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Katie Ledecky’s competition is near, far for best U.S. female swimmer ever

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Moments after Katie Ledecky disappeared from the front of the stage at last month’s Golden Goggles, her record sixth Female Swimmer of the Year trophy in tow, the woman long known as the greatest female swimmer in U.S. history approached the microphone.

“Tray-cee Caul-kins, Tray-cee Caul-kins, Tray-cee Caul-kins,” crowd members chanted at USA Swimming’s annual dinner and awards event. Tracy Stockwell (née Caulkins) smiled and blew a kiss as her fellow presenter, NBC Sports swimming voice Dan Hicks, stepped to the side and bowed toward her.

They bantered before naming the next award’s candidates inside a Midtown Manhattan hotel ballroom.

“For the last six years, we’ve been hearing Katie, Katie, Katie, Katie, Katie,” Stockwell said in jest. “I mean, she’s great, she’s great, but I’m just saying, will Katie ever set an American record in every stroke?”

“True, but I don’t believe you ever won one of your races by more than 15 seconds,” Hicks replied.

“OK, you got me there,” Stockwell said. “Only 9.5 seconds in the 400m IM in the Olympic final … but again, all four strokes.”

Stockwell ended the amusement there.

“Katie, you know I love you,” she said. Hicks and Stockwell moved on to read the Male Swimmer of the Year candidates.

Is Ledecky the greatest U.S. female swimmer in history?

Longtime NBC Sports analyst Rowdy Gaines, a close friend of Stockwell’s on the 1980 and 1984 Olympic teams, introduced Stockwell as “simply the greatest” at a 2013 panel where the two iconic women met for the first time.

Back then, Ledecky was just 16 years old and had competed at one Olympics (one gold medal) and one world championships (four gold medals).

Stockwell earned five golds and a silver at the 1978 World Championships, missed what would have been her first Olympics due to the Moscow boycott, then earned three golds at the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

Other U.S. women earned more medals since, but none had the all-stroke mastery of Stockwell, who swept the medleys at the Olympics and worlds.

“I love the bar-room talk of who the greatest is of any sport,” Gaines said. “It’s not a competition on the men’s side, so it’s nice to have a little battle back and forth about the greatest woman.”

Ledecky joined the discussion in the last Olympic cycle. She earned four titles in Rio and last year upped her biennial world championships gold-medal count to 14, most for a woman from any country.

Granted, worlds were held every four years in Stockwell’s era, when swimmers rarely competed beyond college age.

“I know some of the old guard might want to argue with me here, but [Ledecky] is the greatest female swimmer in history,” Gaines told the Golden Goggles crowd while helping auction a 24-by-36-inch painting of Ledecky training for $5,000. “Tracy Caulkins, I know, is like 1A.”

Neither Stockwell nor Ledecky is of the public disposition to much care of owning the label. It’s for others to talk about, and the chatter is good for the sport.

“It’s nice to be remembered. It’s a nice thing to include we has-beens, I guess,” Stockwell said with a laugh when asked about the debate. “I’m flattered that people would say I’m considered one of the greatest. It brings back a lot of good memories. It makes me proud of my versatility. Back then, at 21, when I finished swimming, that was considered old.”

Stockwell speaks with a mix of her native Nashville twang and an Australian accent from living in Queensland for nearly half of her 55 years. She met Aussie swimmer Mark Stockwell at the Los Angeles Games. She retired that year despite having one season of eligibility left at the University of Florida.

“I kind of felt like I had done everything that I wanted,” she said. “I wasn’t really prepared to give it the effort that I had for so long, and I didn’t think that would be fair on me or the team.”

They married in 1991 and raised five children in Brisbane, the youngest now 15. Stockwell spent much of that time in roles championing women’s sports within Australia. She now serves on Swimming Australia’s board.

“Part of the deal was, if I ever had to get back to the USA or Nashville, then I could,” said Stockwell, who also flies to Gainesville, to present a scholarship endowed in her name, and to Southern California or New York City for Golden Goggles, supporting USA Swimming. “Next year I will be half and half, 28 years in America and Australia 28 years.”

Stockwell realized that her allegiance was torn as she watched the famous 4x100m men’s freestyle relay at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. The air guitar-strumming Aussies handed the Americans their first defeat in the event in Olympic history.

“People would ask me, who are you going to cheer for,” she said. “I was like, oh gosh, I hadn’t even thought about that. I kind of feel like I have two teams to cheer for.”

One child, son William, swims for Australia, ranking fourth in the nation in the 50m backstroke this year. It’s a different age from the complicated one that his mom dominated.

She swam against East Germans during the country’s state-sponsored doping days, missed what would have been her peak Olympics due to a boycott and then starred at the 1984 Games that those East Germans sat out.

“Even though I probably had a shorter career than many swimmers, and we didn’t have the opportunity to go to the 1980 Olympics, to go to one Olympics was the highlight of my career and what I dreamed of since I was a little girl,” she said. “A lot of my friends who made the ‘80 team tried again in 1984 and didn’t make it or just missed out. I remember those Olympic Trials being quite emotional because of that. Now I see so many athletes are going to two or three or four Olympic Games, and I think isn’t that wonderful that they’ve got the support mechanisms. They’re not considered old and washed-up at 21 years of age.”

When Gaines introduced Stockwell at that 2013 panel (titled “Swimming Through the Decades,” along with Janet EvansMatt BiondiLenny Krayzelburg and Ledecky), he reeled off some of her accomplishments:

  • 63 American records, most by any swimmer in history
  • Youngest athlete to win the Sullivan Award at age 15 in 1978
  • Only swimmer to have an American record in every stroke at the same time

Stockwell and Ledecky sat, separated by Krayzelburg, while the gold medalists compared eras and took questions from a small crowd.

“I had followed her a bit and seen what she did in London,” Stockwell said of Ledecky, who at age 15 became the youngest U.S. Summer Olympic gold medalist in any sport in 16 years. “She was so young, and it kind of took me back to my career.

“What really impressed me [at the panel] was how together she was for such a young athlete and how she was the whole package. Not only a great swimmer, but she spoke really well, was really well-balanced, nice, very smart. Just delightful.”

Stockwell caught up with Ledecky’s family at the 2014 Pan Pacific Championships in Australia.

In 2016, she flew to the States for the Honda Cup presentation to the top NCAA female athlete (another accolade: Stockwell is the only woman to win the Honda Cup twice outright).

She tacked on a trip to Omaha for the Olympic Trials. Ledecky had a dinner at the end of the event where she thanked her supporters.

“I popped in to see her, congratulate her and wish her good luck [in Rio],” Stockwell said.

Asked what stuns her the most about Ledecky, Stockwell says all of it. The dominance (winning the Olympic 800m free by 11 seconds), the range (world titles from 200m to 1500m) and what recently put Ledecky in the minds of many atop U.S. female swimming: the longevity.

Gaines noted that Ledecky’s golden streak is now at six years, matching the length of Stockwell’s elite international career from 1978 to 1984.

“The ability to keep improving, because I know that’s a real challenge,” said Stockwell, who dropped to a pair of bronze medals at the 1982 Worlds. “I know that was hard for me. It’s easier on the way up, but once you get there and you’re Olympic champion and you’re world-record holder, you’re the standard and everyone’s aiming to beat you. It’s more difficult to stay motivated, to continue to improve.”

If there is still an argument that Caulkins is No. 1 and Ledecky 1A, it’s her conquering of all four strokes.

In track and field, the Olympic decathlon champion is known as the world’s greatest athlete. The 400m IM is swimming’s decathlon. Watch Caulkins’ 400m IM from the 1984 Olympics, and you will think of Ledecky as the camera pans out to fit the trailing swimmers in the frame.

“Katie and Tracy are not equally versatile, but Katie is a lot more versatile than we give her credit for,” Gaines said. “I think if she concentrated on the 400m IM, she would be extremely dangerous [Ledecky briefly held the American record in the 400 IM in short-course yards while at Stanford]. The versatility also, even though it’s one stroke [freestyle], the versatility of that stroke is amazing.”

There’s another U.S. swimmer that Ledecky could try to chase in the greatest-ever debate. That’s Michael Phelps, whom Gaines can’t see being caught.

“She would have to kind of repeat what she did in ‘16 at the next two Olympic Games,” he said. “She’d have to almost triple her number of world records (Ledecky has 14; Phelps 39).”

VIDEO: Katie Ledecky, Elizabeth Beisel perform ‘Let it Be’ duet

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James, Cipres ahead of pairs’ field at Europeans

AP
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France’s Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres scored 76.55 points to break away from the pairs’ field at the European Championships on Wednesday. They lead Russian rivals Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov by 2.65 points. Nicole Della Monica and Matteo Guarise of Italy are third going into Thursday’s free skate with 73.70 points.

Results: Pairs’ short program

More to come

MORE: Behind the scenes at the European Championships: Day 1

As a reminder, you can watch the European Championships 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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What to watch in Olympic sports this week

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A busy week in Olympic sports is headlined by two marquee figure skating events: the U.S. Championships and European Championships. Reigning world champion Nathan Chen will try to win his third straight U.S. title in Detroit, and 2018 U.S. champion Bradie Tennell will attempt to repeat against an unpredictable ladies’ field. Coverage begins with the pairs’ short on Thursday at 5 pm, live on NBCSN. Meanwhile in Minsk, Belarus, reigning Olympic gold medalist Alina Zagitova of Russia will look to win her second straight European title, though she hasn’t had her best season: a rough showing last month left her fifth at the Russian national championships (PyeongChang silver medalist Yevgenia Medvedeva, who has struggled this season, was not named to the team). In men’s singles, 2018 Olympic bronze medalist Javier Fernandez of Spain seeks a seventh straight European title in what he says will be the final competition of his career.

Lindsey Vonn was expected to compete at this weekend’s World Cup in Germany, but after injuring her knee in her season debut last weekend, Vonn said on social media she was taking things “day by day.” The men’s alpine World Cup circuit continues in Kitzbuehel, at the renowned Hahnenkamm mountain in Austria, considered one of the most famous and thrilling races of the year. Olympians Bryce BennettTravis Ganong and Steven Nyman headline the American contingent. The Kitzbuehel races can be streamed live on NBC Sports Gold, and the speed races will air on Monday, January 28 on NBCSN.

ALPINE SKIING WORLD CUP — Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany; Kitzbuehel, Austria

Day Time (ET) Event TV Stream
Friday 5:30 a.m. Men’s Super-G NBC Sports Gold
Saturday 4:00 a.m. Women’s Downhill Olympic Channel NBC Sports Gold
5:30 a.m. Men’s Downhill NBC Sports Gold
10:00 a.m. Women’s Downhill* NBCSN
Sunday 4:30 a.m. Men’s Slalom (Run 1) NBC Sports Gold
5:30 a.m. Women’s Super-G Olympic Channel NBC Sports Gold
7:30 a.m. Men’s Slalom (Run 2) NBC Sports Gold
9:00 p.m. Women’s Super-G* NBCSN

*Same-day delay All races stream live on NBC Sports Gold for “Snow Pass” subscribers and will have a replay of the event. Click here for more info.

BIATHLON WORLD CUP — Antholz-Anterselva, Italy

Day Time (ET) Event TV Stream
Thursday 8:30 a.m. Women’s 7.5km Sprint OlympicChannel.com
12:00 p.m. Women’s 7.5km Sprint* Olympic Channel
Friday 8:30 a.m. Men’s 10km Sprint OlympicChannel.com
6:00 p.m. Men’s 10km Sprint* Olympic Channel
Saturday 7:30 a.m. Women’s 10km Pursuit OlympicChannel.com
9:30 a.m. Men’s 12.5km Pursuit OlympicChannel.com
8:30 p.m. Women’s 10km Pursuit* Olympic Channel
9:30 p.m. Men’s 12.5km Pursuit* Olympic Channel
Sunday 6:45 a.m. Women’s 12.5km Mass Start OlympicChannel.com
9:30 a.m. Men’s 15km Mass Start OlympicChannel.com
9:30 p.m. Women’s 12.5km Mass Start* Olympic Channel
10:30 p.m. Men’s 15km Mass Start* Olympic Channel

*Same-day delay All races stream live on OlympicChannel.com.

BOBSLED AND SKELETON WORLD CUP — St. Moritz, Switzerland

Day Time (ET) Event TV Stream
Friday 3:30 a.m. Men’s Skeleton (Run 1) OlympicChannel.com
5:15 a.m. Men’s Skeleton (Run 2) OlympicChannel.com
7:00 a.m. Women’s Skeleton (Run 1) OlympicChannel.com
8:30 a.m. Women’s Skeleton (Run 2) OlympicChannel.com
4:00 p.m. Men’s Skeleton* Olympic Channel
5:00 p.m. Women’s Skeleton* Olympic Channel
Saturday 3:30 a.m. Two-Man Bobsled (Run 1) OlympicChannel.com
5:00 a.m. Two-Man Bobsled (Run 2) OlympicChannel.com
7:00 a.m. Women’s Bobsled (Run 1) OlympicChannel.com
12:00 p.m. Two-Man Bobsled* Olympic Channel
3:00 p.m. Women’s Bobsled* Olympic Channel
8:30 a.m. Women’s Bobsled (Run 2) OlympicChannel.com
Sunday 4:30 a.m. Four-Man Bobsled (Run 1) OlympicChannel.com
6:00 a.m. Four-Man Bobsled (Run 2) OlympicChannel.com
3:00 p.m. Four-Man Bobsled* Olympic Channel
8:00 p.m. Four-Man Bobsled* NBCSN

*Same-day delay All events stream live on OlympicChannel.com

CROSS-COUNTRY WORLD CUP — Ulricehamn, Sweden

Day Time (ET) Event TV Stream
Saturday 6:00 a.m. Men’ 15km OlympicChannel.com/NBC Sports Gold
8:00 a.m. Women’s 10km Olympic Channel OlympicChannel.com/NBC Sports Gold
Sunday 5:15 a.m. Women’s Relay OlympicChannel.com/NBC Sports Gold
8:15 a.m. Men’s Relay OlympicChannel.com/NBC Sports Gold
4:00 p.m. Women’s Relay* Olympic Channel

*Same-day delay Live races stream on OlympicChannel.com and NBC Sports Gold

CYCLO-CROSS WORLD CUP — Pont-Château, France; Hoogerheide, Netherlands

Day Time (ET) Event TV Stream
Monday 10:30 a.m. Men’ Elite* Olympic Channel
Sunday 7:30 a.m. Women’s Elite Olympic Channel OlympicChannel.com/NBC Sports Gold
9:00 a.m. Men’s Elite OlympicChannel.com/NBC Sports Gold
1:00 p.m. Men’s Elite* Olympic Channel
2:00 p.m. Men’s Elite* Olympic Channel

*Same-day delay Live races stream on OlympicChannel.com and NBC Sports Gold

EUROPEAN FIGURE SKATING WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS — Minsk, Belarus

Day Time (ET) Event TV Streaming
Wednesday 3:00 a.m. Ladies’ Short Program NBC Sports Gold
10:45 a.m. Pairs’ Short Program NBC Sports Gold
4:30 p.m. Ladies’ Short Program NBCSN NBCSN
Thursday 4:00 a.m. Men’s Short Program NBC Sports Gold
11:25 a.m. Pairs’ Free Skate NBC Sports Gold
7:00 p.m. Men’s Short Program NBCSN NBCSN
11:00 p.m. Pairs’ Free Skate NBCSN NBCSN
Friday 4:40 a.m. Rhythm Dance NBC Sports Gold
10:00 a.m. Ladies’ Free Skate NBC Sports Gold
2:00 p.m. Rhythm Dance NBCSN NBCSN
6:00 p.m. Ladies’ Free Skate NBCSN NBCSN
Saturday 3:15 a.m. Men’s Free Skate NBC Sports Gold
8:25 a.m. Free Dance NBC Sports Gold
11:00 a.m. Men’s Free Skate NBCSN NBCSN
Sunday 1:30 p.m. Ladies’ & Men’s Free Skate NBC NBC

U.S. FIGURE SKATING CHAMPIONSHIPS — Detroit, Michigan

Day Time (ET) Event TV Streaming
Thursday 5:00 p.m. Pairs’ Short Program NBCSN NBCSN/NBC Sports Gold
9:00 p.m. Ladies’ Short Program NBCSN NBCSN/NBC Sports Gold
Friday 4:00 p.m. Rhythm Dance NBCSN NBCSN/NBC Sports Gold
8:00 p.m. Ladies’ Free Skate NBC NBC/NBC Sports Gold
Saturday 1:30 p.m. Pairs’ Free Skate & Men’s Short Program NBC NBC/NBC Sports Gold
7:00 p.m. Free Dance NBCSN NBCSN/NBC Sports Gold
Sunday 3:30 p.m. Men’s Free Skate NBC NBC/NBC Sports Gold

FREESTYLE SKIING WORLD CUP –Blue Mountain, Ontario; Mt. Tremblant, Quebec; Seiser Alm, Italy

Day Time (ET) Event TV Stream
Saturday 12:00 p.m. Ski Cross OlympicChannel.com/NBC Sports Gold
1:30 p.m. Moguls Olympic Channel OlympicChannel.com/NBC Sports Gold
Sunday 6:30 a.m. Slopestyle OlympicChannel.com/NBC Sports Gold
7:00 a.m. Slopestyle Olympic Channel

MEN’S HANDBALL WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP

Day Time (ET) Event TV Stream
Monday 12:00 p.m. Spain vs. Brazil Olympic Channel Olympic Channel
2:30 p.m. Croatia vs. Germany Olympic Channel Olympic Channel
Wednesday 12:00 p.m. Norway vs. Hungary Olympic Channel Olympic Channel
2:30 p.m. Denmark vs. Sweden Olympic Channel Olympic Channel
Friday 11:30 a.m. Semifinals #1 Olympic Channel Olympic Channel
2:00 p.m. Semifinals #2 Olympic Channel Olympic Channel
Sunday 8:30 a.m. Bronze Medal Game Olympic Channel Olympic Channel
11:30 a.m. Gold Medal Game Olympic Channel Olympic Channel

LUGE WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS

Day Time (ET) Event TV Stream
Friday 7:35 a.m. Doubles Sprint OlympicChannel.com
8:30 a.m. Women’s Sprint OlympicChannel.com
9:25 a.m. Men’s Sprint OlympicChannel.com
Saturday 5:05 a.m. Doubles (Run 1) OlympicChannel.com
6:35 a.m. Doubles (Run 2) OlympicChannel.com
8:00 a.m. Sprint Events & Doubles* NBCSN
8:15 a.m. Women’s Singles (Run 1) OlympicChannel.com
10:05 a.m. Women’s Singles (Run 2) OlympicChannel.com
7:00 p.m. Doubles* Olympic Channel
7:30 p.m. Women’s Singles* Olympic Channel
Sunday 5:00 a.m. Men’s Singles (Run 1) OlympicChannel.com
7:10 a.m. Men’s Singles (Run 2) OlympicChannel.com
9:45 a.m. Team Relay OlympicChannel.com
5:00 p.m. Men’s Singles* Olympic Channel
6:00 p.m. From Winterberg, Germany* NBCSN

*Same-day delay Live events stream on OlympicChannel.com

NORDIC COMBINED WORLD CUP –Trondheim, Norway

Day Time (ET) Event TV Stream
Saturday 4:30 a.m. Men’s HS140 OlympicChannel.com/NBC Sports Gold
8:00 a.m. Men’s 10km OlympicChannel.com/NBC Sports Gold
Sunday 3:00 a.m. Men’s HS140 OlympicChannel.com/NBC Sports Gold
6:15 a.m. Men’s 10km OlympicChannel.com/NBC Sports Gold

SKI JUMPING WORLD CUP — Sapporo, Japan; Rasnov, Romania

Day Time (ET) Event TV Stream
Friday 4:00 a.m. Men’s Individual (Qualifying) OlympicChannel.com/NBC Sports Gold
Saturday 2:00 a.m. Men’s Individual OlympicChannel.com/NBC Sports Gold
6:30 a.m. Women’s Individual OlympicChannel.com/NBC Sports Gold
4:00 p.m. Men’s Individual* Olympic Channel
5:30 p.m. Women’s Individual* Olympic Channel
8:00 p.m. Men’s Individual OlympicChannel.com/NBC Sports Gold
Sunday 6:30 a.m. Women’s Individual OlympicChannel.com/NBC Sports Gold
6:30 p.m. Men’s Individual* Olympic Channel
8:00 p.m. Women’s Individual* Olympic Channel

*Same-day delay Live events stream on OlympicChannel.com and NBC Sports Gold

SNOWBOARDING WORLD CUP — Seiser Alm, Italy; Moscow, Russia

Day Time (ET) Event TV Stream
Saturday 6:30 a.m. Slopestyle Olympic Channel Olympic Channel/NBC Sports Gold
10:30 a.m. Parallel Slalom Olympic Channel Olympic Channel/NBC Sports Gold
Sunday 10:30 a.m. Team Parallel Slalom OlympicChannel.com/NBC Sports Gold

NEW BALANCE INDOOR GRAND PRIX TRACK & FIELD  — Boston, Massachusetts

Day Time (ET) Event TV Stream
Saturday 5:00 p.m. From Boston, Massachusetts NBCSN NBCSN/NBC Sports Gold

TRACK CYCLING WORLD CUP — Hong Kong

Day Time (ET) Event TV Stream
Friday 6:00 a.m. Day 1 — From Hong Kong OlympicChannel.com/NBC Sports Gold
Saturday 6:00 a.m. Day 2 — From Hong Kong OlympicChannel.com/NBC Sports Gold
Sunday 7:00 a.m. Day 3 — From Hong Kong OlympicChannel.com/NBC Sports Gold
Monday 12:00 p.m. Day 3 — From Hong Kong* Olympic Channel