Lindsey Van

U.S. Olympic Ski Jumping, Nordic Combined Trials preview

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They fought for a decade for Olympic inclusion. Now, women’s ski jumpers are set to vie for the sport’s first U.S. Olympic berth.

The U.S. Olympic Trials for ski jumping and Nordic combined will take place at 2002 Olympic venues in Park City, Utah, this weekend.

The winner of each event — three athletes total — will earn a nomination to the U.S. Olympic Team. The rest of the ski jumping and Nordic combined teams will be named by Jan. 22.

In all, the U.S. Olympic Team for ski jumping can include up to four women and four men and for Nordic combined can include up to five men. This is if International Ski Federation quotas hold through Jan. 19. Quotas are determined by countries’ results in international competitions.

Here’s the U.S. Olympic Trials schedule of events (all times Eastern):

Saturday
Nordic combined ski jump — 12:15-12:45 p.m.
Nordic combined 10K cross-country — 4-4:35 p.m.

Sunday
Ski jumping men’s and women’s jump one — 1:50-2:05 p.m. (LIVE on NBC)
Ski jumping men’s and women’s jump two — 2:36-2:52 p.m. (LIVE on NBC)

The NBC broadcast Sunday (1:30-3 p.m. ET) will include a Nordic combined recap.

Here’s an event-by-event preview:

Women’s Ski Jumping

Women’s ski jumping will no doubt be the focus of this weekend. The International Olympic Committee added women’s jumpers into the Olympics in 2011, paving the way for this first edition of U.S. Olympic Trials.

“This is such a historical season already with the first chance for women to jump in the Games,” U.S. jumper Jessica Jerome said, according to the U.S. Ski Team. “Now to be able to compete with the nation’s top field to earn our nomination to the team will turn one of our lifelong dreams into reality.”

Five women are essentially in the running for four spots in Sochi. Four of them are competing this weekend.

Reigning world champion Sarah Hendrickson remains out after tearing the ACL, MCL and meniscus in her right knee in an Aug. 21 crash. Hendrickson, 19, expects to return to jumping on snow in the second week of January, according to the Salt Lake Tribune, and compete in World Cup events later in the month.

Hendrickson is expected to be placed on the Olympic Team. The other three spots ought to come down to Jerome, Lindsey VanAbby Hughes and Alissa Johnson. Barring a shocking upset, one of them will wrap up the first berth Sunday.

“It’s really nerve-racking,” Hughes told KSL News in Salt Lake City. “We’ve never been in this situation before. It’s really intense, but it’s really exciting at the same time.”

Nordic combined

The U.S. Nordic combined team isn’t quite the Olympic medal threat it was in 2010, when it broke through with a team silver medal, one individual gold and two individual silvers.

No U.S. man has placed better than seventh in this season’s World Cup events. The U.S. did not reach the podium in the first two team events, either.

Expect the competition Saturday to come down to three men — brothers Bryan and Taylor Fletcher and 2010 Olympic champion Bill Demong.

The younger Taylor Fletcher made the 2010 U.S. Olympic Team at age 19, but Bryan did not. However, Taylor did not compete in the Vancouver team event. Thus, neither owns an Olympic medal.

Bryan was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia at age 3, underwent chemotherapy for seven years and survived a stroke before it went into remission.

They are opposites in competition. Bryan is better at jumping. Taylor is stronger at cross-country skiing.

The Fletchers traded the top American spot in World Cup standings the last three seasons and are expected to make the Sochi Olympic Team regardless of what happens Saturday.

As is Demong, eyeing his fifth Olympic berth. Nothing will top his experience in Vancouver, when he won the first U.S. Nordic combined Olympic gold medal, successfully proposed to his wife and was named flag bearer for the Closing Ceremony on the same day.

Demong, 33, is not the most experienced skier at trials. That would be Todd Lodwick, 37, trying to become the first six-time U.S. Winter Olympian.

“I have to make sure I am doing everything every day to get there,” Lodwick told TeamUSA.org earlier this month. “It comes with a lot of personal gratification to get to the Olympic Games, not just once, but multiple times.”

Men’s Ski Jumping

The U.S. men’s ski jumping program has long sought a boost. It hasn’t produced a World Cup medal since 1991 and hasn’t put anybody or team in the top 10 of an Olympic event since 1988.

The contenders this week include the three members of the 2010 Olympic Team — Peter FrenetteAnders Johnson and Nick Alexander — and Nick Fairall. 

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World Figure Skating Championships pairs preview

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Volosozhar and Trankov couldn’t do it. Neither did Shen and Zhao. Nor Gordeeva and Grinkov.

Canadians Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford can win a third straight pairs world title next week, a feat not seen since Irina Rodnina and Alexander Zaitsev of the Soviet Union won six in a row from 1973 through 1978.

But they don’t feel like favorites.

“We’re coming in a little more under the radar,” Radford said.

They lost their two most recent international competitions — third at the Grand Prix Final in December; second at the Four Continents Championships in February.

Duhamel and Radford are seeded fifth by best international scores this season going into the world championships in Helsinki (broadcast schedule here).

“Sometimes it feels like worlds last year was so long ago,” Radford said.

Last year in Boston, Duhamel and Radford had the performance of their seven-year partnership in the world championships free skate. They tallied a personal-best 153.81 points, more than seven points clear of their previous best.

It was easily enough to overtake Chinese short-program leaders Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, who were relegated to silver behind the Canadians for a second straight year.

This season, Duhamel and Radford haven’t come within 13 points of their 2016 World Championships total. Duhamel went through “an unforeseeable circumstance” in her personal life in November that she chooses not to reveal.

They implemented the throw triple Axel, but Duhamel fell three times in a four-event stretch this fall. They lost by nearly 13 points at December’s Grand Prix Final, which ended with a Duhamel backstage meltdown.

“We never fell like that at home [in practice],” Duhamel said on the IceTalk podcast. “It started to shake us up a little bit.”

They replaced the throw triple Axel in their program. Without it in February, both skaters had trouble with jumps at Four Continents at the 2018 Olympic venue and finished nearly 13 points behind Sui and Han.

“We kind of went back to square one, to the drawing board after Four Continents, reassessing what’s gone on this season, why are we underperforming, why are we not succeeding in competition the way we are training,” Duhamel said.

They made program changes, notably on their throw and jump entrances and overhauling the footwork in their short program.

Duhamel adopted a rescue dog from South Korea. Radford, who had surgery over the summer to remove a cyst from his ankle bone, leaned on a sports psychologist.

“I personally feel a lot more relaxed and seemless,” Radford said. “That feeling has come a little bit later this season.”

Five pairs could take gold in Helsinki in perhaps the most wide-open event.

Germans Aliona Savchenko and (French-born) Bruno Massot won both of their fall Grand Prix events but missed the Grand Prix Final after she tore an ankle ligament. They returned to take silver at the European Championships in January with the best score of their two-year partnership.

Young Russians Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov stepped up to win the Grand Prix Final, the second-biggest annual competition, and then the European Championships. But free-skate struggles have dogged them this season.

Another Russian pair, Olympic silver medalists Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov, are perhaps the biggest wild card. They missed the fall season due to Stolbova’s left leg injury, but then beat Tarasova and Morozov in their season debut at the Russian Championships. Stolbova fell on their throw triple flip in both programs at the European Championships in January, and they finished fourth.

Then there are Sui and Han, looking to break through for a first senior world title in their sixth try (though Sui is just 21 years old, and Han 24). They missed the fall season after Sui underwent right ankle and left foot surgeries last spring. They returned at Four Continents and posted personal-best free skate and total scores, ranking only behind Tarasova and Morozov for the season.

U.S. pairs Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim and Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier have both missed significant time due to injury in the last two years. They are behind the top pairs from Canada, China and Russia.

The U.S. hasn’t put a pair in the world championships top five since 2006, and that doesn’t figure to change next week.

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NBC Sports researcher Sarah Hughes contributed to this report.

Ashley Caldwell will win or lose Olympic aerials gold with triples

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PARK CITY, Utah (AP) — As a teenager, Ashley Caldwell never had problems hanging with the boys when it came to doing the biggest flips off the aerials ramp. Now in her 20s, she sees no reason for that to change.

Caldwell will make or miss her third U.S. Olympic team, then potentially win or lose the gold medal in South Korea, by doing triple flips off the kicker while most of the women are doing doubles. It’s an all-or-nothing proposition that sets the bar high, and sends a certain message, regardless of whether she finishes first or last.

“It’s not just about trying to be there by myself,” Caldwell says. “It’s about maybe inspiring some younger girls to say, `I should be able to push to whatever I’m capable of doing, not necessarily what people say my gender is capable of doing.”‘

Caldwell never shirked from joining the teenage boys when they started moving to the bigger kickers and adding an extra flip to the doubles they did as kids.

Triples are the price of admission for the men, and while not unheard of among the women, the list of athletes who will try them is short: Jacqui Cooper, Alla Tsuper and Xu Mengtao are among the few who have tried them over the years. They’re also among the best to ever fly off a ramp.

At the Sochi Olympics, Lydia Lassila of Australia became the first woman to land a quadruple-twisting triple flip on snow in training. The next night, she brought it to the medals round, and though she touched her hand to the ground on the landing, she won a bronze medal anyway and stole the headlines.

“That’s who I’m inspired by,” Caldwell said that night. “She’s trying to push the sport so that girls are jumping like the boys, and she’s doing it, and it’s really impressive.”

At freestyle world championships earlier this month, Caldwell sent her message when she became the first woman to cleanly land that same triple-flipping, quadruple-twisting jump in competition (video here).

“It was the first time I had every coach come up to me and shake my hand before the score even came up,” said Todd Ossian, who works with Caldwell as head coach of the U.S. aerials team.

And yet, Caldwell was oh-so-close to not being able to even try that winning jump.

Aerials competitions go through a series of qualifying and elimination rounds that include only one jump each. Consistency is rewarded, and most women train a variety of double flips to make it through the rounds, then bring out their most intricate jump – more often than not, also a double – for when the medals are awarded.

Caldwell doesn’t go that route. She tries triples every time she steps onto the hill.

It adds extra – some might say unnecessary – risk to the early rounds. When the field was being cut from 12 to nine at world championships, for instance, Caldwell didn’t land her triple flip. She was able to squeak into the top nine and advance only because her degree of difficulty for the triple was so high.

“I’m OK sacrificing some good competition results to increase my consistency on the triple,” says Caldwell, giving a nod to the reality that training days on snow are precious and she needs to use them to focus on the jumps she’ll be performing when the contests start.

The recently ended season tested the limits of how much Caldwell was willing to sacrifice. In meet after meet, from Moscow to Minsk to an Olympic test event in South Korea, difficulties with the triple kept her far away from the podium. In the World Cup standings, Caldwell finished 10th.

To her, that’s more a badge of honor than a sign of failure. In a sport that oddly transforms daredevils into conformists, and rewards consistency over risk-taking, Caldwell plans to keep pushing anyway.

In doing triples, her mission is as much about winning as bringing others along for the ride.

“I want the crowd to feel like they know who won,” Caldwell said. “I want it to be impressive. I just want people to say, `That’s sweet. That’s what’s deserved.’ If a lot of girls are doing triples up there and I fall, there would still be a lot of girls who would do well. I’m cool with that. If I mess up, that’s OK. But I want the sport to look good.”

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VIDEO: Top U.S. aerials skier crashes hard at World Cup