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

U.S. table tennis players, 13 and 14 years old, have shot at Rio Olympics

Crystal Wang
JOOLA USA
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Every U.S. Olympian since 1996 has been age 15 or older. That may change this year.

Crystal Wang, a 13-year-old table tennis player, will be one of four U.S. women seeking one possible Olympic berth in a North American Olympic qualifier in Markham, Ontario, from April 8-10.

Wang, who was born Feb. 23, 2002, was the fourth and final U.S. woman to advance to the North American qualifier at the Olympic table tennis trials last week.

She joins 2015 U.S. champion Jiaqi Zheng and fellow Olympic trials winners Chen Wang (a 42-year-old 2008 Olympic quarterfinalist) and Lily Zhang (2012 Olympian) on the North American qualifier team.

A nation may qualify no more than two individual table tennis players per gender for an Olympics. Jennifer Wu took one of those U.S. spots by winning the 2015 Pan American Games.

If Wang is the top U.S. finisher in Markham in April (and first or second overall), she will become the youngest U.S. Olympian since 1976, according to sports-reference.com.

It will be challenging for Wang to beat her countrywomen, let alone the host Canadians, the only other nation competing.

Wang lost in the quarterfinals on the first two days of the U.S. Olympic trials last week before prevailing on the last day against a field that didn’t include any of the other three women who had already clinched spots in the North American qualifier.

The other three Americans are ranked between Nos. 89 and 146 by the International Table Tennis Federation. Wang is ranked No. 189. Canada has a player ranked No. 113.

If Wang doesn’t make it, then Sharon Alguetti, who turns 15 on May 14, could become the youngest U.S. Olympian since Michael Phelps in 2000.

He will be one of four U.S. men seeking a possible two individual Olympic berths in the North American Olympic qualifier from April 8-10.

Alguetti’s Olympic chances may be greater than Wang’s since there is one more men’s berth at stake (the 2015 Pan Am Games champion was a Brazilian), and he was the third of four U.S. men to qualify for the North American event.

Alguetti joins 2015 U.S. champion Yijun Feng and Olympic trials winners Timothy Wang (2012 Olympian) and Kanak Jha.

Alguetti lost to Wang at the Olympic trials before beating Jha.

No American men are ranked in the world top 300. Jha is No. 302. Alguetti is No. 549. Canada’s best player is ranked No. 63.

The U.S. Olympic table tennis team will increase in size in May if it is the top-ranked North American team in men’s or women’s International Table Tennis Federation rankings. If so, it will send three players to Rio in the respective gender(s), adding its top finishers from the April tournament.

MORE: U.S.’ greatest Olympic table tennis player unretires

U.S. Olympic marathon trials men’s preview, contenders

Galen Rupp
AP
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The U.S. Olympic men’s marathon trials picture shook in the last month with the retirement of fastest-ever American marathoner Ryan Hall, the withdrawal of four-time Olympian Abdi Abdirahman and the addition of Olympic 10,000m silver medalist Galen Rupp.

What’s left is one man from the three-man 2012 U.S. Olympic marathon team — Meb Keflezighi — who turns 41 on May 5 and looks to become the oldest U.S. Olympic runner of all time (an Olympic medalist in the women’s race is attempting the same feat).

Keflezighi, the defending trials champion, appears the safest pick to finish in the top three to make the Rio Olympic team, but several others, such as Rupp, could surprise in Los Angeles on Saturday (1-4 p.m. ET, NBC and NBC Sports Live Extra).

The top contenders:

Meb Keflezighi
Age: 40
PR: 2:08:37 (Boston 2014)
2014 Boston Marathon champion
2012 Olympics — fourth place
2009 New York City Marathon champion
2004 Olympics — silver medal
2000 Olympics — 12th place (10,000m)

In 2012, Keflezighi became the oldest U.S. Olympic marathon trials winner. This year, he can become the oldest U.S. Olympic runner of all time.

Keflezighi’s only 26.2-mile hiccup in the last four years came in 2013, when he placed 23rd at the New York City Marathon (fifth among Americans). But Keflezighi silenced the doubters five months later in Boston, becoming the first American man to win the world’s oldest annual 26.2-mile race since 1983.

He followed that up with a fourth at the 2014 NYC Marathon (top American), eighth at the 2015 Boston Marathon (No. 2 American) and seventh at the 2015 NYC Marathon (top American).

Dathan Ritzenhein
Age: 33
PR: 2:07:47 (Chicago 2012)
2012 Olympics — 13th place (10,000m)
2008 Olympics — ninth place
2004 Olympics — DNF (10,000m)

Ritzenhein has the fastest personal best in the field and ranked No. 2 among all Americans for 2015 (2:11:20 in Boston). For all his talent, Ritzenhein endured health problems throughout his career. In November, hip bursitis reportedly slowed him for about one month.

He last raced Oct. 4 and last raced a marathon April 20 (his last marathon before that was Oct. 13, 2013).

At the 2012 trials, Ritzenhein was in the lead pack of four from miles two through 19 until he fell off the pace and watched Keflezighi, Hall and Abdirahman pull away to secure Olympic berths. Ritzenhein nearly caught Abdirahman at the end, making up 17 seconds in the last 1.2 miles but coming up eight seconds short in Houston.

“Maybe I’m not made for the marathon,” Ritzenhein said that day, hanging his head while answering reporters’ questions.

Ritzenhein later made the 2012 Olympic team in the 10,000m and, two months after the London Games, ran that 2:07:47 in Chicago to become the third-fastest U.S. marathoner of all time. That’s 50 seconds faster than any other U.S. man since 2011.

Galen Rupp
Age: 29
PR: None
2012 Olympics — silver medal (10,000m)
2012 Olympics — seventh place (5000m)
2008 Olympics — 13th place (10,000m)

Rupp makes his much-anticipated marathon debut. The only U.S. man or woman to qualify for the Olympic marathon at trials in his or her 26.2-mile debut was George Young in 1968, the first year trials were held.

The lack of experience (Rupp’s longest race was a half marathon, which he’s done once in the last four and a half years) makes him a bit of a wild card. But there’s no doubting his talent. Rupp, one of the world’s best at 10,000m, is coached by three-time NYC Marathon winner Alberto Salazar, and may prove the strongest runner in the field.

Rupp was a late qualifier for the trials by posting a half marathon qualifying time of 1:01:20 on Dec. 13 in Portland, Ore., against a field that included a man dressed as an elf and another in the bunny suit from “A Christmas Story.” That time ranked second among U.S. men for 13.1 miles last year.

Rupp’s fastest half marathon, 1:00:30 from 2011, ranks second in the field behind Ritzenhein.

If Rupp finishes in the top three to make the Olympic team, he could still drop out to focus on the 10,000m and/or 5000m on the track, should he make the team in those events at the July 1-10 trials in Eugene, Ore. In that case, the fourth-place finisher on Saturday would be elevated onto the U.S. Olympic team.

Luke Puskedra
Age: 25
PR: 2:10:24 (Chicago 2015)

The former University of Oregon distance runner surprised at the Chicago Marathon by running the fastest time by an American for all of 2015. It was his third marathon. His previous two were 2014 NYC (2:28:54) and the 2015 Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minn. (2:15:27)

The label “fastest American in 2015” means a little less when it’s combined with the fact no American broke 2:10 in the marathon in a calendar year for the first time since 2003.

Still, Puskedra is so young that he may not be near his peak. The top four at the 2012 Olympic trials all went sub-2:10, so Puskedra may need another personal best to make his first Olympic team. Then again, Keflezighi and Ritzenhein are the only men in the field who have broken 2:10, so he might not need it.

Elkanah Kibet
Age: 32
PR: 2:11:31

A Kenya native, Kibet went to Auburn, enlisted in the U.S. Army and became a U.S. citizen in 2013. He was deployed in Kuwait and Iraq from June 2014 to March 2015 and then made his marathon debut in Chicago on Oct. 11.

His 2:11:31 ranked No. 3 among U.S. men last year behind Puskedra and Ritzenhein.

Diego Estrada
Age: 26
PR: None

Estrada is the reigning U.S. champion in the half marathon, his 1:00:51 being the fastest by an American since Rupp in 2011. There’s little else to go on with Estrada, who like Rupp is making his 26.2-mile debut.

He also finished eighth in the 10,000m and 15th in the 5000m at the 2015 U.S. Outdoor Championships. In 2012, he placed 21st in the Olympic 10,000m for Mexico.

Sam Chelanga
Age: 30
PR: None

Chelanga is a native Kenyan who became a naturalized U.S. citizen in August. He owns a half-marathon personal best of 1:01:04 from 2013 and has the second-fastest 10,000m personal best in the field behind Rupp.

MORE: Rio Olympics six months out: Key trials, qualifying dates