Max Aaron

Olympic men’s spots wide open at U.S. Figure Skating Championships

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Max Aaron and Adam Rippon just missed four years ago. Jason Brown and Jeremy Abbott were champions.

The skaters will reconvene as four contenders for two Olympic spots at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Boston this week. The men’s short program is Friday night, the free skate Sunday and the team announcement Sunday night.

The competition is billed as up for grabs, and limiting it to a quartet may prove short-sighted. U.S. men’s figure skating, while competitive and unpredictable domestically, is in the doldrums internationally.

Sochi marks the first Olympics in 20 years for which the U.S. failed to qualify the maximum three men’s skaters. No man competing this week has won an Olympic or World Championships medal.

2010 Olympic champion Evan Lysacek announced he would not attempt to defend his gold medal in December, citing a hip injury. Two-time Olympian Johnny Weir retired in October.

The last time they competed at the same U.S. Championships was four years ago in Spokane, Wash., where the three-man team for Vancouver was named.

Aaron, Brown, Rippon and Abbott were there, too.

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

Aaron, then a 17-year-old converted hockey player, led following the junior short program in Spokane after finishing eighth at sectionals the year before.

“Since we are all so close at the top, it really is anyone’s game,” he said before the free skate at the 2010 U.S. Championships, a phrase he could easily repeat going into Boston.

Aaron’s maturation saw him similarly jump from eighth at the 2012 U.S. Championships to win in 2013, making him a favorite to reach Sochi.

His ascension seemed to stop there. Aaron finished seventh at the World Championships in March, respectable for the current state of U.S. men.

This season, he fell repeatedly in international events and seemed to bottom out at NHK Trophy in Japan, botching jumps in both programs and finishing seventh out of nine skaters.

“Every time I watch a performance, I’m disgusted with how I’ve skated,” Aaron said. “I’m very embarrassed.”

Aaron is known for his quadruple jumps. He ambitiously added one to his free skate for this season, giving him three total in the program. In response to his embarrassing performances, he’s since dropped back to two quads in the free skate, like he had when he won the national title.

Aaron will aim to duplicate his golden performance from last year’s U.S. Championships. He will hope not to repeat 2010, where he ceded his short program lead and finished third behind a 15-year-old making his junior debut named Jason Brown.

Brown is a ponytailed skater with Arsenio Hall in his corner.

He’s the rising star of the U.S. men, having won bronze and silver at the last two World Junior Championships and adding an even more impressive bronze at a Grand Prix event in Paris in November. Only Olympic gold-medal favorites Patrick Chan and Yuzuru Hanyu were better than Brown in the Paris field.

“Every event this season has taught me more and more,” said Brown, who doesn’t perform quads (yet) but does skate to Irish “Riverdance” music. “As the season has gone on, I’ve gotten more confident about the fact that I can make this Olympic Team and I can get my first U.S. title.”

If he does so, Brown will repeat Aaron’s feat of jumping from eighth to first at back-to-back U.S. Championships.

Four years ago, Brown celebrated his U.S. junior gold medal by taking a seat at Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena and watching the senior men perform for spots on the Vancouver Olympic Team. There, he saw Rippon and Abbott go up against Lysacek, Weir and others.

Rippon, then 20, was the two-time reigning world junior champion. He was the future of U.S. men’s figure skating given Lysacek, Weir and Abbott were 24 or older.

“I definitely felt like the baby [in Spokane],” Rippon said. “I felt like I had this outside shot of making the Olympic Team and what a dream come true it would be. … I don’t know if I really believed if I could be part of the team at that time.”

He couldn’t. Rippon finished fifth in 2010, committing back-to-back young skater’s mistakes in his short program, stopping himself at the boards after a jump and falling on his butt on a footwork sequence.

Rippon has yet to evolve into a consistent senior threat at the international level in the years since, but neither has any other U.S. man. He showed signs of improvement this season, two years after leaving Olympic silver medalist coach Brian Orser and one year after moving to California, where the second-guessing skater would become the yin to confident training partner Ashley Wagner‘s yang.

Rippon won silver at Skate America in October, his first Grand Prix event medal in nearly three years. He has one quad jump planned in each of his programs in Boston.

“I’ve put myself in a really good position,” Rippon said, before channeling Wagner’s moxie. “I feel like this should be my U.S. title.

“You have to look at me because I’m demanding your attention. I’m telling you that I’m one of the best and you have to watch.”

That would have described Abbott’s performance at the 2010 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, where the Coloradoan won the second of his back-to-back national titles. It was a bit of a surprise, beating the reigning world champion Lysacek, and confirmed his 2009 gold was no fluke.

Abbott has never finished lower than fourth in seven U.S. Championships, which would lead one to believe he’s a favorite to be one of the three men chosen for Sochi.

Yet he’s disappointed time and again in major international competition — ninth at the 2010 Olympics, twice 11th at the World Championships and eighth at his last worlds appearance in 2012.

He looked lost in taking sixth at Skate Canada in October but rebounded to win bronze at NHK Trophy in November, beating Aaron. His total score was fourth highest among Americans this season, trailing Brown, Rippon and Aaron.

The quartet’s top scores this Grand Prix season are within six points of each other. To put that tight race in perspective, Abbott won the 2010 U.S. Championship by 25 points.

“I can do the tricks, and I can skate; I have great skating skills and artistry and well-choreographed programs,” Abbott recently told National Public Radio. “For me, the biggest obstacle is just bringing it all together.”

Mary Cain ‘back to basics’ after ‘disappointing year’

Mary Cain
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Mary Cain, who in 2013 became the youngest U.S. track and field athlete to make a World Championships team and turned pro at age 17 later that fall, is spending her run-up to next year and the 2016 Olympics home in New York rather than returning to Oregon where she went to college and trained last year.

In June, Cain finished eighth in the 1500m at the U.S. Championships, missing the top-four placement necessary to make the World Championships team.

“After a disappointing year, I knew that I needed a change,” Cain said in a blog post Tuesday. “For me, that meant returning home to New York (and its bagels) or where it all started. With 2016 being such an important year, it’s a blessing to be able to, as my mom says, ‘Go back to basics.'”

Cain, who was a freshman at the University of Portland last year, is still coached by three-time New York City Marathon champion Alberto Salazar with the aid of New Zealand 2004 Olympic 10,000m runner John Henwood, according to the blog.

“We’re trying to get [running] back to fun with her,” Henwood said, according to Runner’s World.

Cain moved from Bronxville, N.Y., to Portland after graduating high school last year, completing a decorated prep career filled with records and state and national titles. She trained with Salazar’s group, which includes Olympic 10,000m gold and silver medalists Mo Farah and Galen Rupp.

Cain won the World Junior Championships 3000m in 2014 and became the youngest woman to make a senior World Championships 1500m final in 2013, when she finished 10th.

“I always said the key to running well was keeping the sport fun,” Cain said in the blog post. “With the help of this great NY running community, I am happy to say that I have found that love again! I’m looking forward to a rewarding Indoor and Outdoor season.

“Thanks to everyone who has supported me through the ups and downs! I hope to make 2016 a year to remember!”

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Brazil’s best tennis player: ‘tough to dream’ of Rio Olympic medal

Thomaz Bellucci
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Thomaz Bellucci admits playing at a home Olympics brings at least some pressure.

“To well represent Brazil,” the Sao Paulo native clarified at the U.S. Open in New York last month. “It’s tough to dream about having a medal.”

The 27-year-old Bellucci is the only Brazilian tennis player, man or woman, ranked in the world top 50. He sits at No. 31, having this season reached his first ATP final since 2012 and winning it at the Geneva Open in Switzerland in May.

Brazil’s Olympic Committee set a target of 27 to 30 medals in Rio, after earning 17 at London 2012. The added glory likely won’t come from tennis, a sport in which a Brazilian has never stood on an Olympic podium.

“For the Olympics, I don’t feel too many pressure,” Bellucci said, “because even if I play in Brazil, I know there are many players more favored than me because [Roger] Federer‘s going to play, [Novak] Djokovic, all these guys have so much more pressure than me because they have more chance to have a medal.”

Olympic tennis gained greater significance on the busy tour calendars among top players with recent Games.

On the men’s side, every medalist from 2008 and 2012 had already reached at least one Grand Slam final in his career. That group of six included Federer (2012 silver), Djokovic (2008 bronze), Rafael Nadal (2008 gold) and Andy Murray (2012 gold).

But if Bellucci and the Brazilians look back, they can find unexpected, inspiring runs. In 1996, Brazil’s Fernando Meligeni came to the Atlanta Games ranked No. 95 in the world, having never made it past the fourth round of a Grand Slam.

The charismatic Meligeni, a lefty who sometimes played wearing his cap backwards, reached the final four in Stone Mountain, twice playing for a medal, and hitting a tweener on the penultimate point of his semifinal against Spain’s Sergi Bruguera.

He lost both medal-round matches, including the bronze match to Indian Leander Paes, who won the U.S. Open mixed doubles last month with another 1996 Olympic singles tennis player, Swiss Martina Hingis. Hingis is attempting to return to the Olympics next year for the first time since 1996.

In 2004, Chile’s Nicolas Massu won singles and doubles gold in Athens having never reached the fourth round of a Grand Slam in singles.

Bellucci debuted at the Olympics in 2008 and hasn’t won a single Games match. He rose from a No. 85 overall ranking in Beijing to No. 42 going into the London 2012 Olympics, where he forced then-Wimbledon semifinalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to three sets. Bellucci and partner Andre Sa were the only doubles pair to take a set off Americans Bob and Mike Bryan at London 2012.

“Beijing I was very surprised, because I was very young and had no idea,” Bellucci said. “In London, I had a very tough draw against Tsonga. Let’s see if I can have more luck in Brazil to have a better draw.”

Not even the great Gustavo Kuerten could sniff an Olympic medal. The three-time French Open champion — the only Brazilian man to win a Grand Slam — couldn’t do better than the quarterfinals in 2000 and 2004.

The analysis of Bellucci in the scope of Kuerten, who is of a similar tall, thin build, has silenced in recent years.

“They used to say that when I was young, when I was starting to play well,” said Bellucci, whose four ATP titles came on Kuerten’s favorite surface, clay, while the Rio Olympic tournament will be on hard courts. “They want to compare me and Guga [Kuerten], but anyway they are not comparing anymore because Guga is so much bigger than me.”

As much as Bellucci tries to keep expectations low, he urges that his sport is one of the most popular in Brazil.

“I think soccer, for sure, is No. 1 and then volleyball is second and then tennis, I think,” he said. “I think we have more people playing tennis than volleyball because I think all the ages can play tennis.”

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