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Josh Prenot is the U.S. breaststroke hope to end Olympic drought

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While U.S. male swimmers earned gold medals in every other stroke at the Rio Olympics, the last American man to win an Olympic breaststroke event was in 1992.

“I did not know that stat,” Josh Prenot said last week. He knows now, and he may be reminded more and more as the Tokyo Games approach.

Prenot, the 2016 Olympic 200m breast silver medalist, is the clear hope to end that drought among a maturing group of American breaststrokers.

Consider the 100m breast a long shot for anybody other than Brit Adam Peaty, the Olympic and world champion and world-record holder who has been more than a second clear of the rest of the world each of the last three years.

Prenot is glad that Peaty’s dominance is limited to the shorter distance. In the last five years, five different men topped the year-end rankings in the 200m breast.

Prenot was No. 1 in the most important year — 2016 — when he broke the American record at the Olympic Trials. In Rio, he touched .06 after surprise Kazakh Dmitriy Balandin, the last qualifier into the eight-man final whose time was nearly three tenths slower than Prenot’s in Omaha a month and a half prior.

“It’s tough to come up what I could have done better [in Rio] given the skills that I had at the time,” Prenot, 25, said last week while promoting his role as an athlete mentor for Classroom Champions. “I think my start’s better. I think my turn’s better. I think my underwater’s better now.”

That confidence was absent in 2017, when Prenot was third at nationals and failed to make the world championships team. He later said he was “going through stuff” and prefers to leave it at that.

“I maintain that going to that meet was a bad idea for me, and I think I proved that by embarrassing myself on the national stage,” he said.

Prenot stuck with his coaches at Cal-Berkeley, endured a spring shoulder/lat injury and had the best training stint of his life going into the U.S. Championships in July.

It showed. Prenot clocked the fastest time in the world for 2018 at nationals (a 2:07.28, since surpassed by Russian Anton Chupkov), 1.44 seconds faster than at the same meet in 2017 and .11 off his American record.

“It does not rank that high on the satisfaction scale,” he said, leaving it a level below the swifter Olympic Trials win and slower Rio silver. “I can’t be mad. It’s a great time, but at the same time, I know I’m better than that.”

He may have to be come 2020. Chupkov, the Rio bronze medalist, has gone faster each of the last two years. Japan’s Ippei Watanabe lowered the world record in January 2017, a 2:06.67 that’s a half-second faster than Prenot’s best.

Prenot later struggled at August’s Pan Pacific Championships, the major international meet of 2018. He was fifth in a 200m breast final that did not include Chupkov, swimming more than a second slower than he did at nationals two weeks earlier.

He noted the quick turnaround from meet to meet (less than half the time between Trials and the Olympics) and that his stroke timing was off.

“That’s the reason why I swam bad,” he said.

Prenot’s ups and downs bring to mind his idol, the most famous U.S. male breaststroker of the last 25 years.

Brendan Hansen went from a pair of third-place finishes at the 2000 Olympic Trials (where the top two per event go to the Games), to breaking both breaststroke world records at the 2004 Olympic Trials to silver and bronze medals at the Athens Games, a retirement, an unretirement and an unexpected individual bronze medal at London 2012.

Prenot said he’s had one conversation with Hansen. Three months before the Rio Olympic Trials, Hansen presented the 200-yard breaststroke awards at the NCAA Championships. Prenot took second to Will Licon, with both men lowering personal bests by more than a second (Licon shattered the American record).

“[Hansen] was talking to me and Licon and said, ‘You guys are going to be going 2:07, 2:06,'” Prenot recalled. Prenot’s best 200m breast at the time was 2:08.90. Hansen’s personal best was 2:08.50.

Now Prenot is one of just three U.S. men to break 2:08. To listen to him, 2:06 appears on the horizon.

“When I look at my career, I ask myself, how long am I going to go for? Am I going to transition to the real world?” said Prenot, who grew up on Air Force bases and studied physics at Cal. “Knowing that I’m capable of a performance that I have not delivered yet keeps me going.”

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Regan Smith swims another historic backstroke time at Pro Series meet

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Regan Smith, who last summer broke both backstroke world records, put up the fastest 100m back in history outside of a major international meet or trials competition on Saturday.

Smith, a 17-year-old Minnesota high school senior, clocked 58.26 seconds to win at a Pro Series meet in Knoxville, Tenn. It tied for the 12th-fastest time in history. None of the other fastest dozen came in January, six months out from when swimmers peak for the world’s biggest events like the Olympics.

Making it more impressive: Smith did it 27 minutes after finishing second in the 200m butterfly, which she’s also expected to contest at June’s Olympic trials in Omaha.

“It actually wasn’t as bad, as I was nervous it was going to be,” Smith, whose world record is 57.57, said of the double on NBCSN. Smith entered two events per day at the three-day Knoxville meet, in part to prepare for the trials, where she is slated to race six straight days in a bid to make the Olympic team in enough events to swim eight straight days in Tokyo.

On Saturday, Smith held off fellow 17-year-old Phoebe Bacon by six tenths. Bacon beat Smith at the U.S. Open in December, posting the second-fastest time among Americans in the event for 2019.

The teen emergence puts pressure on Kathleen Baker, the Rio Olympic silver medalist who had the world record before Smith took it at worlds.

Full Knoxville results are here. USASwimming.org live streams the last night of finals Sunday at 6:30 ET.

In other events Saturday, world silver medalist Hali Flickinger overcame Smith in the 200m fly, winning in 2:08.34. Smith, third-fastest among Americans last season, was .39 behind. The second-fastest American last year, Katie Drabot, was not in the field. The top two at trials make the Olympic team.

Erika Brown beat world champion Simone Manuel in a freestyle sprint for a second straight meet, taking the 50m free in 24.57 seconds.

Brown, a University of Tennessee senior, edged Manuel by .06 and took .01 off her personal best. Brown ranked third among Americans last year behind Manuel (24.05) and Abbey Weitzeil (24.47).

Brown also defeated Manuel in the 100m free at the U.S. Open in December, moving to fourth-fastest in the U.S. last year in that event. The top six in the 100m free at trials are in line to make the Olympic team, given relay spots.

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Mikaela Shiffrin nearly makes it three-way tie for World Cup win

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Mikaela Shiffrin came .01 shy of making it a three-way tie for a World Cup giant slalom win on Saturday, confirming GS has been the most up-for-grabs discipline for either gender in recent years.

Shiffrin, beaten in her last two slaloms, had the fastest second run to place third behind co-winners Italian Federica Brignone and Slovakian Petra Vlhova in Sestriere, Italy. The reigning Olympic and World Cup champion in the GS rallied from fourth place and .42 behind after the first run.

Shiffrin still leads the World Cup overall standings by 233 points over Vlhova. The American last won Dec. 29. Though she made the podium in three of her four races since, Shiffrin expressed a lack of confidence heading into this weekend’s races at the 2006 Olympic venue.

“The most exciting thing for me is that people have stopped asking me, like, are you unbeatable?” said Shiffrin, who won a record 17 World Cup races last season and has four victories nearly halfway through this season, tied with Vlhova for most on tour. “I feel really good in GS. It’s just been a long time since [the last GS on Dec. 28].”

Vlhova earned her third victory this month after beating Shiffrin those last two slaloms. Brignone leads the GS season standings by 61 points over Shiffrin, seeking to become the sixth different woman to win that discipline title in the last six years. There are four more GS races left this season.

It’s the second straight season with a World Cup GS tie. Last Feb. 1, Shiffrin and Vlhova tied in Maribor, Slovenia.

It’s the first time the top three finishers were separated by such a small margin since the last three-way tie for a win in 2006, when Lindsey VonnMichaela Dorfmeister and Nadia Styger had the same super-G time, and fourth-place Kelly VanderBeek was .01 behind.

“Last season, I had the lucky side of the hundredths many times, so sometimes I’m not going to be on the lucky side, too,” said Shiffrin, who had three victories by .16 or tighter last season.

World Cup racing continues with a parallel giant slalom on Sunday at 5:45 a.m. ET on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA and streaming on NBC Sports Gold.

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