Five thoughts off U.S. Swimming Championships

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IRVINE, Calif. — Five thoughts off the U.S. Swimming Championships, the biggest domestic meet between now and the 2020 Olympic Trials, which decided the 2018 Pan Pacific Championships team and began deciding the 2019 World Championships team …

1. Michael Andrew was the male swimmer of the meet
Andrew, who made national news turning professional at age 14 in 2013, won his first senior national titles (four of them) and made his first senior major international meet team (two of them). He became the first man to win four finals at a nationals since Michael Phelps at the 2008 Olympic Trials and capped the meet by beating seven-time 2017 World champion Caeleb Dressel in the 50m freestyle.

“It’s been a long road,” Andrew said after his first victory. “We went through a lot of interesting feedback from the swimming world.”

Andrew was referencing his unorthodox training setup. His typical session is 2,500 to 3,000 meters, about one-third the amount of typical elite swimmers. It’s called race-paced training, “coding our brain … creating those neuropatterns,” Andrew said. He has no training partners and is taught by his father, a former college swimmer and Navy diver in South Africa who is not on the U.S. coaching staff for Pan Pacs.

Two of Andrew’s wins came in non-Olympic events (50m breaststroke, 50m butterfly), but he went from boy to man this week, at least domestically.

2. Kathleen Baker was the female swimmer of the meet
Andrew was a big surprise. Baker, a mild one. She earned 100m backstroke silver in Rio. In 2017, she bagged world silver and bronze backstroke medals. This past week, Baker became best in the world this year in the 200m individual medley (with a 3.26-second personal best) and the fastest in history in the 100m back.

If Ledecky is the most dominant swimmer in the world, Baker may be the best all-arounder (until we see something from Katinka Hosszu this year). The backstrokes at Pan Pacs are now marquee events, with Baker taking on now-former world-record holder Kylie Masse of Canada.

SWIM NATIONALS: Full Results | Race Videos | Pan Pacs Roster

3. Katie Ledecky is right on track
None of Ledecky’s fastest swims this season came in Irvine, but the focus is to peak in two weeks in Tokyo anyway. Plus Ledecky didn’t need to be in top form this week. All she needed was to finish in the top three in one event, and she could swim anything she wanted at Pan Pacs.

Of course, Ledecky comfortably won the 200m free (by 1.22 seconds), the 400m free (by 3.12 seconds) and the 800m free (by 10.81 seconds) before scratching the 1500m (as she did at nationals four years ago). The new professional already proved in the spring that she’s on form, breaking her first world record since Rio and setting the fastest times in the world this year in her four events.

If Ledecky has a questionable event, it’s the 200m, but her two closest rivals in recent years are both Europeans and thus will not be in Tokyo. Keep an eye on Canadian Taylor Ruck, though.

4. Mixed fortunes for Caeleb Dressel, Chase Kalisz
A concerning week for the seven-time 2017 World champ Dressel. Dominant in the 100m butterfly, but beaten in the 50m free and sixth in the 100m free. Again, there was no need to peak for this meet, and coach Gregg Troy shouldered some of the burden saying he may have overtrained Dressel following NCAA Championships in the spring. Give him a pass, but he can’t afford another horrible (his description) 100m free in Tokyo.

Kalisz, who swept the individual medleys at 2017 Worlds, posted the fastest times in the world this year in both the 200m and 400m IMs. Japanese media on hand, including four-time Olympic breaststroke champion Kosuke Kitajima, can relay that back home to Kalisz’s biggest rivals, Kosuke Hagino and Daiya Seto. Kalisz is already planning to host Seto in Athens, Ga., this fall for a University of Georgia football game.

5. Early look at Pan Pacs
The showdowns in Tokyo will come in the women’s backstrokes (Baker-Masse-Ruck), men’s individual medleys (Kalisz-Hagino-Seto) and, maybe most interesting, among the U.S. swimmers battling each other for two world championships spots per individual Olympic event.

Those world champs spots go to the swimmers with the best times between nationals A finals and Pan Pacs A and B finals.

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MORE: Ledecky faces unique challenge at Pan Pacs

Simone Biles, her name sparkling, extends 6-year win streak

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Simone Biles has long stood out for her gymnastics, but on Saturday she competed with her last name sparkling in silver beads on her World Champions Centre leotard for the first time. The gym’s other athletes had “WCC” on the back.

Biles lived up to the billing, extending her six-year win streak to 19 straight all-arounds, capturing the U.S. Classic, a tune-up for next month’s U.S. Championships.

Biles, the four-time Rio Olympic champion, scored 60 points in Louisville at the meet where she made her comeback last year after nearly two years off from competition. She prevailed by a comfortable 2.1 points over Riley McCusker, her largest margin of victory of her four U.S. Classic titles.

“I’m very satisfied,” she said on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA. “I’m a little sad that I went out of bounds on floor [exercise], but overall I feel like there are improvements to be made.”

Full results are here.

Biles is prepping for nationals in Kansas City in three weeks, when she eyes a sixth U.S. all-around title to tie Clara Schroth Lomady‘s record from the AAU era in the 1940s and ’50s.

Then come the world championships in October in Stuttgart, Germany. Biles could win a fifth all-around to move one shy of Kohei Uchimura‘s record.

The world’s other top gymnasts may be her countrywomen.

Biles was outscored on balance beam on Saturday by 2018 World teammates Kara Eaker and McCusker and beaten on uneven bars by 2017 World all-around champion Morgan HurdSunisa Lee, Grace McCallum and McCusker. Biles swept all the gold medals at last year’s nationals.

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MORE: USA Gymnastics revamps Safe Sport policy amid abuse scandal

Geraint Thomas struggles; Julian Alaphilippe ups Tour de France lead

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LA MONGIE, France (AP) — When the team of Geraint Thomas was in its pomp at the Tour de France, a time trial followed by a big mountain stage would have been playgrounds for Sky — now in new colors as Ineos — to take cycling’s greatest race by the scruff of the neck and leave everyone else fighting for second place.

Not this year.

Thomas, the defending champion, cracked on Saturday on the Tour’s first encounter with a climb to above 2,000 meters (6,500 feet), exposing unprecedented weaknesses in his team that has won six Tours in the past seven years.

The time trial on Friday and the climb up to the legendary Tourmalet pass on Saturday seemed primed for Thomas to reel in Julian Alaphilippe, the yellow jersey-holder from France who is setting the Tour alight with his punchy riding and determination to keep the race lead, filling French fans’ heads with dreams of a first homegrown winner since 1985.

TOUR DE FRANCE: TV Schedule | Full Standings

But instead, Thomas has seen Alaphilippe only get further and further away. In two days, the Frenchman has put 50 seconds of extra daylight between him and the Welshman. His lead — up to 2 minutes, 2 seconds — is becoming large enough to start realistically envisioning Alaphilippe in yellow in Paris next weekend as the first French winner since Bernard Hinault.

Fueling the ecstasy of delirious crowds that lined Saturday’s steep uphill finish, French rider Thibaut Pinot won Stage 14, putting him back in the picture to fight for the podium after he lost mountains of time on Stage 10.

Thomas rightly pointed out that the Tour is far from done, with six more ascents to above 2,000 meters still to come.

But his inability to stay with Pinot, Alaphilippe and other title contenders at the top of the Tourmalet — he was eighth, 36 seconds behind Pinot — was a mini-earthquake for the Tour dominated by his British team since 2012 — with champions Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome and, in 2018, Thomas.

“Not the best day. I just didn’t feel quite on it from the start. I was quite weak,” Thomas said.

“At the end I knew I just had to pace it. I didn’t really attempt to follow when they kicked. I just thought I should ride my own pace rather than follow them and blow up on the steepest bit at the end. It’s disappointing. I just tried to limit the damage.”

Having taken cycling to a new level since 2012 with its vast budget and attention to the minutest of details, the team run by David Brailsford has been hit both by misfortune and by the inevitability that, eventually, other teams would start to close the gap.

A horror crash in training for four-time winner Froome, now recovering from career-threatening broken bones, robbed the team of its ace. Thomas’ own preparations were hampered by a crash at the Tour of Switzerland last month.

And Egan Bernal, being groomed by Brailsford to succeed Froome and Thomas, looks increasingly unable to compete for the title this year. Bernal was fifth on the Tourmalet and is fourth overall, 3 minutes behind Alaphilippe.

Pinot, now sixth overall and 3:12 behind Alaphilippe, is showing remarkable grit in bouncing back from his Stage 10 misfortune, when he was part of a group that got separated from other title contenders in crosswinds.

“I have this rage inside me, because in my opinion it was an injustice,” said Pinot, a podium finisher in 2014.

“Since the start of the Tour I had this stage in the back of my mind. The Tourmalet, it’s mythical,” said Pinot, who has three career stage wins at the Tour.

French President Emmanuel Macron, on hand at the top of the Tourmalet to see Pinot win and Alaphilippe extend his lead, gushed about the “two fantastic riders.”

“They attack and they have heart,” Macron said.

Watch world-class cycling events throughout the year with the NBC Sports Gold Cycling Pass, including all 21 stages of the Tour de France live & commercial-free, plus access to renowned races like La Vuelta, Paris-Roubaix, the UCI World Championships and many more.

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