Katie Ledecky finishes worlds with five golds, one silver

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Katie Ledecky capped the most successful (by medals) major meet of her career with her fifth gold and sixth medal overall in the world championships 800m freestyle on Saturday.

She won in 8:12.68, nearly eight seconds slower than her world record in Rio. China’s Li Bingjie took silver, 2.78 seconds behind, followed by American Leah Smith. Li, who was born in 2002, lowered her personal best by more than five seconds.

Ledecky surpassed her medal totals from the 2015 Worlds — five golds, five overall — and 2016 Olympics — four golds, five overall. Only Missy Franklin and Michael Phelps have won more golds at a single worlds.

However, she was not as dominant as the last two years. Before Saturday, Ledecky was usually between one and two seconds slower per event in Budapest than at her otherworldly Rio Games.

“If that was my bad year for the next four years, then next couple of years are going to be pretty exciting,” Ledecky told media in Budapest.

She set no world records at a major meet for the first time since the 2012 Olympics, when she won her only event, the 800m free, at age 15. Ledecky lowered at least two records at the 2013 Worlds, 2014 Pan Pacific Championships, 2015 Worlds and 2016 Olympics.

Remember, Ledecky faced new challenges in the post-Olympic year, moving from the Washington, D.C., area for the first time, enrolling at Stanford and completing a full NCAA season under a new coach. To expect her to be faster in 2017 than in 2016 would arguably be unrealistic.

“Hasn’t been the best meet for me, but I’m still happy with my swims,” Ledecky said on NBC on Saturday, adding later, “I always wish there was more. … Knowing that I didn’t really set as high of goals this year and have that same motivation I had last year, always being on and on and on. Going through a lot of transitions and changes this year. Knowing that I’ve gone through that year now, I can really take what I learned this year and apply it moving forward.”

Ledecky remains unquestionably the world’s greatest female distance swimmer. The questions going into next year center on her newer events.

Can she return to the top of the world in the 200m freestyle?

The woman who relegated Ledecky to silver in Budapest, veteran Italian Federica Pellegrini, said she’s finished with that event on the major international level.

The woman who was Ledecky’s biggest rival in the 200m free in 2015 and 2016 — Swede Sarah Sjöström — did not swim the 200m free in Budapest and may not contest it again at a major international meet.

The new 200m free challenger is Australian Emma McKeon, the 23-year-old who tied Ledecky for silver in Budapest. Ledecky and McKeon could go head to head at the 2018 Pan Pacific Championships, a meet for the world’s best swimmers outside of Europe.

However, Australia will be focusing on hosting the Commonwealth Games in April ahead of Pan Pacs in Tokyo in August.

Then there’s Ledecky’s place on the U.S. 4x100m free relay. Ledecky was sixth in the 100m free at nationals but certainly deserved a place on the relay in Budapest given her strong Rio relay effort.

But she went 1.04 seconds slower on her relay leg than in Rio (albeit after swimming the 400m free final earlier in the session). Ledecky was the slowest of the six U.S. swimmers (prelims and finals, factoring in flat starts).

The U.S. is so strong in the 100m free that it doesn’t need to lean on Ledecky in the relay, and she may not be an automatic for the final quartet moving forward in an event that is nowhere near her specialty. Simone Manuel and Mallory Comerford traded American records in the event this week and are in a class of their own.

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WORLDS: TV Schedule | Schedule/Results | Race Videos

Women’s 800m Freestyle Results
Gold: Katie Ledecky (USA) — 8:12.68
Silver: Li Bingjie (CHN) — 8:15.46
Bronze: Leah Smith (USA) — 8:17.22
4. Mireia Belmonte (ESP) — 8:23.30
5. Boglarka Kapas (HUN) — 8:24.41
6. Zhang Yuhan (CHN) — 8:26.06
7. Simona Quadarella (ITA) — 8:26.50
8. Holly Hibbott (GBR) — 8:38.63

At U.S. Open swim meet, teens make a splash with Olympic trials on horizon

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While Olympic and world champions Katie LedeckySimone Manuel and Chase Kalisz notched expected victories at the U.S. Open on Thursday, a trio of teenagers lowered personal bests to further establish their Tokyo Olympic hopes.

At the top domestic meet of the winter, Alex WalshCarson Foster and Kieran Smith each earned runner-up finishes, but their performances stood out in the big picture: looking at June’s Olympic trials, where the top two per individual event make the team.

Walsh, a rising Nashville high school senior, took 2.23 seconds off her 200m individual medley best. She clocked 2:09.01, overtaken by .17 by Melanie Margalis, the Rio Olympic and 2019 World Championships fourth-place finisher.

Full meet results are here.

Walsh moved from fifth-fastest in the U.S. this year to No. 2 behind Margalis, passing Olympic and world championships veterans Ella EastinKathleen Baker and Madisyn Cox. Of those swimmers, only Eastin was also in Thursday’s final.

Walsh joined her younger sister, Gretchen, in Olympic qualifying position based on 2019 times. Gretchen, 16, ranks fourth in the U.S. in the 100m free this year. The top six in that event at trials are in line to make the Olympic 4x100m free relay pool.

The Walshes could become the third set of sisters to make the same U.S. Olympic swim team, and the second to do it in pool swimming after Dana and Tara Kirk in 2004.

Foster, 18, continued his ascent Thursday in taking second to Kalisz in the men’s 200m IM. The world junior champion lowered his personal best in the prelims and the final, getting down to 1:57.59. Foster passed Ryan Lochte, who is nearly twice his age, in Thursday’s final and in the 2019 U.S. rankings. Only Kalisz and Michael Andrew have been faster among Americans this year.

Foster is trying to become the youngest U.S. Olympic male swimmer since 2000, when a 15-year-old Michael Phelps made his Olympic debut. Foster, who has been breaking Phelps national age-group records since he was 10, committed to the University of Texas in March 2018, two years before he graduates high school in Ohio.

Then there’s Kieran Smith, now a prime candidate to fill a huge void in the 400m freestyle. Zane Grothe is the only American ranked in the top 20 in the world this year.

Smith, a 19-year-old from the University of Florida, took 2.29 seconds off his lifetime best on Thursday to jump from outside the top 10 to No. 2 in the U.S. on the year. Smith was already ranked No. 2 in the country in the 200m free.

Two more runners-up in the 50m freestyles — Erika Brown to Manuel and Zach Apple to Brazilian Bruno Fratus — lowered personal bests to move to No. 3 in each U.S. ranking list this year.

The U.S. Open continues Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. ET with live coverage on NBCSN and streaming on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app.

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Nathan Chen distances Yuzuru Hanyu in Grand Prix Final short program

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A brilliant Nathan Chen outscored a flawed Yuzuru Hanyu for a fourth straight head-to-head program, taking a 12.95-point lead at the Grand Prix Final in Turin, Italy, on Thursday.

Chen, the two-time reigning world champion, tallied 110.38 points going into Saturday’s free skate. He landed a quadruple Lutz, triple Axel and quad toe loop-triple toe loop combination.

It’s the highest short program score in the world this season, leading the American to say “wow” in the kiss-and-cry area. His coach, the often-gruff Rafael Arutyunyan, banged his knee against his pupil’s.

Hanyu, the two-time reigning Olympic champion, hit a quadruple Salchow and triple Axel but then stepped out of a quad toe landing. He therefore failed to include a required jumping combination and ended up in second place.

“I wanted to do a great performance and do a good competition against [Chen], but that didn’t happen this time,” Hanyu, who was without longtime coach Brian Orser, or any other coach, said through a translator. Hanyu said Orser was busy last week, so he chose to use his lone accreditation on another coach who had travel delays.

Hanyu is not out of title contention. His world-leading free skate score this season is 16.61 points better than Chen’s best free skate from the fall Grand Prix Series.

Chen is undefeated since placing fifth at the PyeongChang Olympics, but this is just his second head-to-head with Hanyu in that span. Chen defeated Hanyu at March’s world championships, where the Japanese megastar was likely affected by an ankle injury.

After Thursday’s program, Chen repeated what he said before the competition: he still feels like he’s chasing Hanyu.

“Yuzu is like the goat, he’s the greatest of all time, really,” Chen said. “So, to have this opportunity to be able to share the ice with a guy like that, someone that I’ve looked up to for a long time, someone that I’ve watched grow up through the junior ranks when I was like a baby, it’s really cool to be able see him now. It’s really cool to even just be able to see him person.”

The Grand Prix Final, the biggest annual event outside the world championships, continues Friday with the rhythm dance, women’s short and pairs’ free skate. A full TV and live stream schedule is here.

Earlier in pairs, Chinese Sui Wenjing and Han Cong took their first step toward a first Grand Prix Final title. The Olympic silver medalists tallied 77.50, leading Russians Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitriy Kozlovskiy by .85 going into Friday’s free skate.

Sui and Han were imperfect, with Sui putting her hand down on a throw triple flip landing. They are undefeated in this Beijing Olympic cycle and own the world’s top total score this season.

The U.S. failed to qualify a pair for the six-team Final for the 11th time in the last 12 years.

Grand Prix Final
Men’s Short Program
1. Nathan Chen (USA) — 110.38
2. Yuzuru Hanyu (JPN) — 97.43
3. Kevin Aymoz (FRA) — 96.71
4. Dmitriy Aliyev (RUS) — 88.78
5. Alexander Samarin (RUS) — 81.32
6. Jin Boyang (CHN) — 80.67

Pairs’ Short Program
1. Sui Wenjing/Han Cong (CHN) — 77.50
2. Aleksandra Boikova / Dmitriy Kozlovskiy (RUS) — 76.65
3. Daria Pavliuchenko/Denis Khodykin (RUS) — 75.16
4. Anastasia Mishina/Aleksandr Galliamov (RUS) — 71.48
5. Peng Cheng/Jin Yang (CHN) — 69.67
6. Kirsten Moore-Towers/Michael Marinaro (CAN) — 67.08

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