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U.S. Olympic swim champions conquer challenges to win at Winter Nationals

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Michael PhelpsMissy FranklinAllison Schmitt and Dana Vollmer all won individual Olympic gold medals in 2012 and then dealt with unique challenges to their dominance in this Olympic cycle.

On Friday, all four captured U.S. Winter National titles in events where they reigned in London.

Start with Phelps, the 22-time Olympic medalist who last year came out of a 20-month competitive retirement and then was suspended following a September 2014 DUI arrest.

On Friday, Phelps clocked 51.38 seconds to win the 100m butterfly at the U.S. Winter Nationals in Federal Way, Wash. Phelps came back to defeat Tom Shields, the second-best American in the event, by .03.

That’s his fourth-fastest time ever outside of summer meets in the event, which he’s won at the last three Olympics, according to USA Swimming’s times database.

“I just had a friend of mine text me, actually, today, and he was like, dude, you’re 30 years old, and you’re still doing times better than you have in the past,” Phelps told media in Federal Way. “I said it just shows anything is possible.”

Swimmers generally train to peak in the summer — and certainly not December. And of the three faster non-summer times, two of them were from the 2007 World Championships and the 2005 World Championships trials, meets Phelps certainly trained to peak for.

On Thursday, Phelps won the 200m individual medley in a time 1.69 seconds faster than at a meet in Minneapolis three weeks ago.

“A good place to be,” Phelps, who on Aug. 8 swam the world’s fastest 100m butterfly time (50.45) since 2009, told NBC’s Carolyn Manno on Friday. “It’s really just trying to swim the fastest times that I can unshaved. For me to be where I am right now and to be kind of unshaved, unrested and still being able to swim some of the fastest times I’ve been able to swim in-season in my life, I think it’s a good sign.”

Winter Nationals conclude Saturday and will be streamed live the next on USASwimming.org/Nationals at 9 p.m. ET. NBC and NBC Sports Live Extra will air coverage Sunday from 1-2 p.m. ET.

Full Friday results are here.

In other events, Franklin beat Natalie Coughlin in their first 100m backstroke final duel since the 2012 Olympic trials (when Franklin also won and Coughlin was an agonizing third after winning the 2004 and 2008 Olympic titles).

Franklin prevailed in Federal Way in 1:00.03 after being fifth at the halfway point.

“Gave myself a little bit of a heart attack there,” Franklin told media in Federal Way.

The 33-year-old Coughlin placed fourth at 1:00.41, but is still the fastest American in the event this year (59.05) after shying away from the backstroke in 2013 and 2014.

Franklin is returning from a back injury that plagued her at the biggest meet of 2014, the Pan Pacific Championships, and a six-meet individual race winless drought this summer.

“Every single time I race, I learn something,” Franklin told Manno. “I’ve made some major improvements since this summer.”

She’s got five Olympic medals and has said her goal is to become the most successful female Olympic swimmer of all time. The medals record is currently shared by the retired Jenny Thompson and Dara Torres, plus Coughlin, who has entered 12 career Olympic events and earned medals in all of them.

Earlier Friday, Franklin suffered a defeat in the 200m freestyle. Allison Schmitt beat Franklin in the event for the first time since Schmitt broke the Olympic record in the London Games final, where Franklin was fourth.

“Mentally, I’m still struggling with that race a little,” Franklin told media in Federal Way.

Since the 2012 Olympics, Schmitt has dealt with depression and failed to make the U.S. team for the 2013 World Championships, 2014 Pan Pacific Championships and 2015 World Championships.

Schmitt, who also won the 400m free Thursday, must likely beat Franklin in the 200m free again at the Olympic trials on June 29 to make the Rio team in the event. That’s because Katie Ledecky is the World champion and two make the Olympic team.

Also Friday, Olympic champion Dana Vollmer won the women’s 100m butterfly in 57.95, her fastest time since coming back from a nearly two-year break to have a baby.

Vollmer’s time ranks her No. 16 in the world and, more importantly, No. 3 among Americans for the year behind Kelsi Worrell (57.24) and Katie McLaughlin (57.87). Worrell and McLaughlin are not competing in Federal Way.

The top two at the Olympic trials on June 27 in Omaha make the Olympic team.

“Time-wise, I feel like I’m still the same person,” said Vollmer, whose since-broken world record from the London Games was 55.98. “I have a 55 in me, and I just gotta get back to it. … It’s nice to see time chipping away slowly.”

Another U.S. Olympic champion, Matt Grevers, captured the men’s 100m back in 52.54, bettering his disappointing bronze-medal time from the World Championships on Aug. 4 by .12 of a second.

“I wanted to redeem myself a little bit after Worlds,” Grevers told media in Federal Way. “I was hoping for a little better.”

MORE SWIMMING: Michael Phelps: I wasn’t 100 percent at Beijing Olympics

Katie Ledecky wins race by 30 seconds, takes back No. 1 ranking

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In her last race of the year, Katie Ledecky ensured she would finish 2019 as the world’s fastest 1500m freestyler.

Ledecky clocked 15:35.98 at the U.S. Open in Atlanta, winning the longest event on the Olympic pool program by 29.97 seconds. Typical for Ledecky, who owns the nine fastest times in history. This one came in at No. 8. Full meet results are here.

Ledecky scratched the 1500m free final at the summer world championships due to illness. Italian Simona Quadarella went on to win that title in 15:40.89, which was the world’s fastest time this year until Saturday night.

“I didn’t have time on my mind at all today. I just wanted to have a consistent swim,” Ledecky, undefeated in 1500m free finals for nine years, said on NBCSN. “That’s probably the best mile that I’ve had in a while.”

The women’s 1500m freestyle debuts at the Olympics in Tokyo. Ledecky is expected to add that to her Rio Olympic individual lineup of 200m, 400m and 800m frees, assuming she is top two in each event at the June Olympic trials.

In other events Saturday, Erika Brown handed Simone Manuel a rare defeat in the 100m freestyle. Brown, a University of Tennessee senior, clocked 53.42 and lowered her personal best by .71 between prelims and the final. Brown moved from sixth to fourth in the U.S. rankings this year, upping her stock as a contender to make the Olympic 4x100m free relay pool via a top-six finish at trials.

Brown previously lowered her personal best in the 50m free on Thursday. She ranks third in the U.S. this year in that event.

Emily Escobedo dealt Lilly King a rare domestic defeat in the 200m breaststroke. Escobedo lowered her personal best by .87 and clocked 2:22.00, moving to seventh fastest in the world this year and remaining fourth among Americans.

In the men’s 200m breast, Olympic champion Dmitriy Balandin of Kazakhstan was beaten by Cody Miller, the Olympic 100m breast silver medalist. Both were slower than their best times this year.

The next significant swim meet is a Tyr Pro Series stop in Knoxville, Tenn., from Jan. 16-19.

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Mikaela Shiffrin runner-up in Lake Louise downhill

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LAKE LOUISE, Alberta (AP) — Here’s a scary thought for her competition: Mikaela Shiffrin is still getting comfortable with the intensity and the speed of the downhill.

That’s why podium finishes are still a little surprising even to her.

The American three-time overall World Cup champion finished runner-up to Nicole Schmidhofer of Austria in a downhill race Saturday. Schmidhofer cruised through the course in 1 minute, 49.92 seconds to edge Shiffrin by 0.13 seconds. Francesca Marsaglia of Italy wound up third.

Schmidhofer has four career World Cup wins, with three of them arriving at Lake Louise.

Known as a tech specialist, Shiffrin is steadily getting up to speed in the speed events. This was Shiffrin’s fourth career World Cup podium finish in the downhill, which includes a Lake Louise win in 2017.

So, does Shiffrin anticipate this kind of downhill success?

“No, no, no,” the 24-year-old from Colorado said. “It’s certainly not normal (for a downhill podium). Even racing downhill doesn’t feel normal. But I feel every year like I have more experience and get more comfortable.”

Shiffrin currently sits at 62 World Cup wins, which ties her with Austrian great Annemarie Moser-Proell for second-most on the women’s side. Lindsey Vonn had 82 wins before her retirement.

“I’m certainly more comfortable with the long skis,” Shiffrin said of downhill racing. “Right now, it’s enjoying it, because speed is a little bit extra for me. My goal is to be able to succeed in speed as well. It’s making the transition and trying to have fun with it.”

Czech Republic skier and snowboarder Ester Ledecka finished fourth Saturday. She was the surprise winner of Friday’s season-opening downhill, which was delayed and shortened by heavy snowfall on the mountain. The race Saturday was restored to its full length.

Next up, a super-G on Sunday.

“It’s always been a little bit tricky for me from downhill skis to super-G skis and to change the timing a little bit,” Shiffrin said. “I’m going to have fun.”

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