World Figure Skating Championships women’s preview

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Ashley Wagner has not watched any of Russian Yevgenia Medvedeva‘s programs this season, but this much Wagner knows without looking:

“She is technically flawless, and if there is an athlete that we should be chasing, obviously it’s Yevgenia,” Wagner said.

Medvedeva, a 17-year-old from Moscow, is the biggest favorite across all four disciplines at next week’s world championships in Helsinki.

Wagner is the 2016 World silver medalist, the first U.S. woman on the podium in 10 years, but it would be shocking if she upgrades to gold next week. Realistically, she’s at best fighting for a silver or bronze along with Russians Anna Pogorilaya and Maria Sotskova, Canadians Kaetlyn Osmond and Gabrielle Daleman, Italian Carolina Kostner and Japan’s Mai Mihara.

Medvedeva is in her own class.

Undefeated since November 2015. Winner of her last 11 events in her first two seasons at the senior level. She can become the first woman to repeat as world champion since Michelle Kwan in 2001.

In fact, another gold would give Medvedeva the most dominant two-season stretch by a female skater since Katarina Witt‘s stronghold in the mid-1980s.

“I really appreciate her in the sport because she is a set bar that everybody is chasing after, and I think in years past that bar was always changing,” Wagner said.

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What sets Medvedeva apart is that she has been polished, from her triple-triple jump combinations and spins to her performance quality, since turning 16 in her senior debut season a year ago.

And her consistency. All other recent Russian stars — 2014 Olympic champions Adelina Sotnikova and Yulia Lipnitskaya and 2015 World champion Elizaveta Tuktamysheva — simply could not put together two straight world-class seasons at the senior level.

Given that history, Wagner is not fully sold on Medvedeva.

“Time will tell,” said Wagner, who has joked that she needs to skate like “a robot” to compete with Medvedeva. “She is not part of this normal cycle of Russian athletes. I feel like they have one or two seasons of dominance, and then they kind of disappear. So we will see what happens to her, but she seems to be going very strong.”

Medvedeva, whose mom was a skater, started in the sport at age 3, inspired like many by the great Yevgeny Plushenko.

Figure skating is popular and storied in Russia, but Medvedeva is rarely recognized back home, where she still spends weekends watching cartoons. She does have more than 100,000 followers on Twitter and Instagram, though.

Medvedeva’s scores from her four international competitions this season are the four highest scores in the world, all above 220 points. This despite falling at one competition, having one jump called under-rotated at another and stepping out of a landing at another.

Nobody else in next week’s field has cracked 217 points — in their careers.

At December’s Russian Championships, Medvedeva added a second triple toe loop onto a triple Salchow-triple toe loop combination, knowing she would get zero points for the superfluous jump. She did it three minutes into her free skate (with controversial music from a film about Sept. 11, 2001), when most skaters would be tired.

Medvedeva has shown disappointment when not breaking records and talked about adding a quadruple Salchow to her arsenal. She speaks some English in interviews, even though she hasn’t taken English classes in two years, according to Icenetwork.

“Sometimes I feel like I am two people: the grown-up and the kid,” she said in the fall, according to Icenetwork. “The first one is able to understand and execute difficult programs, while the other one is just like … watching cartoons all the time!”

Medvedeva was last outscored in the short program at last year’s world championships in Boston. She placed third behind Gracie Gold and Pogorilaya, with Wagner in fourth.

In the free skate, Medvedeva and Wagner climbed to gold and silver, respectively. Wagner tallied personal bests for both programs at the 2016 Worlds, yet still finished 7.47 points behind Medvedeva.

Wagner has been unable to replicate those kinds of skates this season. In two international events, her best total is 196.44 points, which seeds her eighth going into worlds. She was also beaten by surprise Karen Chen at the U.S. Championships in January.

“This year is not the year I’m planning on peaking,” Wagner said. “Next year is the year that I am like in it to kill. … This year is my chance to work out all of the kinks, figure out where I want to be mentally going into next year and even though to some on the outside looking in, it wouldn’t look like it was the most successful season for me, I think at the end of the day this season has been exactly what I needed it to be.”

As noted, the pressure is on Wagner to lead an inexperienced U.S. team of three women in Helsinki. She’ll be joined by training partner Mariah Bell and Chen. The two worlds rookies have been less impressive than Wagner internationally this season. They’re seeded 10th and 16th.

The two best results out of Wagner, Chen and Bell must add up to no more than 13, or else the U.S. will only get two women’s spots at the Olympics for the second time in the last six Winter Games.

There is an outside chance of a Russian sweep, given the second-best skater this season, Japan’s Satoko Miyahara, withdrew due to injury. Pogorilaya, the 2016 World bronze medalist, has the next two highest scores this season after Medvedeva and Miyahara.

Russia also has Sotskova, the most impressive of the first-year senior skaters.

The experienced category is led by Osmond, having her best results since debuting as a senior in 2012, and Kostner, the six-time world medalist back after two years off. They’re seeded third and fourth.

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MORE: U.S. pairs skater back from life-threatening condition

NBC Sports researcher Sarah Hughes contributed to this report.

Paralympian Blake Leeper advances in 400m at USATF Outdoors (video)

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Paralympic medalist Blake Leeper, believed to be the first double amputee to race at a USATF Outdoor Championships, advanced out of the 400m heats in Sacramento, Calif., on Thursday.

Leeper ran 45.52, third in his heat, to grab the 16th and last spot in the 400m semifinals Friday (10:34 p.m. ET, NBCSN and NBC Sports Gold).

It marked a personal best by .58 of a second for Leeper, who was racing one day after his ban for testing positive for cocaine in 2015 ended.

“I wanted to advance, but if I don’t I have won already,” Leeper said before he learned he made the semis, according to USA Track and Field. “Just being here and showing everybody what you can truly do with a disability.”

Leeper ran faster than Olympians David VerburgKyle ClemonsArman Hall and Manteo Mitchell, who were all eliminated.

It’s likely that the top five or six in Saturday’s final will make the 4x400m team for the world championships in London in August.

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Alysia Montano races pregnant again at USATF Outdoor Championships (video)

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U.S. Olympic 800m runner Alysia Montaño raced five months pregnant in 100-degree heat at the USATF Outdoor Championships (Summer Champions Series) in Sacramento, Calif., on Thursday.

Montaño, who raced eight months pregnant at the 2014 USATF Outdoors also in Sacramento, finished last in her 800m first-round heat in 2:21.40. She was 10 seconds faster than her time three years ago.

“People were like, oh, you’re going to run faster than you did last time because you’re less pregnant,” Montaño told media in Sacramento, standing next to 2-year-old daughter Linnea. “I was like, I’m still pregnant.”

Athletes are looking for top-three finishes to qualify for the world championships in London in August. Finals are later this weekend.

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In a Wonder Woman top, Montaño gritted her teeth on the final straightaway and raised her arms crossing the finish line.

“[In 2014] women let me know that my journey and my story had inspired them in so many different ways,” Montaño said. “I think there’s something about coming out to any venue, not really expecting to win, but just going along with the journey and seeing what comes out of it. And that’s the most beautiful part for me, being a track and field athlete, the platform that I have, I feel so responsible to be a representative of people who don’t have the same platform, don’t have the same voice that I do.

“I represent so many different people. I represent women. I represent black women. I represent pregnant women. Not everybody has the same platform that I do. I think it’s my responsibility to make sure I’m a voice and advocate for them.”

Montaño said she was inspired when she learned Gal Gadot, who played the title role in the movie “Wonder Woman,” filmed half of it while five months pregnant.

“I saw Wonder Woman, and I was like, I for sure am signing up for USA Nationals,” Montaño said. “I already was thinking I was going to do it.”

Montaño said it wasn’t easier or harder racing Thursday versus three years ago, when she had a bigger baby bump.

“The weird part about five months is you’re still growing and like shifting a lot,” she said. “So every week you have to readjust.”

Linnea has seen enough photos of her mom’s famous race in 2014 to know what was going on.

“I go, mom is going to run with your sibling in her belly,” Montaño recalled. “I did that with you, too. And [Linnea] was like, ‘Yeah, it was sticking out!'”

Montaño raced outdoors for the first time since falling in the Olympic Trials 800m final on July 4. Montaño had won the previous Olympic Trials (and finished fourth in London) and the 2015 U.S. title coming back from pregnancy.

She ran without an apparel sponsor Thursday, frustrated that Asics waited until December to say they were not interested in retaining her for 2017. Montaño said that left her no time to try and find a different sponsor, even though she was already planning to have her second child.

“You need to let an athlete know in September, October,” she said. “I’ve been calling [Asics] since September to be like, hey, I didn’t make the Olympic team, I’m 30, I’m going to have another baby.”

In the men’s 800m Thursday, two-time Olympian and 2013 World silver medalist Nick Symmonds was eliminated, 32nd-fastest of 33 runners in the first round.

Symmonds, in his final season, said he has one more race left — the Honolulu Marathon on Dec. 10.

MORE: Montaño finds little joy after Russian stripped of medals

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