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Phelps headlines men’s swimming in Rio, but will U.S. meet expectations?

Michael Phelps likely won’t come home empty-handed at his fifth Olympics, but will the rest of the U.S. men’s swimming team come through?

What was the explanation for the United States team’s relatively slow times at the U.S. Olympic trials? It could have been something about the portable pool in Omaha that caused the times to be slower. It could be that the turnover of new faces entering (30 first-timers), hit at the wrong time in the Olympic cycle at the new breed of USA swimmer will be much stronger in 2017. Or it could be that this just isn’t a very strong U.S. swim team and the squad will be exposed as sub-par in Rio. The question won’t really be answered until the Games take place in Brazil.

The established stars such as Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte are likely to come home with some medals, but what about the new group? And what about the relays? The U.S. has dominated the relay events for as long as each relay race has been contested at the Games. The U.S. team has medaled at all 11 Olympics in the 4x100-meter freestyle; it has medaled at all 23 non-boycotted Games in the 4x200-meter free, which has a longer history, and it has never been beaten in the 4x100-meter medley relay. Only the boycott in 1980 kept the U.S. team off the podium then. With a revamped Australian team heading to Rio and strong individuals in each individual stroke, will the perennial Olympic powers from the U.S. be able to match their medal haul from London that included eight golds or will the breed fall short in Rio?

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Athletes to watch

Michael Phelps, U.S.

What do you get the man who already has the most medals (22) and most golds (18) of any athlete in Olympic history? More of the same. For sure it is a new Phelps this time around. He had more embarrassing out-of-pool publicity, but he is also a new dad with a new attitude. He is far more committed than the indifferent swimmer who showed up in London banking on his residual preparation and the proven capacity to battle pressure. He came out of retirement this year, he said, because he wanted to leave the sport on a positive note and he didn’t want to have any what-ifs. Phelps has also reconciled a great deal with his oft-estranged father, Fred, and seems more at peace with life outside the pool.

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Inside it, Phelps’ performance at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha showed that he can still win close races and he still has a way to go to beat his top international foes. He will not be shooting for eight medals this time around. Phelps qualified for three individual events (100 butterfly, 200 butterfly, 200 individual medley) and will probably be in at least one relay. In so doing, he became the second U.S. swimmer in history, after Dara Torres, to qualify for his fifth Olympics. He says he would like to swim one more best time before he retires for good, but he has not had one since 2009, when he broke his most recent of 37 long-course world records, including relay races.

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Mitch Larkin, Australia

Larkin won both the 100 and 200-meter backstroke races at the World Championships in Kazan, Russia last year and was chosen by FINA, the sport’s international governing body, as world swimmer of the year for 2015. He is known as Clark Kent out of the pool, thanks to the dark-rimmed glasses that make him look rather bookish. Larkin became a backstroke specialist by accident. He had trained for the IM races four years earlier but finished third at the Australian trials and missed making the team in his chosen event. His coach convinced him to swim the backstroke later in the week because he happened to have a qualifying time, and Larkin stunned his countrymen by winning the race. He’ll be a favorite this time.

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Kosuke Hagino, Japan

At 21, Hagino is a good bet to be a star at the Tokyo Games in 2020. But even though he is yet to win a world or Olympic title, Hagino is a threat to win both individual medley races after a breakthrough campaign in 2016. He posted the fastest times in the world this year in both the 200 IM (1:55.07) and the 400 IM (4:08.85) at the Japan Swim in Tokyo earlier this year. Both results are roughly a second ahead of the next-fastest swimmers, both from the U.S. (.84 ahead of Phelps in the 200 and .69 up on Chase Kalisz in the 400).

Sun Yang, China

If not for bad luck, Sun might not have any at all. Sun broke a bone in his right foot training in January. But that was in keeping with his annual trip to the hospital. In 2015, Sun had to withdraw from the world 1500 with heart problems. He had surgery for a toenail infection in 2014, and his car collided with a bus in 2013. Yet through it all, the reigning Olympic champ in the 400 and 1,500-meter freestyle events added world titles in freestyle events at 400, 800 at 1,500 meters again. Since the men swim only the four and 15, look for Sun to contend in both, but stay out of his way just in case.

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Nathan Adrian, U.S.

In London, Adrian surprised the field by winning the 100-meter freestyle by a hundredth of a second, nipping Australia’s James Magnussen at the finish wall. This time around, he is entered in both the 50 and 100-meter freestyles, and his chances may be better in the shorter race that is as much a crapshoot as any swim event. Australia’s James McEvoy will likely be the favorite in the 100. At 27, Adrian says he is not just older, but stronger and wiser. Where will that leave him in Rio?

Gold medal dates

Sat. Aug. 6: 400m freestyle, 400m IM

Sun. Aug 7: 100m breaststroke, 4x100m freestyle relay

Mon, Aug. 8: 200m freestyle, 100m backstroke

Tue. Aug. 9: 200m butterfly, 4x200m freestyle

Wed. Aug. 10: 100m freestyle, 200m breaststroke

Thu. Aug. 11: 200m backstroke, 200m IM

Fri. Aug. 12: 50m freestyle, 100m butterfly

Sat. Aug 13: 1,500m freestyle, 4x100m medley relay