Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky
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Olympic Swimming Trials reveal where U.S. stands versus world

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No one stat can sum up the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials and American hopes for the Rio Games, but here’s an interesting note:

One world record was set during the Olympic Trials from June 26-July 3, but it was not broken in the CenturyLink Center pool in Omaha. Australian Cate Campbell lowered the 100m freestyle standard in Brisbane.

No world records fell at the U.S. Trials for a second straight time, not shocking given half of the world records in the 26 individual Olympic events are from the super-suit era of 2008 and 2009.

At the 2015 World Championships, the U.S. earned its fewest medals in Olympic swimming events at an Olympics or worlds in 50 years. It still stood atop the gold- and overall-medal standings, but as Trials proved again last week, the rest of the world is as competitive as ever.

Five thoughts off the Swimming Trials with an eye toward Rio:

1. Scarcity of Gold

If the Olympic swimming results copy the current world rankings, the U.S. would earn six individual golds and 23 individual medals in the Rio pool. The 23 medals is right on average during the Michael Phelps era, but six golds would cut the London 2012 total in half.

The six U.S. swimmers who are fastest in the world this year:

Katie Ledecky (200m freestyle)
Katie Ledecky (400m freestyle)
Katie Ledecky (800m freestyle)
David Plummer (100m backstroke)
Josh Prenot (200m breaststroke)
Lilly King (100m breaststroke)

Notice that Michael Phelps is not on this list. For as impressive as Phelps was at Trials, he ranks second, second and sixth in the world this year in his three events. He led the world rankings in those events last year.

2. Mixed Results for Big Four

Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky pretty much took care of business in Omaha. Phelps won all three of his events (100m and 200m butterflies and 200m individual medley). Though he skipped the 100m and 200m freestyles, he is expected to be chosen for the 4x100m and 4x200m free relays in Rio given his form last week and his experience on those teams.

However, Phelps’ best times in his three events this year are significantly slower than his best times from 2015 — .55 slower in the 100m butterfly, 1.16 slower in the 200m individual medley and 1.91 slower in the 200m butterfly. In 2008 and 2012, Phelps was faster at the Olympics than at Trials, but never by a half-second in the 100m fly or a full second in the 200m fly or 200m IM.

Ledecky swept the 200m, 400m and 800m frees in typical dominating fashion. The question going into Trials was how Ledecky would fare in the 100m freestyle, not a wheelhouse event. Ledecky was seventh in 53.99 seconds, which was .24 slower than her personal-best time from Jan. 15. If Ledecky repeated that personal best in Omaha, she would have tied for third and guaranteed herself a place on the 4x100m free relay. Now, we wait and see what the coaches decide.

Of the Big Four, Ryan Lochte and Missy Franklin entered Trials with the most to prove. Lochte, injured throughout his decorated career, overcame a groin pull in his first swim of the meet to make the team in the 200m individual medley and the 4x200m free relay. His schedule in Rio (potentially five swims) will be far lighter than in London (13 swims), and at 31 years old, these are looking like his final Games.

Franklin, a four-time 2012 Olympic champion and six-time 2013 World champion, was not injured in Omaha, but she had not been the same swimmer since suffering back spasms at the 2014 Pan Pacific Championships. After missing the team in her first event, the 100m backstroke, a concerned Franklin stated a bare-minimum goal — “I just need to make the team.”

Swimming under that kind of pressure for the first time in her career, Franklin summoned second-place finishes in the 200m backstroke and 200m freestyle. She must improve greatly to earn individual medals in Rio, as she is ranked Nos. 9 and 11 in those events in the world this year.

3. The Rise of DiRado

Three swimmers made the Olympic team in three individual events — Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky, as expected, but also Maya DiRado. Looking at times from the last year, DiRado’s sweep of the 200m and 400m individual medleys and the 200m backstroke was no surprise.

But to those who follow the sport more on the once-every-four-years basis, DiRado is a new name. She finished fourth in the 200m and 400m IMs at the 2012 Olympic Trials at age 19, then made the team for the 2013 Worlds, 2014 Pan Pacific Championships and 2015 Worlds, earning medals at each meet.

In Rio, DiRado will be an underdog in all three of her individual events but a solid medal contender. Her world rankings for 2016:

200m back — fourth
200m IM — third
400m IM — fifth

4. Most Rookies Since 2000

Not since Michael Phelps‘ first Games has the U.S. Olympic swimming team included this many rookies.

There are 30 in the pool and in all but four individual events (men’s 50m freestyle, 400m freestyle and 200m individual medley and women’s 200m freestyle).

How the young members handle their first Games is unknown. In some instances, Olympic rookies have risen to the occasion (Misty HymanRebecca Soni, Missy Franklin and Katie Ledecky are recent notables). The Rio Games being in a more familiar time zone than the past four Olympics should help.

5. Farewell, Gold Medalists

The Trials likely marked the end of Olympic careers for Natalie CoughlinMatt Grevers and Cullen Jones and definitely for the retiring Tyler Clary, all Olympic gold medalists.

Coughlin, the headline U.S. female swimmer in 2004 and 2008, made a valiant bid at age 33 to make her fourth Olympic team but finished seventh and 14th in two events. If she had made the Rio team, Coughlin could have broken her tie with Jenny Thompson and Dara Torres for the most Olympic medals earned by a U.S. woman (12).

Grevers had a better shot at the Olympic team than Coughlin, but he lost out in a three-man race for two 100m backstroke spots. Grevers took 2012 Olympic and 2013 World titles and the 2015 World bronze medal in the event, but David Plummer and Ryan Murphy swam the fastest times in the world this year at Trials. Grevers is ranked No. 4 in the world, but No. 3 in the U.S. Cruelly, no Olympics.

Jones and Clary, training partners in Charlotte, finished third in their primary events — 50m freestyle and 200m backstroke.

MORE: Connor Jaeger, Abbey Weitzeil end Olympic Swim Trials with wins

Novak Djokovic rolls at French Open; top women escape

Novak Djokovic
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Novak Djokovic began what could be a march to his 18th Grand Slam title, sweeping Swede Mikael Ymer 6-0, 6-2, 6-3 in the French Open first round on Tuesday.

The top seed Djokovic lost just seven points in the first set. He gets Lithuanian Ricardas Berankis or Bolivian Hugo Dellien in the second round in a half of the draw that includes no other men with French Open semifinal experience.

Djokovic had plenty going for him into Roland Garros, seeking to repeat his 2016 run to the title. The chilly weather is similar to four years ago.

As is Djokovic’s form. His only loss in 2020 was when he was defaulted at the U.S. Open for hitting a ball in anger that struck a linesperson in the throat.

Djokovic got a break with the draw when No. 3 seed Dominic Thiem was put in No. 2 Rafael Nadal‘s half. The Serbian also won his clay-court tune-up event in Rome, where he received warnings in back-to-back matches for breaking a racket and uttering an obscenity.

“I don’t think that [the linesperson incident] will have any significant negative impact on how I feel on the tennis court,” Djokovic said before Roland Garros. “I mean, I won the tournament in Rome just a week later after what happened in New York.

“I really want to be my best version as a player, as a human being on the court, and win a tennis match. Because of the care that I have for that, I sometimes express my emotions in good way or maybe less good way.”

If Djokovic can lift the Coupe des Mousquetaires two Sundays from now, he will move within two of Roger Federer‘s career Slams record. Also notable: He would keep Nadal from tying Federer’s record and head into the Australian Open in January, his signature Slam, with a chance to match Nadal at 19.

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women | TV Schedule

Earlier Tuesday, No. 2 Karolina Pliskova and No. 4 Sofia Kenin each needed three sets to reach the second round.

The Czech Pliskova rallied past Egyptian qualifier Mayar Sherif 6-7 (9), 6-2, 6-4. Pliskova, the highest-ranked player without a major title, next gets 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia.

“Let’s not talk about my level [of play],” Pliskova said. “I think there is big room for improvement.”

Kenin, the American who won the Australian Open in February, outlasted Russian Liudmila Samsonova 6-4, 3-6, 6-3.

“It doesn’t matter how you win — ugly, pretty, doesn’t matter,” Kenin said on Tennis Channel.

She gets Romanian Ana Bogdan in the second round. Only one other seed — No. 14 Elena Rybakina — is left in Kenin’s section en route to a possible quarterfinal.

American Jen Brady, who made a breakthrough run to the U.S. Open semifinals, was beaten by Danish qualifier Clara Tauson  6-4, 3-6, 9-7.

The second round begins Wednesday, highlighted by Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal.

MORE: Halep, Comaneci and the genesis of a Romanian friendship

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Alysa Liu grows on the ice and adds inches, too

Liu and Scali in San Francisco
Courtesy Massimo Scali
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Word on the street is Alysa Liu has grown.

The two-time reigning U.S. figure skating champion said that’s true… to a degree. The two inches of height she added between last season and her 15th birthday in August don’t change Liu’s perspective.

“I just went from really short to very short,” Liu said, wryly, via telephone after a training session last week in San Francisco. “I’m up to 5-0. I like the five-foot number, but it’s still short.”

Anyway, the more important measure will be how much Liu has grown as a skater since her successful 2019-20 debut in international junior competition.

As is the case for all skaters, especially those in North America, such skating growth risks being temporarily stunted by restrictions on training and lack of competition caused by the coronavirus pandemic. And physical growth, even if it is only two inches, can also be problematic.

In Liu’s case, issues related to the pandemic have complicated her sudden shift to a new coaching team in late June, when she announced a split from Laura Lipetsky, who had coached her since age 5. Cancellation of the Junior Grand Prix series is giving Liu more travel-free time to adapt to the new situation, although, ironically, travel restrictions are keeping her from having the two-country, three-coach arrangement work the way it was planned.

“I don’t think it affects the long-term plan that much,” Liu said. “I still have my school schedule [where she will finish her high school education before the 2021-22 season, her first as an international senior]. I’m training hard. I’m getting stronger.

“I wasn’t surprised the Junior Grand Prix was cancelled. I’m a little sad I can’t go, but I get to stay home and train, so it’s all good. I do like competing a lot, and I guess I’ll miss that feeling, but because of corona[virus], there is nothing I can do, so I just accepted it.”

As of now, Liu can’t go to Toronto to work face-to-face with coach Lee Barkell, the newest member of the team, and choreographer Lori Nichol, with whom the skater began collaborating last season.

Massimo Scali, the three-time Italian Olympic ice dancer based in the Bay Area who began helping Lipetsky with Liu a month before the 2020 U.S. Championships, now is her in-person coach. Barkell and Nichol contribute via several FaceTime or Zoom sessions each week. Once entry restrictions from the U.S. to Canada are eased, Liu intends to visit regularly while continuing to live with her family in the Bay Area.

Of course, little has gone as might have been planned for Liu over the last two seasons.

In January 2019, at 13, she stunningly became the youngest ever to win a U.S. singles title. In January 2020, at 14, she became the youngest to win two. In the process, Liu became the first U.S. woman to land two triple Axels in a free skate and the first to land a quadruple jump, the former at 2019 nationals, the latter at her 2019 Junior Grand Prix debut.

She won both her 2019 Junior Grand Prix series events. She finished a close second to Russia’s Kamila Valieva at the 2019 Junior Grand Prix Final and a distant third to Valieva at the 2020 World Junior Championships. That made her the first U.S. woman to win a Junior Grand Prix Final medal since 2012 and just the second to win a world junior medal during that period.

Taking over as primary coach of a skate with such a resume carries a burden, especially for a coach like Scali whose entire knowledge base and coaching experience is based in ice dance.

Scali and Liu
Scali and Liu at the Yerba Buena Ice Skating and Bowling Center in San Francisco. Courtesy Massimo Scali

“There is a little pressure on me, for sure,” Scali said. “She is an extremely talented skater and an amazing human being. But I know that I have a terrific team behind me, working really well together. My pressure is doing the best for Alysa to improve where she has to improve.”

Barkell is dealing with a different set of challenges: working remotely with a skater he barely knows.

“It was a bit difficult in the beginning, verbally explaining exercises, technique, corrections, etc., instead of being able to show Alysa,” Barkell said in a text message. “But we have figured out ways to make this work. Alysa is very coachable and has been very receptive to new ideas.

“We [myself, Massimo and Lori] are focusing on development of speed and power in her overall skating and continued development and consistency in all of her jumps. We all realize some of these changes will not happen overnight.”

There is a rule of thumb that says figure skaters need between 18 months and two years to get fully comfortable working with new coaches. For Liu, that time frame dovetails nicely with the next Olympic season.

Liu plans to give her first progress report by recording this week her new short and long programs, by choreographed by Nichol, for judging in U.S. Figure Skating’s international selection pool (ISP) points challenge competition. The performances are to go online Oct. 6.

The short uses music from Nino Rota’s score for the Fellini movie, “La Strada.” The long draws from “The Storm,” a work by the Hungarian composer/pianist Balázs Havasi that Nichol had choreographed for Carolina Kostner in the 2018-19 season, when an injury kept Kostner from competing with that program.

Liu’s jump layouts this season include a triple Axel in the short program with two triple Axels and a quadruple Lutz in the long. She may wait until later competitive events to include them. She plans to skate at the USFS Championship Series competitions in Spokane, Wash., November 10-15 and Henderson, Nevada Nov. 24-28.

“I just want to do good programs for whatever competitions are available,” Liu said. “It will take me a long time to get everything perfect. But I have been working hard on skating skills, and hopefully people can see a difference.”

Barkell handles nearly all the jump instruction, although Scali said is learning enough from watching the remote sessions to be aware of what Liu is supposed to do. Nichol is primary choreographer, with the concept, the music cuts and the steps coming from her.

Scali, who has done choreography for ice dancers, makes occasional choreographic suggestions. But his focus is the areas of skating covered by component scores (PCS).

Liu’s PCS was 6.31 points lower than Valieva’s in the world junior free skate. And Liu’s aggregate PCS for the two programs at 2020 nationals was 9.35 points behind that of runner-up Mariah Bell, but a whopping 18.66 margin over Bell in technical scores – most from jumps – made Liu an easy winner.

Scali and Liu
Scali and Liu at the Yerba Buena Ice Skating and Bowling Center in San Francisco. Courtesy Massimo Scali

“We want Alysa to go out on the ice and look like a mature, different skater,” Scali said. “We are working on details – expression, speed, gliding, posture – to polish the programs so that they give an image of an Alysa who is more empowered and more mature and really ready for senior level competition.”

Brian Boitano, the 1988 Olympic champion, skates twice a week at the San Francisco rink where Liu has been training for the last seven weeks. He gives her tips on jumps and moves like spread eagles.

Boitano proctored Liu’s clean run-throughs last week that did not include the Axels or a quad. “It was great,” Boitano said of the long program.

“We don’t know yet [about the big jumps],” Scali said. “Her training was so affected by this pandemic, and this ISP competition is so early in the season considering all she went through.”

Liu has been training in San Francisco because of issues with ice time availability at her home rink in Oakland, in a different county with different pandemic rules than San Francisco.

When no rinks at all near her were open after coming back from junior worlds, Liu and her father, Arthur, an attorney, went to Wilmington, Del., from early March through mid-May, living in an AirBnb property. She trained in Wilmington on her own except for spotting from a coach with jumps done on a pull harness.

She found herself going stir crazy at times in Delaware, especially missing her four younger siblings, who stayed in California. There is only so much anime on Netflix one can watch.

Once she and her father returned west, it became a case of being careful what you wish for. The siblings, like the home-schooled Liu, now are doing remote learning at home. So far, the Wi-Fi is holding up.

“It’s very chaotic,” she said, laughing. “They are all so crazy it’s kind of ridiculous. I get home every day, and there’s always a racket in the house. My sister Julia is always falling. My sister Selina is always FaceTiming her friends. And the boys [Joshua and Justin] are always fighting.”

Since she has been training in San Francisco, Liu takes the BART train back and forth, sometimes by herself, sometimes with Scali, who lives in Berkeley.

When they began working together on a full-time basis, it was briefly at her usual rink (the Oakland Ice Center), where Lipetsky still teaches. Lipetsky was away at the time, so there were no potentially uncomfortable encounters.

In the June 22 USFS release announcing the coaching change, Liu acknowledged and thanked Lipetsky for the coach’s role in the skater’s success.

“We’ve worked so closely together, and she has helped me get to where I am today,” Liu said.

In a June 22 text message to me, Lipetsky wrote:

“I have really enjoyed working with Alysa for her entire skating career. Massimo Scali and her father informed me that I would no longer be working with her. To not add to her distraction and allow her the opportunity to focus on being the best she can be, I prefer not to comment any further.”

In a text message to me a few days later, Arthur Liu said neither he nor Alysa wanted to talk about the reasons why she left Lipetsky.

“We need to move on and focus on her training,” he wrote.

Scali said they plan to return to the Oakland Ice Center as soon as they can get the ice time Alysa needs there. He does not expect any issues if they are in the rink at the same time as Lipetsky, who, Scali said, had asked him last December to work with the skater on skating skills and components.

“It’s all good,” Scali said. “Alysa is serene and happy about the decision she made, so there will be no problems.”

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating

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