U.S. Figure Skating Championships women’s preview

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For the last few years, the U.S. Championships has been all about the Ashley WagnerGracie Gold rivalry. While Wagner and Gold are both podium threats again this week, the individual story for each has taken interesting turns in the last year.

Recall that last year Wagner had to rally just to finish third at the U.S. Championships. But she followed that up with a silver medal at the world championships, becoming the first U.S. woman to earn an individual Olympic or worlds medal in a decade.

Then Wagner won Skate America in October. In her 10th senior season, Wagner seemed to have it figured out as much as ever. Until her next event in China in November, when Wagner finished sixth, her worst result in 25 career Grand Prix starts.

Which Wagner will show up in Kansas City?

Then there’s Gold, who won last year’s nationals with a magnificent free skate. Gold followed that by topping the short program at the 2016 World Championships, putting her in position to end the U.S. medal drought.

But Gold had the sixth-best free skate at worlds, stumbling to fourth place overall. The sting of that performance stayed with her for just about the rest of 2016. Gold struggled so much in the fall season that it wouldn’t be shocking to see her miss the nationals podium for the first time, and perhaps not make the three-woman world championships team.

Which Gold will show up in Kansas City?

Behind Wagner and Gold are skaters who have experienced up-and-down careers like 2010 Olympian Mirai Nagasu and Courtney Hicks as well as younger skaters who have developed in this Olympic cycle — Mariah BellKaren Chen and Amber Glenn.

Who knows how they will perform under the pressure of a U.S. Championships, one year before the Olympics.

“The ladies is a real mixed bag,” NBC Olympics analyst Johnny Weir said.

Thursday
Women’s short program — 9:30 p.m.-midnight ET, NBCSN | STREAM LINKSTART ORDER
Saturday
Women’s free skate — 8-11 p.m. ET, NBC | STREAM LINK

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

Ashley Wagner
Age: 25
Hometown: Los Angeles
2016 World silver medalist
Three-time U.S. champion

Wagner can become the oldest U.S. women’s champion since 1927. If she skates like she did at Skate America, that should be enough. Wagner’s score there was the highest by an American woman this season by nearly five points, and she wasn’t even at her best. If she skates like she did last time out at Cup of China in November, Wagner will not win her fourth national title this week.

Johnny Weir’s Take: The clear favorite. She has had the most consistent and promising season of the U.S. ladies, despite the fact that she didn’t make the Grand Prix Final. Her consistency has been head-and-shoulders above that of Gracie Gold. If she skates the way Ashley Wagner skates, given Gracie Gold’s instability lately, it is her title to lose.

MORE: Wagner, Chen share ice, favorite status for U.S. Champs

Gracie Gold
Age: 21
Hometown: Los Angeles
Two-time U.S. champion
Fourth at 2014 Olympics, 2015 World Championships, 2016 World Championships

Gold mulled skipping the fall season, still depressed after falling off the worlds podium. After lacing up her skates, she finished fifth and eighth in her two Grand Prix starts, then a desultory sixth at a lower-level event in December that caused her to seek out an old coach for desperate help. Gold echoed renewed confidence in speaking to the media last week, but will it translate to her programs?

Tara Lipinski’s Take: You never really know which form Gracie is going to show up in. The only thing that’s really blocking her is the mind. That can always turn around very quickly. It’s much harder to turn around a technical problem.

MORE: Gold finally forgives herself for worlds failure

Mirai Nagasu
Age: 23
Hometown: Colorado Springs
2008 U.S. champion
Fourth at 2010 Olympics

With Gold’s struggles and the absence of Olympian Polina Edmunds, Nagasu is arguably a top-three favorite this week. Especially if she attempts and hits the triple Axel she’s been practicing. What a comeback it could be for Nagasu, who won her only U.S. title nine years ago and last qualified outright for a worlds team in 2010.

Tara Lipinski’s Take: She’s always the wild card. She’s been in it so long. She trains so hard, and she wants it so badly. When you look at her track record, it sort of seems that one competition she does well, the next one is a disaster.

Mariah Bell
Age: 20
Hometown: Lakewood, Calif.
2016 Skate America silver medalist

Bell is this year’s new face. She finished second to her new training partner Wagner at Skate America with the second-best total score by a U.S. woman this season. However, Bell scored 24 fewer points at her most recent competition in November.

Tara Lipinski’s Take: She’s flying under the radar. It’s all fitting together for her right now. This is a key chance for her to make her mark at nationals, especially depending on what Gracie skates like.

Courtney Hicks
Age: 21
Hometown: Aliso Viejo, Calif.
2016 Rostelecom Cup bronze medalist
2015 NHK Trophy silver medalist

Hicks is an annual name on the contender list but has never capitalized on her athleticism to land in the U.S. Championships top three in four appearances. Hicks and Wagner are the only U.S. women to make Grand Prix podiums in both of the last two seasons, but her top total score this season ranks sixth among U.S. women.

Karen Chen
Age: 17
Hometown: Riverside, Calif.
2015 U.S. bronze medalist

Chen stunned by taking bronze at nationals two years ago, becoming the youngest woman to finish that high since Nagasu took the title in 2008. Chen hasn’t followed that up with much international success, but she still has time to develop.

Amber Glenn
Age: 17
Hometown: Dallas
2014 U.S. junior champion

Glenn showed up on the radar by topping Gold at a lower-level event in December. Her score there ranks her No. 5 among U.S. women this season, and she’s the only contender on this list who hasn’t competed in the Grand Prix series. See how she fares with a little more attention this week.

MORE: Polina Edmunds’ injury keeps her out for a year … and counting

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.