How Katie Ledecky can be an underdog at the Rio Olympics

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Katie Ledecky has entered 10 Olympic and World Championships races and won all of them, but her perfection could be put to the test like never before at the 2016 Olympics.

In Rio, Ledecky may have to deal with the addition to the 200m freestyle of the world’s fastest swimmer in the event each of the last two years. Swede Sarah Sjostrom sat out the 200m free last week at the World Championships in Kazan, Russia, where Ledecky won by .16 over Italian world-record holder Federica Pellegrini.

Pellegrini is 27 and debuted at the Olympics in 2004, meaning the veteran could have a tough time keeping pace with Ledecky, nine years her junior, going into 2016.

However, Sjostrom is just 21 and closer to peak age.

The Swede led off the 4x200m free relay in Kazan in a personal-best 1:54.31, which was .85 faster than Ledecky’s winning time in the individual 200m free.

Sjostrom won as many medals as Ledecky in Kazan (five) but sat out the individual 200m free because it could have harmed her fitness for her “main events,” the 50m and 100m freestyles and butterflies.

While in Kazan, Sjostrom said she will most likely enter the 200m free at the Rio Olympics. That makes sense, given the 200m free in Rio takes place on the two days Sjostrom has off from her main events.

“I bet that she’ll swim that event in Rio,” Ledecky said of Sjostrom and the 200m free on Eurosport on Sunday. “I’ve never had the opportunity to race her yet, so, hopefully, I’ll get that chance.”

That could create a female version of the Race of the Century from the 2004 Olympics, when Ian ThorpePieter van den Hoogenband, Michael Phelps and Grant Hackett lined up in the 200m free final.

In Rio, a women’s 200m free final could include the world-record holder Pellegrini, the 2013 World champion Missy Franklin, the 2015 World champion Ledecky, the world’s greatest all-around swimmer Katinka Hosszu and the fastest woman in the event the last two years, Sjostrom.

Regardless of Sjostrom, Ledecky could seek a greater challenge by adding another event — the 100m freestyle. Ledecky could earn a spot on the U.S. Olympic 4x100m free relay team by clocking a top-six time at the Olympic trials either June 30 or July 1.

The Rio Olympic 4x100m free relay takes place on the first day of competition, when Ledecky has no other events.

“You know she’s going to get faster to swim a world-class 200, and with that comes a pretty good 100,” her coach, Bruce Gemmell, said in November.

Ledecky was asked what her 100m free personal best was in Sunday’s Eurosport interview.

“54.5, which is OK,” she said. “It’s not very competitive at this stage yet. Hopefully I can get that time down a little bit.”

Ledecky is right. The 54.55 she swam on Jan. 15 ranks her No. 42 in the world and No. 9 among Americans. However, that 54.55 came at a time of the year when swimmers aren’t peaked. There’s reason to believe she would have been much faster in a 100m free in Kazan.

Even if Ledecky made it onto the U.S. 4x100m relay in Rio — likely with Franklin and Simone Manuel leading the group — the U.S. would be decided underdogs.

An Australian quartet anchored by sisters Bronte and Cate Campbell broke the 4x100m free relay world record at the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Australia then routed the U.S. by 1.77 seconds at the 2014 Pan Pacific Championships. At Worlds, the U.S. was 3.13 seconds behind Australia and .94 behind the Netherlands.

After Ledecky won five golds in five events in Kazan, her coach said there were “many ways” his 18-year-old pupil can get better after her impending break to have her wisdom teeth removed.

“Her turns are still not particularly good,” Gemmell told media in Kazan. “She of course can get stronger.”

That might be required for perfection at the Rio Olympics.

Michael Phelps feels in 2007 form after another world-leading time

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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