Amanda Kessel

Amanda Kessel finally ready for Olympic debut

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SOCHI, Russia — As if scripted, Amanda Kessel received the puck at her own blue line, danced around the greatest player of all time and roofed a two-on-one wrister past the best goaltender from the previous Olympics.

On April 9, Kessel potted a 3-2 game winner over Canada with 16 minutes, 51 seconds left in the World Championships final.

The goal provided anecdotal evidence of a shift in the sport, the latest in a U.S.-Canada teeter-totter over the last 25 years. It also brightened Kessel’s already shining star to blinding in women’s hockey circles. The younger sister of NHL All-Star Phil Kessel continued to carve her own name.

Then she vanished.

Kessel wouldn’t play again the rest of 2013 outside some practice tryout games, hampered by a hip injury that may have been related to torn labrum surgery in 2012.

She returned for four exhibitions against high school boys teams in January, but the Olympics will mark her first official games in 10 months.

“I’ve been battling really hard,” Kessel said a few hours after landing in Sochi, “but I’m feeling good.”

***

It took about five seconds.

The puck slid to Kessel at her own blue line, near the boards. From the other direction, Canadian captain Hayley Wickenheiser headed straight into her path from the center line.

Consider Kessel’s situation. She looked up to a player 13 years older, half a foot taller and 50 pounds bigger skating toward her.

And not just any Canadian. Wickenheiser has competed in every Olympic hockey tournament, winning three gold medals and one silver. She also played softball at the 2000 Summer Olympics.

The EA Sports video game NHL 13 included Wickenheiser as one of the first two playable female characters for the first time in the series’ history.

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In a blink, Kessel used her best skills — craftiness and deception — to let the puck slide, wiggle around Wickenheiser and leave the stalwart stuck in her skates.

Kessel was 10 feet beyond Wickenheiser by the time she regained the puck and reached the Canadian blue line.

She then stick handled up the right side with an opportunity to pass on the two-on-one. The Canadian defender slowly committed to Kessel, but she didn’t budge. Kessel measured and beat Canadian goalie Shannon Szabados top shelf.

Szabados, who has long excelled in boys and men’s leagues, shut out the U.S. in 2010 Olympic gold-medal game in Vancouver.

So, consider the impact of the score.

Kessel had skated around and shot past two symbols of Canada’s recent Olympic dominance over the U.S. for what proved to be the World Championship-deciding goal. In Ottawa, no less.

The Americans won a major title on Canadian ice for the first time in seven tries since 1990 and became favorites for their first Olympic gold since 1998.

The storyline became clear. The U.S. was young, fast and skilled. Three-time reigning Olympic champion Canada was aging. The Olympics were 10 months away.

“It feels good,” Kessel said that night. “It couldn’t feel any better.”

***

Kessel underwent hip surgery to repair a torn labrum in June 2012 that reportedly kept her off skates for two months.

It didn’t appear to affect her much after a sporadic start to that 2012-13 NCAA campaign, but before the season finished, the pain set in again.

“It was pretty brutal,” said Kessel, who missed back-to-back games at the end of February. “I only had a couple more weeks of playing with it though.”

Her final game was that championship triumph over Canada on April 9. The golden goal was just her second in five games in Ottawa. She co-led the tournament with six assists.

After an offseason break, Kessel said she reinjured her hip before the U.S.’ Bring on the World Tour from October through January.

Kessel didn’t play a second during the tour, which included seven games against Canada.

MORE: US women’s hockey roster marked by youth

After losing three straight to Canada, the U.S. won the final four games following the shock resignation of Canadian coach Dan Church on Dec. 12.

Kessel watched some games in person and others on TV, experiencing the ratcheted animosity — including a line brawl — as a fly on the wall.

“I’m usually not one to fight,” Kessel said. “So I knew I wouldn’t have been in there.”

She said the decision was made in November that she wouldn’t play again until January.

“We had a lot of traveling and road trips,” Kessel said. “Just to the point where I wasn’t really getting better on the road. … They recognized that I did need to get better.”

She also questioned internally whether she would be 100 percent for the Olympics.

“I was worried a little bit,” Kessel said.

She had taken pain-killing injections. Her rehab included core work and weight room time that she called grueling. Her teammates didn’t lose sight of her struggle.

“We’ve supported her all year long,” said Julie Chu, the only member of the 21-woman U.S. Olympic Team who was also on either of the 2002 or 2006 squads. “She’s worked her way back and earned her spot on this team. She’s worked so hard to be here. You see that on a lot of teams where there might be some injuries early on. It’s really about the dedication of the player and how much they’re going to be committed to the off-ice rehab, which is a lonely road sometimes to get back on the ice.”

Kessel and teammates agreed that she had little, if any, rust when she returned for four games against high school boys teams last month.

“I felt better than I thought I would,” Kessel said.

Kessel is short on words but not on personality. She’s a noted prankster, with reports of alterations to teammates’ skates, sticks and helmets with humorous but not harmful results. Her Twitter bio interestingly reads, “NHL player with the Minnesota Gophers,” though she’s as reticent as she is competitive. She did little to no interviews in the three months leading into Sochi.

Her coach and peers are effusive.

“[Kessel is] smart, dynamic, crafty,” said Katey Stone, the first female U.S. Olympic coach. “And she’ll work her tail off.”

Kessel is expected to suit up for the Olympic opener against Finland on Saturday. Finland leaned on goalie Noora Raty, Kessel’s Minnesota teammate, to beat the U.S. in regulation for the first time three months ago in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Kessel missed that game of course, but it would seem she’s the most likely candidate to solve Raty given her familiarity with the goalie and her own unique set of skills. They were born out of her parents’ Madison, Wis., basement, practicing with her brothers growing up.

“She’s so deceptive,” Chu said. “She’s one of those players, when the puck’s on her stick, you kind of have to give her a little space because you’re not sure if she’s going to blow by you or kind of do a quick dangle and dish it off to someone else. I think her craftiness is definitely a key.”

Kessel played last year on perhaps the fastest line in the world as a right wing with Kendall Coyne and center Brianna Decker. They were on the ice for all three goals in the World Championships gold-medal win over Canada.

Those five seconds in Ottawa and that victory over Canada are so far the peak of what’s been a four-year ascent since graduating from famed Minnesota boarding school Shattuck-St. Mary’s. It also produced U.S. and Canada men’s captains Zach Parise and Sidney Crosby.

Before the Vancouver Games, brother Phil found Amanda in tears picking her up at an airport after she was cut from Olympic Team consideration.

Now?

“She’s ready to rock,” Chu said.

Karen Chen breaks U.S. Champs scoring record; Ashley Wagner, Gracie Gold trail

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KANSAS CITY — A skater broke the U.S. Championships women’s short program scoring record Thursday night, but it wasn’t Ashley Wagner or Gracie Gold.

Karen Chen, a 17-year-old former junior star who struggled the last two years, tallied 72.82 points at the Sprint Center to lead going into Saturday’s free skate (8 p.m. ET, NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app).

Mirai Nagasu, a 2010 Olympian, is second, .87 of a point behind.

That leaves Wagner and Gold, who combined to win the last five U.S. titles, in third and fifth, respectively.

This is concerning for Wagner (1.88 behind Chen) and Gold (7.97 behind) given U.S. Figure Skating can send three women to worlds in two months. That selection will be made this weekend, primarily — but not totally — based off U.S. Championships results.

Tessa Hong is in fourth place, but at 14 years old is too young for senior worlds.

Full results are here.

Though Wagner and Gold are usually higher placed, the biggest surprise was Chen.

“My body’s still trembling right now,” she said, two hours after her performance.

Chen skated a clean program Thursday, rare for her in the last couple of seasons. Chen burst onto the scene as a 15-year-old two years ago, finishing third at nationals behind Wagner and Gold.

She was too young to be selected for the 2015 Worlds team. Little has been heard from Chen since.

She dropped to eighth at the 2016 U.S. Championships and came into Kansas City as the seventh-ranked U.S. woman this season. Struggling to find comfortable boots — a common skater problem — has plagued her. She went through 14 pairs in a four-month stretch.

“Everyone has doubts, and I certainly do as well,” said Chen, who choreographed her short program. “But I just kept pushing and telling myself that I’m gaining more experience, I’m learning about everything in the process and I’m just going to keep getting better.”

Wagner bounced back from her last outing — her worst Grand Prix finish in 25 career starts — with a decent program. She needed to save a double Axel near the end of her short. The 2016 World silver medalist was the pre-event favorite.

“People do not understand how difficult of a position I am in,” said Wagner, a 25-year-old bidding to become the oldest U.S. women’s champion in 90 years. “It might seem like I’m on top of the world, or second from being top of the world, but this is a very tough position to be in. It’s mentally been weighing on my shoulders all season. To be able to come out and show people I am a fighter, I’m really proud of that.”

Gold needed to show a fighting spirit given her well-publicized disaster of a fall season. And she did. Her only miss in the short program was doubling a planned triple flip.

“I can feel a huge improvement as a skater. I think everyone can see it,” Gold said. “I have made comebacks before. This doesn’t feel like a major comeback in some ways, because I felt pretty solid. … A long program is worth a lot of points, and I can certainly deliver some good long programs. I kind of feel like I’m due for a good one.”

If Gold doesn’t improve in the free skate, she could be left off the worlds team for the first time in her senior career. However, Gold believes her strong credentials in recent seasons merit consideration.

“We’ve seen different controversies where people aren’t on the [nationals] podium, and they’re still selected for events,” Gold said. “Michelle Kwan has not gone to nationals and been selected for an Olympic team [in 2006]. I believe that I deserve to be on the world team, but I’m not on the selection committee. Of course, every athlete feels like they should be on the world team.”

Earlier Thursday, the pairs short program produced surprise leaders.

The U.S. Championships continue Friday with the short dance and men’s short program. A full broadcast schedule is here.

MORE: U.S. Figure Skating boss wants Russia out of PyeongChang

Women’s Short Program
1. Karen Chen — 72.82
2. Mirai Nagasu — 71.95
3. Ashley Wagner — 70.94
4. Tessa Hong — 65.02
5. Gracie Gold — 64.85

 

Gwen Jorgensen pregnant, to sit out 2017 triathlon season

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 20: USA's Gwen Jorgensen followed by Switzerland's Nicola Spirig Hug (L) compete in the running portion of the women's triathlon at Fort Copacabana during the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro on August 20, 2016.(Photo by Jeff Pachoud-Pool/Getty Images)
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Olympic triathlon champion Gwen Jorgensen is pregnant and will not compete this year.

“Just kind of take this year a little bit easier,” Jorgensen said in a video posted on Facebook on Thursday.

The baby is due Aug. 3, according to Jorgensen’s social media.

Jorgensen, 30, became the first U.S. Olympic triathlon champion in Rio after going in as the heavy favorite. She has said for months that she planned to take time off to have a baby before returning to defend her Olympic title at Tokyo 2020.

Swiss Nicola Spirig, the 2012 Olympic gold medalist and 2016 silver medalist, is reportedly expecting a child in May.

In Jorgensen and Spirig’s absences, the top triathletes going into the season are defending world champion Flora Duffy of Bermuda, U.S. Olympians Katie Zaferes and Sarah True and Britons Vicky Holland and Helen Jenkins.

Jorgensen’s last competition was the New York City Marathon on Nov. 6, when she finished 14th in her first running race longer than 10 miles.

The World Triathlon Series kicks off in Abu Dhabi the first weekend of March.

MORE: Triathlon federation boss wants Olympic races shortened