Worlds preview: U.S. ladies aim to break eight-year slump

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With two Olympic medal winners out of the World Figure Skating Championships and three top-10 finishers for the U.S. heading there this week, a long-standing streak could be broken in Saitama, Japan.

No American woman has landed on the podium at Worlds since Kimmie Meissner and Sasha Cohen won gold and bronze, respectively, in 2006, a dry spell that could end if things go the way of the red, white and blue beginning Thursday.

Gracie Gold, the reigning national champion, presents the country’s best shot of ending that streak, the 18-year-old having finished fourth at the Olympic Games last month. Ashley Wagner (seventh in Sochi) and Polina Edmunds (ninth) have outside shots at medals, as well.

More: Full Worlds schedule and streaming times | Entry list

“I want to skate two great, clean programs – that’s always my goal,” the 15-year-old Edmunds told NBCSports.com in a phone interview last week. “Above that, I want to be in a good placement. At the Olympics I was top 10 and I hope to place higher at Worlds.”

A higher placement is highly likely for Edmunds as both the reigning Olympic champion Adelina Sotnikova and silver medalist Yuna Kim will not make the trip to Worlds. Sotnikova is said to be resting and preparing for the 2014-15 season at home. Kim, meanwhile, announced her retirement at the conclusion of the Sochi Games.

The ladies event is nonetheless packed with intrigue as host Japan will hope to send Mao Asada, the 2010 Olympic silver medalist, into retirement with another world title, the 23-year-old having won this event in 2008 and 2010.

Asada crashed out of medal contention last month in Sochi with a devastating short program that left her in 16th place. She rebounded in the free skate, performing flawlessly and finishing sixth overall.

Like Asada, Olympic bronze medalist and fellow former world champ (2012) Carolina Kostner will look for a golden swan song in Saitama, the Italian having had a career-crowning performance in Sochi.

More: World Figure Skating Championships men’s preview | Pairs preview

The American Gold has been steadily improving on the ice since joining forces with legendary coach Frank Carroll in October. The Los Angeles-based Chicago native’s fourth-place finish in Sochi landed her just off the medal stand a year after making her senior debut at the U.S. Championships in 2013.

It was last year at Worlds that Wagner and Gold finished fifth and sixth respectively, helping the U.S. earn a third spot for the Sochi Games. The U.S. women should secure the same third place at Worlds again this year with the burgeoning star in Edmunds, the surprise silver medalist at Nationals in January.

“I’m excited, but this is just another competition for me. I’m really comfortable headed into Worlds,” said Edmunds, adding that her eyes are fixed on the 2018 Pyeongchang Games. “I think that every competition I go to throughout the next four years is a step leading up to the next Olympics and it’s my goal to get there again. I know that anything can happen but I just want to keep moving forward with my skating.”

Gold and Wagner, 22, have expressed that they’ll both make an effort to qualify for the Pyeongchang Olympics, as well. Neither were available for interviews with NBCSports.com.

With Sotnikova out of the picture, 15-year-old Yulia Lipnitskaya will look to take her place atop the world’s medal stand after faltering in the ladies’ individual event in Sochi. Lipnitskaya was the toast of Russia after skating impeccably in the team event (helping Russia win gold) only to fall in both her short and long programs and finish fifth overall, far behind Sotnikova.

The flexible teen is joined by countrywoman Anna Pogorilaya, a talented if not hot-and-cold skater at the age of 15.

Other names to watch include home favorites Akiko Suzuki (eight in Sochi) and Kanako Murakami (12th) as well as France’s Mae Berenice Meite (10th) and Valentina Marchei of Italy (11th).

Controversy continues to swirl around the sport as the Korean Skating Union and the Korean Olympic Committee announced last week that they would file an official complaint over Kim’s silver medal at the Olympics last month.

Asada, Kostner, Gold, Lipnitskaya, Wagner and Pogorilaya are all legitimate shots to medal. Asada and Kostner are both looking for their fifth World Championship podium appearance.

But for Edmunds, the Sochi experience has the teenager buzzing for more success.

“I have a lot of great memories from Sochi,” she said. “I know that throughout the years I’m going to have more and more great memories from big events. It’s really exciting to move forward with that under my belt. It was amazing – I’m never going to forget that.”

Icenetwork.com will provide live coverage for subscribers. Ladies skate Thursday for the short program (2:45 a.m. ET) and Saturday for the free skate (4:15 a.m. ET). NBC will air a World Championships recap show April 13 from 3-6 p.m. ET.

Katie Ledecky easily wins 400m free to open swimming worlds

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Katie Ledecky took her first step toward a possible record-tying six gold medals at one world championships, easily winning the 400m freestyle in Budapest on Sunday.

Ledecky clocked 3:58.34, the second-fastest time ever, to win by 3.2 seconds over countrywoman Leah Smith. China’s Li Bingjie earned the bronze. Ledecky holds the nine fastest times ever.

Ledecky, the quadruple Rio Olympic champion, won her third straight world title in the 400m free and 10th world title overall. She later swims the 4x100m free relay on Sunday, then four more events later this week.

Missy Franklin holds the female record of six golds from one worlds in 2013. Michael Phelps won seven golds at the 2007 Worlds.

In other races Sunday, China’s Sun Yang won his third straight world 400m freestyle title, whooping Australian rival and Rio gold medalist Mack Horton by 2.47 seconds.

Sun, 25, bagged his eighth individual world title, trailing only Ryan Lochte (10) and Michael Phelps (15) on the all-time list.

In semifinals, Olympic champion and world-record holder Sarah Sjostrom was the top qualifier into Monday’s 100m butterfly final. While Sjostrom is the heavy favorite, U.S. Olympian Kelsi Worrell qualified third into the final as she seeks a first individual major international meet medal.

Kevin Cordes broke his month-old American record in the 100m breaststroke semifinals with a 58.64. Olympic champion Adam Peaty was the fastest qualifier into Monday’s final in 57.75, followed by Cordes and Olympic bronze medalist Cody Miller (59.08).

Caeleb Dressel broke the American record in the 50m butterfly semifinals, a non-Olympic event. Dressel took .15 off the old record by clocking 22.76 as the fastest qualifier into Monday’s final.

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Sun Yang wins third straight world 400m freestyle title

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Sun Yang cruised to win his third straight 400m freestyle world title in Budapest, clocking 3:41.38, pumping his fist and splashing water in his typical fashion.

The Chinese Sun, 25, beat Rio gold medalist Mack Horton by a whopping 2.47 seconds with the fastest time in the world since 2012.

Horton, who edged Sun by .13 at the Olympics, had choice words for Sun both last year and last week, having called the Chinese superstar a “drug cheat” for serving a three-month doping ban in 2014.

Italian Gabriele Detti took bronze, just as he did in Rio. The top American was Zane Grothe in seventh, the lowest result by the top American in this event since 1998.

Sun earned his eighth overall individual world title, moving ahead of Grant Hackett and Aaron Peirsol as solo third all time among men behind Michael Phelps (15) and Ryan Lochte (10).

Sun can build on that total in the 200m, 800m and 1500m frees later in the meet. He has won all of those events at past Olympics or worlds.

Men’s 400m Freestyle Results
Gold: Sun Yang (CHN) — 3:41.38
Silver: Mack Horton (AUS) — 3:43.85
Bronze: Gabriele Detti (ITA) — 3:43.93
4. Park Tae-Hwan (KOR) — 3:44.38
5. Felix Auboeck (AUT) — 3:45.21
6. James Guy (GBR) — 3:45.58
7. Zane Grothe (USA) — 3:45.86
8. David McKeon (AUS) — 3:46.27

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