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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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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.

MORE: Takeaways from abbreviated 2019-20 winter sports season

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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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