Two years to Rio Olympics: Swimming storylines

Michael Phelps
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Michael Phelps, who won six medals in London to become the most decorated Olympian ever, swore he would never swim again. Less than a year later, there were whispers. He faced comeback speculation while attending the 2013 World Championships as a spectator, even from FINA’s president.

Finally, on Oct. 18, the reports started coming: Phelps was training again. He re-entered the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency drug-testing pool, clearing the way for a return to the sport. He raced for the first time in 20 months at a meet in April and has competed every month since, getting closer to that 2012 form.

Phelps is entered in four individual events at this week’s U.S. Championships in Irvine, Calif. He has not committed to competing through the Rio Olympics, and it appears he won’t swim as many events as he did in 2004 (eight), 2008 (eight) or 2012 (seven).

Ryan Lochte entered London 2012 as the world’s best swimmer but won fewer medals than Phelps at the Games. With Phelps’ retirement, Lochte had the mantle to himself again.

He won four medals at the 2013 World Championships, his fewest at a Worlds since 2005, and then suffered major knee injuries when a fan ran into him in early November.

Lochte came back too early, missed more meets and returned in July and was beaten by Phelps in all three of their races. He arguably has more to prove than Phelps going forward, beginning with the U.S. Championships this week.

Two years out: Rio’s readiness | Storylines: Swimming | Track and Field | Gymnastics | More Sports

Missy Franklin‘s rise continued after she won five medals (four gold) as a 17-year-old at London 2012. In 2013, Franklin finished high school and then became the first woman to win six gold medals at a single World Championships.

This year, Franklin won an NCAA title at California and is again among the fastest freestylers and backstrokers in the U.S., despite a late start to the Grand Prix season due to classes.

Katie Ledecky, a rising high school senior, has been the most impressive swimmer this year, two years after winning Olympic 800m free gold at age 15. She was arguably more impressive than Franklin last year, too, winning the female World Swimmer of the Year, USOC Sportswoman of the Year and USA Swimming’s female Athlete of the Year.

A Stanford commit, Ledecky broke two distance freestyle world records in June. She’s lining up to potentially swim four events in Rio, including, perhaps, a 200m free showdown with Franklin. U.S. women’s swimmers haven’t gone one-two at an Olympics or World Championships since 2000.

Around the world, China’s mercurial Sun Yang remains the dominant distance force. James Magnussen, the poster boy for Australia’s 2012 Olympic shortcomings, has rebounded to lead a resurgent contingent. Many eyes in Rio de Janeiro are on Cesar Cielo, the 2008 Olympic and 2013 World champion in the 50m free.

The world’s best female all-around swimmer is Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu, the reigning World champion in both individual medleys. The U.S. women beat Australia in all three relays at 2013 Worlds, but the Aussies just broke the 4x100m world record, led by superstar Cate Campbell.

Major swimming events before Rio 2016:

2014 U.S. Championships — Wednesday-Sunday, Irvine, Calif.
2014 Pan Pacific Championships — Aug. 21-24, Gold Coast, Australia
2015 World Championships — July/August, Kazan, Russia
2016 U.S. Olympic Trials — Omaha, Neb.

Injured Ilia Malinin wins Grand Prix Finland, qualifies for Grand Prix Final

Ilia Malinin
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Ilia Malinin, competing “a little bit injured” this week, still won Grand Prix Finland and goes into the Grand Prix Final in two weeks as the world’s top-ranked male singles skater.

Malinin, who was second after Friday’s short program, landed four clean quadruple jumps in Saturday’s free skate to overtake Frenchman Kevin Aymoz.

Malinin, who landed a quad flip in competition for the first time, according to SkatingScores.com, also attempted a quad Axel to open his program, but spun out of the landing and put his hand down on the ice.

Malinin also won his previous two starts this season in come-from-behind fashion. The 17-year-old world junior champion became the first skater to land a clean, fully rotated quad Axel in September, then did it again in October at Skate America, where he posted the world’s top overall score this season.

Next, Malinin can become the second-youngest man to win the Grand Prix Final after Russian Yevgeny Plushenko. His biggest competition is likely to be world champion Shoma Uno of Japan, who like Malinin won both of his Grand Prix starts this fall. Malinin and Uno have not gone head-to-head this season.

Grand Prix Finland highlights air on NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app on Sunday at 3:30 p.m. ET.

FIGURE SKATING: Results | Broadcast Schedule

Earlier, Japan’s Mai Mihara overtook world silver medalist Loena Hendrickx of Belgium to become the only woman to win both of her Grand Prix starts this season. Mihara prevailed by .23 of a point. The top three women this season by best total score are Japanese, led by a junior skater, 14-year-old Mao Shimada, who isn’t Olympic age-eligible until 2030.

Mihara and Hendrickx qualified for the Grand Prix Final, joining world champion Kaori Sakamoto and Rinka Watanabe, both of Japan, South Korean Yelim Kim and American Isabeau Levito, the world junior champion.

Italians Rebecca Ghilardi and Filippo Ambrosini won both pairs’ programs and qualified for their first Grand Prix Final.

Japan’s Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara and Americans Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier headline the Final. Both pairs won each of their Grand Prix starts earlier this fall. The Japanese have the world’s two best scores this season. The Americans are reigning world champions.

At least one Russian or Chinese pair made every Grand Prix Final podium — usually pairs from both countries — but neither nation competed in pairs this Grand Prix season. All Russian skaters are banned due to the war in Ukraine. China’s lone entry on the Grand Prix across all disciplines was an ice dance couple.

Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier improved on their world-leading score for this season in winning the ice dance by 17.03 points over Americans Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker. Both couples qualified for the Grand Prix Final in the absence of all three Olympic medalists this fall.

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Lara Gut-Behrami wins Killington giant slalom, and the overall title race may be on

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Swiss Lara Gut-Behrami rallied from third place after the first run for her 35th career World Cup victory, taking a giant slalom in Killington, Vermont, on Saturday.

Gut-Behrami, 31, earned her fifth World Cup giant slalom win and first in six years. She prevailed by .07 of a second over Italian Marta Bassino combining times from two windy runs. Sweden’s Sara Hector, the Olympic champion and first-run leader, ended up third.

“Last two years I’ve been getting better in GS again,” said Gut-Behrami, who won the GS at the last world championships in 2021. “Last year I was struggling with my health. I was all the time sick.”

ALPINE SKIING: Full Results | Broadcast Schedule

Gut-Behrami’s best events are downhill and super-G, so a strong start to the season in GS could put her on a path to winning the World Cup overall title, the biggest annual prize in ski racing. She previously lifted that crystal globe in 2016.

Reigning World Cup overall champ Mikaela Shiffrin, who previously placed second, third, fourth and fifth in Killington giant slaloms, finished 13th after winning the season’s first two races, slaloms in Finland last week. It marked her lowest World Cup GS finish since December 2019.

“[Finland] was a spectacular weekend,” Shiffrin, who has not had much recent GS training, said after her 10th-place opening run Saturday. “Every race is a different story.”

Shiffrin won all five World Cup slaloms in Killington dating to 2016 and will go for her 50th career World Cup slalom victory across all venues on Sunday (12:30 p.m. ET, NBC and Peacock).

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