Katie Ledecky, Michael Phelps among U.S. storylines heading into Kazan
During an eventful week for U.S. athletes, Katie Ledecky stole the show at the Pan-Pacific Swimming Championships in Gold Coast, Australia by winning freestyle races at four distances and breaking two of her own world records. The 17-year old is simply the hottest athlete in the sport right now. She lowered the marks in the 400-meter freestyle to 3:58:37 and the 1,500 free to an absurd 15:28.36, dropping her previous world record by nearly six seconds. She also won the 200 free and 800 free.
Ledecky became the first woman to win individual four golds at Pan Pacs.
In what is theoretically a down year—the only one in the quadrennial cycle without an Olympics or world championships—she set her fifth world record in the last nine weeks. Even more amazing, the 200 free is almost an afterthought for her, a consequence of trying to find another Olympic event since women swim the 1,500 at worlds and Pan-Pacs, but not at the Olympic Games. She has put that record out of reach of anyone else, and she may not even swim the event much more.
The U.S. won't finalize its roster for the World Championships in Kazan, Russia until Oct. 1, when it will be the first team to do so. All swimmers have qualified for spots based on the performances at nationals and Pan Pacs, but they may still decline a spot, add a spot or be switched around by coaches.
Among the highlights: Michael Phelps will swim in the 100 free, 100 fly and 200 IM in Kazan. Even though he won't race in the 200 free and fly, he has a combined seven world gold medals. Phelps picked up five medals, including three golds, in Gold Coast and looked much stronger than at the U.S. Nationals earlier this month.
Speaking about his comeback after winning the 100 fly, Phelps told reporters, “I didn’t do it for any other reason, than I wanted to be back. I felt pretty good. It definitely feels good to see the one next to your name and not losing by this, losing by that. I’ll be able to sleep a little easier . . . I still have trouble holding my stroke -- to be able to do a comfortable stroke at that high speeds. It’s going to be able to come with me doing faster swims and faster things in workouts.”
Though he is not as seasoned as Ledecky on the international stage, Michael McBroom is emerging as a top distance swimmer on the U.S. squad. McBroom will swim in three distance freestyle races: 400, 800 and 1,500.
It takes a lot for easy-going Missy Franklin to get tied up in knots, but back spasms did the trick in Australia. Franklin won six world gold medals last year, but she won just one individual medal last week; a bronze in the 100-meter backstroke,. She also took home a gold and two silvers in relays.
“Definitely not the meet I expected going in,” she said afterwards.
The unusually heavy rains in the Gold Coast caused organizers to move the open-water events to Maui, where they will take place on Aug. 31. The water quality at Marine Stadium was deemed unsatisfactory after tests for pollutants exceeded acceptable levels. In additions to fears about the Ebola virus, officials were also concerned the heavy rains during the week could also cause sharks to migrate into the area.
Simone Biles continues her dominance
The U.S. Gymnastics Championships in Pittsburgh last week revealed a stronger U.S. men's squad, even though the star of the event was a woman. Reigning world champ Simone Biles ran away from her competition, easily outdistancing the field. Kyla Ross, the one holdover from the U.S. team that won gold at the London Games, placed second. Biles is a dynamic vaulter and tumbler who stayed steady on the uneven bars, her weakest event, and had just one inconsequential fall off the balance beam long after she had the competition wrapped up. Biles is just 17, but two years is an eternity in the life of a female gymnast.
Since Mary Lou Retton won gold at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, Biles is now the seventh U.S. woman to win a world all-around title. None of the others has gone on to win the Olympics. World all-around silver medalists Jana Bieger and Rebecca Bross never competed at the Games. The last three Olympic all-around champs -- Carly Patterson, Nastia Liukin and Gabby Douglas -- never won a world all-around title. Even if Biles does repeat her strong showing at the worlds in China later this year, don't expect the U.S. women to have the same depth as they did in 2012 (a strong crop of juniors is on the way for 2016).
While most of the U.S. women’s team in London has not returned to competition, all five men who represented the U.S. in London were among the top eight finishers in Pittsburgh. Sam Mikulak won the competition followed by John Orozco and Jake Dalton, with Danell Leyva fifth and Jonathan Horton eighth. Horton, 28, is aiming for his third Olympic team. He competed despite what he called “an embarrassing injury.” Horton hit his right elbow against a soap tray in his Pittsburgh hotel, rupturing a bursa sac. Horton said later that this was the most competitive national championship he had attended.
“The level of gymnastics is ridiculous,” he said. “Some days at Nationals, it’s a splat fest. You don’t see any of that now.”
For gymnastics purists, the highlight of the meet came from Donnell Whittenburg. The Baltimore gymnast, who placed fourth overall, completed a dynamite second vault that had only been performed by one other gymnast in the world -- North Korea’s Ri Se-gwang. The vault featured a Tsukahara (quarter turn) full-in, back-out, which was a blurring sequence that would have been unheard of several years ago.
Youth games give glimpse of the future
Thomas Bach took over as IOC president less than a year ago, saying he wanted to seek out ways to modernize the Olympic program by appealing to younger audiences in the way that snowboarding and other X Games-style sports have done. The Youth Olympic Games that are taking place in Nanjing, China through Aug. 28 are not only a showcase for prospective Olympians of tomorrow, but also prospective sports such as climbing, skateboarding and inline skating.
Of the three, the skateboard competitions appear to be drawing the most buzz. Most of the top stars in skateboarding are teenagers, and the sport is accessible to athletes in a broader range of climates than a sport that requires snow. Former IOC marketing director Michael Payne went a step further, tweeting, “Skateboarding making real impact on IOC here in Nanjing – want to engage youth, simple decision!”
Bolt takes a break
Usain will stay bolted to the bench for a while. Jamaican sprint king Usain Bolt said this weekend he would end his injury-plagued season early and prepare for the 2015 campaign, which includes a world championship in Beijing. Bolt had been scheduled to compete in a Diamond League event in Zurich on Aug. 28. He ran 9.98 over the weekend to win a 100-meter race in Warsaw. He has been bothered by a foot injury for much of the season.