How the U.S.’ best all-around swimmer overcame competition fear

Melanie Margalis
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Melanie Margalis calls them complete mental breakdowns. They used to be commonplace for the Olympian — at every meet, before she swam the 400m individual medley.

“The event freaks me out so bad,” Margalis said of a race labeled the decathlon of swimming for its grueling, all-around test. “I wish it didn’t. People are like, Mel, you’re so good. I’m like, you don’t understand what it does to me.”

Margalis, a 28-year-old who trains at the University of Georgia, finally overcame the block in recent months with the help of a sports psychologist.

On March 6, Margalis took 2.97 seconds off her personal best in the four-and-a-half-minute event at the last meet before the coronavirus pandemic halted sports. She improved from the fifth-fastest American in the 400m IM since the start of 2019 to No. 1 by a whopping 2.94 seconds. She’s now fourth-fastest in the world in that span.

“I wasn’t scared of what could happen,” she said of her mindset at the meet in Des Moines. “I wasn’t letting myself be scared of what could happen if I tried to have a good race.”

Margalis, a Rio Olympian in the 200m IM and 4x200m freestyle relay, went to Iowa searching for a sign. One to tell her whether to swim the 400m IM at trials. She left with a shuddering thought: the 400m IM might be her best event.

“When you have a breakthrough swim like that, it’s kind of scary how fast your perspective starts changing,” she said. “It still is a really hard event, and I don’t want myself to forget that.”

It is the least likely event for a veteran swimmer to excel, let alone break through late in a career. It is the only event for either gender where no American 24 years or older has made an Olympic team. At next year’s trials, Margalis could become the third-oldest woman to make a U.S. Olympic swim team in an individual pool event after 12-time Olympic medalists Jenny Thompson and Dara Torres.

For Margalis, making the Olympic team in the 400m IM would hold special personal meaning.

Her older brother, Robert, swam it at three Olympic Trials, including placing third in 2008, the closest he came to making an Olympic team. He finished eight seconds behind Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte, who each went under the existing world record to scoop the two available Olympic spots.

Then there’s Elizabeth Beisel, who made the last three Olympic teams in the 400m IM.

“Beisel is a point of inspiration,” Margalis said. “She’s actually about a year younger than me, but growing up, my club coach used to tell me that one day I could grow up and be Elizabeth Beisel. I looked up to her swimming for as long as I could remember.”

Beisel retired at age 24 in 2017, one year after becoming the oldest U.S. woman to swim the 400m IM at an Olympics. She has urged Margalis to take the 400m IM seriously since before the Rio Olympic Trials.

Margalis skipped the 400m IM on the first day of the 2016 trials. She then made the Olympic team three nights later in two events within an hour of each other. She placed sixth in the 200m free to make the relay and second in the 200m IM, rallying from fifth at the 150 to grab the second and final spot by five hundredths.

Margalis made the last two world championships teams, earning relay medals. She bagged her first major international medal in an individual event at the 2018 Pan Pacific Championships, a 400m IM silver. But two younger Americans went faster than her that year. It wasn’t until that Des Moines meet that Margalis became a bona fide star at an age most 400m IMers have moved to shorter events or, more likely, retired.

“It’s kind of unheard of,” said Beisel, who with 2008 Olympic teammate Katie Hoff slapped the label “four-IM anxiety” on the stomach pain that surfaced before racing it. “That’s part of the reason why I stopped swimming because the 400m IM was my best event. My body was saying no, and that was at age 24.”

Now Margalis is determined to swim it at trials in June 2021. The caveat: It’s on the first night of the eight-day competition. A breakdown could set a swimmer back for the rest of the meet. A win, however, could catapult her to more confidence in her other events and at the Tokyo Games.

“Now I have another year of me having a lot of opportunities to swim the 400m IM, and not having it go that way and having my confidence level drop,” Margalis said, “but I’m sure it’ll probably all work out.”

NBC Olympic Researcher Megan Soisson contributed to this report.

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Elena Fanchini, medal-winning Alpine skier, dies at 37

Elena Fanchini
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Italian skier Elena Fanchini, whose career was cut short by a tumor, has died. She was 37.

Fanchini passed away Wednesday at her home in Solato, near Brescia, the Italian Winter Sports Federation announced.

Fanchini died on the same day that fellow Italian Marta Bassino won the super-G at the world championships in Meribel, France; and two days after Federica Brignone — another former teammate — claimed gold in combined.

Sofia Goggia, who is the favorite for Saturday’s downhill, dedicated her win in Cortina d’Ampezzo last month to Fanchini.

Fanchini last raced in December 2017. She was cleared to return to train nearly a year later but never made it fully back, and her condition grew worse in recent months.

Fanchini won a silver medal in downhill at the 2005 World Championships and also won two World Cup races in her career — both in downhill.

She missed the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics because of her condition.

Fanchini’s younger sisters Nadia and Sabrina were also World Cup racers.

USA Boxing to skip world championships

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USA Boxing will not send boxers to this year’s men’s and women’s world championships, citing “the ongoing failures” of the IBA, the sport’s international governing body, that put boxing’s place on the Olympic program at risk.

The Washington Post first reported the decision.

In a letter to its members, USA Boxing Executive Director Mike McAtee listed many factors that led to the decision, including IBA governance issues, financial irregularities and transparency and that Russian and Belarusian boxers are allowed to compete with their flags.

IBA lifted its ban on Russian and Belarusian boxers in October and said it would allow their flags and anthems to return, too.

The IOC has not shifted from its recommendation to international sports federations last February that Russian and Belarusian athletes be barred, though the IOC and Olympic sports officials have been exploring whether those athletes could return without national symbols.

USA Boxing said that Russian boxers have competed at an IBA event in Morocco this month with their flags and are expected to compete at this year’s world championships under their flags.

“While sport is intended to be politically neutral, many boxers, coaches and other representatives of the Ukrainian boxing community were killed as a result of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, including coach Mykhaylo Korenovsky who was killed when a Russian missile hit an apartment block in January 2023,” according to the USA Boxing letter. “Ukraine’s sports infrastructure, including numerous boxing gyms, has been devastated by Russian aggression.”

McAtee added later that USA Boxing would still not send athletes to worlds even if Russians and Belarusians were competing as neutrals and without their flags.

“USA Boxing’s decision is based on the ‘totality of all of the factors,'” he said in an emailed response. “Third party oversite and fairness in the field of play is the most important factor.”

A message has been sent to the IBA seeking comment on USA Boxing’s decision.

The women’s world championships are in March in India. The men’s world championships are in May in Uzbekistan. They do not count toward 2024 Olympic qualifying.

In December, the IOC said recent IBA decisions could lead to “the cancellation of boxing” for the 2024 Paris Games.

Some of the already reported governance issues led to the IOC stripping IBA — then known as AIBA — of its Olympic recognition in 2019. AIBA had suspended all 36 referees and judges used at the 2016 Rio Olympics pending an investigation into a possible judging scandal, one that found that some medal bouts were fixed by “complicit and compliant” referees and judges.

The IOC ran the Tokyo Olympic boxing competition.

Boxing was not included on the initial program for the 2028 Los Angeles Games announced in December 2021, though it could still be added. The IBA must address concerns “around its governance, its financial transparency and sustainability and the integrity of its refereeing and judging processes,” IOC President Thomas Bach said then.

This past June, the IOC said IBA would not run qualifying competitions for the 2024 Paris Games.

In September, the IOC said it was “extremely concerned” about the Olympic future of boxing after an IBA extraordinary congress overwhelmingly backed Russian Umar Kremlev to remain as its president rather than hold an election.

Kremlev was re-elected in May after an opponent, Boris van der Vorst of the Netherlands, was barred from running against him. The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled in June that van der Vorst should have been eligible to run against Kremlev, but the IBA group still decided not to hold a new election.

Last May, Rashida Ellis became the first U.S. woman to win a world boxing title at an Olympic weight since Claressa Shields in 2016, taking the 60kg lightweight crown in Istanbul. In Tokyo, Ellis lost 3-0 in her opening bout in her Olympic debut.

At the last men’s worlds in 2021, Robby Gonzales and Jahmal Harvey became the first U.S. men to win an Olympic or world title since 2007, ending the longest American men’s drought since World War II.

The Associated Press and NBC Olympic research contributed to this report.

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