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Ato Boldon to bring fresh eyes to NASCAR

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Ato Boldon likes speed. And cars. NASCAR? Well, the four-time Olympic medalist is about to find out.

The retired Olympic sprinter and NBC Olympic analyst will join NBC Sports Group’s NASCAR broadcast team as a features contributor beginning next week. His NASCAR on NBC debut will be July 1 during coverage at Daytona International Speedway.

It’s going to be an eye-opening experience for Boldon, who in an interview with The Associated Press admitted he could name “maybe 10” NASCAR drivers. When asked to list them, he came up with three: the late Dale Earnhardt, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Burton, the retired driver and current NBC analyst.

Sam Flood, executive producer for NBC’s NASCAR telecasts, isn’t worried.

“Ato is a curious guy and I want someone who loves cars, but is also from a different sports world,” Flood said. “I want a fish out of water to show what NASCAR is all about.”

Boldon joined NBC Sports Group in 2007 and is now the network’s lead track and field analyst. He represented Trinidad and Tobago in the Olympics and is a four-time medalist in the 100 meters and 200 meters.

It was during his coverage of last year’s Olympics in Rio that Boldon first expressed curiously about NASCAR to Flood. The producer had Boldon attend the November season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

At Daytona next week, Boldon will report on what makes NASCAR fans loyal to their drivers while hanging out in the track infield. He will also examine NASCAR’s earlier days of racing on Daytona Beach.

“I don’t think until you have been in a (race) car, you understand how difficult it is,” Boldon said. “People go, ‘Oh, yeah, big deal, they drive fast and they turn left. I do that every day on my commute.’ But I don’t think people get a sense of how difficult it is. I went around that track with Jeff Burton and there was so much going on, just to keep that car wheels down and to keep it off the wall. I couldn’t imagine doing that with another 30 cars, competing for space.

“It really created an appreciation, and the same thing I say about my sport, ‘The pros make it look easy,’ and it is not.”

Boldon loves cars, but has become an environmentalist and given up gasoline-fueled cars. He has made the full transition to driving electric cars, which meant turning in a Porsche for a Tesla four years ago.

The only cars he currently owns are electric, and Boldon is a little nervous that the attraction to the sights and sounds of NASCAR might lead him into a dealership to check out a $200,000 McLaren 570S he’s been eyeing.

“I feel like I am going to be around these NASCAR races, and the sound is half of the thrill, and I’m going to go out and buy something that completely does not make financial sense in any way,” Boldon said.

Boldon will also report from Bristol Motor Speedway, Charlotte Motor Speedway and Homestead. NBC plans to use him as a hauler driver, a member of Joe Gibbs Racing’s pit crew and will give him the wheel of NBC Sports’ on-track car to experience the horsepower and track banking.

“My hope is that people who never really thought of themselves as NASCAR fans will get something from my exposure to it. I am going in there completely wide-eyes and completely open to all possibilities,” Boldon said.

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New generation of male figure skaters owns spotlight at worlds; preview

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Nobody in the men’s field at figure skating worlds owns an Olympic or world title for the first time since 1985. This could lead to the best U.S. men’s results in years.

Yuzuru HanyuJavier Fernandez and Patrick Chan combined to win every gold medal since 2011, but all of them ended their seasons at the Olympics.

This week in Milan, the four leading men, who just competed in their first Olympics, are all 20 years or younger. And that includes two Americans.

Nathan Chen can become the first world singles champion from the U.S. since Evan Lysacek in 2009. Chen and Vincent Zhou could be the first U.S. men to finish in the top five together since Lysacek and Johnny Weir in 2005. Chen, Zhou and Max Aaron could make up the best U.S. trio at a worlds in more than 20 years.

Start with Chen. The 18-year-old said he planned to compete this week regardless of what happened at the Olympics, but after his struggles in the team event and individual short programs, the quad master nailed his free skate, came home to California and said he took maybe one day off of training before this event.

Chen is one of three men in the gold-medal hunt, along with Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno of Japan and world bronze medalist Jin Boyang of China. While Chen largely struggled at the 2017 Worlds and in PyeongChang, Uno and Jin each made the podium at both events. And each can come close to or equal Chen in quad numbers.

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Zhou, 17, has a chance to become the youngest man to earn a world medal since Hanyu in 2012. Or the first man to win the world junior title one season and make the world senior podium the next since Yevgeny Plushenko in 1997-98.

Zhou is riding momentum. He struggled in the fall and entered nationals in January ranked fifth among Americans for the season. He placed third to make the Olympic team and then landed three clean quads in his Olympic free skate to jump from 12th to sixth.

“I did better there than a lot of people thought I would,” Zhou told NBC Sports research last week. “I knew I was capable of that all season.

“I want to reach my ultimate goal of being Olympic champion, and my best chance is in 2022 … because by 2026 I will probably be old and creaky with four prosthetic limbs.”

Aaron made it to Milan after Olympian Adam Rippon gave up his spot, and the top two alternates (Jason Brown and Ross Miner) both declined. Still, Aaron, the 2013 U.S. champion, is seeded seventh in the men’s field based on top scores this season.

NBC Sports figure skating researcher Sarah Hughes contributed to this report.

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Carolina Kostner the sentimental favorite at figure skating worlds

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Olympic champion Alina Zagitova is without question the favorite at this week’s world figure skating championships, especially after the sprightly Russian’s training partner and rival Yevgenia Medvedeva withdrew because of injury.

She won’t be the sentimental favorite, though.

That would be Carolina Kostner, the ageless Italian star who could be competing at worlds for the last time on home soil. The 2012 champion and six-time world medalist seemed to indicate that retirement could be looming after she finished fifth at the PyeongChang Games, where she was chosen to carry the Italian flag at the Closing Ceremony.

Kostner will have a huge home crowd behind her when the event begins Wednesday in Milan.

“Decisions like that should never be taken in a hot moment. It will come naturally,” said Kostner, who no longer can compete with the sport’s high-fliers when it comes to technical marks, but whose elegant artistry and presentation often make up the difference.

“She is an example of perseverance, of a long-lasting athlete,” Medvedeva said. “I have trouble imagining how someone can stay in that shape for a very long time. When you see people like Carolina, you understand that if she can do something, then that something is possible. If you love what you do, you put all of yourself into it, like Carolina Kostner.”

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When asked about retirement, Kostner brought up her cousin, Isolde Kostner, who won three Olympic Alpine skiing medals before deciding to step away from competition.

“She stopped skiing shortly before the (2006) Olympics in Italy,” Caroline Kostner said. “Many did not understand why she wouldn’t pull through because it was her home country, and she said, ‘You will feel strongly when it is time to stop.’ And I haven’t felt it yet.”

The biggest story at the world championships in an Olympic year tends to be who is missing rather than who shows up. The grind of competing for an entire season builds toward the quadrennial event, and athletes who medal or intend to retire rarely press on to worlds. Then there are the injuries, which accumulate during the year.

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