Six gold medals? Seven gold medals? U.S. swim stars may be busy at Tokyo Olympics in 2021

Katie Ledecky, Simone Manuel
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A little over a month ago, NBC Olympics swimming analyst Rowdy Gaines left a Tyr Pro Series meet in Des Moines, Iowa, flabbergasted at what he just witnessed.

Regan Smith swam the sixth-fastest 100m backstroke in history. Katie Ledecky recorded her fourth-fastest 200m freestyle. National team veterans Michael Andrew, Madisyn Cox and Melanie Margalis took chunks off personal bests.

“I couldn’t believe that three, four months out of the potential Olympic Trials that swimmers were going that fast,” Gaines said.

Swimmers are often in heavy training in the winter and spring, aiming to taper and peak for major summer meets.

“Everybody was locked and loaded, and I think this had the potential to be a great U.S. team,” Gaines said. “Now, one year is not going to make that big of a difference, but there was certainly a lot of focus going into trials.”

The Olympics and the trials were postponed a year. The major swimming storylines set for this June and July — Ledecky bidding to sweep the 200m through 1500m freestyles, Simone Manuel going for a potential six gold medals, Caeleb Dressel looking at up to seven golds and Ryan Lochte trying to make a fifth Olympics — must stew.

For Ledecky, a question about her sprint speed was answered with that 200m free in Des Moines. The greatest distance swimmer in history was beaten in the 200m free at the biggest meets of 2017 and 2018 and withdrew at 2019 Worlds due to a stomach virus.

With the addition of the 1500m free to the Olympic program — with the final in the same session as the 200m free — Gaines said there had been whispers that Ledecky might not race the shorter distance at trials.

“Talk from a lot of people, except for Katie and [her coach] Greg [Meehan],” Gaines said. “There was no way she was going to [not race the 200m], and there’s no way she’s going to not do that next summer. She’s not that kind of swimmer. And the 200m free [in Des Moines] was sort of the stamp on any of those rumors.”

Ledecky’s time in Des Moines — 1:54.59, again, at a meet where she wasn’t in peak form — would have placed second at last summer’s worlds. Ledecky’s winning time from the Rio Olympics — 1:53.73 — is faster than any swimmer has recorded in this Olympic cycle.

Ledecky’s training partner and former Stanford teammate Manuel could next summer become the second woman to win six gold medals at a single Games. Manuel earned golds in Rio in the 100m freestyle and medley relay.

She’s only sped up since. Manuel won five events at the 2017 Worlds and seven medals at the 2019 Worlds. Her biggest threats in Tokyo: Australians, who swept the women’s freestyle relays at worlds, and Swede Sarah Sjöström, the world-record holder in the 50m and 100m free.

Dressel’s potential Olympic slate nearly mirrors that of Manuel — the same six events, plus the 100m butterfly to potentially match Mark Spitz‘s gold haul from 1972 and one shy of Michael Phelps‘ record from 2008. The 23-year-old Floridian took seven golds at the 2017 Worlds and six golds at the 2019 Worlds while swimming eight events, including two that aren’t on the Olympic program.

Like with Manuel, Gaines sees Dressel’s biggest challenge coming from Down Under. Specifically Olympic champion Kyle Chalmers in the 100m free and a foursome in the 4x200m free relay, which Dressel didn’t swim at worlds.

Lochte would be satisfied with one medal in Tokyo. That would mean he defied the odds, returning from two suspensions to make a fifth Olympics (at age 36). And that he broke his tie with Natalie CoughlinJenny Thompson and Dara Torres for the second-most Olympic swimming medals (currently 12) behind Phelps’ 28. (Phelps, by the way, becomes eligible for the Olympics again with the one-year postponement, giving him until December to re-enter a drug-testing pool if he changes his mind, though he has been adamant in sticking to retirement this time.)

Lochte’s best chance to make the team is in the 200m IM, although it will be harder in 2021 than in 2020, Gaines said.

“I wouldn’t say it’s his one and only shot, but it’s his best shot for sure,” Gaines said. Lochte ranks fifth among Americans in the event since the start of 2019 and must finish in the top two at trials.

He could also try to finish top six in the 200m free to make the 4x200m free relay, but Gaines sees a crop of young swimmers ready to throw down in 2021.

“They’re all going to go 1:45, 1:46,” he said. “I just don’t know if Ryan has that in him.”

If the Olympic postponement makes it tougher for Lochte, it should benefit younger swimmers whose peaks may be years away.

Such as Luca Urlando, who last year broke Phelps’ national age group record in the 200m butterfly for 17- and 18-year-olds. Urlando dislocated his left shoulder swimming in January.

Gaines also listed medley swimmer Carson Foster, freestyler Kieran Smith and Shaine Casas, a breakout performer in several events in the abbreviated NCAA season. For the women: teens Alex and Gretchen Walsh (freestyle), Phoebe Bacon (backstroke), Torri Huske (butterfly) and Emma Weyant (medleys).

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Jenny Simpson, most decorated U.S. miler, shifts focus with new Puma sponsorship

Jenny Simpson
Puma
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Jenny Simpson, the most decorated U.S. female miler in history, plans to return to racing on Sunday with a new shoe sponsor, Puma.

Simpson, whose last race was the Cherry Blossom 10-mile road race in Washington, D.C., in September 2021, according to World Athletics, will run what she called “a little rust-buster” at the Army Ten-Miler in Washington, D.C.

“My intention is to turn my focus to the roads,” Simpson, 36, wrote in an email. “I have some great PUMA spikes that I love so the track isn’t off the table. But my emphasis will be road racing.”

Last year’s Cherry Blossom was her first race longer than 5,000 meters, according to World Athletics. What are the chances she eventually moves up to the marathon distance?

“This new chapter is an exploration,” she answered. “I’m going to let the races, training, and coaching guide the next steps as they come. I know I can physically do it, it’s a matter of whether I can be great at it and my team and I will only go there if we think we can be competitive. So, let’s say for chances… 51% :)”

Simpson made her first Olympic team in 2008 in the 3000m steeplechase, then in 2012 and 2016 in the 1500m, earning a bronze medal in Rio. She is the lone U.S. woman to win a world 1500m title (2011) or an Olympic 1500m medal.

From 2007 through 2019, Simpson finished in the top three in one of the 1500m, 5000m or 3000m steeplechase at all 13 annual USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships. Last year, she was 10th in the Olympic Trials 1500m in a bid to become the oldest U.S. Olympic 1500m runner in history, according to Olympedia.org.

Simpson focused much of her time this year helping her Colorado community heal and rebuild from a late December fire. She did not enter the USATF Outdoors for the first time since 2006.

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Mikaela Shiffrin, checklist complete, carries lessons into new World Cup season

Mikaela Shiffrin
Atomic
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Mikaela Shiffrin said she hit every possible statistical goal in the first 11 years of her Alpine skiing career. Keep that in mind as the storyline the next few seasons may turn to the World Cup wins record.

Shiffrin, who begins her 12th World Cup season in Soelden, Austria, in two weeks, is up to 74 victories on the circuit. The 27-year-old ranks third all-time behind Lindsey Vonn, who owns the women’s record of 82 wins, and Swede Ingemar Stenmark, who has the overall record of 86.

Shiffrin did rounds of interviews Thursday at the media day for her ski sponsor, Atomic. In one sitdown streamed by Atomic, she was asked, “Are you aiming for the record? … There’s just 12 left. Normally, winning 12 races, that’s a lot, but you already won 74, so it doesn’t sound that much anymore.”

“Just 12,” Shiffrin joked. “If you look at it like that, but that’s maybe oversimplification.” (Note greats including Americans Picabo Street and Julia Mancuso didn’t win 12 World Cups over a career.)

Then Shiffrin asked if the interviewer did in fact say 74 — “Yeah, you have 74,” the interviewer confirmed to Shiffrin, who sat between fellow stars Sofia Goggia of Italy and Aleksander Aamodt Kilde of Norway.

“Even after 74 … one race feels like a lot,” Shiffrin continued. “Twelve [wins] still feels like a large mountain to climb, for sure, but it’s step by step or race by race. If I just focus on what’s coming in the next couple weeks and then keep going from there, then we’ll see.”

From 2017 to 2019, Shiffrin won 11, 12 and 17 times on the World Cup. Her last three seasons were abbreviated after her father’s death, the COVID-19 pandemic and back problems. She still won an average of five races each year.

In an earlier interview Thursday, Shiffrin expressed confidence about her preseason form. She followed February’s Beijing Olympics, where her best individual finish was ninth, by bagging her fourth World Cup overall title, the biggest annual prize in the sport, crowning the best all-around skier.

“Finishing off [at last March’s World Cup Finals] in Meribel, that final race of the season, I was thinking, I could use a moment to breathe,” she said. “There was also this part of me that’s like, I kind of didn’t want this to be the last race. I was a little bit antsy to actually get going on the next season already.”

Shiffrin took less of a break than a year ago, spending 10 days in Maui. She had “really productive” training camps in Colorado, Switzerland and Chile and arrived back in Europe on Wednesday for the run-up to the World Cup opener on Oct. 22.

As always, the priority is keeping her slalom and giant slalom technique top-notch. As long as that’s flowing, Shiffrin feels comfortable branching into the speed events, starting with super-Gs. She plans to race both the slalom and GS at February’s world championships, then possibly the super-G with the combined less of a priority. The downhill is “fairly doubtful,” but she has a few months to make a final decision.

Of course, Shiffrin raced everything at the Olympics in February. In interviews last winter, she couldn’t quite explain why the greatest technical skier in history did not finish any of her three technical runs at the Games.

Shiffrin gave a detailed, two-and-a-half-minute answer when asked Thursday if she went back during this offseason to analyze those races. Or if she is brushing them off as an anomaly.

“Statistically, it’s an anomaly, but there was a lot of culminating factors that could have been involved,” she said.

In basic terms, she got on her inside ski in the opening GS and fell within 13 seconds — “a technical flaw that had a much higher consequence than it’s ever had in any other race that I’ve ever done.” In slalom, she had too much intensity, or too much speed, in a section that required more precision and skidded out within six seconds — “I was not giving anything away, and then I gave everything away.”

“There was less margin for error in Beijing because of the snow conditions,” said Shiffrin, who like every other racer hadn’t previously raced on that slope of manufactured snow. “I don’t think I maybe considered that enough in the moment when I was skiing to kind of reel it in sometimes when it would have been necessary. But I also wasn’t skiing to reel it in or make it to the finish. I was skiing to like, blow the course apart. I was going for it.”

She hopes to take that mentality into this season. In the spring and summer, she devoted more time to developing equipment that works better on softer snow, which is becoming more commonplace at World Cup venues given warmer temperatures.

“If you have a checklist of goals you want to achieve before you retire, actually, my checklist is complete,” she said. “If I had one, it would be complete. Somehow, I feel like I still have something left to accomplish, or faster skiing to do, so that’s kind of why I’m here. Hopefully I can remember that when there’s points in the season that feel stressful or pressure. There’s nothing that has to be done.”

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