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Olympic figure skating season starts with September must-sees

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The international figure skating season begins next week. By the end of the month, we’ll already have some answers for key questions heading into the Olympics.

Let’s dive in:

1. Which three women make the U.S. Olympic team?

This answer will not come definitively until after the U.S. Championships in January, but three of the top contenders compete at next week’s U.S. International Classic in Salt Lake City — Karen ChenMariah Bell and Mirai Nagasu, who finished first, third and fourth at last season’s nationals.

The Olympic team is chosen by a committee that analyzes not only performances at nationals, but also recent international competitions. Which makes the next few months — starting with lower-level events next week and rising to the fall Grand Prix series — key for all of the American women given every single one was flawed last season.

Chen won the U.S. title and was the top American at worlds (fourth), but she struggled in her other six events. Bell chalked up a 12th-place finish at worlds to the worst nerves of her life. The 2010 Olympian Nagasu could unleash a triple Axel this season, but she was 10th, fourth and fourth at the last three nationals.

Last season was forgettable for all three 2014 Olympians. Ashley Wagner had her least successful campaign in six years. Gracie Gold hit rock bottom, changed coaches and announced last week that she is seeking unspecified “professional help” before her debut in November. Polina Edmunds didn’t compete at all in 2016-17 due to a bone bruise in her right foot.

2. What about the U.S. men?

Nathan Chen, the 18-year-old who broke out by landing a record five quadruple jumps in one program last year, is probably the most likely singles skater to make the Olympic team, male or female.

And Chen begins the Olympic season at the U.S. International Classic in his hometown of Salt Lake City. So does 2013 U.S. champion Max Aaron, who is certainly in the mix for one of the three Olympic spots.

Vincent Zhou and Jason Brown, who were second and third at last season’s nationals, compete in separate events the following week. Adam Rippon, the 2016 U.S. champion, makes his international return from a broken foot in October.

With teens Chen and Zhou bringing an arsenal of quads, a four-revolution jump may for the first time be a necessity to make the U.S. Olympic team. Aaron, Brown and Rippon, all in their 20s, have struggled to consistently land quads.

3. The best U.S. medal hope?

Has to be sibling ice dancers Maia and Alex Shibutani, the only Americans to earn medals at each of the last two world championships. Silver in 2016. Bronze in 2017.

They are the most successful active U.S. skaters now that Meryl Davis and Charlie White will not attempt to defend their Olympic dance title from Sochi.

But it’s very possible the U.S. fails to win a gold or silver figure skating medal at an Olympics for the first time since 1972.

The Shibutanis have never beaten the world’s top couple — Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir — and haven’t bettered the world No. 2 — French Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron — in nearly four years.

All should be at the Grand Prix Final in December, which will be a measuring-stick competition. But the Shibutanis aren’t locked in as the top U.S. dancers.

Madison Chock and Evan Bates outscored the Shibutanis in the free dance at the U.S. Championships and the short dance at the world championships. Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue also bettered the siblings in the short at worlds. Keep an eye on all of their scores at the Grand Prix events.

4. Who are the Olympic favorites?

Until proven otherwise, gold-medal discussions start with the 2017 World champions.

Russian Yevgenia Medvedeva hasn’t lost in nearly two years and posted the three highest total scores of all time at her final three competitions last season. What makes Medvedeva an even bigger favorite is that the runners-up to her at major competitions have been musical chairs. And that the best women from Sochi — Adelina Sotnikova, Yulia Lipnitskaya and Yuna Kim — are out of the picture.

Perhaps the skaters worth the most looks this fall are senior debutants — Marin Honda and Alina Zagitova, who won the last two world junior titles after Medvedeva in 2015.

The men’s field has no shortage of challengers to reigning Olympic and world champion Yuzuru Hanyu. Hanyu, seeking to become the first repeat Olympic men’s champion since Dick Button in 1952, would be an underdog if he hadn’t dragged himself from fifth place after the worlds short program to capture his first title in three years in April.

The new generation arrived last year — Chen, 18, beat Hanyu at the PyeongChang Olympic venue, and Hanyu was joined on the world podium by a pair of 19-year-olds — Shoma Uno of Japan and Jin Boyang of China.

Hanyu will face his chief rival and training partner — double world champion Javier Fernandez of Spain — at a lower-level event in Canada in two weeks. A rare early season showdown.

Canada could go into PyeongChang with favorites in ice dance (Virtue and Moir, undefeated last year after two seasons off) and pairs (two-time world champions Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford). But the latter must shake off a seventh-place finish at worlds in the fall Grand Prix series to be considered rivals to Chinese Sui Wenjing and Han Cong.

Hopefully, clarity will come soon regarding Olympic pairs champions Tatyana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov. The Russians haven’t competed since the 2016 World Championships, with Volosozhar giving birth to their daughter last February. They are not entered in any Grand Prix events. If they’re not back by the Russian Championships in December, you won’t see them at the Olympics.

5. Will North Koreans be in PyeongChang?

North Korea is used to winning Summer Olympic medals, but it has scant Winter Olympic history and sent zero athletes to the Sochi Games.

There’s a chance North Korea doesn’t qualify anyone for PyeongChang. Its most successful athletes across all winter sports are pairs skaters Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik, who are entered in the final Olympic qualification event in three weeks in Germany.

If Ryom and Kim perform like they did last season, they should qualify a North Korean pairs spot for PyeongChang by finishing top four later this month.

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MORE: What to watch every day of the PyeongChang Olympics

Ligety exits quietly, Hirscher brilliant again

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PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Marcel Hirscher, the Austrian ski god, is finally having his moment. King of the World Cup tour for the past seven seasons, on Sunday Hirscher won his second Olympic gold, in the giant slalom.

Hirscher had won a grand total of no Olympic medals, nada, zip, zero in two prior Games. Now he might — could, should — win three here at PyeongChang. The slalom, another Hirscher specialty, is due to be run Thursday.

To watch Hirscher ski is to watch one of the great athletes of our — or any — time. Like being courtside in Chicago to see Michael Jordan back in the day. At Wimbledon for a Roger Federer volley. At the Water Cube in Beijing in 2008 when Michael Phelps was swimming the butterfly.

In Sunday’s race, Kristoffersen finished second, 1.27 seconds back of Hirscher. Pinturault finished third, 1.31 behind.

American racer Ted Ligety used to own this event: the Sochi 2014 giant slalom gold medalist, he was world champion in 2011, 2013 and 2015. Pinturault took Sochi 2014 bronze.

Considering his relatively low slalom ranking and the pounding that slalom demands, Sunday’s GS was — just like that, that quickly, that quietly — likely the final race of Ligety’s outstanding Olympic career.

“This is probably it for me at these Games,” he said after run two, adding that he is planning to head back to Europe, to race the remainder of the World Cup season.

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Olympic ice dance figure skating preview

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While Canada’s Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir already have a gold medal in PyeongChang from the team event, they’re back to regain their 2010 Olympic ice dance title.

The short dance is Sunday, February 18 in Primetime on NBC and NBCOlympics.com and the free dance is Monday, February 19 in Primetime on NBC and NBCOlympics.com.

Here are some names to know before the event kicks off:

Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, Team USA

Credentials: Reigning U.S. national champions, first Olympic appearance is 2018

Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani, Team USA

Credentials: Three-time Worlds medalists, two-time U.S. national champions, 2014 Olympians, 2017 Grand Prix Final bronze medalists

Madison Chock and Evan Bates, Team USA
Buzz about Chock and Bates: They’re a couple on and off the ice, and say that’s given a new perspective to their athletic careers. They weren’t a couple when they competed together at the 2014 Olympics, so they believe this experience will be all the more special for it.

Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, Canada
Credentials: 2010 Olympic champions, two-time Sochi 2014 silver medalists, three-time world champions, eight-time Canadian national champions.

Read the full ice dance preview here and watch figure skating highlights and streams