach Luis Nicolao said. “She’s just athletic. I often joke she could probably start for our basketball team, track team, swim team, she just has that natural ability to succeed at anything she does.”

Johnson and her sister, Chelsea, play for Nicolao with the Tigers. They have two older brothers, Blake and William, and one younger brother, Julius.

Their parents got divorced when Ashleigh was little, and Donna Johnson raised the kids mostly on her own. It’s a challenging juggling act not lost on her children.

“I mean she’s such a hard-working, loving and determined woman,” Ashleigh said, “and she’s taught me that hard work ethic and just to try my best at everything and love what I do.”

Chelsea Johnson, who joked that she followed her sister to Princeton because she didn’t want to play against her, said she sees similarities between Ashleigh and their mother.

“I think the biggest thing from her, she and Ashleigh, is that she’s always smiling, no matter what,” she said. “Like her and Ashleigh, not matter what they’re doing, no matter how hard the thing is, they’re always smiling and trying to make everyone around them feel better about whatever’s happening.”

VIDEO: Ashleigh Johnson stands out on U.S. water polo team