Ryan Held, after lean years post Rio, now among world’s fastest swimmers

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Ryan Held had been a missing man since his viral Rio Olympic podium experience, when he broke down into tears and was consoled by Michael Phelps. He re-emerged Wednesday with the fastest-ever 100m freestyles in a U.S. pool.

Held won the 100m free at the U.S. Championships in Palo Alto, Calif., in 47.39 seconds, ranking him third in the world this year. Only American Caeleb Dressel and Australian Kyle Chalmers, who went one-two at last week’s world championships, have been faster in 2019.

Held swam 47.43 in the morning prelims, which also went under the previous fastest time in a U.S. pool set by Nathan Adrian at the 2016 Olympic Trials. Now, only Dressel and David Walters rank ahead of Held on the U.S. all-time 100m free list in any pool worldwide.

Quite a turnaround for Held. He was a surprise third in the 100m free at the 2016 trials to earn a spot on the 4x100m free relay that took gold in Rio. He then finished sixth and eighth in the 100m free at the last two national championships. Held lowered his personal best from 48.26.

“Those two races, this morning and afternoon, had like two years of disappointment, bad summers built up,” Held told Tanith White on NBCSN, adding later that he was sick and burnout from swimming last summer before making a coaching change. “This was finally the summer that it all came together.”

Dressel was originally entered in the 100m free but scratched after a busy world championships last week in South Korea where he earned six gold medals and eight total medals.

Held attributed to Dressel the motivation for other U.S. sprinters to improve going toward the Olympic year. Dressel has lowered Walters’ 2009 American record three times from 47.33 to 46.96, just .05 off the world record.

“A single tide raises all ships,” Held said on USA Swimming’s Deck Pass Live. “Caeleb just pushing the bar that much further. It was like, well, I’ve got to beat him. I’ve got to put the pedal to the metal.”

MORE: U.S. Swimming Champs TV Schedule

In other events, 17-year-old Regan Smith won the women’s 200m butterfly in 2:07.26.

Smith, who broke the 100m and 200m backstroke world records at last week’s world championships, swam an off-stroke but still topped a field that included world 200m fly bronze medalist Katie Drabot. Smith’s time ranks her No. 6 in the world this year and third among Americans behind world silver medalist Hali Flickinger and Drabot.

Luca Urlando took the men’s 200m fly, as expected, in 1:54.92. The 17-year-old ranks third in the world this year with a 1:53.84 from June, when he broke Phelps’ national age-group record.

But Urlando was not at last week’s worlds as that team was decided in 2018. Last summer, Urlando was the highest-ranking U.S. swimmer not to make the 2018 Pan Pacific Championships team, though it was initially announced that he did make it.

Had Urlando made Pan Pacs and then swum .17 faster there than he did at nationals, he would have made the team for July’s world championships. Urlando went to Junior Pan Pacs instead last summer and did not swim faster than at nationals.

Should Urlando, the grandson of an Italian Olympic hammer thrower, make the Tokyo Games, he is in line to be the youngest U.S. Olympic male swimmer since 2000, when a 15-year-old Phelps made his Olympic debut.

Olympian Abbey Weitzeil took a women’s 100m free that lacked Olympic and world champion Simone Manuel. Weitzeil, who was seventh at the Rio Games, swam a personal-best 53.18, which ranks her ninth in the world this year.

MORE: Dana Vollmer details swimming retirement

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Jordan Thompson, U.S. volleyball’s new weapon, took unique route to NCAA history

Jordan Thompson
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It was about this time last year that Jordan Thompson first appeared on the radar of U.S. women’s volleyball coach Karch Kiraly. Since, Thompson emerged as the youngest starter, and arguably a star, for the national team.

She goes into what could be her final weekend of college volleyball as one of the most dominant athletes in any sport. And one of the most unique stories in NCAA history.

Thompson plays not for a Big Ten or Pac-12 powerhouse, but for Cincinnati, a school that, before she arrived, never made it past the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

The unranked Bearcats upset second-ranked Pittsburgh in the second round last Saturday. They play Penn State, winner of six of the last 12 NCAA titles, in the Sweet 16 on Friday.

In 33 games this season, Thompson has registered a Division I-leading 768 kills, which is 143 more than the next most prolific attacker. That margin of 143 is the same number that separates No. 2 from No. 31.

Last season, she had 827 kills, which was 240 more than anybody else and a single-season record (by 112 kills) since NCAA match formats shifted from 30-point to 25-point sets in 2008.

She is a contender, if not a favorite, to be AVCA National Player of the Year. All of the previous winners dating to 1985 came from schools that reached at least one Final Four.

On Oct. 4, a UCF player’s face caught the wrong end of a Thompson attack. Cincinnati teammates watching from the bench dropped to the floor in astonishment.

Thompson tallied 50 kills in one match alone on Nov. 3, becoming the first D-I player to do so in 20 years.

That happened on Senior Day. Before that match, Thompson received a plaqued No. 23 jersey and flowers.

She posed for a photo standing with her husband, former Cincinnati offensive lineman Blake Yager, her mother, Mary, whose bribes helped Thompson develop into an attacker, and her father, 1990s Harlem Globetrotter Tyrone Doleman (and brother of Pro Football Hall of Famer Chris Doleman).

Mary has been most instrumental, raising Thompson as a single mom in Minnesota. Thompson, who is 6 feet, 4 inches now, was always tall for her age.

She played youth basketball against older girls and grew frustrated by the physical contact. Kneepads weren’t comfort enough. She decided to give volleyball a try in middle school.

“She was very timid,” Mary said of her daughter, who has since gotten 10 tattoos, including one of a hummingbird. “She would tell me she didn’t want to hurt anyone on the other side of the net. I told her I would give her a dollar for every time she would whack it. And I would give her $10 if she would actually hit someone on the other end of the court.”

It took a while, but Thompson was motivated by her love of horses. The payouts from her mom went toward a saddle and a bridal. A box with horse equipment remains in the family garage back home.

“She was trying to build up her supplies to be able to one day say to me, look, I’ve got a saddle, I’ve got all of my tack, I’ve got stuff to clean the hooves, can we get a horse now?” Mary said. 

After just two years of club volleyball, Thompson received her first Division-I scholarship offer. It came from Syracuse. Thompson was a high school sophomore.

“In the back of my head, I’m thinking, I’m never going to get another offer, so I better take this one,” she said.

Thompson was intent on Syracuse for a year before a coaching change led her to decommit. She wasn’t sure if many schools knew she had reopened her recruiting. A Minnesota club teammate had committed to Cincinnati and suggested Thompson take a visit.

The Bearcats went 3-29 the season before she committed.

“I said, Jordan, you can play D-I at Texas. You can go to Nebraska,” Mary said. “She was like, no, no, I want to play all four years. I actually want to get playing time, mom. She really struggled believing how good she could be.”

The biggest obstacle came junior year. In a preseason training session, Thompson collided with that Minnesota club teammate, Jade Tingelhoff, and tore the UCL in her dominant, right arm. She was in an armpit-to-wrist brace for two months post-Tommy John surgery, including three weeks with her arm locked in place.

She couldn’t brush her hair, had a hard time brushing her teeth and found it difficult showering and getting dressed.

She still went to every Bearcats game and traveled with the team. Cincinnati went from 22-10 her sophomore season to 13-19 that year without her on the court.

“It ended up being OK,” Tingelhoff said. “She came back that next season — I’m not kidding — 10 times as better than she was even the previous year.”

As a redshirt junior, Thompson and her 827 kills helped Cincinnati to a 26-8 record and its first NCAA Tournament win in seven years. She also caught the eye of Kiraly by the end of that 2018 season.

“She was one of the elite players in all of college volleyball,” he said. “Probably the only one who came from a conference other than the ones known for producing the most NCAA champions, like the Big Ten and the Pac-12.”

By last spring break, Thompson had become a favorite of U.S coaches at a camp to help select teams for summer international tournaments.

She had a one-on-one conversation with Kiraly, the only person to own Olympic indoor and beach gold medals. The legend told her she had potential to play at the Pan American Games. Later, he upped the praise to say she was ready for the top-level Nations League, a precursor to Olympic qualifying.

Thompson made her national team debut in May. By August, she came off the bench to help spur a comeback in a crucial Olympic qualifying match. The next day, she was in the starting lineup for the U.S.’ final Olympic qualifier, where the Americans clinched a Tokyo 2020 berth.

“I think a lot people don’t know she is still in college,” two-time U.S. Olympic outside hitter Jordan Larson said then. “She still has one more year left.”

Agents reached out, but Thompson had no intention of giving up her final year of NCAA eligibility. She wanted to make history at Cincinnati. That was secured with the Sweet 16 berth.

With the new year, she will trade the Cincinnati red and black for Team USA colors. She will keep in mind what the U.S. coaching staff told the team during Olympic qualifying and what she called a dream summer.

“My big goal in life was I just wanted to be in the USA gym,” said Thompson, who is working on her master’s in criminal justice. “To hear that we’re all working towards this goal of trying to make this roster, and we are being looked as potential players to make that roster, my jaw dropped. To know that it’s even a remote possibility is mind-blowing.”

VIDEO: Brazil volleyball star faints during courtside interview

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Tahiti chosen for Olympic surfing competition at 2024 Paris Games

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Paris 2024 Olympic organizers want the surfing competition to be held in Tahiti, an island in French Polynesia that is about 9,800 miles from Paris.

It would break the record for the farthest Olympic medal competition to be held outside the host. In 1956, equestrian events were moved out of Melbourne due to quarantine laws and held five months earlier in Stockholm, some 9,700 miles away.

The Paris 2024 executive board approved the site Thursday — specifically, the village of Teahupo’o — and will propose it to the IOC. It beat out other applicants Biarritz, Lacanau, Les Landes and La Torche, all part of mainland France.

“If, ever, we have two alternatives, and where one alternative gives the athletes of a particular sport more closeness to the heart of the Games and allows them to enjoy the magic and the spirit of the Games better, then in the interest of the athletes, we prefer this solution,” IOC President Thomas Bach said in June when asked about Tahiti’s interest in hosting surfing.

Surfing will debut at the 2020 Tokyo Games but is not on the permanent Olympic program. Surfing was among sports added to the Paris 2024 program in June and could be added for the 2028 Los Angeles Games.

MORE: U.S. athletes qualified for Tokyo Olympics

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