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Carolina Kostner closing in on elusive Olympic medal

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SOCHI, Russia – Four years ago, Carolina Kostner left the Vancouver ice after her free skate with her head clutched between her arms, barely able to stand after delivering what she herself might tell you was the worst performance of her life.

Thursday night in Sochi she could win an Olympic medal.

At 27, the Italian delivered a stirring performance Wednesday in the short program of the ladies’ singles event, skating to “Ave Maria” and equaling the music with her beauty across the ice.

“After Vancouver I thought that was it,” said Kostner, who sits in third place, less than a point from first. “I thought I would stop skating. I thought that was my end.”

One of the oldest skaters still competing on the international level, Kostner performed with the kind of steadied grace that only a veteran can possess. Long known as a soft and emotive skater, Kostner was her vintage self and poised in delivery.”

“I wanted to skate because I love it,” she said of why she decided to continue after Vancouver. “The hard times make you understand what you really want and I’m really glad that I continued and honored to have experienced everything that I have in the past years.”

After placing ninth at the Torino Games, Kostner plummeted to 16th in Vancouver, but chose to skate on, winning the World Championships in 2012 and tacking on two more European and National Championship titles.

She skated after Yulia Lipnitskaya Wednesday night at the Sochi Games in an arena that was meant to be bursting with applause for the 15-year-old. Yet, after a surprising fall from the Russian, Carolina began to crickets, moving with building heart.

Skating in a sparkling, layered white and silver dress, Kostner came through in the exact opposite way that she fell apart in Vancouver, moving the audience with her fluid performance.

“Stunning,” said two-time Olympian Johnny Weir, a commentator for NBC Sports.

“So long we have been thinking of Carolina as the artist,” added 1998 Olympic champion Tara Lipinski, also a NBC Sports commentator, “but her technique; she took everything down a grade and then built it back up these last four years. That was the whole package. ”

It’s a far cry from where she was days after Vancouver.

“I just believed that that was my limit,” Kostner remembered. “But something just told me that it’s not about the result, it’s about the personal experience, that is what is most important.”

Kostner didn’t have a convincing season. After failing to advance to the Grand Prix Final, she skipped the Italian Nationals and set about re-tooling both her programs, changing them with the Olympics in mind.

“When I was in my beginning position, I was scared out of my mind,” Kostner said, smiling. “I don’t know, it just came together. Skating isn’t about the medals or the results. I love what I do. It’s much more fun to win, but you cannot every time.”

If anything, Kostner only hopes for a performance better than what she put out in Vancouver four years ago. What’s the best way she can approach her Sochi free skate?

“To not think about it,” she 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