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

Nathan Chen, Simone Biles, U.S. women’s soccer team win Team USA Awards

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Simone Biles was named female athlete of the year and Nathan Chen took the corresponding award for men Tuesday at the Team USA Awards in Los Angeles.

Six-time Olympic swimming champion Amy Van Dyken-Rouen, who has taken up wheelchair CrossFit competition since an ATV accident in 2014 left her paralyzed from the waist down, took the Jesse Owens Olympic Spirit Award. She works to help other people with spinal cord injuries through the Amy Van Dyken Foundation and Amy’s Army, which has launched a Wheels for Kids program to help injured children find wheelchairs that may not be covered by insurance.

The show also included a medal ceremony in which the teammates and family of the late Steven Holcomb received silver medals that were reallocated after doping infractions changed the results of the 2014 Olympic bobsled competition.

MORE: Holcomb’s legacy lives on 

Award winners from the ceremony:

Female Olympic athlete of the year: Simone Biles, gymnastics 

Biles took a one-year break after winning four gold medals and a bronze medal in the 2016 Olympics, then came back to do even better, unleashing new skills on the balance beam and in the floor exercise. This year, she won five gold medals at the world championships, breaking the record for career medals.

Female Paralympic athlete of the year: Oksana Masters, Para Nordic skiing and Para cycling 

Already an eight-time Paralympic medalist in Nordic skiing, biathlon and rowing, Masters had a breakout year in cycling, taking silver medals in the world championships. In Nordic skiing, Masters took five world championships (three cross-country, two biathlon) and the overall World Cup championship in sitting cross-country along with a second-place overall finish in biathlon.

Male Olympic athlete of the year: Nathan Chen, figure skating 

Chen had a double back-to-back year, winning his second straight world championship and his second straight Grand Prix final. He also started his 2019-20 season by winning both of his Grand Prix events. He and Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu are far ahead of any other skaters in posted scores this season.

Male Paralympic athlete of the year: Ben Thompson, Para archery 

Thompson took the world championship and the No. 1 ranking in the men’s compound event and led the U.S. to a world record in the team compound event.

Olympic team of the year: U.S. women’s soccer team 

The team claimed the sport’s biggest prize for the second straight time, working its way through a difficult field that included a quarterfinal matchup with host France to win the World Cup once again, adding to its previous wins in 1991, 1999 and 2015.

Paralympic team of the year: U.S. sled hockey team 

Like the women’s soccer team, the sled hockey team went unbeaten in the world championships and claimed a fourth world title.

MORE: Golden goal clinches championship

Olympic coach of the year: KiSik Lee, archery 

This year, Brady Ellison won a world title and set a world record in the Pan Am Games, and Ellison teamed with Casey Kaufhold to win the world title in the mixed team event, which will be on the Olympic program in 2020.

Paralympic coach of the year: Wesley Johnson, paratriathlon 

The founder and head coach of Balanced Art Multisport in Salt Lake City, Johnson is the personal coach of three top-10 paratriathletes, and he served as an assistant coach in the world championships, where three of the athletes he coached won silver medals.

NBC will have highlights of the show at 2 p.m. ET Dec. 22.

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Hanyu, Zagitova control their Grand Prix Final destiny at NHK Trophy; TV, live stream schedule

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In order to qualify for the Grand Prix Final — after missing the event the past two seasons for varying reasons — two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu needs to finish inside the top four at NHK Trophy, the sixth and last remaining Grand Prix series event. Hanyu competes on home ice in Japan this weekend, and the event is streaming live for NBC Sports Gold subscribers.

A full breakdown of Grand Prix Final-clinching scenarios can be found here.

Hanyu won the Grand Prix Final four straight times (2013-16). The prestigious December event would be the first time this season Hanyu and two-time Grand Prix Final champion Nathan Chen would compete head-to-head, outside the world championships in March.

Hanyu trains in Toronto alongside American Jason Brown, who will also be competing in Japan. Brown clinches a spot in the Grand Prix Final if he earns a silver or better, but is also very likely in if he earns a bronze medal.

Reigning Olympic and world champion Alina Zagitova of Russia is in a similar situation this weekend at NHK Trophy, needing to finish on the podium to clinch a berth in the Final. She faces Moscow-based training partner Alena Kostornaia (who needs to finish fifth or better to make the Final) and Japan’s Rika Kihira (must earn a medal of any color), among others such as 2019 European champion Sofia Samodurova of Russia and 2017 U.S. national champion Karen Chen.

MORE: Alina Zagitova focused on artistry, while other Russians push technical boundaries

Three teams in the pairs’ field at NHK Trophy can earn spots in the Grand Prix Final. Two-time world pair champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong of China and Russia’s Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov need a medal of any color to clinch, while Canada’s Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro need silver to clinch, but could win with a bronze and a high score. See the breakdown here for details.

In ice dance, four-time world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France are favorites at NHK Trophy. They have appeared in three Grand Prix Finals and own a medal of each color, including a win at their most recent appearance in 2017. (The duo withdrew from a regular-series Grand Prix event last season and were unable to qualify for the Final.)

The most likely NHK Trophy scenario is that Papadakis and Cizeron win NHK Trophy, and Russia’s Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin finish second – and if that happens, Papadakis and Cizeron, Stepanova and Bukin and Americans Madison Chock and Evan Bates (currently on the cusp of an entry) all make the Final.

MORE: Gabriella Papadakis, Guillaume Cizeron on ‘Fame,’ chasing history

NHK Trophy Broadcast Schedule

Day Time (ET) Event Network
Thursday 10:30 p.m. Rhythm Dance NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
Friday 12 a.m. Pairs’ Short NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
2:30 a.m. Women’s Short NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
5 a.m. Men’s Short NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
10 p.m. Free Dance NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
Saturday 12:30 a.m. Pairs’ Free NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
2:30 a.m. Women’s Free NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
5 a.m. Men’s Free NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
Sunday 4 p.m. Highlights NBC | STREAM LINK

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.

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