Savchenko and Szolkowy. Getty Images.

Savchenko/Szolkowy capture fifth world championship pairs crown

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Sometimes in sport, momentum means nothing.

So was the case in the pairs portion of the World Figure Skating Championships in Saitama, Japan, over the last few days as two teams left the competition with very different feelings than they came in with.

It was elation for Germans Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, the pair having entered into Worlds after what was considered to be a markedly disappointing Olympic effort, in which they placed third.

But here the veterans were on their game in both programs, Thursday morning finishing off what they had started by capturing their fifth World Championship gold medal with a steely performance to “The Nutcracker” (a follow up to their eye-catching “Pink Panther” short), the same routine that they faltered on in Sochi.

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It was a feeling of disappointment for Russians Ksenia Stolbova and Fyodor Klimov, however. After placing second at the Olympic Games last month, the pair came into Worlds with the opportunity to take hold of the mantle held by compatriots (and Olympic gold medalists) Tatyana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov.

But it was not to be for the 22 and 23-year-old, Stolbova barely holding onto a landing in their opening triple flip throw and the pair looking shaky throughout their “Addams Family” free skate.

Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford, Canadians who had placed a disappointing seventh in Sochi, shook off their bad fortune for a second straight World Championship bronze.

It was the opposite for Americans Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir, the two-time U.S. champions having continuously gotten better through four programs (two team, two individual) at the Olympics only to come out flat in Saitama. Ninth in Sochi, the pair was 11th here and clearly disappointed with the result.

The other American pair, Felicia Zhang and Nathan Bartholomay, were 14th overall.

“This is a disappointment for us,” Shnapir said in a statement via U.S. Figure Skating. “This obviously was not representative of what we do at home. It is frustrating especially [after] how Nationals and the Olympics went. It’s a tough way to end the season.”

It is a bittersweet gold for Savchenko/Szolkowy, who at 30 and 34, respectively, may have missed their window to win an Olympic gold. Their five World Championship titles have bookended the 2010 and 2014 Games: 2008, 2009, 2011, 2012 and 2014. They won bronze in both Vancouver and Sochi.

“Being world champion feels really great,” Szolkowy told the crowd after their win, a first since 2012. “It was a pleasure for us to skate here in our last competition of the season.”

Castelli/Shnapir were again flat on the ice in their free skate, Castelli falling hard on the team’s attempt of the quadruple Salchow throw, an element that Castelli held on to in both programs at the Olympics.

Castelli/Shnapir were 13th a year ago at Worlds. No U.S. pair has finished inside the top five at the World Championships since Rena Inoue and John Baldwin were fourth in 2006.

Final results – Pairs
1. Aliona SAVCHENKO/Robin SZOLKOWY GER 224.88
2. Ksenia STOLBOVA/Fedor KLIMOV RUS 215.92
3. Meagan DUHAMEL/Eric RADFORD CAN 210.84
4. Kirsten MOORE-TOWERS/Dylan MOSCOVITCH CAN 205.55
5. Cheng PENG/Hao ZHANG CHN 194.83
6. Wenjing SUI/Cong HAN CHN 192.10
7. Vera BAZAROVA/Yuri LARIONOV RUS 189.44
8. Julia ANTIPOVA/Nodari MAISURADZE RUS
11. Marissa CASTELLI/Simon SHNAPIR USA 170.90
14. Felicia ZHANG/Nathan BARTHOLOMAY USA 151.78

Tony Azevedo retires after 5 Olympics in water polo

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 14:  Tony Azevedo of the USA in action during the USA vs Italy Waterpolo group match at Julio de Lamare Aquatics Centre on August 14, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by Adam Pretty/Getty Images)
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Tony Azevedo is ending one of the greatest water polo careers in U.S. history, retiring after a record five Olympics at age 35.

Azevedo, the first American to play in five Olympic water polo tournaments, said it was a tough decision but a necessary one to spend time with his family — wife Sara and two kids, according to the Long Beach (Calif.) Press-Telegram.

“The traveling and everything for them would be too much,” said Azevedo, who has a 3-year-old boy and a girl born after the Rio Olympics. “It’s time.”

Azevedo was a teenage prodigy dubbed the “Kobe Bryant of water polo.” A ball boy at the 1996 Olympics, Azevedo made a list of about 13 goals as a “slow, fat, chubby kid” who wanted to start on his high school team.

He reached all of those goals except for one — a gold medal. Azevedo made his Olympic debut out of high school in 2000 and then helped lead the U.S. to silver at Beijing 2008, his lone Olympic or world championships medal in 13 combined appearances. He led the U.S. in goals at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics.

“If anyone asks, am I going to miss the swimming? No. Am I going to miss the games? No. Are you going to miss the Olympics? No,” Azevedo said. “I’m going to miss those days of grinding with your teammates.”

Azevedo was one of the top U.S. stories of the Rio Olympics, since he was born in the Brazilian city and lived there for 23 days before moving to Southern California. Azevedo, whose father was a Brazilian national team member, played for a Sao Paulo club team for much of the past Olympic cycle.

The U.S. went 2-3 in Rio, failing to advance out of group play.

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MORE: PyeongChang 2018 daily schedule highlights

Five takeaways from World Alpine Skiing Championships

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Five thoughts after an unpredictable world alpine skiing championships, looking ahead to the Olympics … 

1. Expect Mikaela Shiffrin to be busier in PyeongChang

Shiffrin chose not to enter the super-G or super combined in the first week at worlds, in order to maximize her medal potential in the giant slalom and slalom in the final weekend. It paid off with silver and gold medals.

It seems unlikely that Shiffrin adopts the same, two-race slate in PyeongChang. The 2018 Olympic schedule has the giant slalom and slalom in the first week, followed by the speed events of super-G, downhill and super combined.

Consider also Shiffrin’s mindset going into St. Moritz.

“Right now, I’m going with [only giant slalom and slalom] because I just don’t think that I have quite enough experience in speed [events] to be able to count on winning a medal in those events yet,” she said. “But by the time we go to South Korea next year, maybe I could. I might be in a position where I can at least be in contention for medals in giant slalom, slalom, combined, super-G and maybe even downhill, only because nobody’s ever skied on that track before.”

The women get their first look at the 2018 Olympic venue with World Cup races in two weeks, a downhill and super-G. Shiffrin said before worlds that she planned to travel to South Korea for training but to leave before the races start. She wanted to prioritize the following week’s World Cup giant slalom and slalom in Squaw Valley, Calif.

What’s for sure is we can learn plenty about Shiffrin’s Olympic potential in speed events this weekend. She’s set to race at the World Cup stop in Crans-Montana, Switzerland, which is made up of two combineds and a super-G.

If Shiffrin enters all three events, it will bring her career World Cup start total in downhill, super-G and combined up to 10 races. Her best finish in her first seven starts was fourth in a super-G last month.

“I have a lot of goals there,” Shiffrin said of speed events after bagging her third straight slalom world title Saturday. “Hopefully, some day, I’d like to win in super-G and downhill, but I think it’ll take some time before I can do that consistently. It’s definitely a long road from here. I still feel like I just started.”

2. Lindsey Vonn must heal

Vonn made it clear at worlds that she wasn’t 100 percent recovered from breaking her right upper arm in a Nov. 10 training crash. Her right hand movement was so limited that she couldn’t put her hair in a ponytail, let alone comfortably grip a ski pole at 75 miles per hour.

After skiing out of the opening super-G, troubled by that hand, she duct-taped her glove to her ski pole, placed fifth in the super combined and third in the downhill. She said the bronze medal felt like gold given her latest injury comeback.

Vonn became the oldest woman to earn a world championships medal. In PyeongChang, she can become the oldest woman to earn an Olympic Alpine medal.

Vonn’s biggest hurdle is her own health. A smooth finish to the season, regardless of wins, and a normal offseason is key.

“I want to be in a position at the Olympics where I’m at my top form not just struggling to kind of make it back into the mix,” Vonn said, according to The Associated Press. “It’s a different ballgame when I’m prepared.”

3. U.S. lacks young stars

Worlds went about to form for the entire U.S. team. Shiffrin and Vonn were the only medalists. No man placed in the top 10 for the first time since 1997.

Injuries and, especially, aging are the concerns.

Four-time Olympic medalist Julia Mancuso, out since November 2015 hip surgery, was on the team but didn’t enter any events. The top U.S. men on the World Cup in recent seasons, Ted Ligety and Steven Nyman, went out with season-ending injuries in January. Bode Miller, who has trained but not raced this season, was in the NBC Sports commentary booth.

All of them are 32 years and older. Maybe some summon one last Olympic medal surge next year, but what about after that?

Shiffrin is the only American younger than age 28 who owns a World Cup victory. U.S. men earned Youth Olympic and junior worlds gold medals last year, but they look destined for 2022.

4. Marcel Hirscher approaches Austrian legends

Hirscher was the best skier in St. Moritz, despite reportedly spending days in bed before his first race. He earned two golds and missed a third by .01 in the super combined.

Only Tony Sailer owns more individual world titles among Austrian men. Hirscher is en route to his sixth straight World Cup overall title this season, which no man from any country has accomplished.

He’s at 43 World Cup wins, 11 shy of the Austrian men’s mark held by Hermann Maier. At 27 years old, Hirscher ought to eclipse it.

But Hirscher’s résumé has a gaping hole — no Olympic gold medal. He was upset in the Sochi Olympic slalom by countryman Mario Matt. And there’s no certainty Hirscher will be a favorite in PyeongChang.

For years, he was the world’s second-best giant slalom skier behind the now-injured Ligety, who could reclaim the throne next season, though that is a tall order.

In slalom, young Norwegian Henrik Kristoffersen has been neck and neck with Hirscher but had a poor worlds.

The super combined is the most unpredictable event, but even there Frenchman Alexis Pinturault has won six of the 11 World Cup races since 2013.

5. Surprises in St. Moritz

Most races provided surprise medalists.

In all five men’s events, either the gold or silver medalist had not won a World Cup race in at least two years (or, in three cases, never made a World Cup podium). Women’s medalists in downhill, super-G, giant slalom and the super combined had never won a World Cup race.

New names were going to emerge regardless, considering the list of recent stars not racing (retired Tina Maze, Ligety, Miller, Aksel Lund Svindal) and those who did compete but were slowed or forced out by injury (Vonn, Anna Veith, Gut).

More surprises could be in store in PyeongChang given, as Shiffrin said, it’s a new track for everybody.

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