Michael Phelps: U.S. swimming is no longer on top

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Michael Phelps has been watching his U.S. teammates compete at the World Championships, and he’s at a loss for words.

“Honestly, I really don’t know what to say about what I’ve seen over there,” a bearded Phelps said in San Antonio on Wednesday, ahead of competing at the U.S. Championships this weekend. “An interesting place for USA Swimming to be in, because we’ve never been in it. We’ve never been in a spot where we’re trying to get back to the top.”

Phelps qualified for the World Championships last year, but he was excluded from the roster for the Kazan, Russia, meet following his Sept. 30 DUI arrest.

Without Phelps, the U.S. won eight medals in the first four days of the World Championships, with four days to go. It is in danger of bringing home its fewest medals from a Worlds or Olympics in the last 50 years. The previous low was 21 at the 1994 World Championships.

“We’re not having the greatest meet,” said Phelps’ coach, Bob Bowman, obviously not counting the feats of triple gold medalist Katie Ledecky.

The nadir may have come on the meet’s first day, when the U.S. men’s 4x100m freestyle relay team finished tied for 11th overall in the preliminaries and missed the eight-team final.

The U.S. quartet included Anthony Ervin, the oldest member of the entire U.S. team at age 34, who split 49.69, which was more than one second slower than the two swimmers who followed him in the relay.

“It’s kind of shocking that we don’t have a relay that can go faster than that,” Phelps said.

That reminded Phelps of the Athens 2004 Olympics, when Ian Crocker led off the 4x100m free relay with the slowest split time of the entire 32-swimmer field. Phelps, Neil Walker and Jason Lezak brought the U.S. back for the bronze medal.

“It’s much harder to qualify the relays than it used to be,” Bowman said. “In 2004, it was like an afterthought to be in the final of a relay for the U.S., up to that point. … But starting in 2007, we started having some close calls with qualification, and the other countries started swimming their best people in the morning. … We’re going to have to start swimming some of our best people in the morning to qualify [for the finals].”

Phelps said he reached out to longtime friendly rival Ryan Lochte earlier this week, following the U.S. miss in the 4x100m free relay. Lochte was not part of that preliminary relay team.

“You’ve got to be a leader,” Phelps said he told Lochte. “You’ve got to step up.”

Lochte finished fourth in his first of two individual events at Worlds, the 200m freestyle on Tuesday. He was the top qualifier into Thursday’s 200m individual medley final.

Phelps, 30, was also asked when he will stop swimming competitively and responded, “I don’t know.” He committed this spring to making a run for the Rio Olympics but hasn’t commented publicly on plans beyond that.

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Regan Smith swims another historic backstroke time at Pro Series meet

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Regan Smith, who last summer broke both backstroke world records, put up the fastest 100m back in history outside of a major international meet or trials competition on Saturday.

Smith, a 17-year-old Minnesota high school senior, clocked 58.26 seconds to win at a Pro Series meet in Knoxville, Tenn. It tied for the 12th-fastest time in history. None of the other fastest dozen came in January, six months out from when swimmers peak for the world’s biggest events like the Olympics.

Making it more impressive: Smith did it 27 minutes after finishing second in the 200m butterfly, which she’s also expected to contest at June’s Olympic trials in Omaha.

“It actually wasn’t as bad, as I was nervous it was going to be,” Smith, whose world record is 57.57, said of the double on NBCSN. Smith entered two events per day at the three-day Knoxville meet, in part to prepare for the trials, where she is slated to race six straight days in a bid to make the Olympic team in enough events to swim eight straight days in Tokyo.

On Saturday, Smith held off fellow 17-year-old Phoebe Bacon by six tenths. Bacon beat Smith at the U.S. Open in December, posting the second-fastest time among Americans in the event for 2019.

The teen emergence puts pressure on Kathleen Baker, the Rio Olympic silver medalist who had the world record before Smith took it at worlds.

Full Knoxville results are here. USASwimming.org live streams the last night of finals Sunday at 6:30 ET.

In other events Saturday, world silver medalist Hali Flickinger overcame Smith in the 200m fly, winning in 2:08.34. Smith, third-fastest among Americans last season, was .39 behind. The second-fastest American last year, Katie Drabot, was not in the field. The top two at trials make the Olympic team.

Erika Brown beat world champion Simone Manuel in a freestyle sprint for a second straight meet, taking the 50m free in 24.57 seconds.

Brown, a University of Tennessee senior, edged Manuel by .06 and took .01 off her personal best. Brown ranked third among Americans last year behind Manuel (24.05) and Abbey Weitzeil (24.47).

Brown also defeated Manuel in the 100m free at the U.S. Open in December, moving to fourth-fastest in the U.S. last year in that event. The top six in the 100m free at trials are in line to make the Olympic team, given relay spots.

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Mikaela Shiffrin nearly makes it three-way tie for World Cup win

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Mikaela Shiffrin came .01 shy of making it a three-way tie for a World Cup giant slalom win on Saturday, confirming GS has been the most up-for-grabs discipline for either gender in recent years.

Shiffrin, beaten in her last two slaloms, had the fastest second run to place third behind co-winners Italian Federica Brignone and Slovakian Petra Vlhova in Sestriere, Italy. The reigning Olympic and World Cup champion in the GS rallied from fourth place and .42 behind after the first run.

Shiffrin still leads the World Cup overall standings by 233 points over Vlhova. The American last won Dec. 29. Though she made the podium in three of her four races since, Shiffrin expressed a lack of confidence heading into this weekend’s races at the 2006 Olympic venue.

“The most exciting thing for me is that people have stopped asking me, like, are you unbeatable?” said Shiffrin, who won a record 17 World Cup races last season and has four victories nearly halfway through this season, tied with Vlhova for most on tour. “I feel really good in GS. It’s just been a long time since [the last GS on Dec. 28].”

Vlhova earned her third victory this month after beating Shiffrin those last two slaloms. Brignone leads the GS season standings by 61 points over Shiffrin, seeking to become the sixth different woman to win that discipline title in the last six years. There are four more GS races left this season.

It’s the second straight season with a World Cup GS tie. Last Feb. 1, Shiffrin and Vlhova tied in Maribor, Slovenia.

It’s the first time the top three finishers were separated by such a small margin since the last three-way tie for a win in 2006, when Lindsey VonnMichaela Dorfmeister and Nadia Styger had the same super-G time, and fourth-place Kelly VanderBeek was .01 behind.

“Last season, I had the lucky side of the hundredths many times, so sometimes I’m not going to be on the lucky side, too,” said Shiffrin, who had three victories by .16 or tighter last season.

World Cup racing continues with a parallel giant slalom on Sunday at 5:45 a.m. ET on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA and streaming on NBC Sports Gold.

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