Katie Ledecky, Janet Evans

Janet Evans sees parallels with Katie Ledecky

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Janet Evans remembers the disappointment in Katie Ledecky‘s eyes.

It’s not a look that has been seen recently. Ledecky, a 17-year-old from Bethesda, Md., has been the most impressive swimmer in the world over the last year, breaking and rebreaking freestyle world records from 400m to 1500m.

Her latest breakthrough came in the 400m at the U.S. Swimming Championships in Irvine, Calif., last week. Ledecky snatched Italian Federica Pellegrini‘s world record set at the peak of the high-tech suit era in 2009.

The rising all-girls, prekindergarten-through-12th-grade Catholic school senior became the first woman to simultaneously hold the 400m, 800m and 1500m freestyle world records since the great Evans toted them all as recently as 2006.

Evans, 42, jokes that she’s old enough to be Ledecky’s mother. But they actually swam in the same meet in 2012, when Evans entered the U.S. Olympic Trials for the first time since 1996.

Ledecky won the 800m free at trials (and the Olympics), but Evans chose to reflect on the 400m, where Ledecky came in third place in Omaha. Only the top can make the Olympic team in each individual event, and the 400m came before the 800m at trials.

“I remember seeing how disappointed she was when she didn’t make the team [in the 400m],” Evans said. “I remember thinking, oh, yeah, she wants this. She’s pretty hungry. Then I remember watching her 800, where she just took it out and took no prisoners.”

Evans sees a bit of herself in Ledecky, whom she met for the first time at the Golden Goggle Awards in November, when Ledecky won Female Athlete of the Year.

Evans broke her first world record at 15 and won the first of her four Olympic gold medals at 17. Ledecky won her first Olympic gold medal at 15 and broke her first world record at 16.

“She swims her races a lot like I used to,” Evans said. “I remember that feeling when there’s no one around you [in a race]. You’re just like, what do I do now? You keep swimming.”

Evans learned of Ledecky’s 400m free world record last week when she stopped in Frankfurt, Germany, on the way home from a European vacation.

“My phone blew up,” Evans said.

“The 400 was my favorite race, and it was my favorite record,” said Evans, who held the 400m free world record from 1987 to 2006. “It was against the East Germans in Seoul [1988 Olympics]. It was my favorite race ever. When my world records were broken, I think the 400 hurt me the most because it was like my favorite race. I always wanted an American to get that record back.”

Evans believes Ledecky will continue to swim faster, particularly in the 200m free, but wondered about the pressure that comes with being so good, so young.

“I needed people to tell me that it was OK not to win,” Evans said. “I needed people to tell me that it was OK not to break a world record and it was OK to get second at the 1992 Olympics and get touched out by 19 one-hundredths of a second. As much support as I had from my parents and my coaches, I never had anyone tell me as a young woman that it was OK not to win. And that made swimming not fun for me. And that’s, in hindsight, what I look back on and say, I wish someone had told me that one day I’ll love my silver medal.”

Evans recalled breaking her first world record in 1987 and then getting crushed by Australian Julie McDonald by 10 seconds in the 800m free at the Pan Pacific Championships two weeks later.

“That’s something, too, that I needed warning about,” Evans said. “Once you get there [to the top], there’s less of that I’m going to shock the world and win a gold in London and more of oh, that girl down there in the corner of the world in Australia knows who I am.

“And she’s out to get me.”

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Amy Van Dyken-Rouen leaving hospital

Kara Eaker eschews fear, back on balance beam to resume Olympic quest

Kara Eaker
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Kara Eaker hasn’t qualified for an Olympics yet, but she is already part of a historic club of U.S. gymnasts. The list goes, most recently, Eaker, Simone BilesKyla RossAly RaismanNastia LiukinShawn JohnsonShannon Miller and Dominique Dawes.

Those are the women who qualified for back-to-back balance beam finals at the sport’s highest level: Olympics or world championships. For Eaker (pronounced like acre), they came in her first two years as a senior gymnast in 2018 and 2019 (Biles and Johnson are the only other U.S. women to do that in the last 25 years.)

This was supposed to be Eaker’s Olympic year, but the coronavirus pandemic postponed the Games to 2021, after her Missouri high school graduation. It also kept her out of the gym for nearly two months until the GAGE Center reopened last week in Blue Springs, near Kansas City.

It was the longest Eaker had been off a regulation beam (and out of the gym) since she could remember. She began competing at age 5.

Eaker’s mom, Katherine, said her daughter never feared the four-inch-wide beam, but Eaker said the thought of returning last week “was definitely kind of scary at first.” That is, until one of her coaches eased her back with basics and work on a floor beam, one that’s not raised as high as the four feet you see in competition.

“By the time we were ready, and she was comfortable putting us back up there, it wasn’t scary,” Eaker said. “It felt normal.”

Eaker, adopted from a Chinese orphanage around age 1 in 2003 (her parents’ travel then delayed by SARS), excels on the senior elite stage with a level of normalcy.

Which is not entirely normal in this sport. She lives with her family, 10 minutes from her world-class gym. She still attends regular high school. She’s committed to continue gymnastics at the University of Utah after the Tokyo Olympics.

“I started out in dance, actually,” said Eaker, whose hobbies include robotics and calligraphy. “A little, little girl with the stuffed animal, twirling around in the dance room. And then we had our little recital and I just wasn’t … I couldn’t do the standing in front of an audience kind of thing.”

Her mom believes it was around Christmas. Eaker was 3 or 4.

“She just froze like a deer in the headlights, and all the other girls froze, too, because they were used to following her,” Katherine said. “Then she tried gymnastics. We had to drag her out [of the gym]. From then on, it was always, she’s first one in, last one out. Still is.”

The family, including Eaker’s father, Mark, retired Navy and a flight engineer, and younger sister, Sara, moved three times within Missouri in part to get Kara closer to GAGE to pursue what would eventually become an Olympic dream.

Gymnastics meets were appointment TV before Eaker entered kindergarten. She watched the Beijing Olympics, or perhaps an even earlier meet, while dancing around the living room in a leotard. Sometimes she mimicked the gold medalists by doing back bends. She continued to watch Beijing highlights, with Liukin and Johnson, on replay on YouTube.

Back at the gym, Eaker developed with the help of her coaches, plus future University of Nebraska gymnast Catelyn Orel, her “gym mom” under the GAGE program to pair older and younger athletes. Orel was a state champion on beam. Eaker proved a natural, too.

“A lot of the girls would get up there and have trouble balancing, but she just always seemed to do it just like she was on the floor,” her mom said. “She’s never really had a fear. Some girls get up there and are nervous. She just never seemed to be that way.”

In 2018, Eaker was 15, old enough to start competing on the senior level with the likes of Biles. Exactly 10 years after she would have watched Johnson win the Beijing Olympic beam title, Eaker finished second on beam at nationals behind Biles. She was invited to the world championships team selection camp, where she had the top beam score and placed sixth in the all-around. Six gymnasts would be chosen by a committee to travel to the world championships.

Eaker didn’t expect to make the team. In a large meeting with coaches and staff, the roster was announced. Eaker made it as the youngest member.

“It was a goal, but there were so many other girls and it was my first year as a senior,” she said. “I was very happy and surprised to make that team.”

Eaker again won beam at the 2019 World Championships selection camp. If Eaker endured adversity those first two years, it came at worlds.

In 2018, she fell on her mount in the beam final. The rest of her routine was medal-worthy gymnastics. She waited an eternal three minutes for her score, which placed her sixth. Eaker’s routine from the team final earlier that week would have earned silver.

In 2019, Eaker again qualified for the eight-woman beam final. The U.S. federation submitted an inquiry on her qualifying score, contesting a lower start value given to her. That backfired. Judges lowered Eaker’s score even more upon review, which took her out of the final. However, another gymnast who had qualified later withdrew due to injury. Eaker was back in the final, where she placed fourth.

She was asked afterward what she would take away from the meet.

“Just the experience of it all,” she said, composed. “How it makes me feel. How to use that [in the future].”

In 2021, Eaker will have to prove to a selection committee that she can be reliable on all four apparatuses. The Olympic team event size is four — with three gymnasts going per apparatus in the Olympic final — down from five in 2016, putting a greater emphasis on the all-around. Eaker could also be a candidate for one separate spot in individual events only.

“I definitely want to be seen as a great beam worker, but I also need to be a great all-arounder because they’re going to be looking at not just your one event,” said Eaker, who was third in the all-around at the 2019 Worlds selection camp. “You have to be able to benefit the team with your other events, even if they aren’t as strong as your [best] one.”

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Kenya’s best to race Norway’s best on different continents in June track meet

Ingebrigtsen, Cheruiyot
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Kenya’s top 1500m man is expected to run with a team in Nairobi. Norway’s fastest will be together at a stadium in Oslo. The two contingents will face off in a virtual 2000m team event during the June 11 Impossible Games, the most significant track and field meet since the coronavirus pandemic began.

Organizers of the meet held in Oslo, typically part of the top-level Diamond League circuit, are billing the Norwegian team to include all three Ingebrigtsen brothers — Henrik (2012 European champion), Filip (2017 World bronze medalist), and Jakob (second-fastest in the world in 2019).

The Kenyan team is “Team Cheruiyot,” named after world champion Timothy Cheruiyot, though organizers did not confirm in a press release that Cheruiyot will be part of the squad that races. Later, World Athletics reported that the Kenyan team will include Cheruiyot, plus 2017 World champion Elijah Manangoi.

In the 2000m competition, each team will have five runners. The winner will be the team with the best overall time for three runners, which sounds similar to long-track speed skating’s team pursuit.

Again, the Kenyans will be racing in Nairobi. The Norwegians at the Bislett stadium. A broadcast stream will be a split screen.

“This will be the first virtual race at such level in the history of athletics,” according to a press release.

Also, Therese Johaug, the reigning World Cup overall cross-country skiing champion, will run a 10,000m on the track, organizers announced Tuesday.

Johaug, 31, is one of the world’s dominant athletes. Last season, she notched 20 World Cup victories, 17 more than any other woman. She did so after being banned from the PyeongChang Olympics after testing positive for a steroid found in a cream given to her by a team doctor to treat sunburned lips.

Johaug also has some distance-running credentials. Last year, she won the Norwegian national title in the 10,000m, clocking 32:20.86 to rank 88th in the world. The Olympic qualifying standard is 31:25.

Also slated for the June 11 meet with limited athletes and no fans in the stadium: world 400m hurdles champion Karsten Warholm of Norway, the top two ranked pole vaulters in history — Swede Mondo Duplantis and Frenchman Renaud Lavillenie — and world discus champion Daniel Stahl of Sweden.

Duplantis is expected to be at the Oslo stadium, while Lavillenie will pole vault remotely from his home in France. Warholm was announced last month to race the 300m hurdles, eyeing the fastest time in history in the non-Olympic event, in a solo race.

This year’s Diamond League season has been readjusted to start in August.

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