Ryan Lochte
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Ryan Lochte feels like ‘underdog’ as loaded Mesa meet starts

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Four years ago, Ryan Lochte was the world’s best swimmer, coming off a haul of five gold medals at the 2011 World Championships.

Now?

The 31-year-old feels like “the underdog” with the Olympics less than four months away and the Olympic Trials in a little more than two months.

“I would say there is less pressure going into these Olympic Games because my past couple of years haven’t really been where I needed to be,” Lochte said Wednesday. “Now that Michael [Phelps] is back and everything, I think I’m back to being the underdog.”

Lochte, Phelps and the other members of U.S. swimming’s Big Four — Missy Franklin and Katie Ledecky — all compete in Mesa this weekend (broadcast schedule here).

It should be the last time they’re together at one Grand Prix-level meet before the Olympic Trials in Omaha from June 26-July 3.

Lochte expects to race the 200m freestyle and 100m butterfly on Thursday.

He’s also entered in the 200m butterfly and 100m backstroke on Friday and the 200m individual medley, 200m backstroke and 100m freestyle on Saturday.

Phelps is racing only one event per day — 200m freestyle, 200m butterfly and 200m individual medley.

Lochte and Phelps’ duels are always highlights at these domestic meets, but both are training to peak for the trials, so head-to-heads and even times in Mesa shouldn’t be dissected too much.

Lochte’s setbacks and struggles since he won three individual medals at London 2012 are more pertinent — a coaching change, significant injuries and doubts that reached retirement thoughts.

Lochte made the 2012 U.S. Olympic team in four individual events, but it’s looking unlikely that he can replicate that in Omaha.

Lochte ranked in the top five in the U.S. last year in two events — 200m freestyle and 200m individual medley. He did win his fourth straight 200m individual medley World title on Aug. 6.

But that field didn’t include then-punished Phelps, who had the fastest 2000m IM time in the world last year, or injured Japan superstar Kosuke Hagino, who beat Lochte and Phelps at the 2014 Pan Pacific Championships.

Lochte and his mad scientist coach David Marsh threw a curveball in January, entering the grueling 400m individual medley at a meet in an Olympic-sized pool for the first time since May 30, 2013.

He won the race, beating the fastest U.S. man in the event from 2015 (Chase Kalisz) by 1.98 seconds. It marked Lochte’s first win in a Grand Prix-level meet in an event other than the 200m individual medley since April 24, 2014.

Lochte remained coy about whether he would swim that grueling race at the Olympic Trials. It’s on the first night of that meet and the Olympics.

Lochte, then the world’s best swimmer, destroyed the field in the London Olympic 400m IM by 3.68 seconds (where Phelps finished fourth).

Times have since changed.

“I haven’t really done anything the past couple of years,” Lochte said Wednesday. “But now that I’m back in shape, I’m training hard, it’s going to be interesting.”

VIDEO: Michael Phelps Under Armour spot

A century later, Naomi Osaka, Kei Nishikori can bring Japan Olympic tennis to forefront

Naomi Osaka, Kei Nishikori
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When Naomi Osaka and Kei Nishikori take the courts at the Tokyo Olympics, perhaps together, they will be doing so 100 years after tennis players won Japan’s first Olympic medals in any sport.

Tennis is not usually one of the handful of marquee competitions at the Games, in part because it is one of the sports whose biggest event is not the Games themselves.

“We have been playing for these Grand Slams, and I think that’s why we train for,” Nishikori said at the U.S. Open in August, when asked to compare the meaning of winning one of tennis’ four annual majors to earning a medal at a home Olympics. “That’s going to be the biggest goal to winning Grand Slams.”

Yet the term “Grand Slam” had not been conceived — for golf or tennis — at the time of the 1920 Antwerp Games. There, Ichiya Kumagae earned silvers in singles and doubles with Seiichiro Kashio to become the first Japanese Olympic medalists.

Kumagae was Japan’s first notable international tennis player, reaching the 1918 U.S. Open semifinals (then called the U.S. National Championships) and beating Bill Tilden in the final of the 1919 Great Lakes Championships.

Kumagae, born in 1890, had not seen a tennis racket or ball until his 20s, according to Roger W. Ohnsorg‘s “The First Forty Years of American Tennis.”

“He came here to America in 1916, the possessor of a wonderful forehand drive and nothing else,” Tilden wrote in “The Art of Lawn Tennis.” Kumagae was listed by Ohnsorg as 5 feet, 3 inches, 134 pounds and requiring glasses at all times. Later in 1922, Kumagae’s engagement to the daughter of a wealthy politician was published as a news brief in The New York Times.

Nearly a century later, Nishikori and Osaka brought more Japanese tennis breakthroughs. Nishikori became the first Asian man to reach a Grand Slam singles final at the 2014 U.S. Open. Last year, Osaka became the first Japanese singles player to win a Grand Slam, also at the U.S. Open.

This past June, Japan’s annual Central Research sports survey (1,227 people, age 20+) put Nishikori and Osaka as its respondents’ fourth- and sixth-favorite athletes, past or present. Baseball players Ichiro (retired), Shohei Ohtani and Shigeo Nagashima (long retired) and figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu rounded out the top five.

Osaka’s U.S. Open title was voted the top sports moment of Emperor Akihito’s reign from 1989 to April 30, beating Ichiro’s retirement and Hanyu’s repeat Olympic crown in PyeongChang. Perhaps there was some recency bias.

Akatsuki Uchida, a tennis journalist from Japan, said that Nishikori’s U.S. Open final was a bigger moment for Japanese tennis than Osaka’s win over Serena Williams, though.

“Tennis at that time [in 2014] was not broadcast in Japan,” she said at the U.S. Open. “Media coverage of tennis was decreasing before Kei made that final. For most of Japanese, not tennis fans, but ordinary people, it came from out of nowhere. … He became like an overnight sensation. Since then, the situation of tennis in Japan changed dramatically.

“If [Osaka] wins the title before Kei won the title here, it could have been way bigger, but since Kei made the final before Naomi, it made Naomi’s achievement, still a big deal, less surprising.”

Another key difference: Nishikori spent the majority of his childhood in Japan, while Osaka’s family, with a Haitian father and Japanese mother, moved to the U.S. when she was 3 years old.

Osaka has dual citizenship, but Japanese law requires one to be chosen over the other by the 22nd birthday. Osaka turned 22 last month, before which she confirmed what most had assumed, that she picked Japan.

Uchida was unsure whether Osaka and Nishikori could propel tennis at the Tokyo Games into a greater spotlight among 33 total sports.

“But if Kei and Naomi played mixed doubles, that would be a big thing,” she said.

Nishikori has already reportedly said he plans to enter singles and doubles in Tokyo, the latter with Ben McLachlan, Japan’s top doubles player. McLachlan was born in New Zealand and in 2017 switched representation to Japan, his mother’s birth nation.

But Nishikori did not rule out adding mixed doubles.

“Very hot, very humid, playing singles and two doubles, I don’t know if I can,” he said before the U.S. Open. “I haven’t think too much yet, honestly. I don’t know. I will talk to Naomi later.”

Nishikori smiled as he brought up Osaka’s name at the end of his answer to a question that didn’t mention her. Later in the tournament, Osaka was told Nishikori’s thoughts.

“I would definitely play with him,” said Osaka, who in 2016 was the highest-ranked eligible player not to make the Rio Olympic field. “I just — I would actually need to practice doubles for the first time in my life. Because you cannot play mixed doubles with Kei Nishikori and lose in the first round of the Olympics in Tokyo. That would be the biggest — like, I would cry. I would actually cry for losing a doubles match. Yeah, definitely I think that that would be so, like, historic in a way. And I would love to do it, but I need to practice my doubles.”

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

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Another Jesse Owens Olympic gold medal being sold

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One of Jesse Owens‘ four 1936 Olympic gold medals will be put up for sale next week by Goldin Auctions.

Owens triumphed in the face of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany at the Berlin Games, taking the 100m, 200m, 4x100m relay and long jump.

This could be the second Owens gold to be sold in recent years, after one was auctioned in 2013 for $1,466,574, the highest price ever for a piece of Olympic memorabilia.

Two more were said to be put up for auction in 2017, but there are no widespread reports of sales actually happening.

This gold medal was gifted by Owens to John Terpak, a U.S. Olympic weightlifter in 1936 and 1948, after Terpak helped Owens garner speaking engagements, according to Goldin. The previous gold that sold for $1.4 million was gifted by Owens to a different friend.

Terpak died in 1993 and passed the medal on to his son and daughter, who consigned it to Goldin.

The medal is part of Goldin Auctions’ Holiday Auction from Monday through Dec. 7 on GoldinAuctions.com. The listings also include Tommy Lasorda‘s autographed lineup card from the 2000 Olympic baseball gold-medal game.

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