Michael Phelps

Michael Phelps beaten by Ryan Lochte in first final of comeback

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Michael Phelps looked pretty fast after taking 20 months off from competition, but he’ll need to work a little harder to beat longtime rival Ryan Lochte. 

Phelps took second to Lochte in his first competitive final since the London Olympics, a 100m butterfly at the Arena Grand Prix at Mesa, Ariz., on Thursday night.

Lochte, whose best strokes are freestyle and backstroke, won in 51.93 seconds. The unretired Phelps clocked 52.13 after swimming the fastest time in the preliminary heats earlier Thursday, 52.84, one tenth faster than Lochte.

The first day of Phelps’ comeback is in the books. How does he feel?

“I’m my hardest critic, so I know what I can do there,” Phelps, a 22-time Olympic medalist, said of the 100m butterfly. “But, like I’ve been saying this whole time, I’m having fun. I really do mean that. There’s nothing like being able to come here, swimming in front of packed stands.”

He cherished racing the 11-time Olympic medalist Lochte, whom he battled after the 2008 Olympics and through the 2012 Olympics to be the world’s best swimmer.

“That’s what makes us swim faster and faster each time,” Phelps said.

NBC Olympics analyst Rowdy Gaines said Phelps appeared to have more of a game face on for the night final than he did for the morning prelim. Phelps and Lochte were side by side at night, both in white caps and dark jammer swim trunks.

“I think I was more calm tonight,” Phelps said. “I don’t know if that was a good thing or not.”

Lochte led at the 50m turn and took a peek at Phelps coming off the wall amid a setting sun outside at Skyline Aquatics Center.

“I almost started smiling,” Lochte said.

“Why, because you were ahead?” responded Phelps, standing next to Lochte in the post-race interview.

Lochte, who is coming back from aggravating a major November knee injury in February, said he felt the magnitude of the meet.

“Especially this morning, seeing all these cameras right before I’m about to race,” Lochte said. “I’m like, thanks, Michael.”

Phelps last swam a 100m butterfly at the 2012 Olympics, where he won his third straight gold in the event in 51.21. The fastest time in the world so far this year is 51.84, according to SwimVortex.com. South African Chad le Clos won the 2013 World Championship in 51.06.

Phelps retired after winning six medals at the London Olympics but re-entered the drug testing pool last year, allowing him to enter meets this year.

It was announced he signed up for the Mesa Grand Prix on April 14, and he made his first comments since entering the meet on Wednesday, saying he’s back swimming “for fun” and not yet committing to a run to the Rio Olympics.

Phelps is slated for one more event in Mesa, the 50m freestyle on Friday.

“Two races down,” Phelps said. “See what happens tomorrow.”

In other races, reigning World Swimmer of the Year Katie Ledecky won the 400m freestyle by nearly five seconds in 4:03.84, matching the fastest time in the world this year. That came about 45 minutes after she finished fourth in the 100m free.

“I train everything,” said Ledecky, who is 17 and the reigning world champion in the 400m free. “The speed can help me for all my race, so it’s really beneficial to swim all these events here.”

Olympic champion Nathan Adrian won the 100m freestyle in 48.23. Lochte was fourth in 49.68.

Five-time 2012 Olympic medalist Allison Schmitt won the women’s 100m free in 54.46. Schmitt, who surprisingly failed to make the 2013 World Championships team, edged Megan Romano (55.05), who anchored that worlds team to victories in the 4x100m free relay and medley relay in Barcelona. Twelve-time Olympic medalist Natalie Coughlin was third in 55.14, followed by Ledecky in 55.22.

Jamaican Olympian Alia Atkinson won the women’s 200m breaststroke in 2:25.52, followed by Americans Micah Lawrence (2:26.60) and Breeja Larson (2:28.87). Lawrence and Larson were the U.S. entries in the 200m breast at last year’s World Championships.

Michael McBroom, the 2013 world 800m free silver medalist, won the men’s 400m free in 3:50.87. Olympian Conor Dwyer was second, three seconds behind. Olympic 200m backstroke champion Tyler Clary was third.

2012 Olympian Claire Donahue won the women’s 100m butterfly in 59.05.

Colombian Jorge Murillo Valdes won the men’s 200m breast in 2:14.81.

Lolo Jones sheds weight, returns to track at Drake Relays

Allyson Felix withdraws from Prefontaine Classic

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Allyson Felix withdrew on the eve of the Prefontaine Classic and will miss Saturday’s anticipated 400m showdown with Olympic champion Shaunae Miller-Uibo and world champion Phyllis Francis.

No reason was given by the meet director at a Friday press conference, according to media in Eugene, Ore.

Felix, a nine-time Olympic medalist and 16-time world outdoor championships medalist, was scheduled to race on the top international level for the first time since Aug. 20. She has raced in smaller meets this season, most recently last Friday.

This is the one year in the four-year cycle without an Olympics or world outdoor championships, making the Diamond League, and the Pre Classic in particular, marquee meets.

“In the 19 years that I’ve been running track, I’ve never taken a break,” the 32-year-old Felix said in an Instagram video Thursday after an intense training session but before her name was taken off Saturday’s start list. “Never had a year where I took it easy. … Now that this is kind of a year without a championship, I’ve had to force myself to have a different approach because my goal is 2020. … To be able to be at my best when it counts, I think that means not having as intense of a year as I usually do. Being a competitor and an athlete, that’s something that I struggle with. … This year, that’s what I’m really trying to force myself to do is have quality races, quality over quantity. … So, if you guys don’t see me at as many of the races as I usually run, don’t worry, I’m fine, I’m just challenging myself to be smarter.”

Felix will miss the Pre Classic for the second time in the last nine years. She was absent in 2016 with an ankle injury.

The USATF Outdoor Championships are in one month.

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Will Japan’s Olympic legend return for Tokyo 2020?

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NEW YORK — The Tokyo Olympics are in 790 days. Will Japan’s most dominant Olympian compete?

“She hasn’t decided yet,” a translator said beside wrestler Kaori Icho, who stood in street clothes, some given to her by an American host family, matside at the annual Beat the Streets meet on the edge of the East River on Manhattan last week.

Icho, who turns 34 on June 13, is the only woman to earn an individual gold medal at four Olympics. She has not wrestled in competition since capturing that fourth title in Rio. She has not announced retirement, either.

Icho once held a 13-year winning streak on the mat and owns 10 world championships.

While in New York, Icho did a high school clinic in Brooklyn (one wonders if the students knew they were learning from the greatest of all time), met Olympic and world champion Kyle Snyder (a particular highlight of this trip) and trained with Helen Maroulis before attending the meet as a spectator. In Rio, Maroulis became the first American woman to win an Olympic wrestling title.

Maroulis is familiar with Icho. In 2012, they trained together and drove to a Drake concert in Colorado. They met again in 2014. But last week was different. The most intense training they’ve shared. Their first full practice, said Maroulis, recently cleared from a January concussion.

“I think she’s coming back,” Maroulis said with confidence. Here’s why: “[Icho] busted out the video camera,” Maroulis went on. “Like, hey, can I record practice?

“She feels good. She’s still got it. She’s smaller than she was, obviously, right at the Olympics. She’s amazing. There’s so much to learn from her.”

Icho said through the translator that if she does come back, she would start in the next year rather than leaving it a few months before the Tokyo Games.

She is already the oldest woman to win Olympic wrestling gold (women’s wrestling was added to the Olympic program in 2004, Icho’s first Games). By 2020, she will be older than any men’s wrestling champion since Bulgarian Valentin Yordanov in 1996.

How much a home Olympics influences Icho’s decision is something that she didn’t share. Icho said she might go for a fifth Olympics even if the 2020 Games were not in Japan.

“It’s hard to say,” said Ken Marantz, who has covered sports in Japan for three decades. “She’s kind of a quiet person.”

United World Wrestling shadowed Icho and the more-famous Japanese wrestler Saori Yoshida before the Rio Olympics as both trained to go for their fourth gold medals. The international federation made a 20-minute documentary titled, “The Celebrity and the Samurai.”

Yoshida was the celebrity, her face a constant on TV, Icho the samurai, a zen-like warrior. Yoshida would lose in her Rio Olympic final to Maroulis, one day after Icho won her weight class.

“Kaori, she was always more private and less approachable, not in a bad way,” said William May, who has written about international wrestling for 30 years, including for Kyodo News in Tokyo. “She’s always been kind of a mystery to the Japanese.”

Like when she lived in Canada with her sister for months after the 2008 Olympics, skipping a world championships during her peak years.

“It’s not that I don’t like being on TV, but I don’t like my practice time being taken away or to lose time for myself,” Icho said in the 2016 United World Wrestling film.

Something else to consider is that Japan is the world power in women’s wrestling. It might be more difficult for Icho to earn Japan’s one available Olympic spot in the 58kg division than run through the Olympic bracket of the best from the rest of the world.

Japanese women took gold at the 2017 World Championships in both the 55kg and 60kg divisions. Those two women, both several years younger than Icho, must choose to go for the Olympics in the 53kg, 58kg or 63kg divisions.

Maroulis, who now competes at 58kg, wants to face Icho at the Olympics in what she called “a dream” matchup. The American’s dominance the last three years rivals Icho’s heyday — world titles in 2015 and 2017 without surrendering a point, winning the latter title with a torn thumb ligament, and dethroning Yoshida in Rio in between, all three golds at different weights while compiling a 78-1 record before the concussion.

Icho described her recent practice with Maroulis as “very hard.”

“She doesn’t quit,” Icho said through the translator. “She just keeps coming.”

Icho re-emerged in Japanese headlines in recent months as a tragic figure. A reported history of verbal harassment and threats from a Japanese Wrestling Federation director who resigned.

The biggest Japanese athlete story at the Tokyo Games would be if two-way baseball star Shohei Ohtani suited up, Marantz said. But Ohtani is on a Los Angeles Angels contract until 2024, which would keep him out of the Games unless MLB reverses its stance and releases players for the Olympics.

After that, perhaps Kohei Uchimura, the 2012 and 2016 Olympic all-around champion gymnast expected to compete in fewer events in the last years of his career. (Icho said that if she could pick anybody to light the Olympic cauldron, not including wrestlers, it would be Uchimura.)

Or the Japanese men’s 4x100m relay team that took silver in Rio and bronze at the 2017 Worlds. Or a rising group of table tennis players challenging the rival Chinese.

Swimming, gymnastics and judo are more popular sports in Japan than wrestling, Marantz said. But the nation would be pulling for Icho’s pursuit of individual gold in five Olympics, something no man or woman from any nation in any sport has done.

“Icho does not care one bit for records,” Tim Foley, who followed Icho for the 2016 film and escorted her in New York, said before the Rio Games. 

“Of course [Icho] wants to win, but it’s less important than wrestling a perfect match,” May said. That’s one thing she hasn’t done.

“I think she likes the challenge,” Marantz said. “Any tournaments that I went to that she won, which was all the ones she was in, she never, ever said she wrestled good.”

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