Katie Ledecky swims fastest 400m free of 2017, plans world champs schedule

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Katie Ledecky is using this week’s meet to start building toward the Tokyo Olympics in three years. And to prepare for the pain coming at the world championships in three months.

In her first meet in an Olympic-size pool since the Rio Games, Ledecky won the 400m freestyle in 4:01.01, the fastest time in the world this year by 1.51 seconds, on Thursday.

Full results from the USA Swimming Pro Series at Mesa are here.

It’s the fastest time ever swum in the month of April — and Ledecky’s been coming to this April meet for five years. That’s a strong indicator that Ledecky is on track for the U.S. Championships in June and the world championships in July. She doesn’t seem tired at all from her first NCAA season at Stanford.

“Looking at some technical things, not really worried about time at this meet,” Ledecky said afterward. “Start building those things up for the next four years.”

And for worlds in Budapest.

Ledecky, whose media obligations at Stanford were kept to a minimum, discussed her world championships plans in a nine-minute media session Thursday.

Specifically, Ledecky eyes repeating the same daunting double that made so many headlines at the last worlds in 2015. That would be swimming the 1500m freestyle final, and then the 200m free semifinals somewhere around 30 minutes later.

To prepare for that, Ledecky is swimming the 200m freestyle and the 400m individual medley in Mesa on Friday. Those finals should be separated by about an hour on Friday evening (streaming on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app at 8 ET).

The 400m IM is the most grueling event in swimming outside of the 800m and 1500m frees.

“It’s just to practice,” Ledecky said. “Practice the pain of it.”

Ledecky added that she isn’t really taking the 400m IM seriously as a potential event at the U.S. Championships, the qualifying meet for worlds. Even though Ledecky broke the American record in the 400-yard IM two months ago (it was later re-broken by a Stanford teammate at NCAAs in March, where Ledecky didn’t swim the 400 IM).

So, it appears Ledecky will probably swim the same four individual events at worlds as in 2015. Two years ago, she became the first male or female swimmer to sweep the 200m, 400m, 800m and 1500m frees at a single worlds.

Ledecky could try to qualify in the 100m freestyle, but the 100m free and 800m free finals are on the same night at the U.S. Championships in June. Ledecky would have to finish in the top two in the 100m free at nationals, and it is not a strong event for her.

Ledecky finished fourth in the 100m free in Mesa on Thursday, 1.12 seconds behind co-Olympic champion Simone Manuel, a Stanford teammate.

Ledecky and Manuel dueled several times this past season at Stanford. Neither got much of a break after NCAAs last month.

NCAAs finished on a Saturday in Indianapolis, they traveled back to Palo Alto the next day and then trained while taking finals that week. After finals, the Stanford stars traveled to Colorado Springs for 10 days of altitude training before coming to Mesa.

Ledecky reportedly plans to race at least one more season at Stanford, passing up lucrative endorsement opportunities to be eligible for NCAA competition.

She’s enjoying life on campus, from re-learning how to ride a bike to dorm life with three roommates. Ledecky said two of her favorite classes were spirit of democracy and Greek art history. The professor of the latter class follows her swimming and emails her almost daily.

Stanford uses the quarter system, so Ledecky has eight more weeks of classes before her next break.

Ledecky also commented on FINA’s proposal to add many more events for the 2020 Olympics. Of all of the events, Ledecky would most like to see the women’s 1500m free. It’s part of the world championships — Ledecky won it in 2013 and 2015 — but not the Olympic program.

But Ledecky hopes an addition of the 1500m free would not mean a subtraction of another event.

“I don’t think the 800 [free] should be eliminated,” she said. “I think there’s such a great history of the 800m free. To just kind of scratch that, and there have been so many people that have obviously swum the 800m free at the Olympics, I think they deserve the recognition moving forward and looking at the history of it whenever you get in and race that event.”

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MORE: Olympic champion, 6 months pregnant, enters swim meet

Kendall Gretsch wins six gold medals at Para Nordic Ski Worlds

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Kendall Gretsch, who won Paralympic titles at the last Summer and Winter Games, added another six gold medals at the World Para Nordic Skiing Championships in Sweden last week.

Gretsch, 30, earned seven total medals in seven days between biathlon and cross-country skiing.

Gretsch won gold medals in three different sports across the last three Paralympics: biathlon and cross-country skiing in 2018 (two years after taking up the sports), triathlon in 2021 and biathlon in 2022.

She plans to shift her focus back to triathlon after this winter for 2024 Paris Games qualification.

Gretsch, born with spina bifida, was the 2014 USA Triathlon Female Para Triathlete of the Year. Though triathlon was added to the Paralympics for the 2016 Rio Games, her classification was not added until Tokyo.

Also at last week’s worlds, six-time Paralympian Aaron Pike earned his first Paralympic or world championships gold medal in his decade-plus career, winning a 12.5km biathlon event.

Oksana Masters, who won seven medals in seven events at last year’s Paralympics to break the career U.S. Winter Paralympics medals record, missed worlds due to hand surgery.

The U.S. also picked up five medals at last week’s World Para Alpine Skiing Championships in Spain — three silvers for five-time Paralympian Laurie Stephens and two bronzes for 17-year-old Saylor O’Brien.

Stephens now has 18 career medals from world championships, plus seven at the Paralympics.

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World champion skier Kyle Smaine dies in avalanche at age 31

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Kyle Smaine, a retired world champion halfpipe skier, died in an avalanche in Japan on Sunday, according to NBC News, citing Smaine’s father. He was 31.

Smaine, a 2015 World champion in ski halfpipe, had been doing ski filming in Japan, sharing videos on his Instagram account over the past week.

The native of South Lake Tahoe, California, finished ninth in ski halfpipe at the 2016 Winter X Games in Aspen, Colorado.

In 2018, Smaine won the fifth and final U.S. Olympic qualifying series event in ski halfpipe but did not make the four-man team for PyeongChang. His last sanctioned international competition was in February 2018.

Late Sunday, two-time Olympic champion David Wise won the X Games men’s ski halfpipe and dedicated it to Smaine.

“We all did this for Kyle tonight,” Wise said on the broadcast. “It’s a little bit of an emotional day for us. We lost a friend.”