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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Isabeau Levito, 15, delivers in figure skating nationals short program as favorite

Isabeau Levito
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Isabeau Levito, the 15-year-old favorite, delivered in the U.S. Figure Skating Championships short program, taking the lead into Friday’s free skate.

Levito, third in her senior nationals debut last year, tallied 73.78 points in a clean short on Thursday in San Jose, California.

She edged the comebacking two-time U.S. champion Bradie Tennell by two hundredths of a point. Starr Andrews was third, one hundredth ahead of Amber Glenn and 1.53 points ahead of Gracie Gold.

A committee selects the three-woman team for worlds shortly after the free skate.

“I was kind of aiming for this placement,” Levito said on USA Network.

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Full Scores | Broadcast Schedule

Levito, a New Jersey native who started skating at 3 and a half and has been with the same coach since age 4, developed a steely reputation as a competitor. That mixes with her artistic comparisons to 2006 Olympic silver medalist Sasha Cohen and her inspiration, Johnny Weir. She hasn’t missed a podium at a competition she has completed at any level since November 2016.

It’s seemed like Levito has been destined to be the leading U.S. woman in the 2026 Olympic cycle, leading up to the Winter Games in her mom’s hometown of Milan. She was too young for last year’s Olympics, but would have just missed the team had she been age-eligible.

None of the three 2022 U.S. Olympians are competing this season — Alysa Liu and Mariah Bell retired; Karen Chen is studying at Cornell — paving the way for Levito to ascend.

That she did, winning April’s junior worlds to become the first U.S. woman to win a global title — junior or senior — since 2008.

Then this past fall, Levito placed second in her first two senior Grand Prix starts, then placed a surprising second at December’s Grand Prix Final, which gathered the world’s top six women from across the series.

Granted, the Final was her lowest point total of her five international events this season. All six skaters had multiple jumping errors in the free skate.

Levito ranks fifth in the world by best total score this season, fourth among seniors and a whopping 18.13 points better than the No. 2 American. Note the absence of Russia, which has dominated women’s skating for the last decade.

Levito won’t be worrying about her international standing while sitting on an overnight lead. She has work left in Friday’s free skate to win what could be the first in a series of national titles.

Tennell, 24, had her best short program since coming back from a 19-month competition break due to foot and ankle injuries. She was unable to defend her national title last year, ruling her out of Olympic contention.

“Even just making it back onto the ice again was a struggle,” Tennell said while in the arena where she made her Olympic team in 2018. “I stepped on the ice today and I looked up and I closed my eyes and I took a deep breath, and I was like, ‘You can do this,’ which is the exact same thing I did five years ago.”

Andrews, 21, is coming off a fall Grand Prix Series where she became the first Black U.S. skater to win a medal on the circuit.

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2023 U.S. Figure Skating Championships scores, results

2023 U.S. Figure Skating Championships
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Full scores and results from the 2023 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in San Jose …

Women’s Short Program
1. Isabeau Levito — 73.78
2. Bradie Tennell — 73.76
3. Starr Andrews — 68.97
4. Amber Glenn — 68.96
5. Gracie Gold — 67.44
6. Lindsay Thorngren — 62.64
7. Clare Seo — 61.48
8. Ava Ziegler — 61.09
9. Audrey Shin — 60.76
10. Ting Cui — 57.11
11. Josephine Lee — 55.60
12. Lindsay Wang — 52.19
13. Sonja Hilmer — 51.16
14. Michelle Lee — 46.71
15. Gabriella Izzo — 45.73
16. Alexa Gasparotto — 45.00
17. Elsa Cheng — 44.36
18. Hanna Harrell — 42.84

Pairs Short Program
1. Alexa Knierim/Brandon Frazier — 81.96
2. Emily Chan/Spencer Howe — 66.86
3. Ellie Kam/Danny O’Shea —- 65.75
4. Valentina Plazas/Maximiliano Fernandez — 63.45
5. Sonia Baram/Danil Tioumentsev —- 63.12
6. Katie McBeath/Nathan Bartholomay —- 56.96
7. Nica Digerness/Mark Sadusky — 50.72
8. Maria Mokhova/Ivan Mokhov —- 46.96
9. Grace Hanns / Danny Neudecker — 46.81
10. Linzy Fitzpatrick/Keyton Bearinger — 45.27
11. Nina Ouellette/Rique Newby-Estrella — 43.99

Rhythm Dance
1. Madison Chock/Evan Bates — 91.90
2. Caroline Green/Michael Parsons — 81.40
3. Emilea Zingas/Vadym Kolesnik — 78.18
4. Christina Carreira/Anthony Ponomarenko — 77.37
5. Lorraine McNamara/Anton Spiridonov — 76.23
6. Emily Bratti/Ian Somerville — 75.91
7. Eva Pate/Logan Bye — 75.52
8. Isabella Flores/Ivan Desyatov — 73.91
9. Oona Brown/Gage Brown — 72.80
10. Katarina Wolfkostin/Jeffrey Chen — 69.05
11. Angela Ling/Caleb Wein — 68.53
12. Leah Krauskopf/YuanShi Jin — 52.59
13. Cara Murphy/Joshua Levitt — 50.88
14. Caroline Depietri/TJ Carey — 48.28
WD. Raffaella Koncius/Alexey Shchepetov

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Broadcast Schedule | New Era for U.S.

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