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North Korea could qualify for PyeongChang Olympics in pairs figure skating

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Perhaps the most intriguing result of the just-completed Asian Winter Games in Sapporo, Japan, when it comes to looking ahead to the PyeongChang Olympics, came in pairs figure skating.

To no surprise, China took the top two spots. But the bronze medalists from North Korea turned heads.

Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik tallied 177.40 points, easily distancing pairs from South Korea, Japan and Australia for the last place on the podium.

With that score, it appears Ryom and Kim became the first North Korean athletes to be favored to qualify for the PyeongChang Olympics, though they likely can’t seal the deal for another seven months.

One of the biggest international Olympic storylines over the next 11 months is whether North Korea will be present at the PyeongChang Winter Games.

Despite winning at least four medals at every Summer Games since boycotting Seoul 1988, North Korea didn’t have any athletes at the Sochi Olympics and just two at Vancouver 2010. There’s no guarantee North Korea can qualify any athletes for PyeongChang.

There is also the question of another potential boycott of a South Korea-hosted Olympics, but North and South Korea have shown solidarity at recent Games.

The nations marched together under one flag at the 2000 and 2004 Olympic Opening Ceremonies in Sydney and Athens. In Rio, North and South Korean gymnasts posed for a selfie together. And North Korea did compete in the two Asian Games hosted by South Korea in the last 30 years, in 2002 and 2014.

Enter Ryom and Kim. Their Asian Winter Games pairs score was a whopping 20-point improvement on their tally from the 2016 Four Continents Championships, their only other recent major international event. North Korean athletes don’t typically compete often internationally.

Ryom and Kim are still a ways off from vying for global podiums (177.40 would have placed 14th at the 2016 Worlds).

But with their Asian Winter Games result, the North Koreans are suddenly favorites to qualify for the PyeongChang Olympics, should they enter the last qualifying event in Germany in September.

Here’s how it works:

A maximum of 20 pairs can qualify for the Olympics, beginning at the world championships next month, with no more than three spots per country.

At worlds, 16 of those 20 Olympic quota spots for 2018 will be filled.

If the results hold anything close to form, those 16 quota spots will be spread among Canada, China, France, Germany, Italy, Russia and the U.S.

After worlds, four qualifying spots will remain available. Those quota spots will be decided at the last Olympic qualifier, Nebelhorn Trophy in Oberstdorf, Germany, in late September.

The final four spots can only be attained by countries not already qualified in each event. And only one spot is available per country.

If one excludes Canada, China, France, Germany, Italy, Russia and the U.S., here are the highest-scoring pairs this season via the International Skating Union (and thus the early favorites for Nebelhorn):

  1. Duskova/Bidar (CZE) — 189.09
  2. Ziegler/Kiefer (AUT) — 165.63
  3. Suto/Boudreau-Audet (JPN) — 164.96
  4. Alexandrovskaya/Windsor (AUS) — 159.26

The North Koreans would slot in second place in those standings with their Asian Games score of 177.40.

What’s more, Boudreau-Audet and Alexandrovskaya still needed to fulfill citizenship requirements to be eligible to compete in PyeongChang, as of 2016 reports. If either can’t, then the North Koreans’ path to PyeongChang gets that much easier.

Four years ago, a different North Korean pair missed qualifying a Sochi Olympic quota spot by .99 of a point at Nebelhorn Trophy.

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Two-time Olympian becomes first woman to lead U.S. national swim team

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — Two-time Olympian Lindsay Mintenko has been picked to lead the U.S. national swimming team. She is the first woman to hold the title.

USA Swimming made the announcement Wednesday.

Mintenko replaces Frank Busch, who retired Oct. 1 as managing director. She has been a member of the national team staff since 2006.

During her swimming career, Mintenko won gold medals as a U.S. team captain at the 2000 and 2004 Olympics 800m freestyle relay and added a silver in 2004 on the 400m freestyle relay.

USA Swimming also announced an organizational restructuring that will place all technical divisions, including the national team, under the oversight of chief operating officer Mike Unger.

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VIDEO: Michael Phelps shares being bullied, depressed in film

Grand Prix figure skating: 10 female skaters to watch

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Ten women to watch this fall as the Grand Prix figure skating season starts this week …

Yevgenia Medvedeva
Russia
Two-time world champion
Grand Prix Starts: Russia, Japan

Undefeated in nearly two years and arguably on the most dominant run since Katarina Witt in the 1980s. Medvedeva rarely misses jumps and has feather-light elegance on the ice. Off of it, she enjoys Japanese anime and K-pop. She quickly surpassed older skaters after turning senior in 2015, but now younger teens are giving chase.

Kaetlyn Osmond
Canada
2017 World silver medalist
Grand Prix Starts: Canada, France

Osmond won a Grand Prix at age 16 in 2012, but injuries dogged her the next few years. Most of all, a broken leg suffered in September 2014. She came back and was the breakout woman last season, making her first Grand Prix Final and then grabbing second at worlds behind Medvedeva.

Gabrielle Daleman
Canada
2017 World bronze medalist
Grand Prix Starts: China, U.S.

Like Osmond, would not have been picked for a world medal at the start of last season. Daleman was 17th at the Sochi Olympics, with a foot injury and one month after turning 16. She was 13th, 21st and ninth in three worlds appearances before last year. She was fourth at each of her Grand Prix starts in 2016, failing to make the six-skater Grand Prix Final, but picked up her first top-level senior international medals at Four Continents in February and worlds in March.

Grand Prix Capsules: Men | Women | Pairs | Ice Dance | TV Schedule

Satoko Miyahara
Japan
2015 World silver medalist
Grand Prix Starts: Japan, U.S.

Miyahara’s hip injury last winter could not have come at a worse time for the Japanese federation. She missed worlds, and Japan ended up qualifying two rather than three spots for PyeongChang. Before that, Miyahara took second behind Medvedeva at the Grand Prix Final and was ranked No. 2 in the world. Now the Japanese Olympic picture is crowded with fellow teens Marin HondaMai Mihara and Wakaba Higuchi.

Karen Chen
U.S.
Fourth at 2017 Worlds
Grand Prix Starts: Canada, U.S.

Went from eighth at the 2016 U.S. Championships to winning the 2017 U.S. title and placing fourth at worlds. Chen’s clutch effort ensured the U.S. earned three women’s spots at the Olympics. The 18-year-old from the Bay Area has largely struggled in other international competitions. A best of fifth in four Grand Prix starts. Twelfth at a pair of Four Continents Championships. Already this season at two international events, she finished behind Mirai Nagasu, who was fourth at nationals.

Ashley Wagner
U.S.
2016 World silver medalist
Grand Prix Starts: Canada, U.S.

Wagner just missed the 2010 Olympic team, then made Sochi despite placing fourth at nationals. She has undoubtedly been the most consistent U.S. woman in this Olympic cycle. The 26-year-old ended a decade-long U.S. medal drought with the skate of her life at worlds in 2016. Her follow-up last season was not so memorable — her least successful campaign in six years. Still a favorite to become the oldest U.S. Olympic women’s singles skater since 1928.

Alina Zagitova
Russia
2017 World junior champion
Grand Prix Starts: China, France

Medvedeva’s training partner, in her first senior season, might be the skater with the best chance of dethroning her. Zagitova, born three months after the 2002 Olympics, has the highest free skate score in the world this season (.45 better than Medvedeva). Their duel(s) in December at Russian Nationals and possibly the Grand Prix Final should be appointment viewing.

Marin Honda
Japan
2016 World junior champion
Grand Prix Starts: Canada, China

Honda is the other first-year senior turning heads. She beat a field at the U.S. Classic last month that included three of the top four from last season’s U.S. Championships. Figure skating is the Winter Olympics’ marquee sport. The women’s event is its headliner. And nowhere is skating more popular than Japan. With Mao Asada‘s retirement, the spotlight will be on Honda, who already has 236,000 Instagram followers.

Carolina Kostner
Italy
2014 Olympic bronze medalist
Grand Prix Starts: Russia, Japan

The second-oldest Olympic women’s singles medalist since 1928 is the only one from the top six in Sochi who is competing this Grand Prix season. Kostner, now 30, took a break after the 2014 season, then served a backdated 21-month suspension for helping ex-boyfriend and Olympic race-walking champion Alex Schwazer evade drug testers in 2012. She finally returned in December and was sixth at worlds.

Mirai Nagasu
U.S.
Fourth at 2010 Olympics
Grand Prix Starts: Russia, Japan

Nagasu, left off the Olympic team in favor of Wagner in 2014, is arguably the best U.S. skater at the moment after topping Chen at both of her early season outings. She added the triple Axel this season, which could prime her to win her second national title, a full decade after her first at age 14. It could be an incredible comeback story, returning to the Olympics after finishing fourth in Vancouver in 2010.

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