Karen Chen holds off Ashley Wagner for shocking U.S. title

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KANSAS CITY — Karen Chen was as surprised as anyone that she won the U.S. title.

“I’m just in complete shock,” said Chen, who was eighth last year. “It was hard for me to believe that this day would come.”

Chen, 17, overcame nearly two seasons’ worth of struggles to win her first national championship Saturday night. She posted the highest short-program and free-skate scores and topped a field that included three Olympians.

Most notably Ashley Wagner, who finished second, 2.44 points behind. Wagner, a three-time U.S. champion and 2016 World silver medalist, just missed becoming the oldest women’s gold medalist in 90 years.

Wagner didn’t seem to mind her first U.S. silver medal, though, because she’s surely going to be on the three-woman world championships team named Sunday.

“This is perfect for me,” said Wagner, who came into the week as the clear favorite. “It gives me the opportunity to go in [to the world championships] with my head down and keep on working. I know where I lost my points. … I’m not planning on peaking here.”

Mariah Bell, who shares a coach with Wagner, jumped from sixth after the short program to finish third and likely lock down the last worlds spot. Full results are here.

Gracie Gold, who finished fourth at the Olympics and the last two worlds, tumbled to sixth place and is likely to miss worlds for the first time in her five-year senior career. Gold reflected on her disastrous season afterward.

It was also a heartbreaking day for 2010 Olympian Mirai Nagasu, who fell from second after the short program to finish fourth, 3.02 behind Bell.

Nagasu had four of her jumps called under-rotated in her free skate. Nagasu was heartbreakingly left off the 2014 Olympic team. It looks like she finished one spot shy of making the worlds team, which is chosen by a committee.

“I am speechless,” Nagasu said. “I knew I was ready, and I just didn’t deliver tonight. … This isn’t the way I wanted it to go, but I think that people are defined by how they react to things.”

Like Chen. The Fremont, Calif., native burst onto the scene two years ago, finishing third at nationals behind Wagner and Gold at age 15.

She was too young to be selected for the 2015 Worlds team. Little had been heard about Chen since (though plenty has been from U.S. men’s leader Nathan Chen, also 17 years old but unrelated).

She dropped to eighth at the 2016 U.S. Championships and came into Kansas City as the seventh-ranked U.S. woman this season. Struggling to find comfortable boots — a common skater problem — has plagued her. She went through 14 pairs in a four-month stretch.

But Chen felt plenty comfortable Thursday, performing a rare clean program for the lead.

“I skated the short of my dreams,” Chen said. “I wanted to follow it up with a close to perfect long.”

It was pretty darn close. Chen landed all of her jumps clean, including seven triples.

“This moment was something that I really dreamed about,” Chen said. “It was far from reality.”

Wagner will likely be leading a world championships team with two rookies in Chen and Bell.

It’s the most pressure-packed worlds of the four-year cycle, because the skaters’ placements determine how many Olympic spots each nation receives.

To ensure the maximum three spots at the Olympics, the top two U.S. finishers at worlds must add up to no more than 13 (sixth and seventh, for example).

Japan and Russia will send three skaters each with the talent to finish in the top five. Canadian champion Kaetlyn Osmond is also a medal threat. Wagner, sitting next to Chen and Bell, stressed that they should “tune out the noise” going into the biggest competition of their careers.

“It is so easy to be devoured by you guys because you all have eaten me alive before,” Wagner, who made her worlds debut in 2008, told the media. “Karen just has to deliver what she did here, Mariah has to do the same thing, and we’ll be set.”

Earlier Saturday, Maia and Alex Shibutani were beaten in the free dance but held on to repeat as U.S. championsHaven Denney and Brandon Frazier were the best of a flawed pairs field to earn their first U.S. title.

The U.S. Championships conclude Sunday with the men’s free skate (4 p.m. ET, NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app). Nathan Chen, 17, is in position to become the youngest U.S. men’s champion in 51 years.

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

VIDEO: Tara Lipinski reflects on winning 1997 U.S. title at age 14

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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MORE: Dawn Staley to coach U.S. women at Tokyo 2020

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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