Phoebe Bacon joins elite company in U.S. swimming’s strongest events

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Phoebe Bacon carved a place in the most decorated discipline in American swimming, at a time that the U.S. boasts Olympic and world championships medalists and the world-record holder in the women’s backstrokes.

Bacon, an 18-year-old who just finished her freshman season at Wisconsin, won the 200m back on Friday night in Indianapolis, at the last Tyr Pro Swim Series stop before the Olympic Trials in Omaha in one month.

The victory stood out for the time: 2:06.84, third-fastest in the world this year and 1.98 seconds better than her personal best coming into the day.

And for the competition: Bacon edged world champion and world-record holder Regan Smith, 19, by six hundredths.

“Nothing’s more fun than racing Regan,” Bacon said on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA. “It’s a warm-up for Trials.”

Full meet results are here. Competition concludes Saturday with finals on NBCSN, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app at 6 p.m. ET.

Many swimmers are racing this weekend for the last time before Trials, where the top two per individual event qualify for Tokyo.

Bacon’s obvious ties are to Katie Ledecky, her reported “big buddy” as a pre-K student at Little Flower School in Bethesda, Md., when Ledecky was a fourth-grader. Bacon followed Ledecky to Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart. Though Bacon didn’t matriculate at Ledecky’s Stanford, she did choose Ledecky’s former coach, Yuri Suguiyama, now the head coach at Wisconsin.

“[Ledecky] is always asking me about my swimming, and, of course, I’m always reading and watching about her swimming. I’m always asking her about hers,” said Bacon, who conversed with Ledecky virtually during the pandemic and saw her in person. “She’s a really great person for me to look up to and a big help, I would say, for my swimming career.”

But now, Bacon must be grouped with a whole set of accomplished American swimmers: the backstrokers. Like Smith, Kathleen Baker (who had the 100m back world record before Smith took it in 2019) and Olivia Smoliga (2019 World 100m back bronze medalist).

Bacon’s arrival on the elite level also came in 2019. She upset Smith in the 100m back at the U.S. Open, four months after Smith broke both backstroke world records at the world championships. The time put Bacon second in the nation for the year and made her a contender, if not a favorite, to make the Olympic team in 2020.

With the Olympic postponement, Smith deferred enrollment at Stanford from 2020 to 2021. Bacon chose not to, moving to Madison as scheduled, albeit during the middle of a pandemic (though not with the 1992 Jeep Wrangler that she and her dad refurbished).

Bacon finished third in the 100 back and won the 200 back at the NCAA Championships in March. The results reflected her change in outlook under Suguiyama, who coached Ledecky to the 2012 Olympics at age 15.

“Prior to coming into college, I felt more I was like a 100 backstroker, I felt more of a sprinter, like I have that power,” said Bacon, who in spring 2020 trained in a family friend’s 15-yard basement pool in Potomac for several weeks. “But coming into college, and as I’ve been working with my new head coach, Yuri, I’ve noticed that I have the strength for a 200.”

Now, Bacon ranks No. 3 in the U.S. in the 100m back and in the 200m back since the start of 2019. With a strong 100m back on Saturday, she could enter the Trials ranked No. 1 in the country in both events in 2021.

Five years ago, Bacon was reportedly the third-youngest swimmer of more than 1,800 at Trials. At age 13, she finished 83rd in the 100m back.

“It wasn’t about swimming fast and going another best time at that level of a meet,” she said. “It was just getting used to that environment and seeing that fast swimming and imagine myself being there in the next four, now five, years.”

In other events Friday, Smith edged Rio Olympian Kelsi Dahlia in the 100m butterfly, another deep event. Smith clocked 57.68 to prevail by .07. The fastest Americans this year, and since the start of 2019, have been high schoolers — Claire Curzan (56.20) and Torri Huske (56.69).

Michael Andrew, who on Thursday clocked the second-fastest 100m breaststroke in American history, swam a personal best in the 100m fly to become the fifth-fastest American man ever in that event. Andrew touched in 50.80. Caeleb Dressel, the world champion and world-record holder at 49.50, recorded a 51.15 on Friday to win at a meet in Atlanta. Joseph Schooling, the surprise Rio Olympic champion, swam 52.93 in the B final in Indy.

Also in Atlanta, Chase Kalisz won the 400m individual medley over Rio Olympic teammate Jay Litherland, clocking 4:13.64, the fastest time by an American this year.

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U.S. women’s rugby team qualifies for 2024 Paris Olympics as medal contender

Cheta Emba
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The U.S. women’s rugby team qualified for the 2024 Paris Olympics by clinching a top-four finish in this season’s World Series.

Since rugby was re-added to the Olympics in 2016, the U.S. men’s and women’s teams finished fifth, sixth, sixth and ninth at the Games.

The U.S. women are having their best season since 2018-19, finishing second or third in all five World Series stops so far and ranking behind only New Zealand and Australia, the winners of the first two Olympic women’s rugby sevens tournaments.

The U.S. also finished fourth at last September’s World Cup.

Three months after the Tokyo Games, Emilie Bydwell was announced as the new U.S. head coach, succeeding Olympic coach Chris Brown.

Soon after, Tokyo Olympic co-captain Abby Gustaitis was cut from the team.

Jaz Gray, who led the team in scoring last season and at the World Cup, missed the last three World Series stops after an injury.

The U.S. men are ranked ninth in this season’s World Series and will likely need to win either a North American Olympic qualifier this summer or a last-chance global qualifier in June 2024 to make it to Paris.

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Oscar Pistorius denied parole, hasn’t served enough time

Oscar Pistorius
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Olympic and Paralympic runner Oscar Pistorius was denied parole Friday and will have to stay in prison for at least another year and four months after it was decided that he had not served the “minimum detention period” required to be released following his murder conviction for killing girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp 10 years ago.

The parole board ruled that Pistorius would only be able to apply again in August 2024, South Africa’s Department of Corrections said in a short, two-paragraph statement. It was released soon after a parole hearing at the Atteridgeville Correctional Centre prison where Pistorius is being held.

The board cited a new clarification on Pistorius’ sentence that was issued by South Africa’s Supreme Court of Appeal just three days before the hearing, according to the statement. Still, legal experts criticized authorities’ decision to go ahead with the hearing when Pistorius was not eligible.

Reeva Steenkamp’s parents, Barry and June, are “relieved” with the decision to keep Pistorius in prison but are not celebrating it, their lawyer told The Associated Press.

“They can’t celebrate because there are no winners in this situation. They lost a daughter and South Africa lost a hero,” lawyer Tania Koen said, referring to the dramatic fall from grace of Pistorius, once a world-famous and highly-admired athlete.

The decision and reasoning to deny parole was a surprise but there has been legal wrangling over when Pistorius should be eligible for parole because of the series of appeals in his case. He was initially convicted of culpable homicide, a charge comparable to manslaughter, in 2014 but the case went through a number of appeals before Pistorius was finally sentenced to 13 years and five months in prison for murder in 2017.

Serious offenders must serve at least half their sentence to be eligible for parole in South Africa. Pistorius’ lawyers had previously gone to court to argue that he was eligible because he had served the required portion if they also counted periods served in jail from late 2014 following his culpable homicide conviction.

The lawyer handling Pistorius’ parole application did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment.

June Steenkamp attended Pistorius’ hearing inside the prison complex to oppose his parole. The parents have said they still do not believe Pistorius’ account of their daughter’s killing and wanted him to stay in jail.

Pistorius, who is now 36, has always claimed he killed Steenkamp, a 29-year-old model and law student, in the pre-dawn hours of Valentine’s Day 2013 after mistaking her for a dangerous intruder in his home. He shot four times with his licensed 9 mm pistol through a closed toilet cubicle door in his bathroom, where Steenkamp was, hitting her multiple times. Pistorius claimed he didn’t realize his girlfriend had got out of bed and gone to the bathroom.

The Steenkamps say they still think he is lying and killed her intentionally after a late-night argument.

Lawyer Koen had struck a more critical tone when addressing reporters outside the prison before the hearing, saying the Steenkamps believed Pistorius could not be considered to be rehabilitated “unless he comes clean” over the killing.

“He’s the killer of their daughter. For them, it’s a life sentence,” Koen said before the hearing.

June Steenkamp had sat grim-faced in the back seat of a car nearby while Koen spoke to reporters outside the prison gates ahead of the hearing. June Steenkamp and Koen were then driven into the prison in a Department of Corrections vehicle. June Steenkamp made her submission to the parole board in a separate room to Pistorius and did not come face-to-face with her daughter’s killer, Koen said.

Barry Steenkamp did not travel for the hearing because of poor health but a family friend read out a statement to the parole board on his behalf, the parents’ lawyer said.

Pistorius was once hailed as an inspirational figure for overcoming the adversity of his disability, before his murder trial and sensational downfall captivated the world.

Pistorius’s lower legs were amputated when he was a baby because of a congenital condition and he walks with prosthetics. He went on to become a double-amputee runner and multiple Paralympic champion who made history by competing against able-bodied athletes at the 2012 London Olympics, running on specially designed carbon-fiber blades.

Pistorius’ conviction eventually led to him being sent to the Kgosi Mampuru II maximum security prison, one of South Africa’s most notorious. He was moved to the Atteridgeville prison in 2016 because that facility is better suited to disabled prisoners.

There have only been glimpses of his life in prison, with reports claiming he had at one point grown a beard, gained weight and taken up smoking and was unrecognizable from the elite athlete he once was.

He has spent much of his time working in an area of the prison grounds where vegetables are grown, sometimes driving a tractor, and has reportedly been running bible classes for other inmates.

Pistorius’ father, Henke Pistorius, told the Pretoria News newspaper before the hearing that his family hoped he would be home soon.

“Deep down, we believe he will be home soon,” Henke Pistorius said, “but until the parole board has spoken the word, I don’t want to get my hopes up.”

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