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Missy Franklin, motivated by the mother of all comebacks, now starts her own

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Asked if any other athlete’s comeback inspired her, Missy Franklin didn’t need to think back very far.

She recalled July 14. The recent University of Georgia transfer student remembered doing homework on her laptop that Saturday afternoon and receiving a phone news alert. A headline stated Serena Williams missed in her comeback from pregnancy because she lost the Wimbledon final.

“I don’t get angry, like that’s not an emotion that I feel,” the still-effervescent Franklin said, “but I was so upset that they could have called her comeback falling short of anything.”

Williams returned to the WTA Tour six months after a pregnancy that was followed by pulmonary embolism complications and many surgeries that left her bedridden for six weeks.

“It’s a totally different comeback,” Franklin said of her own story, “but also not really. She’s coming back to inspire, and that’s what I want to do.”

Franklin swims at the U.S. Championships this week in her first major meet since a disappointing Rio Olympics, where she earned zero individual medals. Her lone medal, a gold, came as a relay swimmer in the morning preliminary heats. She was not chosen to swim the final.

Five years ago, the 6-foot-2 Franklin towered above the swim world. She claimed four gold medals at the 2012 Olympics and six at the 2013 World Championships, before going to college, and looked like the one to usher in the post-Michael Phelps era (Phelps was retired at the time).

Beginning in 2014, Franklin struggled through back and shoulder injuries, coaching and training location changes and even mental health.

Though Franklin felt physically fantastic going into the Rio Olympic summer, she had been diagnosed with depression and anxiety. Franklin revealed that to a group of young female athletes more than a year later at the Lead Sports Summit. She now says she felt comfortable coming forward after Phelps and Allison Schmitt shared about their mental health.

“It really inspired me to be open and honest and real,” Franklin said. “One of the biggest things I’ve learned over the past three, four years is that, for me, the biggest reason why we go through what we go through during hard times and suffering is not only so we can grow from it but so that we can help others grow from it as well. In order to do that, we need to be open and honest and vulnerable.”

Franklin carries that attitude to nationals in Irvine, Calif., this week. She is entered in just two events — the 100m and 200m freestyles. She is skipping the backstrokes, which were her bread and butter in 2012 and 2013.

MORE: U.S. Swimming Championships TV Schedule

Franklin raced for the first time since Rio at smaller meets in France and Spain last month. Bauerle wanted her return to be low-key rather than diving back into the domestic Pro Series.

“I thought I was going be a total wreck before my first swim,” Franklin said, “but I was actually very calm.”

Her freestyle times rank 47th and 10th among U.S. swimmers this year, according to FINA.

She must finish in the top four in one of the two events this week, or she misses the 2018 Pan Pacs and 2019 World Championships, the two biggest international meets between now and the Tokyo Olympics.

“I’m not putting any pressure on myself,” Franklin said. “I’m doing my best to be prepared for both scenarios.”

Franklin is pleased with her progress since transferring from the University of California to Georgia for the spring semester. She called it “unbelievable” but could not compare her form to any previous point in her career.

“It’s almost like it’s two different people and two different athletes,” Franklin said.

She’s trained under Georgia’s coach of the last 39 years, Jack Bauerle, who has put Franklin into more distance training than ever before.

“She’s not going to be where she was yet,” Bauerle said. “But we’re stepping in the right direction, that’s the biggest thing.”

Franklin said her surgically repaired shoulders are still “an ongoing process” that must be dealt with day to day. She and Bauerle stressed building a freestyle base and hope to incorporate her backstroke more over time.

“We had to walk gingerly at first,” Bauerle said. “We just knew we couldn’t hurry. Physically, it’s not the thing to do. Everyone expects her to be when she’s at her very, very best. That’ll take time.”

In interviews, Franklin is still the bubbly presence that attracted fans four and five years ago. Now, towing a comeback story and vulnerable message to inspire, she hopes to be just as magnetic splashing back into the competition pool.

“I feel like I’ve been away from my best friends for two years,” Franklin said.

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At U.S. Open swim meet, teens make a splash with Olympic trials on horizon

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While Olympic and world champions Katie LedeckySimone Manuel and Chase Kalisz notched expected victories at the U.S. Open on Thursday, a trio of teenagers lowered personal bests to further establish their Tokyo Olympic hopes.

At the top domestic meet of the winter, Alex WalshCarson Foster and Kieran Smith each earned runner-up finishes, but their performances stood out in the big picture: looking at June’s Olympic trials, where the top two per individual event make the team.

Walsh, a rising Nashville high school senior, took 2.23 seconds off her 200m individual medley best. She clocked 2:09.01, overtaken by .17 by Melanie Margalis, the Rio Olympic and 2019 World Championships fourth-place finisher.

Full meet results are here.

Walsh moved from fifth-fastest in the U.S. this year to No. 2 behind Margalis, passing Olympic and world championships veterans Ella EastinKathleen Baker and Madisyn Cox. Of those swimmers, only Eastin was also in Thursday’s final.

Walsh joined her younger sister, Gretchen, in Olympic qualifying position based on 2019 times. Gretchen, 16, ranks fourth in the U.S. in the 100m free this year. The top six in that event at trials are in line to make the Olympic 4x100m free relay pool.

The Walshes could become the third set of sisters to make the same U.S. Olympic swim team, and the second to do it in pool swimming after Dana and Tara Kirk in 2004.

Foster, 18, continued his ascent Thursday in taking second to Kalisz in the men’s 200m IM. The world junior champion lowered his personal best in the prelims and the final, getting down to 1:57.59. Foster passed Ryan Lochte, who is nearly twice his age, in Thursday’s final and in the 2019 U.S. rankings. Only Kalisz and Michael Andrew have been faster among Americans this year.

Foster is trying to become the youngest U.S. Olympic male swimmer since 2000, when a 15-year-old Michael Phelps made his Olympic debut. Foster, who has been breaking Phelps national age-group records since he was 10, committed to the University of Texas in March 2018, two years before he graduates high school in Ohio.

Then there’s Kieran Smith, now a prime candidate to fill a huge void in the 400m freestyle. Zane Grothe is the only American ranked in the top 20 in the world this year.

Smith, a 19-year-old from the University of Florida, took 2.29 seconds off his lifetime best on Thursday to jump from outside the top 10 to No. 2 in the U.S. on the year. Smith was already ranked No. 2 in the country in the 200m free.

Two more runners-up in the 50m freestyles — Erika Brown to Manuel and Zach Apple to Brazilian Bruno Fratus — lowered personal bests to move to No. 3 in each U.S. ranking list this year.

The U.S. Open continues Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. ET with live coverage on NBCSN and streaming on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app.

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Nathan Chen distances Yuzuru Hanyu in Grand Prix Final short program

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A brilliant Nathan Chen outscored a flawed Yuzuru Hanyu for a fourth straight head-to-head program, taking a 12.95-point lead at the Grand Prix Final in Turin, Italy, on Thursday.

Chen, the two-time reigning world champion, tallied 110.38 points going into Saturday’s free skate. He landed a quadruple Lutz, triple Axel and quad toe loop-triple toe loop combination.

It’s the highest short program score in the world this season, leading the American to say “wow” in the kiss-and-cry area. His coach, the often-gruff Rafael Arutyunyan, banged his knee against his pupil’s.

Hanyu, the two-time reigning Olympic champion, hit a quadruple Salchow and triple Axel but then stepped out of a quad toe landing. He therefore failed to include a required jumping combination and ended up in second place.

“I wanted to do a great performance and do a good competition against [Chen], but that didn’t happen this time,” Hanyu, who was without longtime coach Brian Orser, or any other coach, said through a translator. Hanyu said Orser was busy last week, so he chose to use his lone accreditation on another coach who had travel delays.

Hanyu is not out of title contention. His world-leading free skate score this season is 16.61 points better than Chen’s best free skate from the fall Grand Prix Series.

Chen is undefeated since placing fifth at the PyeongChang Olympics, but this is just his second head-to-head with Hanyu in that span. Chen defeated Hanyu at March’s world championships, where the Japanese megastar was likely affected by an ankle injury.

After Thursday’s program, Chen repeated what he said before the competition: he still feels like he’s chasing Hanyu.

“Yuzu is like the goat, he’s the greatest of all time, really,” Chen said. “So, to have this opportunity to be able to share the ice with a guy like that, someone that I’ve looked up to for a long time, someone that I’ve watched grow up through the junior ranks when I was like a baby, it’s really cool to be able see him now. It’s really cool to even just be able to see him person.”

The Grand Prix Final, the biggest annual event outside the world championships, continues Friday with the rhythm dance, women’s short and pairs’ free skate. A full TV and live stream schedule is here.

Earlier in pairs, Chinese Sui Wenjing and Han Cong took their first step toward a first Grand Prix Final title. The Olympic silver medalists tallied 77.50, leading Russians Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitriy Kozlovskiy by .85 going into Friday’s free skate.

Sui and Han were imperfect, with Sui putting her hand down on a throw triple flip landing. They are undefeated in this Beijing Olympic cycle and own the world’s top total score this season.

The U.S. failed to qualify a pair for the six-team Final for the 11th time in the last 12 years.

Grand Prix Final
Men’s Short Program
1. Nathan Chen (USA) — 110.38
2. Yuzuru Hanyu (JPN) — 97.43
3. Kevin Aymoz (FRA) — 96.71
4. Dmitriy Aliyev (RUS) — 88.78
5. Alexander Samarin (RUS) — 81.32
6. Jin Boyang (CHN) — 80.67

Pairs’ Short Program
1. Sui Wenjing/Han Cong (CHN) — 77.50
2. Aleksandra Boikova / Dmitriy Kozlovskiy (RUS) — 76.65
3. Daria Pavliuchenko/Denis Khodykin (RUS) — 75.16
4. Anastasia Mishina/Aleksandr Galliamov (RUS) — 71.48
5. Peng Cheng/Jin Yang (CHN) — 69.67
6. Kirsten Moore-Towers/Michael Marinaro (CAN) — 67.08

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