Katie Ledecky dominates, Caeleb Dressel upset to open swim nationals

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IRVINE, Calif. — Katie Ledecky didn’t feel very fast. Couldn’t find the gear in the second half of the 800m freestyle on Wednesday night.

She still won by 10 seconds.

Ledecky opened the U.S. Swimming Championships with a convincing — but not especially satisfying — victory in her trademark Olympic event to qualify for August’s Pan Pacific Championships. The five-time Olympic gold medalist bagged an uncharacteristic victory on a night that included two upsets among six finals, notably world champion Caeleb Dressel finishing sixth in the 100m freestyle.

Ledecky was under world-record pace at 350 meters at the outdoor Irvine High School pool. She finished 7.19 seconds slower than her world record in 8:11.98. It’s still faster than any other woman has ever covered 800 meters, giving Ledecky the 19 fastest times in history.

“I’m fine with it, didn’t feel super sharp, but it always takes me a little bit of time to get into these meets,” Ledecky said, noting swimming in 80-degree heat. “My best races are when the first 400 and the second 400 are pretty even.”

It’s nit-picking, but Ledecky’s splits were not even. She went 7.4 seconds slower in the back half than the first 400 meters. Of her 18 other fastest times in history, Ledecky’s biggest difference in splits was 5.9 seconds.

Second-place Leah Smith still couldn’t close on Ledecky, even with a personal best.

Ledecky is just getting started in Irvine. She’s scheduled to swim three more events, starting with the 200m freestyle on Thursday. Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA airs live finals coverage at 9 p.m. ET.

SWIM NATIONALS: TV Schedule | Results | Swimmers to Watch

This is the biggest domestic meet between now and the 2020 Olympic Trials because it’s a qualifier for the next two major international meets. It’s likely that the top three finishers per individual Olympic event will make the Pan Pacs team, which is capped at 26 men and 26 women.

Once a swimmer makes Pan Pacs in one event, he or she can swim any event at Pan Pacs, taking some of the pressure off this week’s meet. Swimmers’ best times between nationals and Pan Pacs determine the 2019 World Championships team.

The biggest star in danger of not qualifying for Pan Pacs and worlds is Missy Franklin.

The quadruple 2012 Olympic champion missed Wednesday’s 100m freestyle final. Her only other event this week, in her first major meet since her disappointing Rio Games, is the 200m free on Thursday. Franklin must finish in the top four, but she ranks 10th in the U.S. in the event this year.

The meet already lacks 12-time Olympic medalist Ryan Lochte, who is suspended until July 2019 for an illegal IV infusion after a social media blunder.

In other Wednesday events, co-Olympic champion Simone Manuel clocked the fastest 100m free ever on U.S. soil — 52.54, also her second-fastest time ever. She beat Mallory Comerford by .55. Margo Geer and Abbey Weitzeil were third and fourth to make the Pan Pacs team, too.

The men’s 100m free didn’t go to plan. Dressel, who won seven medals at the 2017 Worlds, was stunningly sixth (after qualifying seventh into the eight-man final). Dressel lowered the American record in the 100m free twice at worlds but was 1.53 seconds slower than his best time in Wednesday’s final.

Instead, Blake Pieroni clocked a personal-best 48.08 for the upset. Pieroni snuck onto the Rio Olympic 4x100m free relay by placing sixth at trials. He beat a field Wednesday that included all three active members of the Rio 4x100m free final team, edging Nathan Adrian by .17. Adrian lost the 100m free at nationals for the first time since the 2008 Olympic Trials.

Dressel is entered in seven more events this week. All he must do is make the team in one of them, and he can re-enter the 100m free at Pan Pacs.

Olympian Hali Flickinger captured the 200m butterfly by 1.04 seconds over Katie Drabot in 2:06.14. Flickinger, seventh in Rio, made her third straight major international meet in the 200m fly and now ranks third all-time among Americans in the event.

Justin Wright took 1.48 seconds off his 200m fly personal best on Wednesday en route to upsetting Olympians Chase Kalisz and Jack Conger.

Jordan Wilimovsky, fourth and fifth in two Rio distance events, won the 1500m freestyle in 14:48.89, 6.45 seconds ahead of Robert Finke.

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MORE: U.S. swimmers agree on Ryan Lochte ban

Chock, Bates charge to second U.S. title; Hubbell, Donohue charge the wrong way

Madison Hubbell, Zach Donohue
AP
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GREENSBORO, N.C. – Evan Bates, who had just won his second U.S. ice dance title with partner Madison Chock, put it best.

“Ice dance is a strange sport in some ways,” he said.

Chock and Bates have had their share of unusual mishaps in their near 10-year career, but on Saturday night at the 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Greensboro, North Carolina, everything was smooth sailing.

The couple’s exotic “Egyptian Snake Dance” free dance went off without a hitch, gaining the highest possible levels for nearly all of its elements and impressing judges with its intricacy, synchronization and striking lifts. It earned 134.23 points, giving the Montreal-based team the win with 221.86.

“It was (our coach Marie-France Dubreuil’s) idea for me to be a snake, and Evan a traveler who finds me,” Chock said of the routine. “It was just such a fun process, cool new characters for us to dive into, and we’ve really been enjoying it. It shows when we skate.”

Greensboro has been lucky for the skaters, who teamed up in 2011; they won their first U.S. title here in 2015. The five-year title gap is the longest in history for U.S. ice dance champions.

“It feels longer than five years,” Chock said with a breezy laugh. “It feels so much has changed, and in us as people as well (as dancers). We’re in a very good place, we could not be happier with the way the season has been going.”

If Chock’s humor was lighthearted, Madison Hubbell’s can only be described grim.

Hubbell and her partner, Zach Donohue, trailed their long-time rivals and Montreal training partners by about 1.3 points following Friday’s rhythm dance. A stellar outing of their Star is Born free dance might have won a third consecutive U.S. title; instead, it became a living nightmare.

“Out of the first element, the dance spin, we got turned around somehow and came out the wrong direction,” Hubbell said. “The next four elements, which are pretty valuable elements, all were facing the wrong direction.”

(Video available here for NBC Sports Gold subscribers; Hubbell and Donohue skate at the 1:06:50 mark.)

Not until their fifth element, a step sequence, did the skaters get back on track. In between, there was a world of hurt, likely unnoticed by many members of the audience but readily apparent to the judges, who had seen the free dance in  practice.

“Our twizzle sequence, it’s a high-scoring element, is supposed to charge right at the judges, and today it charged away from them,” Hubbell said. “In the rotational life, there’s a large leg flare that looks very cool going the opposite direction, and today I just opened my crotch right in front of the judges.”

The score was far from disastrous; Hubbell and Donohue’s 130.88 points for their “wrong-way” free dance gave them 217.19 overall. But it was a missed opportunity to show judges, and fans, the improvements they had made to A Star Is Born since the Grand Prix Final in December.

“It was probably one of the hardest performances, and not the most enjoyable,” Hubbell said. “It was a really thoughtful focus on the elements, and somehow putting one portion of the brain aside to fix things as best we could.”

The silver medal was Hubbell and Donohue’s first. They also won bronze medals in 2012, and 2015-17.

Kaitlyn Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, whose rhythm dance to Saturday Night Fever stole the show on Friday, felt their Flamenco-style free dance didn’t pack the same punch.

“Yesterday was such a high for us, in terms of (audience) reaction and performance, that tonight didn’t have the same euphoria when we finished,” Hawayek said. “Both Jean-Luc and I see the potential for it being much higher than what we were able to put out today.”

Despite the disappointment, the third team in the Montreal troika earned 118.57 points and won a second consecutive bronze medal with 201.16.

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NATIONALS: TV/Live Stream 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.

Coco Gauff eliminated from Australian Open by Sofia Kenin

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Coco Gauff‘s run at the Australian Open ended in the round of 16, foiled by fellow American Sofia Kenin on Sunday.

Kenin ousted the 15-year-old phenom 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-0 to reach her first Grand Slam quarterfinal. Gauff, too, was bidding for her first major quarterfinal after a sterling seven months ignited by her march to the Wimbledon fourth round.

Gauff, ranked No. 684 this time last year, will near the top 50 after the Australian Open. She beat Venus Williams in the first round at Wimbledon and the Australian Open and took out defending Australian Open champion Naomi Osaka in the third round on Friday.

Gauff’s play catapulted her to fifth in U.S. Olympic singles qualifying, but she has half the points as fourth-place Madison Keys, and a country can’t qualify more than four players in singles. The Olympic field will be determined by the WTA rankings after the French Open in June.

The 14th seed Kenin, who beat Serena Williams in the 2019 French Open third round, ranks second behind Williams in U.S. Olympic qualifying. She will face No. 27 Wang Qiang or Ons Jabeur in the quarterfinals.

Kenin and Alison Riske are the two remaining U.S. women in the draw.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women

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