Figure skating team event preview: U.S., Russia among favorites

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SOCHI, Russia – History is made at the Olympics Thursday night in Sochi when figure skating begins its first-ever team event, consisting of ten teams all chasing after three medals. The U.S. factors into the gold-medal conversation, anchored by reigning world champion ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White. Here, a comprehensive preview of the inaugural event.

How does it work?
In brief, the team event goes like this: skaters from all four disciplines (men’s, ladies, pairs and ice dance) skate both a short and long program with points being awaded for their placement in said events. Ten teams in total compete in the short program, with just the top five advancing to the free skate portion. Each team is allowed two substitutions between the short program and the free skate, meaning one man can skate in the men’s short, then another in the free skate. Substitutions can be made in ladies, pairs and/or ice dance, as well, as long as no more than two substitutions are made in total. For a comprehensive explanation of the team event and its proceeding, click here.

MORE: Understanding the team event

Who are the favorites?
Teams are ranked by an international system that tracks performances of skaters from throughout the skating season. Canada comes in as the top seed, followed by Russia, the U.S., Japan and Italy. The top four teams – Canada, Russia, the U.S. and Japan – are seen are the favorites for the three podium spots, with Italy having an outside shot at landing inside the top three.

Breaking it down
Canada has the upper hand because of strength in three out of the four disciplines: men’s, ice dance and pairs. The Canadians are led by reigning and three-time world champion Patrick Chan in men’s singles, followed closely by Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the ice dancers who won Olympic gold in Vancouver. Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford, Canada’s best pairs team, were third at the World Championships in 2013.

Russia isn’t far behind, particularly thanks to a surging season from 15-year-old Yulia Lipnitskaya, who became the youngest Euopean Championships winner ever in January. She joins Yevgeny Plushenko in singles, the 31-year-old veteran who was selected as the lone man to represent Russian after a controversial process. The reigning pairs world champions, Tatiana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov, bolster that strong line-up, which also includes Yekaterina Bobrova and Dimitry Soloviyev, bronze medalists at the World Championships in 2013.

And what of the U.S.? No doubt its leader is the ice dancing duo of Davis/White, who have won two out of the last three World Championships golds and have not earned anything less than gold in almost two years. The Americans will need to outdo rivals and training partners Virtue/Moir to help the U.S. beat out Canada, however. Jeremy Abbott will skate the short program in the men’s event, while fellow U.S. champs Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir will do so in pairs. The great mystery lies in the ladies portion of the event, where it is believed that two-time U.S. champ Ashley Wagner will skate the short program and 2014 winner Gracie Gold will do the free skate. The wildcard: 15-year-old Polina Edmunds, who won silver in Boston and is also seen as a free-skate option.

What the experts say
“It’s really going to between Russia, Canada and the U.S. for the medals,” said Johnny Weir, a two-time Olympian and analyst for NBC Sports. “It’ll just be a matter of are the American dancers so much better than the rest of the field.”

“At the Olympics, it’s such a different event from what you’re training for in the span of four years,” says fellow analyst Tara Lipinski, who won Olympic gold in 1998. “Your process of peaking has to change because this is a whole different competition before the individual events.”

What Lipinski is referring to is that figure skaters are now dealing with twice the amount of skating that they normally would at the Olympics, something Weir said he would have “hated” and Lipinski “loved” having to skate two different events at one Games had the team event existed when they competed.

“If Chan skates well, he’s far ahead of the Russian and U.S. men,” Weir adds. “For the ladies, Russia has a slight advantage there with the home ice and when you get to pairs it’s all about the Russians. So it’s a mixed bag. Everyone has their strengths, but it’s going to be whoever goes out and blows us away.”

But who’s skating?
The U.S. – as mentioned above – has named its men’s and pairs participants for the short programs and will wait to announce ladies and dance until Friday. “Whoever they send out for short or free skate I believe the outcome will be positive,” Lipinski said. “Selecting Ashley for the short could be a nice way for her to shake off all the hype from Nationals and settle into the ice. She has a very powerful short program that could set the tone well for her individual event. Gracie is a solid choice for both programs. It would be beneficial for her to use this opportunity to acclimate to Olympic competition especially since she doesn’t like surprises and excels when she can focus in and feel at home.”

The ten countries skating are: Canada, Russia, the U.S., Japan, Italy, France, China, Germany, Ukraine and Great Britain.

Schedule
The team event kicks off Thursday night in Sochi at 7:30 pm local time (10:30 am ET) and will be streamed in its entirety on NBCOlympics.com. The men’s short program kicks off the competition, with Plushenko skating fourth, Abbott fifth and Chan ninth. Pairs is set to get underway thereafter, around 9:10 local time. Ladies and ice dance will skate their short programs – along with pairs free skate – Saturday night.

For a full schedule of the team event, click here.

Amy Purdy, Winter Paralympic medalist, to perform at Rio Paralympic Opening Ceremony

Amy Purdy
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Amy Purdy made her name as a snowboardcross bronze medalist at the Sochi Paralympics and runner-up on “Dancing with the Stars” in 2014.

In September, she’ll combine both.

Purdy will perform as a dancer in the Rio Paralympic Opening Ceremony on Sept. 7, in addition to being an NBC reporter during the Games.

She was told her performance will be four to five minutes. On “Dancing with the Stars,” her performances were about 90 seconds, she said. She traveled to Rio for a week of rehearsals in July.

Purdy, 36, survived bacterial meningitis in 1999 but lost both her legs and later needed a kidney from her father at age 20.

“I’m most excited about the concept of this dance,” Purdy said. “Just the idea of man versus machine. A lot of times we feel really limited because of our prosthetics. But this dance, hopefully, will kind of shatter those borders a little bit and allow me to move my body in a way I haven’t done before.”

Purdy is an innovator. She built her own snowboard and is seen as instrumental in getting her sport into the Paralympic program beginning in 2014.

A model, she’s been in a Madonna music video, a Super Bowl commercial, ESPN the Magazine’s Body Issue and competed on “The Amazing Race” in 2012.

MORE: Rio Paralympic broadcast schedule

Sneak peek at Lindsey Vonn’s episode of ‘Running Wild with Bear Grylls’

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Lindsey Vonn‘s episode of “Running Wild with Bear Grylls” will air on NBC on Monday at 10 p.m. ET.

From NBC Universal:

“After roaring across crystal-clear waters in a speedboat, Bear and Lindsey must strip down and swim to shore before inching their way along the rugged coastline. After rappelling down a sheer rock wall, the two get inventive and use a spear-gun to traverse a hundred-foot deep chasm. With the sun setting, they collect a dinner of sea urchins and Bear challenges Lindsey to a swimming competition with hilarious results. Along the way Lindsey shares her journey of love, Olympic glory, and displays the focus and determination that has made her one of the most successful female athletes of all time.”

Vonn is returning from a Feb. 27 crash that left her with three significant left knee fractures.

With 76 career World Cup wins, she is 10 shy of the record held by Swedish legend Ingemar Stenmark.

MORE: Lindsey Vonn wants to race men, retire in 2019