Yuzuru Hanyu. Getty Images.

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

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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