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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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Mexico snatches Olympic baseball spot from U.S., which must now wait

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The U.S. was three outs from clinching a spot in the first Olympic baseball tournament in 12 years. Instead, Mexico will play for an Olympic baseball medal for the first time, forcing the Americans to wait until March.

The Mexicans scored once in the ninth inning and walked off in the 10th, taking a winner-goes-to-the-Olympics game 3-2 at the Premier12 at the Tokyo Dome on Sunday.

Mexico joined Japan, Israel and South Korea in the six-team 2020 Olympic baseball tournament. Baseball returns to the Games in July for the first time since it was voted off the Olympic program following the 2008 Beijing Games. Baseball will not be on the Paris 2024 program but could return again for Los Angeles 2028.

Mexico, managed by former MLB infielder Juan Castro, rallied to deny what would have been an improbable U.S. run to the lone Olympic berth available for teams from the Americas at Premier12.

The U.S. needed four straight game results to go its way to remain in Olympic qualifying contention. From Wednesday through Saturday, the U.S. beat Chinese Taipei, Japan and South Korea beat Mexico and Chinese Taipei beat Australia.

On Sunday, the Americans were up 2-1 in the ninth inning. They were in prime position to qualify for the Olympics for the fifth time in six tries since it was added as a medal event in 1992.

Then Mexican designated hitter Matt Clark, who played for the U.S. at the 2011 Pan American Games and for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2014, smacked a home run to lead off the bottom of the ninth. In extra innings, runners are placed on first and second to start each half-inning. Efren Navarro ended the game in the 10th on a walk-off single.

While Mexico celebrates its first Olympic baseball berth, the U.S. focus shifts to an Americas qualifier in March in Arizona (and, if necessary, a final, global qualifying event in Chinese Taipei).

The roster at Premier12 included many double-A and triple-A prospects, but it remains to be seen how MLB clubs will go about releasing minor leaguers for a tournament that will take place during spring training.

“That’ll be a delicate dance,” U.S. general manager Eric Campbell said before Premier12.

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Alexandra Trusova qualifies for Grand Prix Final after win at Rostelecom Cup

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Alexandra Trusova, the Russian 15-year-old, won Rostelecom Cup in Moscow on Saturday to earn a spot in December’s prestigious six-skater Grand Prix Final. And notably, Russia swept all four disciplines on home ice.

Olympic silver medalist Yevgenia Medvedeva, also of Russia, earned the silver. Meanwhile, American Mariah Bell won the third Grand Prix medal of her career, a bronze.

Trusova fell on her opening quadruple Salchow attempt, but landed a quad Lutz and a quad toe, triple toe combination to follow. She also landed a quad toe, Euler, triple Salchow combination but fell on the next jumping combination, a triple Lutz, triple loop attempt.

Despite two falls, Trusova’s free skate earned 160.26 points, giving her enough to leapfrog Medvedeva for the title at 234.47 points. Trusova is into the Grand Prix Final by virtue of her wins in Moscow and at Skate Canada.

“I made some mistakes in short and free program and I’ll continue to work to skate two clean programs next time,” Trusova said via the International Skating Union (ISU). “I would like to compete with the men, because they can do a quad in the short program and we are not allowed to. Also, it would be interesting to compete with skaters that do many quads in the programs,” she added.

Medvedeva skated a clean program to the “Memoirs of a Geisha” soundtrack, including seven triples and two double Axels. The 19-year-old Russian laid her head on coach Brian Orser‘s shoulder and said “I’m tired” with a chuckle as she waited in the Kiss and Cry for her scores to be announced: 148.83 in the free skate for 225.76 total points.

“It is in my plans to learn a quad, I am working on the quad Salchow, but at the same time I need to make sure I stay healthy,” Medvedeva said through the ISU. “I’ll do everything I can for it and I hope to put it out there as soon as possible.”

Bell’s bronze is the third Grand Prix series medal of the her career, and second this season after another bronze at Grand Prix France. She skated without any major errors to K.D. Lang’s “Hallelujah.”

Earlier Saturday in the men’s event, Alexander Samarin, Dmitri Aliev, and Makar Ignatov completed a podium sweep for Russia. The last time three Russian men swept the podium at Rostelecom Cup was 1998, when Alexei Urmanov, Yevgeni Plushenko, and Alexander Abt completed the feat.

Samarin opened his free skate on Saturday with a quad Lutz, triple toe combination and only erred on his triple flip, which was called with an unclear edge. He earned 171.64 points in his free skate for a total score of 264.45 points.

Aliev, though, attempted two quad toes (one in combination) and earned positive Grades of Execution on both. His only major error came from an invalid triple Lutz as part of a jumping sequence in the second half of the program, which scored 169.42 points. He tallied 259.88 total points.

Both Samarin (silver at Grand Prix France) and Aliev (bronze at Skate America) have won medals this season during the Grand Prix series. Entries to December’s Grand Prix Final will be determined after the conclusion of NHK Trophy in Japan next weekend.

Ignatov’s free skate included a quad Salchow and a quad toe, both called clean. He scored 252.87 total points to edge Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno from Japan for the bronze by 0.63 points.

The lone U.S. men’s entry, Alex Krasnozhon, finished 10th.

The standings in ice dance did not change between the rhythm dance and the free dance. Russia’s Viktoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov held on to their gold medal position and scored 126.06 points in the free dance for 212.15 total points. As last weekend’s winners at Cup of China, they solidified a berth to the Grand Prix Final.

Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier of Canada finished in second with a free dance score of 125.08 points for 207.64 points. They were surprise winners of Skate Canada, but have not definitively qualified for the Final. Spain’s Sara Hurtado and Kirill Khaliavin finished third with 185.01 total points. The U.S. did not have an ice dance entry.

Also Saturday, Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitriy Kozlovskiy of Russia won the pairs event after scoring 149.34 in the free skate to tally 229.48 points overall. Russia’s Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov (two-time European champions and three-time World medalists) captured the silver medals with 216.77 total points. Russia sat in first, second, and third after the short program, but the third Russian pair in the field, Ksenia Stolbova and Andrei Novoselov, fell from third to fifth overall.

Germany’s Minerva Fabienne Hase and Nolan Seegert took the bronze with 186.16 total points, rising from sixth place after the short.

The last time one nation swept all four disciplines at a Grand Prix was Russia at this competition in 2005.

Rostelecom Cup Results
Women
1. Alexandra Trusova (RUS) — 234.47
2. Yevgenia Medvedeva (RUS) — 225.76
3. Mariah Bell (USA) — 205.67
4. Satoko Miyahara (JPN) — 192.42
5. Ekaterina Ryabova (AZE) — 187.77
6. Yuhana Yokoi (JPN) — 182.68
7. Alexia Pagani (SUI) — 179.69
8. Chen Hongyi (CHN) — 175.77
9. Nicole Schott (GER) — 172.08
10. Yuna Shiraiwa (JPN) — 170.03
11. Stanislava Konstantinova (RUS) — 156.94
12. Emmi Peltonen (FIN) — 152.50

Men
1. Alexander Samarin (RUS) — 264.45
2. Dmitri Aliev (RUS) — 259.88
3. Makar Ignatov (RUS) — 252.87
4. Shoma Uno (JPN) — 252.24
5. Nam Nguyen (CAN) — 246.20
6. Deniss Vasiljevs (LAT) — 241.09
7. Morisi Kvitelashvili (GEO) — 237.59
8. Kazuki Tomono (JPN) — 237.54
9. Michal Brezina (CZE) — 236.47
10. Alex Krasnozhon (USA) — 216.28
11. Vladimir Litvintsev (AZE) — 209.07
WD. Daniel Samohin (ISR) — 56.94 (Short program only)

Pairs
1. Aleksandra Boikova/Dmitriy Kozlovskiy (RUS) — 229.48
2. Yevgenia Tarasova/Vladimir Morozov (RUS) — 216.77
3. Minerva Fabienne Hase/Nolan Seegert (GER) — 186.16
4. Miriam Ziegler/Severin Kiefer (AUT) — 182.02
5. Ksenia Stolbova/Andrei Novoselov (RUS) — 177.51
6. Evelyn Walsh/Trennt Michaud (CAN) — 168.96
7. Rebecca Ghilardi/Filippo Ambrosini (ITA) — 162.76
8. Audrey Lu/Misha Mitrofanov (USA) — 153.61

Ice Dance
1. Victoria Sinitsina/Nikita Katsalapov (RUS) — 212.15

2. Piper Gilles/Paul Poirier (CAN) — 207.64
3. Sara Hurtado/Kirill Khaliavin (ESP) — 185.01
4. Natalia Kaliszek/Maksym Spodyriev (POL) — 178.70
5. Allison Reed/Saulius Ambrulevicius (LTU) — 175.43
6. Anastasia Shpilevaya/Grigory Smirnov (RUS) — 172.93
7. Marjorie Lajoie/Zachary Lagha (CAN) — 169.90
8. Adelina Galyavieva/Louis Thauron (FRA) — 164.79
9. Anastasia Skoptcova/Kirill Aleshin (RUS) — 164.64
10. Jasmine Tessari/Francesco Fioretti (ITA) — 154.44

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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