Doping on everyone’s mind heading into U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials

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OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Elizabeth Beisel tilted her head, grimaced a bit and pondered the question: Does she think the Olympic swimming competition will be clean in Rio?

Finally, a blunt reply from the American.

“No,” she said.

Two days ahead of the U.S. trials in Omaha, the topic of doping was on everyone’s minds. A steady stream of revelations – most notably, allegations that the Russians have been running a state-sponsored system of cheating – raises concerns among those who insist they’re doing everything by the book.

“It’s the biggest threat to who should win the medals,” said David Marsh, who will coach the U.S. women’s team in Rio. “It’s the biggest threat to the integrity of the games.”

While much of the scorn has been directed at the Russian track and field program, which in an unprecedented penalty has been banned entirely from the Olympics, swimming has been dealing with its own doping issues.

Two-time gold medalist Sun Yang of China served a three-month ban after testing positive for a banned stimulant in 2014, a relative slap on the wrist that didn’t keep him out of any major competitions.

Then there’s Yulia Efimova, a bronze medalist at the 2012 London Games and one of Russia’s best medal hopes for Rio. She could be allowed to compete even after her second positive doping test.

World governing body FINA lifted her provisional suspension last month, saying it was merely following a recommendation from the World Anti-Doping Agency. WADA is conducting further research of the endurance-boosting drug meldonium, which was added to the list of banned substances at the start of the year. Tennis star Maria Sharapova tested positive for the same drug and received a two-year suspension.

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Given all the disturbing reports, it’s not surprising that doping has been a focus of conversation around the pool deck.

“It’s really disappointing,” said world-record freestyler Katie Ledecky, who figures to be one of the biggest swimming stars in Rio. “I think we’re all happy that people are getting caught and they’re being a little tougher on things. Hopefully, that will continue and we can all feel confident going in that we’re competing against clean athletes.”

Beisel isn’t so sure.

Four years ago, she settled for a silver medal in the 400-meter individual medley behind unheralded Chinese teenager Ye Shiwen, who shattered the world record with a performance that immediately raised questions about whether she was doping. Most notably: Ye went faster than Ryan Lochte, winner of the same event for the men, over the final freestyle lap.

Ye never tested positive and denied any wrongdoing. Some complained she was the victim of a racist-tinged smear campaign led by Western media organizations.

But Ye’s struggles since the London Games – it seems unlikely she will even be on the Chinese team that competes in Rio – have done little to lessen the whispers that took the shine off her gold.

Beisel didn’t single out the swimmer who beat her four years ago, but it’s clear she worries if someone in the next lane is getting an extra boost.

“The talk, the rumors, the speculation,” she said. “Just knowing people from around the world in other countries and hearing stuff, it’s always going to be in the back of your mind.”

USA Swimming has been vocal in the anti-doping effort, but its top official knows much more needs to be done. No matter what, there will always be those willing to skirt the rules.

“It’s a monumental effort,” executive director Chuck Wielgus said Friday. “We’ll never win it, because the cheaters are always a step ahead. But I’ve seen more positive things in this go-round – and I’ve been at every Olympic Games since ’92 – than I’ve seen in the past.”

Wielgus pointed to FINA’s increased spending on testing for the top 10-ranked swimmers in each event as a major step toward ensuring a cleaner competition. He would like more money devoted toward investigating claims that don’t necessarily involve a positive test.

“One of the significant shortcomings right now is that when there is information that could lead to finding an athlete or a group of athletes or even a state-sponsored program, we want to be able to share that information and also have others be able to share that information with their domestic anti-doping agency and ultimately with WADA to conduct investigations,” he said.

According to Marsh, it doesn’t take much to dramatically affect the level of competition, especially on the female side.

“With a little bit of extra testosterone, it’s a giant advantage,” he said. “A complete game-changer.”

Hoping to make his fourth Olympic team, Lochte said he’s always been clean, and insisted he doesn’t concern himself with those who might be getting a pharmaceutical edge.

“I rely on the training I’ve done, the work I’ve done,” he said. “Whether they’re doping or not, it’s going to be a battle in order to beat me.”

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Hail Ilia Malinin’s first U.S. figure skating title for six-quad ambition, Jason Brown’s advice

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SAN JOSE, California – Ilia Malinin clearly will have mixed emotions when he remembers winning his first U.S. figure skating title.

That was apparent from his reaction after finishing Sunday’s free skate.

The 18-year-old with limitless potential and seemingly limitless confidence had been rattled by his worst free skate of the season.

He shook his head sadly. Then he shook it again.

“Of course, this wasn’t the skate I wanted, but there’s always ups and downs, and you just after get over it and move on,” Malinin said.

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He planned the hardest technical program anyone ever had attempted, with six quadruple jumps and two challenging combinations in the second half of the four-minute program. And he gamely kept trying to execute it, even after significant mistakes that would leave him second to surprising Andrew Torgashev in the free skate.

Malinin (287.74 total points) still finished comfortably ahead of the evergreen Jason Brown (277.31). Torgashev was third overall at 256.56.

Malinin skated with doggedness rather the dynamism that infused his brilliant short program Friday, by far his best short program of the season.

“I think I was just a little bit sluggish, and I just wasn’t prepared for what was about to happen,” he said.

Malinin fell on his opening jump, the quadruple Axel, then reeled off three other quads flawlessly. He popped two other planned quads into doubles, then turned his final jumping pass, planned as a sequence of two jumps, into an unprecedented triple Lutz-triple Axel-triple toe loop sequence. For context: only Malinin has done a triple Lutz-triple Axel sequence.

“I think its’s not that I was planning too much,” he said. “I think it was I wasn’t really prepared for this amount. And it was mostly because we were focusing on that short program.”

Brown, 28, who first competed at senior nationals 12 years ago, skated magnificently. If it weren’t for a fall on his ambitious final free skate jump, a triple flip coming out of a knee slide, Brown’s overall performance in both the short and free would have been as good as any he had done in the U.S. Championships.

With his longevity and insight, Brown, a two-time Olympian and seven-time national medalist (gold in 2015) was able to put what had befallen Malinin into accurate perspective and encourage him not to lose confidence over it.

Brown heard the press conference questions Malinin was getting over what went wrong, questions both legitimate and expected, and he wanted his younger teammate not to dwell on them.

“You did a triple Lutz-triple Axel-triple toe at the end of your program, and I did a knee slide and could barely stand up to do the flip,” Brown said to Malinin, sitting next to him at the dais.

“The way you keep pushing the sport is incredible. So don’t stop being you.”

Malinin, an unexpected second at last year’s nationals, came here under a spotlight brighter than any he had experienced, largely due to his history-making success earlier this season as the first to land a quad Axel in competition.

For all his disarming bravado, evidenced by choosing quadg0d as his social media name, Malinin is not immune to the pressure of a big event and his position as favorite.

“There is an amount of experience (necessary) that it takes time to get,” Brown said. “I’ve been through it all. I’ve had a lot of ups, I’ve had a lot of downs. As you (Malinin) said, it’s how you take this experience and learn from it and grow from it. That’s what you’re going to do.”

Both Malinin and Brown leave Monday to perform eight shows in three Swiss cities over 11 days with the Art on Ice tour. They are both expected to be on the U.S. team for the world championships this March in Japan.

Malinin leaves with the title and the satisfaction of not having minimized risk given his big lead after the short program.

“This was an opportunity for me to try this new layout,” Malinin said. “Of course, it didn’t go off the best. We’ll take advice from this and look forward to worlds.”

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 12 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.

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Mark McMorris breaks Winter X Games medals record with slopestyle gold

Mark McMorris
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Canadian snowboarder Mark McMorris broke his tie with American Jamie Anderson for the most Winter X Games medals across all sites, earning his 22nd medal, a slopestyle gold, in Aspen, Colorado.

On the final run of Sunday’s contest, McMorris overtook Norway’s Marcus Kleveland with back-to-back 1620s on the last two jumps. McMorris’ last three Aspen slopestyle titles were all won on his final run (2019, 2022).

“It’s something I never thought would ever come to me as a kid from Saskatchewan,” McMorris, 29, said on the broadcast. “Everything’s just been a bonus since I became a pro snowboarder.”

In a format introduced three years ago, athletes were ranked on overall impression of their best run over the course of a jam session rather than scoring individual runs.

McMorris won his record-extending seventh X Games Aspen men’s slopestyle title, one day after finishing fourth in big air.

“It just keeps getting crazier because I keep getting older,” he said. “People just keep pushing the limits, pushing the limits. Last night was such a downer, almost bums me out, like, dude, do I still have it? … To have one of those miracle wins where you do it on the last run and someone makes you push yourself, those are the best feelings.”

McMorris won slopestyle bronze medals at each of the last three Olympics and reportedly said last February that he was planning to compete through the 2026 Milan-Cortina Winter Games.

Canadian Max Parrot, the 2022 Olympic slopestyle champion, is taking this season off from competition.

Anderson, a two-time Olympic snowboard slopestyle champion, is expecting her first child.

Later Sunday, U.S. Olympian Mac Forehand won men’s ski big air with a 2160 on his last run, according to commentators. It scored a perfect 50. Olympic gold medalist Birk Ruud of Norway followed with a triple cork 2160 of his own, according to commentators, and finished third.

Canadian skier Megan Oldham added slopestyle gold to her big air title from Friday, relegating Olympic champion Mathilde Gremaud of Switzerland to silver.

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