Hanyu roars in comeback for world title, U.S. men earn third spot

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In the end, Yuzuru Hanyu stood alone once again – literally.

The reigning Olympic champion came into Friday’s free skate at the World Figure Skating Championships down seven points of compatriot Tatsuki Machida, the short program leader who turned in a solid free skate just minutes earlier.

But the 19 year old, Japan’s first-ever Olympic men’s champion, was undeterred. He took to the ice in Saitama and delivered a clean and thorough “Romeo and Juliet” free skate, launching himself to the top of the podium once again, his second major international crown in a matter of weeks.

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Hanyu, who is coached by former world champion Brian Orser, stood alone to celebrate as his score was announced, jumping up and pumping his fists over his head. Orser was already tending to his other world class pupil, Javier Fernandez, who skated next.

Fernandez ended up third, making up for his botched finish in Sochi last month, where he fell to fourth place because he miscalculated his points during the free skate.

Yet there was no miscalculation for the U.S. men in Saitama, who earned a third spot for the World Championships for the first time since 2011.

They did so thanks to an inspired skate from Jeremy Abbott, the four-time national champion with a history of international hiccups. The Colorado native skated with gusto in his long program and moved from eighth to fifth overall. 2013 U.S. champ Max Aaron placed eighth.

The U.S. needed the final skater of the competition, Takahiko Kozuka, to fall below Abbott. He did just that, putting his hand down on several jumps and moving tentatively on the ice.

Skating in what he’s said will be his last-ever competition, Abbott summoned the same free skate spirit he found in Sochi, connecting with the “Symphony Number 3” music as it seemed to sway him over the ice. Technically, Abbott lost little points from jump to jump, but overall the feeling of the program was one of triumph, Abbott’s final spin was not quite done when the capacity crowd rose to its feet to congratulate him.

“I have so many emotions going through my head. I’m happy with how I skated and that was exactly what I wanted to do here,” said Abbott in a U.S. Figure Skating statement. “That’s what I’ve been training for. That’s the best I’ve ever skated that program in competition. I’m so proud and honored to do it in Japan. I had such a warm welcome.”

More: Full men’s scores and standings

Aaron’s long program, meanwhile, was reflective of his entire season: he skated fast but messy, attacking his jumps aggressively but seemingly unable to find his skates underneath him. Just two of his eight jumps were marked as cleanly executed.

“I’m frustrated. I came out here and gave it my best,” Aaron said in the same statement. “I trained hard for this but obviously it didn’t go the way I trained it. It’s reality. I have to go back and see what I can do for next season.”

The U.S. men needed a combined finish of 13th to gain a third spot at Worlds next year. They got just that, with Abbott fifth and Aaron eighth. This is the first time the U.S. men will have three spots at a World Championships since 2011.

Hanyu wasn’t completely alone in the Kiss and Cry: He brought along a stuffed Winnie the Pooh bear, which has famously followed him around the world, garnering its own Twitter handle. He mocked shaking hands with the bear before his scores came in, a world champion already confident in what he had accomplished, yet still a playful teen at heart.

Overall, the men delivered a much more engaging, dramatic and technically sound free skate than in Sochi, where falls dominated the final two groups. Many argue that a day between the short and long programs allow for better rest and recovery and thus better skating. Saitama may have proved that.

Ice dancing
A surprising turn of events ended the short dance program of the ice dancing competition, which is without the two teams that have dominated the discipline over the last five years.

Italians Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte were the ones to step up Friday and take advantage of that, skating a near-flawless routine to score a 69.70 and sit a half point ahead of Canadians Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje.

It’s Weaver and Poje’s compatriots Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir who are skipping the World Championships, as are reigning Olympic gold medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White of the U.S. The two teams own the gold and silver medals from the last two Olympic Games.

America was well represented in the short dance, however, where both Madison Chock and Evan Bates as well as Maia and Alex Shibutani put out strong performances, finishing fourth and sixth, respectively.

“We had the most fun today that we have all season performing [our short dance],” Bates said via U.S. Figure Skating. “Our goal was to pay tribute to the program and skate it well. It’s been a great program for us.”

Chock/Bates were eighth in Sochi, the Shibutanis ninth.

Chock/Bates sit just half a point off the podium behind veterans Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat, who have medaled just once at Worlds (bronze in 2012) and were fourth at the Olympics last month.

Sochi bronze medalists Yelena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov of Russia looked poised to continue their strong run before Katsalapov stepped out of a sequence of twizzles, costing the team valuable points and putting them in fifth heading into the free dance.

Men’s overall standings
1. Yuzuru HANYU JPN 282.59
2. Tatsuki MACHIDA JPN 282.26
3. Javier FERNANDEZ ESP 275.93
4. Maksim KOVTUN RUS 247.37
5. Jeremy ABBOTT USA 246.35
6. Takahiko KOZUKA JPN 238.02
7. Han YAN CHN 231.91
8. Max AARON USA 225.66

Ice dance standings – Short dance
1. Anna CAPPELLINI/Luca LANOTTE ITA 69.70
2. Kaitlyn WEAVER/Andrew POJE CAN 69.20
3. Nathalie PECHALAT/Fabian BOURZAT FRA 68.20
4. Madison CHOCK/Evan BATES USA 67.71
5. Yelena ILINYKH/Nikita KATSALAPOV RUS 65.67
6. Maia SHIBUTANI/Alex SHIBUTANI USA 63.55
7. Nelli ZHIGANSHINA/Alexander GAZSI GER 62.27
8. Victoria SINITSINA/Ruslan ZHIGANSHIN RUS 62.11
18. Alexandra ALDRIDGE/Daniel EATON USA 53.34

Kerri Walsh Jennings’ next partner is a familiar one

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Kerri Walsh Jennings is slated to play with with 2008 Olympian Nicole Branagh this summer, after she and Olympic bronze medal teammate April Ross split last month.

Walsh Jennings, a three-time Olympic champion with Misty May-Treanor before that bronze in Rio, and Branagh, who made the Beijing Games quarterfinals with Elaine Youngs, are entered in an FIVB World Tour event in Croatia the last week of June.

Walsh Jennings and Branagh are both 38 years old and briefly paired in 2010 when May-Treanor was uncertain about making a run for the London Olympics. When May-Treanor told Walsh Jennings she was all-in for London, Walsh Jennings split from Branagh.

Walsh Jennings and Branagh are hoping to play together through the World Tour Finals in late August, according to Volleyball Magazine.

That includes the world championships in Vienna, Austria, in late July and early August.

It’s not known if they will have the combined ranking points to earn an outright worlds spot. They could also receive a wild card for worlds. Entries will be announced next month.

Walsh Jennings, a mother of three, has said she hopes to play in the 2020 Olympics at age 41, when she will be older than any previous Olympic beach or indoor volleyball player, according to Olympic historians.

Branagh returned to competition this year after a one-year break to have her second child. She has played few international events since 2012 and last won internationally in 2010 (with Walsh Jennings).

Ross, an Olympic silver and bronze medalist and 2009 World champion, is now partnered with Lauren Fendrick, who played with Brooke Sweat in Rio. Ross, 34, said she will figure out her long-term partner plans for Tokyo 2020 after this season.

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Catching up with Ross Powers

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Ross Powers, now 38 years old and 15 years removed from his Olympic snowboarding title, is still out with halfpipe riders on the snow five days per week.

The difference now is that Powers is coaching. He runs the snowboarding program at Stratton Mountain School in Vermont, where he graduated from in 1997.

Powers spoke with OlympicTalk before last season, reflecting on 20 years of snowboarding in the Olympics, Shaun White and how he likes coaching.

OlympicTalk: The PyeongChang Winter Games will mark 20 years since snowboarding’s debut in Nagano. What was it like competing in the first Olympic halfpipe?

Powers (who won bronze in Nagano at age 19): It seemed kind of like a regular World Cup. We were up in the mountains. At the time, it was a really good halfpipe, but we ended up competing in some bad weather, some rain. I didn’t realize until I left Japan and got home how big the Olympics were. But looking back, it was a special time. And I really learned from the ’98 Olympics, like if I get this chance again, I’m going to go there, I’m going to do it all. I’m going to go to Opening Ceremonies, Closing Ceremonies, watch as many events as I can and just make the most out of the Games.

OlympicTalk: The Nagano halfpipe was about half the size of today’s superpipes (394 feet long with 11 1/2-foot walls vs. 590 feet with 22-foot walls in Sochi). Could today’s snowboarders compete with you guys back in 1998?

Powers: It was so different. At the time, I want to say it was the biggest pipe we rode, but compared to today’s standards, it’s small. The weather was tricky. I think a lot of those guys [today] could ride it, but it’s so much different than today’s halfpipe for sure.

OlympicTalk: In 2002, when you led a U.S. men’s halfpipe medal sweep, the rider who just missed the Olympic team was a 15-year-old Shaun White. What do you remember about him?

Powers: You kind of knew he was going to be the next guy. Where he took our sport and certain tricks. One thing that really impressed me about him is he’ll train really hard for an event, show up, even if the conditions are bad, he’s planned this trick he wants to do, and he’ll try it no matter what. Most of the time he’ll give it a go and land it. That actually hurt him in Russia [White attempted but couldn’t perfect the YOLO Flip 1440 in Sochi] because he probably could have stepped down a notch, gotten a medal and maybe even won the event.

OlympicTalk: Did Shaun ever beat you before you retired?

Powers: I had my run from 1998, ’99, ’00, ’01, all those times that I was doing really well. I tried to make the 2006 Olympics in Italy. I was the alternate, so I just missed that. He was definitely beating me up through those times.

OlympicTalk: Did you travel to the Torino Olympics as an alternate?

Powers: I did, yeah. I traveled over there and actually watched my buddy [Seth] Wescott win the gold in boarder cross. That night, he was like, you should try boarder cross. That kind of got me into doing that my next few years after that.

[Editor’s Note: Powers almost made the 2010 Olympic team in snowboard cross, even finishing third in a December 2009 World Cup.]

OlympicTalk: Which is tougher, coaching or competing?

Powers: I would say it is tougher coaching than competing. You just have so many responsibilities and so much work. The nice thing about coaching, though, compared to competing, is you can kind of push yourself and have fun [riding] on certain days but then also sit back and really work with the athletes on all other days. So when you’re feeling it, you can push yourself. So it’s not like an athlete, where you have to push yourself.

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