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

Aleksander Aamodt Kilde wins Beaver Creek downhill

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BEAVER CREEK, Colo. — Norway’s Aleksander Aamodt Kilde won his second straight World Cup downhill race to start the season, despite feeling under the weather.

Although dealing with an illness all week in training, Kilde powered through the challenging Birds of Prey course Saturday in a time of 1 minute, 42.09 seconds. It was enough to hold off Marco Odermatt of Switzerland by 0.06 seconds. James Crawford of Canada was third to earn his second career World Cup podium finish.

Kilde also won the opening downhill last weekend in Lake Louise, Alberta.

“It’s been a tough week,” Kilde said after the race. “I caught the flu in Lake Louise after a very, very nice weekend. It really hit me hard. Then I got a couple of days to rest and take it easy. … I felt OK. Still feeling it a little bit in my system.”

The Beaver Creek crew members had the course in solid shape a day after a downhill race was canceled due to high wind and snowfall.

ALPINE SKIING: Results | Broadcast Schedule

Kilde reached speeds around 75 mph in picking up his eighth World Cup downhill victory. That tied him with Kjetil Jansrud for the third-most downhill wins in the World Cup discipline among Norwegian men. The total trails only Aksel Lund Svindal (14) and Lasse Kjus (10).

“I found a really, really good set-up with my equipment and also with my skiing,” Kilde explained. “I believe in myself. I trust in myself. I have a good game plan. When I stand on the start, I don’t dwell on anything. I know that this plan is what I do and when I do that it’s going to be fast.”

Odermatt has been on the podium in all four World Cup races this season as he tries to defend his overall World Cup title. The 25-year-old finished third in the opening downhill of the season last weekend. He’s also won a giant slalom race and a super-G.

Ryan Cochran-Siegle wound up in seventh place for the top American finish. He was ninth in the downhill in Lake Louise.

“It’s been solid,” Cochran-Siegle said of his strides in the discipline. “A couple of little things here and there that pushed me off that top three. You have to ski with a lot of intensity and ski without abandon, in a sense. Today was a good step.”

Switzerland’s Beat Feuz, who won the Olympic downhill gold medal at the Beijing Games last February, tied for ninth.

The Beaver Creek stop on the circuit comes to a close Sunday with a super-G race. Odermatt will be the favorite after holding off Kilde in the opening super-G last weekend.

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Summer McIntosh, Canadian teen swimmer, caps record year with another historic time

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Summer McIntosh swam the fourth-fastest 400m individual medley in history on Friday, capping a year that already included world titles, Commonwealth Games titles and a victory over Katie Ledecky.

McIntosh, a 16-year-old Canadian whose mom swam at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, won the 400m IM in 4 minutes, 28.61 seconds at the U.S. Open in Greensboro, N.C. She prevailed by a Ledecky-like 13.24 seconds, breaking her own national record that was previously the fourth-fastest time in history.

“It’s still pretty early in the season, so I didn’t really know what to expect going into it,” she said on Peacock.

The only two women who ever went faster in the event known as the decathlon of swimming are Olympic gold medalists: Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu (world record 4:26.36 and 4:28.58) and China’s Ye Shiwen (4:28.43).

McIntosh has come a long way in a short time. Three years ago, she put all her eggs in the 1500m freestyle basket, thinking it was her best shot to merely qualify for the Tokyo Games in 2020. The one-year Olympic postponement was a blessing.

The rapidly improving McIntosh swam three individual events in Tokyo with a top finish of fourth in the 400m free, just missing becoming the youngest swimming medalist since 1996. She then told her coach she wanted to become an IMer.

At this past June’s world championships, McIntosh won two of the most grueling events — 400m IM and 200m butterfly — to become the youngest individual world champion since 2011. She also took silver to Ledecky in the 400m free, an event in which she later beat Ledecky in a short-course meet (25-meter pool rather than the 50-meter pool used for the Olympics).

A month after worlds, McIntosh swept the IMs at the Commonwealth Games, where she broke more world junior records and again took second in the 400m free (this time to Olympic champ and world record holder Ariarne Titmus of Australia).

McIntosh, who turned professional last year, now trains full-time in Sarasota, Florida, where she rents a house with her mom, Jill Horstead, who was ninth in the 200m fly at the 1984 Olympics (McIntosh, whose passions include the Kardashians and plants from Target, has seen video of her mom winning the B final at those Games). They’re a three-hour drive down Interstate 75 from Ledecky’s base in Gainesville.

Also Friday, Erin Gemmell celebrated her 18th birthday by nearly becoming the first American to beat Ledecky in a 200m freestyle in nearly nine years. Ledecky won by 42 hundredths of a second in 1:56.74 and said she had an off-day while also praising Gemmell, the daughter of her former coach.

NBC airs U.S. Open highlights on Dec. 10 at 4:30 p.m. ET.

U.S. OPEN SWIMMING: Full Results

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