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Five events to watch at Pan Pacific Swimming Championships

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Five races to watch at the Pan Pacific Championships, the major international meet of 2018 for the U.S. (TV/stream schedule here) …

Women’s 200m Freestyle
Thursday (Olympic Channel, 5 a.m. ET)

If Katie Ledecky is going to be tested in any of her four individual events, it will be this one, her shortest race. Though Ledecky is the Olympic champion, Swede Sarah Sjöström was fastest in the world in 2015 and Italian Federica Pellegrini beat Ledecky for the 2017 World title. Of course, neither Sjöström nor Pellegrini is at Pan Pacs, a meet for non-European nations (neither is racing the 200m free at the concurrent European Championships, either).

No matter, the four fastest women in the world this year are from Pan Pacs nations — Ledecky (1:54.56), Canadian Taylor Ruck (1:54.81), Australian Ariarne Titmus (1:54.85) and Japanese Rikako Ikee (1:55.04). Ruck, Titmus and Ikee were all born in 2000, three years after Ledecky, who is now most certainly a veteran swimmer at age 21. Titmus, also ranked No. 2 in the world to Ledecky in the 400m free, is reportedly skipping the 200m free this week, though.

Men’s 400m Individual Medley
Thursday (Olympic Channel, 5 a.m. ET)

Arguably the most anticipated race for the home crowd. Japan’s Kosuke Hagino and Daiya Seto earned gold and bronze medals in the decathlon of swimming at the Rio Olympics, with American Chase Kalisz sandwiched for silver. Kalisz then swept the IMs at the 2017 Worlds and goes into Pan Pacs with the fastest time in the world this year by .73. Seto is ranked No. 2 in the world this year, followed by American Jay Litherland and then Hagino.

A Japanese film crew, including retired four-time Olympic breaststroke champion Kosuke Kitajima, has followed Kalisz from his training base in Athens, Ga., to covering him at nationals in California two weeks ago. Kalisz plans to host Seto for a trip to Athens in the fall, highlighted by a University of Georgia football game.

Women’s 100m Freestyle
Friday, (Olympic Channel, 6 a.m. ET)

Co-Olympic champion Simone Manuel gets her first head-to-head with Australian Cate Campbell since the Rio Games, where Campbell went in as the world-record holder and finished a disappointing sixth (later saying she swam with a hernia). Campbell skipped the 2017 Worlds, which Manuel won outright. Campbell stormed back this year, clocking 52.37 in March, good for No. 2 in the world this year. This would be an even bigger event if not for the absence of Cate’s younger sister, Bronte Campbell (No. 1 in the world this year), and Canadian Penny Oleksiak, who shared gold with Manuel in Rio. Both are skipping Pan Pacs.

Men’s 100m Freestyle
Friday (Olympic Channel, 6 a.m. ET)

Features the reigning Olympic champion (Australian Kyle Chalmers) and world champion (American Caeleb Dressel), plus the second-fastest in the world this year (Japanese Katsumi Nakamura). The story within the race is the fight for the two U.S. spots in the 100m free at the 2019 Worlds. Dressel, who went under the previous American record three times at the 2017 Worlds, was only sixth at nationals. If Dressel wants to defend his title at 2019 Worlds, he must be one of the two fastest Americans in the Pan Pacs finals and clock no slower than 48.25 seconds. Nathan Adrian, the 2012 Olympic 100m free champ, is under some pressure here, too, as the runner-up at nationals to Blake Pieroni.

Women’s 100m Backstroke
Friday (Olympic Channel, 6 a.m. ET)

Olympic and world silver medalist Kathleen Baker took the world record along with the U.S. title in this event two weeks ago. Canadian Kylie Masse, who broke the eight-year-old record at the 2017 Worlds, gets her chance to reclaim it in Tokyo. Baker, who was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2010, has never won an individual event at a major international meet. If either Baker or Masse lowers the record, she will become the first woman to break 58 seconds in the event. In 2008, an 11-year-old Baker was a spectator at the U.S. Olympic Trials, where Natalie Coughlin became the first woman to break 59 seconds.

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Loena Hendrickx on the rise, making Grand Prix debut at Skate America

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Belgian teenager Loena Hendrickx made her Winter Olympic debut in PyeongChang, and began her short program with the aim of becoming the first from her country to qualify for a ladies’ singles free skate since Katrien Pauwels in 1988.

Fresh off a 14th place finish in the men’s event, brother Jorik sat in the stands. He looked away as the music – a cool arrangement of Madonna’s “Frozen” – began, and covered his eyes as the 18-year-old set up for a planned triple lutz, triple toe combination.

Eight years younger than her two-time Olympian elder brother, Hendrickx knew the feeling.

“I get nervous when he competes, too,” she explained after winning a bronze medal at the Nebelhorn Trophy, an ISU Challenger Series event. “I might be even more nervous watching him than when I have to skate myself, because I don’t know how he’s feeling on the ice, and I can’t control his skate.”

She ultimately landed the combination – albeit under-rotated – and bested Pauwels’ result from Calgary by one place, finishing 16th overall. Even stronger skates were to come at the world championships in Milan, where she beat reigning Olympic champion Alina Zagitova in the free skate to earn a Top 10 total score and qualify for her first-ever Grand Prix events in the upcoming season.

“I’m very excited because that’s something you wish for. The first one is immediately in Skate America, so it’s very exciting. I’ve never been to the States before!”

Jorik was initially scheduled to skate alongside his sister at the Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett, Wash., but opted to withdraw and spend the start of the season working with other athletes, including Loena.

“He is working with me sometimes. I really can learn a lot from him because he has the knowledge and experience. I think he can teach me a lot.”

While the siblings work primarily with coach Carine Herrygers, Jorik assisted Loena in selecting her “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now” short program music, another ’90s hit by Céline Dion.

“I really liked my program [“The Prayer” by Dion and Josh Groban] from two years ago, and so I think I chose the same style. I researched more of her music, and it was my brother who found this song. I didn’t like it at the beginning because I had another song I liked more.

“In the end, Jorik convinced me to take this one because it’s more powerful and I can skate better to powerful music.”

Hendrickx debuted the program in Oberstdorf, earning personal best scores to make the podium alongside Zagitova and Mai Mihara. More importantly, she achieved her pre-season goal of landing the lutz-toe combination – with positive Grades of Execution – in both phases of the competition.

While most of her competitors made waves as juniors, the Belgian struggled with multiple injuries – a 2016 stress fracture in her back, later a bone bruise on her landing knee – that kept her from eliciting the buzz many top skaters get on the Junior Grand Prix.

“After I healed, I was very happy to begin building back up again. For a long time, I worked on my fitness to make my back and body stronger. That made my jumps stronger and helped me perform better, more consistently.”

In a field that includes two-time world medalist Satoko Miyahara and U.S. national champion Bradie Tennell, Hendrickx heads to Skate America armed with a competitive technical arsenal, and a dose of inspiration imparted by her brother on the ice.

“In Belgium, there are fewer opportunities to be successful when you’re younger because it’s very difficult to combine skating with school. Jorik taught me that you never have to give up on your dreams. If you work hard, you’ll see where you can go.”

As a reminder, you can watch the ISU Grand Prix Series 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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Chris Mazdzer adds doubles luge after Olympic medal

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Olympic luge silver medalist Chris Mazdzer is doubling up this winter.

Mazdzer has decided to compete in both singles and doubles in World Cup events, in large part because USA Luge didn’t have another option to partner with Olympic doubles veteran Jayson Terdiman.

If the Americans didn’t have a senior doubles team ready for the World Cup, they wouldn’t have been able to compete in team relays this winter — and Terdiman effectively would have been forced into retirement.

“It’s a lot of motivation,” Mazdzer said Monday from Lake Placid, New York, where he and Terdiman took five training runs together at Mount Van Hoevenberg on the season’s opening day for sliding at USA Luge’s home track. “I like when people are like, ‘Chris, you won’t be able to do that.’ This hasn’t been done successfully in two-plus decades. But why not now?”

The move also brings Mazdzer back to his roots. He and Terdiman were successful as a junior team, medaling twice at world championships and winning USA Luge’s team-of-the-year honors for the 2007-08 season.

“It could be something,” Terdiman said. “We’re hoping we’re able to find that magic. It’s asking a lot, but we have a lot of confidence in our own abilities.”

Mazdzer became the first American men’s singles luge athlete to win an Olympic medal, grabbing the silver at the PyeongChang Games earlier this year. Terdiman is a two-time Olympian in doubles, going in 2014 with Christian Niccum and this year with Matt Mortensen. Niccum retired after the 2014 Olympics, and Mortensen retired after PyeongChang.

So Terdiman spent the summer without a partner, and a couple of hours before former USA Luge teammate Megan Sweeney’s wedding, he and Mazdzer got together for coffee.

“I thought about retirement a lot this summer,” Terdiman said. “It was going to be forced if I didn’t have anybody to slide with, and that was a very real thing until Chris and I sat down a couple hours before Megan’s wedding. We talked about him doing both. The confidence he has in himself is very large. He’s going to give it a shot and we’ll see what happens.”

Mazdzer understands that this means he will have a most unusual winter.

There are nine World Cup races this season, and six of those call for the men’s race and the doubles race to be contested on the same day — so Mazdzer will be logging very long hours at the track. There also were International Luge Federation rules to consider about training runs; sliders typically get five or six runs at a track before a World Cup, and Mazdzer will be permitted to get the full allotment of training in both disciplines.

“I’m really pumped about this,” Mazdzer said. “Having the team relay is a huge part of being on the U.S. team. I want to see the U.S. win team relays. I think we’re capable. We have a fantastic team and if doubles works out, we’ve got a shot.”

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