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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

USOC expects to discuss possible Winter Olympic bid

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PARK CITY, Utah — USOC leaders are expected to discuss a possible Winter Olympic bid as early as next month.

The U.S. could bid for the 2026 or 2030 Winter Olympics. USOC CEO Scott Blackmun said it would be more difficult to bid for 2026 with the 2028 Summer Games set for Los Angeles.

Salt Lake City, Denver, Reno-Tahoe and other cities have expressed interest in bidding, Blackmun said Monday.

The USOC executive board meets Oct. 13. USOC chairman Larry Probst said they “need to talk about” a possible Winter Olympic bid and whether it could be for 2026 or 2030 or later down the line.

The USOC has focused on Summer Olympic bids since 2003. It was officially awarded the 2028 Olympics 12 days ago.

Blackmun added Monday that he hopes multiple U.S. cities could participate in the IOC’s invitational phase for possible bids over the next year. That phase is for cities to receive feedback before formally deciding to put forward a bid.

IOC members are expected to vote in 2019 to determine the 2026 Winter Olympic host.

Sion, Switzerland, is the only city to confirm bid plans.

Probst, an IOC member, also expects Innsbruck, Austria, to bid to become the first city to host the Winter Olympics three times. A public vote for a possible Innsbruck bid to move forward is scheduled for Oct. 15.

Calgary and Stockholm could also bid.

I think [IOC president] Thomas Bach has publicly stated that he would like to see the Winter Games return to a more traditional location,” Probst said. “So, to me, that’s code for Europe or North America. … We’ll have to monitor that, see what the situation looks like and then develop our strategy for whether we’re going to bid for the next Winter Games or longer than that.”

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MORE: Austria looks into multi-country 2026 Winter Olympic bid

USOC supports athletes expressing themselves after anthem protests

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PARK CITY, Utah — The U.S. Olympic Committee supports American athletes expressing themselves at winter sports events leading up to the PyeongChang Olympics.

Some MLB, NFL and WNBA players kneeled and remained in locker rooms during the national anthem at games over the weekend.

USOC CEO Scott Blackmun was asked Monday if the USOC would support American athletes peacefully protesting during the national anthem this fall and winter.

“I think the athletes that you see protesting are protesting because they love their country, not because they don’t,” Blackmun said at a pre-Winter Games media summit. “We fully support the right of our athletes and everybody else to express themselves. The Olympic Games themselves, there is a prohibition on all forms of demonstrations, political or otherwise. And that applies no matter what side of the issue you’re taking, no matter where you’re from. … But we certainly recognize the importance of athletes being able to express themselves.”

Blackmun mentioned Tommie Smith and John Carlos‘ raised-fist salute at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. The USOC has honored Smith and Carlos. They visited the White House last year with the Rio Olympic team.

“That was a seminal moment not only for the Olympic Movement, but for the U.S. Olympic team,” Blackmun said of the 1968 podium gesture. “Our stance on this has been fairly clear. We certainly recognize the rights of the athletes to express themselves.”

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