Caeleb Dressel runs gold tally to six; Regan Smith takes first

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After a slow start to the world swimming championships in Gwangju, South Korea, the U.S. team has stormed back with a dizzying run of world championships and world records.

Caeleb Dressel took three gold medals in less than two hours Saturday, bringing his total for the week to six world titles and keeping alive his chances of matching his seven-gold tally from the 2017 world championships. Dressel’s final race of the evening was the mixed 4x100m freestyle relay, where Simone Manuel also picked up another world title — and a world record.

Dressel repeated his 2017 feat of three golds in one night, something Michael Phelps never attempted at an Olympics or worlds.

“It was not easy in ’17, and it was not easy this year,” said Dressel, who joined Phelps, Ryan Lochte and Katie Ledecky as the only swimmers to earn four individual titles at a single worlds. “I don’t want it to be easy.”

Regan Smith — who, like Dressel, set a world record in a semifinal race Friday — won her first world title at age 17.

Ledecky allied from a week of illness and a substantial deficit in the 800m freestyle to add an emphatic win to her trophy case.

READ: Ledecky rallies after difficult week to win 800m free

Swedish star Sarah Sjoestroem kicked off the evening with her third straight 50m butterfly title, her first gold after a silver and two bronze medals this week. She also won four medals in 2017 and can match her record of five from 2015.

Then Dressel hit the pool for the 50m freestyle and set a championship and American record of 21.04 seconds. Brazil’s Bruno Fratus and Greece’s Kristian Gkolomeev tied for second 0.41 seconds behind, an eternity in such a short race.

Dressel was up again 34 minutes later in the 100m butterfly, in which he broke Phelps’ world record in Friday’s semifinal. His time of 49.66 seconds was just shy of his new record of 49.50 but a comfortable 1.17 seconds ahead of Russia’s Andrei Minakov.

South Africa’s Chad le Clos, a longtime Phelps rival, took bronze just ahead of 19-year-old Hungarian Kristof Milak, who broke Phelps’ record in the 200m butterfly on Wednesday.

Next up was Smith, who broke through in the international swimming scene with authority on Friday with a world record of 2:03.35 in the 200m backstroke semifinals on Friday. In the final, she was nearly a second ahead of her new world record at the halfway mark (59.45 seconds, a time that would have taken sixth in the 100m backstroke here) before cruising home in 2:03.69, a solid 2.57 seconds ahead of Australia’s Kaylee McKeown.

Smith has one more year at Lakeville North (Minn.) High School before beginning her college career at Stanford. She is not entered in any other individual events but could be selected for the medley relay.

“I didn’t want to put pressure on myself to try to break (the world record) two nights in a row,” Smith said. “Just to get close to that again was awesome, so I’m really happy.”

Then Ledecky, the world’s most dominant freestyle swimmer in the 2010s, shook off a week of illness that forced her out of a couple of races and rallied with a furious sprint in the final lap to take gold in the 800m freestyle, in which she has taken every world and Olympic title from the 2012 Olympics onwards.

Dressel returned for a third swim in the leadoff leg of the mixed 4x100m freestyle relay, staking the U.S. team to a narrow lead of 0.03 seconds over Australia. Zach Apple pushed that lead out to nearly a second, and Mallory Comerford stayed in front despite a charge from Emma McKeon.

Then it was up to Manuel, who defended her world title in the 100m freestyle earlier in the week and qualified for the 50m free final with a strong semifinal earlier in the evening. She extended the lead slightly at the turn and finished 0.57 seconds in front.

The overall time of 3:19.40 pared 0.20 seconds off the previous world record, set by the U.S. team in 2017.

Earlier this week, Dressel took gold in the 100m freestyle, the 50m butterfly and the men’s 4x100m freestyle. He can equal his 2017 total of seven golds in the men’s 4×100 medley relay on Sunday.

In the first final of the evening, Sjoestroem won the 50m butterfly over Dutch veteran Ranomi Kromowidjojo, who took silver for the second straight world championship. Egypt’s Farida Osman edged out American Kelsi Dahlia by 0.01 seconds to take bronze. Dahlia tied the American record with a time of 25.48.

Like Dressel, Sjoestroem has a busy schedule here. She was back in the pool barely 20 minutes later, posting the fastest time in the 50m freestyle semifinals. Manuel qualified fourth, while fellow American Abbey Weitzeil did not qualify.

Lilly King, who won her second straight 100m breaststroke world title earlier in the week, rebounded from her disqualification in the 200m breaststroke to post the fastest time in the semifinals of the 50m breaststroke, another event in which she is the defending champion. King finished in 29.84, with Russian rival Yuliya Efimova winning the other semi in 30.12.

Ryan Murphy qualified for the 50m backstroke final, taking second in his semifinal behind Russia’s Evgeny Rylov, who took gold ahead of Murphy in the 200m backstroke.

Michael Andrew finished sixth in the 50m freestyle and returned an hour later to earn the rare distinction of qualifying for the final in all four 50m disciplines, qualifying seventh in the backstroke. He finished fourth in the butterfly final and seventh in the breaststroke.

Dressel has one event left Sunday, the men’s 4x100m medley relay. He’s accomplished everything he could have hoped for individually in Gwangju with four American records and a world record. It will only raise the hype going into the Tokyo Olympics, where if all goes right at trials he will in at least six events and perhaps a Phelpsian eight.

“I’ll be ready for it next year,” said Dressel, who burned out from the sport as the world’s top prep swimmer five years ago and struggled with the increased demands of turning pro last year. “I’ve never been one to buy into all the hype. It’s really just between me, myself and my coach getting ready for next year.”

OlympicTalk editor Nick Zaccardi contributed to this report.

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2021 Burton U.S. Open snowboarding event canceled

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The Burton U.S. Open, snowboarding’s most storied event, canceled its 2021 competition due to uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.

“The truth is, we just can’t be sure it will be safe from a public health standpoint for us to host the event in 2021,” a statement read.

The U.S. Open, held since 1982, is usually around the first weekend in March, making it the season-ending event for many riders. Halfpipe champions include Shaun WhiteChloe KimKelly Clark and Ross Powers, who also earned Olympic gold medals.

Other 2020-21 winter sports events affected by the coronavirus pandemic include figure skating’s Junior Grand Prix. The first two stops of that eight-event series, scheduled for late August and early September in Canada and Slovakia, have been canceled.

The Italian Winter Sports Federation, which is due to put on the February 2021 World Alpine Skiing Championships in Cortina d’Ampezzo, made a formal request on Monday to postpone the event until March 2022, one month after the next Winter Olympics in Beijing. The International Ski Federation (FIS) council will decide July 1.

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Kara Eaker eschews fear, back on balance beam to resume Olympic quest

Kara Eaker
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Kara Eaker hasn’t qualified for an Olympics yet, but she is already part of a historic club of U.S. gymnasts. The list goes, most recently, Eaker, Simone BilesKyla RossAly RaismanNastia LiukinShawn JohnsonShannon Miller and Dominique Dawes.

Those are the women who qualified for back-to-back balance beam finals at the sport’s highest level: Olympics or world championships. For Eaker (pronounced like acre), they came in her first two years as a senior gymnast in 2018 and 2019 (Biles and Johnson are the only other U.S. women to do that in the last 25 years.)

This was supposed to be Eaker’s Olympic year, but the coronavirus pandemic postponed the Games to 2021, after her Missouri high school graduation. It also kept her out of the gym for nearly two months until the GAGE Center reopened last week in Blue Springs, near Kansas City.

It was the longest Eaker had been off a regulation beam (and out of the gym) since she could remember. She began competing at age 5.

Eaker’s mom, Katherine, said her daughter never feared the four-inch-wide beam, but Eaker said the thought of returning last week “was definitely kind of scary at first.” That is, until one of her coaches eased her back with basics and work on a floor beam, one that’s not raised as high as the four feet you see in competition.

“By the time we were ready, and she was comfortable putting us back up there, it wasn’t scary,” Eaker said. “It felt normal.”

Eaker, adopted from a Chinese orphanage around age 1 in 2003 (her parents’ travel then delayed by SARS), excels on the senior elite stage with a level of normalcy.

Which is not entirely normal in this sport. She lives with her family, 10 minutes from her world-class gym. She still attends regular high school. She’s committed to continue gymnastics at the University of Utah after the Tokyo Olympics.

“I started out in dance, actually,” said Eaker, whose hobbies include robotics and calligraphy. “A little, little girl with the stuffed animal, twirling around in the dance room. And then we had our little recital and I just wasn’t … I couldn’t do the standing in front of an audience kind of thing.”

Her mom believes it was around Christmas. Eaker was 3 or 4.

“She just froze like a deer in the headlights, and all the other girls froze, too, because they were used to following her,” Katherine said. “Then she tried gymnastics. We had to drag her out [of the gym]. From then on, it was always, she’s first one in, last one out. Still is.”

The family, including Eaker’s father, Mark, retired Navy and a flight engineer, and younger sister, Sara, moved three times within Missouri in part to get Kara closer to GAGE to pursue what would eventually become an Olympic dream.

Gymnastics meets were appointment TV before Eaker entered kindergarten. She watched the Beijing Olympics, or perhaps an even earlier meet, while dancing around the living room in a leotard. Sometimes she mimicked the gold medalists by doing back bends. She continued to watch Beijing highlights, with Liukin and Johnson, on replay on YouTube.

Back at the gym, Eaker developed with the help of her coaches, plus future University of Nebraska gymnast Catelyn Orel, her “gym mom” under the GAGE program to pair older and younger athletes. Orel was a state champion on beam. Eaker proved a natural, too.

“A lot of the girls would get up there and have trouble balancing, but she just always seemed to do it just like she was on the floor,” her mom said. “She’s never really had a fear. Some girls get up there and are nervous. She just never seemed to be that way.”

In 2018, Eaker was 15, old enough to start competing on the senior level with the likes of Biles. Exactly 10 years after she would have watched Johnson win the Beijing Olympic beam title, Eaker finished second on beam at nationals behind Biles. She was invited to the world championships team selection camp, where she had the top beam score and placed sixth in the all-around. Six gymnasts would be chosen by a committee to travel to the world championships.

Eaker didn’t expect to make the team. In a large meeting with coaches and staff, the roster was announced. Eaker made it as the youngest member.

“It was a goal, but there were so many other girls and it was my first year as a senior,” she said. “I was very happy and surprised to make that team.”

Eaker again won beam at the 2019 World Championships selection camp. If Eaker endured adversity those first two years, it came at worlds.

In 2018, she fell on her mount in the beam final. The rest of her routine was medal-worthy gymnastics. She waited an eternal three minutes for her score, which placed her sixth. Eaker’s routine from the team final earlier that week would have earned silver.

In 2019, Eaker again qualified for the eight-woman beam final. The U.S. federation submitted an inquiry on her qualifying score, contesting a lower start value given to her. That backfired. Judges lowered Eaker’s score even more upon review, which took her out of the final. However, another gymnast who had qualified later withdrew due to injury. Eaker was back in the final, where she placed fourth.

She was asked afterward what she would take away from the meet.

“Just the experience of it all,” she said, composed. “How it makes me feel. How to use that [in the future].”

In 2021, Eaker will have to prove to a selection committee that she can be reliable on all four apparatuses. The Olympic team event size is four — with three gymnasts going per apparatus in the Olympic final — down from five in 2016, putting a greater emphasis on the all-around. Eaker could also be a candidate for one separate spot in individual events only.

“I definitely want to be seen as a great beam worker, but I also need to be a great all-arounder because they’re going to be looking at not just your one event,” said Eaker, who was third in the all-around at the 2019 Worlds selection camp. “You have to be able to benefit the team with your other events, even if they aren’t as strong as your [best] one.”

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