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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MORE: Top U.S. IM swimmer argues 2-year ban due to tap water

Shoma Uno tops Grand Prix Final short program; Ilia Malinin 5th

Shoma Uno
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World champion Shoma Uno of Japan leads after the short program at the Grand Prix Final, the biggest figure skating competition of the fall. Ilia Malinin, an 18-year-old American, is fifth out of six skaters after struggling on jumps on Thursday.

Uno, bidding for his first Final title after two silvers and two bronzes, landed a quadruple flip and quad toe loop-double toe combination en route to 99.99 points at the Palavela, the 2006 Olympic venue in Turin, Italy.

He takes a 5.13-point lead over countryman Sota Yamamoto going into Saturday’s free skate.

Malinin is fifth, 19.89 points behind, after stepping out of the landing on the back end of a quad toe-triple toe combination and spinning out of a triple Axel landing, putting a hand on the ice.

“It was a performance that I wasn’t really expecting,” said Malinin, who did not mention a left foot injury that affected him at his last competition (a win) two weeks ago. “We put a lot of effort trying to perfect all these movements in the program with all these jumps. The jumps didn’t go so well, but I think that my performance and my spins definitely have improved. … I just have to stay confident and look forward to the free skate.”

GRAND PRIX FINAL: Results | Broadcast Schedule

Malinin rallied from smaller short program deficits to win his first three competitions in his first full senior season, becoming the first skater to land a quad Axel in September and repeating it in October and November.

Uno, the world’s top returning skater after Yuzuru Hanyu retired and Nathan Chen went back to Yale, didn’t compete against Malinin at those earlier events.

“It wasn’t up to the levels of my best performance,” Uno said of Thursday’s short program, according to a translation. “But I think I was able to show what I’ve done this season up until this competition. I’m genuinely happy.”

The quad Axel is not a point-scoring element in short programs, but it is in free skates.

Malinin, the son of Olympic skaters from Uzbekistan, was second at last January’s U.S. Championships but left off the three-man Olympic team due to his relative inexperience. He went to senior worlds in March and finished ninth, then won the world junior title in April.

The Grand Prix Final, which takes the top six per discipline from the six-event Grand Prix Series, is the most exclusive figure skating competition. It was canceled the last two seasons due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Earlier, Japan’s Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara topped the pairs’ short program with 78.08 points, edging world champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier by 43 hundredths of a point.

Miura and Kihara, ranked No. 1 in the world this season, are bidding to win the biggest title ever for a Japanese pair.

Knierim and Frazier, who in March became the first U.S. pair to win a world title since 1979, recorded a personal best score with their first clean program since those worlds. Frazier put his hand on the ice on their side-by-side triple toe landings, but judges still barely graded it positively.

“We’ve made a big improvement from our [fall] Grand Prix [starts],” Knierim said. “I am elated with the outcome.”

Pairs experienced the biggest change of the four figure skating disciplines since the Olympics with none of the top five teams from the Winter Games competing internationally this fall. Russian pairs, traditionally the best in the world as a group, are ineligible due to the war in Ukraine. China’s pairs, including gold medalists Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, didn’t skate in the Grand Prix Series.

The Grand Prix Final continues Friday with the pairs’ free skate, rhythm dance and women’s short program, all live on Peacock.

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Katie Ledecky talks swimming legacy and life in Gainesville

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OlympicTalk recently caught up with Katie Ledecky to discuss life since moving from Stanford to Florida 15 months ago, her meticulous mindset, and the legacy she continues to build.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can also catch an encore presentation of Ledecky’s performance at the 2022 U.S. Open this Saturday at 4:30 pm ET on NBC.

What does a typical day look like for you Gainesville? Walk me through a full day starting from the minute your alarm clock goes off.

Ledecky: A typical day would be waking up at 5 o’clock in the morning and swimming from 6 to 8. Then I have weights from 8 to 9:15. I get breakfast, have lunch and then take a nap. Then I have practice again at 2 or 3 in the afternoon for another two hours.

Wow, that sounds incredibly busy! Have you had a chance to find any new favorite places to eat in Gainesville?

Ledecky: I’m still kind of finding my spots. There is a breakfast spot pretty close to campus that a lot of the swimmers like, so I go there quite a bit, but I’m still looking. I haven’t gone to very many places more than once.

What are you doing in your free time? Are you coaching?

Ledecky: Yes, I’m volunteering with the [University of Florida] team, but I think of myself more as a teammate. I have a lot of other things going on with sponsorships, but aside from that, I enjoy spending time with my family and friends. I have a piano and enjoy playing that!

How often do you get to see your family?

Ledecky: My parents, David and Mary, still live in the D.C. area, and then my brother, Michael, lives in New York, so I’m a lot closer to home [than at Stanford]. I see them around the holidays, and they come to a lot of my swim meets.

I know how much you love to stay academically engaged. Are you taking any classes at the University of Florida?

Ledecky: I’m not taking any classes right now. I’m taking a break, but I’m still trying to learn as much as I can just in other areas, reading a lot and watching the news, following different things that I’m interested in. I think at some point, I’ll probably go to grad school, but I’m still figuring out what area that would be in right now.

There’s a quote, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” I feel like that only scratches the surface of describing your work ethic and mindset. You demand excellence in every area of your life, not just from yourself, but from others around you. Can you talk about where that mindset comes from?

Ledecky: I’ve always had that kind of a mindset. I’m very driven, and I’m always setting new goals for myself no matter what I’ve achieved in the past. I’m always looking forward, I don’t take very many breaks, and so it’s always on to the next goal and making sure I’m doing the little things right and doing the things I need to do to reach my goals.

To be able to perform at the level that you do every single day takes a lot of mental toughness. What do Katie Ledecky’s inner thoughts look like? What do you tell yourself? Any affirmations? 

Ledecky: I try to stay positive no matter how well or how poorly a practice or a race is going. When I’m swimming, I give myself positive mental pep talks along the way throughout a race. I’ll say “keep it up,” “hold pace” or “hit this turn.”

I just want to read you a few tweets… 

You idolized Michael Phelps when you were younger, and now you’re that person for a lot of people. You’re the GOAT. You’re Katie Ledecky. Someone’s idol. What does that feel like?

Ledecky: It’s an honor to have young swimmers look up to me, and I don’t take that lightly. I try to be a good role model and reach out to young kids and sign autographs and take photos if people approach me at swim meets. I hope that there are some young swimmers out there that will grow up to be champions or maybe they’ll just continue to love the sport or find other things that they’re passionate about, but it’s an honor.

Have you had any memorable interactions with young swimmers?

Ledecky:  Yeah, actually the World Cup in Indianapolis [in November]. We were given those giant checks at the end of the meet that you really can’t travel with, so I was able to sign it and give it to one of the basket carriers at the meet. They were thrilled, and it was fun to be able to put a smile on their face.

Give me just one word to describe each of these milestones in your life, starting with the 2012 Olympics.

Ledecky: The first. It was my first international competition and my first gold medal, so that’s the one that’ll probably be the most special for me forever.

OLY-2012-SWIM

2016 Rio Olympics.

Ledecky: Consistency. I was swimming in multiple events at the Olympics for the first time and I just got into a really good rhythm and felt so comfortable in the pool deck. So confident. That was just a very unique feeling.

Tokyo Games.

Ledecky: Tokyo was different with all the COVID protocols. Nobody in the stands. No family there. But it was a lot of fun still, so a lot of great memories with my teammates there.

What kind of legacy do you want to leave behind at the end of your career? What do you want to be remembered for?

Ledecky: I’d like to be remembered as somebody that worked really hard and gave my best effort every time I got up on the blocks and represented Team USA. Hopefully, I can continue to inspire young kids to work hard in whatever it is that they are passionate about, whether that’s something academic, athletic, or something else. If you find something that you really love, you should go all in on it and try to be the best you can be at it.

You’ve achieved so much in life already personally and professionally, I just want to ask: Are you genuinely happy? Are you satisfied in this season of life right now?

Ledecky: Oh yeah, I’m very happy. I love the sport more and more every year. I get a little sad thinking about the day I will eventually retire–which isn’t anytime soon. I love the sport. I’m trying to just enjoy every day of training and racing and trying to be the best that I can be.

I say this all the time, I never imagined I would even make it to one Olympics and so to be training now to try to qualify for a fourth Olympics is it’s all just icing on the cake at this point and something that I truly enjoy. I enjoy doing it with my teammates, striving for similar goals, and getting to do it with really great people.

Knowing all that you know now, what advice would you give to your younger self — the little Palisades Porpoise?

Ledecky: I don’t have very many regrets or anything in my career, so I think I would just continue to tell myself to have fun and enjoy every moment. Maybe, write down a little bit more early on. I’ve done a better job of journaling and writing down different things so that I can remember them down the road, but I didn’t do as good of a job in 2012 and 2013.

Rapid-fire questions. Race day hype song? 

Ledecky: “Badlands” by Bruce Springsteen.

Finish this sentence: I’m not ready for a meet without … 

Ledecky: My suit, cap and goggles.

Did you have AIM back in the day? What was your embarrassing screen name?

Ledecky: I didn’t. I didn’t even have a cell phone until before the London Olympics. I think I actually borrowed my brother’s phone for that, and then we went out and bought an iPad so that I could FaceTime my family from London. I didn’t have an email account either until high school.

Your life is on the line. You need to sing one karaoke song to save it. What are you picking?

Ledecky: Well, USA Swimming did carpool karaoke in 2016 before the Olympics. My car did “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen, which is a great karaoke song because it’s like 10 minutes long so maybe I would choose that just as a fun memory. We also did “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen in 2012. Those are two fun songs with some fond memories.

Post-workout meal?

Ledecky: After morning practice, eggs and toast or veggies and eggs. I love breakfast. I could eat breakfast food for all three meals and I’d be satisfied.

Cheat meal? 

Ledecky: Either pizza or a burger.

If you had to choose another Olympic sport to compete in what would it be and why? 

Ledecky: Probably hockey. I’m not good on skates, but it’s my favorite sport to watch.

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