Katie Ledecky mixes up schedule for her second NCAA Championships

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Katie Ledecky swims in her second NCAA Championships this week. Could it be her last college meet?

Ledecky, a Stanford sophomore, is expected to race in a relay Wednesday and three individual events starting Thursday in Columbus, Ohio. Whether Ledecky turns pro after the NCAA season-ending meet has not been discussed, according to Stanford.

“I don’t have a strong feeling about it [whether she should turn pro] one way or the other,” said NBC Olympics analyst Rowdy Gaines, who will call the meet on Friday and Saturday for ESPNU and ESPN3. “I’m not one of those saying she has to stay in school, that it’s ridiculous to turn pro. But I’m not the one that says she should turn pro, and it’s not going to be a bad thing. She’s going to be great no matter what.”

Ledecky did no interviews leading into NCAAs, according to Stanford. The Cardinal are favored to repeat as team champion.

Missy Franklin, after winning four gold medals at the 2012 Olympics and six at the 2013 Worlds, turned pro after her sophomore season at Cal-Berkeley. But Franklin’s sophomore campaign ended one year before the Rio Olympics, while Ledecky has two years until the Tokyo Games.

Ledecky is one of a host of stars at this week’s meet, joined by co-Olympic 100m free champion Simone Manuel (Stanford), Olympic 100m breaststroke champ Lilly King (Indiana) and Olympic 100m backstroke silver medalist Kathleen Baker (Cal-Berkeley).

OhioStateBuckeyes.com will live stream finals Wednesday and Thursday at 6 p.m. ET. ESPNU and ESPN3 have coverage Friday and Saturday. A full schedule is here.

Ledecky is expected to race the 800-yard freestyle relay on Wednesday before starting her individual slate with the 500-yard free on Thursday, the 400-yard individual medley on Friday and the 1,650-yard freestyle on Saturday.

NCAA meets are contested in 25-yard pools versus 50-meter pools at major international meets like the Olympics and world championships.

As a freshman, Ledecky swept the 200-, 500-, and 1,650-yard frees, albeit tying for the title in the 200 with Mallory Comerford.

Ledecky’s schedule is different this week, swapping the 200 free for the 400 IM as her Friday event.

Ledecky swept the pair in the same evening at the Pac-12 Championships last month, clocking the fastest time this season in the 200 free and the fastest time ever in the 400 IM. Franklin’s record in the 200 free from 2015 — 1:39.10 — is more than a second faster than anyone else in history.

Swimmers can enter no more than three individual events at championship meets. Ledecky didn’t contest the 1,650 free at Pac-12s, so when she added it for NCAAs (as she did last year) it meant she had to drop one of the 200 free and 400 IM.

“If I know [Stanford coach] Greg [Meehan], he probably would have left that [decision] up to Katie, especially after Pac-12s,” Gaines said. “Why not do something that she’s the best in history?”

Gaines doesn’t believe the decision could lead to Ledecky focusing any more on the 400m IM on the international level. Ledecky has never contested it at a U.S. Championships or an Olympics, worlds or at the Pan Pacific Championships, which is this year’s major meet in Tokyo in late August.

“I think this is kind of a yards thing, a little bit of variety,” for college swimming, Gaines said.

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MORE: Rio Olympic breaststroke gold medalist retires

John McFall, Paralympic medalist, becomes first parastronaut in Europe

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The European Space Agency made history Wednesday by selecting an amputee who lost his leg in a motorcycle accident to be among its newest batch of astronauts — a leap toward its pioneering ambition to send someone with a physical disability into space.

John McFall, a 41-year-old Briton who lost his right leg when he was 19 and later won a Paralympic 100m bronze medal in 2008, called his selection at Europe’s answer to NASA “a real turning point and mark in history.”

“ESA has a commitment to send an astronaut with a physical disability into space … This is the first time that a space agency has endeavored to embark on a project like this. And it sends a really, really strong message to humanity,” he said.

The newly-minted parastronaut joins five career astronauts in the final selection unveiled during a Paris news conference — the conclusion of the agency’s first recruitment drive in over a decade aimed at bringing diversity to space travel.

McFall will follow a different path than his fellow astronauts because he will participate in a groundbreaking feasibility study exploring whether physical disability will impair space travel. It’s uncharted land, since no major Western space agency has ever put a parastronaut into space, according to the ESA.

Speaking with pride amid flashes of emotion, McFall said that he was uniquely suited to the mission because of the vigor of his mind and body.

“I’m very comfortable in my own skin. I lost my leg about twenty plus years ago, I’ve had the opportunity to be a Paralympic athlete and really explored myself emotionally … All those factors and hardships in life have given me confidence and strength — the ability to believe in myself that I can do anything I put my mind to,” he added.

“I never dreamt of being an astronaut. It was only when ESA announced that they were looking for a candidate with a physical disability to embark on this project that it really sparked my interest.”

The feasibility study, that will last two to three years, will examine the basic hurdles for a parastronaut including how a physical disability might impact mission training, and if modifications to spacesuits and aircraft are required, for example.

ESA’s Director of Human and Robotic Exploration David Parker said it was still a “long road” for McFall but described the fresh recruitment as a long-held ambition.

Parker said it started with a question. “Maybe there are people out there that are almost superhuman in that they’ve already overcome challenges. And could they become astronauts?”

Parker also says that he “thinks” it may be the first time the word “parastronaut” has been used, but “I do not claim ownership.”

“We’re saying that John (McFall) could be the first parastronaut, that means someone who has been selected by the regular astronaut selection process but happens to have a disability that would normally have ruled him out,” he said.

It will be at least five years before McFall goes into space as an astronaut — if he is successful.

Across the Atlantic, Houston is taking note. Dan Huot, a spokesman for NASA’s Johnson Space Center, home to the American agency’s astronaut corps, told the AP that “we at NASA are watching ESA’s para-astronaut selection process with great interest.”

Huot acknowledged that “NASA’s selection criteria currently remains the same” but said the agency is looking forward to working with the “new astronauts in the future” from partners such as the ESA.

NASA stressed that it has a safety-conscious process for vetting future astronauts who might be put in life-threatening situations.

“For maximum crew safety, NASA’s current requirements call for each crew member to be free of medical conditions that could either impair the person’s ability to participate in, or be aggravated by, spaceflight, as determined by NASA physicians,” Huot added.

NASA said future “assistive technology” might change the game for “some candidates” to meet their stringent safety requirements.

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Ilia Malinin in familiar position after Grand Prix Finland short program

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Ilia Malinin landed a quadruple Axel in his free skate to win his first two competitions this season. Less known was that the 17-year-old American had to come from behind to win each time.

An at least slightly injured Malinin looks up in the standings again after the short program of his third event, Grand Prix Finland. Malinin had erred landings on two of his three jumping passes in Friday’s short, where quad Axels are not allowed, then said he had a left foot problem, according to the International Skating Union.

“I’m a little bit injured, I’m playing it safe, protect it to make sure the injury doesn’t get worse,” he said, according to the ISU.

He tallied 85.57 points for second place, which is 3.39 fewer than leader Kevin Aymoz of France going into Saturday’s free skate.

Malinin, the world junior champion ranked No. 1 in the world in his first full senior season, merely needs to finish fourth or better (perhaps even fifth) to qualify for December’s Grand Prix Final, which pits the top six per discipline in the world in a preview of March’s world championships.

Grand Prix Finland concludes with all of the free skates on Saturday.

GRAND PRIX FINLAND: Results | Broadcast Schedule

Earlier Friday, world silver medalist Loena Hendrickx of Belgium led the women’s short with 74.88 points, edging Mai Mihara of Japan by 1.3. Hendrickx and Mihara are in position to qualify for the Grand Prix Final. World champion Kaori Sakamoto of Japan, South Korea’s Yelim Kim and American Isabeau Levito already have spots in the Final.

The world’s top ice dance couple this season, Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier, improved on their world-leading rhythm dance score by tallying 87.80 points. They lead Americans Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker by 6.87, with both couples in position to qualify for the Grand Prix Final.

Italians Rebecca Ghilardi and Filippo Ambrosini topped the pairs’ short program by 4.3 points over Americans Anastasiia Smirnova and Danil Siianytsia. The Italians rank fourth in the world this season behind three teams that aren’t in the Finland field but will be at the Grand Prix Final, including world champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier of the U.S.

Smirnova and Silanytsia are competing in their lone Grand Prix this season after withdrawing before Skate America, making them ineligible for Grand Prix Final qualification. Their short program score ranks fourth among American pairs this season, putting them in contention for one of three spots on the team for worlds, to be decided after January’s national championships.

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