Missy Franklin’s coach assesses World Championships

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Missy Franklin won five medals at the recently completed World Swimming Championships and moved into sole possession for most career World titles by a woman (11), but the meet could have been even better, her coach said.

Todd Schmitz assessed Franklin’s meet ahead of Franklin’s next competition, a FINA World Cup in Paris this weekend.

The standout performance?

For Schmitz, it was Franklin’s anchor leg as part of the mixed-gender 4x100m freestyle relay Saturday.

Franklin trailed the Netherlands’ Femke Heemskerk by .33 with 50 meters left and appeared to fall even farther behind on that final length of the pool. But she summoned a late surge past Heemskerk for the win by .05.

“That was the best last eight meters that Missy’s ever swam in her life,” said Schmitz, who has coached Franklin since age 7, save her two years under Teri McKeever at the University of California. Franklin announced in May that she returned home to Colorado to work with Schmitz.

Franklin finished second, third, fifth and seventh in her four individual events in Kazan, Russia (100m and 200m freestyles and backstrokes). In 2013, she finished first, first, first and fourth in the same four events at the World Championships in Barcelona.

She performed better in Kazan than at the 2014 Pan Pacific Championships, when she was not 100 percent due to back spasms that struck two days before the meet in Australia.

Schmitz delved into Franklin’s individual swims at Worlds in this Q&A:

OlympicTalk: What was your overall assessment of what you thought of Missy’s meet?

Schmitz: I think she would agree we wanted to swim a little better, but I think that’s kind of where she was at. We really wanted, obviously, to have a better performance than last summer and not have a reoccurrence of her back injury. What I like to say is that we’re on the right track.

OlympicTalk: After Pan Pacs, and during the 2014-15 collegiate year, Franklin said she was still getting physical therapy for her back. Since she’s been back with you, have you been doing anything preventative for her back?

Schmitz: She still does physical therapy, but mainly what myself and her dryland coach, Loren [Landow], really we’re just trying to get her stronger so that the muscles around her back are more developed so that it’s a little more protected, so she doesn’t injure it. To be honest with you, she never mentioned [her back] once during the eight days of Worlds. So that was good.

The reality is that she’ll probably have to do some kind of maintenance like that for the rest of her swimming career, I’m sure.

OlympicTalk: Which of her four individual swims in Kazan impressed you the most?

Schmitz: That’d be hard. I’d say the 200m back and the 200m free were both pretty good. If you look at her 200m back, it was almost two full seconds faster than she was last summer. She never went under 2:08 last summer. She finished 2:06.34 [for silver in Kazan]. Obviously the last 50 [meters] wasn’t quite there the way we wanted it to be [Franklin was passed by Australian Emily Seebohm for gold], but I think that’s just a product of where [Franklin] was at right now.

Also, her 200m free, being able to go 1:55 both in finals [for bronze] and leading off the 800m free relay [that won gold]. Once again, she didn’t go under 1:56 last year. So, I think both of those are the races that I was happy with.

Her 100m free and her 100m back [seventh- and fifth-place finishes], we knew coming into this that we had to worry more about [than] everything else, the fitness and not reinjuring the back. We knew that the speed was going to be the last thing to come around.

OlympicTalk: Was not reinjuring the back in your head because it was a meet where she was swimming pretty much every day, prelims, semis, finals? Did that make it more susceptible to a recurrence?

Schmitz: For sure. I think she ended up splashing in the water, including relays, 16 times. She averaged two swims per session [per day]. The only person that swam more laps than her was Katie [Ledecky]. Katie actually had less splashes, per se. If you look at the sheer volume of her racing … we just really knew that we needed to make sure we were on top of those things so that she didn’t reinjure herself.

OlympicTalk: How did you assess the last 50 meters of the 200m back? (video here) Did Missy not have the full fitness, or did you think it was more Seebohm killing everyone on that last 50?

Schmitz: It was because Missy didn’t have the fitness quite where she needed to be. If you look at her world-record splits, or even her splits in 2013 in Barcelona, Missy was the only one in the field to go 31s the last three 50s. Yes, Seebohm popped that last 50 [31.14, 1.45 seconds faster than everyone else], but the reality is if that Missy swims her race, it doesn’t matter how fast Seebohm goes in that last 50. Missy still beats her.

OlympicTalk: When you got her back this spring, this summer, what did you notice about her swimming that was different from the Missy that you sent to Cal after the 2013 Worlds?

Schmitz: One thing I noticed right away, that I think even if she didn’t maybe say it outright, I think that the back injury was still kind of in her mind. That kind of held her back at first, even in training. She was very apprehensive. Is it going to recur? So, with that, just really kind of working on her mentally, too. Basically, I had her for almost exactly two months before she left for [the pre-Worlds] training camp in Croatia.

Just getting her fit and ready to race long course, because it’s a different beast than short-course racing [in NCAA competition]. Because the way our collegiate system is designed, she got to race one time long course [in 2015 before Worlds]. That was at Santa Clara [in June]. We knew we had to do that. We probably went there [to Santa Clara] not quite ready to race at that level, but we knew that was really the only kind of option we had before training camp started. Getting her mind back in the right place and just kind of getting her fit so that she can race long course, like I said, 16 splashes at Worlds.

OlympicTalk: Is Missy going to be with you through Rio?

Schmitz: That’s not my department to answer. You’ll have to ask her. That’s her decision and her decision alone. Obviously, it’s my hope that she’s with her team in Denver the next 11 months to get her the best shot at doing the best she can in Omaha [at Olympic trials] and then Rio. Everything that I’m planning is I’m hoping she sticks with it.

OlympicTalk: Is there any possibility that you would envision a program of anything different from what we’ve seen from her at the last three major international meets, the four individual events and three relays?

Schmitz: Missy’s not 17 years old, so I think that there’s got to be some strategic thinking going into what she wants to swim in Omaha and then, obviously, ultimately, ideally swimming in Rio. I know Missy loves being on relays, but I think that one thing that I’ve learned as a swim coach, I have no problem pushing my athletes, but I think at some point you’ve got to seriously kind of sit down and look at what’s going to add to Missy’s kind of legacy. So there’s definitely got to be some conversation.

Omaha, obviously, is an advantage because we don’t have to worry about adding relays to that program. So Omaha is one thing, but then you’ve got to also [think], OK, if Omaha works out the exact way you want, then you’ve got to sit down and look at Rio, too.

But I think that there’s a legitimate shot that she can go in and be competitive in more than one event, but I think that sometimes, you know, that 100m free’s going to be tough. Right now there’s three females in the world that are already going 52s consistently. Missy’s been 52 in a relay. She’s been 53.4, I believe, or 53.3 in a flat start in a 100m free. I think it’s got to be worth a conversation. Is that an event that we keep into the lineup?

OlympicTalk: Is it a case, especially in the 100m free, where you look at what her chances are of getting a medal when talking about the different events she can do?

Schmitz: I think that’s one of the conversations, yes, definitely. Do we have a shot at medaling? But also, we want to have the most energy for all of the races. If you look at the 100m free, prelims, semis and finals, three more splashes.

If we can take those three splashes out of there and truly give a better effort in the 400m medley [relay] or the 400m free relay, then I think then it’s worth a conversation also.

OlympicTalk: In her backstroke races in Kazan, it looked like she was getting out slow off the start. What did you see there?

Schmitz: Honestly, Missy didn’t even get to practice on a ledge until about six weeks ago [FINA began implementing backstroke foot ledges in competition last fall and used them at a long-course Worlds for the first time in Kazan. It helps swimmers avoid slipping off the start.]. That was the first time she had ever even gone off a ledge at one of our practices. The reality is that the world’s been using them. They were around at the World Cups all last year. They used them at short course Worlds, but the NCAA doesn’t have them yet. Cal didn’t have any available.

Without a doubt, that made everybody’s starts a little bit faster [than Franklin in Kazan]. You know, Missy’s never going to have the world’s best start. She’s 6’1″ 1/2. There’s nobody else in the field that’s her size. I’ve always told her that we’re never going to have, say, Natalie Coughlin’s underwaters. That’s not possible. The connectivity in a 5’9″ body and a 6’1″ body is so different. So when they added the ledge, I think that just made everybody a little faster. I think as Missy continues to work on that and use that ledge, I think her backstroke start is going to get better. That’s definitely an area that we’ve identified that we definitely can get better in.

How U.S. Olympic women’s swim team would look based on 2015 times

Novak Djokovic rolls at French Open; top women escape

Novak Djokovic
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Novak Djokovic began what could be a march to his 18th Grand Slam title, sweeping Swede Mikael Ymer 6-0, 6-2, 6-3 in the French Open first round on Tuesday.

The top seed Djokovic lost just seven points in the first set. He gets Lithuanian Ricardas Berankis in the second round in a half of the draw that includes no other man with French Open semifinal experience.

Djokovic had plenty going for him into Roland Garros, seeking to repeat his 2016 run to the title. The chilly weather is similar to four years ago.

As is Djokovic’s form. His only loss in 2020 was when he was defaulted at the U.S. Open for hitting a ball in anger that struck a linesperson in the throat.

Djokovic got a break with the draw when No. 3 seed Dominic Thiem was put in No. 2 Rafael Nadal‘s half. The Serbian also won his clay-court tune-up event in Rome, where he received warnings in back-to-back matches for breaking a racket and uttering an obscenity.

“I don’t think that [the linesperson incident] will have any significant negative impact on how I feel on the tennis court,” Djokovic said before Roland Garros. “I mean, I won the tournament in Rome just a week later after what happened in New York.

“I really want to be my best version as a player, as a human being on the court, and win a tennis match. Because of the care that I have for that, I sometimes express my emotions in good way or maybe less good way.”

If Djokovic can lift the Coupe des Mousquetaires two Sundays from now, he will move within two of Roger Federer‘s career Slams record. Also notable: He would keep Nadal from tying Federer’s record and head into the Australian Open in January, his signature Slam, with a chance to match Nadal at 19.

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women | TV Schedule

Earlier Tuesday, No. 2 Karolina Pliskova and No. 4 Sofia Kenin each needed three sets to reach the second round.

The Czech Pliskova rallied past Egyptian qualifier Mayar Sherif 6-7 (9), 6-2, 6-4. Pliskova, the highest-ranked player without a major title, next gets 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia.

“Let’s not talk about my level [of play],” Pliskova said. “I think there is big room for improvement.”

Kenin, the American who won the Australian Open in February, outlasted Russian Liudmila Samsonova 6-4, 3-6, 6-3.

“It doesn’t matter how you win — ugly, pretty, doesn’t matter,” Kenin said on Tennis Channel.

She gets Romanian Ana Bogdan in the second round. Only one other seed — No. 14 Elena Rybakina — is left in Kenin’s section en route to a possible quarterfinal.

American Jen Brady, who made a breakthrough run to the U.S. Open semifinals, was beaten by Danish qualifier Clara Tauson  6-4, 3-6, 9-7.

Sam Querrey nearly made it eight American men into the second round, serving for the match in the third set. But he succumbed to 13th-seeded Russian Andrey Rublev 6-7 (5), 6-7 (4), 7-5, 6-4, 6-3. It’s still the best first-round showing for U.S. men since nine advanced in 1996.

The second round begins Wednesday, highlighted by Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal.

MORE: Halep, Comaneci and the genesis of a Romanian friendship

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Alysa Liu grows on the ice and adds inches, too

Liu and Scali in San Francisco
Courtesy Massimo Scali
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Word on the street is Alysa Liu has grown.

The two-time reigning U.S. figure skating champion said that’s true… to a degree. The two inches of height she added between last season and her 15th birthday in August don’t change Liu’s perspective.

“I just went from really short to very short,” Liu said, wryly, via telephone after a training session last week in San Francisco. “I’m up to 5-0. I like the five-foot number, but it’s still short.”

Anyway, the more important measure will be how much Liu has grown as a skater since her successful 2019-20 debut in international junior competition.

As is the case for all skaters, especially those in North America, such skating growth risks being temporarily stunted by restrictions on training and lack of competition caused by the coronavirus pandemic. And physical growth, even if it is only two inches, can also be problematic.

In Liu’s case, issues related to the pandemic have complicated her sudden shift to a new coaching team in late June, when she announced a split from Laura Lipetsky, who had coached her since age 5. Cancellation of the Junior Grand Prix series is giving Liu more travel-free time to adapt to the new situation, although, ironically, travel restrictions are keeping her from having the two-country, three-coach arrangement work the way it was planned.

“I don’t think it affects the long-term plan that much,” Liu said. “I still have my school schedule [where she will finish her high school education before the 2021-22 season, her first as an international senior]. I’m training hard. I’m getting stronger.

“I wasn’t surprised the Junior Grand Prix was cancelled. I’m a little sad I can’t go, but I get to stay home and train, so it’s all good. I do like competing a lot, and I guess I’ll miss that feeling, but because of corona[virus], there is nothing I can do, so I just accepted it.”

As of now, Liu can’t go to Toronto to work face-to-face with coach Lee Barkell, the newest member of the team, and choreographer Lori Nichol, with whom the skater began collaborating last season.

Massimo Scali, the three-time Italian Olympic ice dancer based in the Bay Area who began helping Lipetsky with Liu a month before the 2020 U.S. Championships, now is her in-person coach. Barkell and Nichol contribute via several FaceTime or Zoom sessions each week. Once entry restrictions from the U.S. to Canada are eased, Liu intends to visit regularly while continuing to live with her family in the Bay Area.

Of course, little has gone as might have been planned for Liu over the last two seasons.

In January 2019, at 13, she stunningly became the youngest ever to win a U.S. singles title. In January 2020, at 14, she became the youngest to win two. In the process, Liu became the first U.S. woman to land two triple Axels in a free skate and the first to land a quadruple jump, the former at 2019 nationals, the latter at her 2019 Junior Grand Prix debut.

She won both her 2019 Junior Grand Prix series events. She finished a close second to Russia’s Kamila Valieva at the 2019 Junior Grand Prix Final and a distant third to Valieva at the 2020 World Junior Championships. That made her the first U.S. woman to win a Junior Grand Prix Final medal since 2012 and just the second to win a world junior medal during that period.

Taking over as primary coach of a skate with such a resume carries a burden, especially for a coach like Scali whose entire knowledge base and coaching experience is based in ice dance.

Scali and Liu
Scali and Liu at the Yerba Buena Ice Skating and Bowling Center in San Francisco. Courtesy Massimo Scali

“There is a little pressure on me, for sure,” Scali said. “She is an extremely talented skater and an amazing human being. But I know that I have a terrific team behind me, working really well together. My pressure is doing the best for Alysa to improve where she has to improve.”

Barkell is dealing with a different set of challenges: working remotely with a skater he barely knows.

“It was a bit difficult in the beginning, verbally explaining exercises, technique, corrections, etc., instead of being able to show Alysa,” Barkell said in a text message. “But we have figured out ways to make this work. Alysa is very coachable and has been very receptive to new ideas.

“We [myself, Massimo and Lori] are focusing on development of speed and power in her overall skating and continued development and consistency in all of her jumps. We all realize some of these changes will not happen overnight.”

There is a rule of thumb that says figure skaters need between 18 months and two years to get fully comfortable working with new coaches. For Liu, that time frame dovetails nicely with the next Olympic season.

Liu plans to give her first progress report by recording this week her new short and long programs, by choreographed by Nichol, for judging in U.S. Figure Skating’s international selection pool (ISP) points challenge competition. The performances are to go online Oct. 6.

The short uses music from Nino Rota’s score for the Fellini movie, “La Strada.” The long draws from “The Storm,” a work by the Hungarian composer/pianist Balázs Havasi that Nichol had choreographed for Carolina Kostner in the 2018-19 season, when an injury kept Kostner from competing with that program.

Liu’s jump layouts this season include a triple Axel in the short program with two triple Axels and a quadruple Lutz in the long. She may wait until later competitive events to include them. She plans to skate at the USFS Championship Series competitions in Spokane, Wash., November 10-15 and Henderson, Nevada Nov. 24-28.

“I just want to do good programs for whatever competitions are available,” Liu said. “It will take me a long time to get everything perfect. But I have been working hard on skating skills, and hopefully people can see a difference.”

Barkell handles nearly all the jump instruction, although Scali said is learning enough from watching the remote sessions to be aware of what Liu is supposed to do. Nichol is primary choreographer, with the concept, the music cuts and the steps coming from her.

Scali, who has done choreography for ice dancers, makes occasional choreographic suggestions. But his focus is the areas of skating covered by component scores (PCS).

Liu’s PCS was 6.31 points lower than Valieva’s in the world junior free skate. And Liu’s aggregate PCS for the two programs at 2020 nationals was 9.35 points behind that of runner-up Mariah Bell, but a whopping 18.66 margin over Bell in technical scores – most from jumps – made Liu an easy winner.

Scali and Liu
Scali and Liu at the Yerba Buena Ice Skating and Bowling Center in San Francisco. Courtesy Massimo Scali

“We want Alysa to go out on the ice and look like a mature, different skater,” Scali said. “We are working on details – expression, speed, gliding, posture – to polish the programs so that they give an image of an Alysa who is more empowered and more mature and really ready for senior level competition.”

Brian Boitano, the 1988 Olympic champion, skates twice a week at the San Francisco rink where Liu has been training for the last seven weeks. He gives her tips on jumps and moves like spread eagles.

Boitano proctored Liu’s clean run-throughs last week that did not include the Axels or a quad. “It was great,” Boitano said of the long program.

“We don’t know yet [about the big jumps],” Scali said. “Her training was so affected by this pandemic, and this ISP competition is so early in the season considering all she went through.”

Liu has been training in San Francisco because of issues with ice time availability at her home rink in Oakland, in a different county with different pandemic rules than San Francisco.

When no rinks at all near her were open after coming back from junior worlds, Liu and her father, Arthur, an attorney, went to Wilmington, Del., from early March through mid-May, living in an AirBnb property. She trained in Wilmington on her own except for spotting from a coach with jumps done on a pull harness.

She found herself going stir crazy at times in Delaware, especially missing her four younger siblings, who stayed in California. There is only so much anime on Netflix one can watch.

Once she and her father returned west, it became a case of being careful what you wish for. The siblings, like the home-schooled Liu, now are doing remote learning at home. So far, the Wi-Fi is holding up.

“It’s very chaotic,” she said, laughing. “They are all so crazy it’s kind of ridiculous. I get home every day, and there’s always a racket in the house. My sister Julia is always falling. My sister Selina is always FaceTiming her friends. And the boys [Joshua and Justin] are always fighting.”

Since she has been training in San Francisco, Liu takes the BART train back and forth, sometimes by herself, sometimes with Scali, who lives in Berkeley.

When they began working together on a full-time basis, it was briefly at her usual rink (the Oakland Ice Center), where Lipetsky still teaches. Lipetsky was away at the time, so there were no potentially uncomfortable encounters.

In the June 22 USFS release announcing the coaching change, Liu acknowledged and thanked Lipetsky for the coach’s role in the skater’s success.

“We’ve worked so closely together, and she has helped me get to where I am today,” Liu said.

In a June 22 text message to me, Lipetsky wrote:

“I have really enjoyed working with Alysa for her entire skating career. Massimo Scali and her father informed me that I would no longer be working with her. To not add to her distraction and allow her the opportunity to focus on being the best she can be, I prefer not to comment any further.”

In a text message to me a few days later, Arthur Liu said neither he nor Alysa wanted to talk about the reasons why she left Lipetsky.

“We need to move on and focus on her training,” he wrote.

Scali said they plan to return to the Oakland Ice Center as soon as they can get the ice time Alysa needs there. He does not expect any issues if they are in the rink at the same time as Lipetsky, who, Scali said, had asked him last December to work with the skater on skating skills and components.

“It’s all good,” Scali said. “Alysa is serene and happy about the decision she made, so there will be no problems.”

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating

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