Missy Franklin

Swimming world championships preview: women’s storylines

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1. Eight events for Missy Franklin. The quadruple 2012 Olympic champion is in line to attempt what Michael Phelps never did — swim three events in one semifinals/finals session at a major international meet.

Franklin, 18, qualified for five individual events at nationals in June — the 50, 100 and 200 back and the 100 and 200 free. Via her wins in the two freestyles, she qualified to swim in all three relays in Barcelona as well.

“It’s definitely a lot,” Franklin said at a press conference in Barcelona on Friday. “But those are some of my favorite races.”

No woman has won more than six medals at a single world championships.

Franklin swam five events at 2011 worlds, her breakout meet, and then did seven at the 2012 Olympics. At neither of those competitions did she swim three events in one night.

Here, the schedule on Aug. 1 calls for the 100 free semis, 50 back final and the 4×200 free relay final from noon to 2:10 p.m. ET. FINA’s site has the 100 free semis listed first and the relay listed last in its order of events, with the 50 back separated from the relay by only the men’s 200 back semis.

Could Franklin podium in every event and join Phelps in the eight-for-eight club? Undoubtedly. She’s ranked second in the world this year in both the 100 and 200 free, two events she failed to medal in at London. She leads the world in both the 100 and 200 back, her specialty stroke.

That leaves the 50 back, a non-Olympic event, that could give her problems. Fifty-meter swims are always tough to predict because the eight finalists should finish within one second of each other. Franklin is ranked ninth in the world in the 50 back, but she’s only three tenths of a second out of third. She could very well medal — as she did in 2011, taking bronze — or she may not make the final.

Then there are the three relays. The U.S. should podium in each one, as it did at 2011 worlds and the 2012 Olympics, with Franklin playing key roles on all three.

source: Getty Images2. The return of Ye Shiwen. You may remember Ye from the 2012 Olympics, where she swept the individual medleys at 16 years old. She even swam the final 50 meters of the 400 IM faster than men’s champion Ryan Lochte, completing a world record that prompted heavy scrutiny.

Ye enters these championships with the second-best time in the world this year in both events, but it’s hard not to deem her the favorite given her dominating performances in London.

In the 200 IM, she trails Australian Alicia Coutts, who won silver behind Ye in London. Brit Hannah Miley (fifth in London) has the fastest time in the 400 IM. Americans Caitlin Leverenz (200 IM) and Maya DiRado (400 IM) and Elizabeth Beisel (200, 400 IM) are also medal threats.

Ye’s also a dark horse in the 200 back. She’s the Chinese national champion in the event and ranked ninth in the world this year. How exciting would it be to see Ye and Franklin in close proximity on the final 50 in that final?

3. Natalie Coughlin like we’ve never seen her. Coughlin, 30, is the most decorated female world championships swimmer of all time with 18 medals. After skipping the 2009 worlds during a post-Beijing break, she came back in 2011 to win three medals — gold in the medley relay, silver in the 4×100 free relay and bronze in the 100 back.

Coughlin failed to make the 2012 Olympic team in an individual event, taking third at trials in the 100 back, but still won her 12th career Olympic medal as a preliminary swimmer on the 4×100 free relay team.

She’s taking a different mindset after her third Olympics, choosing to focus on the splash-and-dash 50 free. It’s a wise move given the rising U.S. depth in the 100 back and a shallow pool of talent in the short sprint. She won the 50 free at trials in June and qualified for the 4×100 free relay again.

She should win worlds medal No. 19 on that relay, but a podium placement in the 50 free will be difficult. She’s ranked No. 11 in the world this year in the event, more than a half-second behind favorites Australian Cate Campbell and Olympic champion Ranomi Kromowidjojo.

4. Is Dana Vollmer still lord of the fly? The American was unstoppable in the 100 butterfly in London, breaking the Olympic record in the prelims, going a half-second faster than everyone in the semis and then dipping under the world record in the final, which she won by nearly a second.

A new year has brought new competition. Vollmer won nationals in 57.53, good for No. 3 in the world. The Australian Coutts, who took Olympic bronze, just might be the favorite with her world-leading 57.18. Another American, Claire Donahue, actually led Vollmer off the turn at trials.

No woman has ever won the world title in the 100 fly a year after winning the Olympic title. It looks like Vollmer has her work cut out for her to make that history.

5. Which nation is No. 1? The U.S. women broke away from rivals Australia and China at the last world championships and Olympics following the post-Beijing lull.

Here’s the breakdown:

2008 Beijing: 1. U.S. (15). 2 Australia (14). 3. China (5).
2009 Rome: 1. Australia (11). 2. U.S. (8). 3. China (7).
2011 Shanghai: 1. U.S. (15). 2. China (9). 3. Australia (8).
2012 London: 1. U.S. (14). 2. Australia (7). 3. China (6).

Can the Americans keep the momentum they’ve built, or will the post-Olympics worlds again see other nations catch up and perhaps pass them?

I still see the U.S. leading the medal count, but Australia should be closer than in 2011 or 2012. The Aussies — both men and women — put up times to start this year that look like the whole nation is on a mission after a forgettable Olympics. (though Aussie early-year times are strong given the change in seasons)

Australia arguably has the world’s best sprint freestyler (Campbell) and butterflier (Coutts) as well as medal threats in the middle-distance freestyles (Bronte Barratt) and the backstroke (Emily Seebohm). 

In the relays, the Aussies could be called favorites in the 4×100 and 4×200 free. The Campbell sisters (Cate and Bronte) are a one-two punch no other nation can match in the 4×100. Australia is even more dominant in the 4×200 with four of the top 10 swimmers in the world this year.

The U.S. still owns the medley relay, however, given Australia hasn’t found a strong replacement for Leisel Jones in the breaststroke.

FINA approves mixed-gender relays; which nations would win?

Major League Baseball sponsors U.S. Olympic softball team

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NEW YORK (AP) — Major League Baseball is using its financial muscle to support the U.S. women’s softball team, which already is assured a spot in the Tokyo Olympics while the American men’s baseball team struggles to qualify.

MLB announced an agreement Thursday to become presenting sponsor of the women’s “Stand Beside Her” tour, a slate of exhibition games leading up to the Olympic tournament from July 22-28.

“We’re both bat and ball sports. Even though we’re not the same sport, there are so many similarities that you just can’t ignore,” said Kim Ng, MLB’s senior vice president for baseball operations. “It was important for us to make sure that they have this acknowledgment and recognition of their ability and their talent.”

Softball began as an Olympic sport for the 1996 Atlanta Games. The U.S. won gold medals in 1996, 2000 and 2004 with players that included Dot Richardson, Jennie Finch and Jessica Mendoza, then lost to Japan in the 2008 gold-medal game.

Baseball and softball were dropped for the next two Olympics, then restored for this year, when the U.S. and Japan will be joined by Australia, Canada, Italy and Mexico for games in Fukushima and Yokohama but not Tokyo. The sports are likely to be dropped for 2024 in Paris but could return four years later in Los Angeles.

The U.S. men’s baseball team stumbled in its first attempt to qualify, wasting a ninth-inning lead against Mexico in the final game of the Premier12 tournament in November and losing in the 10th. The U.S. has two more chances to join Israel, Japan, Mexico and South Korea in the Olympic field: an Americas tournament in Arizona from March 22-26 and a final tournament in Taiwan from April 1-5.

MLB is not allowing players on 40-man big league rosters to compete in qualifying, and few top pitching prospects were at the November tournament.

Softball has no such issues. The Olympics are the sport’s highest-profile event.

“The platform for us is 10 times bigger,” American outfielder Haylie McCleney said. “For us, it’s a great opportunity for people that have never watched softball before, people that have only followed it at the collegiate level, to really see how fun our game is to watch, how pure it is. If people are baseball fans, I guarantee they’re going to love softball because it’s pretty much just a faster game – it’s shorter, it’s quicker, it’s more entertaining to watch, in my opinion.”

The 2008 gold-medal softball game took 1 hours, 45 minutes — less than half the 3:45 average for this year’s World Series.

As part of the deal with MLB, the softball team’s official training facility will be at the Jackie Robinson Training Complex in Vero Beach, Florida, the old Dodgertown spring training camp.

MLB Network will include programming from the tour, which currently starts Feb. 4 in Tampa and has about three dozen stops.

The U.S. women’s soccer team has attracted huge television audiences. MLB sees softball as an opportunity for the sport’s growth.

“These are world-class athletes,” Ng said. “Because we have not been in the Olympics for the last 12 years, they just haven’t had that stage. So it’s really important at this point that we show as much support as we can for them.”

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MORE: U.S. athletes qualified for Tokyo Olympics

Rafael Nadal advances at Australian Open; American back on Slam stage

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Rafael Nadal joined Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open third round, sweeping Argentine Federico Delbonis 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-1 on Thursday.

Nadal, whose lone Australian Open title came in 2009, gets countryman Pablo Carreno Busta in Saturday’s third round. He could face No. 23 Nick Kyrgios of Australia in round four, but neither Federer nor Djokovic until the final.

No. 4 Daniil Medvedeva and No. 2 Karolina Pliskova and No. 4 Simona Halep were also winners Thursday. Friday’s third-round action is headlined by defending champion Naomi Osaka facing 15-year-old U.S. phenom Coco Gauff.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women

The only top-20 seed to lose Thursday was No. 20 Karolina Muchova of the Czech Republic. American CiCi Bellis bounced her 6-4, 6-4.

This was a big deal for Bellis: Two full years and four right arm operations have come and gone since she was last healthy enough to participate in a Grand Slam tournament.

Bellis was something of a teen prodigy. In her very first tour-level match, at age 15 at the 2014 U.S. Open, she stunned 12th-seeded Dominika Cibulkova, an Australian Open runner-up, to become the youngest American to win a match at Flushing Meadows in 28 years.

She reached No. 35 in the rankings at 17, when she won WTA Newcomer of the Year honors.

Then came the series of health problems, including for torn tendons in her wrist, to shorten a bone in her arm and for bone spurs in her elbow. All the time away from the tour has her at No. 600 in the rankings currently, but she was able to get into the draw in Australia via the protected ranking rule.

In other action, U.S. Open runner-up Medvedev  found himself seated in the nosebleed section at Margaret Court Arena, even though he was playing his second-round match there.

That’s because the No. 4-seeded Russian found himself dealing with something he said happens to him a couple of times each year: a nosebleed.

Medvedev blotted his nose with a towel and then was treated by a trainer while his 7-5, 6-1, 6-3 over Spanish qualifier Pedro Martinez was delayed for more than five minutes late in the second set.

“Can happen to me sometimes. Doesn’t usually happen during the match, so I had to stop (playing). Usually takes like four minutes — three, four minutes. … But it’s nothing,” Medvedev said.

MORE: Another top U.S. tennis player cools on Olympics

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