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Ten swimmers to watch at U.S. Swimming Championships

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This week’s U.S. Swimming Championships won’t be nearly as cutthroat as an Olympic Trials, where the top two per individual event make the team.

A top-three finish should be enough to get a swimmer on the 26-per-gender team for the year’s major international meet, the Pan Pacific Championships in Tokyo in August (a gathering of non-European nations). Even some fourth-place finishers made the last Pan Pacs team in 2014.

The more swimmers who make the team in multiple events (such as Katie Ledecky), the more spots open up for third- and fourth-place finishers.

Once a swimmer makes the Pan Pacs team in one event, he or she can swim any event at Pan Pacs. That’s key for 2019, since next year’s world championships team (which will be two per event, like the Olympics) will be chosen from swimmers’ best times between nationals and Pan Pacs.

Got it? That in mind, here are 10 swimmers expected to headline the racing in Irvine, Calif., from Wednesday through Sunday at nationals.

MORE: U.S. Champs TV/Stream Schedule

Katie Ledecky
Events: 100m free, 200m free, 400m free, 800m free, 1500m free
Five Olympic Gold Medals
World Records: 400m, 800m, 1500m frees

Ledecky failed to go a personal best in her main events in a calendar year for the first time in 2017. But she still earned five golds and a silver at the world championships, following a hectic post-Rio move to Stanford and full freshman season of competition. If anybody thought Ledecky’s fastest times were behind her, she silenced them on May 16 by taking five seconds off her 1500m world record at a Grand Prix-level meet. Ledecky broke the 400m free world record for the first time at nationals in Irvine four years ago. Every Ledecky final is a must-watch, even if she might not be fully tapered for this meet.

Simone Manuel
50m free, 100m free, 200m free
Two Olympic Gold Medals
Seven World Championships Gold Medals

Manuel was arguably more impressive than her good friend and Stanford teammate Ledecky at the 2017 Worlds. The 21-year-old broke the American record in her primary events — the 50m and 100m freestyles — en route to five golds (four on relays). She is a quarter of a second faster than any other woman at nationals in the 50m free, significant in a 24-second race, and a full second faster than all but one swimmer in the 100m free.

Lilly King
50m breast, 100m breast, 200m breast, 200m IM
Two Olympic Gold Medals
World Records: 50m, 100m breast

The Reggie Miller of swimming (hand-gesturing, blunt-talking and Indiana-honed) is best known for her rivalry with Russian Yuliya Efimova, who of course will not be competing this week. But King has accomplished enough to be highlighted solely for her own swimming. She was the only man or woman to break world records in multiple individual events at 2017 Worlds. Olympic and world silver medalist Katie Meili and Molly Hannis could give King close races in the sprint breaststrokes this week, though.

Kathleen Baker
50m back, 100m back, 200m back, 200m IM
Olympic 100m backstroke silver medalist
Three World Championships Medals

While Ledecky, Manuel and King earned most of the headlines in 2016 and 2017, Baker succeeded Natalie Coughlin and Missy Franklin as the U.S. backstroke queen with 100m silvers in Rio and at 2017 Worlds. Baker, diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2010, added a 200m back bronze in 2017 and is heading toward Pan Pacs showdowns with Australian Emily Seebohm and Canadians Kylie Masse and Taylor Ruck.

Missy Franklin
100m free, 200m free
Five Olympic Gold Medals
World Record: 200m back

At this point in the last Olympic cycle, Franklin was still the top U.S. swimmer, coming off six golds at the 2013 Worlds and an impressive freshman season at Cal. It began unraveling at the 2014 Pan Pacs with back spasms, followed by coaching changes and shoulder surgeries and a disappointing Rio Olympic performance (one medal, a gold, as a morning relay swimmer). Franklin recently competed for the first time since Rio. She would not make this team going by rankings this year. She is skipping her trademark backstrokes this week. Her best shot is in the 200m free, where she ranks 10th in the U.S. this year. She must be top four on Thursday, though.

Caeleb Dressel
50m free, 100m free, 200m free, 50m fly, 100m fly, 50m breast, 100m breast, 200m IM
Two Olympic Gold Medals
Seven 2017 World Championships Gold Medals

Dressel is now the U.S.’ marquee male swimmer after matching Michael Phelps‘ record seven gold medals at 2017 Worlds (albeit two of them came in mixed-gender relays not on the program during Phelps’ heyday). The tattooed 21-year-old is entered in eight events this week but likely will drop some of them. The butterfly and freestyle sprinter could chase records this week or at Pan Pacs. His best times are .26 off the 100m free world record and .04 off Phelps’ world record in the 100m butterfly.

Chase Kalisz
200m breast, 200m fly, 200m IM, 400m IM
Olympic 400m IM silver medalist
World Champion: 200m IM, 400m IM

If individual medleys determine the world’s greatest all-around swimmer, then Kalisz is undoubtedly the man after sweeping the IMs at 2017 Worlds. Kalisz, a Baltimore native, began swimming at the same pool as Phelps at age 6 in 2000 and trained with the 28-time Olympic medalist leading up to the Rio Games after competing for the University of Georgia. Kalisz, the most impressive swimmer in USA Swimming’s spring Pro Series, could make the 2019 Worlds team in all four of his events.

Ryan Murphy
100m free, 50m back, 100m back, 200m back
Three Olympic Gold Medals
World Record: 100m back

Dressel’s former high school club teammate was a revelation in Rio, sweeping the backstrokes and breaking the 100m back world record in the medley relay. But he dropped to silver and bronze at the 2017 Worlds. He ranks No. 1 in the U.S. this year in both events, but his top international rivals (Russian Evgeny Rylov, China’s Xu Jiayu, Australia’s Mitch Larkin) have been faster in 2018. Can Murphy post times this week or at Pan Pacs to prove he is the world’s best backstroker?

Nathan Adrian
50m free, 100m free
Five Olympic Gold Medals
Eight World Championships Gold Medals

The affable Adrian is approaching a decade as a U.S. sprinting mainstay. The 2012 Olympic 100m free champion (by .01) has ceded the king’s title to Dressel, but he remains in the conversation among the world’s best. Nationals and Pan Pacs will be about holding off the rest of the young generation to stay in the top two in the 50m and 100m frees and make the world team beyond the relays.

Matt Grevers
50m free, 100m free, 50m back, 100m back
Four Olympic Gold Medals
Six World Championships Gold Medals

Grevers is in a similar position. He and Adrian shared an Olympic debut at Beijing 2008. The 6-foot-8 Grevers has had more of a roller-coaster career, failing to make the 2011 World Championships and 2016 Olympic teams, but he roared back at age 32 last year, beating Murphy in the 100m back at the U.S. Championships and taking silver at worlds. Again, he must fend off Father Time this week and next month.

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2021 Burton U.S. Open snowboarding event canceled

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The Burton U.S. Open, snowboarding’s most storied event, canceled its 2021 competition due to uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.

“The truth is, we just can’t be sure it will be safe from a public health standpoint for us to host the event in 2021,” a statement read.

The U.S. Open, held since 1982, is usually around the first weekend in March, making it the season-ending event for many riders. Halfpipe champions include Shaun WhiteChloe KimKelly Clark and Ross Powers, who also earned Olympic gold medals.

Other 2020-21 winter sports events affected by the coronavirus pandemic include figure skating’s Junior Grand Prix. The first two stops of that eight-event series, scheduled for late August and early September in Canada and Slovakia, have been canceled.

The Italian Winter Sports Federation, which is due to put on the February 2021 World Alpine Skiing Championships in Cortina d’Ampezzo, made a formal request on Monday to postpone the event until March 2022, one month after the next Winter Olympics in Beijing. The International Ski Federation (FIS) council will decide July 1.

MORE: Takeaways from abbreviated 2019-20 winter sports season

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Kara Eaker eschews fear, back on balance beam to resume Olympic quest

Kara Eaker
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Kara Eaker hasn’t qualified for an Olympics yet, but she is already part of a historic club of U.S. gymnasts. The list goes, most recently, Eaker, Simone BilesKyla RossAly RaismanNastia LiukinShawn JohnsonShannon Miller and Dominique Dawes.

Those are the women who qualified for back-to-back balance beam finals at the sport’s highest level: Olympics or world championships. For Eaker (pronounced like acre), they came in her first two years as a senior gymnast in 2018 and 2019 (Biles and Johnson are the only other U.S. women to do that in the last 25 years.)

This was supposed to be Eaker’s Olympic year, but the coronavirus pandemic postponed the Games to 2021, after her Missouri high school graduation. It also kept her out of the gym for nearly two months until the GAGE Center reopened last week in Blue Springs, near Kansas City.

It was the longest Eaker had been off a regulation beam (and out of the gym) since she could remember. She began competing at age 5.

Eaker’s mom, Katherine, said her daughter never feared the four-inch-wide beam, but Eaker said the thought of returning last week “was definitely kind of scary at first.” That is, until one of her coaches eased her back with basics and work on a floor beam, one that’s not raised as high as the four feet you see in competition.

“By the time we were ready, and she was comfortable putting us back up there, it wasn’t scary,” Eaker said. “It felt normal.”

Eaker, adopted from a Chinese orphanage around age 1 in 2003 (her parents’ travel then delayed by SARS), excels on the senior elite stage with a level of normalcy.

Which is not entirely normal in this sport. She lives with her family, 10 minutes from her world-class gym. She still attends regular high school. She’s committed to continue gymnastics at the University of Utah after the Tokyo Olympics.

“I started out in dance, actually,” said Eaker, whose hobbies include robotics and calligraphy. “A little, little girl with the stuffed animal, twirling around in the dance room. And then we had our little recital and I just wasn’t … I couldn’t do the standing in front of an audience kind of thing.”

Her mom believes it was around Christmas. Eaker was 3 or 4.

“She just froze like a deer in the headlights, and all the other girls froze, too, because they were used to following her,” Katherine said. “Then she tried gymnastics. We had to drag her out [of the gym]. From then on, it was always, she’s first one in, last one out. Still is.”

The family, including Eaker’s father, Mark, retired Navy and a flight engineer, and younger sister, Sara, moved three times within Missouri in part to get Kara closer to GAGE to pursue what would eventually become an Olympic dream.

Gymnastics meets were appointment TV before Eaker entered kindergarten. She watched the Beijing Olympics, or perhaps an even earlier meet, while dancing around the living room in a leotard. Sometimes she mimicked the gold medalists by doing back bends. She continued to watch Beijing highlights, with Liukin and Johnson, on replay on YouTube.

Back at the gym, Eaker developed with the help of her coaches, plus future University of Nebraska gymnast Catelyn Orel, her “gym mom” under the GAGE program to pair older and younger athletes. Orel was a state champion on beam. Eaker proved a natural, too.

“A lot of the girls would get up there and have trouble balancing, but she just always seemed to do it just like she was on the floor,” her mom said. “She’s never really had a fear. Some girls get up there and are nervous. She just never seemed to be that way.”

In 2018, Eaker was 15, old enough to start competing on the senior level with the likes of Biles. Exactly 10 years after she would have watched Johnson win the Beijing Olympic beam title, Eaker finished second on beam at nationals behind Biles. She was invited to the world championships team selection camp, where she had the top beam score and placed sixth in the all-around. Six gymnasts would be chosen by a committee to travel to the world championships.

Eaker didn’t expect to make the team. In a large meeting with coaches and staff, the roster was announced. Eaker made it as the youngest member.

“It was a goal, but there were so many other girls and it was my first year as a senior,” she said. “I was very happy and surprised to make that team.”

Eaker again won beam at the 2019 World Championships selection camp. If Eaker endured adversity those first two years, it came at worlds.

In 2018, she fell on her mount in the beam final. The rest of her routine was medal-worthy gymnastics. She waited an eternal three minutes for her score, which placed her sixth. Eaker’s routine from the team final earlier that week would have earned silver.

In 2019, Eaker again qualified for the eight-woman beam final. The U.S. federation submitted an inquiry on her qualifying score, contesting a lower start value given to her. That backfired. Judges lowered Eaker’s score even more upon review, which took her out of the final. However, another gymnast who had qualified later withdrew due to injury. Eaker was back in the final, where she placed fourth.

She was asked afterward what she would take away from the meet.

“Just the experience of it all,” she said, composed. “How it makes me feel. How to use that [in the future].”

In 2021, Eaker will have to prove to a selection committee that she can be reliable on all four apparatuses. The Olympic team event size is four — with three gymnasts going per apparatus in the Olympic final — down from five in 2016, putting a greater emphasis on the all-around. Eaker could also be a candidate for one separate spot in individual events only.

“I definitely want to be seen as a great beam worker, but I also need to be a great all-arounder because they’re going to be looking at not just your one event,” said Eaker, who was third in the all-around at the 2019 Worlds selection camp. “You have to be able to benefit the team with your other events, even if they aren’t as strong as your [best] one.”

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