Getty Images

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

Leave a comment

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.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

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

Kara Eaker eschews fear, back on balance beam to resume Olympic quest

Kara Eaker
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Kara Eaker hasn’t qualified for an Olympics yet, but she is already part of a historic club of U.S. gymnasts. The list goes, most recently, Eaker, Simone BilesKyla RossAly RaismanNastia LiukinShawn JohnsonShannon Miller and Dominique Dawes.

Those are the women who qualified for back-to-back balance beam finals at the sport’s highest level: Olympics or world championships. For Eaker (pronounced like acre), they came in her first two years as a senior gymnast in 2018 and 2019 (Biles and Johnson are the only other U.S. women to do that in the last 25 years.)

This was supposed to be Eaker’s Olympic year, but the coronavirus pandemic postponed the Games to 2021, after her Missouri high school graduation. It also kept her out of the gym for nearly two months until the GAGE Center reopened last week in Blue Springs, near Kansas City.

It was the longest Eaker had been off a regulation beam (and out of the gym) since she could remember. She began competing at age 5.

Eaker’s mom, Katherine, said her daughter never feared the four-inch-wide beam, but Eaker said the thought of returning last week “was definitely kind of scary at first.” That is, until one of her coaches eased her back with basics and work on a floor beam, one that’s not raised as high as the four feet you see in competition.

“By the time we were ready, and she was comfortable putting us back up there, it wasn’t scary,” Eaker said. “It felt normal.”

Eaker, adopted from a Chinese orphanage around age 1 in 2003 (her parents’ travel then delayed by SARS), excels on the senior elite stage with a level of normalcy.

Which is not entirely normal in this sport. She lives with her family, 10 minutes from her world-class gym. She still attends regular high school. She’s committed to continue gymnastics at the University of Utah after the Tokyo Olympics.

“I started out in dance, actually,” said Eaker, whose hobbies include robotics and calligraphy. “A little, little girl with the stuffed animal, twirling around in the dance room. And then we had our little recital and I just wasn’t … I couldn’t do the standing in front of an audience kind of thing.”

Her mom believes it was around Christmas. Eaker was 3 or 4.

“She just froze like a deer in the headlights, and all the other girls froze, too, because they were used to following her,” Katherine said. “Then she tried gymnastics. We had to drag her out [of the gym]. From then on, it was always, she’s first one in, last one out. Still is.”

The family, including Eaker’s father, Mark, retired Navy and a flight engineer, and younger sister, Sara, moved three times within Missouri in part to get Kara closer to GAGE to pursue what would eventually become an Olympic dream.

Gymnastics meets were appointment TV before Eaker entered kindergarten. She watched the Beijing Olympics, or perhaps an even earlier meet, while dancing around the living room in a leotard. Sometimes she mimicked the gold medalists by doing back bends. She continued to watch Beijing highlights, with Liukin and Johnson, on replay on YouTube.

Back at the gym, Eaker developed with the help of her coaches, plus future University of Nebraska gymnast Catelyn Orel, her “gym mom” under the GAGE program to pair older and younger athletes. Orel was a state champion on beam. Eaker proved a natural, too.

“A lot of the girls would get up there and have trouble balancing, but she just always seemed to do it just like she was on the floor,” her mom said. “She’s never really had a fear. Some girls get up there and are nervous. She just never seemed to be that way.”

In 2018, Eaker was 15, old enough to start competing on the senior level with the likes of Biles. Exactly 10 years after she would have watched Johnson win the Beijing Olympic beam title, Eaker finished second on beam at nationals behind Biles. She was invited to the world championships team selection camp, where she had the top beam score and placed sixth in the all-around. Six gymnasts would be chosen by a committee to travel to the world championships.

Eaker didn’t expect to make the team. In a large meeting with coaches and staff, the roster was announced. Eaker made it as the youngest member.

“It was a goal, but there were so many other girls and it was my first year as a senior,” she said. “I was very happy and surprised to make that team.”

Eaker again won beam at the 2019 World Championships selection camp. If Eaker endured adversity those first two years, it came at worlds.

In 2018, she fell on her mount in the beam final. The rest of her routine was medal-worthy gymnastics. She waited an eternal three minutes for her score, which placed her sixth. Eaker’s routine from the team final earlier that week would have earned silver.

In 2019, Eaker again qualified for the eight-woman beam final. The U.S. federation submitted an inquiry on her qualifying score, contesting a lower start value given to her. That backfired. Judges lowered Eaker’s score even more upon review, which took her out of the final. However, another gymnast who had qualified later withdrew due to injury. Eaker was back in the final, where she placed fourth.

She was asked afterward what she would take away from the meet.

“Just the experience of it all,” she said, composed. “How it makes me feel. How to use that [in the future].”

In 2021, Eaker will have to prove to a selection committee that she can be reliable on all four apparatuses. The Olympic team event size is four — with three gymnasts going per apparatus in the Olympic final — down from five in 2016, putting a greater emphasis on the all-around. Eaker could also be a candidate for one separate spot in individual events only.

“I definitely want to be seen as a great beam worker, but I also need to be a great all-arounder because they’re going to be looking at not just your one event,” said Eaker, who was third in the all-around at the 2019 Worlds selection camp. “You have to be able to benefit the team with your other events, even if they aren’t as strong as your [best] one.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Laurie Hernandez, Maggie Haney react to coach’s suspension

Kenya’s best to race Norway’s best on different continents in June track meet

Ingebrigtsen, Cheruiyot
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Kenya’s top 1500m man is expected to run with a team in Nairobi. Norway’s fastest will be together at a stadium in Oslo. The two contingents will face off in a virtual 2000m team event during the June 11 Impossible Games, the most significant track and field meet since the coronavirus pandemic began.

Organizers of the meet held in Oslo, typically part of the top-level Diamond League circuit, are billing the Norwegian team to include all three Ingebrigtsen brothers — Henrik (2012 European champion), Filip (2017 World bronze medalist), and Jakob (second-fastest in the world in 2019).

The Kenyan team is “Team Cheruiyot,” named after world champion Timothy Cheruiyot, though organizers did not confirm in a press release that Cheruiyot will be part of the squad that races. Later, World Athletics reported that the Kenyan team will include Cheruiyot, plus 2017 World champion Elijah Manangoi.

In the 2000m competition, each team will have five runners. The winner will be the team with the best overall time for three runners, which sounds similar to long-track speed skating’s team pursuit.

Again, the Kenyans will be racing in Nairobi. The Norwegians at the Bislett stadium. A broadcast stream will be a split screen.

“This will be the first virtual race at such level in the history of athletics,” according to a press release.

Also, Therese Johaug, the reigning World Cup overall cross-country skiing champion, will run a 10,000m on the track, organizers announced Tuesday.

Johaug, 31, is one of the world’s dominant athletes. Last season, she notched 20 World Cup victories, 17 more than any other woman. She did so after being banned from the PyeongChang Olympics after testing positive for a steroid found in a cream given to her by a team doctor to treat sunburned lips.

Johaug also has some distance-running credentials. Last year, she won the Norwegian national title in the 10,000m, clocking 32:20.86 to rank 88th in the world. The Olympic qualifying standard is 31:25.

Also slated for the June 11 meet with limited athletes and no fans in the stadium: world 400m hurdles champion Karsten Warholm of Norway, the top two ranked pole vaulters in history — Swede Mondo Duplantis and Frenchman Renaud Lavillenie — and world discus champion Daniel Stahl of Sweden.

Duplantis is expected to be at the Oslo stadium, while Lavillenie will pole vault remotely from his home in France. Warholm was announced last month to race the 300m hurdles, eyeing the fastest time in history in the non-Olympic event, in a solo race.

This year’s Diamond League season has been readjusted to start in August.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Seb Coe: Track and field needs more U.S. meets