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.

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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 two 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.”

Pressure on Ashley Wagner at world championships

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Ashley Wagner‘s four-year plan has her peaking in 2018, not at the 2017 World Championships, but many call Wagner to carry the U.S. women at worlds in Helsinki next week.

“Next year is the year that I am, like, in it to kill,” she said. “This year is maintaining. This year is my chance to work out all of the kinks, figure out where I want to be mentally going into next year.”

Wagner, the 2016 World silver medalist, is the only skater of three American women on this year’s worlds team with prior worlds experience. She is the only one ranked higher than 20th in the world this season.

Normally, figure skating is an individual sport. But next week, the top two U.S. women’s results must add up to no greater than 13 (Wagner places third, and either U.S. champion Karen Chen or U.S. bronze medalist Mariah Bell places 10th or better, for example).

If not, the U.S. will have two rather than the maximum three women’s entries at the PyeongChang Olympics. The U.S. had three spots at four of the last five Olympics.

Anything less than three in 2018 would mean the U.S. is not keeping up with world power Russia and maybe even Canada and Japan. And it becomes that much harder for Wagner and everyone else to make the Olympic team.

“I know that I have a huge role in these three spots at these world championships,” Wagner said. “I need to set this team up as good as I possibly can, so that way the pressure’s off the other girls.”

The others are the 17-year-old Chen, the surprise winner at the U.S. Championships in January, who then placed 12th at February’s Four Continents Championships, an event that doesn’t include Europeans. Chen said she suffered from nerves, a flu and foot pain caused by broken boots at Four Continents.

And Bell, who took silver at October’s Skate America behind training partner Wagner. Bell, 20, finished sixth at Four Continents at the 2018 Olympic venue in South Korea, where she competed with an amount of pressure she had never before felt.

Of skaters entered at worlds, Bell has the 10th-best total score this season. The skater with the 12th-best total in the worlds field is more than nine points shy of Bell. Chen comes in seeded 16th.

“The tough thing about this worlds is that we have two rookies going into a very stressful event,” Wagner said. “So these two girls are in a really tough position, and I really feel for them. It’s kind of like you have to buckle up and deal with this, and that’s like your only option.”

There is reason for optimism, should Wagner put up something close to the performance of her life from last year’s worlds, where she became the first U.S. women’s medalist in a decade.

“Success in Finland is getting onto that podium,” Wagner said.

But Wagner is nearing the end of her (so far) least impressive season in probably six years. She is seeded eighth at worlds by this season’s top international scores.

She failed to qualify for December’s Grand Prix Final for the first time since 2011. She was beaten at nationals despite longtime rival Gracie Gold underperforming.

However, Wagner’s goal at nationals wasn’t to win, but to finish in the top three to make the worlds team. She called the runner-up result “perfect.” She focused the last two months on firming up the areas where she lost points.

“Even though to some on the outside looking in, it wouldn’t look like it was the most successful season for me,” Wagner said. “I think at the end of the day this season has been exactly what I needed it to be.”

The favorite in Helsinki is clearly Russian Yevgenia Medvedeva, who hasn’t lost since November 2015 and can become the first repeat world champion since Michelle Kwan in 2001.

Wagner said she hasn’t watched any of Medvedeva’s programs this season.

“The only thing that I know about is her long program music is not my favorite piece of music,” Wagner said, alluding to Medvedeva’s choice of sound from “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” a 2011 film relating to the 9/11 attacks. The music includes, at one point, the voice of George W. Bush declaring that two airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center.

But Wagner was effusive of Medvedeva, the latest in a string of Russian Olympic and world champions dating to the Sochi Olympics.

“She is a set bar that everybody is chasing after, and I think in years past that bar was always changing,” Wagner said. “Now it’s one set thing I know exactly the quality of skating I have to reach, I know exactly the technical program that I have to be able to accomplish.”

Wagner, a seasoned 25 years old, noted a key point this week. She is the only active women’s skater in her class, with her length of experience, who hasn’t taken a break.

Italian Carolina Kostner is 30, but she’s competing at worlds for the first time since 2014, following two seasons off. Japan’s three-time world champion Mao Asada is 26, but she took a season off after Sochi and this year failed to make the worlds team.

Wagner reflected on her world silver medal and her three national championships. She knows they mean nothing next week.

“I have to prove myself all over again,” she said.

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NBC Sports researcher Sarah Hughes contributed to this report.

More Russians retroactively disqualified from 2012 Olympics

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MOSCOW (AP) — Three Russian athletes have been disqualified from the 2012 Olympics after failing doping retests, the country’s track and field federation said.

Hammer throwers Maria Bespalova and Gulfiya Khanafeeva and triple jumper Viktoria Valyukevich were all disqualified. None were medalists.

The disqualifications of Bespalova and Khanafeeva mean all three Russian women who competed in the hammer throw in 2012 have tested positive for doping. Tatyana Lysenko was the original winner, but was stripped of her gold medal in October.

Valyukevich, a former European indoor champion, was eighth in the triple jump at the 2012 Olympics and finished two places ahead of Russian teammate Tatyana Lebedeva, who has been stripped of two medals from the 2008 Beijing Games for doping.

In Tuesday’s statement, Russian officials didn’t say which substances were involved. The International Olympic Committee had no immediate comment.

It is the third time Khanafeeva, who won European championship silver in 2005, has been found guilty of a doping offense. She previously served bans in 2002 for a positive test and in 2008 for providing someone else’s urine in a drug test sample.

Bespalova is currently serving a four-year ban after testing positive for a banned steroid in 2015.

Since the IOC started retesting samples from the 2008 and 2012 Games last year, more than 30 Russians in various sports have tested positive. That makes them the largest group out of more than 100 positive tests. Seven more Russians have been disqualified for other doping offenses.

Russia has lost 26 Olympic medals as a result, most of them in track and field. Many of the cases involve turinabol, a substance which former Moscow anti-doping laboratory director Grigory Rodchenkov has admitted supplying to athletes in a steroid cocktail.

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