As gold medalists struggle at Olympic Trials, disappointment sets in

Leave a comment

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.”

MORE: Michael Phelps cruises into 200m butterfly final

Chock, Bates charge to second U.S. title; Hubbell, Donohue charge the wrong way

Madison Hubbell, Zach Donohue
AP
Leave a comment

GREENSBORO, N.C. – Evan Bates, who had just won his second U.S. ice dance title with partner Madison Chock, put it best.

“Ice dance is a strange sport in some ways,” he said.

Chock and Bates have had their share of unusual mishaps in their near 10-year career, but on Saturday night at the 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Greensboro, North Carolina, everything was smooth sailing.

The couple’s exotic “Egyptian Snake Dance” free dance went off without a hitch, gaining the highest possible levels for nearly all of its elements and impressing judges with its intricacy, synchronization and striking lifts. It earned 134.23 points, giving the Montreal-based team the win with 221.86.

“It was (our coach Marie-France Dubreuil’s) idea for me to be a snake, and Evan a traveler who finds me,” Chock said of the routine. “It was just such a fun process, cool new characters for us to dive into, and we’ve really been enjoying it. It shows when we skate.”

Greensboro has been lucky for the skaters, who teamed up in 2011; they won their first U.S. title here in 2015. The five-year title gap is the longest in history for U.S. ice dance champions.

“It feels longer than five years,” Chock said with a breezy laugh. “It feels so much has changed, and in us as people as well (as dancers). We’re in a very good place, we could not be happier with the way the season has been going.”

If Chock’s humor was lighthearted, Madison Hubbell’s can only be described grim.

Hubbell and her partner, Zach Donohue, trailed their long-time rivals and Montreal training partners by about 1.3 points following Friday’s rhythm dance. A stellar outing of their Star is Born free dance might have won a third consecutive U.S. title; instead, it became a living nightmare.

“Out of the first element, the dance spin, we got turned around somehow and came out the wrong direction,” Hubbell said. “The next four elements, which are pretty valuable elements, all were facing the wrong direction.”

(Video available here for NBC Sports Gold subscribers; Hubbell and Donohue skate at the 1:06:50 mark.)

Not until their fifth element, a step sequence, did the skaters get back on track. In between, there was a world of hurt, likely unnoticed by many members of the audience but readily apparent to the judges, who had seen the free dance in  practice.

“Our twizzle sequence, it’s a high-scoring element, is supposed to charge right at the judges, and today it charged away from them,” Hubbell said. “In the rotational life, there’s a large leg flare that looks very cool going the opposite direction, and today I just opened my crotch right in front of the judges.”

The score was far from disastrous; Hubbell and Donohue’s 130.88 points for their “wrong-way” free dance gave them 217.19 overall. But it was a missed opportunity to show judges, and fans, the improvements they had made to A Star Is Born since the Grand Prix Final in December.

“It was probably one of the hardest performances, and not the most enjoyable,” Hubbell said. “It was a really thoughtful focus on the elements, and somehow putting one portion of the brain aside to fix things as best we could.”

The silver medal was Hubbell and Donohue’s first. They also won bronze medals in 2012, and 2015-17.

Kaitlyn Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, whose rhythm dance to Saturday Night Fever stole the show on Friday, felt their Flamenco-style free dance didn’t pack the same punch.

“Yesterday was such a high for us, in terms of (audience) reaction and performance, that tonight didn’t have the same euphoria when we finished,” Hawayek said. “Both Jean-Luc and I see the potential for it being much higher than what we were able to put out today.”

Despite the disappointment, the third team in the Montreal troika earned 118.57 points and won a second consecutive bronze medal with 201.16.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

NATIONALS: TV/Live Stream Schedule | Full Results

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

Coco Gauff eliminated from Australian Open by Sofia Kenin

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Coco Gauff‘s run at the Australian Open ended in the round of 16, foiled by fellow American Sofia Kenin on Sunday.

Kenin ousted the 15-year-old phenom 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-0 to reach her first Grand Slam quarterfinal. Gauff, too, was bidding for her first major quarterfinal after a sterling seven months ignited by her march to the Wimbledon fourth round.

Gauff, ranked No. 684 this time last year, will near the top 50 after the Australian Open. She beat Venus Williams in the first round at Wimbledon and the Australian Open and took out defending Australian Open champion Naomi Osaka in the third round on Friday.

Gauff’s play catapulted her to fifth in U.S. Olympic singles qualifying, but she has half the points as fourth-place Madison Keys, and a country can’t qualify more than four players in singles. The Olympic field will be determined by the WTA rankings after the French Open in June.

The 14th seed Kenin, who beat Serena Williams in the 2019 French Open third round, ranks second behind Williams in U.S. Olympic qualifying. She will face No. 27 Wang Qiang or Ons Jabeur in the quarterfinals.

Kenin and Alison Riske are the two remaining U.S. women in the draw.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!