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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Lindsey Vonn gets bad luck, Mikaela Shiffrin misses gate in super-G

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Neither Lindsey Vonn nor Mikaela Shiffrin made the podium, but Swiss Lara Gut notched her first victory Sunday since a major knee injury.

Gut, the 2016 World Cup overall champion who tore an ACL in February, topped a World Cup super-G in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, by .14 over Italian Johanna Schnarf.

Austrian Nicole Schmidhofer was third. Full results are here.

Vonn dropped to sixth, .37 behind, dropped a couple of expletives in the finish corral and posted on social media afterward that she caught her strongest wind gust in more than 400 career starts.

“I’m not mad; I’m just a little bit frustrated,” Vonn said. “Sometimes this happens in ski racing where the races aren’t really fair. The wind comes. The light comes. The clouds come. But I tried my best. I’m happy with my skiing. Unfortunately, I just wasn’t very lucky today. Hopefully I can get some of this luck and take it with me to February [and the Olympics] and get some better conditions.”

Vonn placed second and first in downhills in Cortina on Friday and Saturday, confirming she’s a favorite to become the oldest female Olympic Alpine medalist next month.

Shiffrin was off her line early in Sunday’s run and eventually missed a gate, screaming out of frustration.

She is still cutting her teeth in the speed events of downhill and super-G and was third and seventh in the previous two races.

“The problem was with my [pre-race course] inspection, and I’m not exactly sure what we can do for me to be better prepared for super-Gs,” Shiffrin said, according to The Associated Press. “One of my biggest issues right now is still switching from the timing of downhill turns to super-G turns.”

Laurenne Ross became the sixth U.S. female Alpine skier to qualify for the Olympic team thanks to a previous top-10. Ross, the second-best U.S. speed racer behind Vonn last season, came back from blowing out her right knee in a March 27 crash.

The World Cup moves to Kronplatz, Italy, on Tuesday for a giant slalom, where Shiffrin will be favored (full Alpine season broadcast schedule here).

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2018 U.S. Men’s Olympic Team General Manager Jim Johannson dies at 53

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — Jim Johannson, the general manager of the U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team, has died on the eve of the Pyeongchang Games. He was 53.

Johannson passed away in his sleep Sunday morning, according to USA Hockey. Executive director Pat Kelleher said the organization is “beyond shocked and profoundly saddened” by the loss of the Rochester, Minnesota native.

“As accomplished as Jim was in hockey, he was the absolute best, most humble, kind and caring person you could ever hope to meet,” Kelleher said in a release. “His impact on our sport and more importantly the people and players in our sport have been immeasurable. Our condolences go out to his entire family, but especially to his loving wife Abby and their young daughter Ellie.”

Johannson’s role in selecting this year’s Olympic team was his most high-profile job in a career spent in hockey. He also played for the U.S. in the 1988 and 1992 Olympics.

The United States faces Slovenia in its Pyeongchang opener on Feb. 14.

“There are few like Jimmy,” said Ron DeGregorio, chairman of the board of USA Hockey. “Our sport was so lucky to have him. He was as good of a person you’ll meet and he played such a significant role in helping move our sport forward. Today is a tough day for everyone.”

Johannson began working for USA Hockey in 2000 after spending five years as the general manager of the Twin Cities Vulcans in the United States Hockey League. He was promoted to assistant executive director of hockey operations in 2007, overseeing the organization’s efforts in fielding teams for international competition.

He played college hockey at Wisconsin and helped the Badgers win the NCAA championship as a freshman. He was selected by Hartford in the seventh round of the 1982 draft, but never played in the NHL.

“When we heard of JJ’s passing, we are reminded of what an enjoyable person he was to be around, and also what he meant to USA Hockey and hockey worldwide,” Buffalo Sabres owners Terry and Kim Pegula, who have a strong connection to USA Hockey, said in a release.

“We should all strive to do our jobs and treat people as JJ did. Jim Johannson, you have moved on, but you will not be forgotten. We will miss you.”

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