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U.S. figure skating could have its best world team since 2006

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KANSAS CITY — U.S. figure skating has a shot at medals in three of four disciplines at the world championships in Helsinki in two months, which hasn’t happened in 11 years.

Before this year, the U.S. men and U.S. women hadn’t boasted simultaneous medal contenders in a decade. Johnny Weir and Evan Lysacek spent the 2010 Olympic cycle in the world elite, while the U.S. women faded. After they stopped competing, Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold moved into the women’s medal field while the U.S. searched for a new leading man.

He’s arrived. Nathan Chen confirmed he is one of the world’s best male skaters by landing a record seven quadruple jumps between two programs at Sprint Center this past week.

The 17-year-old already made the podium in an event that featured the world’s best, earning silver at the Grand Prix Final in December. Chen struggled with his short-program jumps at the Grand Prix Final and attempted one fewer quad overall yet still outscored everybody but Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu.

Of all of the U.S. medal hopes at worlds, Chen may face the stiffest trio of challengers. Not only is there Hanyu, but also two-time reigning world champion Javier Fernandez of Spain, plus Japan’s Shoma Uno, all of whom rank higher than Chen in best total scores in international competition this season.

MORE: Chen believes Olympic gold is possible after U.S. title

Wagner, who shares a coach with Chen, did not have her best nationals. She finished second to surprise winner Karen Chen (no relation to Nathan), who has yet to factor internationally.

But Wagner said before and after the U.S. Championships that her focus was to peak for the world championships. The goal for nationals was to make the world team, which required not winning but finishing in the top three. Mission accomplished.

The concern with Wagner is that she hasn’t produced a world medal-caliber result yet this season. Her best score from the fall ranks her sixth among women going to worlds. But Wagner has shown in the last few seasons that she can pull it together for major events. There’s her 2016 World Championships silver medal, plus her three straight Grand Prix Final medals from 2012-14.

At worlds, Wagner will have to deal with a Russian trio capable of sweeping the podium, three strong Japanese skaters, plus the revelation of this season, Canadian Kaetlyn Osmond.

VIDEO: Wagner passed Puffs in emotional press conference moment

The U.S.’ strongest discipline continues to be ice dance. Maia and Alex Shibutani and Madison Chock and Evan Bates finished second and third at the 2016 World Championships. They went one-two at the U.S. Championships this past week.

But two ice dance medals don’t appear to be in the cards in Helsinki. That’s because Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who earned gold and silver at the last two Olympics, came back this season after a two-year break.

Virtue and Moir broke international scoring records in the fall, sweeping their four starts. The two-time reigning world champions, Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France, also beat the U.S. couples at the Grand Prix Final.

The Shibutani siblings and Chock and Bates have never finished ahead of Virtue and Moir in competition. Neither has bettered the French since the December 2014 Grand Prix Final, either.

But all it takes is one dance medal, plus Chen and Wagner at their best in Helsinki, and the U.S. could go into the Olympic year in its best place since 2006.

MORE: Gracie Gold comments on split from coach Frank Carroll

Yulia Efimova wags finger as Lilly King rivalry heats up (video)

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The Lilly KingYulia Efimova rivalry is back on, but this time the Russian is wagging her finger.

Efimova missed the 100m breaststroke world record by .01 in the semifinals at the world swimming championships in Budapest on Monday.

Efimova celebrated her time by finger wagging, an homage to King’s famous move in the ready room at the Rio Olympics.  She and King will go head to head in the final as the top two seeds on Tuesday after King won her later semifinal in a personal-best time .17 slower than Efimova.

“I’m always looking at the results from the heat before,” King told media in Budapest, adding that she wasn’t shaved for Monday’s semifinals. “I saw a little finger wag. I saw it. It’s just motivating me more, so that’s OK.”

King, who criticized Efimova’s presence in Rio after serving a doping ban, beat the Russian in the Olympic 100m breaststroke final last year.

Efimova served a 16-month ban for testing positive for the banned steroid DHEA in 2013. She again tested positive in February 2016 for meldonium, though she said she stopped taking it before it became a banned substance Jan. 1 and was absolved along with other athletes.

“You’ve been caught for drug cheating, I’m just not a fan,” King memorably said in Rio, adding last fall, “[Doping] was on all of our minds. We had team meetings talking about what it was going to be like. We were going to be racing dopers, and we all knew it.”

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Katinka Hosszu wins 200m IM as swimmer leaves pool mid-race (video)

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Hungarian Katinka Hosszu delivered the gold-medal performance a raucous Budapest crowd hoped for at the world swimming championships.

Canadian Sydney Pickrem, a medal favorite, appeared to get out of the pool after 50 meters. Swimming Canada later said she “took on water” approaching the first wall.

“Unfortunately it inhibited her to the point where she wasn’t able to continue in the race,” a press release said.

Hosszu won her third straight world title in the 200m individual medley, clocking 2:07.00 at the frenzied Danube Arena. The Olympic champion and world-record holder was followed by Japan’s Yui Ohashi (2:07.91) and American Madisyn Cox (2:09.71).

“Just another stepping stone,” said Cox, who finished her University of Texas career this year and made her major international debut in Budapest. “Of course, I want to be better. That time will come.”

Hosszu was the overwhelming favorite, given she held the three fastest times in the world this year going into Monday’s final. The “Iron Lady” became the first woman to win 10 individual world championships medals, a mark that Sarah SjostromKatie Ledecky and Yulia Efimova can surpass later in the meet. Retired Australian Leisel Jones won nine, all in breaststroke.

Hosszu scratched her other event Monday night, the 100m backstroke, one of three events she won at the Rio Olympics. Hosszu could earn medals in the 200m backstroke and 400m individual medley later this week.

Pickrem ranked No. 3 in the world this year and had the third-fastest time in the semifinals behind Hosszu and American Melanie Margalis, who finished fourth.

Women’s 200m Individual Medley Results
Gold: Katinka Hosszu (HUN) — 2:07.00
Silver: Yui Ohashi (JPN) — 2:07.91
Bronze: Madisyn Cox (USA) — 2:09.71
4. Melanie Margalis (USA) — 2:09.82
5. Runa Imai (JPN) — 2:09.99
6. Kim Seoyeong (KOR) — 2:10.40
7. Siobhan-Marie O’Connor (GBR) — 2:10.41
DQ. Sydney Pickrem (CAN)

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