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‘I’m getting closer to Ledecky,’ new teen swim star says

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We’re used to Katie Ledecky pulling away from swimmers by lengths of the pool in distance races, but one new rival sees the opposite.

“I think I’m getting closer and closer to Ledecky right now,” China’s Li Bingjie said at a FINA World Cup event in Singapore last weekend, according to the New Straits Times.

Li, who was born in 2002, took silver in the 800m freestyle and bronze in the 400m free behind Ledecky at the world championships in July.

Her 800m time — 8:15.46 — was the second-fastest ever for a swimmer other than Ledecky. Ledecky holds the 14 fastest times ever.

Next is Brit Rebecca Adlington‘s gold-medal-winning time from the 2008 Olympics, followed by two more Ledecky times and then Li.

Ledecky beat Li by 2.78 seconds in the world championships 800m.

It marked Ledecky’s smallest margin of victory in a race of 400 meters or longer at a major international meet since 2013 — a run of 10 races among the 2014 Pan Pacific Championships, 2015 World Championships, 2016 Olympics and 2017 World Championships.

In that world 800m final, Li cut five seconds off her personal best and outsplit Ledecky over the last 200 meters. Afterward, she told Chinese media that Ledecky didn’t swim as fast as Li thought she would, according to

“My time wasn’t as fast as I’ve been, but it’s still faster than anybody else has ever been,” Ledecky responded when told of Li’s comments, according to the website. “And it was the end of a really long week for me, a lot of ups and downs. I was happy to just get the gold, and that’s all I really wanted to do in this race tonight, going out and swimming the best race I can. You don’t know what anybody else was going to do. If she was going to come up and challenge me, I would have had to respond.”

Then in September, Li broke Asian records in the 400m and 1500m frees at the Chinese National Games. She is ranked third in the world in both events this year.

“As for [whether I can surpass Ledecky], that’s not for me to say,” Li said last weekend, according to the newspaper.

Ledecky and Li have not met since worlds, and they might not again until 2019.

The major international meet of 2018 is August’s Pan Pacific Championships in Japan, an event that the top Chinese swimmers often skip.

Li reportedly said her next focus is on the Asian Games, which open five days after Pan Pacs.

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New generation of male figure skaters owns spotlight at worlds; preview

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Nobody in the men’s field at figure skating worlds owns an Olympic or world title for the first time since 1985. This could lead to the best U.S. men’s results in years.

Yuzuru HanyuJavier Fernandez and Patrick Chan combined to win every gold medal since 2011, but all of them ended their seasons at the Olympics.

This week in Milan, the four leading men, who just competed in their first Olympics, are all 20 years or younger. And that includes two Americans.

Nathan Chen can become the first world singles champion from the U.S. since Evan Lysacek in 2009. Chen and Vincent Zhou could be the first U.S. men to finish in the top five together since Lysacek and Johnny Weir in 2005. Chen, Zhou and Max Aaron could make up the best U.S. trio at a worlds in more than 20 years.

Start with Chen. The 18-year-old said he planned to compete this week regardless of what happened at the Olympics, but after his struggles in the team event and individual short programs, the quad master nailed his free skate, came home to California and said he took maybe one day off of training before this event.

Chen is one of three men in the gold-medal hunt, along with Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno of Japan and world bronze medalist Jin Boyang of China. While Chen largely struggled at the 2017 Worlds and in PyeongChang, Uno and Jin each made the podium at both events. And each can come close to or equal Chen in quad numbers.

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Zhou, 17, has a chance to become the youngest man to earn a world medal since Hanyu in 2012. Or the first man to win the world junior title one season and make the world senior podium the next since Yevgeny Plushenko in 1997-98.

Zhou is riding momentum. He struggled in the fall and entered nationals in January ranked fifth among Americans for the season. He placed third to make the Olympic team and then landed three clean quads in his Olympic free skate to jump from 12th to sixth.

“I did better there than a lot of people thought I would,” Zhou told NBC Sports research last week. “I knew I was capable of that all season.

“I want to reach my ultimate goal of being Olympic champion, and my best chance is in 2022 … because by 2026 I will probably be old and creaky with four prosthetic limbs.”

Aaron made it to Milan after Olympian Adam Rippon gave up his spot, and the top two alternates (Jason Brown and Ross Miner) both declined. Still, Aaron, the 2013 U.S. champion, is seeded seventh in the men’s field based on top scores this season.

NBC Sports figure skating researcher Sarah Hughes contributed to this report.

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Carolina Kostner the sentimental favorite at figure skating worlds

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Olympic champion Alina Zagitova is without question the favorite at this week’s world figure skating championships, especially after the sprightly Russian’s training partner and rival Yevgenia Medvedeva withdrew because of injury.

She won’t be the sentimental favorite, though.

That would be Carolina Kostner, the ageless Italian star who could be competing at worlds for the last time on home soil. The 2012 champion and six-time world medalist seemed to indicate that retirement could be looming after she finished fifth at the PyeongChang Games, where she was chosen to carry the Italian flag at the Closing Ceremony.

Kostner will have a huge home crowd behind her when the event begins Wednesday in Milan.

“Decisions like that should never be taken in a hot moment. It will come naturally,” said Kostner, who no longer can compete with the sport’s high-fliers when it comes to technical marks, but whose elegant artistry and presentation often make up the difference.

“She is an example of perseverance, of a long-lasting athlete,” Medvedeva said. “I have trouble imagining how someone can stay in that shape for a very long time. When you see people like Carolina, you understand that if she can do something, then that something is possible. If you love what you do, you put all of yourself into it, like Carolina Kostner.”

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When asked about retirement, Kostner brought up her cousin, Isolde Kostner, who won three Olympic Alpine skiing medals before deciding to step away from competition.

“She stopped skiing shortly before the (2006) Olympics in Italy,” Caroline Kostner said. “Many did not understand why she wouldn’t pull through because it was her home country, and she said, ‘You will feel strongly when it is time to stop.’ And I haven’t felt it yet.”

The biggest story at the world championships in an Olympic year tends to be who is missing rather than who shows up. The grind of competing for an entire season builds toward the quadrennial event, and athletes who medal or intend to retire rarely press on to worlds. Then there are the injuries, which accumulate during the year.

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