Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte

Four storylines to watch at Pro Swim Series at Mesa

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Michael Phelps will gather the most buzz, but this week’s Pro Swim Series at Mesa is loaded with the most men’s and women’s talent at one meet since last summer.

Entry lists for the Arizona competition include 24 Olympic medalists that combined to capture 95 total medals across the last three Summer Games, according to USA Swimming.

The meet begins with distance races Wednesday. Universal Sports Network will air live TV coverage of finals Thursday and Friday at 9 p.m. ET. Racing concludes Saturday. A complete webcast of the meet will be available on USASwimming.org.

1. Michael Phelps’ return

Last year, Mesa marked Phelps’ first meet in 20 months, since the London Olympics. This year, it’s his first meet in eight months, since his September DUI arrest and six-month suspension.

Phelps is entered in the 100m butterfly (Thursday), 100m backstroke and 400m freestyle (Friday) and 200m individual medley and 100m free (Saturday). He could very well scratch out of one of those events, particularly the 400m free, which was only once part of his schedule at an Olympics or World Championships (2005).

The 100m butterfly, 200m individual medley and 100m free are the key events for Phelps. Those are the three individual events that he qualified to swim at this summer’s World Championships, before his name was taken off the roster as part of his punishment for the arrest.

Phelps was the fastest man in the world in the 100m fly in 2014. The next three fastest Americans are all entered in Mesa — Tom Shields, Ryan Lochte and Tim Phillips.

Phelps was No. 3 in the world in the 200m IM in 2014. The only American faster than him is entered in Mesa — Lochte — as is the No. 3 American — Conor Dwyer.

Phelps was the No. 2 American in the 100m free in 2014. Missing from Mesa is the fastest American, Olympic champion Nathan Adrian. But Lochte and 2013 World silver medalist Jimmy Feigen are entered.

How Phelps measures up to those domestic rivals will show how well he’s trained during the competitive absence.

2. Katie Ledecky and the 100m freestyle

Ledecky is entered in every freestyle race from 100 meters through 1500 meters, plus the 400m individual medley. Like Phelps, she might opt out of events. The 400m IM appears the likeliest drop.

Nobody will challenge her in the 1500m free (Wednesday), 400m free (Friday) or 800m free (Saturday), and if she’s on form she should take the 200m free (Thursday) since Missy Franklin and the top Europeans in the event aren’t competing.

Then comes the biggest intrigue for Ledecky to close the meet Saturday night. That’s the 100m free. The last time she swam it, she beat her personal best in the preliminaries and the final in Austin, Texas, on Jan. 15.

Ledecky’s personal best in the 100m free is down to 54.55. That would have placed seventh at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials. Usually, the top six from trials make the Olympic 4x100m free relay when including preliminary swimmers.

In Mesa, she is slated to face Simone Manuel, the fastest U.S. woman in the 100m free in 2014. Manuel and Franklin are favorites to take the two individual 2016 U.S. Olympic spots in the 100m free, but Ledecky will enter the discussion if she continues to swim the event, and improve in it.

If Ledecky makes the 2016 U.S. Olympic team in the 100m, 200m, 400m and 800m frees, she could swim seven events at the Rio Olympics when including relays. No woman has won seven swimming medals at a single Olympics (only one has done so in any sport, summer or winter, Soviet gymnast Maria Gorokhovskaya in 1952).

3. Ryan Lochte and the 400m IM

In January, Lochte raced a 400m individual medley, the grueling decathlon of swimming that Phelps has sworn off, for the first time in 20 months. It did not go well.

But Lochte said then that he would definitely swim the 400m IM at his next Pro Swim Series appearance. He did not. Lochte only swam one event at the Pro Swim Series stop in Orlando, but he was a late addition to the meet due to travel issues coming back from Australia.

Lochte did not enter the 400m IM for Mesa, either. The 11-time Olympic medalist has been on and off about his future in the 400m IM since he captured gold in the event at the London Games.

In Mesa, Lochte is entered in the 100m, 200m and 400m frees, 100m backstroke, 100m fly and 200m IM. He and Phelps could go head to head in five events.

But what could be most interesting is if Lochte says whether or not the 400m IM is in his long-term plans.

4. The Swimmer of the Year

One reigning World Swimmer of the Year is also entered in Mesa. It’s not Phelps, Lochte or Ledecky. It’s Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu, the reigning World champion in the 200m and 400m individual medleys.

Hosszu entered 14 races for Mesa, which is about her norm. However, a swimmer can’t compete in more than seven in the Pro Swim Series, so she must cut down.

It surprised some when swimming’s international governing body announced Hosszu as its female Swimmer of the Year for 2014, given Ledecky was the only woman to break a world record in an individual Olympic event last year. And Ledecky did so in two events, plus in the 1500m free.

Hosszu, a three-time Olympian and 25 years old, bagged three individual gold medals at the 2014 European Championships and six medals overall. The same week she was named World Swimmer of the Year over Ledecky, she totaled eight more individual medals at the World Short Course Championships (the meet missed the top Americans and Chinese in Hosszu’s best events).

As the individual medley queen, she is the world’s best all-around female swimmer. But is she more dominant than Ledecky? That’s debatable.

She could race Ledecky in the 400m IM — if Ledecky doesn’t drop it — or any freestyle from 100m through 1500m.

Flashback: Michael Phelps at the Sydney 2000 Olympics

Lin Dan, badminton legend, retires: ‘It is very difficult to say goodbye’

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Lin Dan, arguably the greatest badminton player in history, announced retirement Saturday, citing “pain and injuries” in bowing out a year before the postponed Tokyo Olympics.

“I have been with the national team from 2000 to 2020, and it is very difficult to say goodbye,” 36-year-old Lin wrote to his four million Weibo fans, according to Badminton World Federation (BWF) translation. “Pain and injuries no longer allow me to fight with my teammates. I have gratitude, a heavy heart and unwillingness.”

Lin, nicknamed “Super Dan,” won Olympic singles titles in 2008 and 2012, plus five individual world titles. It’s the greatest resume for any badminton player from China, which owns twice as many medals as any other nation in the sport that debuted at the 1992 Barcelona Games.

He competed at the last four Olympics, won the sport’s Super Grand Slam (nine major titles) and had his own wax figure at Madame Tussauds in Shanghai.

Lin’s outbursts on and off the court led to some calling him the John McEnroe of badminton, but he is revered. In 2015, he was the second athlete on Forbes China‘s most popular celebrities list behind tennis player Li Na.

Lin’s pursuit of a fifth Olympics in Tokyo was looking out of reach. He dropped to No. 26 in the Olympic qualifying rankings, trailing four countrymen, including No. 5 Chen Long (Rio Olympic champion) and No. 11 Shi Yuqi (2018 World silver medalist). A nation can qualify a maximum of two individual players per gender for the Games.

“From where came his mastery? In short, his prowess was essentially due to the completeness of his game – in skill, physical ability and mental strength,” the BWF wrote in a press release. “Such was his craft that even well into his 30s, normally considered an advanced age for men’s singles, he could outplay younger and fitter opponents.”

NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.

MORE: Who is China’s greatest Olympian?

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MyKayla Skinner’s motivation for Tokyo: her Rio Olympic experience

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MyKayla Skinner remembers the little room at the SAP Center in San Jose. She remembers the wait, somewhere between 10 and 20 minutes.

After the 2016 U.S. Olympic Women’s Gymnastics Trials, the competitors (14 total performed) assembled while a selection committee convened in another space.

The committee finalized the five-woman Olympic team (plus three alternates), marched into the athletes’ room and delivered the verdict.

“They say the first four names, and then there’s that one spot left,” Skinner recalled. “I’m like, is it going to be me? You’re so tense just waiting there. All of us holding each other’s hands in the room. We’re all sitting there. It’s just, like, frozen dead silent. Then they say that fifth spot.”

Skinner doesn’t remember who was the fifth name. Just that it wasn’t her.

“I just broke down crying,” she said in a recent interview. “All that hard work I put in still wasn’t good enough. Even though it was. It’s just who they needed for the team.”

Skinner placed fourth in the all-around at those Olympic Trials, the highest finisher who was not named to the Olympic team. She was one of three alternates. If the Olympic team was chosen by all-around standings, a selection committee would not be necessary. Instead, gymnasts are puzzle pieces, chosen as who best fits the Olympic format: three gymnasts per apparatus in the team final and up to two per nation per individual final.

Skinner’s mind raced while she waited for the committee’s decision. She eventually settled on a gut feeling, that she would not make the team.

“I thought that it should be enough, but at the same I didn’t think that it would be,” said Lisa Spini, Skinner’s coach at Desert Lights Gymnastics in Chandler, Arizona. “I thought the team was already decided before the Olympic Trials.”

Spini said it was her toughest night as a gymnastics coach.

“Being an alternate is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in gymnastics,” said Skinner, who traveled to Brazil and, with fellow alternates Ashton Locklear and Ragan Smith, trained separately from the Olympic team. “The whole time I was in Rio, I probably cried every single night

“The Olympics should be something so special, but I feel like it was definitely miserable at times. It was really hard to enjoy being an alternate. With this comeback, that has pushed me so hard just because I was so close.”

You may have read about Skinner back in the spring, after the Tokyo Olympics were postponed to 2021.

It’s a devastating delay for a female gymnast, whose peak often lasts for one Olympic cycle (sometimes even shorter). Skinner is an exception, excelling for the better part of a decade on different levels.

She made her first world championships team in 2014. After Rio, she matriculated at the University of Utah, where she was twice an NCAA all-around runner-up and hit an NCAA record 161 straight routines without a fall. In 2019, she decided to come back to international competition — for an Olympic run — with one year left of NCAA gymnastics.

She is 23, the oldest of the 16-woman U.S. national team. She is trying to become the oldest woman to make a U.S. Olympic gymnastics team since 2004. And the first with NCAA experience to do so since Alicia Sacramone in 2008.

“The reason why a lot of college gymnasts couldn’t come back and do it is they’ve been so injured over the years,” Spini said. “Their body wouldn’t hold up. She’s been really lucky that way.”

Skinner could have easily followed the path of so many other stars who signaled the end of an elite career by going to college, where training and routines are less demanding.

She questioned herself often after the Tokyo postponement whether it was worth it to return to elite training. The Olympic team event roster size has been cut from five to four. Simone Biles is an overwhelming favorite to earn one spot. In the face of those odds, Skinner can’t shake a memory from Rio.

“I just go back to the moment of when I was sitting in the stands,” watching the Final Five earn gold, Skinner said. “I was so close to making the team. This has been my dream ever since I went to Desert Lights when I was 12.”

Skinner’s comeback is already a success. Last year, on three months of elite training, she placed eighth at the U.S. Championships. She was convinced to accept an invitation to the world championships selection camp, where six women would make the traveling team (one later named an alternate).

Like in 2016, Skinner placed fourth in the all-around competition before the roster was chosen.

Again, the gymnasts gathered for the announcement. This time, Skinner made the cut as the sixth woman named. Biles, the other 20-something at the camp and a friend, jumped in excitement.

The team traveled to Germany in late September. After training, one woman had to be designated the alternate. High performance team coordinator Tom Forster took Skinner aside one day on the way to lunch. She knew what was coming and broke down in tears, flashing back to 2016.

“Simone was like, hey, let’s go to the bathroom. She helped talk me through it and helped me calm down and definitely made me a feel a lot better,” said Skinner, who supported Biles and the U.S. team that competed in Stuttgart. She then wed Jonas Harmer in November and decided what must be done to make the Olympic team.

“We’re going to try to add in some big skills, which will put her difficulty level, probably, second only to Simone,” Spini said.

Skinner is documenting her last year-plus in elite gymnastics on a YouTube channel with 29,000 subscribers. She has been fortunate during the coronavirus pandemic to train at her gym if no more than 10 people were present. Many other gymnasts — and athletes across Olympic sports — spent weeks or months out of their facilities.

“I definitely don’t think I would have been able to have that much time off,” she said. “That’s really hard with gymnastics because you feel like, you take two days off, and it’s like you had a year off.”

One day this spring, Skinner’s mom called, in tears, fearing for her life with an illness that turned out to be the coronavirus. Both of her parents, in their 60s, had it and briefly lost their senses of taste. Her mom had breathing problems, but they recovered.

One night last month, Skinner had a dream about next year’s Olympic Trials. The Final Five all came back to compete, and Skinner was again named an alternate. She woke up. Skinner doesn’t know how she would handle that kind of disappointment in real life, again.

“So it’s kind of scary,” she said. Then Skinner thinks back to Rio, and that burning she felt while watching the Final Five win gold medals.

“This is what I’m supposed to do. This is what I’m meant to do is elite gymnastics,” said Skinner, who was born via life-threatening, early-labor C-section, needing to be revived by doctors. “I think it’s cool that I can have this opportunity to go and push myself one last time so I can reach that end goal.”

MORE: Gymnast Grace McCallum won a coin flip to become world champion

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