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.

More: Asada sets world record in ladies’ short program | Savchenko/Szolkowy win pairs

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

Kelly Slater, Bethany Hamilton on new movies, Olympic surfing hopes

Kelly Slater, Bethany Hamilton
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NEW YORK — On consecutive days, the most well-known surfers in the U.S. appeared at the Tribeca Film Festival to promote documentaries of a sport that makes its Olympic debut at Tokyo 2020.

Whether either Kelly Slater or Bethany Hamilton plans to compete at the Games is in question.

“I’m 50-50,” the 46-year-old Slater said Saturday at the premiere of “Momentum Generation,” a film about a band of teen surfers whose bonds brought the sport to new heights in the 1990s. “If I make the team, I’ll compete.”

That’s the hard part. The Olympic qualifying procedures, published last month, limit the U.S. to no more than three surfers per gender in the Olympic fields of 20 men and 20 women.

The top two Americans per gender from the 2019 World Surf League standings would be guaranteed spots. If the world’s dominant surf nations take up the top 34 spots in either 2019 standings, the third-ranked U.S. surfer could get in if the U.S. wins the 2020 World Surfing Games.

Slater was hopeful for more athletes from the world’s top surfing nations. Australia, Brazil, and the U.S. dominate the World Surf League standings.

“They’re going to have to change that a little bit, I think,” Slater said of the quota maximum (It’s too late to change this for 2020, and surfing is not guaranteed in the Olympics for 2024 and beyond.). “It’s hard to look past Brazil, Australia and America for talent in surfing.”

Slater, an 11-time world champion, dropped to the third-ranked American in 2016 and missed four of 11 events last season after breaking his foot. His best finish in the other seven events was a fifth. He hopes to return to competition in July, about a year since suffering the injury that required two surgeries.

The U.S. boasts the two-time reigning world champion — 25-year-old John John Florence of Hawaii — but no other men from last season’s top six or this season’s (early) top seven.

Slater said he hopes that Olympic surfing organizers would adopt his company’s wave-pool technology for the Games rather than holding it on the Pacific Coast. It was previously announced by the International Olympic Committee and Tokyo 2020 that the Olympic competition will be held at Tsurigasaki Beach rather than a wave pool.

“It’s almost a test sport for the first year when you get into the Olympics,” Slater said. “I think it will obviously broaden the audience that watches us. There’s a lot of potential things that can happen with that.”

Slater was one of several surfing icons featured in “Momentum Generation,” along with Rob MachadoShane Dorian and others.

“[It’s about] the convergence of all our friendships coming together,” said Slater, before he watched the film for the first time at the premiere. “Everyone’s got these kinds of stories in their lives that are interesting. Somebody found ours interesting enough to cover it, dig in and spend a lot of time on it.”

The night before, Hamilton walked the red carpet for her biopic, “Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable.” The Hawaiian’s left arm was bitten off in a 2003 shark attack when she was a promising 13-year-old surfer. She came back and continued winning contests.

“We started making a smaller, action sports compilation of my surfing,” five years ago, Hamilton said. “It grew into a more story/documentary.”

Hamilton, now 28 and a mother of two, last competed in the top-level World Surf League last May before she became pregnant with her second child, son Wesley, who was born six weeks ago.

She, too, was undecided about ramping up her schedule next year for an Olympic bid.

“I don’t know if I could qualify, but I’m not really competing enough to be the top-two pick of the USA team,” she said, adding that the type of wave at the Olympics plays a role in her interest.

Hamilton, between those two pregnancies, competed four times total on tour in the last four seasons with a best finish of third. Last season, four U.S. women were in the top eight of the World Surf League standings. Hamilton was tied for 20th with one start in 11 events.

Hamilton said she hopes to compete at least twice later this year, including at a Slater wave-pool event.

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MORE: World’s top surfer: World title bigger than Olympics

NBC Sports to be home of U.S. Figure Skating, ISU events through 2026

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NBC Sports will air 80-plus hours of figure skating events yearly through 2026 in an agreement with U.S. Figure Skating announced Monday.

More here from NBC Sports PR.

NBC Sports has exclusive media rights to premier domestic and international figure skating events for the next eight years, including the U.S. Championships, world championships and the Grand Prix series.

The breakdown: At least 30 hours on NBC per year and at least 50 hours on NBCSN per year. Additional programming will air on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA.

The U.S. Championships’ weekend free skates and free dance will continue to air live on NBC, including three hours in primetime.

As part of the agreement, NBCSN will also air four hours of world championships in short track and long-track speed skating.

MORE: U.S. champion, Skate America winner retires

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