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.

Olympian Jamie Dantzscher claims sex abuse by ex-USA Gymnastics doctor

Jamie Dantzscher
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NEW YORK (AP) — Three former elite U.S. gymnasts, including 2000 Olympian Jamie Dantzscher, have come forward saying they were sexually abused by a former doctor currently facing trial on a separate matter.

Dantzscher, three-time U.S. rhythmic gymnastics champion Jessica Howard and former national team member Jeanette Antolin appeared on “60 Minutes” on Sunday, detailing what they have claimed is sexual abuse by Dr. Larry Nassar.

All three accused Nassar, a volunteer team doctor for USA Gymnastics for almost three decades before his tenure ended in July 2015, of touching them inappropriately while he disguised the abuse as treatment.

Dantzscher, who helped the U.S. team earn a team bronze at the 2000 Olympics, filed a lawsuit against Nassar in California last September as “Jane Doe.” She gave up her anonymity for “60 Minutes” and described how she was sent to visit Nassar to receive treatment for lower back pain.

“He would put his fingers inside of me, move my leg around,” Dantzscher said. “He would tell me I was going to feel a pop and that that would put my hips back and help my back pain.”

Dantzscher said she saw Nassar for treatment regularly from her early teens until the Olympics, when she was 18. Dantzscher said typically she saw Nassar alone, which is in violation of USA Gymnastics policy.

USA Gymnastics President Steve Penny and others have been named as a co-defendant in Dantzscher’s civil suit. The suit says the organization negligently suppressed, concealed or failed to disclose knowledge that Nassar had engaged in sexual conduct with team members. Nassar’s attorneys have denied any wrongdoing by the doctor.

USA Gymnastics said it is “appalled that anyone would exploit a child in this manner.” The organization fired Nassar two years ago after going to federal authorities following an investigation into possible abuse by Nassar, leading the FBI to conduct its own investigation of the doctor.

Nassar, who also treated gymnasts at Michigan State University, faces charges in two cases so far, although they’re not related to his work with athletes. Nassar was ordered to stand trial on charges of first-degree criminal sexual conduct after a woman described how he sexually abused her for years during her childhood.

The 25-year-old woman who testified Friday said her parents were friends with Nassar and that he repeatedly abused her from age 6 until age 12 during family visits to his home in Holt, near Lansing.

Nassar has pleaded not guilty.

In federal court, Nassar is charged with possessing thousands of images of child pornography and trying to destroy possible evidence.

Francesco Friedrich wins historic fourth straight bobsled world title

German bob team, Francesco Friedrich, right, and Thorsten Margis, celebrate their victory  after the men's  two-man bob race at the  Bobsleigh and Skeleton World Championships at Lake Koenigssee, Germany, Sunday Feb. 19. 2017. (Angelika Warmuth/dpa via AP)
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KOENIGSSEE, Germany (AP) — Germany’s Francesco Friedrich was again fastest in both runs to extend his lead and beat Justin Kripps of Canada for his fourth straight world championship in two-man bobsled on Sunday.

Friedrich, who held a 0.52-lead from Saturday’s opening heats, clocked 49.17 seconds and then 48.94 with his brakeman Thorsten Margis for a combined time of 3 minutes, 16.71 seconds after four runs — 1.20 ahead of Kripps and Jesse Lumsden.

The 26-year-old Friedrich says “We were simply unbeatable this week.”

Germany’s Johannes Lochner was 1.25 back in third with Joshua Bluhm, ahead of Oskars Kibermanis and Matiss Miknis of Latvia, Nick Poloniato and Neville Wright of Canada, and Oskars Melbardis and Janis Strenga of Latvia.

American pilot Steven Holcomb was seventh with Carlo Valdes, 1.68 back.

A skeleton and bobsled team competition was scheduled later Sunday.

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