Max Aaron

U.S. men’s figure skaters mired in quad quandary

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DETROIT — Down went Max Aaron. Down went Adam Rippon.

It’s the hardest puzzle piece to snap into place in men’s figure skating leading up to the Sochi Olympics: the quadruple jump. And after the season’s first Grand Prix event, it continues to be an elusive element for the top U.S. men.

Only Skate America’s winner, Tatsuki Machida of Japan, made it through the weekend without any trouble with four-revolution jumps, landing two in his free skate to win over Rippon and Aaron, who took silver and bronze, respectively.

Daisuke Takahashi, the 2010 Olympic bronze medalist, barely caught his quadruple toe loop and struggled Saturday to finish fourth.

Can the American men find their quad form come Sochi?

Evan Lysacek was criticized in 2010 for winning gold in Vancouver without a quad. While Lysacek remains out with injury, two-time Olympic silver medalist Elvis Stojko, who helped usher in the jump to men’s skating in the 1990s, is a fan of the bigger-is-better movement.

“Guys are trying two quads in a program, which is awesome,” Stojko said last week. “I feel that they’re really pushing the envelope. Now they’re back to what we were doing in 2002 in the quads. There’s more guys doing it and more consistently, which is great. So, having at least one quad in the program is a must, if you want to be in the hunt. If you really want to take down the competition, doing two with a combination.”

The toe loop has been a struggle for Aaron, who landed two quad salchows Saturday night.

“Right now we’re committed to keeping that quad toe loop in there; we’re not going to take it out,” Aaron said. “Maybe by Boston (U.S. Championships in January) it will be perfect, maybe it will not.”

Aaron has a whopping three quads in his free skate, compared to just one in Rippon’s. The silver medalist made light of his fall Saturday night, in which he hit the boards.

“I’m lucky that the Joe Louis is an old, sturdy arena,” Rippon said, drawing laughs. “The boards held up and didn’t break.”

But Rippon, who was second at Nationals in 2012, got serious a few minutes later, saying that he planned to add one, if not two quad jumps to his program this season.

“My priority for each competition is to go out and put out a good quad lutz,” he said. “By the end of the season I hopefully will add another quad lutz and also a quad toe to the program. The quad toe has been good at home in practice.”

Other Americans in contention to make the Sochi Olympic team, including Ross Miner and three-time national champion Jeremy Abbott, have quads but have not been able to execute them on a consistent basis.

For many skaters it is a numbers game. Figure skating’s “new” scoring system, which has now been around for nearly 10 years, awards higher totals for the bigger jumps, even if they aren’t executed perfectly.

“I left a lot of points on the table,” said Aaron, referring to the fall and subsequent mistakes around his quads. “It was unacceptable for me to fall. I’m not very happy about that.

“I’m going to go back home and continue to work. We want the components a lot higher, we want the technical score a lot higher and we want the overall score a lot higher. We’re not looking for falls or step outs; we’re looking for a clean skate every time. We will get it right. We picked that program for a reason and there’s no backing down.”

Plushenko updates on his training

Kristi Yamaguchi tells Nancy Kerrigan to ‘break a leg’ on ‘Dancing with the Stars’

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Kristi Yamaguchi told Nancy Kerrigan to “break a leg” on her “Dancing with the Stars” debut, an innocent tweet between friends that generated plenty of reaction.

“So excited for you @NancyAKerrigan ! Can’t wait to see you grace that ballroom floor, break a leg! #DWTS,” was posted on Yamaguchi’s account Monday morning.

It generated more than 6,000 likes, 3,000 retweets and 1,000 replies, many referencing the horrible attack on Kerrigan before the 1994 U.S. Championships (where Kerrigan’s knee was bruised, but not broken).

The tweet conjured memories of T-shirts sold leading up to the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics with the words “Harding-Kerrigan” on the front and “Norway ’94, Break a Leg!!!” on the back, reported by major media 23 years ago.

Yamaguchi and Kerrigan shared world championships and Olympic podiums in 1991 and 1992 (Yamaguchi winning both times; Kerrigan with bronze).

They remain friends. Kerrigan said she spoke with Yamaguchi, a past “Dancing with the Stars” winner, about the experience, according to TeamUSA.org.

“I said to Kristi, ‘You’ve seen me at shows, Kris, how demanding is it?’” Kerrigan said, according to the report. “She said it’s very demanding, but you have to do it. She’s like, ‘You’ve been through worse, you have to do it, it’s such a great experience.’”

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VIDEO: Nancy Kerrigan’s first ‘Dancing with the Stars’ waltz

Pressure on Ashley Wagner at world championships

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Ashley Wagner‘s four-year plan has her peaking in 2018, not at the 2017 World Championships, but many call Wagner to carry the U.S. women at worlds in Helsinki next week.

“Next year is the year that I am, like, in it to kill,” she said. “This year is maintaining. This year is my chance to work out all of the kinks, figure out where I want to be mentally going into next year.”

Wagner, the 2016 World silver medalist, is the only skater of three American women on this year’s worlds team with prior worlds experience. She is the only one ranked higher than 20th in the world this season.

Normally, figure skating is an individual sport. But next week, the top two U.S. women’s results must add up to no greater than 13 (Wagner places third, and either U.S. champion Karen Chen or U.S. bronze medalist Mariah Bell places 10th or better, for example).

If not, the U.S. will have two rather than the maximum three women’s entries at the PyeongChang Olympics. The U.S. had three spots at four of the last five Olympics.

Anything less than three in 2018 would mean the U.S. is not keeping up with world power Russia and maybe even Canada and Japan. And it becomes that much harder for Wagner and everyone else to make the Olympic team.

“I know that I have a huge role in these three spots at these world championships,” Wagner said. “I need to set this team up as good as I possibly can, so that way the pressure’s off the other girls.”

The others are the 17-year-old Chen, the surprise winner at the U.S. Championships in January, who then placed 12th at February’s Four Continents Championships, an event that doesn’t include Europeans. Chen said she suffered from nerves, a flu and foot pain caused by broken boots at Four Continents.

And Bell, who took silver at October’s Skate America behind training partner Wagner. Bell, 20, finished sixth at Four Continents at the 2018 Olympic venue in South Korea, where she competed with an amount of pressure she had never before felt.

Of skaters entered at worlds, Bell has the 10th-best total score this season. The skater with the 12th-best total in the worlds field is more than nine points shy of Bell. Chen comes in seeded 16th.

“The tough thing about this worlds is that we have two rookies going into a very stressful event,” Wagner said. “So these two girls are in a really tough position, and I really feel for them. It’s kind of like you have to buckle up and deal with this, and that’s like your only option.”

There is reason for optimism, should Wagner put up something close to the performance of her life from last year’s worlds, where she became the first U.S. women’s medalist in a decade.

“Success in Finland is getting onto that podium,” Wagner said.

But Wagner is nearing the end of her (so far) least impressive season in probably six years. She is seeded eighth at worlds by this season’s top international scores.

She failed to qualify for December’s Grand Prix Final for the first time since 2011. She was beaten at nationals despite longtime rival Gracie Gold underperforming.

However, Wagner’s goal at nationals wasn’t to win, but to finish in the top three to make the worlds team. She called the runner-up result “perfect.” She focused the last two months on firming up the areas where she lost points.

“Even though to some on the outside looking in, it wouldn’t look like it was the most successful season for me,” Wagner said. “I think at the end of the day this season has been exactly what I needed it to be.”

The favorite in Helsinki is clearly Russian Yevgenia Medvedeva, who hasn’t lost since November 2015 and can become the first repeat world champion since Michelle Kwan in 2001.

Wagner said she hasn’t watched any of Medvedeva’s programs this season.

“The only thing that I know about is her long program music is not my favorite piece of music,” Wagner said, alluding to Medvedeva’s choice of sound from “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” a 2011 film relating to the 9/11 attacks. The music includes, at one point, the voice of George W. Bush declaring that two airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center.

But Wagner was effusive of Medvedeva, the latest in a string of Russian Olympic and world champions dating to the Sochi Olympics.

“She is a set bar that everybody is chasing after, and I think in years past that bar was always changing,” Wagner said. “Now it’s one set thing I know exactly the quality of skating I have to reach, I know exactly the technical program that I have to be able to accomplish.”

Wagner, a seasoned 25 years old, noted a key point this week. She is the only active women’s skater in her class, with her length of experience, who hasn’t taken a break.

Italian Carolina Kostner is 30, but she’s competing at worlds for the first time since 2014, following two seasons off. Japan’s three-time world champion Mao Asada is 26, but she took a season off after Sochi and this year failed to make the worlds team.

Wagner reflected on her world silver medal and her three national championships. She knows they mean nothing next week.

“I have to prove myself all over again,” she said.

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NBC Sports researcher Sarah Hughes contributed to this report.