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.

Ajee’ Wilson learned from sitting out World Championships

Ajee' Wilson
AP
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NEW YORK — Ajee’ Wilson, the world’s fastest female 800m runner in 2014, could only watch the 2015 World Championships 800m final.

“It was hard,” Wilson, 21, said Saturday. “I really wanted to be there.”

But she couldn’t, not after a stress reaction in her left tibia. It was announced that she withdrew from the Worlds team on Aug. 10, the same day U.S. men’s 800m champion Nick Symmonds was left off the team due to a contract dispute that gained many more headlines.

At Worlds, the final proved a surprise. Kenyan Eunice Sum, the favorite and top rival of Wilson based on times in 2014 and 2015 (before Wilson’s injury), took bronze. Maryna Arzamasava grabbed upset gold for Belarus.

“It gave me hope for this year because anything can happen,” Wilson said. “I’m just hopeful that this year will be my time.”

Wilson is off to a promising start. She won the 800m at the indoor Armory Track Invitational in Manhattan on Saturday by .03 over Laura Roesler.

Roesler, the 2014 NCAA champion from Oregon and runner-up to Wilson at the 2014 U.S. Championships, missed most of 2015 due to a partial right Achilles tear.

Wilson said she raced through her shin injury last June, from a victory at the Adidas Grand Prix in New York on June 13 through the U.S. Championships final June 28.

At Nationals, Wilson memorably lost her right Adidas shoe while jostling for the lead near the start of the final curve with 200 meters to go, saying she got clipped (race video here).

Wilson persevered and grabbed third place by .04 while running with one shoe on. The top three finishers earned berths on the World Championships team.

Wilson said that while she was injured before the U.S. Championships, she never considered not competing at the meet.

“I was still kind of in denial that it was a problem,” Wilson said, adding that while the final didn’t aggravate the injury, “after USAs, it kind of just got to a point where you had to shut it down so I would be ready for this year.”

Wilson took about three weeks off from training completely and was back to normal.

“It was just poor timing,” said Wilson, a New Jersey native who turned professional after high school and placed sixth at the 2013 World Championships before elevating to fastest woman in the world in 2014 and second-fastest in 2015 before she shut down.

This summer, Wilson is among several threats to break a 44-year drought of U.S. Olympic titles in track races longer than 400 meters.

She may be the best hope to do so, that is if she can prevail at the Olympic trials. Not only is Roesler back, but she’ll also have to contend with veterans Alysia Montaño and Brenda Martinez.

The latter duo finished directly in front of Wilson at the 2013 Worlds and the 2015 Nationals, but neither made the final at Worlds last year (Montaño fell in her first-round heat).

The Olympic trials final is July 4 in Eugene, Ore., with the top three in line to make the Olympic team. Wilson will hope to be there with a stronger left tibia and a more secure right shoe.

“Ever since I started running, it’s been really deep in the 800m,” she said. “It’s going to be a dogfight.”

MORE: Rio Olympics six months out: Burning Questions

Lindsey Vonn’s winning streak snapped

Lindsey Vonn
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For the first time in 13 World Cup speed races, Lindsey Vonn crossed the finish line and saw a number other than “1” next to her name.

“I wasn’t necessarily surprised when I saw [the scoreboard],” Vonn said. “I knew that I didn’t ski my best, and I knew that I didn’t risk everything.”

Vonn was beaten by Swiss Lara Gut and German Viktoria Rebensburg in a World Cup super-G in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, on Sunday.

Gut was .15 faster than Rebensburg and .23 better than Vonn, who still broke Renate Götschl‘s record with her 42nd World Cup super-G podium. Full results are here.

“It’s a good day at the office,” Vonn told media. “I’m older and wiser now and to get to the finish healthy and to be in third is still a pretty darn good day.”

Vonn had a clear error near the end of the course, losing balance and lifting her right ski off the snow, but she was already behind Gut in the two most recent split times. The mistake may have cost Vonn second place, though.

“Today was just not one of those days where I really felt like putting it all on the line,” Vonn said. “I’ve had a great season so far, and I want to keep it going.”

Gut earned the victory, one day after she was a disappointing 14th in a downhill won by Vonn.

“It’s not true that Lindsey is unbeatable,” Gut said, according to The Associated Press. “All of us just have to step on it.”

Vonn had won 11 of her previous 12 World Cup downhill or super-G starts, including five straight super-Gs. In the only non-victory in that stretch, she skied off course and recorded a DNF in a downhill.

On Sunday, Gut cut into Vonn’s standings lead for the World Cup overall title, the sport’s biggest prize this season with no Olympics or World Championships. Vonn now leads Gut by 87 points through 25 of a scheduled 41 races.

Vonn remains on 76 World Cup victories, 10 shy of retired Swede Ingemar Stenmark‘s record.

The World Cup resumes with a downhill in Crans-Montana, Switzerland, on Saturday.

MORE: American podiums in first race on 2018 Olympic course