Sanya Richards-Ross

Athletes to watch at USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships

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The USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships began in Sacramento, Calif., with the shot put at the state Capitol on Wednesday. Events continue through Sunday at Sacramento State’s Hornet Stadium featuring several Olympic and World champions.

NBC, NBCSN and Universal Sports coverage begins Thursday (full broadcast schedule here).

Here are some stars to watch:

Allyson Felix, 100m

The Olympic 200m champion said she would focus more on the 400m than the 100m as her complementary event this season, but she scratched the 400m in Sacramento and is entered in only the 100m.

Felix slowly ramped up her season after last year’s torn hamstring at the World Championships. She notched her first race wins since the injury in the last two weeks, 200m races in Oslo and Ostrava, Czech Republic.

Tori Bowie, 100m

The Southern Miss product was primarily a long jumper until March and has been a sprint revelation in the last two months. She’s the world leader in the 200m at 22.18 seconds, beating Felix and World champion Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce at the Pre Classic on May 31.

But she plans to only contest the 100m in Sacramento. She’s the second fastest American in that sprint this season, clocking 11.05. She’ll face Felix as well as the 2013 U.S. gold and silver medalists, English Gardner and Octavious Freeman.

Sanya Richards-Ross, 400m

Richards-Ross, like Felix, is back from injury. Toe problems derailed her 2013 season after her breakthrough individual Olympic title in 2012.

She has catching up to do, being the joint eighth-fastest U.S. woman over one lap this season. World Indoor champion Francena McCorory is the favorite this week.

Brianna Rollins, 100m hurdles

Rollins won NCAA and World Championships last season, continuing a tradition of strong U.S. sprint hurdles runners. She’s the world leader again this year, but Beijing Olympic champion Dawn Harper-Nelson and Queen Harrison have been within .04 of her best time for 2014.

Sochi Olympic bobsledder Lolo Jones is also in the field, hoping to improve on her season’s best of 12.74, which ranks eighth among Americans.

Jenn Suhr, pole vault

The Olympic champion can match the first Olympic women’s pole vault gold medalist, Stacy Dragila in 2000, at eight career U.S. titles in the event this week. Suhr switched from fiberglass to carbon poles this season and finished second at the Adidas Grand Prix two weeks ago.

Her biggest rivals are not Americans, but she was defeated by Mary Saxer at the U.S. Indoor Championships in February.

LaShawn Merritt, 400m

Like Suhr, the 2008 Olympic champion Merritt’s top competition is not domestic. He won’t have to sweat Grenada’s Kirani James this week, when he goes for his fourth U.S. outdoor title.

Tony McQuay, who took silver behind Merritt at the World Championships, has scratched, giving Merritt even more breathing room.

Galen Rupp, 5000m/10,000m

Rupp provided fireworks at the Pre Classic, breaking his own U.S. 10,000m record. He’s entered in both the 5000m and 10,000m in Sacramento. The finals are held on back-to-back nights.

If he runs both, Rupp will go against Bernard Lagat, the 39-year-old five-time U.S. champion in the 5000m. Rupp’s 10,000m qualifying time is nearly one minute faster than anybody else.

David Oliver, 110m hurdles

Oliver won the 2013 World Championship after surprisingly missing the 2012 Olympic Team. He has run 13.21 this year, making him fourth best among Americans.

The hurdles field is very bunched, not only with Oliver, reigning U.S. champion Ryan Wilson and 2011 World champion Jason Richardson, but also less seasoned men. Take NCAA champion Devon Allen, the fastest American this year (13.16) who doubles as an Oregon wide receiver.

Christian Taylor, triple jump

The Olympic champion tried his hand at the 400m this year and posted a solid season’s best of 45.17. But the triple jump is his forte, and it’s shaping up to be a head-to-head showdown with Olympic silver medalist Will Claye.

Trey Hardee, decathlon

Hardee won the 2009 and 2011 World Championships before ceding the world’s greatest athlete title to Ashton Eaton. Eaton isn’t entered in Sacramento, leaving Hardee a path to his second U.S. title (the other in 2009).

Earlier this month, the Texan completed his first decathlon since he won silver at the London Olympics. He struggled with injuries last year, but is the world leader this year with 8,518 points, which would have taken bronze at the 2013 World Championships.

Ryan Bailey hopes to return to 2012 Olympic sprinting form

U.S. Figure Skating Championships men’s preview

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The stage is set for Nathan Chen in Kansas City this week.

The 17-year-old is arguably the biggest favorite of any senior discipline at the U.S. Championships, looking to become the youngest U.S. men’s champion since 1966.

Chen, who boasts six quadruple jumps between his two programs, broke out at the Grand Prix Final in December by taking a silver medal. That propelled him to the top of U.S. men’s skating.

He outscored the reigning Olympic and world champions in the free skate at the Grand Prix Final in the best U.S. men’s international performance since Evan Lysacek won Olympic gold in 2010.

Chen’s chances for gold this week were boosted by the withdrawal of 2016 U.S. champion and training partner Adam Rippon due to a broken foot. And by 2015 U.S. champion Jason Brown‘s recent right leg injury.

Brown is still in the field, though, as is 2013 U.S. champion Max Aaron. Chen, Brown and Aaron are vying for two spots on the team for the world championships in two months in Helsinki.

“Those are the very clear top three,” NBC Olympics analyst Johnny Weir said. “It’ll take a disaster or a performance of a lifetime for anybody else to get into that top three.”

Friday
Men’s short program — 8:30 p.m.-midnight ET, Universal HD
Sunday
Men’s free skate — 4-6 p.m., NBC

MORE: U.S. Championships broadcast schedule
PREVIEWS: Men | Women | Pairs | Ice Dance

Nathan Chen
Age: 17
Hometown: Salt Lake City
2016 Grand Prix Final silver medalist
2016 U.S. bronze medalist
Two-time U.S. junior and novice champion

Chen came back strong this season following the first major injury of his career suffered at least year’s nationals exhibition. Hip surgery kept Chen from making his world championships debut in 2016, but he’s now poised to lead the U.S. men into Helsinki, trying to earn three Olympic berths. First, Chen goes for his first senior national title.

Tara Lipinski’s Take: Nathan is the star of the show this year. The type of talent he has doesn’t come along every day. He possibly could be on the Olympic podium next year with the technical skating he’s giving us. Artistically, his component scores, if you look at him from last nationals to this nationals, he’s a different skater. He may not be [Olympic champion Yuzuru] Hanyu yet, but he has all the makings of a great, artistic male skater. I think he’s already giving us enough, to be honest.

Jason Brown
Age: 22
Hometown: Colorado Springs
2015 U.S. champion
Fourth at 2015 World Championships

Don’t forget that Brown was one spot off the podium at the 2015 Worlds. It’s been mostly a nightmare since for the 2014 Olympic sensation. Brown missed the 2016 U.S. Championships with a back strain and revealed last week that he was off the ice for the last two weeks of December with a stress fracture in his right fibula. Brown is the only man in this week’s field who has been within 40 points of Chen’s best total score this season.

Johnny Weir’s Take: Now that Adam Rippon is out, the artistic challenger, if he can land a quad, is Jason Brown. He’s won the national title before. He knows what it takes and what that kind of pressure feels like. That is an advantage he has over Nathan Chen. If he lands the quad and creates that artistic moment, he is very favored in the U.S. by the judging panel. He will need a quad toe loop if he’s going to hold off Nathan Chen.

Max Aaron
Age: 24
Hometown: Colorado Springs
2013 U.S. champion
2015 Skate America champion

Aaron may be the best pure athlete in the field. He has finished in the top four at nationals each of the last four years, but it’ll probably take top two this week to earn a world championships spot. He’ll likely have to beat the injured Brown.

Johnny Weir’s Take: He has great skating skills. He’s a wonderful athlete. But I don’t think his free program especially is strong enough choreographically to challenge either Nathan Chen or Jason Brown.

Grant Hochstein
Age: 26
Hometown: Artesia, Calif.
Fourth at 2016 U.S. Championships
10th at 2016 World Championships

Hochstein was placed on the 2016 World Championships team after Chen withdrew due to that hip injury. He finished a respectable 10th in his worlds debut but dropped to 11th in each of his fall Grand Prix starts. Hochstein ranks seventh this season among men in the U.S. Championships field.

Tim Dolensky
Age: 24
Hometown: Kennesaw, Ga.
Seventh at 2016 U.S. Championships

Dolensky had his best U.S. Championships finish last season and ranks behind only Chen, Brown, Rippon and Aaron among U.S. skaters’ top scores this season.

Vincent Zhou
Age: 16
Hometown: Riverside, Calif.
2013 U.S. junior champion
Fifth at 2016 World Junior Championships

Zhou would be a bigger threat if he hadn’t pulled out of his last event in December with a leg injury. Still, he has the jumping firepower, when he lands them, to contend for the podium when healthy.

MORE: Wagner, Chen share training ice, favorite status at nationals

U.S. Figure Skating Championships ice dance preview

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 23:  Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani of the U.S. perform at the Smucker's Skating Spectacular at 2016 Progressive Skate America at Sears Centre Arena on October 23, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)
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There is little doubt who are the top three U.S. ice dance couples. The mystery is the order they’ll finish at the U.S. Championships this week.

In its deepest figure skating discipline, the U.S. put three in the top six at the 2016 World Championships. All of them return to Kansas City for nationals — Maia and Alex ShibutaniMadison Chock and Evan Bates and Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue.

The U.S. ice dance order of finish used to be very predictable — Meryl Davis and Charlie White followed by Chock and Bates, then the Shibutani siblings and then Hubbell and Donohue.

When Davis and White took a break after winning Sochi Olympic gold (still on that break), everybody moved up one place. But things started changing last season.

The Shibutanis jumped past Chock and Bates at the 2016 U.S. Championships, then earned silver at worlds, one spot ahead of Chock and Bates.

Then last month, Hubbell and Donohue edged past Chock and Bates at the Grand Prix Final by .27 of a point. Will the tide continue to shift in Kansas City?

“Dance is always so predictable, but it’s getting less and less each year,” NBC Olympics analyst Tara Lipinski said.

MORE: U.S. Championships broadcast schedule
PREVIEWS: Men | Women | Pairs | Ice Dance

Friday
Short dance — 6-8 p.m. ET, NBCSN
Saturday
Pairs free skate; free dance — 3-6 p.m. ET, NBC

Maia Shibutani/Alex Shibutani
Ages: 22/25
Hometown: Canton, Mich.
2016 World silver medalists
2011 World bronze medalists
2016 U.S. champions

The Shibutani siblings went five years between world championships podiums, a jaw-dropping achievement in ice dance. They’re chasing the top Canadian and French couples internationally, but they haven’t been outscored by a U.S. couple since December 2015.

Johnny Weir’s Take: In ice dancing, there aren’t a lot of successful stories that include a brother and a sister. It’s definitely a testament to them and their personalities that they are so accepted all over the world, given the fact that ice dance is so political, they are brother and sister and they can’t do romantic themes, which is something that is so prevalent in ice dance.

Madison Chock/Evan Bates
Ages: 24/27
Hometown: Novi, Mich.
2015 World silver medalists
2016 World bronze medalists
2015 U.S. champions

Chock and Bates have trickled down since leading the 2015 World Championships after the short dance. First, the French Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron snatched the world title. Then the Shibutanis topped them for the 2016 U.S. title. Then Hubbell and Donohue relegated Chock and Bates to last place at the Grand Prix Final last month.

Johnny Weir’s Take: Tara and I disagree on this, but Chock and Bates are still trying to find themselves musically. I think that their programs this year, they don’t feel quite them. They feel a little bit more rehearsed than a natural, flowing emotion. But, technically, they are the strongest team in the U.S. Their skills are sublime, their edge quality and their lifts.

Madison Hubbell/Zachary Donohue
Ages: 25/26
Hometown: Montreal
Three-time U.S. bronze medalists
2016 Skate America silver medalists

Can they beat one of the two 2016 World medalists again? If not, Hubbell and Donohue will be hoping more than anybody else that the Olympic champions Davis and White do not return to competition. The U.S. can qualify no more than three ice dance couples for the 2018 Olympics.

Johnny Weir’s Take: They really believe their artistry. They are so emotional when they skate. They take it so seriously. Technically, they have big hurdles to cross, looking at Chock and Bates and the Shibutanis. But the artistic side, they can create a moment when you’re least expecting it.

Kaitlin Hawayek/Jean-Luc Baker
Ages: 20/23
Hometown: Bloomfield Hills, Mich.
2014 World junior champions

Hard to believe the best junior couple in the world three years ago has little chance of making the senior worlds, but that’s how strong U.S. ice dance is at the moment. However, Hawayek and Baker’s top score this season is only 2.23 points fewer than the best from Hubbell and Donohue.

Elliana Pogrebinsky/Alex Benoit
Ages: 18/21
Hometown: Novi, Mich.
Fourth at 2016 World Junior Championships

They finished third at junior nationals the last two years but rank No. 5 among U.S. senior scores this season, their first on the senior scene. A couple to watch for the future.

MORE: The latest on future thoughts for Davis, White