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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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Hirscher leads by 0.56 seconds after first run in World Champs slalom

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Marcel Hirscher swept into the finish area and wagged his finger triumphantly in front of the camera.

The message was clear: The ski king is back.

The Austrian produced an emphatic response to relinquishing his giant slalom title two days earlier at the world championships by taking a 0.56-second lead after the first run of the slalom on Sunday.

Only Alexis Pinturault of France was within a second of Hirscher, who was on course to win a record-tying seventh career gold medal at the worlds.

Marco Schwarz of Austria was in third place, 1.22 seconds off the lead.

Hirscher, the seven-time overall World Cup champion, showed no ill-effects from the cold that has been affecting him this week. After the giant slalom on Friday, he said he would be going straight back to bed to rest up for the slalom.

He looked in good working order on Sunday.

As the third skier on the course, Hirscher took 1.70 seconds off No. 2 starter Henrik Kristoffersen, who beat Hirscher to GS gold on Friday, and more than two seconds off Clement Noel, who came to the worlds in form after wins in Wengen and Kitzbuehel.

Save for Hirscher crashing, only Pinturault looks capable to denying the Austrian a third slalom gold at the worlds — something only the great Ingemar Stenmark has achieved. Pinturault was only 0.06 seconds behind Hirscher at the third checkpoint but he went wide at the first turn on the final descent and lost half a second.

“I’m still in the fight,” Pinturault said, “and still have a chance in the second leg. That’s the essential (thing).”

Daniel Yule of Switzerland was 0.28 behind Hirscher at the last split before falling at the start to the final descent.

Hirscher also won the slalom at the 2013 and 2017 worlds. A seventh career gold at the worlds would tie the men’s record held by compatriot Toni Sailer from the late 1950s.

Austria, a storied Alpine skiing nation, needs Hirscher to deliver in the final event to avoid finishing the world championships without a gold medal for the first time since Crans Montana, Switzerland, in 1987. The women’s team has already finished with no medals and that hasn’t happened since Schladming, Austria, in 1982.

Watch an encore presentation of the first run on NBCSN at 7:00 a.m. ET. The second and deciding run can be seen live starting at 8:00 a.m. ET on NBCSN and NBC Sports Gold.

Mikaela Shiffrin proving she’s in league of her own

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There are ski racers, and then there is Mikaela Shiffrin.

NBC Sports essayist Tim Layden calls Shiffrin the “rarest creature,” a prodigy who continues to get better with age.

Shiffrin’s stardom took off with her heart-stopping slalom gold medal in the 2014 Olympics. It looked like she would ascend to an even higher level four years later in PyeongChang when she claimed a gold medal in the giant slalom, but then she lost a battle with her nerves and failed to win a medal in the slalom. She did capture a silver in the combined event.

That Olympic disappointment has fueled her historic World Cup season. She became the youngest skier to pass the 50 win mark. She broke the women’s career record for slalom victories, and she became the first skier ever to win four-straight world championship titles in a single event.

A true prodigy indeed.