Caydee Denney, John Coughlin

Preview: Two former winning teams face off at U.S. Figure Skating Championships in pairs

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Two Olympic spots are at stake in pairs skating this weekend at the U.S. Championships in Boston and two top teams enter into the National Championships having won the event the last time they skated it.

For defending champions Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir, it was a year ago that they captured their first-ever national title, while the duo of Caydee Denney and John Coughlin won in 2012, sitting out the competition last year due to injury.

The pairs teams will face a host of competition for berths at the Sochi Olympics during the four-day event at the TD Garden which begins Thursday afternoon and concludes Saturday in the pairs event.

For Denney/Coughlin, the appearance at Nationals marks a continued comeback after a torn labrum in Coughlin’s hip (the same injury that put Evan Lysacek out of the Sochi Games) set the team out following a successful Grand Prix season in 2012.

U.S. Figure Skating Championships Previews: Men | Women | Ice Dance | Pairs | Schedule

The Colorado-based team could not defend their national title in Omaha in January and sat out the World Championships in March. But they’ve made marked improvements during the Grand Prix season in 2013, placing fourth at Skate America befor winning bronze at the Grand Prix of France.

“Our technical element score (TES) was at its highest in Paris, [but] we stay humble and continue to work,” Coughlin said on a conference call with reporters. “We’re honest with ourselves and focused on showing that we are an elite team. Our confidence is high after being the best American team on the Grand Prix [this season].”

Castelli/Shnapir would like to prove Coughlin wrong in front of a home crowd in Boston. The team – which has a height diffence of 16 inches (Marissa is 5’0” and Simon is 6’4”) – had a less convincing Grand Prix effort in 2013, missing the podium in both Detroit (sixth) and Tokyo (fourth).

“We’re thrilled that the Championships are here in our backyard,” Shnapir told journalists recently. “Training has been going well and we’ve been working hard going through our programs and sections every single day. We’ve just been drilling everything and feel ready to go.”

Shnapir would be making a return to a different backyard should he and Castelli qualify for the Winter Games: the 26-year-old was born in Moscow before moving to the U.S. with his family when he was just 18 months old, but speaks Russian and would have family members attend in Sochi.

While Denney/Coughlin and Castelli/Shnapir are the clear front-runners to earn the two allotted spots in pairs, there are a host of other teams that will try and throw a wrench in their compatriots’ Olympic plans.

Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim, who paired up less than two years ago, were second at Nationals a year ago and had two Grand Prix assignments during the Olympic season, placing fifth at the cup of China and then sixth in Moscow at the Cup of Russia.

Felicia Zhang and Nate Bartholomay, the bronze medalists from the 2013 Nationals, struggled during the Grand Prix season, placing seventh at Skate America and sixth at the Cup of China.

Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier could be the most competitive of the outliers, having placed fifth at both of their Grand Prix assignments. The duo began skating together in 2004 after switching to the ice from roller skating.

Haven is the younger sister to Caydee, meaning a little sibling rivalry could come alive at the TD Garden – or a duo of siblings might be headed to the Olympics not named Shibutani (Maia and Alex, ice dancers).

But the home-ice advantage is something that Castelli hopes to use her own family for in her and Shnapir’s advantage, even if it means a little added pressure during an Olympic season.

“Skating in our hometown is the best advantage that we could have,” Castelli said. “At first I was really nervous, it was really terrifying. But it’s such a blessing to have everyone who supports me come and cheer me on and share this moment with me; it’s going to be so much more motivating. We’re extremely excited.”

The pairs kick off the senior Nationals competition at 4:15 p.m. on Thursday in Boston. NBC will air live coverage of the pairs free skate Saturday afternoon from 3 to 6 p.m. Eastern, as well as host a livestream of the event on NBCOlympics.com.

Denney/Coughlin worked through injury together

Jesse Owens, 1936 Olympians receive recognition at White House

Jesse Owens
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WASHINGTON (AP) — Shortly after Jesse Owens returned home from his snubbing by Adolph Hitler at the 1936 Olympics, he and America’s 17 other black Olympians found a less-than-welcoming reception from their own government, as well.

On Thursday, relatives of those 1936 African-American Olympians will be welcomed to the White House and will get to shake the president’s hand – an honor Owens and the others didn’t receive, the way some of their white counterparts did, after they returned home from Berlin 80 years ago.

U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun announced the visit Wednesday night at a Team USA Awards ceremony.

“That is why I’m here 80 years later, to recognize the senselessness (of not inviting them to the White House), and to pay tribute to all the progress that has come since,” Blackmun said.

The announcement came on the same night the USOC invited Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who were booted from the 1968 Olympics for their gloved-fist protest on the medals stand, to be part of the awards show. Smith and Carlos hadn’t been involved in an official USOC event since being sent home from Mexico City. The gold- and bronze-medal-winning sprinters will be at the White House on Thursday, as well.

At the 1936 Olympics , Owens won four gold medals, but it was the message Owens’ victories sent by winning in Nazi Germany and undercutting Hitler’s white-supremacy dogma that stood as the lasting memory of those games.

Owens returned to a segregated America where he had trouble finding steady work and where, according to his interviews in later years, the president, Franklin Roosevelt, never sent him any words of congratulations or an invitation to the White House.

Decades later, Owens was acknowledged and honored at the White House. In 1976, President Gerald Ford presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The stories of the other 17 blacks on that team were less-widely known. Thursday’s event was meant to give a long-overdue White House recognition to those athletes, who accounted for 14 of America’s 56 medals in Berlin.

Owens’ daughter, Marlene Owens-Rankin, will be among the relatives at the White House.

“To be able to go to the White House 80 years later with Barack Obama as president and also with the other 1936 Olympians that really didn’t get the exposure that my grandfather did, for various reasons, I think it would make him so happy,” said Owens’ granddaughter, Marlene Dortch.

MORE: Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky big winners at Team USA Awards

Simone Biles discusses her future

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 16:  Gold medalist Simone Biles of the United States celebrates on the podium at the medal ceremony for the Women's Floor on Day 11 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Rio Olympic Arena on August 16, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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Simone Biles does not know where she will be next October, when the 2017 World Championships will be held. Understandable, considering it is hard enough for her to keep track of where she will be tomorrow.

She has been living out of a suitcase, a very organized suitcase with pants on one side and tops on the other, since winning four Olympic gold medals in Rio. Her whirlwind travel schedule is full of media appearances, sponsor visits and a USA Gymnastics tour of shows. More than once she has woken up in a hotel, unsure which city she was in.

“Everything has happened so fast,” she said in a phone interview from the Team USA Awards red carpet in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday. “But it’s definitely amazing.”

Biles, 19, reiterated that she plans on taking a break from competition for about a year.

“There’s no way I could train 100% and still do everything that I am doing now,” she said.

Biles is not ready to set a date for her return to competitive gymnastics. She is not planning on entering the 2017 P&G Championships, which will be held Aug. 17-20, almost exactly a year after the 2016 Olympics.

“Oh goodness, I think that still falls under a year,” she said. “We will see. I could always change my mind.”

The 2017 World Championships will be held next October in Montreal. None of the previous four U.S. Olympic women’s all-around champions competed at Worlds the year after their Olympic triumphs, but Biles has not ruled it out.

She was asked if she had thought about competing in Montreal.

“I have and I haven’t,” said Biles, the three-time defending world all-around champion. “I try not to think too far ahead.”

It remains to be seen who will coach her once she returns to training. Aimee Boorman, who coached Biles since she was 7, is moving from Texas for a new gymnastics job in Florida.

Biles “loves Florida” and “thinks the whole state is beautiful” based on her two visits to the Sunshine State. But she is not sure if she will follow her coach to Florida.

“Florida is quite a ways away, but anything can happen,” she said. “We will have to see whenever I decide to start up again.”

Biles was speaking on behalf DICK’s Sporting Goods, who pledged a $1,000 donation for every Olympic and Paralympic Games medal won by a U.S. athlete in Rio. By winning five Olympics medals, Biles was directly responsible for a $5,000 contribution.

There are six Olympic medals available for female artistic gymnastics. Biles did not compete in the uneven bars final in Rio, but that could change at the Tokyo Games.

“My bar just needs to be a little bit stronger,” she said. “We’ll have to see once I go back to training to up my difficulty if it’s possible for me to get a sixth.”

Until then, Biles is enjoying her celebrity status. Since Rio, she has met Beyoncé, Kim Kardashian and Usher, and even filmed a music video with Jake Miller.

“I have no idea when this whole process slows down,” Biles said. “That would be a question for the world, not me.”

MORE: Best photos from red carpet of the Team USA Awards