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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Maria Sharapova appears set to miss Tokyo Olympics

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Maria Sharapova, who would have a difficult time qualifying for the Olympics next year, committed to play an event in California the week of the Tokyo Games.

Sharapova is scheduled to play World Team Tennis matches in California during the Olympic tennis events in late July, according to a press release. Sharapova’s longtime agent hasn’t responded to a message seeking confirmation that she is ruling out the Tokyo Games.

Sharapova, 32 and the 2012 Olympic silver medalist, was barred from the Rio Games due to her 15-month meldonium suspension in 2016 and 2017. That alone could rule her ineligible for Tokyo, given the World Anti-Doping Agency’s sanctions against Russia on Monday.

Sharapova is ranked No. 131 after a season shortened by shoulder surgery. She would have to be among the top four ranked Russian women after the French Open in June for possible automatic Olympic qualification. She is currently the 14th Russian.

Olympic eligibility rules include minimum participation requirements in Fed Cup, which Sharapova hasn’t done in this Olympic cycle, though exceptions can be made.

Sharapova’s passion for the Olympics is well documented.

She carried the Russian flag into the London 2012 Opening Ceremony and carried the Olympic flame into Fisht Stadium at the Sochi 2014 Opening Ceremony, where she worked for NBC Olympics.

“It was the one thing that my parents allowed me to watch on TV late into the evening was the Olympics,” Sharapova said in 2017. “I grew up watching figure skating and hockey and a little bit of tennis. … Just capturing the Opening Ceremonies and seeing all the countries and the little hats that they wore, and I, as a little girl, I just imagined that maybe it would be me. But I never, ever thought that I would be carrying the flag.

“I received that [flag] honor in a text message, which is a very Russian way of communicating. I originally thought it was a joke, a big fat joke. Then I showed it to my mother, and she [said], no, they probably wouldn’t joke like that.”

In February 2016, Sharapova entered a Fed Cup tie, despite saying she was injured, in order to receive Olympic eligibility. One month later, her failed drug test was announced.

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Russia banned from Olympics, world champs for 4 years; athletes could compete as neutrals

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Russia is banned from the next two Olympics and other major sports events for four years, though its athletes could still compete without representing the country if cleared by anti-doping authorities.

Russia’s hosting of world championships in Olympic sports also face being stripped after the World Anti-Doping Agency executive committee approved a full slate of recommended sanctions for tampering with a Moscow laboratory database.

Russian athletes will be allowed to compete in major events — including world championships — only if they are not implicated in positive doping tests or their data was not manipulated, according to the WADA ruling. “In this circumstance, they may not represent the Russian Federation,” according to a WADA release.

“While I understand the calls for a blanket ban on all Russian athletes whether or not they are implicated by the data, it was the unanimous view of the CRC [compliance review committee], which includes an athlete, that in this case, those who could prove their innocence should not be punished, and I am pleased that the WADA ExCo [executive committee] agreed with this,” WADA CRC chairman Jonathan Taylor said.

There are 145 unnamed athletes within WADA’s “target group of most suspicious athletes” from 2012-15 who would not be allowed to compete at the Olympics, Taylor said, adding that it’s possible those names will be made public. About one-third of them are still active.

Russia’s anti-doping agency can appeal the decision within 21 days. Russia previously signaled it would appeal the ruling.

“The decision will come into effect only when it becomes final ie when either RUSADA accepts it or it is upheld by the Court of Arbitration for Sport,” a WADA spokesperson said in an email.

Russia avoided blanket bans for the Rio and PyeongChang Olympics after a state-run doping program was exposed by media and WADA investigations after Russia hosted the 2014 Sochi Winter Games.

Approved Russian athletes competed as neutrals — “Olympic Athletes from Russia” — including in team sports in PyeongChang. Those Russians combined to earn two gold medals (figure skater Alina Zagitova and men’s hockey) and 17 overall, compared to the leading 33 Russia earned at the Sochi Olympics before medals were stripped for doping.

“Will Russian athletes be accepted as Olympic Athletes from Russia?” during the ban, Taylor said. “No, they are neutral athletes, which means not representatives of any country. Not representatives of Russia.”

Going forward, “they cannot use the name of the country in the name of the team,” WADA president-elect Witold Bańka told The Associated Press.

Two of the 168 Russians who competed in PyeongChang failed drug tests and were punished for doping.

More recent evidence shows that Russian authorities tampered with a Moscow laboratory database to hide hundreds of potential doping cases and falsely shift the blame onto whistleblowers, WADA investigators and the International Olympic Committee said last month. “Flagrant manipulation” of the Moscow lab data was “an insult to the sporting movement worldwide,” the IOC said last month.

“Russia was afforded every opportunity to get its house in order … but it chose instead to continue in its stance of deception and denial,” WADA president Craig Reedie said.

Russia will be allowed to participate in the Youth Olympics in Lausanne, Switzerland, that open Jan. 9.

WADA’s inability to fully expel Russia from the Tokyo Olympics and 2022 Beijing Winter Games frustrated the doping watchdog’s vice president.

“I’m not happy with the decision we made today. But this is as far as we could go,” said Linda Helleland, a Norwegian lawmaker who serves on WADA executive committee and has long pushed for a tougher line against Russia. “This is the biggest sports scandal the world has ever seen. I would expect now a full admission from the Russians and for them to apologize on all the pain all the athletes and sports fans have experienced.”

Although the IOC has called for the strongest possible sanctions, it wants those sanctions directed at Russian state authorities rather than athletes or Olympic officials.

“To allow Russia to escape a complete ban is yet another devastating blow to clean athletes, the integrity of sport and the rule of law,” USADA CEO Travis Tygart said in a statement. “And, in turn, the reaction by all those who value sport should be nothing short of a revolt against this broken system to force reform.”

Russia’s Olympic champion women’s handball team is currently competing at the world championships in Japan. Its next match is Tuesday against Montenegro. Russia has been the scheduled host for the world luge championships in Sochi in mid-February.

The “major sports” events that fall under WADA’s sanctions do not include European Championships or other non-world championships events such as tennis’ upcoming Australian Open.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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TIMELINE: Russia’s recent history of sports doping