Michael Phelps

Five takeaways from Mesa Grand Prix

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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

Punahou, Barack Obama’s school, produced Olympic talent in 4 sports

Punahou School
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Some high schools have a swimming tradition. Others produce great ice hockey or water polo players. The Punahou School in Honolulu, private and K-12, is best known for a student who also played basketball — its most famous graduate, Barack Obama.

Also this: Dating to Obama’s tenure in 1976, at least one Punahou student went on to make the last 11 U.S. Summer Olympic teams.

And with the addition of skateboarding and surfing to the Olympic program, there are former Punahou students among the best in the country in four different Olympic sports, plus another Paralympic sport.

“One of my favorite things about going to Punahou was that I felt like I was surrounded by a lot of excellence,” said Carissa Moore, the reigning world champion in surfing and a Punahou grad. “A lot of my friends are some of the smartest girls, women. … The whole school, everyone is doing something.”

Moore, 27, qualified for the U.S. Olympic team with her fourth world title last year. Heimana Reynolds is the reigning world champ in park skateboarding.

Brothers Taylor and Trevor Crabb are on different beach volleyball teams ranked among the top three in the country. Erik Shoji is a veteran libero and Micah Ma’a a promising setter and outside hitter for the U.S. indoor volleyball team.

Shelby Baron is a Rio Paralympic wheelchair tennis player who is now ranked third in the country.

It’s possible that they could all qualify for the Tokyo Games, which have been postponed to summer 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Punahou, whose name means “the New Spring,” referencing renewal and a spring at the center of the campus, bills itself as the largest single-campus independent school in the U.S. and reportedly the oldest west of the Mississippi.

It was founded in 1841 with a first class of 15 students who were children of congregational missionaries. Now, it has more than 3,700. Annual tuition is $26,000, though there are financial aid options.

“This used to be an elite school, you know. Mostly rich. Predominantly Caucasian,” said Eric Kusunoki, who was Obama’s homeroom teacher for four years as part of his four decades working at Punahou. “But then when I stepped foot here, I said, wow, you know, it’s so diverse. Hawaii’s golden people, you know.

“It’s [a] very cosmopolitan campus and very reflective of what Hawaii is like.”

The school has been compared to Stanford. Sports Illustrated ranked it the No. 1 high school athletic program in 2008, replete with an eight-page magazine spread, and again in 2009. The magazine deemed it a “76-acre citadel of academic and athletic excellence where Aristotle meets Duke Kahanamoku.”

Kahanamoku, the Olympic swimming champion and surfing pioneer, never attended Punahou.

But several famous athletes are among the alumni. Like Michelle Wie, Manti Te’o and Obama, who played one season of varsity basketball on the Buff n’ Blue’s 1979 state title team.

In fact, Obama wrote in his autobiography that the lure of Punahou helped keep him in the States with his grandparents rather than flying back to Indonesia with his mom.

Obama, needing a financial aid scholarship to attend, toured the campus with his grandfather before the fifth grade. “Gramps grabbed me by the arm. ‘Hell, Bar,’ he whispered, ‘this isn’t a school. This is heaven,’” Obama wrote.

“He wasn’t a big standout,” Kusunoki said of the student they called Barry. “But yet everybody knew him. He was well-liked, well-known, but he did it real subtly.”

Others followed Obama with athletic success. Reynolds was a skateboard prodigy, profiled by the local NBC affiliate as a 10-year-old before leaving Punahou after 10th grade. He switched to online classes to accommodate all his traveling for competition.

Skateboarding and surfing are not sanctioned high school sports in Hawaii. Moore still won a record 11 National Scholastic Surfing Association titles. In her spare time, she was such a convincing tour guide for prospective Punahou students that admissions officers called her “The Closer,” according to SI.

“I have heard this,” Moore said, smiling when told the nickname. “It wasn’t really ever a big thing for me, but yes, I would bring potential prospects that would come to the school and stuff and give them tours.

“It’s just a beautiful environment to learn. It’s a very comfortable, free environment. The best part of this community is they’re going to support you in chasing your dreams.”

Moore said she was classmates with Taylor Crabb, one half of the U.S.’ top-ranked men’s beach volleyball team. Taylor’s mom, Paula, a champion canoe racer, has been a Punahou P.E. teacher since Obama was there. Taylor and partner Jake Gibb have been competing against Taylor’s older brother, Trevor, and Tri Bourne for Olympic beach volleyball berths.

It’s possible both Crabb brothers, who grew up a five-minute walk from the Punahou campus, can make it to Tokyo.

“Whenever someone says, oh, I went to Punahou, the first thing someone says is, oh, it’s where Barack Obama went,” said Trevor, who won a state basketball title and goes back to campus about once a year to see the old gym.

Shoji’s father, Dave, was the University of Hawaii’s women’s volleyball coach for 42 years, capturing four national titles and retiring in 2017 as the winningest coach in NCAA history. Ma’a won four state titles in volleyball at Punahou and others in football and basketball. At 22 and fresh out of UCLA, he was the second-youngest U.S. player at the 2019 Volleyball Nations League.

Both Trevor Crabb and Moore said you wouldn’t know it by walking around campus that Obama once roamed the grounds. He contributed to just one of a reported 505 state championships in the school’s history, a record for any state.

“There’s nothing up there yet,” of the 44th U.S. President, Moore said, “but it’s definitely something the school is very proud of.”

MORE: Hockey field to hospital ward: Olympian’s life amid coronavirus pandemic

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IOC, sport federations in talks about Tokyo Olympic age rules

Gabriel Jesus
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The International Olympic Committee and Olympic sport federations hope to finalize any adjustments to age rules for the Tokyo Games within the next two weeks.

Two sports’ rules stand out in particular.

Since the 2000 Sydney Games, an age minimum in artistic gymnastics requires female Olympians to turn 16 years old or older in the Olympic year (men must turn 18, though the age rule is less of a factor for top male gymnasts). As such, Tokyo Olympic eligibility rules state all female artistic gymnasts must be born Dec. 31, 2004, or earlier.

The International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) can choose to keep the Dec. 31, 2004, deadline. Or it could keep the 16 or older mandate by moving that date to Dec. 31, 2005 for the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. The federation hasn’t announced its plan.

Its decision could impact U.S. Olympic women’s gymnastics team selection. At least one woman who turned 16 or younger in the Olympic year made the last 10 U.S. Olympic teams. That includes Kyla Ross, the 2011 U.S. junior all-around silver medalist who made the 2012 Olympic team. And Laurie Hernandez, the 2015 U.S. junior all-around champion who made the 2016 Olympic team.

The 2019 U.S. junior all-around champion, Kayla DiCello, turned 16 on Jan. 25. The 2019 U.S. junior all-around silver medalist, Konnor McClain, turns 16 on Feb. 1, 2021. Under the 2020 Olympic eligibility rules, McClain is 32 days too young for the Tokyo Games. If the birthdate deadline is moved one year forward, McClain would be eligible.

Another sport facing an age decision: men’s soccer. Olympic men’s soccer tournaments are limited to players who turn 23 or younger in the Olympic year with three over-age exceptions. Similar to the FIG, FIFA can keep its 2020 deadline of Jan. 1, 1997. Or it can keep its under-23 mandate and move the birthdate deadline to Jan. 1, 1998.

Fourteen of the 16 men’s soccer teams already qualified for the Games using players from under-23 national teams. The last two spots are to be filled by CONCACAF nations, potentially the U.S. qualifying a men’s team for the first time since 2008.

“You can imagine there’s a logic to looking at that, having the same athletes or teams that achieved the qualification place to be the ones taking part next year, but aiming to confirm that with the respective federations,” IOC sports director Kit McConnell said Thursday.

The U.S.’ biggest star, Christian Pulisic, was born Sept. 18, 1998, and thus will be unaffected. Same goes for French superstar Kylian Mbappe, born Dec. 20, 1998.

Brazilian forward Gabriel Jesus was born April 3, 1997, and would become an over-age exception if the birthdate rule is moved to Jan. 1, 1998.

However, players need permission from their professional club teams to play in the Olympics, often limiting the availability of stars.

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