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U.S. men’s rugby sevens team conquers all with world’s best player sealed shut

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In one of the remarkable Olympic sports rises this four-year cycle, the U.S. men’s rugby sevens team didn’t just break into the top five in the world. They are ranked No. 1 in the World Series standings with two tournaments left this season, poised to clinch a Tokyo 2020 berth in London this weekend.

Rugby of course has a history beyond its Olympic revival. Sevens debuted in Rio, some 92 years after the more traditional 15-a-side rugby last appeared at the Games in Paris in 1924.

Rugby was born in the eponymous England town in 1823. Rugby sevens in Scotland later that century. The World Series, a season of global tournaments, debuted in 1999. New Zealand’s All Blacks won 12 of those first 15 annual titles. Then Fiji’s men captured gold in Rio.

The U.S.’ best finish in the first 15 World Series was 10th.

When Englishman Mike Friday was hired as head coach in October 2014, the Americans appeared long shots to qualify for the 12-team Rio Olympic tournament. They were coming off a 13th-place season. It looked like Canada, ranked sixth in the world, would likely grab the lone automatic North American Olympic berth.

The U.S. immediately moved into the top 10 under Friday, supplanted Canada and did get to Brazil.

But the red, white and blue exited the Olympics in heartbreaking fashion. Captain Madison Hughes missed a late two-point conversion attempt from out wide against Fiji in the group finale. Had he made it, the Americans still would have lost to the Fijians, but they would have been in position to sneak into the quarterfinals by one in tiebreaking point differential. Instead, they finished ninth.

Perry Baker was helpless in those defining moments, on the sideline for that last minute against Fiji while still adjusting to his new full-time sport.

Baker was previously, briefly, a Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver. They agreed to terms in July 2011, but Baker was let go after it was discovered in a physical that he had been playing on a torn meniscus. He dabbled in rugby as a teen and after college, too, but didn’t take to it until meeting U.S. director Alex Magleby. It didn’t take long for Magleby to issue this ultimatum: Quit football to join the national team.

Baker accepted, and migrated to the program officially in 2014 at age 27. Fellow football convert and best friend Carlin Isles garnered the lion’s share of the team’s pre-Olympic press, and rightfully so as its leading try scorer in 2014-15.

But Baker, lean for rugby at 6 feet, 1 inch and a listed 180 pounds, boasted a 4.32-second 40-yard dash time of his own and was on the rise. In his second tournament, Baker scored a game-winning try in an upset of Fiji.

By the Olympic season, Baker was the U.S. leader in tries. Then Baker was named the World Player of the Year in 2017 and 2018, becoming the first man to earn the honor twice and completing a rise from sharing a two-bedroom apartment with so many guys that he sometimes slept in his truck. He scaled the rugby world while the U.S. was stuck in fifth and sixth place in the World Series standings, plateaued after the initial leap under Friday.

The U.S. tops the table this season through eight of 10 legs, but Baker can’t pick a turning point for the ascension. His favorite moment actually came last season, when the U.S. won a World Series leg for the second time in history, at home in Las Vegas (and without the injured captain Hughes). Baker had the viral score of that event, an end-to-end sprint in a 19-7 semifinal victory over Fiji.

“That try is going to go down as one of the best of all time,” NBC Olympics analyst Brian Hightower said.

But Baker points earlier in that match, when he ran down fleet-footed Alasio Naduva and prevented a Fijian try. He shared a World Rugby video of the play, which registered Baker’s top-end speed at 23 miles per hour.

Numbers say the low-water mark for the U.S. under Friday came at the start of that 2017-18 season. Baker, after spending part of his summer with the NYPD SWAT team, was kneed in the side of the head in the opening moments of the first match. He was forced to sit the rest of that first tournament following concussion protocol. The U.S. went winless in four matches, its first 0-fer in the World Series in Friday’s four seasons.

Baker also missed the last two tournaments of 2017-18 with a shoulder injury, essentially suiting up for just 60 percent of the season.

He still finished in the top 10 in the World Series in points and the top five in tries. He also proved his worth to fellow players, match officials and commentators who nominated him for World Player of the Year a second straight season. A six-person panel, including selectors from world powers Fiji, New Zealand, Australia and England, ultimately chose Baker for the award.

Baker remembers competitors from New Zealand and South Africa congratulating him at the next World Series stop to open the 2018-19 season. It made him reflect on the last five years.

“Coming from those types of guys from those teams, it was a step back for me, like, wow, I guess I do have more respect than I thought,” said Baker, the third-most-accomplished wide receiver in his family after older brother Dallas (2006 NCAA champion at Florida) and uncle Wes Chandler (four-time Pro Bowler). “You look at my body size. To this day, everyone says you don’t look like a rugby player. Then me being a crossover athlete — I won’t be able to play the game. Things like that. I’m too small. The usual stuff. America doesn’t have a real rugby team. We won’t be good. Just getting to the Eagles [the U.S. team nickname] was really hard. I went through two coaches before Mike Friday came in, and I never got a chance.”

Baker encountered another obstacle at this season’s third World Series stop in New Zealand in January: Tana Fotofili. Baker, carrying the ball, collided violently with the Tongan captain with 44 seconds left of what would be a comfortable 29-7 U.S. win. He curled up on the pitch and was tended to for two minutes before being escorted off.

“I kind of blacked out for a few seconds,” Baker said after watching the replay dozens of times. “All I know is my jaw was in pain.”

He suffered a double broken jaw, but Baker said there was no concussion. Screws and a rubber bracket were drilled into his mouth, which was essentially sealed shut by thick rubber bands. He would be fed by straw the next two weeks. When he first tried to swallow solids, frustration fell over him trying to chew mashed potatoes.

After another two weeks, Baker forced down tiny pieces of chicken, soggied after about 50 chews.

“What would you would feed a baby with two teeth, that’s how I was eating,” he said.

Baker returns to competition Saturday for the start of the World Series stop in London. The U.S. fared well without him and Danny Barrett, its two players who made the all-World Series Dream Team in 2017. Barrett missed the last three tournaments with an injury.

The Americans enter famed Twickenham Stadium leading the World Series standings by a slim three points over Fiji but are 38 points clear of fifth place. The top four after the following stop in Paris clinch Olympic spots. The U.S. would all but seal its Tokyo 2020 berth by advancing out of pool play Saturday.

Baker will trot out eager for contact in his first match action since that broken jaw.

“I’ve talked to his high school football coach several times. If you talk to him, he’ll tell you that Perry was always reluctant to tackle. He didn’t like it. He didn’t want to be in the contact area,” Hightower said.

Baker’s first rugby tackle in a club event years ago was a football-style dive at the legs, an equivalent of an illegal cheap shot in his new sport. He didn’t know any better.

“That really is one of his biggest areas of growth,” Hightower continued. “He’s not going to be the crunching, dominant, drive-you-backwards, highlight-reel hitter, but he’s going to make his tackles now.”

The Americans began the season with a goal of top four and automatic Olympic qualification. Now, Perry says it’s “a burning desire” to be world champions for the first time in the sport’s history.

“There would have been times in the past where they were a little cocky, a bit brazen,” Hightower said. “Now you can just tell the way the players carry themselves. They’re not as boisterous. They quietly go about their job. There’s confidence there when they step on the field. They believe they can win every match they start. That’s a big difference between now and a few years back.”

NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.

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Michael Phelps qualifies for first Olympics at age 15 in 2000

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In the biggest race of his young life, a 15-year-old Michael Phelps turned for the last 50 meters in fourth place of the U.S. Olympic Trials 200m butterfly final on Aug. 12, 2000.

His mom, Debbie, couldn’t watch. She turned away from the Indianapolis Natatorium pool and stared at the scoreboard. Both Debbie and Phelps’ coach, Bob Bowman, mentally prepared their consolation speeches for the rising Towson High School sophomore outside Baltimore.

Then Phelps, fueled by nightly Adam’s Mark chicken sandwich-and-cheesecake room service and amped by pre-race DMX on his CD player, turned it on. He zoomed into second place, becoming the youngest U.S. male swimmer to qualify for an Olympics since 1932.

Phelps had “come out of nowhere in the last six months” to become an Olympic hopeful, NBC Sports swimming commentator Dan Hicks said on the broadcast. True, Phelps chopped five and a half seconds off his personal best that March.

“He doesn’t know what it means to go to the Olympics and how it’s going to change his life,” Tom Malchow, the 1996 Olympic silver medalist who held off Phelps in that trials final, said that night, according to The Associated Press. “He’s going to find out soon.”

Phelps, who did his trademark arm flaps before the trials final, made Bowman look like a prophet. Four years earlier, the coach sat Debbie down for a conversation she would not soon forget.

“Told me what he projected for Michael,” Debbie said, according to the Baltimore Sun‘s front-page story on a local 15-year-old qualifying for the Sydney Games. “He said that in 2004, he would definitely be a factor in the Olympics. He also said that he could be there in 2000, to watch out for him. At the time, he was only 11.”

The trials were bittersweet for the Phelps family. Whitney, one of Phelps’ older sisters, withdrew before the meet with herniated discs in her back that kept her from making an Olympics after competing in the 1994 World Championships at age 14.

After Phelps qualified for the Olympics, one of the first people to embrace him was Whitney on the pool deck.

The next week, Phelps, still with bottom-teeth braces, did his first live TV sitdown on CNN, swiveling in his chair the whole time, according to his autobiography, “Beneath the Surface.”

The next month, Phelps finished fifth in his Olympic debut, clocking a then-personal-best time that would have earned gold or silver at every previous Olympics.

Following the Olympic race, gold medalist Malchow patted Phelps on the back, according to “No Limits,” another Phelps autobiography. What did Malchow say?

“The best is ahead of you.”

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Arnie the Terminator: Aussie rival to Katie Ledecky an unlikely swim story

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In August 2016, a 15-year-old Australian swimmer named Ariarne Titmus followed the Rio Olympics as she prepared to fly to Maui for the Junior Pan Pacific Championships.

Titmus paid special attention to her best events, the 200m, 400m and 800m freestyles. Katie Ledecky swept them, breaking two of her own world records.

“I remember watching her races thinking, like, this chick is nuts,” Titmus told NBC Sports in Australia early this year. “She’s just doing stuff that no one’s gonna get near.”

Three years later, Titmus stunned Ledecky at the world championships, chasing down the American in the last 50 meters of the 400m freestyle. She became the first woman to beat Ledecky in a distance race in seven years and a bona fide rival one year from the Tokyo Games.

Ledecky at first attributed her late fade to tight and tired legs. Then she spent seven hours the next day in a South Korean emergency room with what she believed was a stomach virus.

“She was sick,” said Dean Boxall, Titmus’ South African-born coach, “and we happened to pounce.”

Titmus’ time — 3:58.76, a personal best by .59 — was slower than Ledecky’s wins at her previous three major international meets — Rio Olympics, 2017 Worlds and 2018 Pan Pacific Championships.

“It wasn’t a good swim by Arnie,” said Boxall, a vocal coach known to shout Ledecky’s name in practices. “And I know it wasn’t a good swim by Katie. Definitely not. But there was things that Arnie did in that race I was pleased with, and there was a lot of things that she did that I was not happy with at all.”

The Olympic postponement to 2021 gives Titmus and Boxall another year to work on those inefficiencies down in Brisbane. Another year to mature, to turn 20 years old before the Games.

“I try not to dwell on that [beating Ledecky] too much,” Titmus, sometimes called “the Terminator” by Australian press, said of the world championships, where she also out-split Ledecky in the 4x200m free relay and took bronze behind the American in the 800m free. “Next year’s the big one at the Olympics.”

Nowhere is swimming closer to a national sport than in Australia, but none of its Olympic champion Dolphins hail from Tasmania, an island 150 miles south of the mainland.

Notable Tasmanian sports persons include cricketer Ricky Ponting, retired NASCAR driver Marcos Ambrose and woodchopping world champion David Foster, but no listed swimmers.

Stephanie Rice, the last Australian female swimmer to win an individual Olympic title in 2008, visited “Tassie,” the state a little bigger than West Virginia, nearly a decade ago. She met a young Titmus, who still remembers what Rice scribbled: “Be the best you can be.”

“I say it’s my favorite quote,” Titmus said. “She wrote it on my shirt, so it has to be my favorite quote.”

Titmus was born a week before the Sydney Olympics — “She loved watching Thorpie,” her mom said — and grew up on 16 acres of country land. The family — parents Steve and Robyn and younger sister Mia — had horses, a trampoline and a swimming club just down the road in Launceston.

They also had an indoor pool (areas of Tasmania approach freezing in the winter). One evening more than 15 years ago, Robyn was chopping vegetables and peered to see her elder daughter, then a toddler without formal swim lessons, doing the breaststroke.

“We didn’t know anybody at the swimming club,” said Steve, a longtime TV journalist. “And we turned up and said, hi, we’re the Titmuses. We’ve got a daughter called Ariarne, and she wants to race. Tuesday nights they had club night, and she jumped in the water, and away she went.”

Titmus wasn’t the fastest at first, but by the time she won a third Australian junior title, she became too big for the Apple Isle.

“[My coach] said, look, you can’t really do anything else down here,” Titmus remembered. “There’s no one for you to train with. There’s no one for you to race. It’s all up in Queensland. And he said, if you really want a shot at this, you should really move.”

The family relocated to Brisbane when she was 14 or 15, following Titmus’ coach.

We packed up the car, got on the boat, sailed to Melbourne,” said Robyn, a former national-level track sprinter. “We even stopped at Albury on the way for a training session because the coach she had at the time was a hard task master.”

Right around that time, she first met Boxall while with the Australian junior national team.

“I originally thought this guy is nuts,” Titmus said. “He gave us this speech about the New Zealanders or something were trying to be better than us. His veins were popping. It was crazy. I was like, I’m never ever going to have a coach like him.”

Boxall became her coach about a year later.

“I’ve got great athletes here that hurt themselves, and they enjoy going through the pain,” he said, “but you want to try and get that little bit extra from someone. You have to actually go there with them a little bit.”

In a sitdown, on-camera interview, Boxall first told how he met Titmus, his first impression of her and a bit about their relationship. He first mentioned Ledecky, umprompted, when asked the fourth question, about Titmus’ progression.

Boxall noted that Titmus swam the 400m freestyle in 4:09.81 at the August 2016 Junior Pan Pacific Championships.

“Ledecky went 3:56:46,” Boxall said, correctly noting Ledecky’s Rio Olympic world record to the hundredth, “so we’re 13 seconds off [at] that stage.”

Titmus raced Ledecky for the first time at the 2017 Worlds and finished fourth in the 400m, closing the gap to six seconds. In 2018, she took second to Ledecky at Pan Pacs, 1.16 seconds behind, becoming the first Australian to break four minutes in the event.

At 2019 Worlds, Boxall needed to be alone during the 400m free final. He left the Australian team box and snuck into a VIP area. As Titmus reeled Ledecky in, Boxall stood up and ran.

“Like a shot of adrenaline,” he said. “I couldn’t contain myself, but I was calmer as I’d ever been as well.

“That’s the first race that Arnie has raced Katie and actually was in the race. … Prior to that, it was just Katie.”

Titmus swam 10 seconds faster than when Boxall first compared her to Ledecky in August 2016.

“She’s 2.4 seconds off [Ledecky’s] world record,” Boxall said. “We know what the benchmark is, and we’re still a long way off.”

Titmus recorded the eighth-fastest 400m freestyle in history. Ledecky owns the top seven times.

“The greatest thing apart from obviously winning, I think, [is] being able to actually race someone who has been on her own for so long,” Titmus said. “I find it so crazy that now I’m in this situation where she’s my main rival.”

Scroll down the list, and you’ll see that the top 27 times in history (aside from the now-banned suit era) are shared by Ledecky (23) and Titmus (four).

“She’s certainly special,” Boxall said of his pupil. “Special enough? We’ll see.”

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