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.

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