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Five women’s races to watch at U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials

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With 26 events over eight days, there will be plenty to watch at the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials in Omaha, starting Sunday on NBC, NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra.

Here are five women’s events to focus on:

Women’s 100m freestyle – July 1
Three 19-year-olds will battle some Olympic veterans for six Olympic berths (only two individually, though), and some vets who are not necessarily freestyle specialists. The top seed is Simone Manuel, who clocked in at 53.25 as a 17-year-old at the 2014 Pan Pacific Championships. Seeded second will be Missy Franklin (53.68), the reigning Olympic 100 and 200 backstroke champ. Third is reigning Olympic 100 butterfly champ Dana Vollmer (53.59). Then there’s 19-year-old Katie Ledecky (53.75), who won gold at the 2015 Worlds in every freestyle event longer than 100 meters, and another 19-year-old, Abbey Weitzeil (53.77). A relay spot could go to 33-year-old Natalie Coughlin, who has won 12 Olympic medals, two of which were in the 100 free (bronze in 2004 and ’08).

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Women’s 200m freestyle – June 29
The 200 free will be similarly loaded with big names battling for six spots. Ledecky is the favorite after winning the event at the 2015 Worlds and posting the world’s second-fastest time so far this year (1:54.43). Franklin won bronze at last year’s Worlds in 1:55.49, seventh-fastest since the start of 2015. And Allison Schmitt is the defending Olympic gold medalist. She won in London in 1:53.61, but her best time since January 2015 is 1:56.23. Manuel, seeded ninth, could vie for a berth here as well.

Women’s 100m backstroke – June 28
This one could come down to Franklin and Coughlin. Franklin is the defending Olympic champion, winning the London 100 back in 58.33; she placed fifth at the 2015 Worlds in 59.40, tops among Americans. Coughlin, however, holds the fastest American time since the start of 2015 (59.05). She’s a two-time Olympic gold medalist in this event (2004 and ’08), but was edged out at the 2012 Trials by Franklin and then-18-year-old Rachel Bootsma, whose recent times leave her a longshot in the event at this year’s Trials.

Women’s 400m individual medley – June 26
Maya DiRado, 23, looks set to make her Olympic debut after winning silver in the 400 IM at the 2015 Worlds in 4:31.71, the second-fastest time in the world since the start of 2015. Close behind is Elizabeth Beisel, who posted 4:31.99 at the 2014 Pan Pacific Championships, and won silver at the London Games with a time of 4:31.27. Caitlin Leverenz also took part in that Olympic final, placing sixth (4:35.49); her best mark since is 4:35.46. And Ledecky will be seeded fifth in this race, though she is unlikely to have designs on swimming it in Rio.

Women’s 200m butterfly – June 30
Cammile Adams made her Olympic debut four years ago after winning this event at Trials, and then finished fifth in London (2:06.78). She dropped her time to 2:06.40 and won silver at the 2015 Worlds, and her best mark since January 2015 is 2:06.33, fifth in the world. She’ll be challenged at Trials by 18-year-old Katie McLaughlin, who placed sixth at Worlds last year in 2:06.95, the world’s 11th-best time in the past two years. DiRado and Hali Flickinger could also contend for that second spot.

2021 Burton U.S. Open snowboarding event canceled

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The Burton U.S. Open, snowboarding’s most storied event, canceled its 2021 competition due to uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.

“The truth is, we just can’t be sure it will be safe from a public health standpoint for us to host the event in 2021,” a statement read.

The U.S. Open, held since 1982, is usually around the first weekend in March, making it the season-ending event for many riders. Halfpipe champions include Shaun WhiteChloe KimKelly Clark and Ross Powers, who also earned Olympic gold medals.

Other 2020-21 winter sports events affected by the coronavirus pandemic include figure skating’s Junior Grand Prix. The first two stops of that eight-event series, scheduled for late August and early September in Canada and Slovakia, have been canceled.

The Italian Winter Sports Federation, which is due to put on the February 2021 World Alpine Skiing Championships in Cortina d’Ampezzo, made a formal request on Monday to postpone the event until March 2022, one month after the next Winter Olympics in Beijing. The International Ski Federation (FIS) council will decide July 1.

MORE: Takeaways from abbreviated 2019-20 winter sports season

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Kara Eaker eschews fear, back on balance beam to resume Olympic quest

Kara Eaker
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Kara Eaker hasn’t qualified for an Olympics yet, but she is already part of a historic club of U.S. gymnasts. The list goes, most recently, Eaker, Simone BilesKyla RossAly RaismanNastia LiukinShawn JohnsonShannon Miller and Dominique Dawes.

Those are the women who qualified for back-to-back balance beam finals at the sport’s highest level: Olympics or world championships. For Eaker (pronounced like acre), they came in her first two years as a senior gymnast in 2018 and 2019 (Biles and Johnson are the only other U.S. women to do that in the last 25 years.)

This was supposed to be Eaker’s Olympic year, but the coronavirus pandemic postponed the Games to 2021, after her Missouri high school graduation. It also kept her out of the gym for nearly two months until the GAGE Center reopened last week in Blue Springs, near Kansas City.

It was the longest Eaker had been off a regulation beam (and out of the gym) since she could remember. She began competing at age 5.

Eaker’s mom, Katherine, said her daughter never feared the four-inch-wide beam, but Eaker said the thought of returning last week “was definitely kind of scary at first.” That is, until one of her coaches eased her back with basics and work on a floor beam, one that’s not raised as high as the four feet you see in competition.

“By the time we were ready, and she was comfortable putting us back up there, it wasn’t scary,” Eaker said. “It felt normal.”

Eaker, adopted from a Chinese orphanage around age 1 in 2003 (her parents’ travel then delayed by SARS), excels on the senior elite stage with a level of normalcy.

Which is not entirely normal in this sport. She lives with her family, 10 minutes from her world-class gym. She still attends regular high school. She’s committed to continue gymnastics at the University of Utah after the Tokyo Olympics.

“I started out in dance, actually,” said Eaker, whose hobbies include robotics and calligraphy. “A little, little girl with the stuffed animal, twirling around in the dance room. And then we had our little recital and I just wasn’t … I couldn’t do the standing in front of an audience kind of thing.”

Her mom believes it was around Christmas. Eaker was 3 or 4.

“She just froze like a deer in the headlights, and all the other girls froze, too, because they were used to following her,” Katherine said. “Then she tried gymnastics. We had to drag her out [of the gym]. From then on, it was always, she’s first one in, last one out. Still is.”

The family, including Eaker’s father, Mark, retired Navy and a flight engineer, and younger sister, Sara, moved three times within Missouri in part to get Kara closer to GAGE to pursue what would eventually become an Olympic dream.

Gymnastics meets were appointment TV before Eaker entered kindergarten. She watched the Beijing Olympics, or perhaps an even earlier meet, while dancing around the living room in a leotard. Sometimes she mimicked the gold medalists by doing back bends. She continued to watch Beijing highlights, with Liukin and Johnson, on replay on YouTube.

Back at the gym, Eaker developed with the help of her coaches, plus future University of Nebraska gymnast Catelyn Orel, her “gym mom” under the GAGE program to pair older and younger athletes. Orel was a state champion on beam. Eaker proved a natural, too.

“A lot of the girls would get up there and have trouble balancing, but she just always seemed to do it just like she was on the floor,” her mom said. “She’s never really had a fear. Some girls get up there and are nervous. She just never seemed to be that way.”

In 2018, Eaker was 15, old enough to start competing on the senior level with the likes of Biles. Exactly 10 years after she would have watched Johnson win the Beijing Olympic beam title, Eaker finished second on beam at nationals behind Biles. She was invited to the world championships team selection camp, where she had the top beam score and placed sixth in the all-around. Six gymnasts would be chosen by a committee to travel to the world championships.

Eaker didn’t expect to make the team. In a large meeting with coaches and staff, the roster was announced. Eaker made it as the youngest member.

“It was a goal, but there were so many other girls and it was my first year as a senior,” she said. “I was very happy and surprised to make that team.”

Eaker again won beam at the 2019 World Championships selection camp. If Eaker endured adversity those first two years, it came at worlds.

In 2018, she fell on her mount in the beam final. The rest of her routine was medal-worthy gymnastics. She waited an eternal three minutes for her score, which placed her sixth. Eaker’s routine from the team final earlier that week would have earned silver.

In 2019, Eaker again qualified for the eight-woman beam final. The U.S. federation submitted an inquiry on her qualifying score, contesting a lower start value given to her. That backfired. Judges lowered Eaker’s score even more upon review, which took her out of the final. However, another gymnast who had qualified later withdrew due to injury. Eaker was back in the final, where she placed fourth.

She was asked afterward what she would take away from the meet.

“Just the experience of it all,” she said, composed. “How it makes me feel. How to use that [in the future].”

In 2021, Eaker will have to prove to a selection committee that she can be reliable on all four apparatuses. The Olympic team event size is four — with three gymnasts going per apparatus in the Olympic final — down from five in 2016, putting a greater emphasis on the all-around. Eaker could also be a candidate for one separate spot in individual events only.

“I definitely want to be seen as a great beam worker, but I also need to be a great all-arounder because they’re going to be looking at not just your one event,” said Eaker, who was third in the all-around at the 2019 Worlds selection camp. “You have to be able to benefit the team with your other events, even if they aren’t as strong as your [best] one.”

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