Katie Ledecky, after 3rd win at nationals, readies for teen tests

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IRVINE, Calif. — Not too long ago, Katie Ledecky was the teen phenom in the pool. Now, after finishing her nationals slate with a third convincing win, her threats ahead are all younger than she is.

Ledecky prevailed by 3.12 seconds in the 400m freestyle on Saturday night and scratched out of her last event, Sunday’s 1500m freestyle. Don’t worry, she is still eligible to swim the 1500m free at this year’s major international meet, the Pan Pacific Championships in Tokyo in two weeks.

Ledecky, who holds the 11 fastest 400m free times ever, added the victory in 3:59.09 to her 200m and 800m free titles earlier this week. While Kathleen Baker broke the 100m backstroke world record later Saturday night, Ledecky was under world-record pace through 200 meters.

“I wanted to put myself through some pain tonight,” Ledecky said, “and I’m happy with getting under four minutes.”

The 21-year-old rolls into Pan Pacs, still unchallenged in the U.S.

“Haven’t really had an off-swim [since turning pro in March],” Ledecky said. “I feel like I’m in a really good spot.”

New chasers from around the globe emerged since Rio, namely a pair of teenagers who will be at Pan Pacs.

Pan Pacs are for non-European nations, which means Ledecky will not face older 200m free rivals Federica Pellegrini (Italy) and Sarah Sjöström (Sweden).

Australian distance phenom Ariarne Titmus, 17, will be there. The Tasmania native lowered her personal bests in the 200m, 400m and 800m frees by more than three seconds each since 2017 Worlds (but is still two seconds slower than Ledecky in the 400m free this year, and 12 seconds slower in the 800m free).

Taylor Ruck will also be in Tokyo. The 18-year-old Canadian ranks second to Ledecky in the 200m free this year, just .25 behind (followed by Titmus, .29 behind).

Ruck has taken more than three seconds off her 200m free personal best in the last year. She will join Ledecky at Stanford in the fall (though Ledecky has turned pro and won’t compete for the Cardinal).

Ledecky has never lost a major international meet final to a younger swimmer. It doesn’t look likely to happen in two weeks, but she may never be the youngest woman on the podium again.

“I guess it’s a little different, but I think I have the benefit of knowing … what it’s like to have somebody in mind that you’re chasing,” said Ledecky, who notably beat reigning Olympic 800m free champion Rebecca Adlington at her first Games as a 15-year-old in 2012. “I know that there are a lot of great swimmers out there that are chasing me. That motivates me just as much as chasing someone motivated me when I was 15.”

Nationals conclude Sunday, live on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA at 9 p.m. ET.

In other events Saturday, Olympic and world champion Lilly King won the 100m breaststroke in 1:05.36, a time that trails only Russian rival Yulia Efimova this year.

Olympic champions Ryan Murphy and Matt Grevers went one-two in the men’s 100m back in 52.51 and 52.55, the two fastest times in the world this year. They shared the podium at 2017 Worlds behind Chinese winner Xu Jiayu.

Michael Andrew, who turned pro at 14 in 2013, won his first national title in an Olympic event, taking the men’s 100m breast in 59.38 seconds. Olympic bronze medalist Cody Miller was sixth and will not swim at Pan Pacs or the 2019 Worlds.

Zane Grothe repeated as U.S. men’s 400m free champion. The 26-year-old clocked 3:46.53, edging Grant Shoults by .37. Grothe was seventh at the 2017 World Championships and ranks 10th in the world this year.

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2021 Burton U.S. Open snowboarding event canceled

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The Burton U.S. Open, snowboarding’s most storied event, canceled its 2021 competition due to uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.

“The truth is, we just can’t be sure it will be safe from a public health standpoint for us to host the event in 2021,” a statement read.

The U.S. Open, held since 1982, is usually around the first weekend in March, making it the season-ending event for many riders. Halfpipe champions include Shaun WhiteChloe KimKelly Clark and Ross Powers, who also earned Olympic gold medals.

Other 2020-21 winter sports events affected by the coronavirus pandemic include figure skating’s Junior Grand Prix. The first two stops of that eight-event series, scheduled for late August and early September in Canada and Slovakia, have been canceled.

The Italian Winter Sports Federation, which is due to put on the February 2021 World Alpine Skiing Championships in Cortina d’Ampezzo, made a formal request on Monday to postpone the event until March 2022, one month after the next Winter Olympics in Beijing. The International Ski Federation (FIS) council will decide July 1.

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Kara Eaker eschews fear, back on balance beam to resume Olympic quest

Kara Eaker
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Kara Eaker hasn’t qualified for an Olympics yet, but she is already part of a historic club of U.S. gymnasts. The list goes, most recently, Eaker, Simone BilesKyla RossAly RaismanNastia LiukinShawn JohnsonShannon Miller and Dominique Dawes.

Those are the women who qualified for back-to-back balance beam finals at the sport’s highest level: Olympics or world championships. For Eaker (pronounced like acre), they came in her first two years as a senior gymnast in 2018 and 2019 (Biles and Johnson are the only other U.S. women to do that in the last 25 years.)

This was supposed to be Eaker’s Olympic year, but the coronavirus pandemic postponed the Games to 2021, after her Missouri high school graduation. It also kept her out of the gym for nearly two months until the GAGE Center reopened last week in Blue Springs, near Kansas City.

It was the longest Eaker had been off a regulation beam (and out of the gym) since she could remember. She began competing at age 5.

Eaker’s mom, Katherine, said her daughter never feared the four-inch-wide beam, but Eaker said the thought of returning last week “was definitely kind of scary at first.” That is, until one of her coaches eased her back with basics and work on a floor beam, one that’s not raised as high as the four feet you see in competition.

“By the time we were ready, and she was comfortable putting us back up there, it wasn’t scary,” Eaker said. “It felt normal.”

Eaker, adopted from a Chinese orphanage around age 1 in 2003 (her parents’ travel then delayed by SARS), excels on the senior elite stage with a level of normalcy.

Which is not entirely normal in this sport. She lives with her family, 10 minutes from her world-class gym. She still attends regular high school. She’s committed to continue gymnastics at the University of Utah after the Tokyo Olympics.

“I started out in dance, actually,” said Eaker, whose hobbies include robotics and calligraphy. “A little, little girl with the stuffed animal, twirling around in the dance room. And then we had our little recital and I just wasn’t … I couldn’t do the standing in front of an audience kind of thing.”

Her mom believes it was around Christmas. Eaker was 3 or 4.

“She just froze like a deer in the headlights, and all the other girls froze, too, because they were used to following her,” Katherine said. “Then she tried gymnastics. We had to drag her out [of the gym]. From then on, it was always, she’s first one in, last one out. Still is.”

The family, including Eaker’s father, Mark, retired Navy and a flight engineer, and younger sister, Sara, moved three times within Missouri in part to get Kara closer to GAGE to pursue what would eventually become an Olympic dream.

Gymnastics meets were appointment TV before Eaker entered kindergarten. She watched the Beijing Olympics, or perhaps an even earlier meet, while dancing around the living room in a leotard. Sometimes she mimicked the gold medalists by doing back bends. She continued to watch Beijing highlights, with Liukin and Johnson, on replay on YouTube.

Back at the gym, Eaker developed with the help of her coaches, plus future University of Nebraska gymnast Catelyn Orel, her “gym mom” under the GAGE program to pair older and younger athletes. Orel was a state champion on beam. Eaker proved a natural, too.

“A lot of the girls would get up there and have trouble balancing, but she just always seemed to do it just like she was on the floor,” her mom said. “She’s never really had a fear. Some girls get up there and are nervous. She just never seemed to be that way.”

In 2018, Eaker was 15, old enough to start competing on the senior level with the likes of Biles. Exactly 10 years after she would have watched Johnson win the Beijing Olympic beam title, Eaker finished second on beam at nationals behind Biles. She was invited to the world championships team selection camp, where she had the top beam score and placed sixth in the all-around. Six gymnasts would be chosen by a committee to travel to the world championships.

Eaker didn’t expect to make the team. In a large meeting with coaches and staff, the roster was announced. Eaker made it as the youngest member.

“It was a goal, but there were so many other girls and it was my first year as a senior,” she said. “I was very happy and surprised to make that team.”

Eaker again won beam at the 2019 World Championships selection camp. If Eaker endured adversity those first two years, it came at worlds.

In 2018, she fell on her mount in the beam final. The rest of her routine was medal-worthy gymnastics. She waited an eternal three minutes for her score, which placed her sixth. Eaker’s routine from the team final earlier that week would have earned silver.

In 2019, Eaker again qualified for the eight-woman beam final. The U.S. federation submitted an inquiry on her qualifying score, contesting a lower start value given to her. That backfired. Judges lowered Eaker’s score even more upon review, which took her out of the final. However, another gymnast who had qualified later withdrew due to injury. Eaker was back in the final, where she placed fourth.

She was asked afterward what she would take away from the meet.

“Just the experience of it all,” she said, composed. “How it makes me feel. How to use that [in the future].”

In 2021, Eaker will have to prove to a selection committee that she can be reliable on all four apparatuses. The Olympic team event size is four — with three gymnasts going per apparatus in the Olympic final — down from five in 2016, putting a greater emphasis on the all-around. Eaker could also be a candidate for one separate spot in individual events only.

“I definitely want to be seen as a great beam worker, but I also need to be a great all-arounder because they’re going to be looking at not just your one event,” said Eaker, who was third in the all-around at the 2019 Worlds selection camp. “You have to be able to benefit the team with your other events, even if they aren’t as strong as your [best] one.”

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