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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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Can T.J. Oshie, other established Olympic hockey stars hold on for 2022?

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T.J. Oshie will be 35 years old during the next Winter Olympics. Jonathan Quick will be 36. Now that the NHL is one key step closer to returning to the Winter Games, the question surfaces: which 2014 Olympians will have a difficult time returning to rosters in 2022?

Oshie was the last of the 14 forwards chosen for the U.S. Olympic team for Sochi, beating out Bobby Ryan and Brandon Saad, in part for his shootout prowess.

In group play against Russia, Oshie was memorably tapped by U.S. head coach Dan Bylsma six times in a shootout, including all five in the sudden-death rounds. Oshie beat Sergei Bobrovsky four times, including the game winner.

“After I went out for my third attempt, I figured I was going to keep going,” Oshie said, according to USA Hockey. “Each time I would look up to see what [Bylsma] had to say, and he would just give me a nod every time. I kind of started laughing toward shot five and six because it was getting kind of ridiculous.”

Oshie became known as “T.J. Sochi” on social media. President Barack Obama congratulated him on Twitter. The U.S. eventually lost to Canada in the semifinals and Finland in the bronze-medal game.

When the NHL chose not to send its players to the PyeongChang Winter Games, it may have spelled the end of Oshie’s Olympic career.

Consider that the oldest forward on the 2014 U.S. Olympic team was 29, six years younger than Oshie will be come 2022. A recent Olympic roster prediction from The Hockey Writers put Oshie in the “Just Missed Out” list.

NBC Sports NHL analyst Pierre McGuire has Oshie among the finalists for the last forward spots in his early U.S. roster prediction.

“I wouldn’t discount T.J. Oshie because shootout is still part of it,” McGuire said. “He still has his shootout moves, even though he’s not getting any younger.”

Quick, the unused third goalie in 2010, played 305 out of 365 minutes in net for the U.S. in Sochi. He was coming off a Stanley Cup in 2012 and en route to another one in 2014.

Since, he was sidelined by a knee injury that required surgery. He remains the Los Angeles Kings’ No. 1 goalie, which almost automatically puts an American in the Olympic roster discussion these days.

“Somebody like Jonathan definitely merits consideration just because of his achievement level over time, but I think he’d be the first person to tell you injuries have definitely affected him,” McGuire said of Quick, looking to become the second-oldest U.S. goalie to play in the Olympics after Tom Barrasso in 2002. “It’s not going to be easy for him.”

The U.S. could bypass Quick for three Olympic rookies in 2022. Connor Hellebuyck, John Gibson and Ben Bishop have superior save percentages and goals-against averages and more games played than Quick since the start of the 2018-19 season.

A wild card is Spencer Knight, the 19-year-old No. 1 from the world junior championships who last year became the highest-drafted goalie since 2010 (No. 13 to the Florida Panthers). Knight would break defenseman Bryan Berard‘s record as the youngest U.S. Olympic hockey player in the NHL era.

The Canadian roster has traditionally been deeper than the U.S. The talent is overwhelming at center, led by Sidney CrosbyConnor McDavidPatrice Bergeron and Nathan MacKinnon. The Canadians must get creative if the likes of veterans Jonathan Toews and John Tavares will join them in Beijing.

Toews, then 21, was the best forward at the 2010 Vancouver Games and Canada’s only one on the all-tournament team. While Toews’ last NHL All-Star selection was in 2017, his last two seasons have been his best in terms of points per game since 2011.

“The one thing that Canada is very good at, they do it extremely well, they select players that fit roles,” McGuire said, noting Mike Richards shifting to the wing during the 2010 Olympics. “When you look at the overwhelming depth that Canada has, that’s going to be the thing that’s going that’s going to be very interesting to watch to see how it plays out at center.”

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NHL closer to Olympic hockey return for 2022, 2026

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The NHL just took a major step to returning to the Olympics in 2022 and 2026 after skipping the 2018 Winter Games.

The NHL and the NHL Players’ Association announced a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) that includes Olympic participation at the next two Winter Games in Beijing and Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy.

Should the NHL, the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) and the IOC agree, expect the world’s best players to compete for their nations during breaks in those NHL seasons.

Nine of the 12 nations have already qualified for the 2022 Olympic men’s hockey tournament. The groups and qualifiers are here.

The NHL participated in five straight Olympics from 1998-2014 before declining to pause its season for PyeongChang.

The 2018 Olympic men’s hockey rosters included players from every other major international league, led by Russia’s KHL, which made up the entire Olympic Athletes from Russia team that beat Germany in the final. The U.S. team included veterans in European leagues, the minor league AHL, collegians and captain Brian Gionta, a 2006 Olympian who had stepped away from the NHL.

In April 2017, the NHL announced it would not send its players to the 2018 Olympics due to a lack of concession from the IOC, IIHF or the NHLPA to entice owners and officials. At the time, the CBA did not include Olympic participation.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman then cited “fatigue” among team owners about taking an Olympic break every four seasons. Owners mentioned the risk of having their stars get injured, away from their teams in the middle of their seasons. South Korea, with its 14-hour time difference from New York, was also not as enticing a Winter Olympic host as, say, Canada or Russia.

Other issues Bettman and other league and team officials expressed included a lack of exposure and benefit for the NHL, the league’s inability to use the Olympics for marketing due to sponsorship rules and money.

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Before and after the PyeongChang Olympics, Bettman doubted that the NHL would return for the 2022 Beijing Winter Games.

“I don’t want to sound like a broken record on the subject, but I think going to the Olympics is a challenge for us,” Bettman said last November after meetings with the IIHF. “I know the players love representing their countries. I know that the players like going. I know that the players that don’t go like having a break in the middle of the season. But from our standpoint, we have found going to the Olympics to be incredibly disruptive to our season.

“For us, at best, it’s a mixed bag.”

Canada came to dominate Olympic men’s hockey in the NHL era, taking gold in 2002, 2010 and 2014. Sidney Crosby, gold medalist in 2010 and 2014, will be 34 years old come the 2022 Olympics.

Alex Ovechkin, a three-time Olympian for Russia with zero medals, will be 36 years old. Only two Russian male Olympic hockey players have been older: Igor Larionov in 2002 and Sergei Fedorov in 2010, according to Olympedia.org.

Younger stars Jack Eichel and Auston Matthews (USA), Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy (Russia), Connor McDavid (Canada), David Pastrnak (Czech Republic) and Leon Draisaitl (Germany) could each play in their first Olympics in 2022.

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