‘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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Nick Goepper opens Olympic qualifying on podium; contenders crash out

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BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. — U.S. Olympic men’s ski slopestyle qualifying is underway with Sochi bronze medalist Nick Goepper delivering the first blow.

Goepper finished second at Dew Tour Breckenridge, taking the early edge in Olympic qualifying.

With a victory at any of the remaining selection events, Goepper would be looking good for one of up to four spots on the team for PyeongChang.

“I was really hoping to ski my best today, and I think I skied 98 percent,” Goepper said. “The Olympic selection podium is a bonus and eases the pressure a little bit for the next couple, but the pressure wasn’t really there. I’m just thinking of these as individual events [instead of Olympic qualifiers].”

Alex Hall (fifth place) and Sochi silver medalist Gus Kenworthy (sixth place) also got their Olympic qualifying attempts off to a decent start, but in order to be automatically nominated to the Olympic team, skiers need a minimum of two top-three finishes among five selection events.

Goepper was the only U.S. skier able to crack the podium in Breckenridge.

Sweden’s Henrik Harlaut (first place) and Norway’s Oystein Braaten (third place) played the role of spoiler for the rest of the U.S. team. Harlaut and Braaten are both considered medal contenders for PyeongChang.

Crashes took their toll on several U.S. Olympic hopefuls.

McRae Williams, the reigning world champion, was forced to drop out after crashing on his first run. Colby Stevenson and 2014 Olympian Bobby Brown also did not finish the contest after taking spills of their own.

The contest also missed the reigning Olympic gold medalist. Joss Christensen sat out the event as he rehabs from a torn ACL but plans to return in January for the final four selection events.

On the women’s side, Maggie Voisin remains on track for a nomination to the U.S. Olympic team.

She finished fourth, best among Americans, in the Olympic qualifier at Breckenridge on the strength of a run that featured three 900s.

Voisin won the first qualifier for women’s slopestyle, which was held last season.

She still needs one more top-three finish at any of the three remaining selection events to be eligible for an automatic nomination, but she has consistently been the top performer among the U.S. women.

With two-time X Games gold medalist Kelly Sildaru sidelined with a knee injury this season, the field looks wide open for PyeongChang.

Voisin, then 15, was slated to make her Olympic debut in Sochi as the youngest American in any sport but was injured just days before the competition.

As long as she stays healthy, she will be a medal contender in PyeongChang, as will Norway’s Johanne Killi and France’s Tess Ledeux.

Killi narrowly edged out Ledeux, who recently turned 16, for the victory in Breckenridge. Sarah Hoefflin of Switzerland rounded out the podium.

Four U.S. selection events remain for the men, and three events remain for the women. Olympic qualifying resumes in January with a series of contests in Aspen, Colo., and Mammoth Mountain, Calif.

U.S. Olympic Qualifying Standings
Ski Slopestyle 
(women through two of five events; men through one of five)
1. Maggie Voisin — 150*
2. Devin Logan — 82
3. Darian Stevens — 81
4. Taylor Lundquist — 52
5. Nadia Gonzales — 28

1. Nick Goepper — 80*
2. Alex Hall — 45
3. Gus Kenworthy — 40
4. Bobby Brown — 32
5. Cody LaPlante — 29

**Has automatic qualifying minimum of two top-three results.
*Has one top-three result.

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MORE: List of athletes qualified for U.S. Olympic team

Maame Biney, J.R. Celski join U.S. Olympic short track team

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Maame Biney will become the second African-born athlete to compete for the U.S. at the Winter Olympics and the first black woman on a speed skating team.

J.R. Celski, a three-time medalist, is going to a third Winter Games.

Biney, Celski and Aaron Tran qualified in short track at the Olympic Trials in Kearns, Utah, after the 500m on Saturday.

The team is now at five skaters — John-Henry Krueger and Lana Gehring qualified on the first night Friday.

Three more skaters will qualify Sunday after 1000m races — two men and one woman.

One of Katherine Reutter-Adamek and Jessica Kooreman, the top U.S. women at the last two Olympics, is guaranteed to miss the PyeongChang team.

Neither could keep up with the 17-year-old Biney, who moved to the D.C. area from Ghana with her father at age 5, on Saturday.

Biney swept the 500m finals, taking leads from the start and holding off more experienced women. She actually fell — while celebrating after crossing the finish line in the last race.

Afterward, NBC Sports’ Andrea Joyce told Biney that eight-time Olympic medalist Apolo Ohno believes Biney doesn’t know how good she is.

“People have been telling me that forever, and I think right now I’m kind of seeing it, but I feel like I have a long ways to go, but thanks Apolo,” said Biney, who won a junior world championships bronze medal last season.

Celski did not win the men’s 500m, where he is the world-record holder. Krueger did, with Tran in second.

But the fact that Krueger finished in the top two in Friday’s 1500m and the 500m means that Celski gets on the team via his second-place finish in the 1500m.

Celski won two bronze medals at the 2010 Olympics and another relay silver in Sochi.

He took a full season off after Sochi — undergoing hip surgery — and overcame further knee and back injuries the last two years to return to the World Cup podium this season.

Celski is the only American to earn an individual World Cup medal this season (a bronze) in 24 total races.

Celski won’t be able to race the 500m in PyeongChang if Thomas Hong makes the Olympic team on Sunday.

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MORE: U.S. Olympic short track skater gets 4-year doping ban

U.S. Olympic Short Track Trials

Day Time (ET) Events Network
Friday 6:45-8 p.m. 1500m rounds STREAM LINK
8:30-10 p.m. 1500m finals NBCSN | STREAM LINK
Saturday 12-1:45 p.m. 500m rounds STREAM LINK
2:30-4 p.m. 500m finals NBC | STREAM LINK
Sunday 10:15 a.m.-12:15 p.m. 1000m rounds STREAM LINK
1-3 p.m. 1000m finals NBC | STREAM LINK