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Assessing the Grand Prix figure skating season at the halfway point

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The Grand Prix figure skating season — whose results are the best indicators of favorites for national and world championships — is at its midpoint.

Skate America, Skate Canada and Rostelecom Cup are behind us. Trophée de France, Cup of China and NHK Trophy are ahead, followed by the Grand Prix Final (six skaters per discipline) in December.

The U.S. Championships are in January, followed by the world championships in Helsinki in late March and early April.

With the Olympics a 15 months away, jockeying for position this season is more important than the previous two. Here is where things stand for each discipline:

MEN
Top Grand Prix Scores
1. Javier Fernandez (ESP) — 292.98 (Rostelecom Cup)
2. Shoma Uno (JPN) — 285.07 (Rostelecom Cup)
3. Shoma Uno (JPN) — 279.34 (Skate America)
4. Jason Brown (USA) — 268.38 (Skate America)
5. Patrick Chan (CAN) — 266.95 (Skate Canada)
6. Yuzuru Hanyu (JPN) — 263.06 (Skate Canada)
7. Adam Rippon (USA) — 261.43 (Skate America)

Top U.S. Grand Prix Scores
1. Jason Brown — 268.38 (Skate America)
2. Adam Rippon— 261.43 (Skate America)
3. Max Aaron — 235.58 (Rostelecom Cup)
4. Timothy Dolensky — 226.53 (Rostelecom Cup)
5. Grant Hochstein — 204.69 (Skate Canada)

What’s remarkable here is the progression in scores in the last three seasons. Two years ago, the top men’s score after the third Grand Prix was 269.09. Last year, it was 271.14.

Uno was the best skater in September and October, winning all three of his events, but Fernandez looked more like a world champion in his debut last weekend. The Olympic champion Hanyu is a notoriously slow starter. His Skate Canada score was actually higher than his Grand Prix debuts in 2014 and 2015.

We’ll have a better sense of the American picture after Nathan Chen makes his Grand Prix season debut in France this week. Chen, 17 and the youngest man to finish top three at the U.S. Championships since 1973, beat Patrick Chan at a lower-level event in October.

WOMEN
Top Grand Prix Scores
1. Yevgenia Medvedeva (RUS) — 220.65 (Skate Canada)
2. Anna Pogorilaya (RUS) — 215.21 (Rostelecom Cup)
3. Kaetlyn Osmond (CAN) — 206.45 (Skate Canada)
4. Ashley Wagner (USA) — 196.44 (Skate America)
5. Yelena Radionova (RUS) — 195.60 (Rostelecom Cup)
6. Satoko Miyahara (JPN) — 192.08 (Skate Canada)
7. Mariah Bell (USA) — 191.49 (Skate America)

Top U.S. Grand Prix Scores
1. Ashley Wagner — 196.44 (Skate America)
2. Mariah Bell — 191.49 (Skate America)
3. Gracie Gold — 184.22 (Skate America)
4. Courtney Hicks — 182.98 (Rostelecom Cup)
5. Mirai Nagasu — 151.42 (Skate Canada)

Medvedeva hasn’t lost in one year and seems unlikely to follow the trend of recent Russian stars who flamed out after one strong season (2015 World champion Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, 2014 Olympic champions Yulia Lipnitskaya and Adelina Sotnikova). She picked up at Skate Canada right where she left off at the world championships last season.

Wagner and Pogorilaya, who joined Medvedeva on the worlds podium last April, won the other two Grand Prix events in the first half. The surprise has been Osmond, who tacked 30 points onto her personal-best total score in this her fourth season of international competition.

Wagner is still the class of the U.S. group, in part because Gold is off to a slow start (fifth at Skate America) after taking much of the summer off from training. U.S. silver medalist Polina Edmunds isn’t competing in the Grand Prix season due to a foot injury. If Gold or Edmunds is not back and in top form at the U.S. Championships in January, Bell is looking like the most promising riser in several years.

Pairs
Top Grand Prix Scores
1. Meagan Duhamel/Eric Radford (CAN) — 218.30 (Skate Canada)
2. Aliona Savchenko/Bruno Massot (GER) — 207.89 (Rostelecom Cup)
3. Yu Xiaoyu/Zhang Hao (CHN) — 202.08 (Skate Canada)
4. Natalya Zabiyako/Alexander Enbert (RUS) — 197.77 (Rostelecom Cup)
5. Julianne Séguin/Charlie Bilodeau (CAN) — 197.31 (Skate America)
6. Haven Denney/Brandon Frazier (USA) — 192.65 (Skate America)
7. Lubov Ilyushechkina/Dylan Moscovitch (CAN) — 190.22 (Skate Canada)

Top U.S. Scores
1. Haven Denney/Brandon Frazier — 192.65 (Skate America)
2. Haven Denney/Brandon Frazier — 188.23 (Skate Canada)
3. Tarah Kayne/Danny O’Shea — 173.50 (Skate America)
4. Marissa Castelli/Mervin Tran — 171.95 (Skate America)

Duhamel and Radford may well be en route to a third straight world title (not done in pairs since 1978). Not only did they win Skate Canada for a third straight year, but the two pairs who joined them on the 2016 World Championships podium aren’t competing in the Grand Prix season. Neither are Olympic champions Tatyana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov due to pregnancy.

However, Savchenko and Massot raised eyebrows by attempting a throw quadruple Salchow at the end of their Rostelecom Cup free skate. If they can control it — Savchenko fell in Moscow — the gap to the Canadians closes considerably.

The U.S. is once again lacking pairs consistency. The top Americans from the last two worlds, Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim, are out due to Scimeca’s health problems. The surprise 2016 U.S. champions, Kayne and O’Shea, were beaten at Skate America by Denney and Frazier, who sat out last season after Denney blew out her right knee.

Ice Dance
Top Grand Prix Scores
1. Tessa Virtue/Scott Moir (CAN) — 189.06 (Skate Canada)
2. Madison Chock/Evan Bates (USA) — 188.24 (Skate Canada)
3. Yekaterina Bobrova/Dmitry Soloviyev (RUS) — 186.68 (Rostelecom Cup)
4. Maia Shibutani/Alex Shibutani (USA) — 185.75 (Skate America)
5. Piper Gilles/Paul Poirier (CAN) — 182.57 (Skate Canada)
6. Madison Chock/Evan Bates (USA) — 182.13 (Rostelecom Cup)
7. Anna Cappellini/Luca Lanotte (ITA) — 180.35 (Skate Canada)

Top U.S. Scores
1. Madison Chock/Evan Bates — 188.24 (Skate Canada)
2. Maia Shibutani/Alex Shibutani — 185.75 (Skate America)
3. Madison Chock/Evan Bates — 182.13 (Rostelecom Cup)
4. Madison Hubbell/Zachary Donohue — 175.77 (Skate America)
5. Kaitlin Hawayek/Jean-Luc Baker — 162.19 (Skate Canada)

The two-time reigning world champions, France’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, make their Grand Prix season debut this week. In their absence, the dance results have gone pretty much to form. Virtue and Moir, the 2010 Olympic champions who sat out the previous two seasons, impressed by beating two-time world medalists Chock and Bates on home ice at Skate Canada.

In the U.S., Chock and Bates and the Shibutani siblings remain in close contention in the early national title handicapping. Hubbell and Donohue finished right behind them at the last four U.S. Championships. That doesn’t figure to change in January. As the U.S. should get three couples at the 2018 Olympics, Hubbell and Donohue will be very interested if Meryl Davis and Charlie White decide to return next season.

MORE: Figure skating season broadcast schedule

U.S. men look to fill Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte void at swim worlds

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With Michael Phelps retired and Ryan Lochte suspended, the superstars at the world swimming championships clearly lie on the women’s side.

But the men’s events will include world-record chasers, a stinging rivalry and, perhaps, the emergence of Phelps and Lochte’s successor as leading U.S. man.

Caeleb Dressel came through in Rio under arguably the most pressure of any swimmer, starting off the U.S. 4x100m freestyle relay team in his very first Olympic splash with a personal-best time.

Dressel, a 20-year-old who nearly quit swimming three years ago as the No. 1 recruit in the nation, has nine events to choose from at worlds in Budapest starting Sunday.

He qualified in four individual events — 50m and 100m butterflies and freestyles — and is eligible for all five relays (two mixed-gender).

In the last 15 years, only two U.S. men have raced in four individual events at a single Olympics or world championships — Phelps and Lochte.

Dressel is in the medal mix in all of his individual events, ranking No. 1 in the world this year in the 100m fly, No. 3 in the 50m free, No. 4 in the 100m free and No. 5 in the 50m fly. He is also almost guaranteed medals in any relays that he enters given the unmatched U.S. depth.

Dressel has never been to a worlds and raced just one individual event in Rio. He’s the potential breakout star on a U.S. team, surrounded by more proven names.

SWIMMING WORLDS: TV Schedule | Men’s Preview | Women’s Preview | Event Schedule

Ryan Murphy, who swam for the same Jacksonville, Fla., club team as Dressel, swept the backstrokes in Rio and broke the 100m back world record leading off the medley relay. That dominance has not quite carried over so far in 2017. Murphy ranks third in the world in the 100m and 200m backs this year.

Chase Kalisz, a longtime Phelps training partner in Baltimore, has followed up his Rio Olympic 400m individual medley silver medal well this year. He chopped two seconds off his personal best in the 200m IM and goes into Budapest ranked No. 1 in the world in the 400m IM by nearly a half-second.

The U.S. boasts more medal threats including Nathan Adrian (sprint freestyles), Townley Haas (200m free), Cody Miller and Kevin Cordes (breaststrokes), but nobody is a clear favorite.

The surest bets are world-record holders Adam Peaty and Ippei Watanabe in the breaststrokes and Italian Gregorio Paltrinieri in the 1500m free. Paltrinieri could challenge a five-year-old world record held by Sun Yang.

Speaking of Sun, the mercurial Chinese superstar is set to renew his rivalry with Australian Mack Horton. In Rio, Horton memorably called Sun “a drug cheat,” in reference to Sun’s three-month suspension in 2014 for using a banned stimulant.

Horton then went out and beat Sun in the 400m freestyle, dethroning the Olympic and world champion. Horton and Sun could face off in four individual events in Budapest.

Key men’s finals:

Sunday, July 23
400m freestyle — Sun has been two seconds faster than Horton this year
4x100m freestyle relay — Olympic silver medalist France won’t defend world title; U.S. favored

Monday, July 24
100m breaststroke — Peaty has the eight fastest times ever and fastest by .95 this year

Tuesday, July 25
200m freestyle — Haas the only man within .64 of Sun in 2017
100m backstroke — Rio silver medalist Xu Jiayu was .01 shy of Murphy’s WR in April

Wednesday, July 26
200m butterfly — Japan and Hungary lead the post-Phelps-era world; Chad le Clos ranks 8th in 2017
800m freestyle — Italian Gabriele Detti fastest in 2017 by six seconds, but slower than Sun’s winning times in 2011, 2013, 2015

Thursday, July 27
200m individual medley — Phelps, Lochte won the last 12 Olympic/world titles
100m freestyle — Reigning Olympic and world champions’ absences open door for Adrian, Dressel

Friday, July 28
200m backstroke — U.S. won 14 of the last 15 Olympic/world titles, including Murphy in Rio
200m breaststroke — Watanabe broke WR in January; surprise Olympic champ Dmitriy Balandin ranks No. 127 this year
4x200m freestyle relay — U.S., without Lochte, Phelps, looks to take world title back from Great Britain

Saturday, July 29
50m freestyle — Reigning Olympic and world champions’ absences open door for Adrian, Dressel
100m butterfly — Joseph Schooling eyes Phelps’ WR, but Dressel ranks No. 1 in 2017

Sunday, July 30
400m individual medley — Kalisz ranks No. 1 in 2017, but time is .94 slower than Kosuke Hagino in Rio
1500m freestyle — Sun holds WR of 14:31 but hasn’t broken 14:55 since 2014
4x100m medley relay — Great Britain will lean on Peaty to challenge U.S.

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MORE: Michael Phelps not itching to return like in 2013

Katie Ledecky eyes more history as women to star at swimming worlds

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The year after the Olympics isn’t always known for it, but there should be fireworks in the women’s events at the world swimming championships in Budapest next week.

Katie Ledecky could match Missy Franklin‘s record of six gold medals at a single worlds by swimming one more event than she did at the 2015 Worlds and 2016 Olympics. Judging by Ledecky’s times at the U.S. Championships last month, the rising Stanford sophomore is in her usual dominant form.

Hungarian Katinka Hosszu, swimming in front of her home fans, could try to equal Ledecky with four individual golds in backstrokes and individual medleys.

Swede Sarah Sjostrom could do the same in the 50m and 100m butterflies and freestyles, where world records are under threat.

Ledecky, Hosszu and Sjostrom are all bidding to become the first women to three-peat in an individual event at worlds.

Then there’s the return of the greatest rivalry in swimming. After their memorable Rio duel, King and Yulia Efimova rank Nos. 1 and 2 in the world this year in all three breaststrokes.

Spain’s Mireia Belmonte and American Leah Smith have never won an individual world title, but they could be the busiest swimmers of all next week.

Belmonte could race 7,4000 total meters if she makes every event final. Smith could get up to 7,000 meters. Both would outdistance Ledecky and Hosszu in mileage.

SWIMMING WORLDS: TV Schedule | Men’s Preview | Women’s Preview | Event Schedule

The women’s program could have been even more loaded if not for two notable absences. Australian Cate Campbell, the 100m freestyle world-record holder, is sitting out world champs.

Australia beat the U.S. in the 4x100m free relay at the 2015 Worlds and 2016 Olympics, but without Campbell, the Americans are about even with the Aussies. Ledecky’s bid for six golds could hang on this race on the opening night.

Ledecky also greatly benefits from Sjostrom’s decision to skip the 200m freestyle. In Rio, Sjostrom was the closest swimmer to Ledecky in her individual events, coming .35 shy in the 200m free while outsplitting Ledecky in the final 50 meters.

Key women’s finals:

Sunday, July 23
400m freestyle — Ledecky hasn’t lost a 400m free since the 2012 Olympic Trials
4x100m freestyle relay — Showdown with Campbell-less Australia crucial for Ledecky’s six-gold bid

Monday, July 24
100m butterfly — Sjostrom’s only competition is her world record of 55.48
200m individual medley — Nobody has been within a second of Hosszu this year

Tuesday, July 25
100m backstroke — Kylie Masse was .09 off the longest-standing women’s swimming world record at Canadian Champs
1500m freestyle — Ledecky is 25 seconds faster than anyone else this year
100m breaststroke — Efimova is .13 faster than King this year

Wednesday, July 26
200m freestyle — Ledecky’s toughest individual event made easier by Sjostrom’s absence

Thursday, July 27
200m butterfly — Olympic champ Belmonte eyes first world title; Nos. 2, 3, 4 from Rio absent
4x200m freestyle relay — China is strong, but Ledecky is the U.S.’ ace in the hole

Friday, July 28
100m freestyle — Heavy favorite Sjostrom .02 off the world record in June
200m breaststroke — Efimova is two seconds faster than second-ranked King this year

Saturday, July 29
200m backstroke — Kathleen Baker can inherit throne from retired Maya DiRado 
800m freestyle — Likely Ledecky’s sixth and final event, could match Franklin’s gold record

Sunday, July 30
50m freestyle — No. of sub-24-second times this year — Sjostrom: 6; Rest of World: 0
400m individual medley — Hosszu, after breaking WR by two seconds in Rio, slower this year
4x100m medley relay — U.S. should gap Australia, China on breaststroke leg

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MORE: Michael Phelps not itching to return like in 2013

*Correction: The integrity of a Lilly King quote attributed to Agence France-Presse in earlier version of this story has been called into question and was removed.