Shirley Babashoff bows to Katie Ledecky

Katie Ledecky
AP
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Katie Ledecky‘s most talked-about pursuit at the U.S. Olympic Trials could actually be a chase of American legend Shirley Babashoff.

Ledecky holds the fastest times in the U.S. this year in the 100m, 200m, 400m and 800m freestyles.

One American previously made an Olympic team in four freestyles — Shirley Babashoff in 1976. Ledecky has a chance to match that feat at trials in Omaha from June 27-July 2.

“I feel that she’s going to make it in all four events, if not win the Olympic Trials in all four events,” Babashoff said in a phone interview earlier this year.

There are more parallels between Babashoff and Ledecky as the 40-year anniversary of the former’s five-medal performance at the Montreal Games nears.

Like Ledecky, Babashoff made her first Olympic team at age 15. Ledecky is now 19, the same age as Babashoff was in 1976.

Babashoff, a U.S. Postal Service letter carrier in her native Southern California since 1988, pointed out that age statistic.

Babashoff and Triple Crown-winning jockey Victor Espinoza presented Ledecky with USA Swimming’s Female Athlete of the Year at the Golden Goggle Awards in Los Angeles on Nov. 22.

Babashoff praised Ledecky as “an animal” in the water.

“How she can go out on an 800 [freestyle] and just go out and keep the same pace through the whole 800, there’s no piano falling,” Babashoff said. “She’s like a robot. She’s like a machine. I just think that’s totally incredible how she can do that, because I could never do that.”

In 1976, Babashoff entered the six-day U.S. Olympic Trials in Long Beach, Calif., and swept the 100m, 200m, 400m and 800m freestyles and the 400m individual medley in one of the most impressive single-meet performances of all time.

Babashoff broke American records in the four freestyles in Long Beach, including a world record in the 800m free.

“We were confident in everything, except for the 100 [freestyle] because it’s all out [sprinting],” said Babashoff, who by 1976 was swimming on the men’s team at Golden West Community College. “I was so trained that it wasn’t tiring. When you swim that much, and then you go to a meet and you swim a 400 IM twice in one day, it’s not that big of a deal.”

Then came the Montreal Olympics.

“The hardest part for me wasn’t really all the races,” Babashoff said. “It was mostly the East Germans.”

Babashoff was on average faster at the Montreal Olympics than at trials yet took three silver medals and a fifth place in four individual races, all won by dubious East Germans.

Babashoff accused them of taking performance-enhancing drugs. The media was not sympathetic, labeling her “Surly Shirley.” Now, it’s common knowledge East German athletes were part of a state-sponsored doping program in that era.

“It would have been a completely different Olympics for me if they weren’t there, or if they weren’t cheating and taking steroids,” said Babashoff, who co-wrote a book, “Making Waves,” coming out in July with more detail on the matter.

Babashoff started swimming later than Ledecky, at age 8, preferring breaststroke and working up from the shorter distances.

Ledecky, who began at age 6, has worked her way down in distance.

She raced solely the 800m free at the 2012 Olympics, then added the 400m free at the 2013 Worlds and 200m free at the 2015 Worlds. She chopped eight tenths of a second off her 100m free personal best at a meet in Austin in January.

Ledecky could choose not to swim the 100m free at the Olympic Trials. Or she could swim it with a goal of making the 4x100m free relay team only and not the individual event in Rio. Michael Phelps has done this in the past.

Ledecky proved at the 2015 World Championships that she can handle a Phelps-like workload at a major meet.

She won gold medals in all five of her events, including breaking her 1500m freestyle world record and then advancing from the 200m semifinals a half-hour later.

Ledecky can’t swim the 1500m free at the Olympics — it’s only available on the men’s program — but she could swim up to seven events in Rio if she finishes first or second in the 100m free at trials.

Babashoff doesn’t believe that Ledecky could exhaust herself. Just look at 1976.

Babashoff’s best swim in Montreal was arguably her final one, anchoring the U.S. to gold over the East Germans in the 4x100m free relay, after taking silver in the 800m free earlier that night. That relay is the subject of a USA Swimming film, “The Last Gold,” coming out in July.

“It’s not as hard as people think,” Babashoff said. “When you’re swimming that kind of mileage every day it’s not hard to just swim an 800 and then go and swim a 100 on a relay. It’s kind of like a warm-up, even. You don’t really get that tired. You’re in such superb physical condition that anything’s possible. You’re tired after the race, but you recover. In five minutes, you’re ready to go again.”

MORE: Shane Gould sees a bit of herself in Katie Ledecky

MORE: Debbie Meyer in awe as Ledecky chases her records

Injured Ilia Malinin wins Grand Prix Finland, qualifies for Grand Prix Final

Ilia Malinin
Getty
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Ilia Malinin, competing “a little bit injured” this week, still won Grand Prix Finland and goes into the Grand Prix Final in two weeks as the world’s top-ranked male singles skater.

Malinin, who was second after Friday’s short program, landed four clean quadruple jumps in Saturday’s free skate to overtake Frenchman Kevin Aymoz.

Malinin, who landed a quad flip in competition for the first time, according to SkatingScores.com, also attempted a quad Axel to open his program, but spun out of the landing and put his hand down on the ice.

Malinin also won his previous two starts this season in come-from-behind fashion. The 17-year-old world junior champion became the first skater to land a clean, fully rotated quad Axel in September, then did it again in October at Skate America, where he posted the world’s top overall score this season.

Next, Malinin can become the second-youngest man to win the Grand Prix Final after Russian Yevgeny Plushenko. His biggest competition is likely to be world champion Shoma Uno of Japan, who like Malinin won both of his Grand Prix starts this fall. Malinin and Uno have not gone head-to-head this season.

Grand Prix Finland highlights air on NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app on Sunday at 3:30 p.m. ET.

FIGURE SKATING: Results | Broadcast Schedule

Earlier, Japan’s Mai Mihara overtook world silver medalist Loena Hendrickx of Belgium to become the only woman to win both of her Grand Prix starts this season. Mihara prevailed by .23 of a point. The top three women this season by best total score are Japanese, led by a junior skater, 14-year-old Mao Shimada, who isn’t Olympic age-eligible until 2030.

Mihara and Hendrickx qualified for the Grand Prix Final, joining world champion Kaori Sakamoto and Rinka Watanabe, both of Japan, South Korean Yelim Kim and American Isabeau Levito, the world junior champion.

Italians Rebecca Ghilardi and Filippo Ambrosini won both pairs’ programs and qualified for their first Grand Prix Final.

Japan’s Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara and Americans Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier headline the Final. Both pairs won each of their Grand Prix starts earlier this fall. The Japanese have the world’s two best scores this season. The Americans are reigning world champions.

At least one Russian or Chinese pair made every Grand Prix Final podium — usually pairs from both countries — but neither nation competed in pairs this Grand Prix season. All Russian skaters are banned due to the war in Ukraine. China’s lone entry on the Grand Prix across all disciplines was an ice dance couple.

Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier improved on their world-leading score for this season in winning the ice dance by 17.03 points over Americans Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker. Both couples qualified for the Grand Prix Final in the absence of all three Olympic medalists this fall.

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Lara Gut-Behrami wins Killington giant slalom, and the overall title race may be on

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Swiss Lara Gut-Behrami rallied from third place after the first run for her 35th career World Cup victory, taking a giant slalom in Killington, Vermont, on Saturday.

Gut-Behrami, 31, earned her fifth World Cup giant slalom win and first in six years. She prevailed by .07 of a second over Italian Marta Bassino combining times from two windy runs. Sweden’s Sara Hector, the Olympic champion and first-run leader, ended up third.

“Last two years I’ve been getting better in GS again,” said Gut-Behrami, who won the GS at the last world championships in 2021. “Last year I was struggling with my health. I was all the time sick.”

ALPINE SKIING: Full Results | Broadcast Schedule

Gut-Behrami’s best events are downhill and super-G, so a strong start to the season in GS could put her on a path to winning the World Cup overall title, the biggest annual prize in ski racing. She previously lifted that crystal globe in 2016.

Reigning World Cup overall champ Mikaela Shiffrin, who previously placed second, third, fourth and fifth in Killington giant slaloms, finished 13th after winning the season’s first two races, slaloms in Finland last week. It marked her lowest World Cup GS finish since December 2019.

“[Finland] was a spectacular weekend,” Shiffrin, who has not had much recent GS training, said after her 10th-place opening run Saturday. “Every race is a different story.”

Shiffrin won all five World Cup slaloms in Killington dating to 2016 and will go for her 50th career World Cup slalom victory across all venues on Sunday (12:30 p.m. ET, NBC and Peacock).

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