Five takeaways from Mesa Grand Prix

Michael Phelps
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The most anticipated swim meet of 2014 (so far) is in the books, the fourth of six USA Swimming Grand Prix events leading up to the National Championships in Irvine, Calif., and the Pan Pacific Championships in Australia, both in August.

Michael Phelps and Co. next head to Charlotte, N.C., from May 15-18. Before looking ahead, here are five takeaways from the Arena Grand Prix at Mesa, Ariz.:

1. Michael Phelps looked great, but it was only a glimpse. Phelps initially entered three events in Mesa, his first meet since the 2012 Olympics, swam two and made the finals in one. The attention put on his comeback was great for the sport — a Brazilian media outlet even showed for his pre-meet press conference — but there wasn’t too much to analyze.

Phelps was the top qualifier into the finals of the 100m butterfly, an event he won at the last three Olympics. He was faster in those preliminaries than Ryan Lochte, the world’s best all-around swimmer. Phelps then took second to Lochte in the final, by a mere two tenths of a second.

Headlines said Phelps challenged Lochte in his first meet in 20 months, but truth be told Lochte suffered major knee injuries in November, and he came back too quickly in February. It’s also April, still early in the season. Times and results are less vital now than closer to the National Championships and Pan Pacific Championships.

But, this is all we have to go on with Phelps, so let’s look at the time. He clocked 52.13 seconds, which would have placed fourth at the 2013 U.S. Championships, where the top two made the World Championships team. Lochte was second at last year’s nationals, in 51.73.

Phelps, for whatever form he was in last week, must shave about a half-second off his 100m butterfly to feel confident of a top-two finish at nationals in Irvine, Calif., in August. That’s certainly doable. Who knows if Lochte will swim the 100m butterfly in four months, as it has usually not been on his program for major international meets.

RELATED: What’s next for Phelps

2. Katie Ledecky a sprinter? The 17-year-old high school junior is renowned for her distance dominance. She’s the Olympic and world champion in the 800m freestyle and world champion in the 400m and 1500m events, too.

She was peerless in those three at the 2013 World Championships, winning all of them by at least two seconds. That’s why it was intriguing to see Ledecky swim not only the 200m freestyle but also the 100m freestyle in Mesa.

Ledecky actually swam the 200m free at last year’s U.S. Championships, taking second to Missy Franklin, and dropped it from her program at the World Championships. Ledecky did lead off the U.S. 4x200m free relay at worlds in 1:56.32, the fourth fastest in the 32-swimmer field (impressive for a leadoff leg, which is typically slower), and a time that would have placed fourth in the individual 200m free in Barcelona. (Franklin won in 1:54.81)

In Mesa, Ledecky won the 200m free in 1:56.27, a personal best. Any personal best in the month of April is fantastic, given the plan is to peak in the summer. She beat the Olympic 200m free champion, Allison Schmitt, though Franklin was not in the field.

There is little doubt Ledecky is one of the top two U.S. swimmers in the 200m freestyle. It’s just a matter of if she wants to add it to her busy program at a major international meet. The 200m free came the day after the 1500m free final at last year’s World Championships, but the grueling 1500m is not an Olympic event.

Then there’s the 100m free. Ledecky clocked 55.22 for fourth in Mesa, which would have placed 13th at last year’s U.S. Championships. She doesn’t swim the 100m free often, but it’s interesting to note she clocked 56.00 at last year’s Mesa Grand Prix. She’ll continue to improve there if she focuses on it.

It’s said that the distance freestyles are young women’s events. Britain’s Rebecca Adlington won the 2008 Olympic 800m free at age 19, dropped to bronze four years later and is now retired at age 25.

The shorter freestyles offer Ledecky more short-term challenges and long-term viability, but there’s no reason to give up the distance events (yet) after seeing her beat the World Championships silver medalist in the 800m free by nearly 13 seconds in Mesa.

source: AP
Can Ryan Lochte regain the title of World Swimmer of the Year in 2014? (AP)

3. Give Ryan Lochte some time. We’re not six months removed from Lochte’s fan run-in that yielded a torn MCL and sprained ACL. He said the knee hurt after coming back too early in February. Here’s Lochte’s scorecard from Mesa:

100m freestyle: Fourth, 49.68
200m freestyle: First, 1:49.48
100m butterfly: First, 51.93
100m backstroke: Fourth, 56.58 (prelims)
200m backstroke: Fifth, 2:02.54 (prelims)
200m individual medley: Fourth, 2:06.91 (prelims)

Lochte scratched out of the finals of the latter three, including both of his finals on the final day Saturday, due to a leg issue in warm-ups. His coach, David Marsh, said it was a precautionary move and Lochte wasn’t expected to miss training time.

Those results for Lochte would have been satisfactory for an April meet even if he wasn’t coming off the knee injury — two wins, a fourth in a strong 100m free field and three prelim times that safely advanced him to A finals.

Lochte, who is one year older than Phelps, should only get stronger as spring turns to summer. A key in upcoming meets will be his ability, at 29, to turn in the kind of loaded schedules we’re accustomed to seeing after not finishing things off in Mesa.

4. Katie Hoff’s comeback also looks strong. The three-time 2008 Olympic medalist took about a year off from competition after missing the 2012 Olympic Team.

Hoff is a three-time Olympian, but she’s only 24 years old and has the talent to be among the world’s best all-around swimmers. That was evident at her most competitive meet since her break. Hoff built up as the meet went on, going from 10th in the 100m free to fifth in the 100m butterfly to third in the 200m free to winning the 200m individual medley on Saturday.

The 200m IM was key. Hoff won by nearly two seconds over a field that included the top U.S. women at last summer’s nationals, Caitlin Leverenz and Elizabeth Beisel. She’s gone from full-time student in Miami back to top-ranked American in an all-around event in less than a year. Not too bad.

RELATED: Hoff’s victory the highlight of Saturday’s races

5. Give Michael Andrew time, too. The 15-year-old phenom of national age group swimming finished eighth in the 100m backstroke, 12th in the 50m free, 18th in the 100m butterfly, 19th in the 100m breaststroke, 26th in the 100m free, 43rd in the 200m free and 14th in the 200m individual medley prelims.

The times and results aren’t as important as the stat that Andrew wasn’t beaten by anybody at his age or younger in six of his seven events.

Really, the highlight of the meet for Andrew may have been chatting with Phelps, to whom he’s often been compared. Keep in mind that Phelps made an Olympic final at age 15. Andrew has plenty of promise, but he’s getting his feet wet in long-course meters competition, a significance noted by Phelps last week.

Andrew’s goal is to make junior national teams this summer. Mesa was a solid meet from which to build.

RELATED: The other Michael in the spotlight in Mesa

Mikaela Shiffrin finishes World Cup with one more win, two more records and a revelation

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Mikaela Shiffrin finished a season defined by records with two more.

Shiffrin won the World Cup Finals giant slalom on the final day of the campaign, breaking her ties for the most career women’s giant slalom wins and most career podiums across all women’s World Cup races.

Shiffrin earned her record-extending 88th career World Cup victory, prevailing by six hundredths over Thea Louise Stjernesund of Norway combining times from two runs in Andorra on Sunday.

ALPINE SKIING WORLD CUP: Full Results

She won her 21st career GS, breaking her tie for the most all-time on the women’s World Cup with Vreni Schneider, a Swiss star of the 1980s and ’90s.

She made her 138th career World Cup podium across all events, breaking her tie for the most all-time on the women’s World Cup with Lindsey Vonn. Shiffrin earned her 138th podium in her 249th start, meaning she has finished in the top three in 55 percent of her World Cup races dating to her debut at age 15 in 2011.

Earlier this season, Shiffrin passed Vonn and then Ingemar Stenmark, a Swede of the 1970s and ’80s, for the most career Alpine skiing World Cup victories. She won 14 times from November through March, her second-best season after her record 17-win campaign of 2018-19.

In those years in between, Shiffrin endured the most difficult times of her life, was supplanted as the world’s top slalom skier and questioned her skiing like never before.

On Saturday afternoon, Shiffrin was asked what made the difference this fall and winter. There were multiple factors. She detailed one important one.

“I had a lot of problems with my memory,” she said in a press conference. “Not this season, so much, but last season and the season before that. I couldn’t remember courses. And when I was kind of going through this, I couldn’t keep mental energy for the second runs.”

Pre-race course inspection and the ability to retain that knowledge for a minute-long run over an hour later is integral to success in ski racing. Shiffrin is so meticulous and methodical in her training, historically prioritizing it over racing in her junior days, that inspection would seem to fit into her all-world preparation.

She didn’t understand how she lost that ability until she began working with a new sports psychologist last summer.

“That was a little bit like less focus on sports psychology and more focus on, like, psychology psychology and a little bit more grief counseling style,” she said. “Explaining what was actually going on in my brain, like chemical changes in the brain because of trauma. Not just grief, but actually the traumatic experience itself of knowing what happened to my dad, seeing him in the hospital, touching him after he was dead. Those are things that you can’t get out of your head. It had an impact. Clearly, it still does.”

Shiffrin had a “weird a-ha moment” after her first course inspection this season in November in Finland.

“I didn’t take that long to inspect, and I remembered the whole course,” she said. “Oh my gosh, I was like coming out of a cloud that I had been in for over two years.”

What followed was a win, of course, and a season that approached Shiffrin’s unrivaled 2018-19. Fourteen wins in 31 World Cup starts, her busiest season ever, and bagging the season titles in the overall, slalom and GS in runaways.

“After last season, I didn’t feel like I could get to a level with my skiing again where it was actually contending for the slalom globe,” she said. “And GS, I actually had a little bit more hope for, but then at the beginning of the season, I kind of counted myself out.

“I feel like my highest level of skiing has been higher than the previous couple of seasons, maybe higher than my whole career. My average level of skiing has been also higher than previous seasons, and my lowest level of skiing has also been higher.”

There are other reasons for the revival of dominance, though Shiffrin was also the world’s best skier last season (Olympics aside). She went out of her way on Saturday afternoon to credit her head coach of seven years, Mike Day, who left the team during the world championships after he was told he would not be retained for next season.

“He is as much a part of the success this entire season as he’s ever been,” said Shiffrin, who parted with Day to bring aboard Karin Harjo, the first woman to be her head coach as a pro.

Shiffrin’s greatest success this season began around the time she watched a a mid-December chairlift interview between retired Liechtenstein skier Tina Weirather and Italian Sofia Goggia, the world’s top downhiller. Goggia spoke about her disdain for mediocrity.

“Ever since then, pretty much every time I put on my skis, I’m like, ‘OK, don’t be mediocre today,’” Shiffrin said in January.

During the highest highs of this season, Shiffrin felt like she did in 2018-19.

“It is mind-boggling to me to be in a position again where I got to feel that kind of momentum through a season because after that [2018-19] season, I was like, this is never going to happen again, and my best days of my career are really behind me, which it was kind of sad to feel that at this point four years ago,” said Shiffrin, who turned 28 years old last week. “This season, if anything, it just proved that, take 17 wins [from 2018-19] aside or the records or all those things, it’s still possible to feel that kind of momentum.”

After one last victory Sunday, Shiffrin sat in the winner’s chair with another crystal globe and took questions from an interviewer. It was her boyfriend, Norwegian Alpine skier Aleksander Aamodt Kilde.

“Excited to come back and do it again next year,” she replied to one question.

“Yeah,” he wittily replied. “You will.”

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Mikaela Shiffrin ties Lindsey Vonn record at World Cup Finals

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Mikaela Shiffrin tied Lindsey Vonn‘s female record with her 137th career Alpine skiing World Cup podium, taking third place in the slalom at the World Cup Finals in Andorra on Saturday.

Shiffrin, racing for the second time since breaking Ingemar Stenmark‘s career Alpine World Cup wins record last Saturday, finished 86 hundredths behind Olympic champion Petra Vlhova of Slovakia, combining times from two runs.

Shiffrin was fourth after the first run. The top two after the first run stayed in that order after the second run — Vlhova, followed by first-time podium finisher Leona Popovic (the best World Cup finish for a Croatian woman in 16 years).

“Every single race I feel the weight of having to be one of the best in the world no matter what the day is, which is actually quite a privilege, but some days it’s quite heavy,” Shiffrin said, according to the International Ski Federation (FIS). “But today it didn’t feel heavy. It just felt like a really good opportunity.”

Six of the 22 skiers skied out of the second run on soft snow.

In Shiffrin’s previous race at the season-ending Finals, she was 14th in Thursday’s super-G, which is not one of her primary events.

ALPINE SKIING: Full Results | Broadcast Schedule

Shiffrin earned her 137th podium in her 248th start, meaning she has finished in the top three in 55 percent of her World Cup races dating to her debut at age 15 in 2011.

The only men with more Alpine World Cup podiums are the Swede Stenmark (155) and Austrian Marcel Hirscher (138).

Shiffrin’s first chance to break her tie with Vonn comes in Sunday’s giant slalom, the last race of the season, live on Peacock.

Shiffrin, who broke Vonn’s female career wins record of 82 in January, clinched season titles in the overall, GS and slalom before the Finals.

Also Saturday, Swiss Marco Odermatt won the men’s giant slalom by 2.11 seconds — the largest margin of victory in any men’s World Cup race in four years — for his 13th World Cup victory this season, tying the men’s single-season record.

He also reached 2,042 points for the season, breaking Austrian Hermann Maier‘s men’s record of 2,000 points in one season from 1999-2000.

Slovenian Tina Maze holds the overall record of 2,414 points from 2012-13.

“We partied hard on Thursday,” after winning the World Cup Finals super-G, Odermatt said, according to FIS. “Today wasn’t easy because of those damn 2,000 points. I really wanted the podium today. So, another victory, two seconds ahead, I don’t know what to say.”

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