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
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
7. Nelli ZHIGANSHINA/Alexander GAZSI GER 62.27
8. Victoria SINITSINA/Ruslan ZHIGANSHIN RUS 62.11
18. Alexandra ALDRIDGE/Daniel EATON USA 53.34

Dan Jansen explains recent flurry of world records

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Dan Jansen has significant experience rewriting the speed skating world record book.

The 1994 Olympic 1000m champion broke the 500m world record in 1992, and then lowered his mark another four times. He also set world records in the 1000m and sprint combination.

Yet even Jansen is shocked by the number of edits to the record book over the last two weeks.

“I haven’t seen anything like it,” Jansen said. “Not this many.”

Four world records were broken this past weekend at the World Cup in Kearns, Utah. The weekend before, world records in three Olympic events fell at the season-opening World Cup in Calgary.

There is no surprise about the locations of the record-breaking performances.

The Utah Olympic Oval claims to have the “fastest ice on earth,” and for good reason. The venue is located 4,675 feet above sea level. At such a high altitude, the air is less dense, meaning speed skaters experience less air resistance and are therefore able to achieve faster speeds.

It is the same reason baseball players hit more home runs at the Colorado Rockies’ stadium, Coors Field, and football kickers are able to make longer field goals when they travel to play the Denver Broncos.

The Calgary Olympic Oval is also at a high altitude, although not as high as at the venue in Kearns. All of the current Olympic event world records have been set in either Utah or Calgary.

What is surprising, however, is the large number of world records broken during a two-week stretch.

Brittany Bowe started the revision of the record book by breaking her own women’s 1000m world record on Nov. 14 in Calgary. Just three minutes later, her U.S. Olympic teammate, Heather Richardson, claimed the world record for herself. Then, this past Sunday in Utah, Bowe broke the world record once again. NBCSN will televise the coverage from Utah this Friday at 7:30 p.m. ET, with Jansen providing the commentary.

Richardson also stole a world record from Bowe in the women’s 1500m. Bowe broke the world record on Nov. 15, only to have Richardson lower the time on Nov. 21.

“It’s pretty easy to tell that we bring out the best in each other,” Bowe said to U.S. Speedskating on Sunday. “When we’re racing together something special happens almost every time.”

In the men’s competition, Russia’s Pavel Kulizhnikov broke the 500m world record  on Nov. 15, and lowered it again on Nov. 20. Canada’s Ted-Jan Bloemen shattered the men’s 10,000m world record, taking 5.39 seconds off Sven Kramer’s mark from 2007.

Jansen attributes the women’s world records to the continued development of Bowe and Richardson. Both are converted inline skaters who have become more confident racing on the ice.

Bowe started inline skating when she was eight years old. After graduating from high school, she was offered the opportunity to move to Utah to transition to speed skating for the Vancouver 2010 Olympics. But she decided hang up her inline skates to focus on playing collegiate basketball at Florida Atlantic University.

She only started speed skating after being inspired by watching Richardson compete at the 2010 Games.

“Brittany learns more almost daily,” Jansen said. “She is still going to get better.”

Richardson quickly adjusted to racing on the ice, despite being described as “Bambi on ice” when she first started speed skating in 2007. She married Dutch distance skater Jorrit Bergsma in 2015 and moved to the Netherlands. Richardson’s endurance has improved since she started training with her husband, the 2014 Olympic 10,000m champion.

“Those two ladies are dominant right now,” Jansen said about Bowe and Richardson. “It is hard to see anybody else closing the gap they have in the middle distances.”

Jansen, the first speed skater to break 36 seconds in the 500m, seemed surprised that it took so long for the men’s 500m and 10,000m world records to fall. Canada’s Jeremy Wotherspoon held the men’s 500m world record since Nov. of 2007. Kramer’s 10,000m time, which was recorded in Feb. of 2007, was the longest-standing Olympic event world record.

“It’s about time,” Jansen said. “These guys are flying right now.”

No more world records are expected to be broken this season, as the rest of the competition venues are located closer to sea level. Similarly, no world records are expected to be broken at the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympics.

“It’s a little bit of a bummer because you would like to see world records at the Olympics, but our sport is not conducive to that,” Jansen said. “Unless you have the Olympics up high.”

Jansen believes U.S. Speedskating will continue to experience positive momentum.

At Sochi 2014, losing became contagious, and the U.S. contingent departed Russia with zero Olympic medals. Jansen now expects the recent success to reverberate throughout the entire team.

“It’s an exciting time for U.S. Speedskating,” Jansen said. “They are making statements, and I don’t think they are finished.”

Watch NBC Olympics Thanksgiving promo video

NBC Olympics Promo
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Actress Eva Longoria narrates the newest NBC promo video for the Rio 2016 Olympics.

The 60-second spot features several athletes with their families in their home countries, including:

Simone Biles (USA, gymnastics)

David Boudia (USA, diving)

Genzebe Dibaba (Ethiopia, track and field)

Murilo Endres (Brazil, volleyball) and his wife Jaqueline Carvalho (Brazil, volleyball)

Dylan van Baarle (Netherlands, cycling)

Kerri Walsh Jennings (USA, beach volleyball)

The promo will air on television on Thanksgiving day towards the end of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

“The spot reflects the crucial role that family plays in the journey of so many Olympic athletes,” said John Miller, Chief Marketing Officer of NBC Sports Group. “With the Games being one of the few family-viewing experiences left on television, we felt this message was appropriate for the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.”

VIDEO: 2016 Rio Olympic Games: One year out promo