Katie Ledecky comes back from suit malfunction for nationals win

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IRVINE, Calif. — It’s not about the suit for Katie Ledecky.

On Thursday morning at the U.S. Championships, the five-time Olympic champion experienced what she guessed was the most unexpected obstacle thrown her way in the minutes before a major meet race.

Ledecky ripped a racing swimsuit in the locker room. Then she ripped a backup suit. With about 15 minutes before her 200m freestyle heat, Ledecky put on a practice suit of a different makeup, not designed for top speed.

“It didn’t make me too nervous,” Ledecky said. “It was a blessing in disguise because it really pushed me to get out of my comfort zone.”

Ledecky suffered a rare defeat in her preliminary heat, placing second to Gabby DeLoof, but she still easily advanced to Thursday night’s final. Job done. She of course won the final, without any wardrobe malfunctions, by 1.22 seconds over Allison Schmitt.

Ledecky said many women ripped suits in the morning and even some more before Thursday’s 200m backstroke finals. She blamed the heat at this outdoor Southern California meet, creating sweat and moisture and making it uncomfortable to change in the locker room.

“Everyone’s suit is sticking to them,” she said. “We’re all sweating in there.”

Ledecky’s experience is reminiscent of others. Swede Therese Alshammar famously ripped a high-tech suit before the 2008 Olympic 50m freestyle semifinals, where Dara Torres helped hold up the race for Alshammar to change.

Michael Phelps had a mid-race malfunction when his googles filled with water in the 2008 Olympic 200m butterfly. He had to count strokes to know where he was in the pool.

“It is a good challenge,” said Ledecky, who raced Thursday in front of Phelps and Kobe Bryant in a VIP section. “You’re going to get big meets, and things like that are going to happen. It’s all just about adjusting and making sure you’re prepared.”

Nationals continue Friday with finals at 9 p.m. ET, live on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA and streaming for subscribers on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app. Caeleb Dressel, the seven-time 2017 World champion, is expected to headline the action in the 100m butterfly.

Ledecky has two events left at nationals — the 400m freestyle on Saturday and 1500m freestyle on Sunday.

Swimmers are vying for spots at the two biggest international meets before the 2020 Olympics — August’s Pan Pacific Championships in Tokyo and the 2019 World Championships in South Korea.

Once a swimmer makes the Pan Pacs team in one event — like Ledecky by winning the 800m free on Wednesday — he or she can swim any event at Pan Pacs. The two fastest swimmers per individual Olympic event, using best times from nationals and Pan Pacs, qualify for worlds.

Missy Franklin, a four-time 2012 Olympic champion, failed to qualify for Pan Pacs and worlds by not making the A final of either the 100m or 200m frees the first two days.

In other events Thursday, Olympic champion Ryan Murphy won the 200m backstroke by 1.53 seconds over Jacob Pebley. Murphy is motivated by his defeats at the 2017 Worlds, where Russian Evgeny Rylov won the 200m back. Rylov is the only man to go faster than Murphy’s 1:54.15 this year.

Micah Sumrall, formerly Micah Lawrence, won the 200m breaststroke in her first major meet since failing to make the Rio Olympic team. Sumrall, a two-time world medalist in the 200m breast, had turned to coaching before deciding to return to competition last year.

Triple 2017 World medalist Kathleen Baker and 16-year-old Regan Smith tied for the women’s 200m backstroke title in 2:06.43.

Andrew Seliskar emerged as 200m free champion by .23 over Olympian Blake Pieroni, who had won the 100m free on Wednesday. Seliskar, a former junior world-record holder, entered five events at the 2016 Olympic Trials, but the 200m free was not one of them. He came into nationals ranked fifth in the U.S. in the 200m free this year.

Olympic silver medalist Josh Prenot overtook Andrew Wilson in the last half of the men’s 200m breast, cruising to win by 1.43 seconds in 2:07.28, the fastest time in the world this year.

Dressel was upset by Michael Andrew in the 50m butterfly, one day after shockingly finishing sixth in the 100m free.

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SWIM NATIONALS: TV Schedule | Results | Swimmers to Watch

Daniel Romanchuk’s ascent to marathon stardom accelerated at University of Illinois

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The rise of Daniel Romanchuk has been one of the major stories of this Paralympic cycle. The wheelchair racer was eliminated in the first round of all five of his races in Rio.

But now, he’s the world’s best marathoner with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, a world-record holder on the track and already qualified for the Tokyo Games.

Romanchuk, born with spina bifida, was profiled by NBC Sports Chicago as part of a series of NBC Sports Regional Networks pieces published this week — marking 150 days until the Tokyo Olympics and six months until the Tokyo Paralympics.

NBC RSN Olympic and Paralympic Profiles
NBC Sports Bay Area

Abbey Weitzeil (Swimming) — LINK

NBC Sports Boston
Margaret Bertasi (Rowing) — LINK
Abbey D’Agostino Cooper (Track and Field) — LINK

NBC Sports Chicago
Ryan Murphy (Swimming) — LINK

NBC Sports Northwest
Galen Rupp (Marathon) — LINK
Mariel Zagunis (Fencing) — LINK

NBC Sports Philadelphia
Vashti Cunningham (Track and Field) — LINK
Julie Ertz (Soccer) — LINK

NBC Sports Washington
Katie Ledecky (Swimming) — LINK
Kyle Snyder (Wrestling) — LINK

Romanchuk, 21, swept the Boston, London, Chicago and New York City Marathon titles in 2019. He attributes that success to his native Baltimore and his training residence of the University of Illinois.

At age 2, he was enrolled in Baltimore’s Bennett Blazers, an adaptive sports program for children with physical disabilities. Tatyana McFadden, a 17-time Paralympic medalist who dominated women’s wheelchair marathons, planted her athletic roots there.

“Their motto is to teach kids they can before they’re told they can’t,” Romanchuk said.

Things really blossomed for Romanchuk after he moved from Baltimore to the University of Illinois. Illinois was designated a U.S. Paralympic training site in 2014 and has produced McFadden, Jean Driscoll and other U.S. Paralympic stars.

“Without this program, I certainly would not be where I am,” Romanchuk said. “It’s a very unique combination of coaching and teammates.”

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MORE: Ten Paralympic hopefuls to watch for 2020 Tokyo Games

Chloé Dygert wanted to be Steve Prefontaine. Then Larry Bird. Now, her coach.

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Chloé Dygert is the U.S.’ top cyclist, an Olympic medalist and world champion in line to race on the track and the road at the Tokyo Games.

To get to this point — leading the American contingent at the world track cycling championships this week — Dygert was kicked off a soccer team, bribed by her father and, when she thought her career was over, enrolled in 5 a.m. classes to get back on the bike.

“I had no interest in being a cyclist. I did not want to be a cyclist,” she said. “The funny thing is, my dad kept getting me bikes.”

It began in Brownsburg, Ind., a 25,000-person town 15 miles northwest of Indianapolis. Dygert had an older brother, younger brother and a BMX dirt bike track on a 4.5-acre property.

She played soccer, but was moved from the girls’ team to the boys. Dygert developed physically earlier than the other girls. And, “I was a little too mean and aggressive,” she said.

She played basketball but broke too many bones — her own and those of other girls. “Not on purpose,” she said, “but I was just so much bigger and naturally so much stronger.”

Dygert ran cross-country, too, but none of those sports worked out.

“I was going to be Steve Prefontaine,” she said of the fabled 1972 Olympian. “I had some injuries, and I started playing basketball. I was going to be Larry Bird. I had some more injuries, and cycling was just kind of my go-to.”

Dygert, at first reluctant, picked up cycling at the urging of her father, David, a mountain biker. She received bikes for Christmas and her New Year’s birthday, but it wasn’t until later, when she was 15, that her father’s words changed her life.

That summer, when Dygert needed a shoulder surgery from a basketball injury, she went for a ride at a local park with her father. David marveled.

“He said, ‘Chloe, I don’t think a girl your age should be able to put out the power that you’re putting out,'” Dygert remembered. “That kind of stuck with me and got me into wanting to ride a little bit more and seeing where I could go with it.”

David lured her: a pair of Oakleys if Dygert won at her first major competition. She entered junior nationals and grabbed a victory.

“That’s kind of what gave me the motivation to keep going,” she said. “It took me a while to actually love the sport. It definitely was not an interest that I had. But I thrive on winning. I love to win.”

Dygert pursued cycling, but she didn’t stop basketball. Everything changed when she tore an ACL on the court at age 17, a nine-month injury. She never returned to competitive basketball, but she also lost motivation to get back on the bike. Again, David urged her. One last time.

She joined the cycling team at Marian University, a private Catholic school in Indianapolis. David signed her up for 5 a.m. classes.

“I’m still not happy about it,” she said. “I got really disciplined.”

And reinvigorated. The freshman Dygert noticed in a power booster class that her wattage was impressive.

“If it wasn’t for that and the structure and the discipline that I had gotten from that and my dad, I would not be here,” she said. “There’s not a day that goes by, I’m just so thankful for that and for him.”

Dygert dropped out after that first fall semester to focus on a cycling career. That winter, she won a world title with the U.S. team pursuit and was named to become the youngest female U.S. Olympic track cyclist in history.

“I see myself being a Kristin Armstrong, following in her footsteps, being a good all-around rider and a very good time trialist,” Dygert said before earning team pursuit silver at the Rio Olympics, according to The Associated Press.

Armstrong earned her third Olympic road time trial title in Rio, a day before turning 43. She retired and transitioned from Dygert’s mentor to her coach. Dygert recently moved to Armstrong’s native Idaho.

On the eve of September’s world road cycling championships time trial, Armstrong told Dygert to make sure she hurt more than any other rider on the 18-mile course. Dygert obeyed. She went out and won by 92 seconds, the largest margin in history, to become the youngest world champion ever in the event. She collapsed onto the pavement getting off her bike.

“I didn’t race with a power meter,” Dygert said that day, “and I think that really helped not restricting myself, just kind of going as fast as I could the entire time and not really have anything to gauge it off of.”

It qualified Dygert for the Tokyo Olympics on the road. The track team hasn’t been named, but Dygert will surely anchor a new team pursuit quartet. The U.S. has never won an Olympic women’s track title, but the pursuit has been its trademark event — world titles in 2016, 2017 and 2018. Olympic silver medals in 2012 and 2016.

The only woman on both of those Olympic teams retired (Sarah Hammer).

The cycling community was floored when Kelly Catlin, on all three world title teams with Dygert, committed suicide last March at age 23.

“It’s definitely hard not having her there, but we will carry her legacy on,” Dygert said. “She will be with us every step of the way when we win gold in Tokyo.”

The U.S. women’s team pursuit finished seventh at last year’s worlds without Catlin and without Dygert, who sat out nearly a year after a May 2018 concussion from a road crash. Dygert wondered if she might not be able to come back from the head injury. Expectations were tempered when she and a new team entered a November World Cup in Belarus.

A coach predicted nothing faster than 4 minutes, 17 seconds. They clocked 4:13 and won in what Dygert believed was the U.S.’ second-fastest time since the Rio Games.

“We’ve never raced together before,” Dygert said. “We didn’t really know what we would be able to do.”

Dygert is bidding to race in three events in Tokyo — road race (July 26), road time trial (July 29) and team pursuit (Aug. 3-4). People compare combining the road and the track to training for both the sprints and the marathon. The plurality of the focus will be on the time trial and to follow the path set by Armstrong to the top of an Olympic podium. Hopefully, road and track podiums.

“We’re going to be smart about which event that we choose to be full gas for so my fitness is still there for all the other events,” Dygert said. “Being fit for the time trial will also correlate for the track.”

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