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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Mikaela Shiffrin finishes World Cup with one more win, two more records and a revelation


Mikaela Shiffrin finished a season defined by records with two more.

Shiffrin won the World Cup Finals giant slalom on the final day of the campaign, breaking her ties for the most career women’s giant slalom wins and most career podiums across all women’s World Cup races.

Shiffrin earned her record-extending 88th career World Cup victory, prevailing by six hundredths over Thea Louise Stjernesund of Norway combining times from two runs in Andorra on Sunday.


She won her 21st career GS, breaking her tie for the most all-time on the women’s World Cup with Vreni Schneider, a Swiss star of the 1980s and ’90s.

She made her 138th career World Cup podium across all events, breaking her tie for the most all-time on the women’s World Cup with Lindsey Vonn. Shiffrin earned her 138th podium in her 249th start, meaning she has finished in the top three in 55 percent of her World Cup races dating to her debut at age 15 in 2011.

Earlier this season, Shiffrin passed Vonn and then Ingemar Stenmark, a Swede of the 1970s and ’80s, for the most career Alpine skiing World Cup victories. She won 14 times from November through March, her second-best season after her record 17-win campaign of 2018-19.

In those years in between, Shiffrin endured the most difficult times of her life, was supplanted as the world’s top slalom skier and questioned her skiing like never before.

On Saturday afternoon, Shiffrin was asked what made the difference this fall and winter. There were multiple factors. She detailed one important one.

“I had a lot of problems with my memory,” she said in a press conference. “Not this season, so much, but last season and the season before that. I couldn’t remember courses. And when I was kind of going through this, I couldn’t keep mental energy for the second runs.”

Pre-race course inspection and the ability to retain that knowledge for a minute-long run over an hour later is integral to success in ski racing. Shiffrin is so meticulous and methodical in her training, historically prioritizing it over racing in her junior days, that inspection would seem to fit into her all-world preparation.

She didn’t understand how she lost that ability until she began working with a new sports psychologist last summer.

“That was a little bit like less focus on sports psychology and more focus on, like, psychology psychology and a little bit more grief counseling style,” she said. “Explaining what was actually going on in my brain, like chemical changes in the brain because of trauma. Not just grief, but actually the traumatic experience itself of knowing what happened to my dad, seeing him in the hospital, touching him after he was dead. Those are things that you can’t get out of your head. It had an impact. Clearly, it still does.”

Shiffrin had a “weird a-ha moment” after her first course inspection this season in November in Finland.

“I didn’t take that long to inspect, and I remembered the whole course,” she said. “Oh my gosh, I was like coming out of a cloud that I had been in for over two years.”

What followed was a win, of course, and a season that approached Shiffrin’s unrivaled 2018-19. Fourteen wins in 31 World Cup starts, her busiest season ever, and bagging the season titles in the overall, slalom and GS in runaways.

“After last season, I didn’t feel like I could get to a level with my skiing again where it was actually contending for the slalom globe,” she said. “And GS, I actually had a little bit more hope for, but then at the beginning of the season, I kind of counted myself out.

“I feel like my highest level of skiing has been higher than the previous couple of seasons, maybe higher than my whole career. My average level of skiing has been also higher than previous seasons, and my lowest level of skiing has also been higher.”

There are other reasons for the revival of dominance, though Shiffrin was also the world’s best skier last season (Olympics aside). She went out of her way on Saturday afternoon to credit her head coach of seven years, Mike Day, who left the team during the world championships after he was told he would not be retained for next season.

“He is as much a part of the success this entire season as he’s ever been,” said Shiffrin, who parted with Day to bring aboard Karin Harjo, the first woman to be her head coach as a pro.

Shiffrin’s greatest success this season began around the time she watched a a mid-December chairlift interview between retired Liechtenstein skier Tina Weirather and Italian Sofia Goggia, the world’s top downhiller. Goggia spoke about her disdain for mediocrity.

“Ever since then, pretty much every time I put on my skis, I’m like, ‘OK, don’t be mediocre today,’” Shiffrin said in January.

During the highest highs of this season, Shiffrin felt like she did in 2018-19.

“It is mind-boggling to me to be in a position again where I got to feel that kind of momentum through a season because after that [2018-19] season, I was like, this is never going to happen again, and my best days of my career are really behind me, which it was kind of sad to feel that at this point four years ago,” said Shiffrin, who turned 28 years old last week. “This season, if anything, it just proved that, take 17 wins [from 2018-19] aside or the records or all those things, it’s still possible to feel that kind of momentum.”

After one last victory Sunday, Shiffrin sat in the winner’s chair with another crystal globe and took questions from an interviewer. It was her boyfriend, Norwegian Alpine skier Aleksander Aamodt Kilde.

“Excited to come back and do it again next year,” she replied to one question.

“Yeah,” he wittily replied. “You will.”

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Mikaela Shiffrin ties Lindsey Vonn record at World Cup Finals


Mikaela Shiffrin tied Lindsey Vonn‘s female record with her 137th career Alpine skiing World Cup podium, taking third place in the slalom at the World Cup Finals in Andorra on Saturday.

Shiffrin, racing for the second time since breaking Ingemar Stenmark‘s career Alpine World Cup wins record last Saturday, finished 86 hundredths behind Olympic champion Petra Vlhova of Slovakia, combining times from two runs.

Shiffrin was fourth after the first run. The top two after the first run stayed in that order after the second run — Vlhova, followed by first-time podium finisher Leona Popovic (the best World Cup finish for a Croatian woman in 16 years).

“Every single race I feel the weight of having to be one of the best in the world no matter what the day is, which is actually quite a privilege, but some days it’s quite heavy,” Shiffrin said, according to the International Ski Federation (FIS). “But today it didn’t feel heavy. It just felt like a really good opportunity.”

Six of the 22 skiers skied out of the second run on soft snow.

In Shiffrin’s previous race at the season-ending Finals, she was 14th in Thursday’s super-G, which is not one of her primary events.

ALPINE SKIING: Full Results | Broadcast Schedule

Shiffrin earned her 137th podium in her 248th start, meaning she has finished in the top three in 55 percent of her World Cup races dating to her debut at age 15 in 2011.

The only men with more Alpine World Cup podiums are the Swede Stenmark (155) and Austrian Marcel Hirscher (138).

Shiffrin’s first chance to break her tie with Vonn comes in Sunday’s giant slalom, the last race of the season, live on Peacock.

Shiffrin, who broke Vonn’s female career wins record of 82 in January, clinched season titles in the overall, GS and slalom before the Finals.

Also Saturday, Swiss Marco Odermatt won the men’s giant slalom by 2.11 seconds — the largest margin of victory in any men’s World Cup race in four years — for his 13th World Cup victory this season, tying the men’s single-season record.

He also reached 2,042 points for the season, breaking Austrian Hermann Maier‘s men’s record of 2,000 points in one season from 1999-2000.

Slovenian Tina Maze holds the overall record of 2,414 points from 2012-13.

“We partied hard on Thursday,” after winning the World Cup Finals super-G, Odermatt said, according to FIS. “Today wasn’t easy because of those damn 2,000 points. I really wanted the podium today. So, another victory, two seconds ahead, I don’t know what to say.”

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