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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

Ghana Olympic skeleton slider’s helmet: rabbit escapes lion

Ron Leblanc
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It’s called The Rabbit Theory.

That’s what Akwasi Frimpong, Ghana’s first Olympic skeleton slider, calls his new helmet.

The one that he will wear in PyeongChang as the second athlete from his nation to compete at a Winter Games.

Frimpong, 31, tells an incredible story.

He said he was raised by his grandmother Minka in a one-room home with nine other children before joining his mom in the Netherlands at age 8 as an illegal immigrant and eventually moving to Utah.

Frimpong’s full story is here.

Frimpong’s life — before he converted from sprinting to bobsled to skeleton — was chronicled in a 2010 Dutch documentary tilted “Theorie van het Konjin” (translation: The Rabbit Theory).

“My former sprint coach Sammy Monsels talks about the analogy of a rabbit in a cage, ready to escape from a lion,” Frimpong said in an email Monday. “I am that rabbit, and I have escaped the lions [of my past]. I am no longer being eaten by all the things around my life.”

The helmet that he will wear sliding head-first down an icy chute in South Korea in three weeks draws attention to it.

The design is of a lion’s head with mouth agape and a pair of rabbits coming out. Plus the colors of the Ghanaian flag.

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MORE: Jamaica qualifies first Olympic women’s bobsled team

Images via Ron Leblanc:

USA Gymnastics leaders resign as more victims speak

USA Gymnastics
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LANSING, Mich. (AP) — USA Gymnastics announced the resignations of three key leaders Monday while more women and girls told a judge about being sexually assaulted at the hands of a sports doctor who spent years with Olympic gymnasts and other female athletes.

The resignations of chairman Paul Parilla, vice chairman Jay Binder and treasurer Bitsy Kelley were announced in Indianapolis while a judge in Lansing heard a fifth day of statements from women and girls who said they were molested by Larry Nassar.

“We support their decisions to resign at this time,” said Kerry Perry, president and CEO of USA Gymnastics, which is the national governing body for gymnastics. “We believe this step will allow us to more effectively move forward in implementing change within our organization.”

The board positions are volunteer and unpaid, but the resignations add to the months of turmoil. Steve Penny quit as president last March after critics said USA Gymnastics failed to protect gymnasts from abusive coaches and Nassar.

“New board leadership is necessary because the current leaders have been focused on establishing that they did nothing wrong,” USOC CEO Scott Blackmun said in a statement Monday. “USA Gymnastics needs to focus on supporting the brave survivors.”

USA Gymnastics last week said it was ending its long relationship with the Karolyi Ranch, the Huntsville, Texas, home of former national team coordinator Martha Karolyi and her husband, Bela. Some Olympians said they were assaulted there by Nassar.

Meanwhile, in Michigan, Nassar’s sentencing hearing continued Monday, raising the number of girls and women who have spoken to nearly 100 since last week.

“I want to you know that your face and the face of all of the sister survivor warriors — the whole army of you — I’ve heard your words,” Ingham County Circuit Judge Rosemarie Aquilina said after a woman spoke in her Michigan courtroom. “Your sister survivors and you are going through incomprehensible lengths, emotions and soul-searching to put your words together, to publicly stop (the) defendant, to publicly stop predators, to make people listen.”

Nassar, 54, has admitted molesting athletes during medical treatment when he was employed by Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics. He has already been sentenced to 60 years in prison for child pornography crimes.

Under a plea deal, he faces a minimum prison sentence of 25 to 40 years in the molestation case. The maximum term could be much higher.

“Larry, how many of us are there? Do you even know?” asked Clasina Syrboby, as she fought back tears while speaking for more than 20 minutes Monday. “You preyed on me, on us. You saw a way to take advantage of your position — the almighty and trusted gymnastics doctor. Shame on you Larry. Shame on you.

She and other victims also continued their criticism of Michigan State, USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic Committee for not doing enough to stop Nassar when initial complaints were made.

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MORE: Watch, read Aly Raisman’s full testimony