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 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.”

Medals or mosquitoes? Zika still talk of Olympic golf

Rory McIlroy
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Olympic qualifying for golf ends in seven weeks, at which time players will have to determine if medals outweigh mosquitoes.

For now, there is only concern.

Rory McIlroy was the latest player to say Zika was in the back of his mind. In an interview with the BBC after his Irish Open victory, he said he has been reading up on the mosquito-borne virus, which has been linked to serious birth defects. McIlroy is engaged, and he said they might be starting a family in the next few years.

“I have to monitor that situation,” he said.

Masters champion Danny Willett was the next to weigh in. Asked about it Tuesday at the BMW PGA Championship, the 28-year-old from England said he was keeping on top of it. Willett’s wife, Nicole, had their first child just 11 days before he slipped on the green jacket.

“It’s not great, is it? There’s going to be 500,000 people watching the Olympics, and you have 11,000 athletes right in the heart of where it’s at,” Willett said. “If it turns out that it would be a massive threat to myself or to Nic or to the little man, then I probably wouldn’t go. Family comes first.

“But as it stands at the minute, I think everything should be OK.”

The Zika virus is in the news everywhere, which goes beyond the standard media outlets.

The International Golf Federation posted a two-page update on its website last month, and it is passing along Zika-related material from the International Olympic Committee and the World Health Organization to tours and player liaisons.

Andy Levinson, executive director of USA Golf, said Tuesday that updates from WHO and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are posted in the weekly bulletins left in lockers and on the “Players Links” website, where PGA Tour players get other pertinent information they don’t want to miss – like tee times, and FedEx Cup points, and where to leave their courtesy cars.

Two weeks ago at The Players Championship, the PGA Tour’s doctor was in player dining for one-on-ones on Zika.

Vijay Singh made a passing reference to Zika last month when the 53-year-old Fijian decided not to play. Marc Leishman of Australia also mentioned Zika, and for good reason. His wife nearly died last year of toxic shock syndrome and her immune system remains weakened.

The other players to pull out — Adam Scott, Louis Oosthuizen, Charl Schwartzel — cited a busy schedule or family priorities.

Ask a player a question, and there’s bound to be an answer, even if it’s not entirely informed. McIlroy said he was planning to get “injections” on Wednesday so that “I will be immunized for whatever — if I do get bitten by a mosquito down there.”

There is no vaccine for the Zika virus.

IGF executive director Antony Scanlon said he was in Rio de Janeiro a few weeks ago for meetings and saw workers spraying “an unbelievable amount of anti-mosquito” repellant around the various venues. He also repeated the timing — August is the tail end of winter in Brazil, and mosquitoes are not expected to be as prevalent.

Scanlon said he was most curious by the silence from the other side — the women.

“If anyone is at risk, it’s the ladies,” Scanlon said Tuesday from London. “We’ve heard nothing from them. I’m sure they’ve got concerns. And we’re distributing as much information as we can to the players.”

LPGA commissioner Mike Whan said as much two weeks ago during an Olympic news conference. He said five or six players have asked him about Zika, though none has said it would keep her from Rio. In an email Tuesday, he said not much has changed.

“They have been receiving regular updates on the topic,” Whan said. “No player has suggested she is not coming (at least not to me). But it is certainly a concern.”

It could be another example that the Olympics mean more to the women, who rarely get a stage as large as this and have a stronger tradition of competing for country in what was the first truly global tour.

Various headlines made it sound as though McIlroy and Willett might skip the Olympics because of Zika, and while their answers allowed some wiggle room, the context of their statements suggested nothing has changed.

At least not yet.

“We’re down to go and hopefully they can give us some proper guidelines as to how to keep it at bay and keep it under control so that it doesn’t ruin what could be potentially a fantastic Olympics,” Willett said.

“Not as apprehensive as I once was,” McIlroy said about the Olympics. “As it gets closer, I am relishing the thought of going down there and competing for gold.”

This much is clear — golfers currently eligible for the Olympics are having to study more than hole locations and wind direction.

MORE: WHO: Olympics OK to go on

Russian Olympic champion positive in Beijing doping retest

Anna Chicherova
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London Olympic high jump champion Anna Chicherova is one of many Russians among 31 athletes overall who tested positive in recent retests of Beijing Olympic samples, according to Russian news agency TASS.

TASS named nine 2008 Olympic medalists among 14 Russian athletes, citing a Russian TV report, including eight medalists in track and field, with Chicherova being the superstar of the group.

“Perhaps it’s just a mistake,” Chicherova said, according to an Associated Press translation of a Russian TV report. “I can’t explain how my doping test gave a positive result. I’ve competed a lot since then and given hundreds of samples.”

Last week, the International Olympic Committee said 31 unnamed athletes from 12 nations across six sports failed drug tests in retesting of 454 samples from 2008 using the latest drug-testing methods.

Chicherova, 33, took high jump gold at the London Games and bronze in Beijing. She is one of two track and field athletes to earn an individual-event medal at the last five World Championships and last two Olympics. The other is Usain Bolt.

Chicherova, who has had no previously widespread reported doping history, would be one of Russia’s top Olympic track and field medal hopes in Rio, should the ban on Russian track and field athletes competing be lifted before the Games.

Russia is expected to learn if it will be allowed to send a track and field team to Rio on June 17.

“The Ministry of Sport is extremely disappointed to hear the speculation that Russian athletes are among those found to have violated anti-doping rules at the 2008 Beijing Olympics after re-testing their samples,” the Russian Ministry of Sport said in a statement through Burson-Marsteller public relations firm. “Any athletes found cheating should face corresponding sanctions.

“We have taken numerous steps to eradicate the issue of doping, and understand that the roots of the problem, particularly in athletics, go back to the past.”

MORE: Russia track and field boss: ’50-60 percent’ chance of Olympics