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Michael Phelps details Masters experience, nearly losing to 11-year-old in Q&A

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NEW YORK — Michael Phelps discussed his last-minute trip to the Masters, how fast he ran a 5K, Ryan Lochte and being a global ambassador for Colgate’s #everydropcounts campaign on Wednesday (Q&A lightly edited and paraphrased for clarity)… 

OlympicTalk: What can you tell me about how you got to the Masters and how quickly it came about?

Phelps: A mutual friend is a member. A buddy of mine called me Monday before the Masters [week of the Masters]. I have a ticket? Do you want to go? I have a plane. Do you want to go? I was like, awesome, I’m going to the Masters for the first time.

It was the whole experience. I went to Tbonz, had the steak. The boys told me that John Daly‘s trailer is up the road. I’m like, I have to go and hang out with that guy. We went up. They said he was asleep, but we went up and talked to him for a little bit. The next day I’m at the Masters, setting my chair up on No. 16.

I’m getting chills right now. The chance to see that man [Tiger Woods] at that place be able to come back when everybody counted him out. It’s cool because I kind of have an idea of what that feels like, climbing back to the top of the mountain. Having a chance to see him do it on his terms with his kids there, I was speechless for two days.

OlympicTalk: How did you get the premium seats at No. 16?

Phelps: We started walking around the course and ran into a couple of nice people who had gotten to the gate early, at 3:30 a.m. They said, if you ever want to come back and sit on 16 with us, we have a couple of chairs. We got lucky, met a super nice guy working there that had some seats set up in some primo spots that we just had some pretty amazing access to. Like on 12, I could basically take a club out of their hand on the backswing if I wanted to.

OlympicTalk: You’ve known Woods and had conversations with him during his personal struggles.

Phelps: I met Tiger in ’04 in New York for a video game launch. Then didn’t really talk to him at all from there. Through a mutual friend, just reached out, tried to do whatever I could if he needed help, wanted to ask questions, bounce ideas. I’ve gone through a lot that other people haven’t gone through in the sports world. I just wanted to support. Tiger is one of my favorite athletes to watch, being a huge golf nut.

Being able to watch him and how in control he is of every single thing on the golf course. I feel like every step is so calculated and every little small detail he pays so much attention to. It’s something I can relate to.

OlympicTalk: Do you think Tiger knew you were there?

Phelps: I think he knew I was there because I was standing when he walked out of the clubhouse [before his round], and it looked like somebody said something to him about it, like one of the guys walking out with him.

OlympicTalk: A lot of people want to bring back souvenirs from their first Masters trip. Did you?

Phelps: I brought hats, and I brought the boys back shirts. I was very bummed. I was under strict instruction to get the caddie jumpsuits for the boys. They didn’t have their sizes. Boomer got a ball and a tee. He always asks me about tees and a new golf ball because he wants to hit balls in the backyard.

OlympicTalk: You have quite a golf history. Barack Obama took your money.

Phelps: Barack beat us all for dollars that day. It’s been pretty wild. I’ve probably played golf with a dozen PGA Tour players, ex-presidents, NBA players, comedians, boxers, actors, musicians. The list is a mile long.

OlympicTalk: Have you played with Tiger?

Phelps: He is one that’s in my dream foursome.

OlympicTalk: You ran a 5K on Thanksgiving. How did that go?

Phelps: That was the worst idea in the world. We did a turkey trot, and I think I’m still dealing with plantar fasciitis. I don’t run, and I don’t do anything outside of the water. It’s been a painful recovery. I don’t know if I’ll ever do that again. I did win it, so I think I’m going to retire on top there.

I had to push myself to get the win. I had to hold off, I think, an 11-year-old girl. And I’m not kidding. She was flying down the hill coming after me.

OlympicTalk: What was your time? 

Phelps: 25 and a half, 26 minutes or something.

OlympicTalk: Was that your first running race?

Phelps: I did one way back in the day. I was walking and [coach] Bob [Bowman] passed me. He didn’t really let me live that one down. I always offer a rematch, but he’s not willing to take it.

OlympicTalk: You mention your first Masters. Is there anything on your bucket list, sporting events or otherwise that you haven’t been to?

Phelps: We have a list of stuff at home that we’re still trying to fill. Nicole and I have a piece of paper with 50 things. We want to see the Great Barrier Reef before it’s gone. The biggest thing is traveling to the cities that I’ve been to but didn’t get a chance to see. Sporting events? That was the biggest one.

OlympicTalk: Do you know what the drop-dead date is if you wanted to unretire as far as getting back in the drug-testing pool?

Phelps: For me to even contemplate a comeback, I’m past it. But I think it’s six or nine months you have to be on testing list, then you can perform. You think, nine months, then you have to get ready to be able to make the trials cut, and then you have to get to trials.

OlympicTalk: But you don’t even know what that specific date is? That’s how unfathomable a comeback is at this point.

Phelps: I have no clue.

OlympicTalk: You’ve talked to a lot of different athletes regarding mental health and other struggles. Have you talked to Ryan Lochte in the last year?

Phelps: I actually did. He called me not too long ago, just wanted to say a couple of things to me. It was nice, really, to catch up. He seems to be in a happier place. I’m always somebody that never really shares conversations that we have, but I thought it was good that he could learn a lot about himself and take some steps to make himself better. I know it was very challenging to do that. It will be interesting over the next year and a half to see what happens going into [Olympic] trials.

Editor’s note: Lochte received help for alcohol addiction after an incident in the fall, according to his lawyer.

OlympicTalk: Was that the first time you two talked since Rio?

Phelps: Probably, yeah. Maybe once through text. I talk to [Ryan] Murphy a little bit. I talk to Blake a little bit. [Allison] Schmitty. [Katie] Ledecky. But as a whole, it’s basically Thorpey and Hacky [former Australian rivals Ian Thorpe and Grant Hackett] are two guys I regularly keep in contact.

OlympicTalk: This is your third year with Colgate. Tell me something new about this campaign that you’re excited about.

Phelps: You start thinking about the stats, 900 cups a week, how bad we are as a country. We are among the worst countries in the world about conserving water. There are so many small things we can do as a family. With Earth Day coming up, this is a friendly reminder. With me going from a family of four to a family of five. With Boomer more talkative, understanding more. He is asking to brush his teeth. He is learning, and now with Beckett coming up, Beckett’s learning absolutely everything. It’s fun to work as a family to try to make a difference.

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Carreira, Ponomarenko understand the depth of U.S. ice dance at nationals

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GREENSBORO, N.C. Heading into the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Greensboro this week, up-and-coming ice dancers Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko focused on their “quads” not four-revolution jumps, but still pretty tough to execute.

“(Our coaches) have us doing double run-through weeks, triple run-throughs, even quadruple run-throughs, to make sure we’re fully ready,” Carreira said. “We’re drilling a lot more, so at nationals we go in 100 percent confident.”

Pasquale Camerlengo, who trains the team along with primary coach Igor Shpilband, agreed that the run-up to Greensboro has been grueling for the skaters from Novi, Mich.

“We always plan a week we call the quads, performing (programs) four times,” Camerlengo said. “We’re trying to make them ready physically and work their stamina, to handle their programs in competition, which is a little bit different than in practice. Physically, they’re ready for it.”

Tough practices are just one component of what’s been a challenging but productive sophomore senior season for the two-time world junior medalists, fifth in the U.S. in 2019.

Thus far, they’ve competed at six international competitions, stretching from Lake Placid, N.Y., in August to NHK Trophy in Sapporo, Japan, in late November. Six is a lot, considering other top teams they’ll compete against in Greensboro have competed three to five times so far this season.

“Igor wants to get more experience at the senior level, and also more world points,” Carreira, 19, said. “For that we have to compete. We get out there and compete as much as we can, so our programs feel more trained.”

Those programs – a rhythm dance to Cole Porter’s “It’s Too Darn Hot” and flamenco free dance to “Farrucas” – stretch their abilities far more than last season’s routines. Competing every two weeks or so left little time to make adjustments, so the past six weeks were the key to their preparation for Greensboro.

“We pushed a lot of changes we needed to make until after NHK, to smooth out the programs and really train them,” Ponomarenko, 19, said.

He added that the grueling first half of 2019-20 was a necessary ice dance rite of passage.

“It’s very different from our first season. We really didn’t know what to expect. Now we kind of know where we’re at and how we can improve. We definitely feel the sophomore slump this year, but we just want to compete and keep putting our good performances.”

On paper, Carreira and Ponomarenko’s 2018 Grand Prix results – which included a bronze medal at Rostelecom Cup – look more impressive than the sixth-place finishes they earned at Skate America and NHK this season. But the skaters don’t think the placements tell the full story.

“Last season, results-wise, it might have looked better, because a lot of (top) teams took the Grand Prix season off last season,” Carreira said. “This season, I feel our programs are more difficult and we’re skating better. We want to improve our consistency so that we can compete with the top teams.”

It doesn’t take much to lose points in an ice dance routine, especially on step sequences and “twizzles,” a series of fast rotations moving across the ice. A few slips here – including a small mistake on their twizzles in the rhythm dance at Skate America – can easily drop teams out of the top group.

“They always have the feeling they could do more,” Camerlengo said. “But the season is a progression. They’re getting better and better. That’s the goal, to have them (be) more reliable.”

“They need to do what they’re capable of,” he added. “They just have to do what they’ve learned, with no fear, and just go for it.”

In Greensboro, Carreira and Ponomarenko will have to throw caution to the wind to grab one of the three U.S. ice dance spots at the 2020 World Figure Skating Championships in Montreal this March.

With Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue, and Madison Chock and Evan Bates, very likely battling for gold, the Michigan skaters have their sights set on bronze. It’s a herculean task, considering the reigning U.S. bronze medalists, Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, qualified for the Grand Prix Final last season and notched career-best scores at Skate Canada this fall.

All three of those teams train together in Montreal. 

But Carreira and Ponomarenko think their programs, strengthened by adjustments and all of those quadruple run-throughs, give them a fighting chance.

“(A bronze medal) is more realistic now than last season,” Carreira said.

“I believe we’ve really grown as skaters,” Ponomarenko said. “Our programs are much more difficult, which has really helped us improve. I believe the podium at nationals is very reasonable. It could be achieved with some good skating.”

Other teams could be in the mix. Last season, Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter placed a strong fourth, but injuries forced them to withdraw from one of their Grand Prix events this fall. A new pairing, Caroline Green and Michael Parsons, has gelled quickly, winning two medals at Challenger Series international events.

“The level of U.S. ice dance level is high, the depth in the U.S. is really the top worldwide,” Camerlengo said. “But the podium, it is reasonable for Christina and Anthony. They have been working hard and they have a very good level to fight for the medal. We’ll see how they will perform here. They’re ready for it.”

Not all of the team’s challenges are on the ice. The Montreal-born Carreira – who has lived and trained in Novi since she was 13 – faces hurdles gaining her U.S. citizenship, without which the couple cannot compete at the Olympics. Last May, she petitioned U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to be deemed an “alien with extraordinary ability” under the immigration code, which would help smooth the way for legal permanent residency status. She was denied and filed suit against the USCIS, later dropping the action.

Carreira is still working to achieve a pathway to U.S. citizenship and prefers not to discuss the issue.

“I can’t really say anything,” she said. “We’re working on it, we’re hoping for the best.”

Citizenship issues never entered the skaters’ minds when they teamed up in the spring of 2014. Ponomarenko and his parents, 1988 Olympic ice dance champions Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko, had long admired Carreira’s skating. When he and his former partner Sarah Feng split after the 2014 U.S. Championships, he tried out with Carreira in Novi.

“We really worked well together from the beginning,” Ponomarenko said. “I had wanted to skate with Christina for a really long time even before getting together, so it was no-brainer. The bump in the road (citizenship) can be worked through.”

“There were so many good factors it would be, I think, stupid to let something that can be fixed get in the way of (our partnership),” Carreira said. “We didn’t even think about it.”

The ice dance competition in Greensboro kicks off with the rhythm dance on Friday afternoon, with medalists decided with the free dance on Saturday night.

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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Coronavirus forces Olympic soccer and boxing qualifiers to move

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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Olympic qualifying events in two sports were moved from the Chinese city of Wuhan on Wednesday because of an outbreak of a deadly viral illness.

A four-nation Asian qualifying group for the women’s soccer tournament was switched from the city at the center of the health scare to Nanjing.

The Asia-Oceania boxing qualifying tournament scheduled for Feb. 3-14 in Wuhan was cancelled. No new plans were announced.

The decisions followed Chinese health authorities telling people in Wuhan to avoid crowds and public gatherings.

The Asian Football Confederation said the round-robin group — featuring host China, Australia, Taiwan and Thailand — will be played on Feb. 3-9, retaining the same dates, in Nanjing.

More than 500 people have been infected and at least 17 killed since the outbreak emerged last month. The illness comes from a newly identified type of coronavirus.

Cases have also been reported in the United States, Japan, South Korea and Thailand. All involve people from Wuhan or who recently traveled there.

In the soccer qualifiers in China, two teams advance to a four-nation playoff round in March. That will decide which two teams from Asia join host Japan at the Tokyo Olympics.

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