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Nathan Chen, top U.S. women open figure skating season

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Nathan Chen opens his season, while three of the top female contenders for the U.S. Olympic team also compete at the U.S. International Classic in Salt Lake City starting Thursday.

The lower-level event will stream live on Icenetwork.com for subscribers (all times Eastern):

Pairs short program — Thursday, 6:30 p.m.
Men’s short program — Thursday, 8:30 p.m.
Short dance — Friday, 3:20 p.m.
Women’s short program — Friday, 5 p.m.
Pairs free skate — Friday, 6:50 p.m.
Men’s free skate — Friday, 9 p.m.
Free dance — Saturday, 6:30 p.m.
Women’s free skate — Saturday, 8:30 p.m.

Chen, the 18-year-old who landed a record seven quadruple jumps en route to the U.S. title in January, is the headliner. He is expected to ease into the season, attempting fewer quads on Thursday and Friday in his hometown.

It would be surprising if Chen doesn’t win, even with watered-down programs. The field also includes 2013 U.S. champion Max Aaron, who was ninth at last year’s nationals, and Japanese bronze medalist Takahito Mura.

Picking a women’s winner is not as clear-cut.

Three of the top four women from January’s U.S. Championships face off in an early test ahead of the fall Grand Prix series and nationals in January. The U.S. Olympic team (three men, three women, three dance couples, one pair) will be selected by a committee after nationals, taking into account results in the Grand Prix series.

So Karen ChenMariah Bell and Mirai Nagasu have greater incentive to be in strong form this week. An early win against countrywomen could set the tone to make it to PyeongChang.

Chen, the surprise U.S. champion, fell twice in her short program in this event last year and finished third, behind Japanese star Satoko Miyahara and Bell.

Bell is coming off a surprise year where she finished third at nationals. But she struggled with nerves at worlds in the early spring and ended up 12th.

Then there’s Nagasu, the 2010 Olympian who finished fourth at the last two nationals. She has been training a triple Axel and even without it could leap past Chen and Bell this week given her international experience.

An interested onlooker may be Ashley Wagner, the U.S. silver medalist who is expected to make her international season debut next month.

But the favorite this week could be Japanese Marin Honda, a 16-year-old world junior champion making her senior international debut. Honda owns the top personal-best score in the field.

The pairs field includes the top two American couples from last season — Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim and Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier.

U.S. bronze medalists Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue lead the ice dance entrants.

Also this weekend, U.S. Olympian Jason Brown takes on world silver medalist Shoma Uno at the Lombardia Trophy in Italy.

Brown finished third at last year’s nationals and seventh at worlds after overcoming a stress fracture in his right fibula. Nathan Chen, Brown, Vincent Zhou and Adam Rippon are the frontrunners for the three Olympic men’s spots.

Lombardia Trophy will also mark the senior international debut of Russian Alina Zagitova, the reigning world junior champion and a training partner of Olympic gold-medal favorite Yevgenia Medvedeva.

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Ashley Wagner details dropping ‘La La Land’ free skate

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Ashley Wagner, the pre-eminent U.S. female figure skater of the last decade, changed her mind on one of the most significant decisions a skater can make going into the Olympic season.

Wagner, the 2016 World silver medalist and three-time U.S. champion, tossed out the new free skate she had been working on last month.

It was set to music from “La La Land,” which earned a record-tying 14 Academy Award nominations earlier this year and won six Oscars (and, briefly, infamously, a seventh for Best Picture).

Now, she’s back to music from “Moulin Rouge.” It accompanied her free skate in the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons.

Those years, Wagner posted the highest free skate scores in U.S. Championships history and for an American in international competition history.

“I really did love the [‘La La Land’] program,” Wagner said Wednesday, while promoting the Dick’s Sporting Goods Contenders program, which assists 41 Winter Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls with their preparation for the PyeongChang Winter Games.

“I was very passionate about what I was doing,” she continued. “I started training it day to day, and the music is beautiful. But just something wasn’t quite clicking, and the character didn’t really feel as complicated as I wanted her to be. There really didn’t feel like there was much of an emotional range. And I love drama. I love having those moments.”

The return to “Moulin Rouge” came abruptly as Wagner described it. One day at practice in early August, she consulted her steely coach, Armenian Rafael Arutyunyan.

“Is this program good?” Wagner asked.

“Yeah, it’s a really good program,” Arutyunyan responded.

“Is it good enough? Is this going to get me through the Olympics?” she pressed.

Arutyunyan told Wagner to put “Moulin Rouge” music on and skate.

“I made it to the first double Axel in the program,” Wagner said. “He turns off the program, and he goes, this is the program I want you to do.”

Wagner agreed.

“It’s my Olympic moment,” she said Wednesday, “and this is the person I want to be at the Olympics.”

Wagner, who lives and trains in Southern California, said publicly as far back as February that she wanted to skate to “La La Land” at the Olympics. Skaters usually wait until after the preceding season ends in early spring to announce program music for the following season.

But Wagner was so enamored that she texted her choreographer from a movie theater to say she had chosen “La La Land” for her Olympic free skate.

Wagner’s 11-year senior international career is marked by ups and downs, tears and several concussions. She identified with the film’s theme of hope.

“I love the music. I still do,” she said. “I just think that it was very much like an inspirational kind of a setup. I loved that. I loved the choreography. I can’t speak highly enough of the music. But I just know myself, and I know that after a couple of months of just one emotion, I get bored.”

Two weeks after the switch, Wagner performed to “Moulin Rouge” at last month’s U.S. Figure Skating’s Champs Camp. At Champs Camp, skaters receive preseason feedback from officials on programs before debuting them in competition.

“I gave them the opportunity to see ‘La La Land’ if they wanted to, but everyone at U.S. Figure Skating was very supportive of my decision,” Wagner said.

Wagner said she will make her Olympic season debut at a small, local event. She won’t say where or when it will be. Her international season debut is at Skate Canada the last weekend of October.

She’s gearing up for the U.S. Championships in January, after which three women will be named to the Olympic team. That team will be chosen by a committee based on results not only at nationals but also previous top-level competitions.

Wagner is familiar with the selection process.

She was the top U.S. woman in fall 2009 but finished third at the 2010 U.S. Championships and was left off the two-woman Olympic team.

Wagner was fourth at the 2014 U.S. Championships and placed on the three-woman Olympic team over third-place finisher Mirai Nagasu. Wagner earned that spot based on performing the best of all U.S. women nationally and internationally the previous year.

Now 26 years old, Wagner can become the oldest U.S. Olympic women’s singles skater since 1928.

Wagner wants to separate from her own past this season, even as she performs to music associated with some of the biggest triumphs of her career.

Skating to “Moulin Rouge” again last month, “made me feel like the athlete that I was at 2016 Worlds, so that definitely made me feel nostalgic,” she said, referencing moving from fourth to second in the free skate in Boston to become the first U.S. world medalist in a decade. “Maybe that’s why I like this program so much.”

But judges may want to see something new.

So Wagner added professional dancer Benji Schwimmer to her choreography team. Schwimmer has worked with Wagner’s best friend and training partner Adam Rippon.

“This is a new season,” Wagner said, “and hopefully somewhat of a new version of Moulin Rouge.”

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Officer body checks fan at world road cycling championships (video)

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A man dressed as a police officer leveled a fan at the world road cycling championships men’s time trial in Bergen, Norway, on Wednesday.

Spectators often run up close enough to touch riders on mountain stages at the Tour de France.

However, this man in a red hooded sweatshirt was decked while chasing German Tony Martin from two or three strides behind near the summit finish of a 19-mile time trial.

Martin, eyeing his record fifth world title in the time trial, was ninth on a course not suited to his strengths.

A full recap of the race is here.

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