Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir. AP Photo.

Worlds preview: Changing of the guard lingers for pairs figure skaters

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Is this the competition where the changing of the guard becomes reality on the world stage in pairs figure skating?

Reigning Olympic gold medalists Tatyana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov will sit out the World Championships, set to start Tuesday evening (EST) in Saitama, Japan, leaving the door open for the next generation of Olympic champions to take over the throne.

The leading contenders for said spot are Volosozhar and Trankov’s Russian compatriots Ksenia Stolbova and Fyodor Klimov, the surprise silver medalists from the Sochi Games last month.

More: Full Worlds schedule and streaming times | Entry list

It will be German veterans Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy who will look to stall that shift for a bit longer, however, the four-time world champions coming off a second consecutive Olympic bronze medal, this one highly disappointing.

Savchenko/Szolkowy were second after the short program in Sochi only to falter on two elements in their free skate, finishing behind the two Russian teams.

The U.S. will pin its hopes on its Olympic line-up, with two-time U.S. champions Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir leading the charge (ninth in Sochi) and fellow Olympians Felicia Zhang and Nathan Bartholomay (12th) also set to compete.

2012 U.S. champions Caydee Denney and John Coughlin pulled out of the event last week due to an ankle injury sustained by Denney, opening the spot for Zhang/Bartholomay.

“We’re just hoping to continue with our good streak of getting new personal bests,” Boston-based Castelli, 23, told NBCSports.com in a phone interview last week. “Not all the top teams from Sochi are going to be there, so we want to be even higher than top 10 – maybe top seven or six. Mostly we want to go out there and skate two clean programs.”

More: World Figure Skating Championships men’s preview

In addition to Volosozhar/Trankov, Sochi fourth-placers Pang Qing and Tong Jian will not compete in Saitama. The veteran Chinese pair won silver at the 2010 Vancouver Games and were world champions in 2006 and 2010.

Canada sends two teams with medal aspirations: Kirsten Moore-Towers and Dylan Moscovitch (fifth in Sochi) and Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford (seventh). A year ago, Duhamel/Radford won the bronze medal at the World Championships in front of a home crowd.

Castelli/Shnapir will look to continue to improve on their rare throw quadruple Salchow jump after Castelli nearly landed it cleanly twice in Sochi. They were the only team to attempt the element at the Olympics.

“The quad Salchow has its good days and its bad days,” Castelli explained. “I own that throw and I guarantee you when we get to competition – we did it at the Olympics – I’m going to take that confidence and use it.”

The two American teams – like the men’s singles skaters – will look to combine for a 13th-place finish to gain three spots for the U.S. at the World Championships next year, something the Americans haven’t achieved since Worlds in 2003.

“We’re just focusing on our task at hand and want to do a good job,” Castelli said. “If both teams do a great job, then we’ll get that third pairs team and that’s something we ultimately hope for.”

It’s a long shot for the U.S., which was a combined 21st in Sochi.

At 22 and 23 respectively, Stolbova/Klimov look to become the youngest world champions since compatriots Yelena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze won in 1998 at 20 and 21.

At a combined age of 64, Savchenko (30) and Szolkowy (34) would become the oldest world champions in pairs since 1968 when legendary Soviet husband-and-wife team Liudmila Belousova and Oleg Protopopov won at the ages of 32 and 35, respectively.

Tensions were high after Savchenko and Szolkowy’s free skate performance in Sochi, in which Szolkowy fell on a triple toe loop, his second such fall in an Olympic long program (he did so in 2010, as well). A disappointed Savchenko attended their medalist press conference with little to say and practiced with a different partner leading up to the Sochi gala.

China’s Peng Cheng and Zhang Hao will look to move up from an eighth-place finish in Sochi while Russians Vera Bazarova and Yuri Lariyonov want to better their overall sixth place. Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres of France hope to improve from 10th.

Castelli said without Volosozhar and Trankov in attendance the feeling in the field would be different, though no less important.

“I think it changes a little bit to not have the Olympic champions there,” she said. “I’ve never been to Worlds after the Olympics, so I’ve been asking people who have and they’ve told me it’s just as competitive as any other major event. I’m looking forward to that aspect. Even with the Olympics, we’ve been training for this since last June and this is the last stop along the way.”

Icenetwork.com will provide live coverage for subscribers. Pairs skate Tuesday for the short program (9 p.m. EST) and Wednesday for the  free skate (10:30 p.m.). NBC will air a World Championships recap show April 13 from 3-6 p.m. ET.

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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