Ashley Wagner

Skate America preview: U.S. champions to be tested in Grand Prix opener

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The Grand Prix figure skating season gets underway this weekend in Detroit with Skate America, which features all six reigning U.S. national champions.

Two-time world champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White lead the ice dancing field, and Max Aaron and Ashley Wagner will be in medal contention in singles.

While Americans are led by Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir in pairs, the reigning world champions Tatiana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov headline the field.

Aaron is the name to watch in men’s singles, which has suffered from two high-profile withdrawals. Last month, Olympic gold medalist Evan Lysacek pulled out of the event due to a hip injury, and Wednesday, Denis Ten, who won the silver medal at the 2013 World Championships, also withdrew, reportedly due to an illness.

It’s the first Grand Prix event for the 21-year-old Aaron, who was seventh at the World Championships following his national title in Omaha.

“I’m looking forward to skating with the best of them,” Aaron told reporters on a conference call last week. “I want to lay out these programs and compete with the best in the world. There’s no holding back for me.”

Aaron has three quadruple jumps planned for his free skate, as well as two triple axels for the second half of the program as he makes the leap — literally and figuratively — onto the international stage.

While he’s never skated against Lysacek, Aaron will get to compare himself to an Olympic medalist — Japan’s Daisuke Takahashi, who won bronze in Vancouver.

Aaron is joined by fellow Americans Adam Rippon and Jason Brown.

In women’s singles, the two-time reigning national champion Wagner will also face an Olympic medal winner from Japan in Mao Asada. Asada was second to Yuna Kim at the Vancouver Games and could factor in for one of the top three spots in Sochi.

Five-time French medalist Mae Berenice Meite will bring her athletic style to Detroit, and 14-year-old Elena Radionova, the reigning world junior champion, will also be in attendance. (Though, due to age-eligibility rules, she’s not able to compete in Sochi.) Samantha Cesario and Caroline Zhang will join Wagner as Americans in the field.

“I’m looking forward to Skate America to really get started,” said Wagner, who is working on a triple-triple combination for the season. “It helps establish me into another class of figure skaters, the elite of the elite. I want to be a part of that group.”

Davis and White start their Olympic campaign in the city they train. The Michigan natives were silver medalists at the Vancouver Games and are the favorites at Skate America in ice dancing, where Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the gold medalists in 2010, will not be in attendance.

Maia and Alex Shibutani, who also have Michigan ties (they’re both University of Michigan students), will open their season as well after missing the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic last month, where Davis and White were winners.

Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte of Italy, who were fourth at the World Championships this year, should also factor in ice dance. Americans Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue will also compete.

“We’re really where we want to be at this point in the season and just want to enjoy the process,” said Davis, who noted she and White hadn’t competed in Detroit in over 10 years. “It’s exciting for us to [skate at home] and both of us will have family and friends in the crowd and we want to put on a show for them.”

In pairs, reigning U.S. champs Castelli and Shnapir lead the American effort, which also figures in Caydee Denney and John Coughlin as well as Felicia Zhang and Nate Bartholomay.

Reigning world champions Volosozhar and Trankov will be the favorites in pairs. The duo is Russia’s strongest hope for a gold medal in figure skating come Sochi.

The event gets underway Friday evening, with the men’s and dance competitions. Saturday sees the conclusion of those two events as ladies and pairs begin, both of which will end on Sunday. NBC will broadcast live from Detroit on Sunday from 4-6 p.m. ET.

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Katie Ledecky leads loaded 200m freestyle final at nationals

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Katie Ledecky easily had the top time in the 200m freestyle heats at the USA Swimming National Championships on Wednesday morning, setting up a loaded final at night.

Ledecky, already qualified for worlds in the 800m and 1500m frees, swam 1:55.87 on Wednesday morning in Indianapolis.

She’s joined in the final by Olympians Melanie Margalis (1:57.27), Leah Smith (1:57.61) and Simone Manuel (1:58.00) and Mallory Comerford (1:58.39), the surprise 100m free winner Tuesday night.

USA Swimming Nationals, part of the TeamUSA Summer Champions Series, presented by Comcast, determines the U.S. team for the world championships in Budapest next month. The top two per individual event are in line to make the team, plus up to the top six in the 100m and 200m frees for relays.

Wednesday finals are at 6 p.m. ET. NBCSN, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app will air coverage from 7-8 p.m.

SWIM NATIONALS: Broadcast Schedule | Event Schedule/Results

Ledecky is down to her last two events of nationals, a meet for which she did not fully taper. She’s already on the world team in the 800m and 1500m frees by winning the 800m free by nearly nine seconds on Tuesday. She will likely be on the 4x100m free relay, too.

If Ledecky finishes top two in the 200m free and the 400m free (Friday), she will be in line to contest six events in Budapest, her busiest schedule yet at an Olympics or worlds. In 15 career Olympic/world events, she brought home 14 golds and one silver.

In the men’s 200m free, Olympic bronze medalist Conor Dwyer barely made the final in the eighth and last spot by .12. Townley Haas, who had the fastest split time in the Rio 4x200m free, led the qualifiers, which also included Olympic 100m freestyler Caeleb Dressel in third.

Olympic 100m breast champion Lilly King led the qualifiers into the 200m breast final. King, who failed to make the Rio 200m breast final, clocked 2:24.68, ranking her 13th in the world this year. Olympians Katie Meili and Breeja Larson join King in the final.

Olympic silver medalist Josh Prenot and eighth-place finisher Kevin Cordes highlight the men’s 200m breast finalists.

Kathleen Baker, a Rio 100m back silver medalist, set a personal best in the 200m back by eight tenths to lead the qualifiers into that final. The two Rio Olympians in the event — Maya DiRado and Missy Franklin — are not competing at nationals.

Olympic champion Ryan Murphy and fifth-place finisher Jacob Pebley safely made the men’s 200m back final.

MORE: Missy Franklin: ‘What if I’m never as good as I was?’

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Danell Leyva’s gymnastics streak ends as he pursues acting

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When Danell Leyva trained gymnastics, he needed to devote 100 percent of his time and effort to become a triple Olympic medalist.

“Now that I’m acting, I’m doing the same,” Leyva said recently. “One hundred percent of my time and effort and focus is surrounding acting and the acting world.”

That leaves no time for gymnastics.

Danell Leyva‘s run of 10 straight years competing at the senior U.S. Gymnastics Championships comes to end this summer. Leyva doesn’t really see himself returning to the sport, but he’s also not ruling out.

“It’s hard. It’s hard on the body, a lot of different factors,” Leyva said. “But I feel like [pursuing acting] is what I should be doing now. I feel really happy doing what I’m doing right now.”

Leyva moved from Miami to California in December, four months after bagging two silver medals in Rio. He signed up for acting classes, filmed two commercials (one already aired), appeared in a Nickelodeon show and was a choreography consultant for “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.”

Biggest of all, Leyva bought and opened a production company with one of his managers.

It’s called “Parallel Entertainment,” an obvious homage to Leyva’s best gymnastics event — the parallel bars — where he won the 2011 World title and a 2016 Olympic silver medal.

They have a few shows in development stages already.

“The dream is to definitely make movies,” Leyva said. “I have to set big, lofty goals. Otherwise I can’t keep myself motivated.”

He found similarities between athletic and dramatic pursuits.

“Gymnastics is hard for the sake of being, in my opinion, the hardest sport in the world,” he said. “To make an Olympic team is insane, and to be able to say that you’re part of the few percent that actually won a medal is definitely even harder. That goes exactly the same with acting. Do you know how many actors there are in the world? Just to be in a movie is an immense accomplishment. Imagine being nominated for an award, any award.”

If Leyva does return to the gym, the Cuban-American will resume one of the greatest careers in U.S. history.

Leyva’s accomplishments include a world parallel bars title, an Olympic all-around bronze medal in 2012 and then Olympic silver medals on parallel bars and high bar in a 90-minute span in Rio. He has everything except for an Olympic title.

Which does he savor most? He can’t choose.

“The all-around medal was bittersweet because it wasn’t higher than what I thought it could be, but it was my first Olympic medal,” he said. “The world title was bittersweet because of the fact I was doing so well in the all-around [two days earlier], and I decided to see what the high bar tasted like. Then the two [silver] medals back-to-back [in Rio]. High bar I will say was a little disappointed in myself because I should have stuck that landing [Leyva had a small hop [usually a one tenth deduction] and lost by .266 to Fabian Hambuechen].”

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