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

IOC creates 3-person panel to have final say on Russian participation

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - JULY 30: IOC President Thomas Bach during the IOC Executive Board Meeting on July 30, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)
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RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — A three-person International Olympic Committee panel will make a final ruling on which individual Russian athletes are allowed to compete in the Rio de Janeiro Games.

The IOC’s ruling executive board, meeting Saturday for the final time before the opening of the games next Friday, said the panel will decide on the entry of Russian athletes whose names have been forwarded to compete by their international sports federations and approved by an independent arbitrator.

“This panel will decide whether to accept or reject that final proposal,” IOC spokesman Mark Adams said. “We want to make it absolutely clear that we are the ones making the final call.”

The move comes amid a doping scandal that has led to the exclusion of more than 100 Russian athletes connected to state-sponsored cheating. More than 250 Russian athletes have been cleared to compete by the federations.

The panel will have to make its ruling before the opening ceremony, just six days away.

“We’re working on a very, very tight timeline,” Adams said. “It has to be finished by Friday at the very latest.”

The panel will consist of three executive board members: Turkey’s Ugur Erdener, chairman of the IOC medical commission; Germany’s Claudia Bokel, head of the athletes’ commission; and Spain’s Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., a vice president of the modern pentathlon federation.

Adams said the panel will review every athlete cleared by the federations, but would not reopen the cases of those who have been barred. An arbitrator from the Court of Arbitration for Sport will make an initial ruling before the final decision goes to the IOC panel.

“This review board panel will look at every single decision, every single athlete, to make sure the IOC is happy with the decision that’s been taken,” Adams said. “It’s very important that the IOC makes the final decision based on independent advice.”

Saturday’s meeting came less than a week after the IOC board decided not to ban Russia’s entire team from the games because of state-sponsored doping. Rejecting calls by more than a dozen anti-doping agencies for a complete ban on Russia, the IOC left it to the federations to vet which athletes could compete or not.

The Russians banned so far include the 67 track and field athletes barred as a whole by the IAAF, and more than 30 others rejected under new IOC eligibility criteria. Russia’s eight-member weightlifting team was kicked out of the games on Friday for what the international federation called “extremely shocking” doping results that brought the sport into “disrepute.”

The IOC has been roundly criticized by anti-doping bodies, athletes groups and Western media for not imposing a total ban on Russia. Pressure for the full sanction followed a World Anti-Doping Agency report by Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren that accused Russia’s sports ministry of overseeing a vast doping conspiracy involving the country’s summer and winter sports athletes.

IOC President Thomas Bach has defended the decision as one that protects individual athletes who have not been implicated in doping.

Rio’s preparations, meanwhile, remain clouded on several fronts, including budget cuts, water pollution, slow ticket sales, and concerns over crime and the Zika virus. The games come with the suspended president awaiting an impeachment trial and the country gripped by a severe recession.

But Bach and the IOC board remained upbeat following a final progress report by organizing committee chief Carlos Nuzman, including details of the opening ceremony at the Maracana stadium.

“We can’t reveal any secrets but the organizing committee tell us that the ceremony will have Brazilian soul and enchant the world,” Adams said.

Bach gave the organizers a final pep talk ahead of the first games in South America.

“He thinks it’s going to be a great games,” Adams said. “He made that very, very clear. He gave a very rousing thank you to the team and said, ‘Now you must concentrate on delivery, delivery, delivery.”

Also Saturday, the IOC board granted full recognition to the International Ski Mountaineering Federation. It had received provisional recognition in 2014. Saturday’s decision marks another step toward potential future inclusion in the Winter Games.

MORE: Doping investigator ‘inundated with requests’ for more info on Russians

Bryan brothers pull out of Olympics, won’t defend gold medal

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 04:  (L-R) Silver medalist Michael Llodra and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France, gold medalist Mike Bryan and Bob Bryan of the United States and bronze medalist Julien Benneteau and Richard Gasquet of France pose on the podium during the medal ceremony after the Men's Doubles Tennis final match on Day 8 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on August 4, 2012 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
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Bob and Mike Bryan have pulled out of the Rio Games, less than a week before they were to begin defending their men’s doubles Olympic gold medal.

The Americans made the announcement on their Facebook page, citing their “family’s health,” but not specifically concerns with the Zika virus, which has caused many other tennis players and golfers to withdraw.

“After countless hours of deliberation Mike and I have decided to forego the Rio Olympics. Though we’d love to compete again, as husbands and fathers, our family’s health is now our top priority,” they wrote.

The 38-year-old identical twin brothers are the second-ranked men’s pair in the world. The U.S. Tennis Association is looking into replacements, according to the Associated Press.

The Bryan brothers defeated Michael Llodra and France Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France for gold four years ago in London. At the 2008 Beijing Games, they fell to Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland in the semifinals before knocking off Llodra and Arnaud Clement for bronze.

The Bryans were the No. 1 seed in both 2008 and ’12.

After winning gold in London, Bob and Mike went on to collect titles at the next four Grand Slams (2012 U.S. Open, 2013 Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon). The brothers have won a record total of 16 Grand Slam titles together.

MORE: Tomas Berdych joins growing list of tennis players skipping Rio