Katie Ledecky wins again at nationals; Lilly King sets Russian showdown

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Katie Ledecky, racing while not very rested, still lowered her fastest time in the world this year in the 200m freestyle by a half-second Wednesday night.

And Lilly King set up another showdown with her Russian rival.

Ledecky took her second title in as many days at the USA Swimming Nationals, part of the TeamUSA Summer Champions Series, presented by Comcast.

The quadruple Rio Olympic champion clocked 1:54.84 to win by 1.84 seconds over Leah Smith, repeating their one-two finish from the 800m freestyle Tuesday in Indianapolis.

“Certainly growing in confidence in that race,” Ledecky said. “It’s right on, or faster than what I was at Trials last year [1:54.88].”

SWIM NATIONALS: Broadcast Schedule | Event Schedule/Results

The top two swimmers per individual event are in line to make the team for the world championships in Budapest in July, plus extra swimmers in the 100m and 200m frees for relays.

The women’s 200m free was loaded with not only Ledecky and Smith, but also Mallory Comerford, who on Tuesday swam the second-fastest 100m free ever by an American. Plus, Olympic 100m free champion Simone Manuel and Olympian Melanie Margalis.

They made up the top five in the 200m free final, putting them all in the world 4x200m free relay pool.

Ledecky has one race left at nationals, the 400m freestyle on Friday. She is the least tapered she’s ever been at a trials meet, meaning she should be much faster at worlds.

If she finishes top two in the 400m free, she’ll be in line to swim six events at worlds in Budapest, her busiest schedule yet at an Olympics or worlds. In 15 career Olympic/world events, Ledecky brought home 14 golds and one silver.

In other events Thursday, King took 2.2 seconds off her 200m breaststroke personal best to win in 2:21.83 over Bethany Galat.

Only Rebecca Soni and Micah Lawrence have swum faster among Americans all time. Only Russian rival Yuliya Efimova has swum faster this year (though significantly, 2:19.83). King of course won the Rio 100m breast over Efimova but didn’t make the Olympic 200m breast final.

King smiled and laughed when asked if she looked forward to facing Efimova for the first time since Rio.

“Of course, I love racing fast people,” King said. “That’s why I’m here. I’m here to race the fast people. I’m here to chase people.”

Olympic silver medalist Josh Prenot failed to make the world team in the men’s 200m breast, finishing third behind Rio teammate Kevin Cordes and Nic Fink.

Townley Haas convincingly won the men’s 200m free in a personal-best 1:45:03. Haas had the fastest 4x200m free relay split in Rio but finished fifth in the individual final at his first Olympics.

His time on Thursday is second to only one man over the last three years — Olympic champion Sun Yang.

Rio 4x100m free member Blake Pieroni finished second Thursday (1:46.30) to nab the other world team spot.

Zane Grothe (1:46.39) and Olympic bronze medalist Conor Dwyer (1:47.25) were third and fourth and made the relay. The last time Dwyer did not qualify for the 200m free at a major international meet was the 2012 Olympics.

Olympic champion Ryan Murphy took the 200m backstroke followed by Jacob Pebley in a repeat of the Olympic Trials.

Kathleen Baker won the women’s 200m backstroke by 2.17 seconds in 2:06.38, the fastest time in the world this year. The Olympic 100m back silver medalist dropped 2.98 seconds off her personal best in the 200m back on Wednesday.

Regan Smith, a 15-year-old who finished second, will in Budapest become the youngest American to race individually at a worlds since Elizabeth Beisel in 2007.

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Simone Biles returns to the gym, going from mental drain to physical pain

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For Simone Biles, this was supposed to be the stretch run of a legendary career.

Instead, she returned to her gym on May 18 with long-term thoughts of waiting 14 months until the Tokyo Olympics. And the immediate aches of a world-class gymnast who just missed nearly two months of regular training.

“After that amount of time off, it kind of sucks because your body hurts and then you get really sore,” Biles said in a pre-recorded ESPNW interview that aired Thursday. “So you just have to get back into the swing of things. But it felt nice to see my coaches, my teammates, and just to be back on the equipment and in the environment.”

In that same Texas gym three months ago, Biles had a far different outlook. One that would have put fear into any gymnast who still harbored ambition of ending her near-seven-year win streak.

“I never felt more ready this early in the season,” she said. “I was so ready for the Olympics to be this year.”

Biles repeated in interviews the last two months that the Olympic postponement to 2021 was devastating. Thoughts zig-zagged: How do I go on another year, at age 23, in a sport recently dominated by (but not limited to) teenagers?

“I’m getting pretty old,” she said in the interview published Thursday. “Will I be at the top of my game?”

Biles proved the last two years — after a year off — that she can win — and comfortably — while not at her best. She grabbed the 2018 World all-around title by a record margin — with two falls. Last year, she became the most decorated gymnast in world championships history. In Tokyo, she can become the first woman to repeat as Olympic all-around champion, and the only one older than 20, in more than 50 years.

This for a gymnast whose early goal was to earn a college scholarship. Biles did, to UCLA, but had to give it up by turning professional.

“So I’ve exceeded that,” Biles said. “And then I wanted to go to world championships and Olympics, and I’ve been to five worlds and one Olympic Games. So, I’d be more than happy [to walk away].”

After gymnastics, Biles has another goal — to be a voice for foster kids. She was in foster care multiple times before being adopted at age 6 by grandparents Ron and Nellie.

Those plans, along with so much else for Biles and so many others, have been pushed back a full year.

“I was already being mentally drained and almost, not done with the sport, but just going into the gym and feeling tired and being like, OK, I’m going to get my stuff [done], get out,” she said. “We have this one end goal, and now that it’s postponed another [year], it’s just like, how are we going to deal with that? We’re already being drained, and so it’s to keep the fire in the sport within yourself alive.”

MORE: Top U.S. gymnasts disagree with Tokyo Olympic age rule

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2022 Pan Pacific Championships canceled as swimming calendar shifts

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The Pan Pacific Swimming Championships, a quadrennial major international meet, will not be held in 2022 “out of respect for the recent changes to the international sporting calendar,” according to a press release.

The Pan Pacs’ charter nations — the U.S., Australia, Canada and Japan — agreed to the move. The 2026 event will be held in Canada, which was supposed to be the 2022 host.

The decision came after the 2021 World Championships were moved to May 2022, following the Tokyo Olympics moving from 2020 to 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic. The quadrennial multi-sport Commonwealth Games — which includes Australia and Canada, but not the U.S. or Japan — are scheduled for July 27-Aug. 7, 2022.

“Organizing a third major championships in that window presented several challenges,” according to the Pan Pacs release.

Pan Pacs mark the third-biggest major international meet for U.S. swimmers, held in non-Olympic, non-world championships years.

MORE: Caeleb Dressel co-hosts a podcast. It’s not about swimming.

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