As gold medalists struggle at Olympic Trials, disappointment sets in

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OMAHA — At the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials, there is little room for error and, in some ways, less space to hide.

After finals races, those who don’t finish in the top two to make the Olympic team aren’t stopped for post-race TV interviews on the pool deck.

Instead, they trudge or limp past a green and gold flip-flop that will soon be autographed by those who have beaten them and made the Rio squad (in 2012, the canvas was a British phone booth).

Just beyond that is a U.S. Olympic backdrop with the hashtag #RoadtoRio.

And then, just before the swimmers descend two sets of seven-step metal staircases and out of view, they pass below another U.S. Olympic banner including a mini airplane. Presumably, the flight is headed to Rio de Janeiro.

These world-class athletes, many of whom have just failed in a four-year quest, must collect themselves in the minute or so between surfacing from the pool and reaching the end of those stairs.

At the bottom, they emerge from beside a small black curtain. They have now reached what’s called the mixed zone, the only area where both the athletes must pass as they exit the pool and the media are allowed access.

Many of these swimmers have decided in this short time span how to present themselves after not qualifying for the hardest team to make in the world.

“It’s really tough,” Missy Franklin said after finishing seventh in the 100m backstroke, an event she won at the 2012 London Olympics but will not race in Rio.

“I think I’m a little stunned,” Matt Grevers said after finishing third in the men’s 100m backstroke, an event he won in London but will not race in Rio.

“I know I could have done better,” Ryan Lochte said after finishing fourth in the 200m freestyle. He was the top American in the event in London, also fourth, but will not race it individually in Rio.

Lochte did, however, qualify for Rio in the 4x200m freestyle relay pool.

“I made it,” were among Lochte’s first words off that metal staircase. “I’m going to Rio.”

Not yet booked are Franklin, Grevers or 12-time Olympic medalist Natalie Coughlin, who was eighth in the 100m back. Tuesday night saw a chunk of the 11 active individual U.S. Olympic swimming gold medalists come up short, but they will get more chances later this week.

Combined, Franklin, Coughlin, Lochte and Grevers own 104 Olympic and long-course world championships medals, with 57 of them gold.

Franklin, the four-time 2012 Olympic gold medalist who wants to become the most decorated female swimmer ever, came into this meet unsatisfied with the first half of her year. And largely the last two years since suffering back spasms at the August 2014 Pan Pacific Championships.

She was sluggish, rushed and nervous in her first two races here, the 100m backstroke preliminaries and semifinals. Coach Todd Schmitz hoped that Tuesday night’s schedule, having a 200m freestyle semifinal and then the 100m backstroke final 23 minutes later, would ease her. There was no time to worry. Just swim, recover and swim again.

Franklin swam well in the 200m freestyle, qualifying fourth into the final in an event she won at the 2013 World Championships. Franklin is no longer a favorite to make the Olympic team individually in the 200m free (Katie Ledecky and Leah Smith are), but Tuesday night’s result portends she will qualify for the Olympic team in the 4x200m free relay Wednesday night, as Lochte did.

“Right now I need to make the team,” Franklin said. “In whatever way.”

That would be a shocking statement for anyone to read if they haven’t followed Franklin since the 2012 Olympics, or better yet since she won six gold medals at the 2013 World Championships.

She has not been the same since the 2014 back spasms, and increased preventative care since, and transition from college to professional swimmer with a move from California back to her parents’ basement in Colorado in spring 2015.

She earned zero individual gold medals at the 2014 Pan Pacific Championships and 2015 World Championships, though she had gritty efforts for silver and bronze and encouraging relays.

Franklin said Tuesday night that she’s feeling more pressure than ever before.

“There’s more expectation,” Schmitz said of the now-professional Franklin, who has sponsors including GoPro, Minute Maid, Speedo, United, Visa, Wheaties, plus a book to be published for the Christmas season. “You know what, in 2012, there wasn’t commercials playing on the jumbotron like there is now.”

Frankin’s seventh-place time in the 100m back — 1:00.24 — was well off her 2015 World Championships best of 59.40. But 59.40 would have gotten her fourth place Tuesday night.

Earlier, Schmitz said he saw “the signature Missy” at the end of her 200m freestyle semifinal, the most encouraging sign of her Trials so far. She made up three tenths of a second on third-place Allison Schmitt in the final 50 meters.

“The good thing is that it’s only day three,” Schmitz said. “She’s got three more days of swimming. We’ve got three really good events coming up. We’re still rolling.”

Those events are the 200m free, where, again, Franklin is the fourth seed going into the final and not a favorite for an individual Olympic spot.

Then there’s the 100m free, which has always been the weakest of Franklin’s four events.

And finally the 200m backstroke, which is Franklin’s signature event. She is the world-record holder and 2015 World silver medalist.

“She has the ability to go into game mode and out of game mode,” Schmitz said. “Is she disappointed? Of course she is. There’s disappointment that can motivate you, which is different from the disappointment where you’re sulking around.”

Lochte was not sulking but limping after he made it past the flip-flop, hashtag and airplane, down the stairs and emerged from the black curtain.

The pain from an off-and-on groin injury that flared up Sunday was at “a seven or eight” out of 10.

Lochte gathered to smile and repeat a few times that he was proud to make the most elite team in the world.

“That time (1:46.62) was really bad for me,” he said (Lochte’s 2015 Worlds semifinal time of 1:45.36 would have won Tuesday). “I know I could have done better, but I’m proud I made the team.”

Would he have been disappointed with fourth place had he been healthy?

“I’m representing my country at the highest stage in sports, it’s a beautiful feeling,” Lochte answered, again not giving away frustration, if there was any.

This is certain: Lochte feels from different than in 2004, when he also finished fourth in the 200m free at Trials but was ecstatic to make his first Olympic team as a relay-only swimmer (he later made the Athens team in the 200m individual medley, which he will also hope to do here Friday).

“I feel great, but still kind of shocked,” Lochte, then 19, said in 2004, according to his hometown newspaper in Daytona Beach, Fla. “I’ve been waiting for this since I first started swimming.”

Coughlin and Grevers are more familiar than Franklin or Lochte with not making the top two.

Coughlin, who shares the U.S. Olympic female record of 12 medals that Franklin chases, was third in the 100m back at the 2012 Trials and sixth in the 100m freestyle. She went to London as a relay-only swimmer.

Her hopes this week are down to the 50m and 100m freestyles, where she is not favored to finish in the top two.

Grevers, after a breakout 100m back silver at the 2008 Beijing Games, failed to qualify for major international meets in 2010 and 2011.

The 100m back is the only individual event he has ever contested at a world championships or Olympics. Grevers is not injured like Lochte. He hasn’t had especially frustrating recent years like Franklin or Coughlin.

Grevers was near his best in this Olympic cycle in Omaha. He simply got beat by faster swimmers Tuesday.

Ryan Murphy and David Plummer swam 52.26 and 52.28. Grevers’ fastest time since the 2012 Olympics is 52.54.

Of the Olympic champions who came up short Tuesday, Grevers appeared the most emotionally affected. Or at least he chose to present himself that way more than the others.

“I think if I let it sink in,” he said, “I’ll be more distraught than I currently am.”

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Iris Cummings, last living 1936 U.S. Olympian, has flown ever since Berlin

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Iris Cummings is one of the last living members of a historically significant, global group: athletes who competed at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. She is the only U.S. Olympian from those Games believed to still be alive.

Cummings, a 99-year-old who still swims regularly, was one of 46 U.S. women (along with 313 U.S. men) who competed at the Berlin Olympics, best known for Jesse Owens triumphing in the face of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.

Since swimmer Adolph Kiefer‘s death in May 2017, the breaststroker Cummings and canoeist John Lysak were the last living 1936 U.S. Olympians. Olympic historians recently learned that Lysak died in January at 105 years old (which Lysak’s family confirmed this week). Canadian Paul Tchir of the OlyMADMen keeps a list of the oldest living Olympians here.

Lysak, born in New Jersey, turned 4 years old when his mom died in 1918 due to the flu pandemic. He was orphaned by his father, overwhelmed with taking care of a farm and four children.

Lysak got a bike to handle a paper route as a boy. That allowed him to sneak down to the Hudson River and row with homemade boats with his younger brother, Steven, who became a 1948 Olympic gold and silver medalist.

“I couldn’t swim, but I floated with a log,” Lysak told NBC Sports for the 2016 film “More than Gold,” about Owens and the 1936 Olympics. “I grew up paddling.”

He specialized at the Yonkers Canoe Club, made the Olympic team and finished seventh in a 10km doubles event with James O’Rourke in Berlin. Lysak later became a Marine and served during World War II.

Lysak spent his last years in California, where Cummings learned to swim off the Pacific beaches as a girl around the time of the Great Depression.

Cummings credited an ability to become an Olympian and one of the first women to fly U.S. military aircraft to her parents, who met while serving in France during World War I. Her father was a medic and sports doctor. Her mother a member of the American Red Cross canteen service.

She said her father, an all-around athlete, gave up a chance to try out for the first modern Olympics in 1896 to attend Tufts University School of Medicine.

“My mother provided the intellectual and academic inspiration from her rare perspective as a woman college graduate and a high school language teacher when very few women ever went to college,” Cummings told NBC Sports in an interview for “More than Gold.”

In 1928, Cummings’ dad took her to her the National Air Races at what is now Los Angeles International Airport.

“I watched Charles Lindbergh at the peak of his fame fly in the air show,” she said.

In 1932, at age 11, Cummings was introduced to the Olympics in person. Her dad was a track and field official at those Los Angeles Games.

Iris Cummings
Iris Cummings (center) competed in the 200m breaststroke at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. (Courtesy Iris Cummings)

All of Cummings’ swimming up to age 13 came in the ocean due to a lack of pools. But from 1934 to ’36, she developed into an Olympian in the breaststroke. In 1936, a 15-year-old Cummings was offered a paid-for, round-trip, cross-country train ticket to swim at a national championships in Long Island, N.Y.

“My mother had to borrow money to buy her railroad ticket to accompany me,” she said.

In a telegraph after nationals, Cummings was told by a California club coach to stay back East for five weeks before Olympic Trials (also on Long Island) because they had no money to send her back and forth again.

“So my mother figured out how we could stay with my grandmother in Philadelphia with almost no place to swim,” Cummings said. They found a country club pool, where she swam after hours while a janitor cleaned.

Cummings placed third in the 200m breast at trials to make the team as its youngest member in an individual event. (Today, only the top two at trials per individual event make the Olympics.)

“They stated, ‘You have made the team, but we don’t have enough money to send all of you,'” Cummings said. “‘The S.S. Manhattan sails in five days. Get out and raise as much money as you can from your hometown.’ My mother and I telegraphed our local newspaper, and a small amount was sent in from Redondo Beach.”

Olympic team members took a 10-day trip on the ship to Germany. Swimmers had one 20-foot-by-20-foot pool in which to train while at sea.

“They pumped the saltwater into it, and it sloshed around as the ship rolled,” Cummings said in an LA84 Foundation interview.

After arriving in Hamburg, U.S. athletes took a boat train that had swastikas on it out of the port.

“Most of us were quite aware of the evolving difficulties or however you want to classify the rise of Nazism in Germany,” said Cummings, adding that U.S. swim coach Charlotte Epstein previously boycotted attending the Olympics. “We’d heard the same rumors [about a U.S. boycott]. We were all wondering if the Olympic committee was going to take action before the boat sailed. That had come up in most everyone’s minds.”

At the Opening Ceremony, Cummings was bored by speeches and instead said she took pictures of the Hindenburg flying above. She had no fear about being there.

“The concerns were from nations that had proximity to the situation like a Belgium, or Holland or Austria,” she said. “We’ve got this passport, I know Margie [Marjorie Gestring, a gold-medal diver at age 13] and I looked at this and said, we’ve got this special passport. They can’t touch us.”

Most of Owens’ events took place before Cummings was eliminated in the first round of the 200m breast. She nonetheless took advantage of passes for athletes to watch track and field at the Olympic Stadium. She saw all of Owens’ races, sitting in an athlete section about 15 or 20 rows above Hitler’s box.

“Whenever [Hitler] came in, we could see him down there,” she said. “He wasn’t very far away.”

Iris Cummings
(Courtesy Iris Cummings)

Eight decades later, Cummings still remembered the crowd cheering for Owens after his victories.

“The whole stadium was rooting for Jesse,” she said.

Soon after the team returned to the U.S., Cummings began attending the University of Southern California. She enrolled in a pilot training program in 1939, earned her license the next year and worked as a flight instructor during the war. Then she became a pilot for the AAF Ferry Command in the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, later included in the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs).

“None of us thought there were going to be Olympics in ’40,” she predicted, correctly. Not in 1944, either.

She estimated that she’s flown more than 50 types of airplanes.

“There were only 21 of us [women] who ever flew the P-38,” she said, “and there were only four of us who ever flew the P-61 Black Widow.”

After the war, marriage to Howard Critchell and childbirths, Cummings continued to race planes. She developed curricula for the Federal Aviation Administration, founded an aeronautics program at Harvey Mudd College and was inducted into the National Flight Instructors Hall of Fame, among many honors.

“I’ve been flying 76 years, and it’s a privilege to just be around,” she said shortly before she stopped piloting in 2016.

Cummings still flies as a passenger with a former student.

“It’s a treat to be up there with the elements and appreciate it all,” she said. “It’s you and the air movement and the wind and what you can do with your airplane.”

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NBA participation in Tokyo Olympics could be limited, Adam Silver says

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NBA commissioner Adam Silver said the Tokyo Olympics’ effect on the league’s schedule planning for 2021 is unclear, but that it’s possible that Olympic participation may be limited.

“There are a lot of great U.S. players, and we may be up against a scenario where the top 15 NBA players aren’t competing in the Olympics, but other great American players are competing,” Silver told Bob Costas on CNN on Tuesday. “Obviously, there are many NBA players who participate in the Olympics from other countries. That’s something we’re going to have to work through. I just say, lastly, these are highly unique and unusual circumstances. I think, just as it is for the Olympic movement, it is for us as well. We’re just going to have to sort of find a way to meld and mesh those two competing considerations.”

Silver said his best guess is that the next NBA season starts in January with a goal of a standard 82-game schedule and playoffs. A schedule has not been released.

In normal NBA seasons that start in late October, the regular season runs to mid-April and the NBA Finals into mid-June.

The Tokyo Olympic Opening Ceremony is July 23. If an NBA season is pushed back two or three months to a January start, and the schedule is not condensed, the Olympics would start while the NBA playoffs are happening.

The current NBA season is in the conference finals phase in an Orlando-area bubble after a four-month stoppage due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“It is a factor in our planning,” Silver said of the Olympics. “It would be tough for us to make a decision in January based on the Olympics happening on schedule when that’s so unclear.”

The NBA has participated in every Olympics since the 1992 Barcelona Games. Monday was the 29th anniversary of the announcement of the first 10 members of the original Dream Team on an NBC selection show (hosted by Costas).

Before the NBA era, U.S. Olympic men’s basketball teams consisted of college players.

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