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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

U.S. men look to fill Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte void at swim worlds

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With Michael Phelps retired and Ryan Lochte suspended, the superstars at the world swimming championships clearly lie on the women’s side.

But the men’s events will include world-record chasers, a stinging rivalry and, perhaps, the emergence of Phelps and Lochte’s successor as leading U.S. man.

Caeleb Dressel came through in Rio under arguably the most pressure of any swimmer, starting off the U.S. 4x100m freestyle relay team in his very first Olympic splash with a personal-best time.

Dressel, a 20-year-old who nearly quit swimming three years ago as the No. 1 recruit in the nation, has nine events to choose from at worlds in Budapest starting Sunday.

He qualified in four individual events — 50m and 100m butterflies and freestyles — and is eligible for all five relays (two mixed-gender).

In the last 15 years, only two U.S. men have raced in four individual events at a single Olympics or world championships — Phelps and Lochte.

Dressel is in the medal mix in all of his individual events, ranking No. 1 in the world this year in the 100m fly, No. 3 in the 50m free, No. 4 in the 100m free and No. 5 in the 50m fly. He is also almost guaranteed medals in any relays that he enters given the unmatched U.S. depth.

Dressel has never been to a worlds and raced just one individual event in Rio. He’s the potential breakout star on a U.S. team, surrounded by more proven names.

SWIMMING WORLDS: TV Schedule | Men’s Preview | Women’s Preview | Event Schedule

Ryan Murphy, who swam for the same Jacksonville, Fla., club team as Dressel, swept the backstrokes in Rio and broke the 100m back world record leading off the medley relay. That dominance has not quite carried over so far in 2017. Murphy ranks third in the world in the 100m and 200m backs this year.

Chase Kalisz, a longtime Phelps training partner in Baltimore, has followed up his Rio Olympic 400m individual medley silver medal well this year. He chopped two seconds off his personal best in the 200m IM and goes into Budapest ranked No. 1 in the world in the 400m IM by nearly a half-second.

The U.S. boasts more medal threats including Nathan Adrian (sprint freestyles), Townley Haas (200m free), Cody Miller and Kevin Cordes (breaststrokes), but nobody is a clear favorite.

The surest bets are world-record holders Adam Peaty and Ippei Watanabe in the breaststrokes and Italian Gregorio Paltrinieri in the 1500m free. Paltrinieri could challenge a five-year-old world record held by Sun Yang.

Speaking of Sun, the mercurial Chinese superstar is set to renew his rivalry with Australian Mack Horton. In Rio, Horton memorably called Sun “a drug cheat,” in reference to Sun’s three-month suspension in 2014 for using a banned stimulant.

Horton then went out and beat Sun in the 400m freestyle, dethroning the Olympic and world champion. Horton and Sun could face off in four individual events in Budapest.

Key men’s finals:

Sunday, July 23
400m freestyle — Sun has been two seconds faster than Horton this year
4x100m freestyle relay — Olympic silver medalist France won’t defend world title; U.S. favored

Monday, July 24
100m breaststroke — Peaty has the eight fastest times ever and fastest by .95 this year

Tuesday, July 25
200m freestyle — Haas the only man within .64 of Sun in 2017
100m backstroke — Rio silver medalist Xu Jiayu was .01 shy of Murphy’s WR in April

Wednesday, July 26
200m butterfly — Japan and Hungary lead the post-Phelps-era world; Chad le Clos ranks 8th in 2017
800m freestyle — Italian Gabriele Detti fastest in 2017 by six seconds, but slower than Sun’s winning times in 2011, 2013, 2015

Thursday, July 27
200m individual medley — Phelps, Lochte won the last 12 Olympic/world titles
100m freestyle — Reigning Olympic and world champions’ absences open door for Adrian, Dressel

Friday, July 28
200m backstroke — U.S. won 14 of the last 15 Olympic/world titles, including Murphy in Rio
200m breaststroke — Watanabe broke WR in January; surprise Olympic champ Dmitriy Balandin ranks No. 127 this year
4x200m freestyle relay — U.S., without Lochte, Phelps, looks to take world title back from Great Britain

Saturday, July 29
50m freestyle — Reigning Olympic and world champions’ absences open door for Adrian, Dressel
100m butterfly — Joseph Schooling eyes Phelps’ WR, but Dressel ranks No. 1 in 2017

Sunday, July 30
400m individual medley — Kalisz ranks No. 1 in 2017, but time is .94 slower than Kosuke Hagino in Rio
1500m freestyle — Sun holds WR of 14:31 but hasn’t broken 14:55 since 2014
4x100m medley relay — Great Britain will lean on Peaty to challenge U.S.

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MORE: Michael Phelps not itching to return like in 2013

Katie Ledecky eyes more history as women to star at swimming worlds

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The year after the Olympics isn’t always known for it, but there should be fireworks in the women’s events at the world swimming championships in Budapest next week.

Katie Ledecky could match Missy Franklin‘s record of six gold medals at a single worlds by swimming one more event than she did at the 2015 Worlds and 2016 Olympics. Judging by Ledecky’s times at the U.S. Championships last month, the rising Stanford sophomore is in her usual dominant form.

Hungarian Katinka Hosszu, swimming in front of her home fans, could try to equal Ledecky with four individual golds in backstrokes and individual medleys.

Swede Sarah Sjostrom could do the same in the 50m and 100m butterflies and freestyles, where world records are under threat.

Ledecky, Hosszu and Sjostrom are all bidding to become the first women to three-peat in an individual event at worlds.

Then there’s the return of the greatest rivalry in swimming. After their memorable Rio duel, King and Yulia Efimova rank Nos. 1 and 2 in the world this year in all three breaststrokes.

Spain’s Mireia Belmonte and American Leah Smith have never won an individual world title, but they could be the busiest swimmers of all next week.

Belmonte could race 7,4000 total meters if she makes every event final. Smith could get up to 7,000 meters. Both would outdistance Ledecky and Hosszu in mileage.

SWIMMING WORLDS: TV Schedule | Men’s Preview | Women’s Preview | Event Schedule

The women’s program could have been even more loaded if not for two notable absences. Australian Cate Campbell, the 100m freestyle world-record holder, is sitting out world champs.

Australia beat the U.S. in the 4x100m free relay at the 2015 Worlds and 2016 Olympics, but without Campbell, the Americans are about even with the Aussies. Ledecky’s bid for six golds could hang on this race on the opening night.

Ledecky also greatly benefits from Sjostrom’s decision to skip the 200m freestyle. In Rio, Sjostrom was the closest swimmer to Ledecky in her individual events, coming .35 shy in the 200m free while outsplitting Ledecky in the final 50 meters.

Key women’s finals:

Sunday, July 23
400m freestyle — Ledecky hasn’t lost a 400m free since the 2012 Olympic Trials
4x100m freestyle relay — Showdown with Campbell-less Australia crucial for Ledecky’s six-gold bid

Monday, July 24
100m butterfly — Sjostrom’s only competition is her world record of 55.48
200m individual medley — Nobody has been within a second of Hosszu this year

Tuesday, July 25
100m backstroke — Kylie Masse was .09 off the longest-standing women’s swimming world record at Canadian Champs
1500m freestyle — Ledecky is 25 seconds faster than anyone else this year
100m breaststroke — Efimova is .13 faster than King this year

Wednesday, July 26
200m freestyle — Ledecky’s toughest individual event made easier by Sjostrom’s absence

Thursday, July 27
200m butterfly — Olympic champ Belmonte eyes first world title; Nos. 2, 3, 4 from Rio absent
4x200m freestyle relay — China is strong, but Ledecky is the U.S.’ ace in the hole

Friday, July 28
100m freestyle — Heavy favorite Sjostrom .02 off the world record in June
200m breaststroke — Efimova is two seconds faster than second-ranked King this year

Saturday, July 29
200m backstroke — Kathleen Baker can inherit throne from retired Maya DiRado 
800m freestyle — Likely Ledecky’s sixth and final event, could match Franklin’s gold record

Sunday, July 30
50m freestyle — No. of sub-24-second times this year — Sjostrom: 6; Rest of World: 0
400m individual medley — Hosszu, after breaking WR by two seconds in Rio, slower this year
4x100m medley relay — U.S. should gap Australia, China on breaststroke leg

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MORE: Michael Phelps not itching to return like in 2013

*Correction: The integrity of a Lilly King quote attributed to Agence France-Presse in earlier version of this story has been called into question and was removed.