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U.S. Figure Skating Championships pairs preview

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The U.S. pairs field opened up when Alexa Scimeca and Christopher Knierim, the top American team internationally in recent seasons, pulled out of the national championships due to Scimeca’s September stomach surgery that kept them out all fall.

“Without Scimeca and Knierim, I don’t think the United States has a team that can challenge for the top six, or some moments, even the top 10 in the world,” NBC Olympics analyst Johnny Weir said. “Scimeca and Knierim are, far and away, the best team in the United States.”

The remaining field this week is led by Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea, who upset Scimeca and Knierim for last year’s national title.

Kayne and O’Shea followed that up with the exact same finishes in the fall Grand Prix series as a year ago, opening up a question of whether they can repeat in Kansas City. Kayne’s knee injury hasn’t helped matters.

Enter Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier, who missed all of last season due to Denney’s knee surgery. They were looking strong until their most recent lower-level event in December, where they were fourth and finished behind another American pair, Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc.

Regardless of the two pairs that advance from the U.S. championships to the world championships in two months, it’s clear the U.S. is still lacking consistency in its weakest of the four disciplines.

None of the contending pairs after Kayne and O’Shea and Denney and Frazier have spent two full season together.

“Breakups, makeups, partner changes, coaching changes,” Weir said. “There’s a very high divorce rate within the pairs community of the United States compared to the rest of the world, where teams stick it out through thick and thin. As soon as the going gets tough for the U.S. pairs, they break up.”

Thursday
Pairs short program — 5:30-7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN | STREAM LINKSTART ORDER
Saturday
Pairs free skate; free dance — 3-6 p.m. ET, NBC | STREAM LINK

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

Tarah Kayne/Danny O’Shea
Ages: 23/25
Hometown: Ellenton, Fla.
2016 U.S. champions
13th at 2016 World Championships

Kayne and O’Shea fell to the No. 2 U.S. pair at last year’s worlds, behind Scimeca and Knierim, who were ninth. In the fall, they had the third-best total score among U.S. pairs, nearly 20 points behind Denney and Frazier.

Johnny Weir’s Take: They haven’t had the most successful international season. They are coming in as defending national champions, which is a huge amount of pressure.

Haven Denney/Brandon Frazier
Ages: 21/24
Hometown: Geneva, Ill.
2015 U.S. silver medalists
2014, 2016 Skate America silver medalists

Denney and Frazier came back after a full season off and repeated their best senior international result, a second place at Skate America in October. Their total was a full 16 points better than the next-best U.S pair this season. Denney and Frazier were 2013 World junior champions but hope to better their only senior worlds finish, 12th in 2015.

Tara Lipinski’s Take: Obviously, in American pairs, we haven’t been the strongest in the world. But if you’re going to look at who’s holding us up right now, it’s Denney and Frazier.

Marissa Castelli/Mervin Tran
Ages: 26/26
Hometown: Montreal
2016 U.S. bronze medalists
Castelli: 2013, 2014 U.S. champion with Simon Shnapir

Castelli, a 2014 Olympian and team event bronze medalist with Shnapir, paired with Tran two years ago, but their first full season wasn’t until 2015-16. They finished sixth at the 2015 U.S. Championships and earned bronze last year, just missing the two-pair world championships team.

Tara Lipinski’s Take: Last year, I was so excited when they were such a new pair. So much to learn and getting to know each other. Marissa, looking back at her Olympic experience, I think she’s such a firecracker. I think she’s meant to be a competitive, winning pairs skater. You hope that this matchup can be right.

Deanna Stellato/Nathan Bartholomay
Ages: 33/27
Hometown: Ellenton, Fla.
Stellato: 2000 World junior silver medalist (singles)
Bartholomay: 12th at 2014 Olympics with Felicia Zhang

It’s not often in pairs where the woman is six years older than the man, but this team is truly unique. Stellato was the 2000 World junior silver medalist but ended her singles career as a teen due to injuries. After more than a decade away from competition, she joined the 2014 Olympian Bartholomay before this season. The duo has the fifth-highest score this season of the pairs in the U.S. Championships field.

Johnny Weir’s Take: Deanna was one of my favorite skaters when I was little. We traveled together on the Junior Grand Prix, and I always loved watching her. Having seen a couple of small video clips of them, I’m excited to see how they develop and how they perform underneath the bright lights. She has a very wonderful, experienced partner.

Ashley Cain/Timothy LeDuc
Ages: 21/26
Hometown: Euless, Texas
Cain: 2011 U.S. junior champion with Joshua Reagan

Cain and LeDuc may be the hottest team going into nationals. They outscored Denney and Frazier at a lower-level event last month with their best score in three lower-level events this season.

MORE: Olympic pairs champions skip 2016-17 season

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 at pre-Games competition.

“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 was correct to reference the Olympic Charter, which states that “no kind of demonstration … is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”

Blackmun mentioned Tommie Smith and John Carlos‘ raised-fist salute at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, which got them kicked out of the Games.

The USOC has since 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.”

Olympic hopefuls were peppered with questions about possible protests at the media summit.

“One of the proudest parts of being an American is the ability to have freedom of speech,” four-time Olympian Julia Mancuso said. “I really look up to athletes who take a stand for what they believe in. I really believe as athletes that compete for Team USA, when it comes to the Olympics, I like to think it’s a special event. Not like the NFL or pro sports teams that compete every weekend. For us, it’s every four years. I’m proud for athletes that stand up for what they believe in if they really want to have a message to get out. But I like to think of us all as patriotic.”

Elana Meyers Taylor, a two-time Olympic bobsled medalist, is the daughter of a U.S. Marine who served in Kuwait and spent summers in the 1980s playing at Atlanta Falcons training camps.

She said any decisions on demonstrations or whether she attends a post-Olympics Team USA White House visit come secondary to her pursuit of making the Olympic team this winter.

“I can’t afford to focus on what I would do in that situation or how I would react,” Meyers Taylor said, adding that anything would be a “game-time decision.” “Maybe the social climate changes a little bit [before the Olympics]. … There’s a lot to consider.”

Aja Evans, a 2014 Olympic bobsled bronze medalist, the sister of former NFL defensive tackle Fred Evans, did not say that she would follow the football players’ lead.

“I honor and commend anyone that does that,” Evans said. “My way of showing my stance is to continue to try to be a positive influence for my city, for my country. I’m representing Team USA the best way I can.”

NCAA hockey players Troy Terry and Jordan Greenway, both prospective Olympians with the NHL not participating, said they didn’t envision taking a knee during the “Star-Spangled Banner.”

“I’ve always stood for the national anthem,” Greenway said. “I always will.”

Olympic freestyle skiing medalists Maddie Bowman and Gus Kenworthy have said they plan to skip the traditional Team USA post-Olympic White House visit due to the current presidential administration. Figure skater Ashley Wagner, too, said she would not go if she had to choose today.

Kenworthy said he was shocked that President Donald Trump believed that athletes kneeling during the national anthem disrespected the flag.

“Those people [servicemen and women] are fighting for the freedom to express their beliefs,” Kenworthy said. “I feel proud to be from a country where we have the right to be able to kind of say what we feel, speak up for what we believe in. I feel that people kneeling before a game is actually quite admirable.”

Kenworthy didn’t rule out a personal demonstration at the Olympics, should he qualify again, but knows he could be stripped of a medal for doing so.

“I’m not saying that I would want to be dictated by fear, and if I was to get a medal and be too scared that it would be taken away from me,” he said. “I think that there’s a way to do things in a way that’s not going to sabotage yourself. You can stand up for something and not throw yourself under the bus.”

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U.S. Olympic men’s hockey player from 2006 has shot at PyeongChang

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PARK CITY, Utah — Though no active NHL players will be in PyeongChang, veteran NHL forward and free agent Brian Gionta could very well play for his second U.S. Olympic team in February.

A USA Hockey official confirmed Monday that the 2006 Olympian Gionta “has a very decent opportunity” to be part of the 2018 Olympic team.

That came in response to a Buffalo radio report that Gionta said it’s looking good for him to play for Team USA.

Gionta, 38, played 15 NHL seasons through last year but is currently unsigned as the NHL preseason continues. The U.S. Olympic team of 25 players named around Jan. 1 is likely to include very few, if any, players with Gionta’s experience.

Gionta was seen at the Rochester (N.Y.) AHL club’s practice Monday (but not taking part), according to media in that area. Gionta could play for an AHL club and be eligible for PyeongChang. USA Hockey wants prospective Olympians to be active in the AHL, NCAA or a European league.

Gionta’s agent has not responded to a request for comment on his Olympic prospects on Monday. Earlier in the summer, Gionta’s agent said that the skater was considering the Olympics.

Gionta led the 2006 U.S. Olympic team with four goals. The Americans lost in the quarterfinals to Finland, their worst Olympic result over the last four Winter Games.

That came during Gionta’s most productive NHL season — 48 goals (sixth in the league) and 41 assists for the New Jersey Devils.

Another Olympian — Ryan Malone from 2010 — embarked on a comeback this preseason and could pursue the Olympics. He has been in camp with the Minnesota Wild. If he doesn’t make the Wild, Malone could play on an AHL contract and be eligible for the Olympics.

USA Hockey confirmed that other players in the potential Olympic pool — at some 100 players at the moment — include Nathan Gerbe. Gerbe, a 30-year-old forward, played 394 NHL games between the Buffalo Sabres and Carolina Hurricanes from 2008-16 before joining the Swiss League.

Another is goalie Ryan Zapolski, who ranks third in the KHL in goals-against average this season.

John-Michael Liles, a 2006 Olympic defenseman and unsigned NHL veteran, is not interested in continuing his career in a non-NHL league to be considered for the Olympics, USA Hockey said.

U.S. general manager Jim Johannson said this summer that he was interested in some players who “have a rich history in the NHL and with USA Hockey that we think could potentially really help this roster.” Johannson wouldn’t name names then.

Johansson said a “long list” of potential players for the final 25-man roster must be submitted in September.

A U.S. team of primarily European-based players will take part in a tournament in November in Germany. That roster is expected to be named in October.

The U.S. staff will also look at NCAA and AHL players ahead of naming the PyeongChang team.

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