Katie Ledecky cruises into another Olympics; Dana Vollmer earns third trip

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OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Katie Ledecky has set the bar so high, it’s a bit of a disappointment when she doesn’t set a world record.

The 19-year-old has no complaints.

She’s heading back to the Olympics.

Getting that formality out of the way in her first event of the U.S. swimming trials, Ledecky held off a persistent challenge from Leah Smith to win the 400-meter freestyle on Monday night.

“The last 150, I just kept telling myself, ‘Rio! Rio! Rio!'” said Ledecky, who is also a big favorite in two other freestyle races to come. “I just tried to keep myself fired up and didn’t really care what the time was.”

Ledecky, who surprisingly won her first Olympic gold at age 15 four years ago in London, is now recognized as one of the most dominant freestylers in history. She set a blistering pace over the first half of the race, putting her more than 2 seconds ahead of the time from her record-setting performance at the 2014 Pan Pacific Championships in Australia.

But Ledecky tired a bit over the final 200, another world mark slipping away when she touched in 3 minutes, 58.98 seconds. Smith pushed the 19-year-old winner all the way, also claiming an Olympic berth by finishing at 4:00.65.

The crowd of more than 14,000 groaned a bit when they saw Ledecky’s time, but it was still the third-fastest in history.

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“That’s fast,” Ledecky said. “That’s 3 seconds faster than anybody else in the world. I think we’re going to really represent the U.S. well in that event.”

Also Monday, Dana Vollmer locked up another trip to the Olympics less than 16 months after giving birth to her first child.

She finished second in the 100 butterfly behind Olympic rookie Kelsi Worrell, one of several young swimmers already signaling a changing of the guard in the first two days of the meet.

Smith will be heading to her first Olympics. Ditto for the top two in the 100 breaststroke, won by Kevin Cordes followed by Cody Miller.

That means seven Olympic first-timers have already made the powerful American team. Chase Kalisz, Jay Litherland and Maya DiRado qualified on the first night of the trials.

“Watching the other first-time Olympians, I feel like not a lot of people see the background,” Smith said. “Maya DiRado and Kevin Cordes have been good since 2013 and missed out earlier. I was nowhere near making the team in 2012, it’s been steady progress.”

In the 100 fly, defending Olympic champion Vollmer led at the turn, but the late-blooming Worrell rallied on the return lap to post the second-fastest time in the world this year at 56.48.

Vollmer touched next in 57.21, giving her the second Olympic spot.

The 28-year-old Vollmer, a four-time gold medalist, was cheered on by her husband and their young son, Arlen.

“I had no idea how it would go when I started,” Vollmer said. “It’s really been an amazing life’s journey for me. To come in with no expectations and kind of improve all the time. I was a little disappointed when I touched with the time, but then you realize time doesn’t matter. I still got second place and I’m going to Rio.”

Worrell didn’t even make the American squad for last year’s world championships, but she’s Rio bound as well.

“I’m just so excited to be here,” Worrell said. “It is my first time, and I didn’t know what to expect.”

One night after stunningly missing out on an Olympic berth in the 400 individual medley, an ailing Ryan Lochte swam two more grueling races to qualify for the final of the 200 freestyle.

Shaking off the pain of a groin injury, Lochte got through the morning preliminaries and posted the fifth-fastest time in the evening semifinals.

But Lochte has his work cut out for him to earn an Olympic berth in Tuesday’s final, and he’s admittedly having trouble with his kicks and turns. He finished in 1:47.58 seconds, getting passed by both Conor Dwyer and Clark Smith on the final lap of their semifinal heat.

“All I wanted to do was get a lane for tomorrow and that’s what I did,” Lochte said. “Tomorrow is definitely going to be rough, and it’s going to be fast.”

Dwyer, who already earned a spot on the Olympic team in the 400 free, was the top qualifier at 1:46.96.

There was nearly an even bigger shocker in the semifinals of the women’s 100 backstroke. Defending Olympic champion Missy Franklin, one of America’s biggest stars at the London Games four years ago, got off to an even slower start than usual and barely qualified for Tuesday’s final.

Franklin rallied just to finish fourth in her heat and wound up with the next-to-slowest qualifying time at 1:00.45 – a mere 0.04 from missing a spot in the final altogether. Thirty-three-year-old Natalie Coughlin, a 12-time Olympic medalist, also slipped into the final with last spot at 1:00.46.

Olivia Smoliga was fastest at 59.16.

“I didn’t see anything,” Franklin said. “I just knew I had to get my hand on the wall.”

Cordes, who just missed out on a breaststroke spot at the 2012 trials, finally got over the Olympic hump. He won in 59.18, followed by Miller at 59.26.

“I definitely carried that for four years,” Cordes said, referring to his third-place finish four years ago. “It’s been in the back of my mind throughout many practices and many points, and I’m happy this time it’s a little bit different.”

Deaf swimmer Marcus Titus finished sixth, missing out on his first Olympics at age 30.

“I did the best I could,” Titus said. “That was a hard race.”

MORE: Katie Ledecky is an ‘unstoppable force’ in freestyle (video)

Shelby Houlihan shatters American 5000m record

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Shelby Houlihan chopped 10.52 seconds off her own American 5000m record, clocking 14:23.92 at a Bowerman Track Club intrasquad meet in Portland, Ore., on Friday night.

Houlihan, who was 11th in the Rio Olympic 5000m, has in this Olympic cycle improved to become one of the greatest female distance runners in U.S. history.

She first broke Shannon Rowbury‘s American record in the 5000m by 4.47 seconds in 2018. In 2019, she broke Rowbury’s American record in the 1500m by 1.3 seconds in finishing fourth at the world championships in 3:54.99.

On Friday, Houlihan and second-place Karissa Schweizer both went under the American record. Schweizer, 24 and three years younger than Houlihan, clocked 14:26.34, staying with Houlihan until the winner’s 61-second final lap.

“I knew Karissa was going to try to come up on me and take the lead. She does that every time,” Houlihan told USATF.tv. “I had decided I was not going to let that happen.”

Houlihan improved from 41st to 12th on the world’s all-time 5000m list, 12.77 seconds behind Ethiopian Tirunesh Dibaba‘s world record.

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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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