Katie Ledecky’s rivals at swimming worlds: rising teens, teenage Ledecky

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For so long, we’ve followed Katie Ledecky‘s races for those interminable seconds between her hand touching the wall … and that of the second-place finisher.

But at next week’s world championships, the intrigue is about how close those other swimmers’ hands could be. And the event or two that Ledecky might not win.

“There comes a time when, sooner or later, people are going to start to catch her,” NBC Sports analyst Rowdy Gaines said.

Let’s make this clear: Ledecky is still doing things in the pool that nobody else has. She goes into worlds, beginning with a 400m freestyle test on Sunday in South Korea, ranked No. 1 in the globe this year in the 400m, 800m and 1500m frees with times no other active woman has ever matched outside of the high-tech suit era.

But she is ranked fifth in her toughest event, the 200m freestyle, the must-watch race of the eight-day meet. This will be the first time since 2016 that Ledecky goes into the year’s biggest meet not ranked No. 1 in one of her four individual races.

Maybe even more noteworthy, her margins over the No. 2 swimmers in the 400m, 800m and 1500m going into a year’s major meet are their smallest since 2013. Ledecky was 16 then, not ranked No. 1 in any event going into her first world championships (she ended up sweeping the 400m, 800m and 1500m frees with her first two of 14 world records so far).

Now, Ledecky’s biggest threat in each event is at least three years younger than her. If Ledecky wants to lower her personal-best times (three of them from the Rio Olympics, when she was 19), it will take a world record in the 400m, 800m or 1500m.

“I just feel bad because I think we did this with Michael [Phelps] a little bit,” Gaines said. “We just take her greatness for granted sometimes. She can go in there and win the bronze in the 200m and win golds in the 400m, 800m and 1500m, and people will still say, she didn’t go quite as fast as she did in Rio. It’s just so weird because she’s set this bar that’s so high, impossible to live up to. I still say she’s the greatest female swimmer in history.”

Ledecky’s 10 individual world titles trail only Phelps’ 15, but Ledecky gathered hers in three meets so far. Phelps competed at six worlds. Ledecky will move one shy of Phelps if she repeats her “Ledecky Slam” of 2015, when she swept the 200m, 400m, 800m and 1500m.

But that 200m is looking awfully tough, hearkening memories of one of Phelps’ greatest Olympic races. One which he lost.

The 200m freestyle at the 2004 Olympics, dubbed the “Race of the Century” for it included the reigning Olympic champion Pieter van den Hoogenband from the Netherlands, reigning world champion and world-record holder Ian Thorpe of Australia, Phelps as he bid for eight gold medals and another decorated Australian, Grant Hackett. Gold: Thorpe. Silver: Van den Hoogenand. Bronze: Phelps, who might have won a 210m freestyle that night in Athens.

The women’s 200m free final at worlds, scheduled for next Wednesday, could include the last three Olympic champions (Ledecky, countrywoman Allison Schmitt and Federica Pellegrini), the reigning world champion and world-record holder (also the 30-year-old Italian Pellegrini), the fastest woman of 2018 (Canadian teen Taylor Ruck), the fastest of 2019 (Australian teen Ariarne Titmus) and the fastest female sprinter in history, Swede Sarah Sjöström.

“Everyone seems to be firing,” Ledecky said.

Ledecky would contest the 200m free semifinals within an hour after her 1500m free final on Tuesday. Then the 200m free final the following night. Just like she did at the 2015 and 2017 Worlds.

“It falls on a tricky time,” said Greg Meehan, Ledecky’s coach at Stanford. “There really isn’t anybody else in the world that’s managing the racing load that she is.”

Ledecky recalled the final strokes of the 200m free at the last worlds in 2017, when she lost an individual final at a major international meet for the first time. She shared silver with Aussie Emma McKeon (also in next week’s 200m free field), .45 behind Pellegrini.

“I remember the last 15 [meters] not feeling like I had much, moving my arms and legs as hard as I could. It didn’t feel very good,” said Ledecky, who said at the time that she didn’t have her usual “extra gear” as Pellegrini passed her and McKeon in the last 50 meters.

Then in 2018, Ledecky was beaten by a younger swimmer at a major international meet for the first time. Two, in fact. Ruck and Japanese teen Rikako Ikee (since sidelined by leukemia) relegated her to 200m bronze at last August’s Pan Pacific Championships in Tokyo.

Ledecky noted that she has since worked on “little things” she can do the morning after that 200m free semi-1500m free final double to set herself up well for the 200m free final. But she is also devoting slightly more time to training for the 1500m since it will debut on the Olympic program in 2020.

“The biggest challenge is that my best times are pretty fast right now. They’re world records in the 400m, 800m and mile,” she said. “Trying to go best times, yeah, it’s harder than it was when I was 15 and my times were a little slower.”

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MORE: Chad le Clos battles injury heading into worlds

NFL star Jared Allen’s team beats Olympic champions at curling nationals

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Retired NFL star Jared Allen was part of a curling team that beat 2018 Olympic champion John Shuster to open the U.S. Championships in Denver on Sunday night.

Allen, who retired from the NFL in 2016 and picked up curling in 2018, is on 2010 Olympian Jason Smith‘s team, which beat Shuster’s team 10-6 in the first game of round-robin play.

After all eight teams play each other, the top four advance to Friday’s playoffs. The winner of Saturday’s final is national champion and is expected to be the U.S. team for the world championship in Ottawa in April.

Allen, 40, said before nationals that he is eyeing the 2026 Milan-Cortina Winter Olympics, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

“I thought curling was going to be a lot easier than it was,” Allen, whose team at the last nationals in 2021 went 0-9, told the newspaper. “But I’m one of those guys who, once I start something, I’m going to see it through. Our goal at nationals is to beat as many teams as we possibly can and see where we land.”

How big of an upset was Sunday’s result? Ken Pomeroy rated Smith’s team fifth in the eight-team field before the tournament, while he had Shuster’s team second behind Korey Dropkin.

Shuster’s team won the last three nationals that they entered, plus the last two Olympic Trials since the bulk of the team formed for the 2015 season. Shuster went 11-0 at his last nationals in 2020, then 11-2 at the 2022 Olympic Trials, where the younger Dropkin beat him twice but ultimately lost in the finals series.

Allen was first linked to serious curling in February 2018 via U.S. Hockey Hall of Famer Lou Nanne on a Minnesota ESPN radio show. Nanne said Allen told him at a dinner.

“[Allen] says, ‘I’m giving myself four years to make the Olympic curling team,’” said Nanne, a 1968 U.S. Olympian.

Allen, along with retired quarterback Marc Bulger, first played on a team with 2010 Olympian John Benton and fellow veteran curler Hunter Clawson.

Allen’s new team includes Smith, who played on the 2010 Olympic team skipped by Shuster, Clawson and Dominik Maerki.

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U.S. Alpine skiers wear climate change-themed race suits at world championships

U.S. Alpine Skiing Team Race Suit
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Looking cool is just the tip of the iceberg for Mikaela Shiffrin, Travis Ganong and the rest of the U.S. ski team when they debut new race suits at the world championships.

Even more, they want everyone thinking about climate change.

The team’s predominantly blue-and-white suits depict an image of ice chunks floating in the ocean. It’s a concept based on a satellite photo of icebergs breaking due to high temperatures. The suit was designed in collaboration with Kappa, the team’s technical apparel sponsor, and the nonprofit organization Protect Our Winters (POW).

The Americans will wear the suits throughout the world championships in Courchevel and Meribel, France, which started Monday with a women’s Alpine combined race and end Feb. 19.

“Although a race suit is not solving climate change, it is a move to continue the conversation and show that U.S Ski & Snowboard and its athletes are committed to being a part of the future,” said Sophie Goldschmidt, the president and CEO of U.S. Ski & Snowboard.

ALPINE WORLDS: Broadcast Schedule

Global warming has become a cold, hard reality in ski racing, with mild temperatures and a lack of snow leading to the postponement of several World Cup events this winter.

“I’m just worried about a future where there’s no more snow. And without snow, there’s no more skiing,” said Ganong, who grew up skiing at Lake Tahoe in California. “So this is very near and dear to me.”

What alarms Ganong is seeing the stark year-to-year changes to some of the World Cup circuit’s most storied venues.

“I mean, it’s just kind of scary, looking at how on the limit (these events) are even to being possible anymore,” said Ganong, who’s been on the U.S. team since 2006. “Places like Kitzbuehel (Austria), there’s so much history and there’s so much money involved with that event that they do whatever they can to host the event.

“But that brings up a whole other question about sustainability as well: Is that what we should be doing? … What kind of message do we need show to the public, to the world, about how our sport is adapting to this new world we live in?”

The suits feature a POW patch on the neck and the organization’s snowflake logo on the leg.

“By coming together, we can educate and mobilize our snowsports community to push for the clean energy technologies and policies that will most swiftly reduce emissions and protect the places we live and the lifestyles we love,” according to a statement from executive director Mario Molina, whose organization includes athletes, business leaders and scientists who are trying to protect places from climate change.

Ganong said a group of ski racers are releasing a letter to the International Ski Federation (FIS), with the hope the governing body will take a stronger stance on sustainability and climate change.

“They should be at the forefront of trying to adapt to this new world, and try to make it better, too,” Ganong said.

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U.S. Alpine Skiing Team Race Suit