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Katie Ledecky returns to Olympic-size pool with greater focus, big question

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Michael Phelps is retired. Ryan Lochte is suspended. Missy Franklin is recovering from shoulder surgeries.

Katie Ledecky is the clear spotlight swimmer at a Grand Prix-level weekend for the first time in more than three years starting Thursday in Mesa, Ariz.

Or, for the first time ever if you believe Ledecky wasn’t a marquee name by January 2014 (Austin Grand Prix).

NBCSN, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app will air Mesa coverage Thursday, Friday and Saturday, including live streaming finals (nightly at 8 Eastern).

Many Olympic champions are in the field this week, including Simone ManuelAnthony Ervin and Dana Vollmer racing 26 weeks pregnant.

But the three-day focus will be on Ledecky, who will race in an Olympic-size 50-meter pool for the first time since bagging five medals (four gold) at the Rio Games.

She just finished her freshman NCAA season at Stanford, competing in 25-yard pools from November through March and earning the Honda Award as the top female swimmer.

Though Ledecky could turn professional at any time and earn lucrative endorsements, she said she plans to stay amateur for at least one more season in Palo Alto, according to the Washington Post.

Ledecky is entered in six events in Mesa: 100m and 400m freestyles on Thursday; 200m freestyle and 400m individual medley on Friday and the 800m freestyle and 200m individual medley on Saturday.

It’s close to a typical Ledecky slate but intriguing nonetheless given the individual medleys. There is reason to believe Ledecky could race the 400m IM at the U.S. Championships in June and, if she qualifies, perhaps the World Championships in Budapest in July. The schedule is favorable at both meets to add it.

Ledecky has never raced the 400m IM at a major international meet and scratched out of the event on the eve of the Olympic Trials eight months ago. She ranked fifth in the U.S. in the event in 2016 but never raced it fully tapered.

She raced the 400-yard individual medley at the Pac-12 Championships in February and broke the American record (Stanford teammate Ella Eastin later went faster at NCAAs, where Ledecky did not race the 400 IM).

Ledecky’s time was faster than the 400-yard IM personal best of Maya DiRado, who took Olympic 400m IM silver in Rio and then retired.

If Ledecky adds the 400m IM to her worlds schedule, and drops no other events from her last worlds slate, she would swim six events in Budapest. If she is on the 4x100m freestyle relay like she did in Rio, she would swim seven events in Budapest. Unlike Rio, the 4x100m free is on the same day as the 400m free at worlds.

No female swimmer has won seven medals at a single Olympics or world championships.

Only two swimmers of either gender have won five individual medals at a single Olympics or world championships — Shane Gould and Michael Phelps.

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MORE: Ledecky laps all but one swimmer to win NCAA title

Bernard Lagat commits to Olympic marathon trials, eyes age record

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Bernard Lagat, a 44-year-old, five-time Olympian, reportedly said he will race the Olympic marathon trials on Feb. 29 in a bid to break his own record as the oldest U.S. Olympic runner.

“I feel like I can still improve,” Lagat said, according to Runner’s World. “I’m going to give it my best.”

Lagat, a two-time Olympic 1500m medalist, moved to the marathon after becoming the oldest U.S. Olympic runner in history at the Rio Games, placing fifth in the 5000m.

He clocked 2:17:20 in his 26.2-mile debut at the 2018 New York City Marathon. He lowered it to 2:12:10 at the Gold Coast Marathon in Australia on July 7 but did not previously commit to entering the trials.

If Lagat finishes in the top three at the marathon trials, he is in line to become the third-oldest U.S. Olympic track and field athlete in history. The oldest are race walker John Deni (49 years old in 1952) and hammer thrower Matt McGrath (48 years old in 1924), according to the OlyMADMen.

Lagat ranks outside the top 20 among U.S. marathoners in this Olympic cycle. The fastest are Galen Rupp (2:06:07), Leonard Korir (2:07:56, from Sunday’s Amsterdam Marathon) and Scott Fauble (2:09:09).

No American has competed in six Olympics in track and field. Lagat’s first two Olympic appearances were for Kenya.

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MORE: Olympic marathon moved from Tokyo to another Olympic host city

Natalie Geisenberger, Olympic luge champion, will not race this season

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For the first time in eight years, there will be a new World Cup women’s luge champion.

Germany’s Natalie Geisenberger — the seven-time defending champion and two-time defending Olympic singles gold medalist — announced that she isn’t sliding this season because she and her husband are expecting their first child in April.

“Our happiness is on the way,” Geisenberger said on her Facebook page.

Geisenberger plans to return next season and still has hopes to compete at the 2022 Beijing Olympics, where she could match fellow German great Georg Hackl’s feat of winning three consecutive singles golds.

With Geisenberger not sliding this season, the top returning women from last year’s World Cup standings now are Julia Taubitz of Germany and Summer Britcher of the U.S. — second and third, respectively, in 2018-19.

Geisenberger has a luge record-tying four Olympic golds in all, being part of Germany’s victories in the team relays in Sochi in 2014 and Pyeongchang in 2018 as well.

Her 49 World Cup singles wins are another record, and she’s one of two sliders to win seven consecutive World Cup titles — Austria’s Markus Prock took the men’s championships each year from 1990-91 through 1996-97.

Geisenberger’s break from sliding only adds to how the World Cup standings — and the German roster — will look very different this season. Dajana Eitberger, who was fourth in last season’s World Cup standings, is also pregnant and expecting a baby in February. And Tatjana Huefner, who was sixth overall last season, has retired.

Huefner won five consecutive World Cup titles before Geisenberger took over and began her seven-year streak of championships. Geisenberger earned medals 11 times in 12 singles races last year — six golds, four silvers and one bronze.

“We are so happy for you even though we will miss you this season!” two-time Olympic singles gold medalist Felix Loch of Germany wrote in a message to Geisenberger on Instagram.

Geisenberger has been in the top three of the World Cup standings in 12 consecutive seasons. She was third in 2007-08, finished second in each of the next four seasons, and then began her title streak in 2012-13.

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MORE: U.S. luge star adds doubles after Olympic singles medal