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Nathan Chen ushers in new era with record-breaking nationals short program

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KANSAS CITY — Nathan Chen is in position to become the youngest U.S. men’s champion in 51 years and, as he said Friday night, help put the U.S. “back on the map” in men’s skating.

Chen, 17 and already an Olympic medal contender, tallied 106.39 points in the short program (video here), taking Jeremy Abbott‘s U.S. Championships record of 99.86 from 2014 off the books.

He carries a whopping 17.72-point lead into Sunday’s free skate (4 p.m. ET, NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app).

Chen, a past U.S. novice and junior champion, landed two quadruple jumps and continued his rise in a breakout senior season after taking silver at the Grand Prix Final last month.

He said after his skate that he’s ready to handle the tag of Olympic medal contender and to go for the world title in Helsinki in March.

“I’m able to stack up against these top-level skaters,” said Chen, who beat the reigning Olympic and world champions in the Grand Prix Final free skate. “That’s something I’ve strived for my whole life. I don’t think it’s something I should necessarily be afraid of, something that I’ve wanted my whole life.”

Chen leads the U.S. Championships over a member of the old guard, Ross Miner, a 25-year-old who made three straight U.S. podiums from 2011-13 but none since.

Vincent Zhou, who turned 16 three months ago, was third, but within .82 of Miner. Full results are here.

“Nathan Chen has always been a few steps ahead of me,” said Zhou, who won the 2013 U.S. junior title and finished fifth at the 2016 World Junior Championships, taking two years off in between to recover from a torn meniscus in his right knee and focus on school. “When he was intermediate, I was just a little preliminary admiring him. Now it feels amazing to start closing the gap.”

The U.S. will send two men to the world championships in two months, selected after Sunday’s free skate, and they likely won’t be the usual names. Neither Chen nor Zhou has been to senior worlds, and Miner’s last appearance was 2013.

The 2016 U.S. champion, Adam Rippon, is not competing this week due to a season-ending broken foot. The 2015 U.S. champion, Jason Brown, is in fourth place, 8.62 behind third-place Zhou. Max Aaron, the 2013 U.S. champion, fell twice and tumbled to 12th place Friday.

“It just wasn’t a good day,” Aaron said. “It’s not me.”

There are no more pressure-filled world championships than those one year before the Olympics, where skaters earn Olympic entries for their countries.

“That would definitely be a massive step up that I haven’t prepared for in the fullest, but it would be an absolute honor if I were to be able to go,” Zhou said. “But, for now, I’m setting more of my sights on junior worlds.”

Hopes will mostly be riding with Chen, who has a shot to become the first U.S. men’s medalist at an Olympics or worlds since Evan Lysacek took the 2010 Olympic title.

“We’re pushing back up to where we should be,” Chen said of the U.S. men. “We kind of sunk a little bit, but I think me and some of the other skaters coming up at this event will help bring the U.S. back on the map.”

The U.S. Championships continue Saturday with the pairs free skate, free dance and women’s free skate, with coverage starting at 3 p.m. ET on NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app.

Check out NBCsports.com/USFIGS for all-access coverage all weekend.

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Men’s Short Program
1. Nathan Chen — 106.39
2. Ross Miner — 88.67
3. Vincent Zhou — 87.85
4. Jason Brown — 79.23
5. Grant Hochstein — 79.10

Diana Taurasi opens door for 2020 Olympics

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Diana Taurasi may not be done with the U.S. national team after all.

The four-time Olympic champion “hopes to play through the 2020 Summer Games,” according to ESPN.com.

Taurasi, 34, said playing at Tokyo 2020 “would be incredible” after speaking with U.S. women’s national team director Carol Callan about her Team USA future earlier this month, according to the Arizona Republic. Taurasi recently signed a multiyear extension with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, though the exact contract length wasn’t disclosed.

“It would be probably the biggest accomplishment if I can make it to five Olympics, but that’s so far down the road,” Taurasi said, according to the newspaper. “I’ve always said I’m really worried about these next couple of months with Phoenix then I’ll regroup and talk to USA Basketball again.

“There’s so many great young player that if it’s time to move on and go that direction, that’s great. If they want me to around to help and win another gold medal, I’ll do anything they want me to do.”

New U.S. coach Dawn Staley, an Olympic teammate of Taurasi’s in 2004, said in March that her gut feeling was that Taurasi would return for Tokyo 2020.

Taurasi said in August, right after the Rio final, that she had likely played her last Olympic game, ending her career 32-0 at the Olympics.

“This was probably my last one,” Taurasi said on NBCSN. “I’ll have a talk about it with coach, but, for right now, I’m settled with four, and I feel good about it.”

If Taurasi plays at Tokyo 2020, she can match Teresa Edwards‘ American record of playing in five Olympic basketball tournaments. (So can Sue Bird, who is two years older than Taurasi but hasn’t committed to a 2020 run.)

Taurasi can also take aim at the U.S. Olympic basketball scoring record of 488 points held by Lisa Leslie. Taurasi is in second place with 379 points after Rio. She would need to average 13.7 points per game to surpass Leslie in Tokyo, assuming the U.S. plays its usual eight games. Taurasi averaged a career-high 15.6 in Rio.

Taurasi will be 38 years old in 2020. The oldest U.S. Olympic basketball player of all time was Tamika Catchings, who turned 37 two weeks before the Rio Games. Catchings has retired.

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Julia Mancuso pushes past hip injury for final Olympic run

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When Julia Mancuso was 18 years old, a doctor told the ski racer that she needed to make a choice.

Continue competing (Mancuso had already been to an Olympics at age 17) or live a healthy life.

Mancuso was born with hip displaysia, a misalignment of hip bones that causes the joint to deteriorate faster than normal. The doctor told Mancuso she needed reconstructive surgery.

“I left crying and never went back to that doctor,” she said.

Mancuso went to the slopes instead.

In 15 years since that doctor’s visit, she put together one of the greatest Alpine careers in U.S. history — four Olympic medals (most by a U.S. female skier), five world championships medals and 36 World Cup podiums.

The right hip problems persisted. Mancuso did undergo hip surgery after her breakthrough Olympic giant slalom title in 2006.

The pain returned and, by 2015, became unbearable.

She underwent another hip surgery, this one much more complicated. The operation fixed cartilage damage, cleaned up bone spurs and put more anchors in her labrum because of a slight tear with doctors warning that her hip would probably be 90 percent of what it was, according to The Associated Press.

Mancuso spent six months on crutches. When she returns to the World Cup circuit this fall, Mancuso will have gone more than two and a half years between races.

“It’s really hard for me to walk normally,” Mancuso said last month. “A lot of people ask me why I’m doing it [skiing], because I can’t even walk. Why would I ski? The truth is, skiing is way easier. Skiing is fun because it is easy, and my body loves it. My body loves to ski, and my body needs to ski. … It improves my quality of life.”

Because of her hip, Mancuso said PyeongChang will be her fifth and final Olympics, should she make it there. She might not compete beyond next season.

The U.S. women’s speed team is deep — Lindsey Vonn, World Cup podium finishers Laurenne Ross, Jackie Wiles and Stacey Cook, the young Breezy Johnson. Even Mikaela Shiffrin dabbles. A maximum of four women per nation can start an Olympic race.

The super combined, where Mancuso earned silver and bronze medals at the last two Olympics, appears to be her best shot.

Mancuso is nothing if not dedicated, evidenced by Instagram Stories workout diaries. This complements her laid-back lifestyle, spending half her time in Fiji with her husband of five months and much of the other half in Maui.

She already has post-PyeongChang plans, to honeymoon in Tonga and dive with whales.

Before that, Mancuso hopes to have one more surprise Olympic season.

In 2006, she made her first World Cup podium two weeks before the Torino Winter Games, then won the giant slalom in Torino.

In 2010, she took silver in the Vancouver downhill and super combined despite making zero World Cup podiums in the previous two years.

In 2014, Mancuso snagged combined bronze thanks to the fastest downhill run in Sochi. That came during a season where her best World Cup finish was seventh.

Just making the Olympic team would mean history. No U.S. woman has competed in five Winter Games. Mancuso, halfpipe snowboarder Kelly Clark and cross-country skier Kikkan Randall can become the first.

Mancuso could also become the oldest female Olympic Alpine medalist.

“I’m excited to put my biggest and last effort into these next Olympics,” Mancuso said, “and then see what happens.”

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