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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

Punahou, Barack Obama’s school, produced Olympic talent in 4 sports

Punahou School
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Some high schools have a swimming tradition. Others produce great ice hockey or water polo players. The Punahou School in Honolulu, private and K-12, is best known for a student who also played basketball — its most famous graduate, Barack Obama.

Also this: Dating to Obama’s tenure in 1976, at least one Punahou student went on to make the last 11 U.S. Summer Olympic teams.

And with the addition of skateboarding and surfing to the Olympic program, there are former Punahou students among the best in the country in four different Olympic sports, plus another Paralympic sport.

“One of my favorite things about going to Punahou was that I felt like I was surrounded by a lot of excellence,” said Carissa Moore, the reigning world champion in surfing and a Punahou grad. “A lot of my friends are some of the smartest girls, women. … The whole school, everyone is doing something.”

Moore, 27, qualified for the U.S. Olympic team with her fourth world title last year. Heimana Reynolds is the reigning world champ in park skateboarding.

Brothers Taylor and Trevor Crabb are on different beach volleyball teams ranked among the top three in the country. Erik Shoji is a veteran libero and Micah Ma’a a promising setter and outside hitter for the U.S. indoor volleyball team.

Shelby Baron is a Rio Paralympic wheelchair tennis player who is now ranked third in the country.

It’s possible that they could all qualify for the Tokyo Games, which have been postponed to summer 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Punahou, whose name means “the New Spring,” referencing renewal and a spring at the center of the campus, bills itself as the largest single-campus independent school in the U.S. and reportedly the oldest west of the Mississippi.

It was founded in 1841 with a first class of 15 students who were children of congregational missionaries. Now, it has more than 3,700. Annual tuition is $26,000, though there are financial aid options.

“This used to be an elite school, you know. Mostly rich. Predominantly Caucasian,” said Eric Kusunoki, who was Obama’s homeroom teacher for four years as part of his four decades working at Punahou. “But then when I stepped foot here, I said, wow, you know, it’s so diverse. Hawaii’s golden people, you know.

“It’s [a] very cosmopolitan campus and very reflective of what Hawaii is like.”

The school has been compared to Stanford. Sports Illustrated ranked it the No. 1 high school athletic program in 2008, replete with an eight-page magazine spread, and again in 2009. The magazine deemed it a “76-acre citadel of academic and athletic excellence where Aristotle meets Duke Kahanamoku.”

Kahanamoku, the Olympic swimming champion and surfing pioneer, never attended Punahou.

But several famous athletes are among the alumni. Like Michelle Wie, Manti Te’o and Obama, who played one season of varsity basketball on the Buff n’ Blue’s 1979 state title team.

In fact, Obama wrote in his autobiography that the lure of Punahou helped keep him in the States with his grandparents rather than flying back to Indonesia with his mom.

Obama, needing a financial aid scholarship to attend, toured the campus with his grandfather before the fifth grade. “Gramps grabbed me by the arm. ‘Hell, Bar,’ he whispered, ‘this isn’t a school. This is heaven,’” Obama wrote.

“He wasn’t a big standout,” Kusunoki said of the student they called Barry. “But yet everybody knew him. He was well-liked, well-known, but he did it real subtly.”

Others followed Obama with athletic success. Reynolds was a skateboard prodigy, profiled by the local NBC affiliate as a 10-year-old before leaving Punahou after 10th grade. He switched to online classes to accommodate all his traveling for competition.

Skateboarding and surfing are not sanctioned high school sports in Hawaii. Moore still won a record 11 National Scholastic Surfing Association titles. In her spare time, she was such a convincing tour guide for prospective Punahou students that admissions officers called her “The Closer,” according to SI.

“I have heard this,” Moore said, smiling when told the nickname. “It wasn’t really ever a big thing for me, but yes, I would bring potential prospects that would come to the school and stuff and give them tours.

“It’s just a beautiful environment to learn. It’s a very comfortable, free environment. The best part of this community is they’re going to support you in chasing your dreams.”

Moore said she was classmates with Taylor Crabb, one half of the U.S.’ top-ranked men’s beach volleyball team. Taylor’s mom, Paula, a champion canoe racer, has been a Punahou P.E. teacher since Obama was there. Taylor and partner Jake Gibb have been competing against Taylor’s older brother, Trevor, and Tri Bourne for Olympic beach volleyball berths.

It’s possible both Crabb brothers, who grew up a five-minute walk from the Punahou campus, can make it to Tokyo.

“Whenever someone says, oh, I went to Punahou, the first thing someone says is, oh, it’s where Barack Obama went,” said Trevor, who won a state basketball title and goes back to campus about once a year to see the old gym.

Shoji’s father, Dave, was the University of Hawaii’s women’s volleyball coach for 42 years, capturing four national titles and retiring in 2017 as the winningest coach in NCAA history. Ma’a won four state titles in volleyball at Punahou and others in football and basketball. At 22 and fresh out of UCLA, he was the second-youngest U.S. player at the 2019 Volleyball Nations League.

Both Trevor Crabb and Moore said you wouldn’t know it by walking around campus that Obama once roamed the grounds. He contributed to just one of a reported 505 state championships in the school’s history, a record for any state.

“There’s nothing up there yet,” of the 44th U.S. President, Moore said, “but it’s definitely something the school is very proud of.”

MORE: Hockey field to hospital ward: Olympian’s life amid coronavirus pandemic

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IOC, sport federations in talks about Tokyo Olympic age rules

Gabriel Jesus
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The International Olympic Committee and Olympic sport federations hope to finalize any adjustments to age rules for the Tokyo Games within the next two weeks.

Two sports’ rules stand out in particular.

Since the 2000 Sydney Games, an age minimum in artistic gymnastics requires female Olympians to turn 16 years old or older in the Olympic year (men must turn 18, though the age rule is less of a factor for top male gymnasts). As such, Tokyo Olympic eligibility rules state all female artistic gymnasts must be born Dec. 31, 2004, or earlier.

The International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) can choose to keep the Dec. 31, 2004, deadline. Or it could keep the 16 or older mandate by moving that date to Dec. 31, 2005 for the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. The federation hasn’t announced its plan.

Its decision could impact U.S. Olympic women’s gymnastics team selection. At least one woman who turned 16 or younger in the Olympic year made the last 10 U.S. Olympic teams. That includes Kyla Ross, the 2011 U.S. junior all-around silver medalist who made the 2012 Olympic team. And Laurie Hernandez, the 2015 U.S. junior all-around champion who made the 2016 Olympic team.

The 2019 U.S. junior all-around champion, Kayla DiCello, turned 16 on Jan. 25. The 2019 U.S. junior all-around silver medalist, Konnor McClain, turns 16 on Feb. 1, 2021. Under the 2020 Olympic eligibility rules, McClain is 32 days too young for the Tokyo Games. If the birthdate deadline is moved one year forward, McClain would be eligible.

Another sport facing an age decision: men’s soccer. Olympic men’s soccer tournaments are limited to players who turn 23 or younger in the Olympic year with three over-age exceptions. Similar to the FIG, FIFA can keep its 2020 deadline of Jan. 1, 1997. Or it can keep its under-23 mandate and move the birthdate deadline to Jan. 1, 1998.

Fourteen of the 16 men’s soccer teams already qualified for the Games using players from under-23 national teams. The last two spots are to be filled by CONCACAF nations, potentially the U.S. qualifying a men’s team for the first time since 2008.

“You can imagine there’s a logic to looking at that, having the same athletes or teams that achieved the qualification place to be the ones taking part next year, but aiming to confirm that with the respective federations,” IOC sports director Kit McConnell said Thursday.

The U.S.’ biggest star, Christian Pulisic, was born Sept. 18, 1998, and thus will be unaffected. Same goes for French superstar Kylian Mbappe, born Dec. 20, 1998.

Brazilian forward Gabriel Jesus was born April 3, 1997, and would become an over-age exception if the birthdate rule is moved to Jan. 1, 1998.

However, players need permission from their professional club teams to play in the Olympics, often limiting the availability of stars.

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