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Ashley Wagner, ‘a mess’ in most recent event, still the favorite at U.S. Champs

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Ashley Wagner goes into her 10th senior U.S. Championships next week with a lengthy two months of rest since her last competition, which happened to be the worst outing of her Grand Prix career.

Usually, Wagner would have skated at the Grand Prix Final in December, but because she finished a career-low sixth at a Grand Prix event in China in November, she failed to qualify for the six-skater Grand Prix Final for the first time since 2011.

All Wagner needed was a fourth place in China to book a final berth. That shouldn’t have been a very difficult task, given she took a world championships silver medal last season and won Skate America in October. Wagner was riding the best skating of her career into Beijing.

But her old nemesis, under-rotating jumps, emerged in China. She finished outside the top five for the first time in her 25 Grand Prix starts dating to 2007.

“I was really furious with myself for blowing an opportunity that was right there, and the door was wide open for me [to qualify for the Grand Prix Final],” Wagner said Tuesday, adding that she was mentally and physically tired in China, leading to “a mess” of a performance. “I could either be mad and sit at home and watch these girls, know that I can compete with them, [or] work harder so that going to worlds I can be a top athlete that is competitive with these up-and-coming ladies.”

The second half of Wagner’s season begins with next week’s U.S. Championships in Kansas City, where the now-relaxed skater hopes to win a fourth title in six years.

She went about a new technique of training jumps to increase her quick-twitch motion, hopefully leading to fully rotating them consistently.

“Mentally, I’m feeling very confident,” Wagner said. “At this point in my career it is very easy for me to get mentally worn out and worn down, but I usually feel strongest when my training is backing me up and when I know that I am physically fit.”

VIDEO: Kristi Yamaguchi previews nationals

The 25-year-old is the oldest and most accomplished contender in a weakened field.

Defending U.S. champion Gracie Gold struggled mightily in the fall. Polina Edmunds, the U.S. silver medalist last season, hasn’t competed in one year due to a foot injury and has already pulled out of nationals.

But Wagner, perhaps still thinking about China, wouldn’t say she’s the favorite.

“The door is wide open for everyone,” she said. “I think that there is no obvious or clear front-runner. … I’m competing against myself, because I’m usually my own worst enemy at nationals. If I think about everybody else, that’s not going to help me.”

U.S. Figure Skating will choose three women after nationals to send to the world championships in Helsinki in March. Wagner will make a sixth straight worlds team with a top-three finish in Kansas City, and perhaps still be selected with a lower result.

Kansas City is a bit of a homecoming for Wagner. It’s one of the nine places she lived in a 10-year span growing up in a military family. She says it’s where her Olympic dream began, watching on TV as Tara Lipinski took gold at the 1998 Nagano Winter Games when Wagner was 6.

Wagner realized that dream by making the Sochi Olympic team — despite finishing fourth at nationals. She doesn’t intend for her career to end at next year’s Olympics.

“That puts so much pressure on an athlete to make it a dream season of all seasons,” Wagner said of making retirement plans. “If I feel like I’m still building and still improving, and I have something left to give, then by all means I’m going to keep on skating, because that’s how crazy I am about this sport. At the same time, I’m not the kind of athlete, I don’t ever want to be around long enough to watch my career dwindle out. So, for me, I’ll know when the time comes, but I’m not planning on retiring after the Olympics.”

MORE: Polina Edmunds out of U.S. Championships

Several women’s players spurn worlds inquiry from USA Hockey

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As sports organizations and notable hockey figures express support of the U.S. women’s team, several players say they rejected overtures from USA Hockey to serve as replacements for the upcoming world championships.

Two players told The Associated Press on Friday that USA Hockey reached out to them to gauge their interest for the worlds, which begin next week in Plymouth, Michigan.

Brittany Ott, a goaltender for the Boston Pride of the National Women’s Hockey League, and Annie Pankowski, a junior forward at the University of Wisconsin, said the email from USA Hockey was not an invitation but rather an inquiry about their availability.

“I responded to that email and I said I’m not willing,” Pankowski said.

A third player, goalie Lauren Dahm, told the AP on Saturday she also turned down an invitation. Dahm plays for the Canadian Women’s Hockey League Boston Blades.

The U.S. team has said it plans to boycott the worlds over a wage dispute with USA Hockey, which confirmed Thursday it would begin reaching out to potential replacement players. Several players posted messages on social media saying they support the national team and would decline or have declined any outreach from USA Hockey.

“From a personal standpoint I have never been invited to a USA Hockey series or camp or anything like that and I would honestly love to be invited to something like that,” Ott said by phone. “However at the current time, this is a fight that I believe in and I’m definitely going to stand up and help fight as much as I can.”

Many players posted a version of a Jerry Rice quote on Twitter on Friday: “Today I will do what others won’t so tomorrow I can do what others can’t. I said no to USAH & will not play in the 2017WC.” Not all players who tweeted that message were asked by USA Hockey if they could play.

On Saturday, NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith joined the chorus of support for the players, saying on Twitter the organization stands behind their pursuit of fairness and equality.

“These women understand inequality when they see it and are expressing their right to be treated fairly as athletes and workers,” Smith tweeted. “Of course, they have the NFLPA’s support in daring to withhold their services until a fair agreement is reached.”

Philadelphia Flyers coach Dave Hakstol posted his support on Twitter, calling players competitors and role models.

On Friday, the NHL Players’ Association and Major League Baseball players posted messages of support. The NHLPA posted on Twitter that it supports players and panned USA Hockey’s bid to stock the team with replacements, adding that the decision “would only serve to make relations, now and in the future, much worse.”

The MLBPA encouraged all female hockey players to stand united behind their national team colleagues.

Players are seeking a four-year contract that includes payments outside the six-month Olympic period. The sides met for 10-plus hours Monday, but players have called USA Hockey’s counterproposal “disappointing.”

USA Hockey said Thursday its priority was to have all the players selected for the national team on the ice March 31 when the tournament begins. But the organization added that it informed players’ representatives it would begin reaching out to potential replacements with the tournament coming up.

Star national team forward Hilary Knight said last week she wished USA Hockey luck putting together a suitable team of replacements to defend the gold medal because the player pool was united in the dispute. Ott and Pankowski said they had not heard from any players expressing a willingness to play in worlds.

“It’s a very unified front,” Ott said. “It’s a tight-knit community that we have in women’s hockey here. This is definitely a big opportunity for us to make a big change and have a big impact on our sport and have it grow. We’re all standing together.”

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MORE: Stanley Cup-winning goalie joins U.S. women’s coaching staff

World Figure Skating Championships pairs preview

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Volosozhar and Trankov couldn’t do it. Neither did Shen and Zhao. Nor Gordeeva and Grinkov.

Canadians Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford can win a third straight pairs world title next week, a feat not seen since Irina Rodnina and Alexander Zaitsev of the Soviet Union won six in a row from 1973 through 1978.

But they don’t feel like favorites.

“We’re coming in a little more under the radar,” Radford said.

They lost their two most recent international competitions — third at the Grand Prix Final in December; second at the Four Continents Championships in February.

Duhamel and Radford are seeded fifth by best international scores this season going into the world championships in Helsinki (broadcast schedule here).

“Sometimes it feels like worlds last year was so long ago,” Radford said.

Last year in Boston, Duhamel and Radford had the performance of their seven-year partnership in the world championships free skate. They tallied a personal-best 153.81 points, more than seven points clear of their previous best.

It was easily enough to overtake Chinese short-program leaders Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, who were relegated to silver behind the Canadians for a second straight year.

This season, Duhamel and Radford haven’t come within 13 points of their 2016 World Championships total. Duhamel went through “an unforeseeable circumstance” in her personal life in November that she chooses not to reveal.

They implemented the throw triple Axel, but Duhamel fell three times in a four-event stretch this fall. They lost by nearly 13 points at December’s Grand Prix Final, which ended with a Duhamel backstage meltdown.

“We never fell like that at home [in practice],” Duhamel said on the IceTalk podcast. “It started to shake us up a little bit.”

They replaced the throw triple Axel in their program. Without it in February, both skaters had trouble with jumps at Four Continents at the 2018 Olympic venue and finished nearly 13 points behind Sui and Han.

“We kind of went back to square one, to the drawing board after Four Continents, reassessing what’s gone on this season, why are we underperforming, why are we not succeeding in competition the way we are training,” Duhamel said.

They made program changes, notably on their throw and jump entrances and overhauling the footwork in their short program.

Duhamel adopted a rescue dog from South Korea. Radford, who had surgery over the summer to remove a cyst from his ankle bone, leaned on a sports psychologist.

“I personally feel a lot more relaxed and seemless,” Radford said. “That feeling has come a little bit later this season.”

Five pairs could take gold in Helsinki in perhaps the most wide-open event.

Germans Aliona Savchenko and (French-born) Bruno Massot won both of their fall Grand Prix events but missed the Grand Prix Final after she tore an ankle ligament. They returned to take silver at the European Championships in January with the best score of their two-year partnership.

Young Russians Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov stepped up to win the Grand Prix Final, the second-biggest annual competition, and then the European Championships. But free-skate struggles have dogged them this season.

Another Russian pair, Olympic silver medalists Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov, are perhaps the biggest wild card. They missed the fall season due to Stolbova’s left leg injury, but then beat Tarasova and Morozov in their season debut at the Russian Championships. Stolbova fell on their throw triple flip in both programs at the European Championships in January, and they finished fourth.

Then there are Sui and Han, looking to break through for a first senior world title in their sixth try (though Sui is just 21 years old, and Han 24). They missed the fall season after Sui underwent right ankle and left foot surgeries last spring. They returned at Four Continents and posted personal-best free skate and total scores, ranking only behind Tarasova and Morozov for the season.

U.S. pairs Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim and Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier have both missed significant time due to injury in the last two years. They are behind the top pairs from Canada, China and Russia.

The U.S. hasn’t put a pair in the world championships top five since 2006, and that doesn’t figure to change next week.

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MORE: Ashley Wagner knows pressure’s on her at worlds

NBC Sports researcher Sarah Hughes contributed to this report.