What to Watch at this weekend’s Figure Skating Worlds

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The Figure Skating World Championships kick off in London, Ontario Wednesday, with the pairs short program first thing in the morning, and the men’s short program later in the afternoon. Here’s a quick rundown of who and what you should be watching this weekend.

American upstarts: Taking a cue from The Cutting Edge, hockey player turned U.S. figure skating champ Max Aaron will highlight the men’s team with at least a few quad jumps in his repertoire. Ross Miner is also a contender after finishing second to Aaron in January for his third straight podium finish at nationals. The two will need to combine for thirteenth place or better to assure the U.S. team a third spot in Sochi.

U.S. Women’s rivalry: Ashley Wagner may have won nationals for the second straight year, but Gracie Gold might be the American to beat after she earned the second highest free skate score in U.S. Championship history, roaring back from ninth to second after a poor short program. She’ll need to be solid on both nights to prove she has what it takes to compete against the world’s best in Sochi next year.

America’s Hat: Speaking of rivalries, things are heating up between Ice Dancing teams Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada and Meryl Davis and Charlie White from the U.S. The Canadians already have an Olympic gold, two world titles, and home ice advantage this weekend, but the five-time U.S. champs are constantly on their heels and would love to even things up with a second world title.

Sochi Stories: Russia’s chances at a medal aren’t looking good at next year’s hometown Games after Yevgeny Plushenko was sidelined with back surgery. He says he’ll return in time for the Olympics, but for now the country’s hopes rest on the skates of 17-year-old Maxim Kovtun, who only has a year at the senior level under his belt. Russia’s best chance at a Sochi medal is probably in pairs.

Vancouver Queen: Yuna Kim took a couple years off after winning gold at the 2010 Games, but she’s already won two events this season and has Australian star Hugh Jackman rooting for her, so she’s likely to be a favorite again this weekend. Aside from the American ladies, Kim’s best competition will come from Vancouver silver medalist Mao Asada and defending world champ Carolina Kostner of Italy.

Canadian King: Patrick Chan has already won back-to-back world titles, and plans to make it three-in-a-row on his home Canadian ice. If he can pull it off, he’ll be the first since Russian star Alexei Yagudin more than a decade ago, but Quad King Javier Fernandez of Spain (who also trains in Canada) and 2012 worlds silver medalist Daisuke Takahashi should have something to say about it.

Javier Fernandez rebounds to lead Grand Prix France

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Spain’s Javier Fernandez was back at his best, landing two quadruple jumps to top the Grand Prix France short program on Friday.

Fernandez, who was sixth at his opening Grand Prix two weeks ago with a reported stomach bug, tallied 107.86 points in Grenoble. It’s the second-best score of his career.

The 2015 and 2016 World champion goes into Saturday’s free skate with a 13.94-point lead over Shoma Uno of Japan. Uno fell on his opening quad flip attempt.

Uno went into France as the clear favorite, the only man to break 300 total points this season. He did it at both of his competitions this fall.

Earlier Friday, Canadian Kaetlyn Osmond led a group of favorites who topped the short programs for the women, pairs and ice dance. All of the free skates are Saturday.

GP FRANCE: Full Results | TV Schedule

Both U.S. men fell Friday, not helping their cases for the three-man Olympic team.

Max Aaron, the 2013 U.S. champion, fell on his opening jump combination. He failed to build on his personal-best free skate from his last competition, where he landed three quads to claim bronze at Cup of China.

U.S. silver medalist Vincent Zhou crashed on both quadruple jump attempts, two weeks after falling three times between two programs at his Grand Prix debut.

Zhou, 17 and the world junior champion, has the jumps to easily make the three-man U.S. Olympic team. But those big mistakes allow the likes of Jason Brown and Adam Rippon to pass him.

“To say the least, my performance was dismal,” was posted on Zhou’s Instagram. “It was not a representation of how I train or who I am. Smiling and waving while my heart is breaking is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I have been following my Olympic dream for as long as I can remember, fighting, being set back, conquering obstacles, and experiencing the ups and downs of striving to better myself every single day. I am capable of so much more. I am a fighter. I fully believe that I can and will draw on my spirit, inner strength, and faith to my words to perform much better in the future.”

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MORE: Figure skating season broadcast schedule

Internationaux de France
Men’s Short Program
1. Javier Fernandez (ESP) — 107.86
2. Shoma Uno (JPN) — 93.92
3. Alexander Samarin (RUS) — 91.51
8. Max Aaron (USA) — 78.64
10. Vincent Zhou (USA) — 66.12

Erin Hamlin nears end of historic U.S. luge career

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Erin Hamlin is looking forward to normalcy. She is getting married next summer in her hometown. She is thinking about career moves. She is trying to figure out the rest of her life.

It is probably her last luge season. It is definitely her last Olympic season.

As such, it would be easy to fall into the trap of saying that winning a gold medal at PyeongChang in February would be the only thing that makes this season a success.

It’s important, sure, but Hamlin is entering her 13th year of World Cup racing with a much broader view and insisting that she’s going to enjoy whatever time she has left on her sled.

“I’m not going to hyperfocus myself on one result or bust,” Hamlin said. “Very likely, it’s going to be my last time in a lot of places, sliding on a lot of tracks. So I think more so, it’s going to be a lot of soaking it all in.”

That process starts Saturday, when the World Cup season opens in Igls, Austria.

Hamlin, who turns 31 on Sunday, is coming off the finest year of her career — she won a gold medal and two silvers at the world championships for the biggest haul ever by an American luger, got two World Cup wins and finished fourth in world rankings.

She might be going out, and there’s a chance she can go out on top.

“We’re working hard to convince her to stay,” longtime U.S. teammate Emily Sweeney said.

Sweeney knows that’s probably futile.

Sliders always tend to cycle out after an Olympics, no matter if it’s bobsled, skeleton or luge, and the Americans will see plenty of veterans take their last rides this winter.

A few U.S. sliders already retired this fall, in part because they weren’t going to have a shot at an Olympic berth.

For her part, Hamlin hasn’t officially said this is the end.

“There’s never really as concrete of a plan as you hope there would be, because you never know what can happen,” Hamlin said. “But at the moment, what I’m excited to do is see what other opportunities are there and what other adventures await.”

Hamlin has been in the world’s top 10 in each of the past 11 seasons — the second-longest current streak of any woman in luge, one year behind German legend Tatjana Huefner.

She won a World Cup each of the past three years, took the world title in sprint last winter and became the first U.S. Olympic singles luge medalist in 2014 with a bronze.

A lesson learned that season: Not expecting much can work wonders. That’s one of the reasons why PyeongChang isn’t taking up all the bandwidth in her brain.

“That’s the nature of winter sports in a Winter Olympic year, there being so much focus on the Games,” Hamlin said. “How I went into the last Olympics taught me a lot. I had no expectation of walking away from the last Olympics with a medal. At this point, goal No. 1 is to make the team and beyond that, I know if I slide as I’m capable of I can be pretty fast and I can do well.”

The schedule this season is hectic.

This weekend’s stop in Austria starts a run of five races in five weekends, with the next two in Germany followed by another in Calgary, Alberta, and then on home ice in Lake Placid, N.Y., on Dec. 15-16.

When that Lake Placid World Cup is over, the U.S. Olympic team will be named.

So when Hamlin needs an escape from all that, the wedding is there to bring her back to reality.

It will be at her parents’ home in July. It will, without question, be the social event of the season in Remsen, N.Y., where the one-time high school soccer player has annually left her tiny hometown brimming with pride.

“Pretty exciting,” Hamlin said. “It’s definitely adding a whole new aspect to an Olympic year, planning a wedding, but it’s cool. It gives me a good distraction when I need to think about something other than sliding.”

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