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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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40 years ago today: Jimmy Carter lays plan for Olympic boycott

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On Jan. 20, 1980, U.S. President Jimmy Carter said he would not support sending a U.S. team to the Moscow Olympics later that summer if the Soviet Union did not withdraw troops from Afghanistan.

Carter detailed his stance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” airing that Sunday. A transcript:

Bill Monroe: Assuming the Soviets do not pull out of Afghanistan any time soon, do you favor the U.S. participating in the Moscow Olympics, and if not, what are the alternatives?

Carter: No. Neither I nor the American people would support the sending of an American team to Moscow with Soviet invasion troops in Afghanistan. I’ve sent a message today to the United States Olympic Committee spelling out my own position that unless the Soviets withdraw their troops within a month from Afghanistan that the Olympic Games be moved from Moscow to alternate site or multiple sites or postponed or canceled. If the Soviets do not withdraw their troops immediately from Afghanistan — within a month — I would not support the sending of an American team to the Olympics. It’s very important for the world to realize how serious a threat the Soviets’ invasion of Afghanistan is. I do not want to inject politics into the Olympics, and I would personally favor the establishment of a permanent Olympic site for both the Summer and the Winter Games. In my opinion, the most appropriate permanent site for the Summer Games would be Greece. This will be my own position, and I have asked the U.S. Olympic Committee to take this position to the International Olympic Committee, and I would hope that as many nations as possible would support this basic position. One hundred and four nations voted against the Soviet invasion and called for their immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan in the United Nations, and I would hope as many of those as possible would support the position I’ve just outlined to you.

Monroe: Mr. President, if a substantial number of nations does not support the U.S. position, would not that just put the U.S. in an isolated position without doing much damage to the Soviet Union?

Carter: Regardless of what other nations might do, I would not favor the sending of an American Olympic team to Moscow while the Soviet invasion troops are in Afghanistan.

Three days later, Carter said in his State of the Union address, “I have notified the Olympic Committee that with Soviet invading forces in Afghanistan, neither the American people nor I will support sending an Olympic team to Moscow.”

The Soviets did not withdraw troops.

Though Carter did not have the authority to order a boycott, the U.S. Olympic Committee did decide on April 12 not to send a team.

The U.S. was among more than 60 nations that were invited to the Moscow Games and did not participate (for various reasons). Other notable absences included Canada, West Germany, Japan and China.

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With four former champions in the mix, who can claim U.S. Championships pairs’ title?

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There have been four different U.S. pairs’ champions in the past four years. All four of those teams are in the field at this week’s U.S. Championships in Greensboro, North Carolina. With that in mind, who could get the nod to compete at the world championships in March?

The U.S. has two spots to fill, thanks to the efforts of Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, who finished ninth at last year’s worlds.

Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier had the best fall of any U.S. pair, winning two bronze medals on the Grand Prix Series. Denney and Frazier finished with silver medals at last year’s national championships, too. The team has previous experience at the world championships (2015: 12th; 2017: 20th).

Cain-Gribble and LeDuc won the national title last year after a season that was nearly sidelined by Cain-Gribble’s concussion in December 2018. As the solo U.S. representatives at the world championships, they succeeded in earning back two world berths for 2020.

This season, they won two B-level competitions and finished fourth and fifth at their Grand Prix assignments. LeDuc said last week that despite their win at Golden Spin in December, “there was a little bit of room for improvement, which is exactly what we want from a competition going into nationals.”

“We feel like we’ve improved a lot as far as what we’re able to take on mentally because we know that this is going to be an intense week,” Cain-Gribble said. “We’re prepared for that. We’ve never had to do this before, where we’re coming in and we’re already the reigning champions. We’ve never come in with that title before. We’ve had the opportunity to talk to a lot of people about it and what that feeling is, but overall their main thing was, ‘Be prepared. Prepare yourself beyond what you can even imagine. When you get there, just go on autopilot and do your thing.’”

PyeongChang Olympic team event bronze medalists Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim haven’t been in top form since the Games. Later in 2018, they split from short-lived coach Aljona Savchenko in Germany and moved to California.

They finished an all-time low of seventh at last year’s nationals and were not assigned to any events later in the season. In their off-season, Chris underwent wrist surgery. The couple also added Rafael Arutunian to their coaching team to address their jumping abilities. Their season consisted of a silver medal at a B-level competition, followed by two Grand Prix assignments where they finished fourth and seventh.

“We feel that many people probably have kind of written us off, because we’re an old married couple and we’re kind of labeled ‘can’t get it together,’” Scimeca Knierim said after finishing fourth at Skate Canada this fall. “That’s almost an advantage, because I feel like for so long, we were considered the front-runners. I still believe we are. We’re trying to show we can get it together.”

The last time the Knierims competed at a nationals in Greensboro, in 2015, they won the first of their two titles. That year, they notched their highest placement (seventh) across five total trips to the world championships.

Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea won their national title in 2016 and were also sent on their only trip to the world championships where they finished 13th. In 2017, Kayne underwent knee surgery, but they returned to the national podium in 2018 and won silver. Last year, they finished fourth after a disastrous free skate.

This season, they collected a silver medals and a fourth place finish at two B-level competitions as well as a pair of sixth-place finishes on the Grand Prix.

MORE: 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships TV, live stream schedule

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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