JAY ADEFF/U.S. FIGURE SKATING

Synchronized skating could be included in 2022 Olympic program

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ynchronized skating is the fifth and newest discipline of figure skating. Teams of eight to 20 skaters blend elements of singles skating, pairs skating, and ice dance in side-by-side performances. They compete in two programs – the short program and the free skate – just like the other disciplines. More than 615 teams register and compete in the U.S. every year.

And the International Skating Union (ISU) wants it to be an Olympic sport in 2022.

A brief timeline:

  • Synchronized skating began in the U.S. in 1956 when an organized group of skaters formed a team. The first synchronized skating competition was held 20 years later, and by 1984, the first U.S. national championships for the discipline were held.
  • The first international competition was held in 1989 and in 1994, the ISU recognized the sport as a discipline of figure skating.
  • Until 1998, the discipline was referred to as “precision skating.” The ISU decided in 1998 that “synchronized skating” would hold more appeal on the global scale.
  • The first world championships were held in 2000.

As early as March 2014, immediately following the conclusion of the Sochi Games, then-ISU President Ottavio Cinquanta suggested adding the discipline to the Olympic program. A formal request was made to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), for approval in April 2015. That request was denied, likely for several reasons.

Adding synchronized skating would likely see a big increase in personnel, up to about 150 athletes, coaches, and support staff. Between nine and 10 teams of 16 competitors each would compete in a short program, and then the top six teams would advance to the free skate phase. The ISU originally wanted all-female teams, but remained flexible on the idea: They were willing to have teams of 14 women with two men.

Another hurdle for Olympic inclusion is the number of participating countries. While 28 countries on five continents have participated in synchronized skating at the world championship or junior world championship level, Scandinavian countries have dominated the gold medals. Sweden and Finland have won 14 of 18 available Worlds gold medals. Canada and Russia are the only other two countries to take the top spot on the podium.

China’s participation in the sport may also stand in the way of synchronized skating’s including at the 2022 Beijing Olympics. China has never competed at the world championships for synchronized skating.

Notably, Cinquanta’s proposal outlined that the synchronized skating event would not be designed to replace the team event. Instead, it would likely require additional days of competition. Jan Dijkema was elected the new ISU president in June 2016.

Despite a failed push for synchronized skating to be included at the 2018 Olympics as a discipline of figure skating, the ISU is not giving up.

The 2015 Grand Prix Final hosted a synchronized skating event for the first time. Five teams participated in the free skate-only competition.

Synchronized skating won’t be a part of the 2020 Youth Olympic Games, though; the program for that event has already been determined. The YOGs are often used as a testing ground for new sports to include at the Olympic Games.

In July 2017, an ISU Council Working Group was appointed to “investigate, strategize and gather the information required for Synchronized Skating to be accepted as an Olympic discipline,” according to the press release.

The group’s stated goal is to include synchronized skating in the Olympic program for the 2022 Games hosted in Beijing, China.

When the time comes, the USFS wants to be prepared.

“U.S. Figure Skating’s approach has been to put efforts into building the strongest U.S. program possible so that when/if synchronized skating is included in the Olympic Winter Games, U.S. teams will be prepared to stand on the podium,” their media guide for synchronized skating states.

The U.S.’ best team, the Boston area-based Haydenettes, would likely be first in line for a berth to the Olympics. They won their 25th national title in 2017, and own five world championships bronze medals.

At Worlds in 2016, the Haydenettes landed their fifth bronze medal. But that medal was significant for another reason – for the first time ever, the U.S. team won the free skate phase of the event. It wasn’t enough for gold, but it got the team on the podium.

At the most recent world championships, held in Colorado Springs, Colorado in 2017, Russia’s team “Paradise” took home the gold. Finland’s “Marigold IceUnity” claimed the silver, while Canada’s “Nexxice” took home the bronze.

The Haydenettes finished in fourth place (video). The Crystallettes, the Michigan-based team that was also sent to Worlds, finished ninth.

The synchronized skating national championships are happening Feb. 22-24 in Portland, Oregon. The 2018 World Synchronized Skating Championships will be held April 6-7 in Stockholm, Sweden.

Michael Phelps qualifies for first Olympics at age 15 in 2000

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In the biggest race of his young life, a 15-year-old Michael Phelps turned for the last 50 meters in fourth place of the U.S. Olympic Trials 200m butterfly final on Aug. 12, 2000.

His mom, Debbie, couldn’t watch. She turned away from the Indianapolis Natatorium pool and stared at the scoreboard. Both Debbie and Phelps’ coach, Bob Bowman, mentally prepared their consolation speeches for the rising Towson High School sophomore outside Baltimore.

Then Phelps, fueled by nightly Adam’s Mark chicken sandwich-and-cheesecake room service and amped by pre-race DMX on his CD player, turned it on. He zoomed into second place, becoming the youngest U.S. male swimmer to qualify for an Olympics since 1932.

Phelps had “come out of nowhere in the last six months” to become an Olympic hopeful, NBC Sports swimming commentator Dan Hicks said on the broadcast. True, Phelps chopped five and a half seconds off his personal best that March.

“He doesn’t know what it means to go to the Olympics and how it’s going to change his life,” Tom Malchow, the 1996 Olympic silver medalist who held off Phelps in that trials final, said that night, according to The Associated Press. “He’s going to find out soon.”

Phelps, who did his trademark arm flaps before the trials final, made Bowman look like a prophet. Four years earlier, the coach sat Debbie down for a conversation she would not soon forget.

“Told me what he projected for Michael,” Debbie said, according to the Baltimore Sun‘s front-page story on a local 15-year-old qualifying for the Sydney Games. “He said that in 2004, he would definitely be a factor in the Olympics. He also said that he could be there in 2000, to watch out for him. At the time, he was only 11.”

The trials were bittersweet for the Phelps family. Whitney, one of Phelps’ older sisters, withdrew before the meet with herniated discs in her back that kept her from making an Olympics after competing in the 1994 World Championships at age 14.

After Phelps qualified for the Olympics, one of the first people to embrace him was Whitney on the pool deck.

The next week, Phelps, still with bottom-teeth braces, did his first live TV sitdown on CNN, swiveling in his chair the whole time, according to his autobiography, “Beneath the Surface.”

The next month, Phelps finished fifth in his Olympic debut, clocking a then-personal-best time that would have earned gold or silver at every previous Olympics.

Following the Olympic race, gold medalist Malchow patted Phelps on the back, according to “No Limits,” another Phelps autobiography. What did Malchow say?

“The best is ahead of you.”

MORE: Meet Arnie the Terminator, Katie Ledecky’s top rival

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Arnie the Terminator: Aussie rival to Katie Ledecky an unlikely swim story

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In August 2016, a 15-year-old Australian swimmer named Ariarne Titmus followed the Rio Olympics as she prepared to fly to Maui for the Junior Pan Pacific Championships.

Titmus paid special attention to her best events, the 200m, 400m and 800m freestyles. Katie Ledecky swept them, breaking two of her own world records.

“I remember watching her races thinking, like, this chick is nuts,” Titmus told NBC Sports in Australia early this year. “She’s just doing stuff that no one’s gonna get near.”

Three years later, Titmus stunned Ledecky at the world championships, chasing down the American in the last 50 meters of the 400m freestyle. She became the first woman to beat Ledecky in a distance race in seven years and a bona fide rival one year from the Tokyo Games.

Ledecky at first attributed her late fade to tight and tired legs. Then she spent seven hours the next day in a South Korean emergency room with what she believed was a stomach virus.

“She was sick,” said Dean Boxall, Titmus’ South African-born coach, “and we happened to pounce.”

Titmus’ time — 3:58.76, a personal best by .59 — was slower than Ledecky’s wins at her previous three major international meets — Rio Olympics, 2017 Worlds and 2018 Pan Pacific Championships.

“It wasn’t a good swim by Arnie,” said Boxall, a vocal coach known to shout Ledecky’s name in practices. “And I know it wasn’t a good swim by Katie. Definitely not. But there was things that Arnie did in that race I was pleased with, and there was a lot of things that she did that I was not happy with at all.”

The Olympic postponement to 2021 gives Titmus and Boxall another year to work on those inefficiencies down in Brisbane. Another year to mature, to turn 20 years old before the Games.

“I try not to dwell on that [beating Ledecky] too much,” Titmus, sometimes called “the Terminator” by Australian press, said of the world championships, where she also out-split Ledecky in the 4x200m free relay and took bronze behind the American in the 800m free. “Next year’s the big one at the Olympics.”

Nowhere is swimming closer to a national sport than in Australia, but none of its Olympic champion Dolphins hail from Tasmania, an island 150 miles south of the mainland.

Notable Tasmanian sports persons include cricketer Ricky Ponting, retired NASCAR driver Marcos Ambrose and woodchopping world champion David Foster, but no listed swimmers.

Stephanie Rice, the last Australian female swimmer to win an individual Olympic title in 2008, visited “Tassie,” the state a little bigger than West Virginia, nearly a decade ago. She met a young Titmus, who still remembers what Rice scribbled: “Be the best you can be.”

“I say it’s my favorite quote,” Titmus said. “She wrote it on my shirt, so it has to be my favorite quote.”

Titmus was born a week before the Sydney Olympics — “She loved watching Thorpie,” her mom said — and grew up on 16 acres of country land. The family — parents Steve and Robyn and younger sister Mia — had horses, a trampoline and a swimming club just down the road in Launceston.

They also had an indoor pool (areas of Tasmania approach freezing in the winter). One evening more than 15 years ago, Robyn was chopping vegetables and peered to see her elder daughter, then a toddler without formal swim lessons, doing the breaststroke.

“We didn’t know anybody at the swimming club,” said Steve, a longtime TV journalist. “And we turned up and said, hi, we’re the Titmuses. We’ve got a daughter called Ariarne, and she wants to race. Tuesday nights they had club night, and she jumped in the water, and away she went.”

Titmus wasn’t the fastest at first, but by the time she won a third Australian junior title, she became too big for the Apple Isle.

“[My coach] said, look, you can’t really do anything else down here,” Titmus remembered. “There’s no one for you to train with. There’s no one for you to race. It’s all up in Queensland. And he said, if you really want a shot at this, you should really move.”

The family relocated to Brisbane when she was 14 or 15, following Titmus’ coach.

We packed up the car, got on the boat, sailed to Melbourne,” said Robyn, a former national-level track sprinter. “We even stopped at Albury on the way for a training session because the coach she had at the time was a hard task master.”

Right around that time, she first met Boxall while with the Australian junior national team.

“I originally thought this guy is nuts,” Titmus said. “He gave us this speech about the New Zealanders or something were trying to be better than us. His veins were popping. It was crazy. I was like, I’m never ever going to have a coach like him.”

Boxall became her coach about a year later.

“I’ve got great athletes here that hurt themselves, and they enjoy going through the pain,” he said, “but you want to try and get that little bit extra from someone. You have to actually go there with them a little bit.”

In a sitdown, on-camera interview, Boxall first told how he met Titmus, his first impression of her and a bit about their relationship. He first mentioned Ledecky, umprompted, when asked the fourth question, about Titmus’ progression.

Boxall noted that Titmus swam the 400m freestyle in 4:09.81 at the August 2016 Junior Pan Pacific Championships.

“Ledecky went 3:56:46,” Boxall said, correctly noting Ledecky’s Rio Olympic world record to the hundredth, “so we’re 13 seconds off [at] that stage.”

Titmus raced Ledecky for the first time at the 2017 Worlds and finished fourth in the 400m, closing the gap to six seconds. In 2018, she took second to Ledecky at Pan Pacs, 1.16 seconds behind, becoming the first Australian to break four minutes in the event.

At 2019 Worlds, Boxall needed to be alone during the 400m free final. He left the Australian team box and snuck into a VIP area. As Titmus reeled Ledecky in, Boxall stood up and ran.

“Like a shot of adrenaline,” he said. “I couldn’t contain myself, but I was calmer as I’d ever been as well.

“That’s the first race that Arnie has raced Katie and actually was in the race. … Prior to that, it was just Katie.”

Titmus swam 10 seconds faster than when Boxall first compared her to Ledecky in August 2016.

“She’s 2.4 seconds off [Ledecky’s] world record,” Boxall said. “We know what the benchmark is, and we’re still a long way off.”

Titmus recorded the eighth-fastest 400m freestyle in history. Ledecky owns the top seven times.

“The greatest thing apart from obviously winning, I think, [is] being able to actually race someone who has been on her own for so long,” Titmus said. “I find it so crazy that now I’m in this situation where she’s my main rival.”

Scroll down the list, and you’ll see that the top 27 times in history (aside from the now-banned suit era) are shared by Ledecky (23) and Titmus (four).

“She’s certainly special,” Boxall said of his pupil. “Special enough? We’ll see.”

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