An Olympics in 2021 gives teenage swimmers one more year to surface

Phoebe Bacon
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U.S. swimming can boast a history of teenagers ruling the Olympic pool. At this week’s U.S. Open, a host of women born in the 2000s can take strokes toward becoming next in line.

Nine women who will still be teenagers next summer are ranked in the top five in the nation in an individual event since the start of 2019. Seven of them are entered in the U.S. Open, the biggest domestic meet in eight months (TV schedule here).

The meet, originally scheduled for Atlanta in December, was split into nine different sites for travel safety precautions amid the coronavirus pandemic. Results will be combined from all nine pools and have no bearing on Olympic team selection.

Top pros racing in the International Swimming League in Budapest (in smaller, 25-meter pools, making their times incomparable) will be absent.

So the stage is set for up-and-comers to show they are contenders to make the Olympic team at June’s trials, where the top two per individual event earn tickets to Tokyo.

Back in Rio, then-19-year-old Katie Ledecky extended the U.S. teenage tradition — from Don Schollander (1964) to Janet Evans (1988) to Michael Phelps (2004) and Missy Franklin (2012), to name a few.

The amount of teens on U.S. Olympic swim teams has dropped, with top performers now earning enough money to make it a profession into their 30s. But, especially on the women’s side, recent history argues that at least one U.S. swimmer born in 2001 or later will make a splash in an Olympic debut next year.

The Olympic postponement to 2021 gave a batch of high schoolers added motivation: 364 more days to ascend the rankings, while veterans fight to stay on top.

“The older swimmers aren’t getting any younger. They’re not getting any faster. They’re not getting any stronger. They’re kind of just holding on,” said Elizabeth Beisel, who swam at the 2008 Beijing Olympics at age 15, retired at 25 and will call the U.S. Open on NBC Sports this weekend. “Whereas the younger swimmers, they have nothing to lose. They’re only getting stronger. They’re only getting faster.”

MORE: Beisel on U.S. Open, Regan Smith’s future

The headliner of the 2000s generation is Regan Smith, an 18-year-old who broke the 100m and 200m backstroke world records in 2019.

“Suddenly, I’m not going to be the youngest anymore,” Smith, a Minnesotan who deferred matriculating at Stanford by one year after the Olympics were postponed, told On Her Turf.

While Smith was already favored to make the Tokyo team, other teens bid to supplant swimmers in their 20s.

Some hope to mimic Ledecky, who went from ranked 14th in the U.S. in the 800m free in 2011 to a 15-year-old Olympic champion in 2012. And Lilly King, who was fourth in the U.S. in the 100m breaststroke in 2015, then won the Rio Olympic title at age 19.

Phoebe Bacon, set to race Smith in Des Moines this weekend, is a candidate for obvious reasons.

The 18-year-old from the same Maryland high school as Ledecky is ranked third in the U.S. in the 100m backstroke since the start of 2019. The only faster Americans are Smith, the world-record holder, and Olivia Smoliga, the 2019 World bronze medalist.

Bacon chose not to delay her NCAA career. She’s a freshman at Wisconsin, where Ledecky’s youth coach Yuri Suguiyama is the head coach.

Torri Huske, a 17-year-old ranked fourth in the 100m butterfly, is committed to head to Stanford, where Ledecky trains, after the Tokyo Olympics.

“This year is kind of like a blessing in disguise,” Huske, who races in Richmond this week, said on the SwimSwam podcast. “Corona is obviously not something I would have wished for, but I’m trying to look on the bright side of things as much as possible. I think it will help me.”

Alex Walsh, 19, and Gretchen Walsh, 17, could become the third set of sisters to make the same U.S. Olympic swim team, and the second to do it in the pool after Dana Kirk and Tara Kirk in 2004.

Before Alex moved to start her freshman year at the University of Virginia, the sisters signed up for a 90-day free Peloton trial for weight training while their pool and gym were closed in Tennessee. Now, Alex benefits from being a five-minute walk from her university pool and swimming 20 hours a week, more than ever before.

“We’re fortunate enough because we are younger, our muscles are still able to get stronger,” said Alex, who is ranked third in the 200m individual medley and fifth in the 200m back and is racing in Richmond this weekend. “The good news is we still have time to get a lot better. It has been a benefit for us to have that extra year.”

Gretchen, committed to Virginia after she graduates in 2021, was the youngest swimmer at the 2016 Olympic Trials at age 13. She is ranked fourth in the 50m freestyle and fifth in the 100m free, where the top six are in line to go to Tokyo for the relay.

She is “pretty tapered” for the U.S. Open, where she’s entered in both sprint frees and the 100m back in Huntsville, Ala., and believes she could lower a personal best. After digesting the Olympic postponement, she said being as young as she is was a “saving grace.”

Before the pandemic, Gretchen hoped to drop her 100m free personal best from 53.74 into the low 53s at the Olympic Trials in 2020. Going even faster is more realistic with an Olympic Trials in 2021.

“I definitely want to use that to my advantage because I think I’m still in a period where I can drop time,” she said. “Honestly, I don’t know what I’m going to be capable of. I think I’ve always dreamed of going a 52.”

Claire Curzan, a 16-year-old who earned four medals at last year’s junior worlds, will race the U.S. Open in Greensboro, N.C., an hour drive from her home in Cary.

Curzan already swam personal bests and national age-group records in intrasquad meets during the pandemic. She credited the six weeks off from regular training when her pool was closed.

“To take a step back, focus on me and not really worry about swimming that much, competitively and times and all that stuff, I think it was great for my mental health,” said Curzan, who swam tethered in a wetsuit in an unheated backyard pool for a few weeks in the spring. “When I actually got back into training, it just made me appreciate it so much more. I was so much more thankful for how lucky I was with my pool and all my amazing teammates to train with. It made me want to work that much harder.”

NBC Sports’ Alex Azzi contributed to this report.

MORE: Olympic delay gives Regan Smith a chance to be a kid again

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In a tie, Wendy Holdener puts to rest a remarkable stat in Alpine skiing


Swiss Wendy Holdener ended one of the most remarkable victory droughts in sports by tying for the win with Swede Anna Swenn Larsson in a World Cup slalom in Killington, Vermont, on Sunday.

Holdener, after 15 second-place finishes and 15 third-place finishes in her career, stood on the top step of a World Cup slalom podium for the first time. She shared it with Swenn Larsson, who had six World Cup slalom podiums before Sunday and also earned her first win.

They beat Austrian Katharina Truppe by .22 of a second combining times from two runs.

ALPINE SKIING: Full Results | Broadcast Schedule

Holdener, 29, previously won three World Cups in other disciplines, plus two world championships in the combined and Olympic and world titles in the team event.

“To be tied first when I came into the finish was such a relief,” Holdener said while shoulder to shoulder with Swenn Larsson. “On the end, it’s perfect, because now we can share our first win together.”

Mikaela Shiffrin had the best first-run time but lost her lead midway through the second run and finished fifth. Shiffrin, who won the first two slaloms this season last weekend, was bidding for a 50th World Cup slalom victory and a sixth win in six slaloms in Killington.

“I fought. I think some spots I got a little bit off my timing, but I was pushing, and that’s slalom,” she said before turning her attention to Holdener and Swenn Larsson. “It’s a pretty special day, actually.”

The women’s Alpine skiing World Cup moves next weekend to Lake Louise, Alberta, with two downhills and a super-G.

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Injured Ilia Malinin wins Grand Prix Finland, qualifies for Grand Prix Final

Ilia Malinin

Ilia Malinin, competing “a little bit injured” this week, still won Grand Prix Finland and goes into the Grand Prix Final in two weeks as the world’s top-ranked male singles skater.

Malinin, who was second after Friday’s short program, landed four clean quadruple jumps in Saturday’s free skate to overtake Frenchman Kevin Aymoz.

Malinin, who landed a quad flip in competition for the first time, according to, also attempted a quad Axel to open his program, but spun out of the landing and put his hand down on the ice.

Malinin also won his previous two starts this season in come-from-behind fashion. The 17-year-old world junior champion became the first skater to land a clean, fully rotated quad Axel in September, then did it again in October at Skate America, where he posted the world’s top overall score this season.

Next, Malinin can become the second-youngest man to win the Grand Prix Final after Russian Yevgeny Plushenko. His biggest competition is likely to be world champion Shoma Uno of Japan, who like Malinin won both of his Grand Prix starts this fall. Malinin and Uno have not gone head-to-head this season.

Grand Prix Finland highlights air on NBC, and the NBC Sports app on Sunday at 3:30 p.m. ET.

FIGURE SKATING: Results | Broadcast Schedule

Earlier, Japan’s Mai Mihara overtook world silver medalist Loena Hendrickx of Belgium to become the only woman to win both of her Grand Prix starts this season. Mihara prevailed by .23 of a point. The top three women this season by best total score are Japanese, led by a junior skater, 14-year-old Mao Shimada, who isn’t Olympic age-eligible until 2030.

Mihara and Hendrickx qualified for the Grand Prix Final, joining world champion Kaori Sakamoto and Rinka Watanabe, both of Japan, South Korean Yelim Kim and American Isabeau Levito, the world junior champion.

Italians Rebecca Ghilardi and Filippo Ambrosini won both pairs’ programs and qualified for their first Grand Prix Final.

Japan’s Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara and Americans Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier headline the Final. Both pairs won each of their Grand Prix starts earlier this fall. The Japanese have the world’s two best scores this season. The Americans are reigning world champions.

At least one Russian or Chinese pair made every Grand Prix Final podium — usually pairs from both countries — but neither nation competed in pairs this Grand Prix season. All Russian skaters are banned due to the war in Ukraine. China’s lone entry on the Grand Prix across all disciplines was an ice dance couple.

Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier improved on their world-leading score for this season in winning the ice dance by 17.03 points over Americans Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker. Both couples qualified for the Grand Prix Final in the absence of all three Olympic medalists this fall.

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