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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.”

MORE: Katie Ledecky’s presence, family grow in Olympic Trials return

Can T.J. Oshie, other established Olympic hockey stars hold on for 2022?

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T.J. Oshie will be 35 years old during the next Winter Olympics. Jonathan Quick will be 36. Now that the NHL is one key step closer to returning to the Winter Games, the question surfaces: which 2014 Olympians will have a difficult time returning to rosters in 2022?

Oshie was the last of the 14 forwards chosen for the U.S. Olympic team for Sochi, beating out Bobby Ryan and Brandon Saad, in part for his shootout prowess.

In group play against Russia, Oshie was memorably tapped by U.S. head coach Dan Bylsma six times in a shootout, including all five in the sudden-death rounds. Oshie beat Sergei Bobrovsky four times, including the game winner.

“After I went out for my third attempt, I figured I was going to keep going,” Oshie said, according to USA Hockey. “Each time I would look up to see what [Bylsma] had to say, and he would just give me a nod every time. I kind of started laughing toward shot five and six because it was getting kind of ridiculous.”

Oshie became known as “T.J. Sochi” on social media. President Barack Obama congratulated him on Twitter. The U.S. eventually lost to Canada in the semifinals and Finland in the bronze-medal game.

When the NHL chose not to send its players to the PyeongChang Winter Games, it may have spelled the end of Oshie’s Olympic career.

Consider that the oldest forward on the 2014 U.S. Olympic team was 29, six years younger than Oshie will be come 2022. A recent Olympic roster prediction from The Hockey Writers put Oshie in the “Just Missed Out” list.

NBC Sports NHL analyst Pierre McGuire has Oshie among the finalists for the last forward spots in his early U.S. roster prediction.

“I wouldn’t discount T.J. Oshie because shootout is still part of it,” McGuire said. “He still has his shootout moves, even though he’s not getting any younger.”

Quick, the unused third goalie in 2010, played 305 out of 365 minutes in net for the U.S. in Sochi. He was coming off a Stanley Cup in 2012 and en route to another one in 2014.

Since, he was sidelined by a knee injury that required surgery. He remains the Los Angeles Kings’ No. 1 goalie, which almost automatically puts an American in the Olympic roster discussion these days.

“Somebody like Jonathan definitely merits consideration just because of his achievement level over time, but I think he’d be the first person to tell you injuries have definitely affected him,” McGuire said of Quick, looking to become the second-oldest U.S. goalie to play in the Olympics after Tom Barrasso in 2002. “It’s not going to be easy for him.”

The U.S. could bypass Quick for three Olympic rookies in 2022. Connor Hellebuyck, John Gibson and Ben Bishop have superior save percentages and goals-against averages and more games played than Quick since the start of the 2018-19 season.

A wild card is Spencer Knight, the 19-year-old No. 1 from the world junior championships who last year became the highest-drafted goalie since 2010 (No. 13 to the Florida Panthers). Knight would break defenseman Bryan Berard‘s record as the youngest U.S. Olympic hockey player in the NHL era.

The Canadian roster has traditionally been deeper than the U.S. The talent is overwhelming at center, led by Sidney CrosbyConnor McDavidPatrice Bergeron and Nathan MacKinnon. The Canadians must get creative if the likes of veterans Jonathan Toews and John Tavares will join them in Beijing.

Toews, then 21, was the best forward at the 2010 Vancouver Games and Canada’s only one on the all-tournament team. While Toews’ last NHL All-Star selection was in 2017, his last two seasons have been his best in terms of points per game since 2011.

“The one thing that Canada is very good at, they do it extremely well, they select players that fit roles,” McGuire said, noting Mike Richards shifting to the wing during the 2010 Olympics. “When you look at the overwhelming depth that Canada has, that’s going to be the thing that’s going that’s going to be very interesting to watch to see how it plays out at center.”

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NHL closer to Olympic hockey return for 2022, 2026

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The NHL just took a major step to returning to the Olympics in 2022 and 2026 after skipping the 2018 Winter Games.

The NHL and the NHL Players’ Association announced a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) that includes Olympic participation at the next two Winter Games in Beijing and Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy.

Should the NHL, the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) and the IOC agree, expect the world’s best players to compete for their nations during breaks in those NHL seasons.

Nine of the 12 nations have already qualified for the 2022 Olympic men’s hockey tournament. The groups and qualifiers are here.

The NHL participated in five straight Olympics from 1998-2014 before declining to pause its season for PyeongChang.

The 2018 Olympic men’s hockey rosters included players from every other major international league, led by Russia’s KHL, which made up the entire Olympic Athletes from Russia team that beat Germany in the final. The U.S. team included veterans in European leagues, the minor league AHL, collegians and captain Brian Gionta, a 2006 Olympian who had stepped away from the NHL.

In April 2017, the NHL announced it would not send its players to the 2018 Olympics due to a lack of concession from the IOC, IIHF or the NHLPA to entice owners and officials. At the time, the CBA did not include Olympic participation.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman then cited “fatigue” among team owners about taking an Olympic break every four seasons. Owners mentioned the risk of having their stars get injured, away from their teams in the middle of their seasons. South Korea, with its 14-hour time difference from New York, was also not as enticing a Winter Olympic host as, say, Canada or Russia.

Other issues Bettman and other league and team officials expressed included a lack of exposure and benefit for the NHL, the league’s inability to use the Olympics for marketing due to sponsorship rules and money.

MORE: 2014 Olympic stars on the 2022 Olympic roster bubble

Before and after the PyeongChang Olympics, Bettman doubted that the NHL would return for the 2022 Beijing Winter Games.

“I don’t want to sound like a broken record on the subject, but I think going to the Olympics is a challenge for us,” Bettman said last November after meetings with the IIHF. “I know the players love representing their countries. I know that the players like going. I know that the players that don’t go like having a break in the middle of the season. But from our standpoint, we have found going to the Olympics to be incredibly disruptive to our season.

“For us, at best, it’s a mixed bag.”

Canada came to dominate Olympic men’s hockey in the NHL era, taking gold in 2002, 2010 and 2014. Sidney Crosby, gold medalist in 2010 and 2014, will be 34 years old come the 2022 Olympics.

Alex Ovechkin, a three-time Olympian for Russia with zero medals, will be 36 years old. Only two Russian male Olympic hockey players have been older: Igor Larionov in 2002 and Sergei Fedorov in 2010, according to Olympedia.org.

Younger stars Jack Eichel and Auston Matthews (USA), Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy (Russia), Connor McDavid (Canada), David Pastrnak (Czech Republic) and Leon Draisaitl (Germany) could each play in their first Olympics in 2022.

MORE: NHL players vote on world’s best female hockey player

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