Simone Manuel and Katie Ledecky needed a pool. He offered his backyard.

Katie Ledecky, Simone Manuel
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When Simone Manuel and Katie Ledecky, arguably the world’s two best female swimmers, were suddenly, indefinitely without a pool three months before the Olympic Trials, a 71-year-old hall of fame masters swimmer offered to help.

In March 2020, at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S., Manuel and Ledecky were shut out as their state-of-the-art training facilities at Stanford closed. All of the public pools in the area did the same. The Olympics, at that point, were still scheduled for July 2020. The Olympic Trials were slated for that June.

Other swimmers, either Stanford student-athletes or post-graduates, traveled home. Ledecky and Manuel, NCAA champions for the Cardinal who turned professional in 2018, stayed.

“We were scrambling to find any water because the reality was the trials were going to be in about 12, 13, weeks,” said Greg Meehan, who coaches Stanford’s women’s team as well as post-grads including Ledecky and Manuel. “If we get stuck without being in water for a month or six weeks or something, it’s just not going to go well. I had thought a lot about what happens if we don’t find water. I was trying connections everywhere.”

The first two days, they found a club pool in nearby Menlo Park. They drove up to rival Cal-Berkeley on March 17, Ledecky’s 23rd birthday, before those doors shut.

The duo spent the next two days out of the pool. Meehan knew a friend of a friend in Florida with their own facility, but did it make sense to fly across the country and possibly get stuck there?

Meehan, coach of the reigning NCAA champions and the Olympic team head coach, had no other leads. But Ted Knapp, who spent 35 years on the Stanford men’s coaching staff, knew a guy.

Tod Spieker, a former UCLA All-American, 1968 Olympic Trials backstroker and decorated masters swimmer, lives two miles from campus. Spieker and wife Cathy, for whom UCLA’s aquatics center is named, have a two-lane, 25-yard backyard pool. One lane for each of Meehan’s swimmers.

“I called Tod,” Meehan said. “I don’t think at the time I envisioned us being there for the better part of three months.”

Manuel, Ledecky and Meehan pulled up separately to the Spiekers’ driveway in Atherton for the first time on March 20 or March 21 (the Olympics were postponed to 2021 on March 24).

They went around the house, through a gate and onto a veranda patio out back for swim practice. They repeated the process six days a week until mid-June, when Stanford re-opened. They were very conscious of social distancing.

“I don’t think they ever set foot in the house,” said Spieker, who was out of town for the first few weeks. “I think one time Greg snuck in to use the bathroom.”

The pool checked all the boxes. It had backstroke flags, synchronized pace clocks at both ends and starting blocks. Meehan called the setup “a 10 out of 10” under the circumstances.

“There’s no way I could have lived with myself by denying them use of a pool that satisfied their needs,” Spieker said.

Of all the practices, Meehan will most remember what he called the “death by relay” set. Manuel and Ledecky took turns swimming, one racing while the other rested, for nearly a half-hour.

“The sense of accomplishment and partnership through that particular day was really cool to see,” Meehan said. “I think that was something they’ll both remember as well.”

Ledecky and Manuel, who were Olympic roommates, then Stanford teammates, developed bonds with the Spiekers’ grandchildren who sometimes visited. They brought them swim caps.

“It was more than just a pool for them at that point,” Meehan said. “It was an opportunity for normalcy amid all the chaos that was going on in the world.”

Katie Ledecky, Simone Manuel
Courtesy Greg Meehan

Meanwhile, the U.S.’ other top swimmers made do around the country. The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, where they often gather for altitude training camps, closed. As did major colleges and universities that host elite post-graduate training cadres.

A Berkeley group including Olympic gold medalists Nathan Adrian and Ryan Murphy went across the San Francisco Bay to the Ann Curtis School of Swimming for three months. (Cal’s Spieker Aquatics Complex was named after and largely funded by Spieker’s brother, a former Cal water polo player.)

The swim school, with a three-foot deep, four-lane pool, was built and owned by Curtis, a 1948 Olympic swimming champion and Cal alum who died in 2012. Adrian and former Cal teammate Will Copeland bought it in 2019 — while Adrian was coming back from cancer treatment — to save it from being shut down and potentially demolished.

Caeleb Dressel, the U.S.’ top male swimmer who trains at the University of Florida, drove 45 minutes south to a pool in Ocala and lifted weights in his strength coach’s garage. Lilly King, the Olympic and world champion and world-record holder in the 100m breaststroke, at one point swam in an Indiana subdivision pond.

All of the top Americans convene in two months in Omaha for the Olympic Trials, which start exactly one year after Manuel and Ledecky’s last practice in the Spiekers’ pool. Manuel, the world’s top sprinter, and Ledecky, the top distance swimmer, could combine for more than 10 medals in Tokyo.

They never would have thought a backyard pool in Atherton would have helped them get there. How much it aided is impossible to say, but consider the very possible alternative of no pool at all for three months.

Not having the Spiekers’ backyard “would have mattered,” Meehan said. “It wasn’t three months of the greatest training of their life, but it was enough to keep the engine running.”

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U.S., China set for FIBA Women’s World Cup gold-medal game

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SYDNEY — Breanna Stewart and the United States used a dominant defensive effort to beat Canada and reach the gold-medal game of the FIBA Women’s World Cup for the fourth consecutive tournament.

Stewart scored 17 points and the Americans raced out to an early lead to put away Canada 83-43 on Friday, reaching a Saturday gold-medal game with China. The 43 points was the fewest scored in a semifinal game in World Cup history.

“Canada has been playing really well all tournament and the goal was just to come out there and really limit them,” said U.S. forward Alyssa Thomas. “We were really locked in from the jump with our game plan.”

China edged host Australia 61-59 in the later semifinal to reach its first global championship game since the 1994 Worlds, the last time it won a medal of any color. The U.S. beat China 77-63 in group play last Saturday, the Americans’ closest game of the tournament.

“Our goal was to to win a gold medal and we’re in position to do that,” U.S. coach Cheryl Reeve said.

The U.S. (7-0), which is on a record pace for points and margin of victory in the tournament, took control of the game early scoring the first 15 points. The Americans contested every shot on the defensive end as the Canadians missed their first nine attempts from the field. On the offensive end, Stewart, A’ja Wilson and Thomas basically got any shot they wanted.

“I think after that punch, it really took the air out of them,” Thomas said. “They didn’t know what to do with their offense anymore after that.”

MORE: FIBA World Cup Schedule, Results

Laeticia Amihere, who plays at South Carolina for former U.S. coach Dawn Staley, finally got Canada on the board nearly 5 minutes into the game making a driving layup.

By the end of the quarter the U.S. led 27-7. Canada had committed four turnovers — the same number the team had against Puerto Rico in the quarterfinals which was the lowest total in a game in 30 years.

The Americans were up 45-21 at the half and the lead kept expanding in the final 20 minutes. The win was the biggest margin for the U.S. in the medal round topping the 36-point victory over Spain in the 2010 World Cup.

Canada (5-2) advanced to the medal round for the first time since 1986 and has a chance to win its first medal since taking the bronze that year.

“We didn’t get it done today, but what we’re going to do is take this with what we learned today and how we can turn it up tomorrow,” Canada captain Natalie Achonwa said. “It’s still a game for a medal and it’s just as important for us.”

The U.S. has won seven of the eight meetings with Canada in the World Cup, although the last one came in 2010. The lone victory for Canada came in 1975.

The victory was the 29th in a row in World Cup play for the Americans, who haven’t lost since the 2006 semifinals against Russia. The Soviet Union holds the World Cup record with 56 straight wins from 1959-86. This is only the second time in the Americans’ storied history they’ve reached four consecutive gold-medal contests. They also did it from 1979-90, winning three times.

This U.S. team, which has so many new faces on it, is on pace to break many of the team’s records that include scoring margin and points per game. The Americans also continued to dominate the paint even without 6-foot-8 Brittney Griner, outscoring its opponents by an average of 55-24.

Amihere led Canada with eight points.

RECORD BREAKING

The low point total broke the mark of 53 that South Korea scored against Russia in 2002.

“We’re starting to build that identity,” Wilson said of the defensive effort. “We’re quick and scrappy and I think that’s our identity.”

The U.S. is averaging 101 points a game. The team’s best mark ever coming into the tournament was 99.1 set in 1994.

STILL RECOVERING

Kahleah Copper sat out after injuring her left hip in the win over Serbia in the quarterfinals. Copper landed hard on her hip driving to the basket and had to be helped off the court. She hopes to play on Saturday. Betnijah Laney, who also got hurt in the Serbia game, did play against Canada.

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2022 FIBA Women’s World Cup schedule, results

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The U.S. goes for its fourth consecutive title at the FIBA World Cup in Sydney — and eighth global gold in a row overall when including the Olympics.

A’ja Wilson, a two-time WNBA MVP, and Breanna Stewart, the Tokyo Olympic MVP, headline a U.S. roster that, for the first time since 2000, includes neither Sue Bird (retired) nor Diana Taurasi (injured).

The new-look team includes nobody over the age of 30 for the first time since 1994, before the U.S. began its dynasty at the 1996 Atlanta Games. The Americans have won 52 consecutive games between worlds and the Olympics dating to the 2006 Worlds bronze-medal game.

The field also includes host Australia, the U.S.’ former primary rival, and Olympic silver medalist Japan.

Nigeria, which played the U.S. the closest of any foe in Tokyo (losing by nine points), isn’t present after its federation withdrew the team over governance issues. Spain, ranked second in the world, failed to qualify.

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2022 FIBA Women’s World Cup Schedule, Results

Date Time (ET) Game Round
Wed., Sept. 21 8:30 p.m. Puerto Rico 82, Bosnia and Herzegovina 58 Group A
9:30 p.m. USA 87, Belgium 72 Group A
11 p.m. Canada 67, Serbia 60 Group B
Thurs., Sept. 22 12 a.m. Japan 89, Mali 56 Group B
3:30 a.m. China 107, South Korea 44 Group A
6:30 a.m. France 70, Australia 57 Group B
8:30 p.m. USA 106, Puerto Rico 42 Group A
10 p.m. Serbia 69, Japan 64 Group B
11 p.m. Belgium 84, South Korea 61 Group A
Fri., Sept. 23 12:30 a.m. China 98, Bosnia and Herzegovina 51 Group A
4 a.m. Canada 59, France 45 Group B
6:30 a.m. Australia 118, Mali 58 Group B
Sat., Sept. 24 12:30 a.m. USA 77, China 63 Group A
4 a.m. South Korea 99, Bosnia and Herzegovina 66 Group A
6:30 a.m. Belgium 68, Puerto Rico 65 Group A
Sun., Sept. 25 12:30 a.m. France 74, Mali 59 Group B
4 a.m. Australia 69, Serbia 54 Group B
6:30 a.m. Canada 70, Japan 56 Group B
9:30 p.m. Belgium 85, Bosnia and Herzegovina 55 Group A
11:30 p.m. Serbia 81, Mali 68 Group B
Mon., Sept. 26 12 a.m. USA 145, South Korea 69 Group A
2 a.m. France 67, Japan 53 Group B
3:30 a.m. China 95, Puerto Rico 60 Group A
6:30 a.m. Australia 75, Canada 72 Group B
9:30 p.m. Puerto Rico 92, South Korea 73 Group A
11:30 p.m. China 81, Belgium 55 Group A
Tues., Sept. 27 12 a.m. USA 121, Bosnia and Herzegovina 59 Group A
2 a.m. Canada 88, Mali 65 Group B
3:30 a.m. Serbia 68, France 62 Group B
6:30 a.m. Australia 71, Japan 54 Group B
Wed., Sept. 28 10 p.m. USA 88, Serbia 55 Quarterfinals
Thurs., Sept. 29 12:30 a.m. Canada 79, Puerto Rico 60 Quarterfinals
4 a.m. China 85, France 71 Quarterfinals
6:30 a.m. Australia 86, Belgium 69 Quarterfinals
Fri., Sept. 30 3 a.m. USA 83, Canada 43 Semifinals
5:30 a.m. China 61, Australia 59 Semifinals
11 p.m. Australia vs. Canada Third-Place Game
Sat., Oct. 1 2 a.m. USA vs. China Gold-Medal Game