Michael Phelps
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Michael Phelps looks to his past to fix his freestyle

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Last August, Michael Phelps proved that he’s still the world’s best swimmer in three races. But a fourth eludes him.

The 200m freestyle.

Phelps recently pored over video of his 200m freestyle victories at the 2007 World Championships and the 2008 Olympics.

He’s comparing his best all-time swims in the event to his (much slower) races of his two-year-old comeback.

Why? He lost his stroke. He’s trying to find it.

“I haven’t felt anywhere close to my stroke, before the last three weeks,” Phelps told media Thursday.

In his first race since the rediscovery, Phelps was ninth overall in the 200m freestyle preliminary heats at a meet in Mesa, Ariz., on Thursday morning.

Eight hours later, Phelps went 2.42 seconds faster to win his consolation final in a time that would have placed third overall. The time — 1:48.21 — was .01 off Phelps’ best 200m free of his comeback.

“I see what I’m doing wrong, but it’s been hard for me to fix it,” Phelps said afterward. “It was really just stop overthinking it and go back to the basics. That’s what made me able to kind of feel like I can swim freestyle again. I think it’s helped a lot.”

Since the start of 2014, he’s fastest in the world in the 100m butterfly, 200m butterfly and 200m individual medley, all thanks to swims at last August’s U.S. Championships.

But in the 200m free, which he didn’t swim at Nationals in August, he ranks No. 14 among U.S. swimmers.

Phelps likely needs to drop into the 1:46 range by the Olympic Trials in June to earn a place on the Rio 4x200m freestyle relay team.

Trying to make the individual 200m free in Rio, by finishing top two at trials, may be too much of an ask.

“I would love to swim that race individually; I don’t know if I will,” Phelps said. “I wouldn’t swim that race unless I was 100 percent.”

The 200m freestyle has been the most fickle event of Phelps’ storied career.

In 2004, Phelps went against his coach’s suggestion and contested the 200m freestyle at the Olympics, finishing third in the “Race of the Century” behind Ian Thorpe and Pieter van den Hoogenband. He broke the American record.

In 2008, Phelps swam the best race of his life in the 200m freestyle final at the Beijing Olympics, breaking his world record by nine tenths of a second.

In 2012, Phelps edged Ryan Lochte in the 200m freestyle at the Olympic Trials. But he dropped the event off his London Olympic program, not wanting to attempt the same, daunting eight-event schedule as 2004 and 2008.

“The biggest thing that I really had tonight was I was able to get confidence back in that race,” Phelps said Thursday. “Because I haven’t really swam that race well in a really long time. … I don’t think I’ve swam a good individual 200m free since 2008.”

Racing continues in Mesa on Friday, with finals on NBC Sports Live Extra.

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Rafael Nadal can tie Roger Federer’s Slam record with 13th French Open

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For all of the many qualities contributing to Rafael Nadal’s unprecedented superiority at the French Open — the bullwhip of a high-bouncing lefty forehand, the reflex returns, the cover-every-corner athleticism, the endless energy and grit — there’s one element that stands above all the rest.

According to the opponent Nadal beat in the last two finals in Paris, anyway.

“You go into the match knowing that even your best tennis, even if you play it over three, four hours, might not be enough. I mean, if you do it, you maybe have a little chance, but you have to go to your limit on every single rally, every single point,” Dominic Thiem, who won the U.S. Open less than two weeks ago, told The Associated Press.

“That makes it not easy to go into the match,” Thiem said. “And that’s the mental part, I guess.”

When main-draw competition begins Sunday at Roland Garros, Thiem and every other player in the men’s bracket will be pursuing Nadal as the 34-year-old from Spain pursues history.

If Nadal manages to claim a 13th French Open championship — extending his own record for the most singles trophies won by anyone at any major tennis tournament — he would, more significantly, also collect his 20th Grand Slam title overall, tying Roger Federer’s record for a man.

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women | TV Schedule

Nadal’s tally elsewhere: four U.S. Opens, two Wimbledons, one Australian Open.

He spoke Friday in Paris about what “probably are the most difficult conditions for me ever in Roland Garros” — a lack of matches in 2020; a new brand of tennis balls (“super slow, heavy”); cooler weather and plenty of rain in the forecast.

“But you know what?” Nadal said. “I am here to fight and to play with the highest intensity possible.”

Asked recently about the possibility of catching the 39-year-old Federer, out for the rest of the season after a pair of operations on his right knee, Nadal expressed a sentiment he’s uttered before.

Climbing the Grand Slam list, Nadal said, is “not an obsession at all.”

“I know that you put a lot of attention on all of this,” he replied when the topic was raised last week at the Italian Open, Nadal’s first tournament since February because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Of course I would love to finish my career with 25, but (that’s) something that probably will not happen. I’m going to keep fighting to produce chances, and then when I finish my career, let’s see, no?” he said. “I just want to keep enjoying tennis. And that’s it. If I am playing well, I know I normally have my chances. If not, going to be impossible. That’s it.”

There is, of course, another great of the game playing during this era and, like Nadal, gaining on Federer.

That would be No. 1-ranked Novak Djokovic, who had won five of seven major titles to raise his total to 17 before being disqualified at the U.S. Open for accidentally hitting a line judge with a ball while walking to a changeover.

In this oddest of years, the Grand Slam season will drawing to a close in France; the clay-court major was postponed from May until now because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Roland Garros is the last Slam, the last opportunity of this season. So we all know who the main favorite is there: Obviously, it’s Nadal. And everything that he has achieved there, losing maybe a couple matches in his entire career on that court … is probably the most impressive record that anybody has on any court,” Djokovic said. “So, yeah, of course you would put him right there in front as a favorite to win it.”

For the record: Nadal has won 93 of 95 matches in the French Open and his last 21 in a row.

So what makes him so dominant there?

“He’s an unbelievably great tennis player. Probably on clay, a little bit better than on the other surfaces,” Thiem said. “He’s left-handed, which makes it very uncomfortable. And then his forehand, the topspin on the clay, it’s cruel to play.”

Thiem takes notes and hopes to emulate aspects of Nadal’s game.

So do others.

In Rome, for example, two-time Grand Slam champion Simona Halep and one of her coaches, Artemon Apostu-Efremov, caught one of Nadal’s training sessions.

“We were watching the way he hits the ball, the acceleration, the energy he has on the court and the way he practices 100%. It’s always an inspiration,” Apostu-Efremov said.

“This dedication on the court and focus on court,” he said, “it’s something that, for sure, could be transferred to Simona.”

Nadal wound up losing his third match in Italy, which is neither ideal form nor the sort of prep work he is accustomed to ahead of Roland Garros.

Still, Nadal at the French Open is unlike anyone else, anywhere else.

“Regardless of how he feels, I’m sure he’ll find a way,” said Stefanos Tsitsipas, a 2019 Australian Open semifinalist seeded No. 5 in Paris. “He always finds a way, every single year. Clay is his surface. I’m sure he’s going to do well.”

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Skate America will not have fans

Skate America
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Skate America, the top annual international figure skating competition held in the U.S., will not have spectators in Las Vegas from Oct. 23-25.

U.S. Figure Skating said the restriction was “due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and in strict accordance with the Nevada Gaming Control Board guidelines.”

Skate America is the first top-level event of the season, kicking off the six-stop Grand Prix Series leading up to December’s Grand Prix Final, which is scheduled this season for Beijing.

The series has already been modified to restrict fields to skaters from the host country or to the event closest to their training location.

Grand Prix fields have not been announced, though two-time world champion Nathan Chen said last month he hoped to go for a fourth straight Skate America title.

Chen trains in California. Most, if not all, top U.S. skaters train in the U.S. or Canada, which means they will compete in Skate America or Skate Canada if they participate in the Grand Prix Series at all.

Two-time U.S. women’s champion Alysa Liu will not be old enough to compete on the Grand Prix until the 2021-22 Olympic season.

Skaters are limited to one Grand Prix start this season. In past seasons, they’ve typically competed twice.

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