Katie Ledecky retakes 400m freestyle at swim worlds; Michael Phelps’ last record rattled

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BUDAPEST — Katie Ledecky reclaimed the 400m freestyle crown to open the world swimming championships, prevailing in the absence of rival Ariarne Titmus of Australia.

Ledecky won in a championship record 3 minutes, 58.15 seconds, topping 15-year-old Canadian Summer McIntosh by 1.24 seconds. American Leah Smith took bronze, matching her finish from the 2016 Olympics and 2019 Worlds.

“Just wanted to start the meet on a good note,” said Ledecky, who is expected to swim in four events over the eight-day competition. “It hurt a bit, but I’m really happy and couldn’t be happier to have Leah on the medal podium with me.”

SWIMMING WORLDS: TV Schedule | Results | U.S. Roster

Also Saturday, 20-year-old Frenchman Léon Marchand established himself as a star ahead of the 2024 Paris Games.

Marchand, who swims at Arizona State under Michael Phelps‘ longtime coach Bob Bowman, won the 400m individual medley in 4:04.28, the second-best time in history behind Phelps’ world record 4:03.84.

Americans Carson Foster and Chase Kalisz (Tokyo Olympic champion) took silver and bronze.

Marchand was under Phelps’ record pace through 350 meters, nearly wiping Phelps’ last remaining individual record, and the last individual record overall from the 2008 Olympics, off the books.

“I talk to [Phelps] a little bit by [text] message, and he’s always sending some some texts to Bob,” Marchand said.

Australian Elijah Winnington took the men’s 400m free in 3:41.22, the world’s best time since 2012. Winnington was seventh at the Tokyo Olympics.

In the 4x100m free relays, the U.S. men, led by Caeleb Dressel, won by 1.46 seconds over Australia. The U.S. has won the event at every Olympics and worlds since Dressel joined the lineup in 2016.

Favored Australia took the women’s 4x100m free despite lacking seven-time Tokyo Olympic medalist Emma McKeon, who along with Titmus is skipping worlds to focus on the Commonwealth Games. Australia won by 1.20 seconds over Canada, with a young U.S. quartet taking bronze, just as a more experienced foursome did in Tokyo.

Ledecky earned her 16th career world championships gold medal and her 12th in individual events, breaking her tie in the latter with China’s Sun Yang for the second-most in history behind Phelps’ 15 individual world titles. Ledecky has two more individual events left in Budapest, the 800m and 1500m frees.

This marked Ledecky’s first 400m free gold at a major international meet since 2018. She took silver behind Titmus at the 2019 Worlds and the Tokyo Olympics.

Last month, Titmus broke Ledecky’s 400m free world record, lowering it by six hundredths to 3:56.40.

Titmus and some other Australian stars are skipping worlds to prioritize the Commonwealth Games later this summer. Ledecky and Titmus are not expected to race against each other until the 2023 World Championships in Japan.

“The focus maybe for everyone else is about time, but for me it hasn’t been about time this year,” said Ledecky, who after winning two golds and four medals at the Tokyo Olympics moved from Stanford to Florida. “It’s just about finding my stroke, finding my rhythm and not putting a limit on what I can do.”

Worlds continue Sunday, including Dressel in the 50m butterfly final and fellow Americans Torri Huske and Claire Curzan in the 100m fly final.

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Alexa Knierim, Brandon Frazier top pairs’ short at U.S. Figure Skating Championships

Alexa Knierim, Brandon Frazier
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World champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier lead after the pairs’ short program in what may be their last U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

Knierim and Frazier, who last March became the first U.S. pair to win a world title since 1979, tallied 81.96 points to open the four-day nationals on Thursday.

They lead by 15.1 over Emily Chan and Spencer Howe going into Saturday’s free skate in San Jose, California. The top three teams from last year’s event — which Knierim and Frazier missed due to him contracting COVID-19 — are no longer competing together.

After nationals, a committee selects three U.S. pairs for March’s world championships in Japan.

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Full Scores | Broadcast Schedule

Before the fall Grand Prix Series, the 31-year-old Knierim said this will probably be their last season competing together, though the pair also thought they were done last spring. They don’t expect to make a final decision until after a Stars on Ice tour this spring.

“I don’t like to just put it out there and say it is the last or not going to be the last because life just has that way of throwing curveballs, and you just never know,” Frazier said this month. “But I would say that this is the first nationals where I’m going to go in really trying to soak up every second as if it is my last because you just don’t know.”

Knierim is going for a fifth U.S. title, which would tie the record for a pairs’ skater since World War II, joining Kyoka Ina, Tai Babilonia, Randy Gardner, Karol Kennedy and Peter Kennedy. Knierim’s first three titles, and her first Olympics in 2018, were with husband Chris, who retired in 2020.

Knierim is also trying to become the first female pairs’ skater in her 30s to win a national title since 1993. Knierim and ice dancer Madison Chock are trying to become the first female skaters in their 30s to win a U.S. title in any discipline since 1995.

After being unable to defend their 2021 U.S. title last year, Knierim and Frazier reeled off a series of historic results in what had long been the country’s weakest discipline.

They successfully petitioned for an Olympic spot and placed sixth at the Games, best for a U.S. pair since 2002. They considered retirement after their world title, which was won without the top five teams from the Olympics in attendance. They returned in part to compete as world champions and to give back to U.S. skating, helping set up younger pairs for success.

They became the first U.S. pair to win two Grand Prix Series events, then in December became the first U.S. pair to make a Grand Prix Final podium (second place). The world’s top pairs were absent; Russians banned due to the war in Ukraine and Olympic champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong from China leaving competition ice (for now).

Knierim and Frazier’s real test isn’t nationals. It’s worlds, where they will likely be the underdog to home favorites Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara, who edged the Americans by 1.3 points in the closest Grand Prix Final pairs’ competition in 12 years.

Nationals continue with the rhythm dance and women’s short program later Thursday.

NBC Sports’ Sarah Hughes (not the figure skater) contributed to this report.

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2023 U.S. Figure Skating Championships scores, results

2023 U.S. Figure Skating Championships
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Full scores and results from the 2023 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in San Jose …

Pairs Short Program
1. Alexa Knierim/Brandon Frazier — 81.96
2. Emily Chan/Spencer Howe — 66.86
3. Ellie Kam/Danny O’Shea —- 65.75
4. Valentina Plazas/Maximiliano Fernandez — 63.45
5. Sonia Baram/Danil Tioumentsev —- 63.12
6. Katie McBeath/Nathan Bartholomay —- 56.96
7. Nica Digerness/Mark Sadusky — 50.72
8. Maria Mokhova/Ivan Mokhov —- 46.96
9. Grace Hanns / Danny Neudecker — 46.81
10. Linzy Fitzpatrick/Keyton Bearinger — 45.27
11. Nina Ouellette/Rique Newby-Estrella — 43.99

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Broadcast Schedule | New Era for U.S.

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