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Allison Schmitt’s comeback has shades of Michael Phelps

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Allison Schmitt, an eight-time Olympic medalist, raced Thursday for the first time since the Rio Games. At the same meet four years ago, Michael Phelps raced for the first time since the London Games.

That’s not the only parallel between the close friends’ comebacks.

“Watching the next Olympics, if I was sitting on the couch and never gave it a shot, I didn’t want that what-if,” Schmitt said after finishing second to Leah Smith in the 200m freestyle at a Pro Series meet in Mesa, Ariz., on Thursday. 

Phelps made the same statement, in some form, time after time in 2014, 2015 and 2016 when asked why he unretired. (Phelps also finished second in his comeback race in Mesa in 2014.)

Schmitt technically never retired. Unlike Phelps, she didn’t sign paperwork to take her name out of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency drug-testing pool after her last Olympics. If she had, Schmitt would have had to wait nine months to return to competition this year.

“I was 26 and off my parents’ health insurance,” she said. “I still needed that USOC health insurance.”

But Schmitt was done swimming. She knew that the winter before Rio as she started counting down the days.

“I remember saying this is my last Dec. 28 practice ever,” she said.

That mindset made Schmitt’s 2016 all the more impressive. After earning five medals at the 2012 Olympics, Schmitt had failed to qualify for the 2013 and 2015 World Championships team.

She then spoke out about her own battle with depression after a 17-year-old cousin committed suicide in May 2015. But by the 2016 Olympic Trials, Schmitt said she was happy and grateful. It showed as she qualified for the relays.

But Bowman said she was “paralyzed by fear” at the time, according to Swimming World on Thursday. Schmitt went to Rio as a team captain, along with Phelps, and earned her seventh and eighth Olympic medals in the freestyle relays.

“She got her medal and went, which was a huge accomplishment considering what she went through in the years before that,” Bowman said, according to Swimming World. “I don’t think she ended up loving swimming.”

Schmitt and Olympic teammate Elizabeth Beisel traveled to Asia and Australia after Rio. Schmitt returned to Arizona to work on her master’s degree to become a licensed social worker, continuing to raise mental health awareness.

While Phelps turned to Peloton to stay in shape, Schmitt tried Orangetheory Fitness to no avail. So she started swimming two or three times a week to lose weight.

“It turned into nine practices a week,” said Schmitt, who trains with the Arizona State team that Bowman coaches.

Phelps teased a Schmitt comeback on Instagram in September. A few weeks later, Schmitt broached it in Bowman’s office.

“I said, if you don’t want me to get back in the water, we never had this talk. I’ll walk out of here. I’ll never get back in the pool,” Schmitt said. “He was like, let’s see what happens.” 

Her 200m freestyle time Thursday — 1:59.57 — is two to three seconds off her results from this same meet in the last Olympic cycle. Expected, given she’s still ramping up training.

“I was surprised,” pleasantly, Schmitt said on USA Swimming’s “Deck Pass Live.” “I know there’s work to be done, but at least we have a starting point now.”

Schmitt came into the meet without a time goal. She’s not committing to a fourth Olympic run, just to the 100m freestyle on Friday (Olympic Channel, 8 p.m. ET). Saturday finals will air on NBCSN at 8.

“The second that I’m not having fun is the time that I retire,” she said, conjuring Phelps’ comments from this same meet four years ago.

One might forget her talent. Schmitt’s winning 200m free time from the 2012 Olympics remains both the American and Olympic records. One mark Katie Ledecky hasn’t eclipsed. Schmitt was the last woman to beat Ledecky in a domestic 200m free more than four years ago.

“No matter what happens in the future, I will be excited that I did give it another chance,” Schmitt said, wearing a T-shirt that read “Every Day Grateful.”

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Female runners with high testosterone face new restriction

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Female runners with high testosterone must reduce those levels or will not be allowed in international races between 400m and the mile, according to an IAAF rule starting Nov. 1.

Olympic 800m champion Caster Semenya, who was gender tested in 2009, is expected to be affected, according to South Africa’s Olympic Committee.

“Our evidence and data show that testosterone, either naturally produced or artificially inserted into the body, provides significant performance advantages in female athletes,” IAAF president Seb Coe said in a press release. “The revised rules are not about cheating, no athlete with a DSD [difference of sexual development] has cheated, they are about leveling the playing field to ensure fair and meaningful competition.”

The IAAF, after funding a study along with the World Anti-Doping Agency, said research showed the following natural testosterone levels:

Most women: .12-1.79 nanomoles per liter in blood
Normal men after puberty: 7.7-29.4 nmol/L

The IAAF rule forces all women who race the 400m through mile and who are androgen-sensitive to restrict their ratio to below five. It said women who have “a difference of sexual development” can have natural testosterone levels beyond the normal male range.

The IAAF and WADA-funded study found that women with high testosterone have up to a 4.5 percent advantage over their competition on the track.

Research showed 7.1 of every 1,000 elite female track and field athletes have elevated testosterone, most of which were runners in events between 400m and the mile.

“The treatment to reduce testosterone levels is a hormone supplement similar to the contraceptive pill taken by millions of women around the world,” an IAAF doctor said in the release. “No athlete will be forced to undergo surgery.”

The IAAF had gender-verification testing in place until 2011, when it was replaced with a test for abnormally high levels of natural testosterone. Under that rule, female athletes with a ratio of 10 nmol/L or higher could only compete against women if they had an operation or took hormones to reduce their testosterone level.

In July 2015, the Court of Arbitration of Sport (CAS) suspended the IAAF’s regulation, ruling that it lacked sufficient scientific backing and was therefore unjustifiably discriminatory.

The gender-testing issue was raised in 2009, when Semenya won the world 800m title by nearly 2.5 seconds at age 18. Word leaked that track officials mandated she undergo sex testing.

Semenya was not cleared to run for 11 months and came back to earn silver at the 2011 Worlds and 2012 Olympics, while the testosterone-limiting rule was in effect, behind Russian Maria Savinova, who has since been stripped of her golds for doping.

Semenya then had a lull in performance after the London Games while the testosterone-limiting rule was still in effect. After CAS suspended the rule in 2015, Semenya peaked again in 2016, going undefeated in 800m races, twice breaking the national record and comfortably winning Olympic gold.

Semenya has never spoken publicly in detail about her situation. It has never been publicly verified that Semenya’s body naturally produces abnormally high levels of testosterone or that she ever took hormone suppressants.

An image with the sentence, “How beautiful it is to stay silent when someone expects you to be enraged,” was posted on Semenya’s social media Wednesday after reports were first published about the new rule.

Her default position is generally to talk only about her running, but she spoke out against her critics in a speech after accepting South Africa’s Sportswoman of the Year in November 2016.

“They say she talks like a man, she walks like a man, she runs like a man,” Semenya said, before finishing off the series with an Afrikaans word that loosely translates to “Get lost.”

South Africa’s Olympic Committee president Gideon Sam said Thursday his organization was “disappointed by the IAAF ruling.”

“Especially given that Caster’s name is again being dragged through the publicity mill,” he said in a press release. “We are concerned that the decisions have been approved without taking into account all factors into consideration, as these factors have not been properly nor fully ventilated. We wish to place on record that Caster Semenya has never engaged in any performance-enhancing activities and any enhanced testosterone levels are due solely to her genetic make-up.”

NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.

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Olympic pairs champions take indefinite break

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Aljona Savchenko, the Olympic pairs champion with Bruno Massot, said they are taking an indefinite break from competition, according to German press agency DPA.

Savchenko and Massot will perform in ice shows next fall and winter, which could preclude them from competing in major events like the Grand Prix season (late October to early December) and the European Championships in January.

The German pair followed their title in PyeongChang with a world title last month, breaking a four-year-old world-record score and winning by the largest margin (20.31 points) in pairs at an Olympics or worlds since the 6.0 system was replaced 14 years ago.

Savchenko, 34 and a five-time Olympian, became the oldest Olympic pairs gold medalist. She then claimed her 11th world medal — tying the female record held by Norwegian singles legend Sonja Henie — and sixth world title — tying Soviet Alexander Zaitsev for second on the all-time pairs list, four behind Irina Rodnina.

The French-born Massot, 29, competed in his first Olympics in PyeongChang and earned his first world title. Savchenko’s previous five world titles came with now-retired Robin Szolkowy.

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