Katie Ledecky’s growth evident on anniversary of breakout

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Five thoughts off Saturday’s finals at swim meets in Charlotte and Atlanta:

1. Katie Ledecky has come a long way in four years

It was this weekend four years ago that Katie Ledecky became a U.S. Olympic team contender. At the 2012 Charlotte Grand Prix, a 15-year-old Ledecky finished second in the 400m freestyle and won the 800m freestyle.

On Saturday, Ledecky won a 400m free in Atlanta by 8.72 seconds in 4:00.31. In 2012, she went 4:05.79 at that Charlotte meet, one month before she qualified to become the youngest member of Team USA in London.

In two days in Atlanta, Ledecky won the 200m and 400m frees easily and set a personal best in the 400m individual medley by 1.25 seconds. She will likely swim two more events Sunday to close the meet, which could be her final races before the Olympic Trials from June 26-July 3.

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2. Natalie Coughlin is an unknown

The 12-time Olympic medalist made a triumphant return to the 100m backstroke last year by posting the fastest time in the U.S. by a comfortable .35 of a second over 2012 Olympic champion Missy Franklin.

This year, Coughlin ranks sixth among Americans in the 100m back after clocking 1:01.07 in prelims and 1:01.18 in the final in Atlanta. Coughlin’s best time last year was 59.05.

Fortunately for Coughlin, Franklin is the only U.S. woman to break one minute in 2016. If Franklin is the Olympic Trials favorite, the second spot looks up for grabs at this point.

3. Anthony Ervin matches his 2000 Olympic time

The tattooed Ervin may have one more Olympics left in him. At 34, Ervin is trying to become the oldest U.S. man to swim an individual event at the Games since 1904, according to sports-reference.com.

Ervin needs to finish top two at the trials in the 50m freestyle to do that. On Saturday, he moved up to No. 2 in the U.S. rankings this year (behind Nathan Adrian) by clocking 21.98 to win in Charlotte, his new training base. The time was his fastest-ever this early in a year and matched his Olympic final time in 2000, when he shared gold with Gary Hall Jr.

Ervin also swam 21.98 at the 2015 World Championships, where he missed the final in a swim-off. That time ranked him fifth in the U.S. for 2015, so he’ll need to be faster at trials to make his third Olympic team.

4. Madison Kennedy backs up her wind-aided Mesa time

In April, Kennedy clocked the fastest U.S. women’s 50m freestyle outside of the fast suit era of 2008 and 2009. But it was thought to be heavily aided by huge tailwinds. Maybe it wasn’t.

Kennedy confirmed on Saturday, indoors, that she deserves to be favored to qualify for her first major international meet at age 28. She swam 24.53, just .08 off her Mesa time.

No other Americans broke 25 seconds in Atlanta or Charlotte on Saturday, including Simone Manuel, the fastest American in the event in 2013, 2014 and 2015. Manuel clocked 25.21 in Atlanta.

5. The Olympics may be too early for Reece Whitley

Whitley, a 6-foot-8 high school sophomore profiled by Sports Illustrated for Kids and The New York Times, is a great talent in the breaststroke.

In 2015, he ranked No. 7 in the U.S. in the 200m breast at age 15. The top two at the Olympic Trials on June 27 make the Olympic team, so Whitley’s ascent needs to speed up if Rio is a hope.

“The trials may be six months too early for him,” NBC Olympics analyst Rowdy Gaines said, according to the Times profile this week.

That appears true after the 200m breast finals in Atlanta and Charlotte on Saturday. In Charlotte, Cody Miller won in 2:12.22. In Atlanta, Josh Prenot prevailed in 2:09.49. Whitley was second in Atlanta, but well back in 2:14.99.

Whitley could become the first U.S. Olympic swimmer born in the 2000s, but he may have to wait until 2020 to earn that distinction.

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Ginny Fuchs hopes to emerge from OCD, tearful Olympic experience

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None of the boxers at this week’s U.S. Olympic Trials competed at a prior Olympics, but flyweight Ginny Fuchs remembers the specifics of her one Olympic experience in Rio.

Fuchs, who won the 2016 Olympic trials but failed to clinch a spot at the Games in international qualifiers, was nonetheless named team captain and brought to Rio as a sparring partner.

She had mixed feelings. Watching from the crowd as Claressa Shields repeated as Olympic champion on the final day of the Games was motivating. Fuchs had toyed with turning professional but, after talking to Shields, decided to forge another four years as an amateur for another chance to become an Olympian.

The Rio Olympic Opening Ceremony, two weeks before that Shields final, was too much for Fuchs to bear. She could not stay in the Athletes’ Village nor march with the U.S. delegation at the Maracana.

“I remember watching the Opening Ceremony at the place I was at with everybody,” she said. “I couldn’t watch. It was hard for me to watch. I went back to my room, cried and went to bed.”

Fuchs is favored to win the 51kg/112-pound division this week at Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino in Lake Charles, La., with finals streaming live on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app on Sunday (4-7 p.m. ET). It’s one of five women’s Olympic weight classes, up from three in 2012 and 2016, the first two editions of the Games for female boxers.

No boxer can clinch an Olympic spot this week, but failing to make a final would all but end Tokyo hopes.

Fuchs’ toughest opponent in this Olympic cycle — which included an undefeated 2017 and a 2018 World bronze medal among more than 130 fights — may be herself. Fuchs has been open about struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

It started in fifth grade.

“I can remember the first time I was on the school bus, and I was looking at the ground and looking at everybody’s backpacks on the floor,” said Fuchs, a 31-year-old from the Houston area. “And an instant thought came in mind, like, Oh my god. Everybody’s backpack is getting contaminated by this dirty floor on the bus.”

She cited a more recent example: spending up to 40 minutes washing her hands searching for that “perfect clean feeling.” Fuchs found boxing via a boyfriend after she was kicked off the LSU cross-country running team as a freshman walk-on for damaging school property in a prank.

She said the disorder hit her hardest this year. In January, she was driving to a Walmart three times a day to buy cleaning supplies, according to The New York Times.

She underwent intensive therapy and skipped October’s world championships, where she could have established herself as a clear Olympic gold-medal favorite.

“I still am going to probably do therapy for the rest of my life,” Fuchs said. “Maybe not as intense as I’m doing it right now, but it’s almost like training for boxing.

“You’ve got to keep training to keep winning in boxing. So I’ve got to keep training my OCD thoughts and how to handle and manage it. … Boxing is giving me hope almost. Like OK, outside the ring and in my room and the bathroom, I feel like [OCD] controls me and feel trapped. But I have this environment in this space in the gym, in the boxing ring, where I can be myself. And not let it attack me in a way where I can still enjoy life and not be trapped.”

Should Fuchs make the final of her division in Lake Charles, she will advance to a January camp and tournament, after which the U.S. roster for Olympic qualifying will be named.

If selected, Fuchs would head to a North and South American Olympic qualifying event in early spring in Buenos Aires to clinch the spot she could not secure four years ago. If necessary, she could get a second chance at a global qualifier in May in Paris.

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Yulia Efimova has lawyer ready if Russia ban affects her

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Yulia Efimova, the Russian swimmer who earned two Rio Olympic silver medals after initially being excluded from the Games for serving a prior doping ban, is bracing for another legal fight after the latest sanctions against her nation.

On Monday, Russia was banned from the 2020 and 2022 Olympics and the next four years of world championships in Olympic sports due to more recent anti-doping violations. However, its athletes can still compete as neutrals, if meeting specific anti-doping criteria, similar to how they did at the PyeongChang Winter Games.

Efimova was initially barred from the Rio Olympics under an IOC mandate that any Russian who previously served a doping ban would be ineligible due to the country’s anti-doping violations at that time.

Efimova appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), which ruled that IOC stipulation unenforceable. She went on to earn 100m and 200m breaststroke silver medals and develop a rivalry with American Lilly King, who said Efimova should not have been eligible.

It’s unclear from Monday’s ruling whether Efimova will be allowed to compete as a neutral, should Russia accept the sanctions or any appeal to CAS by the nation be denied.

“I will behave in a similar way,” to 2016, Efimova said, according to RT.com. “I have already hired a lawyer. There is a rule that a person can’t be punished twice for the same offense. If you violate a driving code or instigated a brawl you will not be punished twice for that. I hope it will work, but I cannot be sure of [a positive outcome].

“Right after my race at the Rio Games, I said that this doping controversy was not over, it was just the beginning, and we would have problems in the future. It was quite clear. And with every new year the situation is only getting worse and worse.”

Efimova, 27 and the two-time reigning world 200m breast champion, was banned 16 months between 2013 and 2015 after testing positive for a steroid. A FINA panel ruled that Efimova was not intentionally trying to cheat but was negligent in failing to read the label of a GNC store supplement.

“Yes, long ago I made a doping violation,” Efimova said this week, according to RT. “But there are a great number of U.S. and European athletes who have a similar situation regarding doping, and they are competing without any restrictions. If you want to introduce those regulations, they must be equally applied to all athletes, not only Russian competitors.”

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