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Why it’s not time to hit the panic button on Team USA in the pool

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The Tokyo Olympics were by no means a failure for Team USA in the pool, though it might look that way at first glance.

While the women’s overall medal count increased from 16 to 18 — thanks in part to the addition of the women’s 1500-meter freestyle — the overall gold medal count decreased to just three — in large part due to Australia’s return to dominance. And while in past Olympics, Team USA consistently produced the breakout swimmer(s) of each Olympics (Katie Ledecky, Simone Manuel, Missy Franklin, etc.), this year, that title undeniably belonged to Australia’s Ariarne Titmus.

In total, Australia won 14 medals — but eight of them were gold.

That doesn’t mean it’s time to hit the panic button for Team USA. While the U.S. didn’t dominate the top of the podium as many are used to, there are plenty of reasons to believe that USA Swimming’s future is bright.

There’s more depth than ever before

Anyone who has watched a collegiate conference meet understands the importance of depth to winning a championship. Even in an ‘individual’ sport like swimming, teams that have depth are simply more successful. This held true in Tokyo, where at this year’s Olympics, there were six events in which the U.S. women got two swimmers on the podium. That’s the most since 1984.

These included events in which, five years ago, the United States failed to medal at all.

The women’s 200-meter breaststroke in Tokyo saw Annie Lazor and Lilly King make the podium. In Rio, King didn’t even make the top eight, placing 12th overall. Fellow American Molly Hannis placed 16th.

In the 200-meter butterfly, the U.S. had no medalists five years. But Regan Smith and Hali Flickinger grabbed silver and bronze, respectively, in Tokyo.

Don’t forget the up-and-comers

All things considered, the USA Swimming team in Tokyo was exceptionally young. Of the 26-person roster, 10 were teenagers. While facing your first Olympics at such a young age can lead to a lot of pressure, many responded well.

Katie Grimes placed fourth in the 800-meter freestyle at just 15-years-old. Torri Huske, at 18, finished one one-hundredth of a second away from a bronze medal in the 100-meter butterfly. 17-year-old Lydia Jacoby could very well be the future of American sprint breaststroke. Bella Sims, who made the Olympic Team on the 4×200-meter freestyle relay, could very well qualify individually in the 200-meter freestyle in 2024.

There are also some that didn’t even make the team but had a strong showing at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha. Gretchen Walsh — the younger sister of Olympic silver-medalist Alex Walsh — finished fifth in the 50 free in a time of 24.74, just off of her personal best. As she heads to college at Virginia alongside her sister, look for her to make strides and potentially make the team in Paris.

This younger generation is poised for success. As Women’s Olympic team coach Greg Meehan pointed out, their experience in Tokyo bodes well for 2024, where these athletes will already have an idea as to how to manage the pressure of the Olympics.

“It is exciting with such a young team,” Meehan told the Washington Post. “But the one thing you’re going to know from the United States is no one is just going to let them walk to their spot in 2024. They’re going to have to earn it.

The best can be even better

Bad meets can happen. And while this was by no means a “bad meet” for the U.S., some of the very best swimmers were not performing at the levels that they are capable of.

Part of that can be attributed to the Covid pandemic, as even the world’s best swimmers struggled to find ideal training conditions. Additionally, the toll the pandemic took on athlete’s mental health has been vast and should not be understated. It can be difficult to train without an end goal in sight. And a year ago, many of these athletes had no idea if the Olympics would even happen.

Consider both Regan Smith and Simone Manuel. Smith is the world record holder in the 200-meter backstroke. She failed to even qualify for the event in Tokyo. And while she had a strong 100-meter backstroke showing, it was still off of her best. But she did shine in the 200-meter butterfly, grabbing silver and showing that she could still reach her potential on the biggest stage in Tokyo.

Then there’s Manuel, the Olympic gold medalist in the 100-meter freestyle and silver medalist in the 50-meter freestyle in Rio. Manuel failed to qualify for the final of the 100-meter freestyle at Olympic Trials back in June. She later revealed that she had been suffering from overtraining syndrome, which caused her to take some time out of the pool. Despite this, the Olympic champion was included on the 4×100-meter freestyle relay in Tokyo, and she delivered. She was one of two swimmers, alongside Abbey Weitzel, who swam under 53 seconds for the United States en route to bronze. While she’s capable of much faster, it was a promising performance for one of Team USA’s best sprinters.

There’s also something to be said for the improvements made by both Flickinger and King. Their stories should be cause for hope among those who finished just outside of medal contention in Tokyo, such as Rhyan White in the 200-meter backstroke.

Some of Team USA’s swimmers are at the beginning of their career. Some are in the middle. And some are at the end. And while the team’s performance in Tokyo may not have been as dominant as it has in year’s past, there’s still plenty of reason to believe that the best is still ahead for the women’s swimming team.

New USWNT Coach Emma Hayes Embracing the Challenge

United States Women's Head Coach Emma Hayes
The ex-Chelsea skipper has officially arrived in the US — now it's time to get down to business. (USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

Emma Hayes has officially begun her tenure as USWNT manager ahead of the team’s June friendlies.

Hayes made the rounds on Thursday, appearing on the Today Show and speaking with select media about her goals and underlying principles with the team. It’s a quick turnaround for the decorated coach, who just won the WSL with Chelsea last weekend.

One thing that she won’t do, however, is shy away from the high expectations that come with managing the US. The squad is looking to reinstate its winning reputation at the Paris Olympics this summer following a disappointing World Cup in 2023. 

"I know the challenge ahead of me. There is no denying there is a gap between the US and the rest of the world," she told ESPN. "We have to acknowledge that winning at the highest level isn't what it was 10 years ago. It's a completely different landscape. And my focus is going to be on getting the performances required to play at a high level against the very best nations in the world."

While Hayes was formally hired six months ago to lead the USWNT, her deal stipulated that she remain with Chelsea through the conclusion of their season. In her stead, Twila Kilgore has led the team, with the coach "drip feeding subliminal messages" to the roster on Hayes’s behalf.

"It's a bit ass-upwards," Hayes joked to reporters. "I know about the staff, and the team, and the structure behind it. We got all of that. Now it's time, I need to be with the team."

With Olympics now just two months away, Hayes dropped hints this week regarding her thought process behind building the roster, saying there’s still time for players to make their case.

"You can't go to an Olympics with a completely inexperienced squad. We need our experienced players, but getting that composition right, that's my job between now and June 16th," she said on the Today Show.

"What I can say from my time [in the US] is, I've always loved the attitude towards performance and the expectation to give everything you've got," she later affirmed to reporters.

And as for winning gold?

"I'm never gonna tell anyone to not dream about winning," she added. "But… we have to go step by step, and focus on all the little processes that need to happen so we can perform at our best level.

"I will give it absolutely everything I've got to make sure I uphold the traditions of this team."

KC Current GM Camille Ashton Resigns

KC Current GM Camille Ashton
Former KC Current GM Camille Ashton left the undefeated organization early this week. (Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports)

Kansas City Current general manager Camille Ashton has resigned, the club announced Wednesday.

The staffing shakeup comes as somewhat of a surprise after the Current started off the season undefeated under new head coach Vlatko Andonovski, sitting second in the NWSL standings through 10 games.

No further details were given about her departure, other than that the club "wishes her the best in her future endeavors."

"I am thankful for my time in Kansas City," Ashton said in a team statement. "It was important to me to dedicate my time and efforts to ensure a successful 2024 season by building the championship-caliber roster that's currently near the top of the table. I am proud of what we have accomplished here. I look forward to the next step in my personal and professional journey."

Ashton, who played in the league from 2014-17, helped rebuild the Current roster, including picking up then-free agent Debinha in 2023 — the biggest free agency signing of that offseason. This past offseason, she brought in international players Temwa Chawinga and Bia Zaneratto

But the club has also encountered some rough patches throughout Ashton's tenure. Following her daughter's dismissal from the Current last year, mother of 2023 draft pick Mykiaa Minniss also accused the club of mistreatment during the preseason. While both the league and NWSL Players Association looked into the comments, no formal reprimand or consequences were publicly issued.

Players like Lynn Williams, Alex Loera, and Cece Kizer voiced concerns over what they described as unexpected trades, with Kizer adding that there was "no conversation this could happen." Williams, meanwhile, was informed of her trade moments prior to its execution while she was in New Zealand with the USWNT.

"There could be a lot of debate about that on its own, but at the end of the day, that’s the mechanism that we work with right now in the league," Ashton told reporters earlier this year when quested about the Current's player trade procedures.

While the club made an NWSL championship appearance in 2022 — the year Ashton came on as general manager — the 2023 season kicked off with the team firing head coach Matt Potter just three games into the season and hours before a road game. 

At the time, the club cited "issues around his leadership and employment responsibilities" as the reasoning, though players were reportedly confused with the decision making.

Last October, the Current hired former UWSNT coach Vlatko Andonovski as head coach, in addition to giving him the title of "sporting director." Whether or not that role overlapped with Ashton’s responsibilities as general manager was cause for some speculation.

NWSL Honors UWSNT Great Lauren Holiday With Impact Award

Lauren Holiday at nwsl impact award event
USWNT legend Lauren Holiday has long been involved with social activism off the pitch. (NWSL)

The NWSL announced today that the annual civically focused Nationwide Community Impact Award would now be known as the Lauren Holiday Award in honor of the National Soccer Hall of Famer.

Since 2021, the award has recognized one NWSL player each season for their character and contributions to community service off the pitch, according to a league release. The winner of the newly retitled award receives $30,000 toward a charitable organization of their choice.

"The NWSL is proud to honor Lauren Holiday as the namesake of this award recognizing exemplary athletes and their commitment to service and activism," said NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman. "Lauren’s influential work in the community and her outstanding character both on and off the field epitomize the values we look to uphold and celebrate in the NWSL every day. 

"I can think of no one more deserving of this recognition than Lauren and look forward to seeing the continued positive impact this program has on our clubs and communities with her example guiding our efforts."

In a statement, Holiday said that throughout her career she has always "believed in the power of giving back and creating positive change." A two-time Olympic gold medalist, World Cup winner, and former NWSL MVP, Holiday founded the Jrue & Lauren Holiday Social Impact Fund alongside husband and fellow professional athlete JRue Holiday.

The fund contributes to programs that combat systemic racism and socioeconomic inequality. Holiday has also long been an advocate for legislation to help close the racial inequality gap in maternal health.

"This award is a testament to the important work that athletes are doing to strengthen and uplift their communities every day and I am deeply humbled to take on its namesake," Holiday said. "I hope it inspires others to continue their efforts in making a lasting impact on the lives of those around them."

Waylaid Seattle Rookie Nika Mühl Makes WNBA Debut

seattle storm's nika muhl guarding indiana fever's caitlin clark
Mühl spent her first few pro minutes repeating her college assignment: guarding Caitlin Clark.(Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Seattle rookie Nika Mühl made her long awaited WNBA debut in last night’s 85-83 win over Indiana after missing the first four games of the season due to visa issues. 

A Croatian national, Mühl had been waiting on P-1 visa approval in order to work legally in the US. While the paperwork came through Friday, she had to travel to Canada in order to get her status changed.

The former UConn star poked fun at the delay ahead of the game, walking into Climate Pledge Arena wearing a t-shirt displaying her approved visa.

Mühl checked into the game on Monday in the third period to a standing ovation, immediately diving over the baseline to save a loose ball. She spent her first few minutes of the game the same way she completed her career at UConn: guarding Caitlin Clark

Mühl, who had two rebounds in two and a half minutes, held Clark to five points, a rebound, and a turnover when the two were matched up. 

"I threw her in the fire," Storm coach Noelle Quinn said with a smile after the game. "It’s tough to come into the game at that rate and think that you’re going to stop the player, but I like… her physicality, her poise, her confidence. She took an open shot and I thought that was a great look for her. We’ll continue to put her in the mix in practice, and she’ll have opportunities to show what she can do on the defensive end to start."

An instant fan favorite, the UConn star donned the No. 1 jersey — in part because her usual No. 10 was retired by Seattle after Sue Bird, who wore it for her entire WNBA career, retired last year. Mühl's new number was chosen by none other than Bird herself. 

"I actually FaceTimed Sue and asked her what number I should wear. She took a day to think about it and came back to me with an answer of No. 1," Muhl said in a WNBA video posted to social media. "When I asked her why No. 1, she basically said 'This is a new beginning, but you’re not starting from scratch.' I loved that whole analogy and story, so Sue actually picked it and I love it."

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