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.

Rio Olympic, Paralympic medals to be unveiled June 16

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The medals for the Rio Olympic and Paralympic Games will be unveiled June 16, 50 days before the Olympic Opening Ceremony, Rio Games and International Paralympic Committee officials said Friday.

The Olympic and Paralympic medals are different designs.

It’s the closest to the Opening Ceremony that Olympic medals have been unveiled since 2000:

Sochi 2014 — Eight months ahead of time
London 2012 — One year ahead
Vancouver 2010 — Four months ahead
Beijing 2008 — 17 months ahead
Torino 2006 — Two months ahead
Athens 2004 — 13 months ahead
Salt Lake City 2002 — Four months ahead
Sydney 2000 — One month ahead

MORE: Pelé on Rio Olympics, lighting the cauldron

Bob Bowman talks new book, Olympic memories, Michael Phelps

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While at TODAY to discuss his new book, “The Golden Rules,” with Matt Lauer, U.S. Olympic men’s swimming head coach Bob Bowman sat down with OlympicTalk last week.

In “The Golden Rules,” Bowman details 10 steps to world-class excellence in life and work, illustrating them with lessons learned from coaching not only Michael Phelps, but also several more world-class swimmers and his own personal experiences.

Bowman answered questions about his book, Phelps’ training for the Olympic Trials and his memories from coaching the past two decades:

OlympicTalk: Why write and come out with a book now?

Bowman: Well, quite honestly, I think this is when it could get the most widespread coverage. The message can be the most effectively given, because it’s in our Olympic window. I’ve been working on it for four years, so it’s kind of been a long process. Right after London I started working on it. It just seemed like this year is perfect timing.

OlympicTalk: In May 2012, you said you would take a year off from coaching after the Olympics. Now that you’re back, and now coaching a college program, how much longer do you see yourself coaching?

Bowman: I think a long time now. One thing I learned on that break, I’m a terrible vacationer. I have to make myself sit at the beach. I’m probably going to work as long as I can work. It’s what I love to do. So, I’m healthy, don’t see why I won’t go for a long time.

EXCERPT: Bowman and Phelps’ first conversation about a comeback

OlympicTalk: Do you and Phelps have an idea of what you’d like to focus on in his final pre-Olympic Trials meet in Austin (June 3-5)?

Bowman: There are a couple of things that he needs to do. You know, he hasn’t really done too many 200m frees [in his comeback]. I think you’ll see him in a 200m free. And he has some goals that he has for the other events that he’d like to hit before trials, so that’s what we’re working on.

OlympicTalk: If Phelps wants to swim the 4x100m and 4x200m free relays in Rio, does he need to put up a fast time at trials?

Bowman: Well, I think he needs to put up a time, sometime, to let us know that he’s on that level. Intuitively, we know, but, yeah, he’s going to have to put up some times. It could be [in Austin].

OlympicTalk: As U.S. Olympic men’s head coach, what are your early thoughts on the relays?

Bowman: I think in the 4x200m [free], we’re looking pretty strong. I think we have some young guys that are very good. We’ve got Michael, Ryan [Lochte], the kind of mainstays. Conor [Dwyer] is on fire. He’s been training with us in altitude

The 4x100m is still a little bit of a question mark, but I feel better about it as we go along. I think we’ve got some young guys coming up who are going to step up. Nathan [Adrian] is obviously very solid. I think Michael put in a really solid 100m. So I feel better about it. I don’t know exactly how far we can go, but I think we’re a lot better than we were a year ago.

Editor’s Note: The U.S. had a disastrous 11th-place finish in preliminaries at the World Championships 4x100m free relay on Aug. 2, without Phelps, Lochte or Adrian.

OlympicTalk: Two years ago, we were all concerned about Allison Schmitt after she failed to make the World Championships team. She’s swimming well again. What happened in the last two years? 

Bowman: She’s really just gone through some very tough times, battling depression, and she’s kind of come out the other side. I think she’s really worked very hard on her mental aspects of swimming. The physical was never really a question. She’s trying to put all the pieces together. And now she’s really kind of become a much stronger person, and it’s really showing. Her training is as good as it’s ever been.

Editor’s Note: Bowman expects Schmitt to swim three events at the Olympic Trials — 100m, 200m and 400m freestyles. Schmitt took gold in the 200m and silver in the 400m at the 2012 Olympics.

MORE: Phelps’ concussion, more highlights from ‘The Golden Rules’

OlympicTalk: Other than those you’ve coached, who is the most impressive swimmer you’ve seen?

Bowman: I’d have to say [Katie] Ledecky. She has been so consistent at such a high level. Someone asked me about the most amazing swims I’ve ever seen are, and I’m going to have to say that one of them is certainly Katie’s 8:06 that she swam in Austin [an 800m freestyle world record on Jan. 17]. 4:03/4:03 [splits]. For a long time, 4:03 was a world record [in the 400m freestyle], and I thought it would never be touched. To do two of those? Absolutely amazing.

OlympicTalk: What about international swimmers?

Bowman: I’ve always been a big Ian Thorpe fan. He’s such an incredible swimmer at his peak. There have been so many. [Kosuke] Kitajima the breaststroker. There have been some really, really kind of dominant swimmers during their window in time. Which, as I see that now, I’m even more amazed that Michael’s been able to maintain that level for so long.

OlympicTalk: What’s your favorite of Phelps’ Olympic swims?

Bowman: That’s hard to say. His best in terms of just a pure performance was his 200m free in Beijing [then a world record; Phelps has said that’s his best swim at an Olympics]. A dominating performance. My personal favorite is the 4:03 [400m individual medley] from Beijing [still a world record]. But I also love his 400m IM from Athens, his first gold medal. So those are kind of my top three.

OlympicTalk: We’ve all heard the stories of Phelps in Sydney in 2000, forgetting his credential and leaving his suit strings untied. What do you remember about those Games?

Bowman: I remember that we were so happy to be there, and the thing I loved is he got faster. Every time he swam, he got faster. He did a best time every time he swam. But there was so much more left to do. I’ve just seen a video, NBC’s doing a little promo this week, they show him diving in in Sydney. He kicks his legs back. He doesn’t kick underwater. There are like a million things he could have done better. So that’s what I remember. He was just a kid having fun.

OlympicTalk: Did you make any rookie Olympic mistakes as a coach in Atlanta or Sydney?

Bowman: No, because the kid [I coached in Atlanta] was the same age as me [laughs]. I didn’t have to do anything. Eric Wunderlich, he trained himself [Wunderlich was 26 in Atlanta; Bowman was 32]. Actually, in Sydney, I don’t know if I made any mistakes, but I probably just didn’t know how the game was played. It was just inexperience in the schedule, reminding Michael to have his credential. Those kinds of things. I think that’s what I didn’t really think of.

VIDEO: Bowman discusses ‘The Golden Rules’ on TODAY