For Caeleb Dressel, eight gold medals in play after winning the one that got away

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When Caeleb Dressel won seven gold medals at the 2017 World Championships, the outlier was the 50m butterfly, where he was fourth. Dressel, after a difficult 2018 in and out of the pool, won the 50m fly on Monday, putting a record eight gold medals in play this week.

Dressel dominated in the non-Olympic event 22.35 seconds, the second-fastest time in history and an American record. The margin of victory was vast for a one-length race — .35 of a second.

“I’m not here to count medals,” Dressel said. “I’m going to wake up tomorrow and forget about this.”

Dressel now has two golds in his first two events after leading off the U.S. 4x100m freestyle on Sunday in Gwangju, South Korea. He is a defending world champion in six remaining events — 50m and 100m freestyle (perhaps his biggest question mark against Rio gold medalist Kyle Chalmers) and the 100m butterfly, plus three more relays. He could be on the 4x200m free, too, giving him nine events.

Two of those relays are mixed-gender events that weren’t on the program when Michael Phelps set records of seven golds at the 2007 World Championships and eight at the 2008 Olympics. Phelps has said he’s not a fan of mixed-gender relays, but in 2017 he refused to say that Dressel’s feat was anything less than his own.

“You can’t take anything away from winning seven gold medals, right?” Phelps said then. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a relay or an individual event.”

If Dressel had it his way, the tattooed Floridian would have zero fanfare accompanying his recent rise.

“Being in the spotlight is something that’s important in the sport. It is inevitable,” Dressel said last week. “But if it were up to me, it would just be me, [coach Gregg Troy], no media stuff and just trying to go best times, really.”

In 2014, he quit the sport for five months under the expectation of being the nation’s top prep swimmer. He ultimately decided to join the University of Florida team and rewrote the NCAA record book before his breakout 2017 Worlds. Turning pro in 2018 brought more off-deck commitments, and Dressel struggled in last summer’s two major meets, winning two of seven individual events.

“It might send you to those dark places every once in a while, but it will test yourself,” said Dressel, who had perhaps the most pressure-packed role of any U.S. swimmer in Rio, leading off the 4x100m free final in his very first Olympic splash. “I like that from the sport.”

Dressel keeps grounded with interests outside the sport. He plays the drums, has one chapter left of his third time reading “Zen in the Martial Arts” and plans to go on a cruise with other swimmers later this summer.

“I really only have one little block of vacation time a year, so I like to spend it with my boys,” he said. “During the meet, it can be tricky, you can get caught up in your thoughts. I try to hang out with people when I can. I don’t want to be alone too much.”

SWIM WORLDS: TV Schedule | Results

Dressel gets Tuesday off. The headliner will be Katie Ledecky, slated for the 1500m freestyle final, followed about an hour later by a 200m free semifinal. Ledecky was relegated to silver in Sunday’s 400m free by 18-year-old Australian Ariarne Titmus, who is also in the 200m.

Also Tuesday, Lilly King will take on Russian rival Yuliya Efimova for the first of three events this week in the 100m breast, King’s trademark distance. The men’s 100m backstroke final features the last two Olympic champions, Americans Ryan Murphy and Matt Grevers.

In other events Monday, Brit Adam Peaty three-peated in the 100m breast, clocking 57.14 seconds one day after lowering his world record to 56.88 in the semifinals. Peaty, the 24-year-old Olympic champion, owns the 17 fastest times in history and is the only man to break not only 57 seconds, but also 58 seconds.

Peaty led a British one-two with James Wilby, who was 1.32 seconds back. China’s Yan Zibei grabbed bronze, while American Andrew Wilson was sixth.

Katinka Hosszu became the first woman to win four straight world titles in one event, taking the 200m individual medley in 2:07.53. Ye Shiwen, the eye-popping 2012 Olympic champion at age 16, took silver, 1.07 seconds behind. American Melanie Margalis was fourth, .21 behind bronze medalist Sydney Pickrem of Canada.

Canadian Maggie MacNeil, a rising Michigan sophomore, upset world-record holder Sarah Sjostrom in the 100m butterfly. MacNeil stormed past Sjostrom in the last 25 meters to win in 55.83, topping Sjostrom by .39. American Kelsi Dalhia was sixth, two years after taking bronze.

“[MacNeil] told me straight after, the first thing she said was, I look up to you very much,” Sjostrom said, who earned her first world title in 2009 at age 15.

Sjostrom owns the 10 fastest times in history and won the last three world titles and the Rio Olympics. MacNeil chopped .69 off her personal best, jumping from the 10th-fastest woman in history to No. 2 ahead of 2012 Olympic champion Dana Vollmer.

“I can’t really hold the last 50,” Sjostrom said. “I’m actually exhausted in the end. I’m absolutely surprised I went 56.22 with how I finished.”

NBC Olympic researchers Alex Azzi and Megan Soisson contributed to this report from Gwangju.

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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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