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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Grigory Rodchenkov, Russian doping whistleblower, still lives in fear

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His head covered in a black balaclava, adjusting dark goggles obscuring his eyes, Grigory Rodchenkov grows anxious if any part of his face can be seen.

Exposing Russia’s state-sponsorship doping scheme forced Rodchenkov into hiding in the United States five years ago. Revealing his current identity is still too risky for the chemist turned whistleblower, even in a video interview from an undisclosed location.

“It’s my security measures because I have physical threats to be assassinated,” Rodchenkov told The Associated Press. “And I want to live.”

Evidence from Rodchenkov that has already turned Vladimir Putin‘s Russia into international sporting outcasts continues to be used in cases against athletes along with data from his former laboratory in Moscow.

“Putin, he is quite logical. He separates opposition in two ways — enemies … betrayers,” Rodchenkov said. “I am falling in the betrayers’ category and all betrayers should be beheaded, cut, dead. So there is no doubt that he wants me to be dead.”

It has not deterred him from documenting his life story in “The Rodchenkov Affair: How I Brought Down Putin’s Secret Doping Empire,” revisiting how he conspired with his country to corrupt sports and then tries to show contrition by turning star witness.

Rodchenkov was the brains behind the Duchess cocktail of anabolic steroids and cover-up that turned Russia into a medal machine at the home Olympics in Sochi in 2014, topping the standings with 13 gold medals before disqualifications.

Russian spies ensured the Duchess would not be detected in doping tests as FSB agents used a hole in the wall of the Sochi laboratory to swap out the dirty samples with clean urine at night.

“For me, it was the end of doping control,” Rodchenkov said. “If we can do it, why others cannot?”

The doping cover-up extended beyond the Winter Olympics, into the Summer Games, Paralympics, world track and field championships and every major sport.

Some Russians were barred from competing at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Games and 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games as the International Olympic Committee remains opposed to blanket bans on countries.

So Russian athletes can still compete on the international stage if they can show they are clean, despite a four-year ban from major international sporting events being imposed on the nation last year for a fresh cover-up, including tampering with data gained from Rodchenkov’s former lab in Moscow.

“Sport is a part of Putin’s politics and showing to the West how good Russia is,” Rodchenkov said. “You cannot trust Russia. You cannot trust the certification authorities, and (anti-doping) laboratories cannot be allowed to be restored within the foreseeable future.”

Especially now, according to Rodchenkov, following constitutional changes allowing Putin to run for two more six-year terms, in 2024 and 2030,

“Until 2036,” Rodchenkov said, “no trust.”

But why now trust Rodchenkov as he presents a virtuous image at odds with his deep collusion with the state to cheat?

“When you are laboratory director and you have 50 employees and you are reporting to your high ups at the ministry, I could not even think about morals,” he said, dismissing concerns about any long-term damage to the health of athletes he allowed to be pumped with steroids.

“It’s extremely debatable and still ungrounded,” he said. “We see the generation who is now in the end of their lives of 70s and 80s, which are still … in a good physical condition after steroid programs.”

Go back four decades and Rodchenkov was starting out in a Soviet system learning how to manipulate doping controls.

“I had honestly, I’m sorry, but I had huge feelings of accomplishment,” he said. “Those athletes I helped to (win) were extremely talented and I could not understand, with the coach, how he or she may lose to others. The only explanation was doping. Then using some programs, we won gold medals. Honestly it was like leveling the field.

“Again, ‘morals’ is maybe vocabulary from American life but not from Soviet and Russian. In (the) Soviet (Union) it was the Soviet moral, in Russia there is no morals.”

It helps when the athletes are compliant.

“This is the huge problem of the militarization of Russia sport,” Rodchenkov said. “They follow orders, they are disciplined but they cannot tell the truth because they have given the oath to the Russian state and consider foreigners as potential enemies or even actual enemies. That’s why in Russia there are three ways – lying, cheating and denying.”

Rodchenkov has had to convince the world he has shed those ways and is coming clean. More of the cases he helped to cover-up could soon come to light after the World Anti-Doping Agency shared data – of samples tested up to 2015, and tampering that continued into 2019 – that was retrieved from the Moscow testing lab at the heart of the state-backed doping program.

“The problem is that the people from outside cannot understand what is going on inside sports,” he said. “Only whistleblowers could do that. But in corrupted countries you have to escape and we need to be preserved.”

For Rodchenkov that means living a life constantly in fear of being recognized as happened on a train in the US.

“It was a student,” he recalled. “I told him, `Forget you are meeting me, yes it’s me, don’t tell anyone.’ … I disappeared again.”

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Noah Lyles, more world champs race in Monaco; TV, live stream schedule

Noah Lyles
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Noah Lyles headlines a bevy of world champions slated for the first full-on Diamond League meet of the abbreviated track and field season, live on NBC Sports on Friday.

Monaco hosts the strongest fields of any meet since the world championships 10 months ago. Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA and NBC Sports Gold air coverage on Friday at 2 p.m. ET.

Reigning world champions include Lyles (200m), Grant Holloway (110m hurdles), Donavan Brazier (800m) and Sam Kendricks (pole vault), and those are just the Americans.

Swede Mondo Duplantis, who twice raised the pole vault world record in February, takes on Kendricks in Monaco. Distance stars Sifan Hassan, Hellen Obiri, Beatrice Chepkoech, Timothy Cheruiyot and Joshua Cheptegei dot the fields, too.

The Diamond League season was due to start in April, but the coronavirus pandemic halted large-gathering track meets until now. Repurposed versions of Diamond League meets in Oslo and Zurich were held the last two months with fewer events and athletes and some entrants racing from different countries.

After Monaco, more Diamond League meets are scheduled for Stockholm (Aug. 23), Lausanne (Sept. 2), Brussels (Sept. 4), Naples (Sept. 17), Doha (Sept. 25) and China (Oct. 17).

Here are the Monaco entry lists. Here’s the schedule of events (all times Eastern):

1:40 p.m. ET — Men’s Pole Vault
2:03 — Men’s 110m Hurdles
2:05 — Women’s High Jump
2:12 — Men’s 800m
2:17 — Women’s Triple Jump
2:19 — Women’s 5000m
2:42 — Men’s 400m Hurdles
2:50 — Women’s 100m
2:57 — Men’s 1500m
3:07 — Women’s 400m
3:13 — Men’s 5000m
3:32 — Men’s 200m
3:39 — Women’s 100m
3:47 — Men’s 3000m Steeplechase

Here are five events to watch (statistics via Tilastopaja.org):

Men’s Pole Vault — 1:40 p.m.
The top field event of the meet includes the reigning Olympic champion (Brazil’s Thiago Braz), reigning world champion (Kendricks) and the world-record holder (Duplantis, who must be the favorite here). Kendricks and Duplantis already went head-to-head this spring, competing virtually from respective home pole-vault setups. Kendricks took their first six head-to-heads, back when Duplantis was a teenager, but the Louisiana-born Swede won all four of their indoor duels in February. Duplantis is the clear Tokyo Olympic favorite until proven otherwise.

Men’s 800m — 2:12 p.m.
The top four from the 2019 World Championships are entered. Brazier, 23, caught fire the last year. He broke the American record to win the world title. He broke his own American indoor record in February. Then, last month, Brazier took 1.33 seconds off his 1500m personal best. Nobody in the Monaco field has beaten Brazier since the start of 2018.

Women’s 5000m — 2:19 p.m.
Ethiopian-born Dutchwoman Sifan Hassan in world champion at 1500m and 10,000m, but she’s lost four of five meetings with two-time world champion Hellen Obiri of Kenya at 5000m. Hassan appears to be gearing up to race the 5000m in Tokyo, though, saying last month her eye was on a 1500m-5000m Olympic double had the Games been held this year. The 1500m preliminary heats and the 5000m final are separated by about 12 hours at the Olympics next year. Also in this field: three-time Olympian and former American record holder Shannon Rowbury, set for her first Diamond League race in nearly three years and since the birth of daughter Sienna.

Men’s 1500m — 2:57 p.m.
Last we saw Kenyan Timothy Cheruiyot in a 1500m, he led wire-to-wire en route to a 2.12-second victory in the world championships final. Only one man has beaten Cheruiyot in three years, countryman Elijah Manangoi, who is provisionally suspended due to whereabouts failures. The Monaco field does include Norwegian Jakob Ingebrigtsen (second-fastest man of 2019), Ethiopian Yomif Kejelcha (indoor mile world-record holder), Pole Marcin Lewandowski (world bronze medalist) and Craig Engels (2019 U.S. champion who was 10th at worlds).

Men’s 200m — 3:32 p.m.
Lyles and younger brother Josephus Lyles go head-to-head for the first time since January 2017. Noah has lost just one outdoor 200m since placing fourth at the 2016 Olympic Trials coming out of high school. Josephus, primarily a 400m sprinter in his developmnt, last month took a half-second off a five-year-old 200m personal best. His new best time — 20.24 seconds — would have placed third at the 2019 USATF Outdoor Championships behind Noah (19.78) and Christian Coleman (20.02).

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