Yevgenia Medvedeva tops worlds short; Ashley Wagner not top American

Leave a comment

Russian Yevgenia Medvedeva took magnificent and relaxed first steps toward becoming the first repeat women’s world figure skating champion since 2001, topping the short program with a near-record score in Helsinki on Wednesday.

The 17-year-old tallied 79.01 points skating clean, highlighted by a triple flip-triple toe loop jump combination. She leads by 3.03 points over Canadian Kaetlyn Osmond heading into Friday’s free skate. Another Canadian, Gabrielle Daleman, is third.

Surprise U.S. champion Karen Chen is in fifth after the best short of her international career — 69.98 points — in her worlds debut.

Chen is two spots ahead of 2016 World silver medalist Ashley Wagner, who had 69.04 points. Wagner, at her seventh world championships, scored 4.11 more points last year, when she was in fourth after the short.

The other American, Mariah Bell, is 13th.

The top two U.S. placements after the free skate must add up to no more than 13 in order for the U.S. to earn the maximum three spots at the 2018 Olympics. They are currently at 12.

Full worlds short program results are here.

Later Wednesday, the pairs short program produced surprises. The two-time defending world champions placed seventh. The only Olympic medalist pair in the field was 13th.

PREVIEWS: Men | Women | Pairs | Dance | TV schedule

Medvedeva, who has lost once in two seasons as a senior skater, is noted for her motivation to set personal bests. She missed her short-program world record by two tenths on Wednesday, and, unsurprisingly, reacted to her score by exchanging words with her coach before the customary smile.

“They were good scores,” Medvedeva said later in a press conference, via translator. “I will try to give the maximum in the free skate.”

Medvedeva prepared for her title defense by listening to music throughout the day — K-pop — before taking the ice at 3:30 p.m. local time.

After her typical, class-of-its-own skate, she showed the calm and laughter of a veteran skater, chuckling several times during the press conference. Even speaking some English.

It would be a shock if Medvedeva doesn’t become the first repeat world champ since Michelle Kwan. She would complete the most dominant two seasons since Katarina Witt in the 1980s.

“Last year I didn’t quite understand what was happening because it was my first world senior championship,” Medvedeva said. “Now I don’t feel any pressure”

Medvedeva had the highest scores for technical elements (jumps and spins) and artistic components (transitions, interpretation of music, etc.), again showcasing her overall dominance. She admires both aspects. She was asked, too, to name an expressive skater whom she admired.

“I can’t right now name anyone for the past, but I would like to point out Ashley Wagner,” Medvedeva said. “Ashley is able to portray any kind of character in the music. She can be lyrical. She can be totally different.”

Wagner had a clean skate Wednesday, but received lower grades of execution for her jumps. She tweeted “3 points” afterward, referencing her deficit from third place and a spot on the podium going into the free skate.

“I know that I am in fighting distance,” she said. “I really do not have that much to catch up on.”

Chen, the surprise U.S. champion, tallied a personal best by 5.52 points with a clean short program in her world championships debut. Despite her national title, Chen was the biggest question mark of the U.S. women coming into worlds, seeded 17th in the field among best international scores this season.

“I did realize that there is a lot more pressure here, but I didn’t want to let it affect me,” said Chen, who seems past the flu, nerves and boot problems that plagued her in a 12th-place finish at the Four Continents Championships in February. “[Four Continents] was a wake-up call for me.”

Bell, the U.S. bronze medalist and also a worlds rookie, scored 61.02, putting both hands on the ice on her opening triple-triple jump combination.

“Short has this season been a program that has been a little more mentally challenging for me,” she said.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: U.S. pairs skater back from life-threatening condition

Women’s Short Program
1. Yevgenia Medvedeva (RUS) — 79.01
2. Kaetlyn Osmond (CAN) — 75.98
3. Gabrielle Daleman (CAN) — 72.19
5. Karen Chen (USA) — 69.98
7. Ashley Wagner (USA) — 69.04
13. Mariah Bell (USA) — 61.02

‘In Deep with Ryan Lochte’: Watch clips from Peacock film

Leave a comment

“In Deep with Ryan Lochte” is an hourlong journey of how a rambunctious Florida kid became the second-best swimmer of his generation (perhaps history). Of how he became an Olympic embarrassment. Of how he’s trying to regain respect by becoming the oldest male swimmer in U.S. Olympic history, this time as a father.

“After the Olympics, I read a headline, the worst person in the world,” Lochte says at the start of the film, now available for Peacock Premium subscribers. “Everyone’s been, well, where the hell’s Ryan Lochte?”

Lochte is back living and training in Gainesville, Fla., where coach Gregg Troy molded him into the world’s best swimmer what seems like a lifetime ago. Lochte attended the University of Florida in the mid-2000s and, by the end of the decade, supplanted Michael Phelps as the king of the sport before moving to different coaches.

“A lot of people ask me if Michael Phelps wasn’t swimming in the same era, you would be the Michael Phelps,” Lochte said. “That could be true.”

Phelps retired with an Olympic record 28 medals. Lochte owns 12, tied for the second-most for an American and for a swimmer and the most for any active athlete.

Before he matriculated at UF, Lochte was coached by his father, Steve, a junior college All-American who started the Daytona Beach Swimming club after moving the family from New York when Lochte was 12.

When Lochte earned his first individual gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, TV cameras caught his proud father in tears in the Water Cube crowd. Steve felt fulfilled, years after first telling his son that, to be great, a swimmer needed to break a world record and win an Olympic title.

From there, he started breaking Phelps’ records and beating Phelps in races, through the 2012 Olympics and Phelps’ first retirement.

Everything changed in 2016. Phelps was in the shape of his life for his last Olympics, winning another six medals. Lochte, slowed by a groin injury at Olympic Trials, made the team in one individual event and one relay and placed fifth in the 200m IM in Rio.

After he was done competing in Brazil, Lochte lied about an early morning gas-station incident after a late night of drinking. The spiral led to sponsors dropping him and a 10-month suspension. Then there was the alcohol addiction rehab stint. And the 14-month ban for an IV of an illegal amount of a legal substance, brought on by Lochte posting a photo of the infusion on his social media.

Lochte was planning to come back in full this year. Now, with the coronavirus pandemic halting sports, he must do it in 2021, looking to become, at 36, the oldest U.S. Olympic male swimmer in history.

“Yes, I made a mistake in Rio, and I need to earn the respect fro my fellow swimmers, from Team USA, from everyone in the world,” said Lochte, now married with two kids. “I gotta earn the respect. If I don’t make the Olympic team, they won’t see the change that I’ve made.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Cullen Jones’ mission amplifies as he retires from swimming

Wayde van Niekerk took 163 marvelous steps in Rio. One misstep in tag rugby changed everything.

Getty Images
Leave a comment

South African Wayde van Niekerk‘s talent turned out to be sprinting — to become the fastest 400m runner in history at age 24 in 2016 — but when the opportunity came in 2017 to play tag rugby with the nation’s other champion athletes, he did not pass it up.

“As a young boy, wanting to do a bit of sports and playing a bit of rugby with the legends of the country and so on, as you know, the rich history of South African sports,” van Niekerk said in a recent interview. “I got that privilege to rub some shoulders with such greats.”

The likes of not only rugby players, but also cricketer JP Duminy and soccer player Benni McCarthy.

Van Niekerk, two months after taking 400m gold and 200m silver at the 2017 World Track and Field Championships, took his place alongside them on the pitch at the 51,900-capacity Newlands Stadium in Cape Town. The celebrity game was a curtain-raiser for a match between New Zealand’s and South Africa’s national teams.

Fourteen months earlier in the Rio Olympic final, van Niekerk authored the perfect race from lane eight: a 43.03-second lap to break Michael Johnson‘s world record from 1999. He took 163 steps, according to World Athletics. He was expected to spend the rest of the Tokyo Olympic cycle trying to break 43 seconds in the 400m and cementing himself as the world’s best 200m runner, too.

In the rugby match on Oct. 7, 2017, one misstep and a twisted knee changed the trajectory of his career.

“This whole injury was so innocuous,” said van Niekerk’s career-long agent, Peet van Zyl, who was in the stands that day. “He tried to side step a guy, and he just stopped and he sat down. He got up again, and he walked off the field. He just said, ‘Guys, I’m done. I don’t want to play any further. I think I’m a bit injured.’ He walked off the field and all that. It wasn’t the case of him being stretchered off or anything like that. I think we thought maybe he’s just done something. It’s not too bad.”

Van Niekerk said it was quite painful.

“But I think you somewhat try and fight against the thought of it, or kind of denying your reality at that moment, hoping that it’s nothing serious, hoping that it’s something you can bounce back from really quickly, that it’s a bit of a knock, a bit of a twist,” he said. “The reality was totally different to what I was hoping it to be.”

Van Niekerk left the stadium and went across the street to the Sports Science Institute of South Africa for scans. He was with his fiancee, Chesney, whom he married three weeks later, and his stepfather. A doctor delivered the findings: an ACL and meniscus tear.

“He thought, he’ll be fine. It’ll be ready within a few months. and he’ll be able to start running again,” van Zyl said. “I think the actual severity of it sank in a little bit later.”

Van Niekerk sought another opinion, but surgery was inevitable. After his wedding, he flew to Vail, Colorado, for the operation.

“With everything that happened, now I think how silly it was, exposing my body to something like that and then putting my body in somewhat of strain that it has never trained itself [for],” he said. “I mean, rugby is a sport that my body is not conditioned for. That’s where my mind goes toward when asked about it.”

Van Niekerk began breaking the news of such an unusual injury for a sprinter, and through such unusual circumstances, to those around him. The toughest conversation to initiate was with his coach, Ans Botha, whose fame also skyrocketed in Rio.

“First of all, she’s not a fan of us doing any sport, obviously, away from track and field,” van Niekerk said. “Which is right. Which is also the advice I was obviously supposed to follow.”

Van Zyl said Botha was “totally against” van Niekerk participating in the rugby match.

“I wasn’t keen for him to do it, but growing up as a boy in South Africa, rugby’s almost like a religion,” van Zyl said. “She was really, really livid [afterward].”

Still, van Niekerk had time. Three years until the Tokyo Olympics. Two years until the next world championships. Van Niekerk, who became the world’s top sprinter with Usain Bolt‘s retirement, had to learn how to walk again. He was on crutches for about three months.

“There was a lot of doubt that creeped in the process,” he said.

Van Niekerk didn’t race at all in 2018, track and field’s fallow year without an Olympics or biennial world championships.

The rehab went as planned. First in Vail, then in Doha. Van Niekerk trained to return for the South African Championships in April 2019. But the week before the competition, he learned he developed a bone bruise in that right knee.

“He really pushed himself a bit too hard in the week before nationals just to see really what he could do,” van Zyl said. “We decided to pull him out because we can’t afford him to race when he’s not 100 percent.”

Van Niekerk missed the entire outdoor season, including the autumn world championships. He began the 2020 campaign early, with rust-busting meets in February, for a run-up to defending his Olympic title. Van Niekerk felt his speed returned.

“He was really healthy and in the physical and mental condition that he was able to start handling tough races again,” van Zyl said.

Then came the Olympic postponement, which means van Niekerk will go nearly four years between races at global championships.

When he raced in Rio, van Niekerk was an emerging star who just turned 24. The Tokyo Olympics, postponed to 2021, will mark his last global outdoor championships before turning 30.

It’s difficult to predict what he’s capable of. NBC Sports analyst Ato Boldon couldn’t think of another top-flight sprinter who returned from an ACL and meniscus tear.

Before the injury, van Niekerk in 2017 ran the fastest 300m in history and lowered personal bests in the 100m and 200m. He remains the only person in history to go sub-10 in the 100m, sub-20 in the 200m and sub-44 in the 400m.

Even without the injury, Boldon believes breaking his own 400m world record was a tall order due in part to the circumstances of Rio: van Niekerk had nobody in front of him in lane eight, and two past Olympic champions on his inside for motivation, even if he could not see them.

“You can look at a bunch of people that ran a PR in the beginning of their careers, like Bolt, or in the middle of their careers, like many other people, and never got back there,” Boldon said (Bolt’s PRs came at age 23; Johnson, the oldest man to win an Olympic sprint title, set that 1999 400m world record at 31). “Sometimes the planets don’t align again.”

After not seeing Botha for two months, van Niekerk and his coach have been reunited on the Bloemfontein track for about a month. The plan this summer: fly to Italy, where it’s warmer than South Africa this time of year, to train and see if there are opportunities to race. Van Zyl said last week they received clearance to travel but still needed to find a flight.

Can van Niekerk return to his pre-injury level? What about the potential mental hurdle of pushing that right knee to the limit in a major race?

Before van Niekerk, the heir to Bolt’s sprint throne was Jamaican Yohan Blake, who hasn’t returned to his record-teasing levels since major hamstring injuries in 2013 and 2014. In 2015, Blake’s coach (also Bolt’s coach) said that Blake was running scared, in fear of getting hurt again. In other sports, athletes faced that psychological obstacle, from Derrick Rose to Lindsey Vonn.

“The mental challenges that come with track and field is part of the process,” van Niekerk said. “Yeah, mentally, there will be additional this time around, thinking of my leg, but it’s now part of, basically, who I am as an athlete. I’ve been someone that accepts my circumstance very easily.”

Van Niekerk compares the comeback to his ascent. He began working with Botha in 2012 as a marketing student at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein. He was a 100m and 200m sprinter.

Van Niekerk raced his first senior 400m in 2012, according to World Athletics. He broke the South African record in 2014. He broke the African record in winning the world title in 2015, when he ran himself to such exhaustion that he was stretchered off the track and taken to a hospital as a precaution. He ran another .45 faster in Rio.

But Rio actually wasn’t perfect. Van Niekerk said he was in tears before the 400m final due to hamstring and back injuries.

“I know how it is coming from nothing to achieving greatness,” he said last week. “Being able to break a world record with so much uncomfort that I did go through back then just shows me that I have the ability to continue pushing through the pain.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Usain Bolt says one man can bring him out of retirement