Tatiana Volosozhar, Maxim Trankov

Top Russian pairs skaters not fazed by impending Olympic pressure

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DETROIT — Russian figure skating isn’t what it once was: a nation responsible for 14 medals over three Olympics in the 1990s — and 12 straight pairs golds from 1964 and 2006 — may win one skating medal at the Sochi Olympics.

The best hope is the pairs team of Tatyana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov, the reigning World Champions who reset their short program and free skate world records at Skate America in Detroit last weekend.

The Moscow-based skaters are motivated and not deterred by the immense pressure.

“We only have pressure for each other — we push each other every day,” Trankov said. “I think it’s most important to keep working. You never know, especially with the Olympics, what will happen. You cannot plan these competitions. You just work and hope that everything will be OK.”

It wasn’t OK for the Russians at the 2010 Games, when — for the first time since 1960 — no Russian (or Soviet) pair landed on the podium. Trankov was eighth with a different partner and Volosozhar, then competing for Ukraine, was ninth. China’s Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo won gold.

“There is an old tradition for pairs skating in our country,” Trankov said. “The last Olympics were won by the Chinese, but they skated like Soviet pairs skaters; they were good and were champions. The way they skated was kind of Russian. We just want to win back a medal for our country in pairs.”

Volosozhar and Trankov can win a second medal with the debut of the Olympic figure skating team event. Trankov thinks he and Volosozhar will do the short program and give another Russian pair the opportunity to sub in for the free skate.

Volosozhar explained further, noting the turnaround from the team event free skate (Feb. 8) to the start of the pairs competition (Feb. 11).

“We want to skate,” she said. “We just don’t understand why it is before the main competition. Because for pairs, we start way earlier. There are only two days between the team competition and the main one.”

Volosozhar and Trankov are confident that the Russian team can win a medal — if not gold — particularly if they have three-time Olympic medalist and 2006 Olympic champion Yevgeny Plushenko. The U.S., Canada and Japan are considered medal favorites along with Russia.

Plushenko has battled injuries since winning silver at the 2010 Olympics and hasn’t competed since January. Russia earned one men’s spot at the Games. Plushenko is thought to be a lock to receive it if he proves healthy.

“He said he wants to skate for the team event for sure,” Trankov said. “He will skate both programs, and we’re very to happy to have him on our team. It’s a really good chance for us to win a medal.”

The Russians have a respectable team in Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev in ice dancing, bronze medalists at the World Championships in March, and Adelina Sotnikova, ninth at Worlds at 16.

“Maybe not gold, but we for sure we can win a team medal,” Trankov said. “We have good girls and pairs and not bad ice dancers. I think we’ll do it. If Evgeni will help us, that will make it even better.”

And the eight years since a pairs gold in Russia?

“That helps us a little bit,” Volosozhar said. “Because we want to win a medal for Russia.”

Quad quandary for top U.S. men

Ashley Wagner ‘sick’ of hearing about her age

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KANSAS CITY — Ashley Wagner can become the oldest U.S. women’s figure skating champion in 90 years, but it would not be wise to tell her that.

“I think that this sport focuses on age way too much,” the three-time U.S. champion Wagner, 25, said in a press conference after Thursday night’s short program at Sprint Center (recap, videos here). “I’m so sick of hearing about my age. I’m so sick of it guys. If anybody asks me one more question about my age, I’ll just stop talking. It’s ridiculous.”

Wagner placed third in the short program, 1.88 points behind leader Karen Chen, who is 17 years old. She’ll try to surpass Chen in the free skate Saturday (8 p.m. ET, NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app).

Chen sat in Thursday’s press conference between Wagner and second-place Mirai Nagasu, a 23-year-old who won the U.S. title way back in 2008.

“They’re my role models,” Chen said. “I watched them skate for years and years.”

Wagner then interjected before the next question.

“You just made both of us feel so old,” Wagner said, drawing laughter.

Truth is, Wagner is often asked about her age, her experience, her highs and lows, and answers respectfully and with wisdom. She did again after competing Thursday night for the first time in nearly two months, under the pressure as U.S. Championships favorite.

“I choose to view the word ‘veteran’ as experienced, and experience is never a bad thing, because I’ve gone through the good experiences and the brutally terrible awful experiences,” said Wagner, who last season earned world championships silver, ending a 10-year U.S. women’s drought.

NBC Olympics analyst Tara Lipinski was surprised to learn Wagner wasn’t particularly interested in questions about her age.

“Age is definitely a factor,” Lipinski said Friday. “You can pretend it’s not, but it is. I tried to pretend that it wasn’t, but it was. It was talked about a lot. I was too young [winning the Olympics at age 15]. Whether it’s the opposite [age] range, age is a factor.”

Wagner competes in a sport where, in other top countries, crops of teens are replaced by the next crop of teens. At last month’s Japanese and Russian Championships, the oldest women’s podium finisher was 18 years old.

Wagner may be past the usual prime years for skaters, but Lipinski pointed out that being (very) young has its disadvantages.

“I felt that I didn’t have a lot to draw on,” said Lipinski, who at 14 became the youngest U.S. women’s champion in 1997. “I didn’t have a lot of outside perspectives. Skating was my life. So any small mistake took me so down, and it was very hard for me to put this sport in perspective.”

Wagner was asked if she worried she may have peaked with that 2016 World Championships silver medal.

“If I peaked,” she said, “I would have retired.”

If Wagner makes the PyeongChang Winter Games, she would become the oldest U.S. Olympic women’s singles skater since 1928. Which would actually be an incredible accomplishment in a teen-dominated sport.

That sort of statistic was probably furthest from her mind in Thursday’s press conference.

“We definitely need a new crop of girls to come in,” Wagner said, cracking a smile, “because I will die one day.”

MORE: U.S. Figure Skating head says Russia shouldn’t be in PyeongChang

How to watch U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Friday

FILE - In this Dec. 8, 2016, file photo, Nathan Chen of the United States, competes in the men's short program at the Grand Prix of Figure Skating final in Marseille, southern France. The 17-year-old's revelatory performance at last month's Grand Prix final in France has made him American figure skating's bright new star. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena, File)
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U.S. Figure Skating Championships coverage continues Friday, live on NBCSN, Universal HD and streamed on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app, starting at 6 p.m. ET.

The short dance and men’s short programs are scheduled in Kansas City.

The NBC Sports All-Access page will provide live scoring and more all week.

Short dance
6-8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, NBCSports.com/live, NBC Sports app
STREAM LINK | SKATE ORDER | PREVIEW

Men’s short program
8:30 p.m.-midnight ET, Universal HD
SKATE ORDER | PREVIEW

In dance, defending champions Maia and Alex Shibutani take on two-time world medalists Madison Chock and Evan Bates and Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue. They’re heavy favorites for the three world championships berths.

Nathan Chen leads the men’s field, seeking to become the youngest U.S. men’s champion since 1966. He faces past champions Jason Brown and Max Aaron with two worlds berths at stake this weekend

The free dance will be Saturday and the men’s free skate Sunday, both on NBC and streamed on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app. A full broadcast schedule is here.

MORE: U.S. Figure Skating boss says Russia shouldn’t be in PyeongChang