Elena Hight

Elena Hight talks Olympic qualification, pushing the limits of snowboarding, ESPN Body Issue

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Women’s halfpipe may be the toughest U.S. Olympic team to make come 2014.

A maximum of four women can be selected from a group that includes 2002 Olympic champion and three-time reigning Winter X Games champion Kelly Clark, 2006 Olympic champion Hannah Teter, 2006 Olympic silver medalist Gretchen Bleiler and 2013 world champion Arielle Gold.

Elena Hight, a two-time Olympian and two-time reigning X Games silver medalist, knows that somebody who could potentially medal in Sochi will be left at home.

“Women’s halfpipe snowboarding is an extremely competitive field in the United States,” Hight said at a recent U.S. Olympic Committee event in New York. “For whatever reason, we have eight out of the top 10 women in halfpipe riding. … Looking forward into the season, a lot of people from other countries already have their spots secured going into the Olympics, which is a huge advantage. Already knowing that you’re going to be there is a huge weight lifted off your shoulders. For the U.S. it just makes me going into this season kind of focus on being the best that I can be before the season even starts because it’s not a free ride until the Olympics. It’s right off the bat in December, when our qualifiers are, you need to be as on it as possible because of that qualifying system.”

The qualifiers, or selection events, begin Dec. 12-15 in Breckenridge, Colo. There are four events spread across Colorado and California running through Jan. 19. An athlete’s two best results from those events are combined in a points system to determine three members of the Olympic team.

A fourth could be added as a discretionary pick by the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association.

Hight, 24, sees a lot of herself in Gold, 17. Hight debuted at the Olympics at age 16 in 2006, finishing sixth.

“It’s great to have new blood,” Hight said. “I was definitely the underdog (in 2006), the youngin’ coming in to shake and rattle the veterans. I think it’s rad. … It’s cool to help her out when we can and pass along that wisdom. I think that’s what’s snowboarding’s all about.”

Hight is helping take women’s halfpipe to the next level. She was the first woman to land a double cork, doing so last May and in competition for the first time at the X Games. She believes she’s the only woman currently doing the trick, which was the headline-making move for the men going into the 2010 Olympics.

“It’s definitely a new trick for me, but I’m starting to feel much more confident with it,” she said. “Practice makes perfect. I’m spending a lot of time on snow this summer to make sure that it’s secondhand.”

Hight also spent some time in front of cameras for ESPN’s Body Issue, which came out in July.

“I have been a big fan of the Body Issue for quite some time now,” she said. “I think ESPN does a great job portraying the athlete’s body in such an amazing way. I really wanted to be a part of it and worked my way in there.”

Shaun White injured in training run at New Zealand event

Maia, Alex Shibutani beaten in free dance, still repeat as U.S. champions

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KANSAS CITY — Maia and Alex Shibutani were not the best U.S. ice dancers on Saturday, for the first time in a year. Still, they held on to repeat as U.S. champions.

The siblings were outscored in the U.S. Championships free dance by Madison Chock and Evan Bates, but their lead from a record-breaking short dance was enough to win by 1.01 points at Sprint Center. Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue were third after Hubbell shockingly fell during their free dance.

The top three repeated from 2016. Full results are here.

The Shibutanis took a 2.46-point lead into the free dance and totaled 200.05 points overall. They missed the U.S. Championships overall record score, set by Olympic champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White, by .14 of a point, after breaking Davis and White’s short dance record Friday.

“A year out from the Olympics, this is exactly where we want to be,” Maia Shibutani told Andrea Joyce on NBC. “I know we’ve improved so much.”

Chock and Bates, the 2015 U.S. champions, outscored the Shibutanis in a program on Saturday for the first time since the 2016 U.S. Championships short dance.

It was at last year’s nationals that the Shibutanis displaced Chock and Bates as the U.S. power couple in dance. The siblings went on to better Chock and Bates in both programs at the Four Continents Championships, World Championships and the Grand Prix Final in December.

“A lot of times we get hung up on results, and it doesn’t really, truly reflect how our skating has grown and how our partnership has evolved,” Bates said. “I think this was our best competition, probably, to date. … We would have loved to recapture our national title, but it didn’t happen for us.”

Hubbell and Donohue had been rising until Hubbell hit the ice Saturday. They were sixth at the 2016 World Championships and then fifth at the Grand Prix Final in December, finishing ahead of Chock and Bates.

They leave Kansas City with a fourth U.S. Championships bronze medal. They’ve never cracked the top two.

“It wasn’t our day, my day in particular,” said Hubbell, before getting a peck on the cheek from Donohue. “Just a funny, fluke moment. I just want to say thanks to Zach for being a really fabulous partner. … I thank my lucky stars to have a partner that can help me through a moment like that.”

The Shibutanis earned their first U.S. title in 2016, then took silver at the world championships last March and bronze at the Grand Prix Final last month. Despite the free dance scores, they are confident going into worlds in two months.

“The past year and a half, we’ve built so much momentum,” Alex Shibutani said. “We’re really coming into our own.”

The world’s two best couples are two-time reigning world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France and Canada’s Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir.

Virtue and Moir took Olympic gold in 2010 and silver in 2014, then took two seasons off and returned this year to post the highest scores under the current system implemented in 2010.

The U.S., though, is unquestionably the deepest ice dance nation. The Shibutanis, Chock and Bates and Hubbell and Donohue made up half of the top six at the 2016 World Championships. All three couples qualified for each of the last two Grand Prix Finals, which take only six couples.

Meanwhile, Davis and White have watched the ascension while taking a three-year break from competition. They are running out of time to decide if they will attempt to defend their Olympic title in PyeongChang. A nation can send no more than three couples to the Olympics.

The U.S. Championships continue Saturday night with the women’s free skate (8 ET, NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app).

Check out NBCsports.com/USFIGS for all-access coverage all weekend.

VIDEO: Tara Lipinski reflects on winning 1997 U.S. title at age 14

U.S. Championships Ice Dance
GOLD: Maia Shibutani/Alex Shibutani — 200.05

SILVER: Madison Chock/Evan Bates — 199.04
BRONZE: Madison Hubbell/Zachary Donohue — 191.42
4. Elliana Pogrebinsky/Alex Benoit — 170.29
5. Kaitlin Hawayek/Jean-Luc Baker — 160.06

Haven Denney, Brandon Frazier win U.S. pairs title after year off

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KANSAS CITY — Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier returned from a year off to win their first U.S. pairs title on Saturday, despite an error-prone free skate and against a field lacking any previous U.S. champion teams.

Denney and Frazier jumped from second after the short program to total 188.32 points and win by 2.04 over Sochi Olympian Marissa Castelli and Mervin Tran. Denney and Frazier’s total score was 23.33 points fewer than last year’s winning score.

Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc, who led by 3.96 after the short program, had a strong free skate going until a fall on their throw triple Lutz and finished third Saturday.

Full results are here.

Denney and Frazier were the top U.S. pair in the fall international season by 16 points, taking a silver medal at Skate America.

But Denney struggled on landings in the short program, her right leg wrapped after blowing out her right knee in spring 2015 that caused them to miss the entire 2015-16 season. They also had multiple jumping errors in their free skate, but, unlike the rest of the top five, stayed on their feet Saturday.

“We’re trying harder elements, harder jumps, bigger throws, bigger twists,” Frazier said. “What you see is a couple of ups and downs. This is all building for the next season.”

The U.S. will send two pairs to the world championships in Helsinki in two months, but not definitively the top two finishers from Saturday. The world championships pairs teams will be named Sunday.

Denney and Frazier finished 12th at the 2015 Worlds, after placing second at that year’s U.S. Championships. Castelli and Tran, in their second year as a pair, have no worlds experience together and are ineligible for the 2018 Olympics. Tran, born in Canada, is not a U.S. citizen.

Pairs is the U.S.’ weakest discipline. The last U.S. pair to earn an Olympic or world medal was Kyoka Ina and John Zimmerman at the 2002 Worlds. Eight different pairs have won the last nine U.S. titles.

In 2016, the U.S. pairs finished ninth and 13th at worlds, but both of those teams are out due to injuries.

Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim, the top U.S. pair in international competition in recent seasons, has been out of competition all season due to her September stomach surgery. They have returned to full training.

The Knierims filed a petition to be named to the world championships team, which is selected on a discretionary basis on results from the U.S. Championships and other recent competitions.

“Whatever they decide,” Tran said of a U.S. Figure Skating selection committee, “we’re all for that.”

The 2016 U.S. champions Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea withdrew before the free skate Saturday after Kayne suffered a concussion in a short-program fall. They placed fifth in the short program.

The U.S. Championships continue Saturday night with the women’s free skate (8 p.m. ET, NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app).

Check out NBCsports.com/USFIGS for all-access coverage all weekend.

VIDEO: Tara Lipinski reflects on 1997 U.S. title at age 14

U.S. Championships Pairs
GOLD: Haven Denney/Brandon Frazier — 188.32
SILVER: Marissa Castelli/Mervin Tran — 186.28
BRONZE: Ashley Cain/Timothy LeDuc — 184.41

4. Deanna Stellato/Nathan Bartholomay — 173.50
5. Jessica Pfund/Joshua Santillan — 168.90