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

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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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Serena Williams, reclusive amid pandemic, returns to tennis eyeing Grand Slam record

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Serena Williams travels with “like 50 masks” and has been a little bit of a recluse since early March and the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I don’t have full lung capacity, so I’m not sure what would happen to me,” Williams said Saturday, two days before the start of the WTA’s Top Seed Open in Lexington, Ky., her first tournament since playing Fed Cup in early February. “I’m sure I’ll be OK, but I don’t want to find out.”

Williams, 38, has a history of blood clots and pulmonary embolisms. She faced life-threatening complications following her Sept. 1, 2017, childbirth that confined her to a bed for six weeks. She said her daily routine was surgery and that she lost count after the first four.

More recently, Williams enjoyed “every part” of the last six months at home in Florida, her longest time grounded since her teens.

“I’ve been a little neurotic, to an extent,” on health and safety, she said. “Everyone in the Serena bubble is really protected.”

Williams is entered to play next week in Lexington and at consecutive tournaments in New York City later this month — the Western & Southern Open and U.S. Open, the latter starting Aug. 31.

Williams is the highest-ranked player in the Lexington field at No. 9. Others include 2017 U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens, older sister Venus Williams and 16-year-old Coco Gauff.

She has been bidding ever since having daughter Olympia to tie Margaret Court‘s record 24 Grand Slam singles titles, albeit many of Court’s crowns came before the Open Era and, notably at the Australian Open, against small fields lacking the world’s best players. Williams reached the last two Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals, losing all of them.

She showed her seriousness in committing early to this year’s U.S. Open by installing a court at home with the same surface. Three of the top 10 female singles players already said they will skip the U.S. Open due to travel and/or virus concerns, including No. 1 Ash Barty.

“Tennis is naturally a socially distanced sport, so it was kind of easy to go back and just walk on my side of the court and have my hitter walk on his side of the court,” Williams said.

The French Open starts two weeks after the U.S. Open ends. Williams was asked if she will fly to Europe for tournaments this autumn.

“I see myself doing it all, if it happens,” she said.

The Tokyo Olympics are too far away to make plans.

“We’ll have to kind of wait to see what happens in the fall,” she said. “One thing I have learned with this pandemic is don’t plan.”

MORE: Past U.S. Open champions get wild cards

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Conseslus Kipruto tests positive for coronavirus, canceling world-record bid

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Conseslus Kipruto, the Olympic and world 3000m steeplechase champion, tested positive for the coronavirus without symptoms, which will keep him from a world-record chase on Friday, according to his social media.

The Kenyan was to race in the first in-person Diamond League meet of the year in Monaco on Friday.

“Our World is going through a challenging period and we all have to take our responsibilities,” was posted. “Unfortunately my covid-19 test, as part of the Monaco-protocol, came back positive and therefore I can’t be part of the Monaco Diamond League.

“I don’t have any symptoms and I was actually in great shape. I was planning to go for the WR: it has stayed too long outside Kenya. As the World & Olympic Champion I feel strongly its something I should go for as well.”

Kipruto, 25, is the 14th-fastest steepler in history with a personal best of 8:00.12. The world record is 7:53.63, set by Kenyan-born Qatari Saif Saaeed Shaheen in 2004.

Last year, Kipruto won the world title by .01, extending a streak of a Kenyan or Kenyan-born man winning every Olympic or world title in the event since the 1988 Seoul Games. He was sidelined by a stress fracture in his left foot until opening his season extremely late on Aug. 24.

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Our World is going through a challenging period and we all have to take our responsibilities. Unfortunately my covid-19 test, as part of the Monaco-protocol, came back positive and therefore I can’t be part of the Monaco Diamond League on August 14th. I don’t have any symptoms and I was actually in great shape. I was planning to go for the WR: it has stayed too long outside Kenya. As the World & Olympic Champion I feel strongly its something I should go for as well. Wish to thank Monaco for all the work they have done and I wish them and my colleagues a wonderful competition. Athletics is back and I will be back as well. Anyone willing to organise a steeple once I can be cleared? @diamondleaguemonaco #nike #quarantine #WR #Kenya

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