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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Cyclist in induced coma after Tour of Poland crash

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Dutch cyclist Fabio Jakobsen was put into an induced coma Wednesday after suffering injuries in a crash on the final stretch of the Tour of Poland, organizers said.

A massive crash at the finish of the first stage resulted in Dylan Groenewegen‘s disqualification from the race.

Leading a bunch sprint, Groenewegen veered toward the right barrier, pinching countryman Jakobsen, who barreled into the barrier meters from the finish line.

Jakobsen went head over heels, his bike went airborne and the barriers exploded onto the road, causing more cyclists to crash.

Jakobsen was airlifted to a hospital in serious condition and was put into an induced coma, the Tour de Pologne press office said.

Groenewegen crossed the finish line first but was disqualified, giving Jakobsen the stage win, according to the stage race website.

Groenewegen, a 27-year-old Jumbo-Visma rider, owns four Tour de France stage wins among the last three years.

The International Cycling Union (UCI) “strongly condemned” Groenewegen’s “dangerous” and “unacceptable” behavior. It referred Groenewegen’s actions to a disciplinary commission for possible sanctions.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Figure skating Grand Prix Series will be held as ‘domestic’ competitions

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Figure skating’s Grand Prix Series will go ahead as scheduled this fall, with modifications due to the coronavirus pandemic, the International Skating Union decided Monday.

Each of the series’ six tops around the globe will be “a domestic run event,” limited to skaters of the event’s host country, who regularly train in the host country and from a respective geographical area. The number of disciplines and skaters at each event are to be worked out.

The Grand Prix Series, held annually since 1995, is a six-event fall season, qualifying the top six skaters and teams per discipline to December’s Grand Prix Final. The annual stops are in the U.S., Canada, China, France, Russia and Japan, leading up to the Final, which is held at a different site each year.

The Final is the second-biggest annual competition after the world championships, which are typically in late March. The Final is still scheduled for Beijing, though whether or when it can be held will be discussed.

The series begins in late October with Skate America, which debuted in 1979 and has been held every year since 1988 as the biggest annual international competition in the U.S. Skate America’s site is Las Vegas, just as it was in 2019.

Skaters typically compete twice on the Grand Prix Series (three times if they qualify for the Final). ISU vice president Alexander Lakernik said skaters will be limited to one start in the six-event series before the Final, according to a Russian media quote confirmed by Phil Hersh.

The ISU has not confirmed or denied Lakernik’s assertion.

Most, if not all, top-level U.S. skaters train in the U.S. or Canada. That makes the first two Grand Prix stops — Skate America and Skate Canada — likely destinations. Grand Prix assignments have not been published.

“I appreciate the ISU is open to adapting competitive formats and is working to give athletes opportunities to compete,” Evan Bates, a U.S. ice dance champion with Madison Chock who trains in Montreal, wrote in a text message to Hersh. “This announcement gives reassurance that the ISU is doing their best to ensure a season will still take place. Of course, it’s hard to predict what will happen, and we’re not sure about what country we would compete in. It would probably depend on what the quarantine rules are at that time.”

The January 2021 U.S. Championships are scheduled for San Jose, Calif. The March 2021 World Championships are set for Stockholm.

In July, the ISU canceled the Junior Grand Prix Series for skaters mostly ages 13 to 18, including two-time U.S. champion Alysa Liu, who cannot enter the senior Grand Prix until 2021.

Other early season senior international competitions scheduled for September were also canceled or postponed.

U.S. Figure Skating said in a statement that it will have more details on the Grand Prix Series in the coming weeks after collaborating with an ISU-appointed group.

“This is a great example of the figure skating community coming together to ensure that the world’s premier figure skating series will continue during these challenging times,” the statement read. “Figure skaters want to compete and figure skating fans from all around the world want to see their favorite athletes skate, and this format will ensure just that.”

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