Takeaways from World Figure Skating Championships

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Five thoughts following the world figure skating championships, looking toward the Olympics … 

1. Reality check for Nathan Chen

When Nathan Chen beat Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu at the Four Continents Championships in February, he scored 307.46 points, the highest in the world this season to that point. It instantly made him a medal favorite at worlds, and arguably the gold-medal favorite.

While Chen failed to deliver on those expectations, finishing sixth in Helsinki, he is still very much an Olympic medal contender given the surrounding circumstances of the world championships.

For one, his eye-popping score at Four Continents would have earned bronze in Helsinki. It would have taken 12 more points than his Four Continents total to unseat Shoma Uno for silver.

That’s a large improvement to ask of a 17-year-old, younger than any previous men’s world champion, even with Chen adding a record sixth quadruple jump attempt to his free skate. He fell three times between two programs in Helsinki and still managed 290.72 points, higher than four of his other five international events this season.

That Chen was considered a gold-medal threat in perhaps the greatest men’s field ever assembled was a testament to his unprecedented rise the last several months.

Chen came into this season with a personal best of 236.76 points in international competition and no senior international experience. And coming off hip surgery that kept him off the ice for nearly half of 2016.

He ended it by upping his personal best by nearly 71 points, becoming the first man to land five quadruple jumps in a free skate (doing so twice) and beating Hanyu, Uno, two-time world champion Javier Fernandez and three-time world champion Patrick Chan at various competitions.

Chen was the only man in the top 13 at worlds younger than age 19. He admitted to nerves, causing a lack of sleep, and boot discomfort in Helsinki. Common problems for skaters, and ones that tend to lessen with experience.

Hanyu was seventh in the short program at his first worlds in 2012, despite landing a quad and a triple Axel. He singled a Lutz. Uno was seventh overall at his first worlds last season. Chen could very well be following their trend.

2. Three U.S. men vying for last two Olympic spots

With Chen placing sixth and Jason Brown seventh, the U.S. qualified the maximum three spots for PyeongChang without any margin for error.

Brown, often criticized for his inability to land a quadruple jump, deserves credit here. The top six in men’s skating is clearly defined — Hanyu, Uno, Jin Boyang, Fernandez, Chan and Chen — and Brown managed to beat the rest of the field despite attempting only one quad in Helsinki (and falling on it).

Brown’s component scores — the artistic marks — were higher than Jin and Chen in both the short and free.

Which will make for a captivating 2017-18 season for the U.S. men.

Chen is already a near-lock for PyeongChang, given it’s expected a selection committee will choose the trio based on results from the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons. Chen can boast his U.S. and Four Continents titles from this season, plus a Grand Prix Final silver medal.

Brown might look like a favorite to make his second straight Olympic team, too, but that could quickly change in the fall.

Remember, 16-year-old Vincent Zhou beat Brown by nine points for silver at the U.S. Championships in January but was left off the worlds team largely for his lack of experience. Zhou went on to win the world junior title with the highest score ever in junior international competition by nearly 11 points, landing three quads in his free skate.

Then there is 2016 U.S. champion Adam Rippon, who missed nationals with a broken left foot. Rippon, 27, was stronger than Brown in the fall season, qualifying into the six-skater Grand Prix Final in December with Hanyu, Uno, Fernandez, Chan and Chen.

There is a clear dropoff after that. No other U.S. men’s skater was within 15 points of that quartet’s bests internationally this season, and they combined to post the 16 highest international scores among Americans this season.

3. U.S. women’s Olympic picture less clear

This season provided the biggest shake-up in U.S. women’s skating in several years. The Ashley WagnerGracie Gold teeter-totter at the top is no longer the overriding storyline.

With three Olympic spots available, Karen Chen ends the season with the best early Olympic selection credentials — a national title and a fourth-place finish at worlds.

Wagner followed the best result of her career — silver at the 2016 Worlds — with her worst season since 2011. She failed to qualify for the Grand Prix Final for the first time since 2012 and was seventh at worlds, her lowest result there since 2014.

Still, Wagner was the strongest American woman over the course of the season. It would be a shock if she doesn’t make a second Olympic team.

Everyone else is more of a wild card. There is Mariah Bell, who finished 12th in her worlds debut but outscored training partner in the free skate. Bell was the second-best U.S. skater in the fall behind Wagner.

There is Mirai Nagasu, whose 194.95 points at Four Continents in February was more than Wagner and Bell’s totals at worlds. The 2010 Olympian was fourth at the U.S. Championships, though, and will likely need to break into the top three next January to return to the Olympics.

Two Sochi Olympians are mysteries at this point. Polina Edmunds, the youngest U.S. competitor across all sports in Sochi at age 15, hasn’t competed since the January 2016 U.S. Championships due to a foot injury.

Finally, Gold. Her disastrous season was well-documented, but it would not take that much of an improvement to get into the Olympic team picture. Gold changed coaches after finishing sixth at nationals in January, moving from California to Michigan. She remains the last woman to beat Russian Yevgenia Medvedeva in a program.

4. U.S. dance, pairs continue down different paths

Siblings Maia and Alex Shibutani salvaged a bronze for the U.S. in the final worlds event, keeping the Americans from going medal-less at a pre-Olympic worlds for the first time since 1993.

By results, U.S. dance took a step back from 2016, when it put three couples in the top six at worlds for the first time since 1955.

This year, the Shibutanis were third, followed by Madison Chock and Evan Bates in seventh and Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue in ninth.

A silver lining? Hubbell and Donohue were third after the short dance, one year after the Shibutanis and Chock and Bates both made the world podium. They plummeted due to Donohue’s fluke fall on a twizzle.

The U.S. has three ice dance couples capable of earning a medal in PyeongChang, though bronze may be the ceiling given the abilities of Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and France’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron.

Conversely, the U.S. hit a nadir in pairs. By virtue of weak worlds results, the U.S. will send one pairs team to an Olympics for the first time since the first Winter Games in 1924. Pairs is the U.S.’ weakest discipline — no Olympic medals since 1988.

The top U.S. pair at worlds — Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim — finished 10th. The Knierims performed admirably, given Scimeca Knierim’s comeback from a life-threatening abdominal condition.

However, U.S. pairs champions Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier had a disastrous short program, placing 20th. If they had been top 16, the U.S. would have qualified two pairs for PyeongChang.

5. Olympic team event is Canada’s to lose

Russia is not favored to repeat as Olympic champion in the team event. The Russians lack a men’s star and trail the medalists in ice dance.

Instead, Canada looks likely to upgrade on its silver medal from the event’s debut in Sochi. In 2014, Canada’s weakness came in the women’s discipline, but now it is a strength after Kaetlyn Osmond and Gabrielle Daleman both made the podium in Helsinki.

It looks like the Canadians can count on Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir in both the short and free dance and Patrick Chan in both men’s programs.

Though 2015 and 2016 World champions in pairs Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford struggled to seventh place in Helsinki, another Canadian pair, Lyubov Ilyushechkina and Dylan Moscovitch, took sixth, giving the nation some flexibility. (Assuming Ilyushechkina gains Canadian citizenship.

In Sochi, the team event required each nation to sub out skaters in two of the four disciplines between the short and long programs. The Canadians can do this in PyeongChang without much drop-off in the women’s and pairs events.

Russia would take silver in the team event in PyeongChang if skaters repeat their worlds results. The U.S. would earn a second straight bronze, with China its biggest threat.

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U.S., Great Britain to hold track and field dual meet

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The U.S. and Great Britain go head-to-head in a track and field meet on July 21 at the London Olympic Stadium.

“The Meet” will include nine running, jumping, hurdles and relay events and last two hours. Specific events and athletes will be announced early next year.

The U.S. topped the overall medal standings at every Olympics and world outdoor championships since 2004.

Great Britain is one of three countries to earn at least five medals at every Olympics and worlds since 2007, joining the U.S. and Kenya.

British athletes made six podiums at the just-completed worlds at the London Olympic Stadium, including in all four relays. The other two medals came from Mo Farah, who is moving to road racing and marathons after this season.

“The Meet” is similar to swimming’s “Duel in the Pool,” a biennial head-to-head competition between the U.S. and rival Australia from 2003 through 2007 and between the U.S. and Europe between 2009 and 2015.

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Five women’s gymnasts to watch at P&G Championships

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As Rio gold medalists decide on their futures, this week’s P&G Championships mark the first showcase for a new class of U.S. women’s gymnasts.

For the first time since 2008, nobody in the nationals field in Anaheim has competed at an Olympics. Usually, a gymnast or two carries over into the post-Olympic year, like Bridget Sloan in 2009 and Kyla Ross in 2013.

But this year, the feeling is akin to 2005, when no woman (or man) from the 2004 Athens Games chalked up at nationals.

Back then, a 15-year-old Nastia Liukin, who had already starred in a commercial during the 2004 Olympics, made her senior nationals debut and won the all-around. Three years later, Liukin won the Olympic all-around in Beijing.

There will be talk this week of finding the next Liukin, or Gabby Douglas, or Simone Biles, who, like Liukin, won her senior nationals debut the year after the Olympics.

“Some of them [from Rio], hopefully Simone, will be coming back, but I think this is a great opportunity for some of these girls to go out there and prove that they’re just as ready to compete at a world championships,” said Liukin, now an NBC Olympics analyst. “They have to step up a little bit and kind of become the leaders.”

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Gymnasts this week are vying to impress new U.S. national team coordinator Valeri Liukin (Nastia’s father). The four-woman roster for October’s worlds, where there is no team event, will be named after a selection camp later this summer.

Five gymnasts to watch at the P&G Championships:

Ragan Smith
Rio Olympic alternate
2017 AT&T American Cup champion

The Texan performed admirably in her first senior season in 2016, placing fifth in the all-around at the Olympic Trials. Her best events are balance beam and floor exercise, but the U.S. needed uneven bars help in Rio. So she went to the Games as an alternate at age 15, making headlines for this photo with 6-foot-11 basketball player DeAndre Jordan.

Smith, coached by 1991 World all-around champion Kim Zmeskal, emerged this year as the U.S.’ most reliable all-arounder and clear favorite this week. She won the American Cup on March 4 despite a beam fall. A definite all-around medal favorite at October’s worlds.

Ashton Locklear
Rio Olympic alternate
2014 World team champion

Locklear was beaten for the Olympic team bars specialist spot by Madison Kocian after nearly matching Kocian in scores in four routines between last year’s P&G Championships and Olympic Trials. The 19-year-old is not considered an all-around threat this week but is favored to make the world team based on her bars ability. She was fourth in the event at 2014 Worlds.

Riley McCusker
2017 Jesolo Trophy all-around winner

McCusker, who has the same coach as Laurie Hernandez, struggled at the American Cup in her first senior competition, falling on bars and beam. She rebounded to win Jesolo a month later and remain in the mix as the No. 2 U.S. all-arounder (Smith wasn’t at Jesolo).

However, McCusker was on crutches with a cast on her wrist in early July and said she expected to be back to peak form in September, not August.

Morgan Hurd
2017 Stuttgart World Cup bronze medalist

Hurd, a first-year senior who competes in glasses, was adopted from China as a toddler and now lives with her mom in Delaware.

Liukin, asked to name gymnasts to watch this week, started with Hurd, whom she says has the highest floor exercise start value in the world. “She could be capable of winning a world all-around medal and possibly become a world champion on floor,” Liukin said.

Jade Carey
2017 U.S. Classic vault winner

The U.S. has a tradition of sending a vault specialist to worlds, but neither of the top vaulters from the last Olympic cycle — Biles nor MyKayla Skinner — is competing this week. Enter Carey, a 17-year-old who wasn’t an elite gymnast before this season.

Carey performed the difficult Amanar vault at July’s U.S. Classic, where she was the only gymnast to perform two vaults, which is required to compete for medals on the event at worlds.

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