Worlds: Japan’s Machida tops Hanyu, men’s field after short program

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Japan is the figure skating gift that keeps on giving.

With a crowd of over 20,000 on hand, the World Figure Skating Championships opened Wednesday in Saitama, Japan, with another skater from this country mad about the sport launching himself to the top of the heap.

It wasn’t newly-crowned Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu, but instead Tatsuki Machida, the 24-year-old who was fifth in Sochi and making his debut at Worlds in front of an adoring home audience.

With a sold-out Saitama Super Arena crowd watching on, Machida delivered an Olympic-sized performance, nailing an opening quadruple toe-triple toe combination before hitting a triple Axel and triple Lutz during his skate to “East of Eden.”

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Hanyu, who won the country its first-ever gold medal in men’s figure skating last month, was in third after a fall on his opening quadruple jump (91.24). Hanyu’s training partner, Spain’s Javier Fernandez, was in second, scoring a 96.42. They share a coach in 1987 world champion Brian Orser.

The American men had a so-so night. Four-time U.S. champion Jeremy Abbott fell on his opening jump before executing a strong short program, scoring a 79.67 to finish in eighth. 2013 U.S. winner Max Aaron was one place behind with a 78.32, called for under-rotating his triple Axel, which he touched a hand down on.

“So close! So close!” Abbott said as he skated off the ice. “I put myself in a good place,” he added after receiving his score.

Abbott and Aaron will need to make a move up the rankings in the free skate should they want to earn the U.S. a coveted third spot for the World Championships next year: a combined 13th-place finish is needed. Aaron was third at the U.S. Championships this year, leaving him off the Sochi team.

“It was tough when I didn’t make the Olympic team,” Aaron said in a statement from U.S. Figure Skating. I took that to heart because that’s something that is a goal of mine. I wish I was there but it means a lot for me to get three spots this year and moving forward. To do that, we need to have two good skates from both me and Jeremy. I think we can do that.”

In pairs, four-time world champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy kept a changing of the guard at bay at least for another program. The Germans enlisted their Olympic “Pink Panther” short and performed it flawlessly, scoring a 79.02 to own the lead going into Wednesday night’s free skate.

Reigning Olympic champions Tatyana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov’s absence in Saitama left the door open for compatriots Ksenia Stolbova and Fyodor Klimov to carry the momentum of their surprise Olympic silver medal into Worlds.

But that didn’t happen in the short program, the younger Russian pair at times tentative and unsure in their “Surrender” routine (76.15), which seemed to drag at the end. Canadians Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford, seventh at the Olympics after being third at the World Championships a year ago, were second behind Savchenko/Szolkowy, scoring a 77.01.

It was a vastly disappointing night for the U.S. pairs, two-time national champions Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir registering a 60.60 to finish in 11th and Felicia Zhang and Nathan Bartholomay in 14th with a score of 57.59.

“We were hoping to ride the wave of energy from the Olympics here,” Shnapir said in a statement, noting the team’s ninth-place finish in Sochi. “It didn’t happen today. It wasn’t the short program we wanted, we made some big mistakes.”

Most notably, both Castelli and Shnapir doubled their planned side-by-side triple Salchows, resulting in a major loss of points. The U.S. had an outside shot of qualifying three teams for Worlds in 2015 this week, now Castelli/Shnapir must finish inside of the top 10 in order for the team to maintain its two spots.

“We wanted to skate our best and put out a good step forward for Team USA,” Castelli added in the USFSA press release. “We’re hoping to move up to that 10th spot so we will have two teams next year for worlds. That’s our goal right now.”

The skating will continue with the pairs free skate Wednesday night (10:30 p.m. ET), followed by the ladies’ short program Thursday morning (2:45 a.m. ET). View full short program results from men’s and pairs here.

Short program standings – MEN’S
1 Tatsuki MACHIDA JPN 98.21
2 Javier FERNANDEZ ESP 96.42
3 Yuzuru HANYU JPN 91.24
4 Tomas VERNER CZE 89.08
5 Han YAN CHN 86.70
6 Takahiko KOZUKA JPN 85.54
7 Maksim KOVTUN RUS 84.66
8 Jeremy ABBOTT USA 79.67
9 Max AARON USA 78.32

Short program standings – PAIRS
1 Aliona SAVCHENKO/Robin SZOLKOWY GER 79.02
2 Meagan DUHAMEL/Eric RADFORD CAN 77.01
3 Ksenia STOLBOVA/Fyodor KLIMOV RUS 76.15
4 Wenjing SUI/Cong HAN CHN 72.24
5 Cheng PENG/Hao ZHANG CHN 71.68
6 Kirsten MOORE-TOWERS/Dylan MOSCOVITCH CAN 69.31
7 Vera BAZAROVA/Yuri LARIYONOV RUS 67.41
8 Yulia ANTIPOVA/Nodari MAISURADZE RUS 66.78
11 Marissa CASTELLI/Simon SHNAPIR USA 60.60
14 Felicia ZHANG/Nathan BARTHOLOMAY USA 57.59

Lindsey Vonn gets bad luck, Mikaela Shiffrin misses gate in super-G

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Neither Lindsey Vonn nor Mikaela Shiffrin made the podium, but Swiss Lara Gut notched her first victory Sunday since a major knee injury.

Gut, the 2016 World Cup overall champion who tore an ACL in February, topped a World Cup super-G in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, by .14 over Italian Johanna Schnarf.

Austrian Nicole Schmidhofer was third. Full results are here.

Vonn dropped to sixth, .37 behind, dropped a couple of expletives in the finish corral and posted on social media afterward that she caught her strongest wind gust in more than 400 career starts.

“I’m not mad; I’m just a little bit frustrated,” Vonn said. “Sometimes this happens in ski racing where the races aren’t really fair. The wind comes. The light comes. The clouds come. But I tried my best. I’m happy with my skiing. Unfortunately, I just wasn’t very lucky today. Hopefully I can get some of this luck and take it with me to February [and the Olympics] and get some better conditions.”

Vonn placed second and first in downhills in Cortina on Friday and Saturday, confirming she’s a favorite to become the oldest female Olympic Alpine medalist next month.

Shiffrin was off her line early in Sunday’s run and eventually missed a gate, screaming out of frustration.

She is still cutting her teeth in the speed events of downhill and super-G and was third and seventh in the previous two races.

“The problem was with my [pre-race course] inspection, and I’m not exactly sure what we can do for me to be better prepared for super-Gs,” Shiffrin said, according to The Associated Press. “One of my biggest issues right now is still switching from the timing of downhill turns to super-G turns.”

Laurenne Ross became the sixth U.S. female Alpine skier to qualify for the Olympic team thanks to a previous top-10. Ross, the second-best U.S. speed racer behind Vonn last season, came back from blowing out her right knee in a March 27 crash.

The World Cup moves to Kronplatz, Italy, on Tuesday for a giant slalom, where Shiffrin will be favored (full Alpine season broadcast schedule here).

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2018 U.S. Men’s Olympic Team General Manager Jim Johannson dies at 53

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — Jim Johannson, the general manager of the U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team, has died on the eve of the Pyeongchang Games. He was 53.

Johannson passed away in his sleep Sunday morning, according to USA Hockey. Executive director Pat Kelleher said the organization is “beyond shocked and profoundly saddened” by the loss of the Rochester, Minnesota native.

“As accomplished as Jim was in hockey, he was the absolute best, most humble, kind and caring person you could ever hope to meet,” Kelleher said in a release. “His impact on our sport and more importantly the people and players in our sport have been immeasurable. Our condolences go out to his entire family, but especially to his loving wife Abby and their young daughter Ellie.”

Johannson’s role in selecting this year’s Olympic team was his most high-profile job in a career spent in hockey. He also played for the U.S. in the 1988 and 1992 Olympics.

The United States faces Slovenia in its Pyeongchang opener on Feb. 14.

“There are few like Jimmy,” said Ron DeGregorio, chairman of the board of USA Hockey. “Our sport was so lucky to have him. He was as good of a person you’ll meet and he played such a significant role in helping move our sport forward. Today is a tough day for everyone.”

Johannson began working for USA Hockey in 2000 after spending five years as the general manager of the Twin Cities Vulcans in the United States Hockey League. He was promoted to assistant executive director of hockey operations in 2007, overseeing the organization’s efforts in fielding teams for international competition.

He played college hockey at Wisconsin and helped the Badgers win the NCAA championship as a freshman. He was selected by Hartford in the seventh round of the 1982 draft, but never played in the NHL.

“When we heard of JJ’s passing, we are reminded of what an enjoyable person he was to be around, and also what he meant to USA Hockey and hockey worldwide,” Buffalo Sabres owners Terry and Kim Pegula, who have a strong connection to USA Hockey, said in a release.

“We should all strive to do our jobs and treat people as JJ did. Jim Johannson, you have moved on, but you will not be forgotten. We will miss you.”

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