Ashley Wagner, Nathan Chen make for contrasting favorites at U.S. Championships

1 Comment

Ashley Wagner and Nathan Chen trained on the same ice for the last three years. They enter this week’s U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Kansas City as favorites, but took different routes to arrive there.

Wagner, 25, seeks her fourth national title, following the worst Grand Prix result of her 10-year career.

Still, Wagner is the 2016 World Championships silver medalist, which carries the most weight of all with the PyeongChang Olympics coming in 13 months.

Wagner, the most accomplished U.S. women’s singles skater in a decade, can become the oldest U.S. women’s singles champion in 90 years.

“Mentally, I’m feeling very confident,” Wagner said last week. “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.”

Chen, 17, is an even bigger favorite in the men’s field. The Salt Lake City native is already one of the most accomplished young skaters in U.S. history, taking two novice and two junior national titles.

In this his first senior international season, Chen had the best fall series of a U.S. man since Evan Lysacek won gold at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Chen’s autumn culminated with a silver medal at December’s Grand Prix Final, beating the reigning Olympic and world champions in the free skate.

This week, Chen can become the youngest U.S. men’s singles champion in 51 years. He would do it one year after taking bronze and suffering a hip injury later that day that required season-ending surgery.

“I never thought that I would get there that fast,” Chen said.

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

Chen was already working with Armenian coach Rafael Arutyunyan in Los Angeles when Wagner joined the training group in the middle of 2013.

Chen was barely 14 years old at the time, but Wagner, by then already a two-time U.S. champion, had learned about him back in 2010.

Wagner saw Chen win the U.S. Championships novice division at age 10, beating skaters six and seven years older than him, including her younger brother, Austin.

“And my brother retired after that year because of Nathan Chen,” Wagner said with a hint of humor.

Under Arutyunyan, a noted jumping technician, Wagner developed into the top consistent challenger to the dominant Russians.

She endured failure — finishing fourth at the 2014 U.S. Championships and last-place programs at the Grand Prix Final. She experienced success — national and international feats not done by an American since Michelle Kwan.

Most of the U.S. skaters whom Wagner came up with have retired. Her closest recent domestic rivals — Olympic teammates Gracie Gold and Polina Edmunds — struggled with poor performances and injury, respectively, in the last year.

If Wagner prevails as she should in Kansas City, the next step is returning to the podium at the world championships in two months in Helsinki, where three Russians, three Japanese and a Canadian will try to keep her off of it. A second straight world medal would make Wagner the best U.S. hope for an Olympic women’s singles medal since 2006.

“The biggest thing about her is her mental toughness,” Chen said of Wagner, “especially when she goes to competitions and zones in on what she wants to do and comes out with the result she wants.”

MORE: Gracie Gold makes desperate move after rock bottom

Mental toughness is something Chen hopes to develop with experience. He already owns the physical tools, most notably an arsenal of quadruple jumps.

Chen, whose adorable 2010 U.S. Championships exhibition at age 10 aired on NBC, is now electrifying. He attempts six quads combined in two programs.

At his last event, the Grand Prix Final in December, Chen recorded the highest free skate score, bettering Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan and world champion Javier Fernandez of Spain, who both were off their game. He finished second overall behind Hanyu, becoming the second-youngest men’s medalist in the event’s 22-year history.

NBC Olympics analyst Tara Lipinski, who took 1998 Olympic gold at age 15, has, like Wagner, known about Chen since 2010. Lipinski was in Spokane, Wash., for those U.S. Championships seven years ago.

“I remember thinking, oh boy, this kid is so talented, but not really thinking much of it because he was itty-bitty,” Lipinski said of Chen, who has grown a foot since 2010, to 5 feet, 5 inches. “Over time and with growth spurts, everything can change. But that’s why he’s so special. Every year, he improves. You talk about this quad revolution. He’s leading it.”

Chen responded to critics of his artistic skills this season by spending weeks away from Arutyunyan, which the coach supported.

“There is a brain of an adult in this kid’s head,” Arutyunyan said.

Chen went from Los Angeles to work in Michigan under Marina Zoueva, a Russian known for coaching the last two Olympic champion ice dance teams.

NBC Olympic analysts Johnny Weir and Lipinski saw an upgrade in Chen’s artistic components in his fall competitions. If he can challenge the top international skaters artistically, he can beat them with his jumping strength.

“The way that men’s figure skating is progressing, it’s about the quad game and how many you can do,” Wagner said. “It’s starting to look a little bit like ping-pong on the ice. … Going into the next couple of years, the ones that are going to stand out are the ones that do quads and are able to have a full, well-rounded program.”

In Sochi, the U.S. earned no singles figure skating medals for the first time since 1936.

The U.S. hasn’t earned men’s and women’s figure skating medals in the same Olympics since 2002, but it’s certainly looking possible with 13 months until PyeongChang.

“Of course, my goal would be to win the Olympics,” Chen said. “I feel like that’s everyone goal. It’s still a goal for me, but we’ll see how realistic it becomes over the next season.”

MORE: Jason Brown again slowed by injury going into U.S. Championships

Michael Phelps on Ledecky, Bolt, McGregor, Boomer’s first words

AP
Leave a comment

NEW YORK — Michael Phelps sat down for a quick Q&A last week while visiting to promote Colgate’s #EveryDropCounts campaign

(condensed and lightly edited)

OlympicTalk: What was your favorite moment of the summer’s world swimming championships?

Phelps: I loved watching Caeleb [Dressel] do some of the things that he did. It’ll be interesting to see what his event program looks like over the next couple of years to see if he adds or takes away any events. It’s good to start at world championships and show and see that you can do it at a world championships. Now I would say it’s really trying to perfect that schedule. We started doing a schedule like that in ’02 or ’03, and it took us four to six years to really kind of figure out what the best way to do it was. We perfected it by Beijing.

Also Katie [Ledecky]. I’ve talked to Katie a little bit over the last couple of weeks. It’s fun to see and hear her excitement level. Coming off a world championships after an Olympic year is always challenging. The world championships after an Olympics is usually kind of blah. It’s going to be fun to watch her transition the next couple of years and see what happens.

It’s fun watching some of these younger guys now step up, younger women step up and swim some of the times they’re swimming. I literally said to [my agent] this morning, “I probably could come back, but I just have zero desire.”

Like, I have a friend who is in the process of making a choice to continue or to stop [competing]. I was like, yeah, it’s fun, I’m finally back into working out again, like, pretty big, where I’ve lost probably 12 to 15 pounds since my highest point. It’s just getting back into that rhythm. It’s something for me that’s so easy and so simple to do. I was like, “I think it would be really easy to do it [return to competitive swimming]. I just don’t have any goals. I have nothing to come back and want to do.”

OlympicTalk: What sense did you get from Ledecky of what she thought about her world championships performance?

Phelps: It’s tough to always drop time, right? I went almost six years without doing a best time [from 2011 Worlds to his 4x100m free relay split at the 2016 Olympics]. It’s annoying. It’s the worst. I absolutely hated it. But if you do have meaningful goals, and they do keep getting you out of bed every single morning to go in and try and perfect them, then you’ll be fine.

From an outsider looking on, my opinion, it’s hard to watch when she’s reached this high point where she’s basically broken every single world record countless times — over and over and over and over and over again. There are times you’ll plateau a hair. It just depends on what you do to make that next step. For me, I’m hoping she jumps. I’m hoping she takes a huge hurdle.

I basically just reached out and was like, I’d love to help. There are very few people that understand what you’re going through. Let me know if I can do anything.

It’s going to be fun to watch her really, I would say, almost go back to the basics. She obviously knows what to do to be the best. She’s proved it time and time again. It’ll be fun to watch her grow.

OlympicTalk: So you reached out to her?

Phelps: I reached out to her. Just checking to make sure she’s OK. There’s probably three or four people on the national team that I’ll talk to.

OlympicTalk: I’m wondering who that swimmer is who is thinking whether to come back.

Phelps: You’ll see soon enough.

OlympicTalk: American?

Phelps: Yeah.

OlympicTalk: Do you consider Dressel’s seven golds at worlds, with two in the new mixed-gender relays, the same as your feat in 2007?

Phelps: Obviously, seven gold medals is seven gold medals, right? For me, [2007 World Championships] was the first time I could have won eight [gold medals], but we DQed in morning [medley] relay.

You can’t take anything away from winning seven gold medals, right? There are very few people who have had that opportunity. It doesn’t matter if it’s a relay or an individual event. A relay event is kind of more challenging because we all have to work together.

I’m not a huge fan of the mixed relays, but I’m not in the sport anymore. But I think it is kind of cool that it’s basically a chess match, right? Try to figure out the best order [of male and female swimmers].

It’s going to be really challenging for anybody to put a team together that can beat the U.S. Our depth is just ridiculous.

OlympicTalk: Chase Kalisz said before worlds that you said some things to him after his Olympic silver medal that he won’t forget. What can you share about that?

Phelps: I just said if he wants to win a gold medal, make sure he always remembers what a silver feels like. There’s going to be countless days where he’s probably not going to want to go to work out. Or he’s probably not going to want to make that extra little bit of commitment to make sure he has a better chance to win that gold medal next time.

And you have every four years to have that chance. I just want to make sure the kid’s ready. I was always somebody who worked better with past experiences. If I had a defeat, that’s what made me get out of bed in the morning, to make sure I did not have that feeling of getting second. I hated getting second.

And I know how bad he wants to win [an Olympic] gold medal. He knows what he’s doing. He’s swimming well. He’s training well. He had a great year [sweeping the 200m and 400m individual medleys at worlds].

OlympicTalk: Did you watch Usain Bolt’s last races, and did it make you think of anything, the way it ended for him?

Phelps: I’m sure that’s probably not how he wanted it to end, somebody who has had great success for three Olympics, right?

Who knows, maybe he does come back and do something again? For me, that was the biggest thing of why I wanted to come back. I had that 400m IM and 200m butterfly in 2012 that just left a sour taste in my mouth. I didn’t want that for the rest of my life.

OlympicTalk: Have you heard anything from Conor McGregor?

Phelps: No. I don’t think I will. I don’t think he’ll reach out for a race.

OlympicTalk: Has Boomer spoken his first words?

Phelps: He wakes up every morning and screams “Da-Da!”

OlympicTalk: So does that count?

Phelps: I’m counting it. He said “Da-Da” before “Mom,” so yeah. I mean, that’s all he says. I’m the morning guy. I take the morning shift. So every morning he’s yelling dad at the top of his lungs.

OlympicTalk: You’ve spoken about your campaign with Colgate before. What’s new this time around?

Phelps: We’re becoming a family four, five if you add [eight-time Olympic medalist] Allison [Schmitt], and if you think, the average family per day can waste up to 400 gallons. We can waste so much water. It’s not just brushing your teeth or taking a shower. You think about everything else that goes into that. We have a big yard, so water in the yard. Always trying to make sure we’re saving every single drop. It’s something we can all work on together.

Since we first launched the campaign, I think I’ve found more and more that people are coming up and being like, every time I brush my teeth now I think of you and turn off the water. People are doing it, and we want to make another push to get people on board.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

VIDEO: Phelps says he could come back if he wanted to

Lolo Jones the latest bobsledder to suffer concussion effects

Lolo Jones
AP
Leave a comment

Lolo Jones said she suffered concussion symptoms after a Wednesday bobsled accident and that it’s “the weirdest injury” of her two-sport career.

“I’ve learned a lot in the past week about concussions and treatments,” was posted on her Instagram on Sunday. “This was the weirdest injury I’ve had in my life. Some days I would wake up feeling great and then one thing would have me dismantled in minutes. I’m grateful to sports med, my coaches and my teammates all who shut me down to protect my health.

Jones, one of 10 Americans to compete in both the Summer and Winter Olympics, joked that she used her free time off social media the last few days “to call up all of my exes because clearly I wasn’t thinking right.”

Jones was one of six push athletes named to the U.S. national team earlier this month. It’s expected that three of those six will make the Olympic team this winter.

The World Cup season starts the second weekend of November in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Concussions are not uncommon for bobsledders. Even with helmets, their high-speed crashes are high-risk.

Elana Meyers Taylor, a two-time Olympic medalist, suffered a concussion in a race crash on Jan. 26, 2015. The after-effects lasted into the following season, causing her to miss four races.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: U.S. bobsledders remember Steven Holcomb as Olympic season starts