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Ryan Lochte’s comeback motivated by new life, another swimmer’s goal

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You could say Ryan Lochte‘s comeback to competitive swimming begins in earnest on Friday, when he plans to race the 100m butterfly, 200m freestyle and 400m individual medley at the Atlanta Classic.

It is Lochte’s lone day of action at the three-day meet (he said he has a charity event Saturday), but it is the first of three meets in four weeks for the 33-year-old, 12-time Olympic medalist.

The finale is a Tyr Pro Swim Series stop in Santa Clara, Calif., which will mark Lochte’s first meet on USA Swimming’s domestic tour since the infamy of the Rio Olympics and resulting 10-month suspension. He has competed in smaller meets since last April.

It’s all in preparation for July’s national championships, a meet that will largely determine the U.S. roster for the 2019 World Championships. If Lochte, the most decorated active Olympian in any sport, does not perform well at nationals, he will fail to qualify for worlds for the first time in 16 years (not counting last year’s ban).

“It is very important,” Lochte said by phone Tuesday. “I definitely want to be back on the USA team and competing against the fastest athletes in the world.”

That said, Lochte stressed what his coach, Gregg Troy, told him when Lochte relocated from Southern California to Gainesville, Fla., last fall.

It’s going to be hell, said the 67-year-old whom pupils call Papi. It’s not going to be a quick fix, but trust the process, and you’ll be fine.

Under Troy’s guidance from 2002-2013, Lochte rose from a team joker to the world’s best all-around swimmer (but never shedding that personality). Lochte surprisingly left Troy in 2013. He said he needed a change of environment.

Lochte faded the next four years as he entered his 30s, set back by injuries while trying different training techniques (but not always giving it his all). He bottomed out by making the Rio Olympic team in just one individual event, injured at trials, and finished fifth in Brazil. Then came that gas-station incident. Lochte went about eight months without training during the ban — including a “Dancing with the Stars” stint — and another four last spring and summer without real dedication.

“I trained for a day or two, then take a week off,” he said. “I was in California, just enjoying the California sun. I was like, man, if I really want to do something in the sport, I’ve got to go back to where it started.”

Lochte asked Troy to take him back.

“I know I messed up,” Lochte said. “I know I kind of took, like, six years off since 2012, really. I want to go back, and I really want to give it everything I have for the next couple of years. I have a different purpose for swimming. I’m hungry again. I want to come back and train where I started swimming.

“[Troy] said, yes, we would love to have you. You’re great for the program. You train hard. Just know that I’m not going to let up on you. It’s going to be hard. Now that you’re way older than you were before, your recovery, everything, you’re just going to have to start taking care of your body. No more partying.”

All that sounded fine to Lochte. His motivation had crescendoed June 8, holding son Caiden for the first time. Lochte remembers staring at him.

“I want to show him about dedication, hard work and commitment,” said Lochte, who married Kayla Rae Reid in a small January ceremony but plans a larger September wedding.

There is little time for partying. Lochte recently put up for sale a chunk of his well-known shoe collection of more than 130 pairs. 

“[My wife said] get these out of there,” Lochte said of their new home in Gainesville, in a subdivision with “doctors and professors” off campus. “We don’t need them. You don’t wear them. They just sit in a box.”

Lochte is down to one sponsor — Tyr, a swimwear company.

Even being back with Troy, with a fresh mindset and extra closet space, Lochte faces a tougher climb than he when he moved from Daytona Beach and enrolled at UF in 2002.

Few make national teams at this age. Lochte, who is a year older than Michael Phelps, will turn 36 during the Tokyo Olympics, making him older than all but two previous U.S. Olympic swimmers in individual events (Edgar Adams, 1904, and Dara Torres, 2008).

Then there is his concerning injury history, a mountain of stories that just seem to fit Lochte. A torn MCL and sprained ACL when a female fan ran toward him, he caught her and fell onto a curb. An MCL strain reaching for his cellphone in the backseat of his car. A torn meniscus from breakdancing in his apartment. A concussion from playing manhunt and falling out of a tree. A hairline fracture in his right foot after losing control of his scooter, flying 47 feet and landing in bushes. Lochte came back every time to win at least one individual gold medal at every Olympics and worlds between 2007 and 2015.

The latest setback came in early November. Lochte posted a Snapchat selfie of him frowning and the text, “Up next….. MRI.”

Soon after moving back to Gainesville, Lochte overstrided in a weight-room sprint and completely tore his right hamstring. He wasn’t able to do a full-on dive off starting blocks until a month ago, though he did race at small meets in Florida in March.

“I guess you could say I’m a 33-year-old that feels like he’s turning 100,” Lochte said. “I’m all beat up, especially the practices that we’ve had earlier this week already.”

Lochte has few pieces of Olympic memorabilia in the open at his new house. They’re all in the movie room — four framed flags signed by every member of the U.S. swim team at his Olympics, starting in 2004.

His 12 medals are all in a sock drawer, including one relay gold from Rio. He said that medal conjures no memories of an Olympics you would think he would like to forget. He said he thinks of it the same way he does the other 11 — not very often.

“I can’t always think about the past,” he said, “or else I’ll never get to where I want to be in the future.”

On March 9, Lochte drove 20 minutes from a small South Florida swim meet to Parkland. He had asked Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School swim and water polo coaches if he could meet the boys and girls teams, three weeks after 17 people were killed in a shooting at the school.

Lochte learned about Nicholas Dworet, one of the 14 students killed, who had been a captain of the swim team. Lochte met Dworet’s parents and saw this piece of paper. Dworet had written down a goal to make the 2020 Olympic team for Sweden. Lochte decided then to dedicate his own 2020 Olympic swims to Dworet, should he defy convention and make it to a fifth Games.

Every day, Lochte wakes in Gainesville, which evokes memories of his best swimming and reminders of how much his life has changed since he previously called it home. Lochte makes his way out of his house to swim on campus. He passes a Marjory Stoneman Douglas swim team cap that he positioned to see daily.

Lochte said Troy’s refrain in practice is “trust the process.” Nationals, the meet that determines his fate in 2019, is in 10 weeks. The Olympics are in two years.

“I’m definitely the underdog, been out of the sport for a long time,” he said. “I’m just trying to get back into it.”

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Today I had one of the most humbling experiences of my life. I'm in Plantation, Florida this weekend swimming in a meet. In between events, I took the 20 minute trip to Parkland for an unannounced visit to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. With the help of Assistant Athletic Director and Swim Coach Lauren Rubenstein, I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to speak to and meet with the swim and water polo teams. I also had the privilege and honor of meeting the parents of Nicholas Dworet. Nicholas was the Swim Captain at MSD and he tragically lost his life along with 16 others during the senseless high school shooting. Words cannot describe the emotions that I felt while at the school and how grateful I am that I was able to meet with those incredible students. In honor of Nicholas, I committed to his parents that I would swim on his behalf tonight and I did. I proudly wore an MSD cap and won for Nicholas and the entire Parkland community. I also told his parents that I will dedicate my swims in the 2020 Olympics to Nicholas. One of his goals was to swim in the Olympics and now he will with me!! #msdstrong #parkland #marjorystonemandouglas #broward #17 #swimming #swim4nick #neveragain #neverforget #olympics #japan2020 @tyrsport #teamtyr

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Marvel superheroes inspire Bradie Tennell, Starr Andrews

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Bradie Tennell and Starr Andrews have something in common beyond their obvious figure skating talents: both skaters look to Marvel superheroes for inspiration.

The 20-year-old Tennell, who opened her 2018-19 international season with a big win over two-time world champion Yevgenia Medvedeva of Russia at the Autumn International Classic in Oakville, Ontario, counts Iron Man and Spider-Man as her favorites.

Believe it or not, Iron Man – also known as Tony Stark – figures into Tennell’s free skate to “Romeo and Juliet.”

“After I land the triple salchow toward the end of my program, I go down on one knee and do what I call my Iron Man pose, because that’s what Iron Man (played by Robert Downey Jr.) does in the first Avengers movie,” she said.

Summoning superhuman strength worked. Tennell had a personal-best free skate in Oakville. But in other ways, she’s the opposite of her hero: Iron Man survives his adventures largely be wearing a special suit of armor, while Tennell is all about dropping her guard this season and being more expressive on the ice.

“I believe in myself a lot more,” she said. “I don’t think I’m as timid. I’m really working on not being as shy, just kind of letting my personality come through in everything.”

Andrews, 17, is inspired by the noble and determined Black Panther, depicted in the 2018 film by Chadwick Boseman.

“There is always a challenge and you always have to fight to get what you want,” she said.

“I wanted something different this year, I definitely wanted no lyrics, and an African theme,” she added. “When I watched Black Panther, I said, ‘Yeah, I want something like (the music in) this’ and Derrick (Delmore) pulled up some music.”

Delmore, who coaches Andrews in Los Angeles, wracked his brain to find the right material. Ultimately, he choreographed her free to a medley he calls “African Tribal Xotica.”

“The music is from five different things,” he said. “She saw the movie, loved it, and sent me some music from that movie she cut herself that I didn’t love. She was inspired to do something in that genre. I finally thought of music I used a few years back for another skater, and I played it for her, and as soon as it came on she said, ‘Oh, this is what I want.’”

What Andrews wants now is a triple axel. She attempted the three-and-a-half revolution jump in her free skate in Oakville, but it was downgraded (judged short of rotation) by the technical panel. Still, she placed a respectable seventh in a tough international field.

“I’m excited for the day I get it,” Andrews said. “I just have to keep working on it. One day I will land it and will be super-confident and happy.  It’s not new to me, I’ve been working on it for a while. That little extra effort, and then I’ll land it.”

Only two other senior U.S. ladies – Tonya Harding, back in the early 1990s, and Mirai Nagasu at the Pyeongchang Olympics in February – have landed the jump in international competition, but Andrews believes it is becoming almost commonplace.  While Tennell and Andrews were competing in Oakville, Japanese teenager Rika Kihira landed two triple axels, including one in combination with a triple toe, at Ondrej Nepela Trophy.

“There are so many more people doing it know. I feel like it’s not surprising for women to do it,” Andrews said. “They are doing it in junior and even in advanced novice, like Alysa Liu (at the Asian Open), which was amazing.”

Delmore supports his student’s ambition, with a few caveats.

“Right now, I want her to get used to doing the axel,” he said. “I want it to be a regular part of her competitive experience, so she knows how to keep going when it doesn’t go well, and hopefully when she gets it, she knows what it’s like to have that amazing moment and to keep going.”

MORE: 12-year-old is third U.S. woman to land triple Axel internationally

Yuzuru Hanyu wins Autumn Classic despite shaky performance

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Yuzuru Hanyu won his third Autumn Classic International crown in Oakville, Ontario on Saturday, but it was a bumpy ride.

The two-time Olympic champion’s debut of his “Origin” free skate, inspired by Yevgeni Plushenko’s famous “Tribute to Njinsky” program, had many fine elements: opening quadruple loop and toe loop jumps, plus two triple axels in the program’s second half; a pair of superb closing spins with fittingly baroque positions; and promising step and choreography sequences that preserved Plushenko’s flair, while adding a touch more refinement and control.

But a face-forward fall on a quad salchow, followed by a popped quad toe, meant Hanyu’s 165.91 points put him second in the free skate to his 16-year-old training partner, Junhwan Cha of South Korea. His total score, including Friday’s short program, was 263.65 points, just under four points higher than Cha’s second-place total.

At this point in the season, many other skaters – not including Plushenko – would have shrugged  off the imperfections in the challenging program and been happy to put a few miles on the choreography. But the 23-year-old Hanyu’s perfectionism runs year-round.

“My first competition of the season is always this level, unfortunately,” he said, as translated from Japanese. “I wanted to skate my short and free without any regrets here, and I was not able to do that.”

Hanyu likely remembers this event last season, when a mistake-riddled free skate put him second to longtime rival Javier Fernandez of Spain. This time around, the Japanese superstar, who trains at Toronto’s Cricket Skating and Curling Club under Brian Orser and Tracy Wilson, was especially disappointed that his jump glitches meant he could not attempt a quad-triple axel sequence, a combination that might have been worth some 20 points.

“I was not strong enough to skate this program yet,” he said. “I feel fine, I am not injured. Another program, maybe (last season’s) ‘Seimei,’ I might have been able to do well, but not this program. I am just not ready.”

Just as he did after Friday’s short program, where a botched spin cost him several points, Hanyu vowed to work harder.

“This is where I am right now, and I need to practice more,” he said.

Hanyu has plenty of time: his first Grand Prix event is in Finland on November 2.

The skating world may best remember this event as the week Cha came into his own. The Korean teen, who landed a quad salchow in his short on Friday, hit a quad toe to start his free to “Romeo and Juliet” – just the second time he has landed the jump in competition. While his quad salchow was judge under rotated, he went on to land two triple-triple combinations and two triple axels, all done with style and maturity beyond his years. The program earned 169.22 points to win the day.

“Last season, I didn’t skate so well. I had some hip and back (injuries) and boot problems,” Cha, who also said he had recently had a growth spurt, said. “Now I feel much stronger, and I have been working hard.”

Asked if he had a skating idol – perhaps his training partner, Hanyu – Cha demurred.

“I don’t have just one idol,” he said. “I like many different skaters, for different reasons. I will like one skater for his jumps; another skater for his spins.”

MORE: Tennell upsets Medvedeva at Autumn Classic

Canada’s Roman Sadovsky, fourth after the short program, stepped up to win the bronze medal with 233.86 points after landing two quads, a salchow and toe, in his free skate.

Jason Brown may be disappointed in his fourth-place finish here, but it cannot have come as a big surprise: the 2015 U.S. champion has said that since moving to Toronto this spring to train under Orser and Wilson, he has been re-learning his jump technique. He called the move “a four-year project.”

“I cannot speak more highly of Brian, Tracy, Lee (Barkell) and Karen (Preston), the whole team at Cricket Club,” Brown, 23, said. “They have been really been patient with me and worked with me methodically. … We’re starting from the ground up. Each day I’m learning something new, each day they are helping me work through something, whether that me a mental thing, physically getting a jump,  or the pacing of a program.”

The debut of Brown’s free to a medley of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Old Friends” and “Hazy Days of Winter” was bittersweet: his blades sung during spins, step sequences and transitions, but the jumps weren’t there. An opening quad salchow was doubled; a triple axel, popped into a single. He earned 144.33 points to place fifth in the free and fourth overall with 233.23.

Wilson, though, said they are just getting started.

“Let’s face it, he is a brilliant skater and he’s gotten close to the top of the world,” Wilson said of Brown, who was fourth in the world in 2015. “It’s a fine line trying to find room for improvement, and so that’s what we are trying to do. We are throwing a lot at him. We’re going to pull back a little.”

“What he brings, though, cannot be ignored,” she added. “My husband can be in the rink and know nothing about skating, and be mesmerized by what Jason does. He could teach clinics for every step sequence and position details. He is integral to what the sport needs.”

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