Missy Franklin and Ryan Lochte will be busy in the pool at the Rio Olympics. Just not as busy as they wanted to be.
The two popular stars from the U.S. swimming team four years ago in London have just three individual events between them in Rio, hardly the frenetic schedule they’ve grown accustomed to over the years.
Four years ago, Franklin swam four individual events and three relays, while Lochte had three individual events, plus two relays. Together, they won 10 medals.
This time, neither will defend their Olympic titles in two events. Franklin failed to qualify for the 100-meter backstroke at the recent U.S. trials, while Lochte, bothered by a groin injury, didn’t make the team in the 400 individual medley.
The perpetually upbeat Franklin put a positive spin on her reduced schedule that will give her more time in the stands cheering on her teammates.
“I’m still a second-time Olympian, I get to go to Rio, I get to be a part of this team,” she said.
Franklin’s seventh-place finish in the 100 back at trials had her in the unusual position of publicly working through major disappointment.
“You have this idea in your head that everyone’s careers are perfect all the time, and as soon as yours starts to waver a little bit you start wondering, ‘Oh my goodness, why is this happening?'” she said. “You sort of start to realize no one has the perfect career, no one makes every team in every event that they want to.”
At 17, Franklin was one of the biggest stars at the London Olympics, competing in seven events and winning four gold medals and a bronze. Away from the pool, she didn’t cash in right away since she wanted to compete collegiately.
After two years at California, Franklin turned pro last year, setting up major endorsement deals heading into Rio. She’s found it challenging balancing training with accommodating sponsors’ demands for photo shoots, commercials and appearances.
“It’s fun, absolutely, but that doesn’t mean it’s not hard,” she said. “It’s definitely more to juggle than what I had to in 2012. I definitely have some days when I wake up and I’m more tired than normal.”
Also making it difficult is Franklin’s inclination to please others, sometimes at her expense. She’s had to learn to say no and not feel guilty.
“She will literally look at somebody and say, ‘Have you had enough pictures? I’m going to start my practice now,'” her coach Todd Schmitz said. “I stand there and go, ‘Good, yes.’ I’ve always told her I will be the bad guy every single time, but I can’t always be there.”
But, while Franklin has more money in her pocket, it’s been a struggle to regain the form that made her the world’s most dominant female swimmer — a title ceded to fellow American Katie Ledecky.
“One of the things I’ve been trying to do this whole year is not compare myself to where I was in 2012,” said Franklin, who returned home to Colorado to train with Schmitz. “I came in here to be the best of who I am right now, not who I was four years ago.”
Franklin will be competing in the 200 freestyle and 200 backstroke in Rio, while Lochte swims the 200 IM. Both qualified to swim on the women’s and men’s 800 free relay.
Lochte turns 32 on Aug. 3, two days before the games open. He has 11 career medals going into his fourth Olympics.
“It’s a lot harder because I’m older,” he said. “I can’t put my body through certain practices or sets that I used to be able to do.”
In London, Lochte won the 400 IM on the first day of the eight-day competition, and then made what he called his biggest mistake of the games.
“I didn’t do the right recovery process after that win because I was just like, ‘Screw this, I’m happy,'” he recalled. “I think that kind of hurt me throughout the meet. Now that I’ve gotten more mature, I’m listening to my body more.”
He’s also listening to coach Dave Marsh, who will oversee the U.S. women’s team in Rio. After London, Lochte relocated his training base to Charlotte, North Carolina, and cut back his partying lifestyle in favor of more time in the pool.
“When he’s in the water working hard, he’s probably his most happy,” Marsh said.
After Rio, Franklin will return to college. Lochte is likely to keep swimming, as long as he’s still having fun.
“I said the day you finish is the day you’re going to meet up with a girl and have grandchildren,” his mother Ike Lochte said. “He just laughs at me.”
There are 41 scheduled World Cup races this season. Mikaela Shiffrin has never started more than 30 events in one campaign. After skiing the first seven this fall, and more than doubling the next-best woman in World Cup points, it may soon come time for a rest.
Perhaps this weekend. Perhaps in Shiffrin’s best event, a slalom (albeit a parallel slalom, different than the traditional, Olympic format).
Shiffrin is scheduled to start the first of two World Cup events this weekend, a super-G in St. Moritz, Switzerland, on Saturday (4:30 a.m. ET, Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA and live streaming on NBC Sports Gold).
Later Saturday, a 30-minute special on Shiffrin’s historic 2018-19 season, titled “Mikaela’s Masterpiece,” will air on NBCSN at 2 p.m. ET. A trailer is here.
It’s TBD whether she will come back for Sunday’s parallel slalom (7:30 a.m., Olympic Channel and NBC Sports Gold). She will announce after Saturday’s race, according to U.S. Ski & Snowboard. It’s rare to have a speed event (downhill or super-G) and a technical event (slalom or giant slalom) at the same World Cup stop.
Parallel events can be more demanding than the usual format where skiers take two runs and combine times. In parallel, a bracket-elimination format, Shiffrin took seven runs last year (each run about half the time as a typical slalom) en route to winning in St. Moritz.
Later in the season, and again before this season, Shiffrin mentioned back soreness that is common in ski racing.
“So it’s just a little bit like what’s my body going to allow me to do as well,” she said in Cotober. “I know I’m only 24, but at the same time I sort of feel like I’m already 24 [laughs], and I feel it.”
Shiffrin, while adding more and more downhills and super-Gs, has skipped just two technical races since bursting on the World Cup scene in 2012 at age 15. Those were in city events, also bracket formats.
She passed on one in Stockholm in 2016, when she was coming back from a two-month knee-injury absence and had no chance of winning the season title in slalom. She skipped Stockholm again in late January 2018, prioritizing preparing for the PyeongChang Olympics.
In other winter sports events this weekend, the men’s Alpine World Cup heads to Val d’Isere, France, for a Saturday slalom (7 a.m., Olympic Channel and NBC Sports Gold) and Sunday giant slalom (6:30 a.m., Olympic Channel and NBC Sports Gold). Last Sunday, Tommy Ford ended the U.S. men’s longest victory and podium droughts in two decades.
In hockey, the Olympic and world champion U.S. women face Canada in an exhibition in Hartford on Saturday at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN.
Freestyle skiers and snowboarders compete at the U.S. Grand Prix at Copper Mountain, Colo., on Friday (1:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN) and Saturday (2:30 p.m., NBCSN).
The revolution in women’s figure skating is being televised.
That’s a turn of phrase on an admittedly dated reference (Google it). The point is we all have been able to witness, from TV broadcasts or live streams, a season with the most radical change in the sport since child prodigy Sonja Henie, then age 11, began doing jumps in her programs nearly a century ago.
What we watched other child prodigies do at last week’s Grand Prix Final boggled the minds of even those who saw it coming, because no one imagined it coming this soon and to this degree.
This essentially Russian revolution, which has taken maximum advantage of the scoring system and youthful body types to overthrow longtime technical norms of women’s skating, has split the discipline into haves and have-nots.
There are those who have the high-scoring quadruple jumps or multiple triple Axels to seize all the medals. And those who do not have those big jumps and, as of now, no chance to regain the podiums from which they have been summarily ousted.
Given what already had happened this season, it was not surprising that Russian first-year seniors Alena Kostornaia, Anna Shcherbakova and Alexandra Trusova swept the medals in the senior Final. Each had qualified by winning two of the six events in the Grand Prix series.
What is surprising is how far and fast the Troika – as NBC commentator and two-time Olympian Johnny Weir artfully nicknamed them, in a reference to a traditional Russian three-horse sled – has pushed the envelope and how far and fast they have left everyone else behind.
And imagine what the gap could be if women were allowed to do quads in the short program, which likely will be proposed at next year’s International Skating Union congress.
A year ago, it was shocking when the Troika, then all juniors internationally, swept the medals at the senior Russian Championships. Now it will be shocking if they don’t do it again at this year’s Russian Championships, which take place Dec. 24-29.
No women were regularly doing quads until last season. Consider what the Troika has done just this autumn:
*Kostornaia, 16, did not attempt a triple Axel in international competition before this season. Now she is doing one in the short program and two in the free, and all three were very well executed as she took gold at the Grand Prix Final.
*Shcherbakova, 15, began her international season the way she had finished last year at junior worlds, with one quad Lutz in the free skate; at the Grand Prix Final, she did two quad Lutzes (one clean, one under-rotated) and attempted her first quad flip (fall) in finishing second.
*Trusova, 15, began this season after having landed quad Lutz, quad Salchow and quad toe loop as a junior, but she was not attempting more than two in a program. In her senior Grand Prix debut at Skate Canada, she did four quads (three clean). At the Grand Prix Final, she added an excellent quad flip for five free skate quads, one of which she doubled and three of which were clean. She also attempted (and under-rotated) a triple Axel for the first time in the short program.
Even with the mistakes, the quads still racked up enough points for Shcherbakova that she beat a flawless Kostornaia in the free skate. And they gave Trusova a 20.71-point overall margin over fourth finisher Rika Kihira, 17, of Japan, who already had mastered triple Axels but has dropped so far from contention against the Troika that Kihira tried (and fell on) her first quad in competition.
And you have to feel a little sorry for reigning Olympic and world champion Alina Zagitova of Russia, at the technical cutting edge of her sport less than two years ago, now utterly overmatched – and still just 17 years old.
Zagitova’s free skate, an error-filled mess, dropped her from second after a fine short (less than six points behind Kostornaia) to sixth overall, more than 42 points behind Kostornaia and nearly 28 behind the third-place Trusova.
Even had she skated cleanly, having a long program with no quads or triple Axels meant the base value of Zagitova’s elements was more than 30 points less than Trusova’s, more than 20 less than Shcherbakova’s and about five less than Kostornaia’s. Zagitova would have needed otherworldly Grades of Execution marks and program component scores to compete for a medal.
Those who decry how much the quads have thrown the sport’s athletic-artistic balance out of whack found some satisfaction in Kostornaia’s having won with a performance and interpretive quality rare for a skater of her age.
Yet Kostornaia also accumulated some 21 free skate points for her triple Axels, about 13 more points than fifth-place finisher Bradie Tennell of the U.S. got for two clean double Axels. Even if Tennell had not made some relatively small mistakes, there was no way she could make up that difference.
And remember that if Trusova had cleanly landed the quad she doubled and the quad that resulted in a fall, she could have overcome not only her short program mistake but also the margin Kostornaia built in program components with clearly superior skating skills and artistry.
Tennell, 21, the top U.S. woman at the 2018 Olympics (ninth) and the last two World Championships (sixth and seventh), this season has displayed the best overall level of skating in her career. But a lack of quads and triple Axels has dropped her exponentially further behind the leaders.
Yet Tennell presses on.
“She may never catch them, but we keep pushing forward, trying to improve on both components and technical,” said Denise Myers, who coaches Tennell. “She is not settling for where she is now.”
About a month ago, I began to wonder if changing the factoring of the five Program Component Scores (PCS) so that they were the same for women as for men would level a playing field that has tilted so dramatically toward the jumpers.
Since the International Judging System was introduced in 2004, factors of .8 (short program) and 1.6 (long) have been applied to the raw total of each woman’s component score. They are 1.0 and 2.0 for men.
The logic behind the difference was until last season, a men’s free skate was 30 seconds longer with one more element. (Why it also applied to the short program is unclear, since the number of elements and time have been the same.)
“The idea of possible new factors for the program components for men was evaluated in the past season, because for the top skaters the technical score in the last years had considerably increased,” Italy’s Fabio Bianchetti, chair of the ISU technical committee for singles and pairs, said in an email.
“At the moment, for the majority of the [men], the [PCS] is still corresponding to about 50 percent of the total score. In some cases, the relation might not be exact, but a rule must consider all the skaters and not only the top five.
“Now we are dealing with the same situation for the ladies. This is something totally new, and we will study the problem during the season. But again, we cannot look at a couple of skaters only.”
In a recent interview with Nick Zaccardi of NBC Sports, Weir seconded the idea of giving the women’s PCS scores the same weight as the men’s.
“It would give them a little better chance,” Samuel Auxier, an international judge and former U.S. Figure Skating, said in a text message last month.
So much has changed on the jump front since then that it turns out using the men’s PCS factors would have had almost no impact on the women’s results at the Grand Prix Final.
With some computational help from skatingscores.com, I recalculated the PCS scores from the Final with the 1.0 and 2.0 factors, added them to the TES scores and found just one difference: Kostornaia would have moved from second to first in the free skate. The overall and short program finish order would have been the same.
So, the 20% adjustment of PCS factor gender equality is not enough to put women without the most difficult jumps into medal contention.
And as Bianchetti pointed out, making that change or a more substantial one in the women’s factoring must take into consideration not only a few exceptional new talents.
“I truly do not believe that anyone seriously thought a lady would deliver four quads so quickly and especially at such a young age,” Ted Barton of Canada, who was involved in the creation of IJS, said in a text message last month. “Alysa Liu is a good American example of what the present is and future might be.”
(And, yes, there is an elephant in the room: whether the young talents are getting exaggerated PCS scores from judges smitten by their jumping. That’s a question for another day – or lifetime.)
Yet there is every indication the Troika are only the leading edge of a blizzard of jumping phenoms, not only from Russia. After all, Junior Grand Prix Final silver medalist Liu, 14, last season became the youngest singles champion in U.S. history with three triple Axels, and she has added a quad Lutz this season.
“The factoring and [other] calculations were developed on what was being done at that point,” Barton said. “Now that skaters have shown new possibilities, the technical committees will look to see what adjustments can and should be made. Interesting times, indeed.”
For now, though, we are seeing in real time the unsettling effect revolutions can have.
And it seems surreal.
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.
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.