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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NBC Sports researcher Sarah Hughes contributed to this report.

Tour de France route for 2018 unveiled

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PARIS (AP) — Defending champion Chris Froome can expect a stern challenge from Dutch rider Tom Dumoulin in next year’s Tour de France.

Froome is chasing a record-equaling fifth victory to move level with Belgian great Eddy Merckx, French riders Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault, and Spanish great Miguel Indurain.

Froome and Dumoulin won the three Grand Tours last year, with Froome adding the Spanish Vuelta and Dumoulin winning the Giro d’Italia.

The 105th edition of the Tour features a hilly 31-kilometer (19-mile) time trial through the Basque country on the penultimate day.

Froome is a specialist, but Dumoulin is the reigning world time trial champion.

The 32-year-old Froome is still in his prime, while the 26-year-old Dumoulin is approaching his.

“A contest between Chris Froome and Tom Dumoulin, two riders with similar qualities, wouldn’t displease me. It would force one of the two to try something different to surprise the other,” Tour de France race director Christian Prudhomme said Tuesday. “We’re looking at a new generation that wants to entertain. I think that if Christopher Froome is up against Tom Dumoulin, they will want to do that. They will be more or less equal in the time trials. That’s something very exciting.”

The race starts on July 7 — a week later than usual because of the soccer World Cup in Russia — and opens with a flat 117-mile route for sprinters from Noirmoutier-en-l’ile to Fontenay-le-Comte in the Vendee region, on the Atlantic coast.

With the time trial returning after being omitted the last two years, Froome’s Team Sky will be confident of creating early time gaps on Stage 3 — 21.7-mile route starting and ending in Cholet in Western France.

But Sky faces tough competition, because Dumoulin’s Sunweb team is the reigning TTT world champion.

The Tour route, which goes clockwise, features 25 mountain climbs — ranging from the relatively difficult Category 2 to Category 1 and the daunting Hors Categorie (beyond classification).

Eleven are in the Alps, four in the Massif central region and 10 in the Pyrenees.

The difficult climbs start on Stage 10, the first of three straight days of grueling Alpine ascents.

But organizers have preceded that with a tricky ninth stage that could shake up the peloton.

It takes riders over 15 treacherous cobblestone sections: the highest number since the 1980 Tour, with nearly 13.6 miles altogether.

The Roubaix cobbles may perhaps trouble Froome, although Prudhomme thinks the British rider can handle anything.

“The leaders of the Tour have the ability to adapt. We’ve seen that Chris Froome has a range of abilities much wider than people said,” Prudhomme said. “He’s intelligent and hard-working. He keeps on winning in a different manner than in previous years.”

Even though Froome will be 33 on next year’s Tour, Prudhomme still thinks he can improve.

“I don’t think we’ve seen everything that Froome has to offer,” Prudhomme said. “He is strong in areas we didn’t think he was.”

The cobbles are followed by a rest day on July 16, and Froome had better make the most of it because the Alps start brutally the day after.

Stage 10 on July 17 has four difficult climbs on a 98.6-mile route from Annecy to Le Grand Bornand. They include a punchy ascent of Montee du plateau de Glieres, featuring for the first time.

“Six kilometers with an 11.2 percent gradient is monumental,” Prudhomme said.

The third day of Alpine climbing begins with Col de la Madeleine, then Croix de Fer (which translates as the ominous-sounding Iron Cross) and ends with an ascent of l’Alpe d’Huez: three of the Tour’s most well-known.

Dumoulin is not in Froome’s class as a climber, but is not so easy to drop. Whether he can hang in with Froome all the way to the Pyrenees, however, will prove crucial to his chances.

The three tough days of climbing in the Pyrenees starts with Stage 16 on July 24: a daunting 135-mile route from Carcassone to Bagneres-de-Luchon that follows the second rest day.

Stage 17 is short at 40 miles but cruel, with three consecutive nasty climbs, ending with an attack up Col de Portet.

Stage 18 is relatively flat but the next day’s third and final day of climbing on Stage 19 has four ascents and then ends with a potentially treacherous 12.4-mile descent that will test the concentration of tired riders.

Whoever is freshest after that will have a better chance of challenging Froome in the time trial.

The 21-stage race ends with its customary processional Sunday finish on the Champs-Elysees.

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Salt Lake City forms committee to weigh Olympic bid

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Salt Lake City has formed an exploratory committee to decide if the city will bid to host the Winter Olympics in either 2026 or 2030 — taking a key step toward trying to become a rare two-time host city.

The group made up of elected officials, business leaders and one key member of the organizing committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City said Monday that it plans to make a recommendation to state leaders by Feb. 1.

The announcement comes after the U.S. Olympic Committee board said Friday that it was moving forward with discussions about bringing the Winter Games to America for either 2026 or 2030.

Because Los Angeles was recently awarded the 2028 Summer Games, a bid for 2030 would make more sense, chairman Larry Probst said Friday.

The USOC has until next March to pick a city; those expressing interest include Salt Lake City, Denver and Reno, Nevada.

Innsbruck, Austria, said Sunday it wouldn’t bid for the 2026 Winter Olympics, taking one more city out of the running. The hosting rights are set to be awarded in July 2019.

The same country hasn’t hosted back-to-back Olympics since before World War II, though when the International Olympic Committee scrapped its traditional rules and awarded 2024 (Paris) and 2028 (LA) at the same time, it indicated it was certainly open to new ideas.

Since 2012, Salt Lake City has been letting Olympic officials know the city was ready and willing to host again with a plan based on renovating and upgrading venues that have been in use since the Games ended.

The city had previously estimated it could put on a Winter Olympics for about $2 billion, but the committee will come up with a new cost estimate, said Jeff Robbins, the president and CEO of the Utah Sports Commission.

Robbins is one of three co-chairs on the committee along with Utah Senate President Wayne Niederhauser and Fraser Bullock, a key player in Salt Lake City’s 2002 Olympics.

Robbins said he thinks the city has a great shot at winning a bid based on the relatively low cost and because it has demonstrated it knows how to maintain venues and keep them in use, putting the city in line with Agenda 2020, the blueprint that IOC President Thomas Bach created for future Olympics calling for less spending on new venues and infrastructure.

There’s an eight-lane interstate running from the Salt Lake airport, which was upgraded for the Olympics, to Park City, which is the home of U.S. Ski and Snowboard. Park City is the host for key U.S. training centers for freestyle skiing, speedskating and cross country skiing.

Overall, the area has hosted about 75 World Cup and world-championship events in winter sports since the Olympic cauldron was extinguished more than 15 years ago.

He said an expanded light rail train line grid around Salt Lake City and a $3 billion airport renovation already underway are two examples of how Salt Lake City is even better prepared now to host than in 2002.

But he and other organizers will also have to answer questions about a bidding scandal that marred the 2002 Games and resulted in several International Olympic Committee members losing their positions for taking bribes.

“You can’t control the past,” Robbins said. “The results of what happened I think would certainly speak volumes. While there was some challenges, we hosted arguably one of the best Olympics ever hosted.”

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