Mao Asada, Julia Lipnitskaia, Carolina Kostner

Mao Asada wins World Championship; U.S. finishes with no medals

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Mao Asada might retire, but her fans weren’t ready to leave.

Asada won her third World Championship on Saturday. Few adoring Japanese flag-waving spectators appeared to exit the packed Saitama Super Arena near Tokyo until after her in-house interview, a medal ceremony, a lap of honor for all three medalists and more photo opps before she departed the ice.

Asada totaled 216.69 points, outlasting Russian Yulia Lipnitskaya (207.50) and Italian Carolina Kostner (203.83) for gold. She added to her collection that includes 2008 and 2010 World Championships and the 2010 Olympic silver medal.

Americans Gracie GoldAshley Wagner and Polina Edmunds were fifth, seventh and eighth.

No Americans won medals in any discipline at the World Championships for the first time since 1994. But the U.S. earned three spots for women’s, men’s and ice dance at the 2015 World Championships, a feat it hadn’t accomplished since 2008, and put three women in the top eight for the first time since 2006, the last time a U.S. woman won an Olympic or World Championships medal.

Asada, 23, said after a disappointing sixth-place finish at the Sochi Olympics that she was reconsidering plans to retire after the World Championships. She looked at the top of her game in the short program Thursday, recording the highest score in history.

Asada didn’t mention her future in her arena interview before receiving her gold medal.

“After finishing the season I could truly say figure skating is wonderful,” Asada said in Japanese, generating heavy applause after a slightly flawed free skate that included an under-rotated triple Axel and a step out on a double Axel landing.

MORE: Surprise ice dance winners | Hanyu comes back for gold | Germans take pairs

Asada’s place as one of the all-time greats is secure, despite what went wrong in Sochi or whether she skates competitively again.

She joined Michelle Kwan and Katarina Witt as the only women to win at least three World Championships in the last 45 years.

She’s been among her sport’s elite for nearly a decade and was considered talented enough to challenge for the gold medal at the 2006 Olympics despite not being old enough to compete. She also spent much of her career squaring off against 2010 Olympic champion Yuna Kim, who retired after winning silver in Sochi and is considered by some the greatest ever.

On the ice, Asada was best known for being one of few women to consistently attempt and land the triple Axel, drawing praise from critics and peers alike.

The Russian Lipnitskaya, 15 and the sensation of the Olympic team event, jumped past Kostner for silver.

Lipnitskaya was fifth at the Olympics, overshadowed by countrywoman Adelina Sotnikova, who in Sochi became the first woman to win Olympic gold without having won a medal at a previous World Championships. Sotnikova, ninth at last year’s World Championships, did not compete in Saitama.

The Italian Kostner, 27, held on for her sixth career World Championships medal, matching the color of her first in 2005 and of her only Olympic medal last month.

The women’s landscape is changing, as it usually does after an Olympics. Asada and Kostner may both retire, and Kim is definitely done. Lipnitskaya and Sotnikova are the leaders heading into the next Olympic cycle.

But the U.S. is not far behind and joins Russia and Japan with three women’s spots at next year’s World Championships.

Gold, 18, followed her fourth in Sochi with a fifth in Saitama, falling one spot from after the short program. The Frank Carroll student was disappointed with popping a jump and falling during her free skate Saturday.

“I don’t really know what happened,” Gold said. “I’m sorry I wasn’t able to put out my best performance.

“I need to train harder. I need to complete the whole package. One competition it’s lovely skating, one competition is lovely jumps. I have to work on putting the package together and getting better programs.”

Wagner, 22, maintained her seventh-place standing from the short program.

She posted the fourth highest free skate score, better than Gold, finishing a tumultuous season on a high. Wagner was put on the three-woman U.S. Olympic Team after finishing fourth at the U.S. Championships in January and then reverted her long program three weeks before the Olympics.

It finally felt right again Saturday.

“I feel like I was back as a competitor,” said Wagner, who was fourth at 2012 worlds, fifth at 2013 worlds and seventh in Sochi. “The past season has been very tough for me. Full of ups and downs and highs and lows. Everything that could have gone wrong this season went wrong.”

Edmunds, at just 15, may have the greatest potential.

She scored 4.7 points higher in her free skate than at the Olympics, finishing eighth, one spot higher than she was in Sochi. Lipnitskaya was the only woman in the top 10 at the Olympics or World Championships who was younger than the San Jose native.

The Olympics and World Championships were Edmunds’ first two senior international competitions. The goal for the U.S. women next year? Win the first U.S. women’s medal at the World Championships since 2006. Worlds are in Shanghai in March 2015.

“One of my best performances ever,” Edmunds said of her worlds debut. “I feel really comfortable here.”

Final Results
1. Mao Asada (JPN) 216.69
2. Yulia Lipnitskaya (RUS) 207.50
3. Carolina Kostner (ITA) 203.83
4. Anna Pogorilaya (RUS) 197.50
5. Gracie Gold (USA) 194.58
6. Akiko Suzuki (JPN) 193.72
7. Ashley Wagner (USA) 193.16
8. Polina Edmunds (USA) 187.50

Theme for Yuna Kim’s farewell ice shows announced

North Korea could qualify for PyeongChang Olympics in pairs figure skating

Bronze medalists Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik of North Korea pose for photographers during the victory ceremony of the Pairs event of Figure Skating competition at Makomanai Indoor Skating Rink at the Asian Winter Games in Sapporo, northern Japan, Saturday, Feb. 25, 2017. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
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Perhaps the most intriguing result of the just-completed Asian Winter Games in Sapporo, Japan, when it comes to looking ahead to the PyeongChang Olympics, came in pairs figure skating.

To no surprise, China took the top two spots. But the bronze medalists from North Korea turned heads.

Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik tallied 177.40 points, easily distancing pairs from South Korea, Japan and Australia for the last place on the podium.

With that score, it appears Ryom and Kim became the first North Korean athletes to be favored to qualify for the PyeongChang Olympics, though they likely can’t seal the deal for another seven months.

One of the biggest international Olympic storylines over the 11 months is whether North Korea will be present at the PyeongChang Winter Games.

Despite winning at least four medals at every Summer Games since boycotting Seoul 1988, North Korea didn’t have any athletes at the Sochi Olympics and just two at Vancouver 2010. There’s no guarantee North Korea can qualify any athletes for PyeongChang.

There is also the question of another potential boycott of a South Korea-hosted Olympics, but North and South Korea have shown solidarity at recent Games.

The nations marched together under one flag at the 2000 and 2004 Olympic Opening Ceremonies in Sydney and Athens. In Rio, North and South Korean gymnasts posed for a selfie together. And North Korea did compete in the two Asian Games hosted by South Korea in the last 30 years, in 2002 and 2014.

Enter Ryom and Kim. Their Asian Winter Games pairs score was a whopping 20-point improvement on their tally from the 2016 Four Continents Championships, their only other recent major international event. North Korean athletes don’t typically compete often internationally.

Ryom and Kim are still a ways off from vying for global podiums (177.40 would have placed 14th at the 2016 Worlds).

But with their Asian Winter Games result, the North Koreans are suddenly favorites to qualify for the PyeongChang Olympics, should they enter the last qualifying event in Germany in September.

Here’s how it works:

A maximum of 20 pairs can qualify for the Olympics, beginning at the world championships next month, with no more than three spots per country.

At worlds, 16 of those 20 Olympic quota spots for 2018 will be filled.

If the results hold anything close to form, those 16 quota spots will be spread among Canada, China, France, Germany, Italy, Russia and the U.S.

After worlds, four qualifying spots will remain available. Those quota spots will be decided at the last Olympic qualifier, Nebelhorn Trophy in Oberstdorf, Germany, in late September.

The final four spots can only be attained by countries not already qualified in each event. And only one spot is available per country.

If one excludes Canada, China, France, Germany, Italy, Russia and the U.S., here are the highest-scoring pairs this season via the International Skating Union (and thus the early favorites for Nebelhorn):

  1. Duskova/Bidar (CZE) — 189.09
  2. Ziegler/Kiefer (AUT) — 165.63
  3. Suto/Boudreau-Audet (JPN) — 164.96
  4. Alexandrovskaya/Windsor (AUS) — 159.26

The North Koreans would slot in second place in those standings with their Asian Games score of 177.40.

What’s more, Boudreau-Audet and Alexandrovskaya still needed to fulfill citizenship requirements to be eligible to compete in PyeongChang, as of 2016 reports. If either can’t, then the North Koreans’ path to PyeongChang gets that much easier.

Four years ago, a different North Korean pair missed qualifying a Sochi Olympic quota spot by .99 of a point at Nebelhorn Trophy.

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MORE: U.S. figure skating could have its best world team since 2006

Snow volleyball hopes to stake claim in Winter Olympics

In this March 2016 photo released by Chaka2 GmbH, Austria's Michael Leeb, serving, and Florian Schnetzer face off against Poland's Michal Matyja and Rafal Matusiak, far court, during a snow volleyball match in Wagrain-Kleinarl, Austria. The sport's international governing body hopes tournaments from the Alps to the Andes will earn snow volleyball a spot in the Olympics and make volleyball the first sport to be played in both the Winter and Summer Games. (Thomas Leskoschek/Chaka2 GmbH via AP)
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Beach volleyball is moving to the mountains and swapping its sand for snow.

A spinoff of the sun-splashed sport familiar to Summer Olympic fans and seaside frolickers, snow volleyball is spreading from the Alps to the Andes and making a run at the Winter Games. If all goes well, volleyball officials say, their sport would be the first to appear in both the Summer and Winter Olympics.

“Our key message is to be the No. 1 family sport in the world,” Fabio Azevedo, the general director of the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB), said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I think it fits perfectly to our plan.”

Itself an offshoot of the more traditional indoor game, beach volleyball has grown into one of biggest attractions of the Summer Games, thanks no doubt to the bikini and boardshorts uniforms and the party atmosphere.

Now the FIVB wants a piece of the Winter Olympics, and it sees snow volleyball as the way in. With a European tour already established, volleyball officials have set out an agenda that would bring the new snow sport to Asia, Argentina and the United States with an eye toward approval as a demonstration sport at the 2022 Beijing Winter Games.

“They want to push it ultimately to the Winter Olympics,” said Martin Kaswurm, whose company manages the Snow Volleyball European Tour. “It’s not something we put into the mouths of the FIVB. It’s something they had as a goal themselves.”

The continental circuit, which kicks off this weekend in the Czech ski resort of Spindleruv Mlyn, was officially sanctioned by volleyball’s European governing body for the first time last winter. Azevedo said the goal is to have a world tour next year and a fully-fledged world championship in 2019. A spot in the 2020 Youth Olympic Games in Lausanne — where the FIVB has its headquarters — is also on the federation’s radar.

From there, snow volleyball could apply for status as a demonstration sport at the 2022 Winter Olympics. Azevedo hopes to have at least an informal display at the Winter Games next year in Pyeongchang, South Korea, even if it’s just stringing up a net in a plaza somewhere.

“We definitely want to be there and show people what snow volleyball is like,” he said. “Being really conservative, in order to climb this mountain step by step, I think the Olympics in 2026.”

While Olympic ice hockey and field hockey have different rules, different equipment and different governing bodies, snow volleyball is almost identical to the beach game. The tactics and rules are also similar to the two-a-side beach sport, and many of the competitors come from beach volleyball.

“Basically, we’ve just changed the surface,” Kaswurm said. “They only thing different is that they wear soccer shoes.”

The atmosphere also resembles beach volleyball, with disc jockeys cranking out music and cheerleaders — in lederhosen instead of bikinis — pumping up the crowd .

“Music, it’s inside our DNA, man,” Azevedo said.

Usually there is a hot tub courtside, and traditionally the winners will jump in after their matches to celebrate (and warm up).

“If you’re brave enough and have your swimsuit — or not — you can just jump in. And with the drinks and other friends you can enjoy the view on the center court and all the mountains around,” said Bobb Kufa, the 2016 Czech beach champion. “Pure happiness.”

Austrian national champion Flo Schnetzer said the crowd especially loves the post-match hot tub celebration.

“The people laugh when they see people in their underwear jumping into the whirlpool,” he said. “It’s so much fun to play in such an amazing atmosphere and to play in such an amazing place. The crowd is really crazy; they love it. They like to party and they like to celebrate in the mountains.”

But playing on a mountain has its own challenges.

Mostly, because the snow is slicker than sand there is more of a premium on players who can read and react quickly than on tall ones who can block. It’s also easier to jump on the compacted snow, so shorter players can be more effective blockers and height is less of an advantage.

“Snow volleyball is for smart and flexible players,” Kufa said. “All the moves are much slower. That means you have to be smarter – especially in defense. You have to decide the direction you want to go, and that’s all. You can’t take it back – otherwise you find yourself on your back with the shoes up to the air.”

The thinner air also slows the players down.

“You can really feel it,” Schnetzer said. “It’s really intense after just a short time. So you need to be physically really well prepared to be able to play on the mountains.”

And let’s not forget the cold.

“It is a mountain, so you should be ready for weather changes and be prepared for all kinds of weather,” Kufa said.

So far, the tournaments have been scheduled at resorts — with free admission — as something for the skiers to watch when they need a break. For the players at an event in Iran earlier this month, it was a quick diversion from the Kish Island beach event scheduled the following week.

That’s one big advantage snow volleyball has over other sports trying to join the Olympic program: It already has a strong federation and a ready pool of potential players from the beach game, including 2012 Olympic bronze medalist Martins Plavins of Latvia and the top beach players from several European countries.

Three-time Olympian Phil Dalhausser, a 2008 gold medalist, said he would wait until his beach career is over to give it a try.

“I would be too afraid of hurting myself,” said Dalhausser, who was born in Switzerland but has spent most of his life near the beaches of Florida and California. “The snow probably would be pretty slippery.”

Dalhausser said anything that gets people to watch and play any form of volleyball is good for the sport. And once fans see snow volleyball, Azevedo said, they will be hooked — just like those who have come to follow the beach version every four years at the Summer Olympics.

“Both of them are two parties,” Azevedo said. “But if you organize a party in your home, it’s probably different than a party I am organizing in my home. So, there are two different energies. But I can tell you you are going to enjoy both of them.”

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