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

Lin Dan, badminton legend, retires: ‘It is very difficult to say goodbye’

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Lin Dan, arguably the greatest badminton player in history, announced retirement Saturday, citing “pain and injuries” in bowing out a year before the postponed Tokyo Olympics.

“I have been with the national team from 2000 to 2020, and it is very difficult to say goodbye,” 36-year-old Lin wrote to his four million Weibo fans, according to Badminton World Federation (BWF) translation. “Pain and injuries no longer allow me to fight with my teammates. I have gratitude, a heavy heart and unwillingness.”

Lin, nicknamed “Super Dan,” won Olympic singles titles in 2008 and 2012, plus five individual world titles. It’s the greatest resume for any badminton player from China, which owns twice as many medals as any other nation in the sport that debuted at the 1992 Barcelona Games.

He competed at the last four Olympics, won the sport’s Super Grand Slam (nine major titles) and had his own wax figure at Madame Tussauds in Shanghai.

Lin’s outbursts on and off the court led to some calling him the John McEnroe of badminton, but he is revered. In 2015, he was the second athlete on Forbes China‘s most popular celebrities list behind tennis player Li Na.

Lin’s pursuit of a fifth Olympics in Tokyo was looking out of reach. He dropped to No. 26 in the Olympic qualifying rankings, trailing four countrymen, including No. 5 Chen Long (Rio Olympic champion) and No. 11 Shi Yuqi (2018 World silver medalist). A nation can qualify a maximum of two individual players per gender for the Games.

“From where came his mastery? In short, his prowess was essentially due to the completeness of his game – in skill, physical ability and mental strength,” the BWF wrote in a press release. “Such was his craft that even well into his 30s, normally considered an advanced age for men’s singles, he could outplay younger and fitter opponents.”

NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.

MORE: Who is China’s greatest Olympian?

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MyKayla Skinner’s motivation for Tokyo: her Rio Olympic experience

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MyKayla Skinner remembers the little room at the SAP Center in San Jose. She remembers the wait, somewhere between 10 and 20 minutes.

After the 2016 U.S. Olympic Women’s Gymnastics Trials, the competitors (14 total performed) assembled while a selection committee convened in another space.

The committee finalized the five-woman Olympic team (plus three alternates), marched into the athletes’ room and delivered the verdict.

“They say the first four names, and then there’s that one spot left,” Skinner recalled. “I’m like, is it going to be me? You’re so tense just waiting there. All of us holding each other’s hands in the room. We’re all sitting there. It’s just, like, frozen dead silent. Then they say that fifth spot.”

Skinner doesn’t remember who was the fifth name. Just that it wasn’t her.

“I just broke down crying,” she said in a recent interview. “All that hard work I put in still wasn’t good enough. Even though it was. It’s just who they needed for the team.”

Skinner placed fourth in the all-around at those Olympic Trials, the highest finisher who was not named to the Olympic team. She was one of three alternates. If the Olympic team was chosen by all-around standings, a selection committee would not be necessary. Instead, gymnasts are puzzle pieces, chosen as who best fits the Olympic format: three gymnasts per apparatus in the team final and up to two per nation per individual final.

Skinner’s mind raced while she waited for the committee’s decision. She eventually settled on a gut feeling, that she would not make the team.

“I thought that it should be enough, but at the same I didn’t think that it would be,” said Lisa Spini, Skinner’s coach at Desert Lights Gymnastics in Chandler, Arizona. “I thought the team was already decided before the Olympic Trials.”

Spini said it was her toughest night as a gymnastics coach.

“Being an alternate is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in gymnastics,” said Skinner, who traveled to Brazil and, with fellow alternates Ashton Locklear and Ragan Smith, trained separately from the Olympic team. “The whole time I was in Rio, I probably cried every single night

“The Olympics should be something so special, but I feel like it was definitely miserable at times. It was really hard to enjoy being an alternate. With this comeback, that has pushed me so hard just because I was so close.”

You may have read about Skinner back in the spring, after the Tokyo Olympics were postponed to 2021.

It’s a devastating delay for a female gymnast, whose peak often lasts for one Olympic cycle (sometimes even shorter). Skinner is an exception, excelling for the better part of a decade on different levels.

She made her first world championships team in 2014. After Rio, she matriculated at the University of Utah, where she was twice an NCAA all-around runner-up and hit an NCAA record 161 straight routines without a fall. In 2019, she decided to come back to international competition — for an Olympic run — with one year left of NCAA gymnastics.

She is 23, the oldest of the 16-woman U.S. national team. She is trying to become the oldest woman to make a U.S. Olympic gymnastics team since 2004. And the first with NCAA experience to do so since Alicia Sacramone in 2008.

“The reason why a lot of college gymnasts couldn’t come back and do it is they’ve been so injured over the years,” Spini said. “Their body wouldn’t hold up. She’s been really lucky that way.”

Skinner could have easily followed the path of so many other stars who signaled the end of an elite career by going to college, where training and routines are less demanding.

She questioned herself often after the Tokyo postponement whether it was worth it to return to elite training. The Olympic team event roster size has been cut from five to four. Simone Biles is an overwhelming favorite to earn one spot. In the face of those odds, Skinner can’t shake a memory from Rio.

“I just go back to the moment of when I was sitting in the stands,” watching the Final Five earn gold, Skinner said. “I was so close to making the team. This has been my dream ever since I went to Desert Lights when I was 12.”

Skinner’s comeback is already a success. Last year, on three months of elite training, she placed eighth at the U.S. Championships. She was convinced to accept an invitation to the world championships selection camp, where six women would make the traveling team (one later named an alternate).

Like in 2016, Skinner placed fourth in the all-around competition before the roster was chosen.

Again, the gymnasts gathered for the announcement. This time, Skinner made the cut as the sixth woman named. Biles, the other 20-something at the camp and a friend, jumped in excitement.

The team traveled to Germany in late September. After training, one woman had to be designated the alternate. High performance team coordinator Tom Forster took Skinner aside one day on the way to lunch. She knew what was coming and broke down in tears, flashing back to 2016.

“Simone was like, hey, let’s go to the bathroom. She helped talk me through it and helped me calm down and definitely made me a feel a lot better,” said Skinner, who supported Biles and the U.S. team that competed in Stuttgart. She then wed Jonas Harmer in November and decided what must be done to make the Olympic team.

“We’re going to try to add in some big skills, which will put her difficulty level, probably, second only to Simone,” Spini said.

Skinner is documenting her last year-plus in elite gymnastics on a YouTube channel with 29,000 subscribers. She has been fortunate during the coronavirus pandemic to train at her gym if no more than 10 people were present. Many other gymnasts — and athletes across Olympic sports — spent weeks or months out of their facilities.

“I definitely don’t think I would have been able to have that much time off,” she said. “That’s really hard with gymnastics because you feel like, you take two days off, and it’s like you had a year off.”

One day this spring, Skinner’s mom called, in tears, fearing for her life with an illness that turned out to be the coronavirus. Both of her parents, in their 60s, had it and briefly lost their senses of taste. Her mom had breathing problems, but they recovered.

One night last month, Skinner had a dream about next year’s Olympic Trials. The Final Five all came back to compete, and Skinner was again named an alternate. She woke up. Skinner doesn’t know how she would handle that kind of disappointment in real life, again.

“So it’s kind of scary,” she said. Then Skinner thinks back to Rio, and that burning she felt while watching the Final Five win gold medals.

“This is what I’m supposed to do. This is what I’m meant to do is elite gymnastics,” said Skinner, who was born via life-threatening, early-labor C-section, needing to be revived by doctors. “I think it’s cool that I can have this opportunity to go and push myself one last time so I can reach that end goal.”

MORE: Gymnast Grace McCallum won a coin flip to become world champion

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