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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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WATCH LIVE: U.S. Figure Skating Championships rhythm dance, women’s free skate

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Can Bradie Tennell hold off 14-year-old Alysa Liu? The U.S. Figure Skating Championships crowns its female medalists on Friday, live on NBC Sports.

Action starts with the rhythm dance at 4:30 p.m. ET for NBC Sports Gold subscribers, with NBCSN broadcast coverage joining in at 5. The women start at 7:25 on Gold, with NBC TV coverage starting at 8.

LIVE STREAM: Rhythm dance — Gold | NBCSN | Skate Order
LIVE STREAM: Women’s free skate — Gold | NBC | Skate Order

Tennell topped Thursday’s short program with a clean slate of jumps, plus the highest artistic score.

She bettered Liu in the short program last year, too, but fell in the free skate to take silver. Liu, meanwhile, landed two triple Axels to win by 3.92 points and become the youngest U.S. champion in history.

Another skater to watch is Gracie Gold, the two-time U.S. champion competing at nationals for the first time in three years. Gold, lauded for her return from an eating disorder, depression and anxiety, struggled with jumps in the short and is in 13th place of 18 skaters.

In the rhythm dance, past U.S. champions Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue and Madison Chock and Evan Bates are expected to begin a duel that should come down to Saturday’s free dance.

Key Skate Times
5:32 p.m. — Madison Hubbell/Zachary Donohue
5:38 — Kaitlin Hawayek/Jean-Luc Baker
5:44 — Madison Chock/Evan Bates
8:07 — Gracie Gold
10:03 — Karen Chen
10:11 — Amber Glenn
10:27 — Bradie Tennell
10:35 — Mariah Bell
10:43 — Alysa Liu

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NATIONALS: TV Schedule | Full Results

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

Iran’s only female Olympic medalist, who defected, eyes Tokyo Games as German or refugee

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LÜNEN, Germany (AP) — Iran’s only female Olympic medalist said Friday she wants to compete for Germany after defecting from her native country.

Kimia Alizadeh is trying to rebuild her life and career after she announced this month she had left Iran, citing sexism on the part of officials there.

“Even if I do not make it to the Olympics, it does not matter because I have made up my mind,” Alizadeh said at a meeting with journalists at a taekwondo club.

“I am sure that I will be judged by many, but I am just 21 years old and can attend world tournaments and future Olympics. However, I will spare no effort to get the best result at this time as well.”

She added she doesn’t expect ever to compete in Iran again.

Alizadeh was just 18 when she won bronze in taekwondo at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, catapulting her to instant fame at home. Despite Iran’s long history of victories in men’s wrestling and weightlifting, no Iranian woman had ever won a medal before.

However, Alizadeh was frustrated with life in Iran despite her Olympic success. In an Instagram post this month announcing she had left Iran, she accused Iranian officials of sexism and criticized wearing the mandatory hijab headscarf.

Alizadeh hasn’t given up hope of being able to compete at this year’s Olympics in Tokyo. However, getting there would require highly unusual exemptions from the usual rules on nationality switches and qualification, regardless of whether she tries to represent Germany or the International Olympic Committee’s refugee team.

Alizadeh spent time in the Netherlands before heading to Germany this week to meet with taekwondo officials there. The German Taekwondo Union has spoken up in favor of Alizadeh staying in the country in what it calls a first step toward her gaining nationality and becoming eligible to compete for Germany.

“If the German government assists me and I can go through this process as fast as possible, I might be able to make it to the Olympics, too,” she said.

In recent years, many Iranian athletes have left their country, citing government pressure. In September, the former world judo champion Saeed Mollaei moved to Germany after walking off the Iranian team at the world championships in Japan. He said Iranian officials had tried to force him to withdraw so as not to compete against an Israeli opponent.

Alireza Faghani, an Iranian international soccer referee, also left Iran for Australia last year.

Alizadeh said she just wants “a peaceful life,” and she’s not looking back.

“I have a great feeling to have made a decision for my life that would definitely change my future,” she said. “I think it is not even clear enough now and. in the years to come, I will understand what a good decision I made.”

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MORE: Full list of U.S. athletes qualified for Tokyo Olympics