World record, Katie Ledecky challenge stoke U.S.-Australia swim rivalry before Olympics

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The Duel in the Pool may be back on after a pair of statement swims by Australian women who are rivals to American stars.

Australian Kaylee McKeown broke American Regan Smith‘s world record in the 100m backstroke, clocking 57.45 seconds to win her Olympic Trials on Sunday.

McKeown took 12 hundredths off Smith’s world record from the 2019 World Championships. Both are 19 years old.

“Obviously can’t believe it,” said McKeown, who became the fourth different woman to lower the 100m back mark since July 2017. “I just wanted to come in tonight and blow out the cobwebs.”

Later Sunday, Ariarne Titmus, the 20-year-old rival of Katie Ledecky known as “The Terminator,” won the 400m freestyle in Adelaide in 3:56.90, the second-fastest time in history. Ledecky set the world record of 3:56.46 at the Rio Olympics and held the seven fastest times in history before Sunday.

“[Ledecky’s] not going to have it all her own way,” Titmus said, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. “I can’t control what she does, if I do the best I can and put myself in the position to win a gold medal, it’s going to be a tough race.”

For the first time in recent memory, the Olympic Trials for the world’s traditional swim powers, the U.S. and Australia, are happening at the same time. In past Olympic cycles, Australia held its Trials farther out from the Games.

Australian women won zero individual gold medals between the last two Olympics, taking some of the spice out of the rivalry.

Then on Thursday, American breaststroker Lilly King said the U.S. could win every individual women’s gold in Tokyo. King wasn’t answering a question about Australia, but rather the strength of the team in the post-Michael Phelps era.

“After Kaylee tonight, I think there’s the backstroke gone,” Titmus said Sunday, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. “We have chances in a lot of other events. I feel like the Olympics is not going to be all America’s way – there are other countries coming through.”

McKeown swam 10 months after her father, Sholto, died after a two-year brain cancer battle. McKeown has a tattoo across the top of her foot reading, “I’ll always be with you.”

“I think he’d be really proud,” she said on the pool deck in Adelaide.

McKeown finished fifth in the 100m back at the 2019 Worlds, plus took silver behind Smith in the 200m back.

The U.S. is so deep in the women’s 100m back — four of the top eight in the world since the start of 2019 — that Smith isn’t considered a lock to make the team, which requires placing in the top two at the Olympic Trials that begin in Omaha on Sunday.

Titmus beat Ledecky in the 400m free to open the 2019 World Championships, after which Ledecky missed races while ill. Titmus’ time on Sunday was 1.86 seconds faster than her personal best from those worlds.

“I would say we’d have a very nervous Katie Ledecky over in the United States right now,” an Australian commentator said on an Amazon Prime broadcast.

This is the first time in recent history, if ever, that the Australian trials broadcast is available in the U.S.

“I’m not going to be checking results every couple hours or anything,” Ledecky said Saturday. “The medals aren’t given this week, so I don’t think we have to get too caught up in what times people are going here versus anywhere else in the world right now.”

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Japanese pair edges Americans for historic Grand Prix Final figure skating title

Riku Miura, Ryuichi Kihara

Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara won the biggest title ever for a Japanese figure skating pair, taking the Grand Prix Final and consolidating their status as the world’s top active team.

Miura and Kihara, last season’s world silver medalists, barely outscored world champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier in Turin, Italy, in both Thursday’s short program and Friday’s free skate to win the six-pair event that is a preview of March’s worlds.

The Japanese totaled 214.58 points, distancing the Americans by a mere 1.3 points after Frazier erred on both of their side-by-side jumping passes in the free skate. Italians Sara Conti and Niccolo Macii took bronze.

“We had a very late start to our season than initially planned, so as we have been performing at each event, I see us getting stronger, improving things,” said Frazier, who with Knierim had their best short program and free skate scores of the autumn.

Knierim and Frazier didn’t decide to continue competing together this season until July.

“I feel a little personally disappointed tonight just for myself for my jumps,” Frazier continued. “I was a little all over the place and, normally, I can execute better, so I feel a little bad, but I’m very proud of us overall. We’ve done a great job of improving each competition and looking forward to the second half of the season where we can start tapping into our best skating.”

GRAND PRIX FINAL: Results | Broadcast Schedule

Miura and Kihara, who partnered in June 2019 and train in Ontario, both waited with trepidation for their final score to be posted, worried that each’s separate mistake on jumps might cost them the title. When they learned they won, both burst into tears.

“This was the first time in eight years that I made a mistake with a Salchow, so I thought we might not get a good score, and it would be my fault,” Kihara said.

Miura and Kihara entered the competition ranked No. 1 in the world by best scores this season ahead of Knierim and Frazier, who in March became the first U.S. pair to win a world title since 1979.

Last season, Miura and Kihara became the second Japanese pair to make a Grand Prix podium and to earn a world championships medal. Their ascension helped Japan win its first Olympic figure skating team event medal in February (a bronze that could be upgraded to gold pending the Kamila Valiyeva case).

In Grand Prix Final history, Japan had won 11 gold medals and 40 total medals, all in singles, before this breakthrough.

Knierim and Frazier, already the first U.S. pair to compete in the Grand Prix Final since 2015, became the first U.S. pair to win a Grand Prix Final medal. The Final has been held annually since 1996, though it was canceled the last two seasons due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Miura and Kihara and Knierim and Frazier ascended to the top of the sport while the top five teams from the Olympics from Russia and China have not competed internationally since the Winter Games.

All Russian skaters are ineligible for international competition due to the war in Ukraine. China’s pairs, including Olympic champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, didn’t enter last March’s worlds and did not compete in the fall Grand Prix Series.

Later Friday, world champion Kaori Sakamoto of Japan led the women’s short program with 75.86 points, 1.28 ahead of countrywoman Mai Mihara. American Isabeau Levito, the 15-year-old world junior champion, was fifth of six skaters in her Grand Prix Final debut.

Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier topped the rhythm dance with 85.93 points, edging Americans Madison Chock and Evan Bates by .44. Both couples are bidding for the biggest international title of their careers. None of the Olympic medalists competed internationally this fall.

The Grand Prix Final ends Saturday with the men’s and women’s free skates and free dance, all live on Peacock.

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A Winter Olympic medal still being decided, 10 months later

Fanny Smith, Daniela Maier
It's still unknown whether Fanny Smith (green) or Daniela Maier (blue) is the Olympic ski cross bronze medalist. (Getty)

There is a second Winter Olympic medal result still in question, 10 months after the Games.

While the figure skating team event results are still unknown due to the Kamila Valiyeva case, the bronze medal in women’s ski cross is also in dispute.

Originally, Swiss Fanny Smith crossed the finish line in third place in the four-woman final at the Winter Games in February. Upon review by the International Ski Federation (FIS) jury, she was minutes later demoted to fourth place after making contact with German Daniela Maier near the end of the course. Maier, who originally was fourth, was upgraded to bronze.

“I tried to be OK with the fourth place. I was very disappointed, I have to say, [then] the jury was like this,” Maier said then. “I am really sorry for Fanny that it’s like this right now. … The jury decided like this, so accept it and be happy with the medal.”

Smith and the Swiss ski federation appealed. FIS reinstated Smith as the bronze medalist nine days after the race and six days after the Closing Ceremony. A FIS appeals commission met four times and reviewed video and written documentation for several hours before deciding that “the close proximity of the racers at that moment resulted in action that was neither intentional or avoidable.”

But that wasn’t the end. The case ended up reportedly going to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), whose rulings are usually accepted as final. The CAS process is ongoing, European media reported this week.

CAS has not responded to a request for comment. A FIS contact said Friday, “There is currently no update to provide in regards to the bronze medal in ski cross. Should there be any update, we will inform you.”

Smith said there should be news soon regarding the case, according to Blick.

Maier still has the bronze medal at her home and enjoys looking at it, according to German media, which also reported that the German ski federation expects Maier to win the case and keep the medal. Smith and Maier spoke extensively about it in recent training sessions and cleared things up. Maier said the best outcome would be bronze medals for both of them, according to the report.

For now, FIS lists Smith as the bronze medalist. The IOC lists Maier as the bronze medalist.

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