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U.S. Olympic figure skating picture at Grand Prix season midpoint

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Five figure skating storylines at the halfway point of the Grand Prix season …

1. Nathan Chen can win gold, but which men will join him on the U.S. Olympic team?

The 18-year-old wunderkind has the second-highest score of all men among the first three of six Grand Prix events, trailing only world silver medalist Shoma Uno of Japan (scroll for full standings). Chen should qualify for December’s six-man Grand Prix Final with a top-three finish at Skate America on Thanksgiving weekend.

Perhaps a bit surprisingly, there’s a great chance for another U.S. man to join Chen at the Grand Prix Final. That’s because Jason Brown and Max Aaron finished second and third, respectively, in their first of two Grand Prix starts.

The Olympic team of three men will be announced after the U.S. Championships in January. A selection committee will choose the skaters based not only on nationals results, but also performances from the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons.

Qualifying for the Grand Prix Final, the biggest annual competition outside of worlds, would be a huge resume booster. So big that a skater could finish outside the top three at nationals and be put on the Olympic team on the merit of that sort of international accomplishment.

Brown or Aaron could make his first Grand Prix Final with another podium finish this week (Brown in Japan) and next (Aaron in France).

Brown, who made the 2014 Olympic team at age 19 and finished ninth in Sochi, struggled with injuries the last two seasons and has not cleanly landed a fully rotated quadruple jump in competition. He makes up for it with artistic marks, which helped him take bronze at nationals (one month after a stress fracture in his right fibula) and seventh at worlds last season.

Aaron was not favored to make the Olympic team coming into this season. He was ninth at last year’s nationals — after being top four each of the previous four years. But Aaron had a personal-best free skate at Cup of China on Saturday, landing three quads, and is now firmly in the Olympic discussion.

U.S. silver medalist Vincent Zhou, who won the world junior title in March, fell three times between two programs at his Grand Prix debut last week. He was still fourth and just 3.03 points behind Aaron.

Then there is Adam Rippon, who joined Chen at last year’s Grand Prix Final. Rippon was then unable to defend his title at nationals (broken foot). Rippon skates at his first Grand Prix in Japan this week, followed by Skate America two weeks later. He could make another Grand Prix Final with two podiums.

2. U.S. women still bunched

None of the top four U.S. women — vying for three Olympic spots — from last season distinguished themselves from the pack in their Grand Prix debuts.

U.S. bronze medalist Mariah Bell had the highest score of the group, good enough for sixth place at Rostelecom Cup and 15th overall so far this season. Ashley Wagner‘s bronze-medal effort at Skate Canada was actually 4.62 points shy of Bell’s total.

U.S. champion Karen Chen was seventh at Skate Canada, while Mirai Nagasu was ninth at Rostelecom Cup.

Russia and Japan each have four women who rank higher than the best American so far this season, which shows where the power lies in women’s skating.

Could any other Americans step up? Courtney Hicks, whose best nationals finish was fourth in 2013, nearly beat Wagner at Skate Canada in her only Grand Prix assignment.

Then there is Polina Edmunds, the 2014 Olympian who is slated for her first Grand Prix in two years next week in France. She will look to massively improve on a 13th-place finish in a lower-level event a month ago.

The highest-scoring U.S. woman this season has zero Grand Prix experience. That’s Bradie Tennell, who was fourth at a small event in Italy in September. Her Grand Prix debut at Skate America could shake things up.

3. For three U.S. couples, the dance resumes

There is little doubt who will fill the three U.S. Olympic spots in ice dance.

Maia Shibutani and Alex ShibutaniMadison Chock and Evan Bates and Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue have been the top three couples at nationals, in some order, each of the last five years (excluding Sochi gold medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who are not active).

Only once in that span have Hubbell and Donohue beaten the Shibtuanis or Chock and Bates in any competition. Which makes their scores in three separate Grand Prix events this fall so interesting.

Hubbell and Donohue have the highest U.S. score (by .19 over the Shibutanis) after each couple’s opening Grand Prix.

For the remainder of the Grand Prix series, the three U.S. couples are again separated. Hubbell and Donohue go in Japan this week, followed by Chock and Bates in France next week and then the Shibutanis at Skate America.

They’re all in line to qualify for the Grand Prix Final, which would make a great nationals preview.

Meanwhile, the favorites for Olympic gold and silver remain French Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron and Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who traded world records the last two weeks in separate competitions.

4. Top U.S. pairs team set for Grand Prix return

Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim remain the favorites for the one U.S. Olympic pairs spot heading into their first Grand Prix since 2015 this week.

Though the Knierims missed most of last season due to her life-threatening abdominal condition, they came back to place 10th at worlds.

The U.S. champions in their absence, Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier, were 20th at worlds and opened their Grand Prix season with their worst result (seventh at Skate Canada) in seven career starts.

5. Canada loses its grip on team event

Pressure is on Patrick Chan to find his form, or Canada may be beaten by Russia again in the Olympic team event.

Chan, the world champion in 2011, 2012 and 2013 who took a year off after silver in Sochi, bombed in the Skate Canada free skate and then pulled out of this week’s Grand Prix in Japan.

Canada is strong in the other disciplines — world champions in ice dance, world silver and bronze medalists in the women’s event and the 2015 and 2016 World champions in pairs. But Chan has been its only reliable man in recent seasons.

This season, Chan ranks 20th in the world. Canada needs him.

Russia, meanwhile, may have finally found its successor to Yevgeny PlushenkoMikhail Kolyada was fourth at 2016 Worlds and then won Cup of China on Saturday.

Kolyada outscoring Chen in both programs of an Olympic team event could completely swing the standings in Russia’s favor.

Russia has the world’s best female skater in Yevgenia Medvedeva (plus the world junior champion), the world bronze medalists in pairs and a respectable ice dance couple in Yekaterina Bobrova and Dmitry Soloviyev that should place no worse than fourth in the team event.

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Grand Prix Season Top Scores
Men
1. Shoma Uno (JPN) — 301.10 (Skate Canada)
2. Nathan Chen (USA) — 293.79 (Rostelecom Cup)
3. Yuzuru Hanyu (JPN) — 290.77 (Rostelecom Cup)
4. Mikhail Kolyada (RUS) — 279.38 (Cup of China)
5. Mikhail Kolyada (RUS) — 271.06 (Rostelecom Cup)
6. Jin Boyang (CHN) — 264.48 (Cup of China)
7. Jason Brown (USA) — 261.14 (Skate Canada)
8. Max Aaron (USA) — 259.69 (Cup of China)
9. Vincent Zhou (USA) — 256.66 (Cup of China)
10. Misha Ge (UZB) — 255.33 (Rostelecom Cup)

Women
1. Yevgenia Medvedeva (RUS) — 231.21 (Rostelecom Cup)
2. Carolina Kostner (ITA) — 215.98 (Rostelecom Cup)
3. Alina Zagitova (RUS) — 213.88 (Cup of China)
4. Kaetlyn Osmond (CAN) — 212.91 (Skate Canada)
5. Wakaba Higuchi (JPN) — 212.52 (Cup of China)
6. Wakaba Higuchi (JPN) — 207.17 (Rostelecom Cup)
7. Yelena Radionova (RUS) — 206.82 (Cup of China)
8. Mai Mihara (JPN) — 206.07 (Cup of China)
9. Marin Honda (JPN) — 198.32 (Cup of China)
10. Gabrielle Daleman (CAN) — 196.83 (Cup of China)
15. Mariah Bell (USA) — 188.56 (Rostelecom Cup)
18. Ashley Wagner (USA) — 183.94 (Skate Canada)
19. Courtney Hicks (USA) — 182.57 (Skate Canada)
20. Mirai Nagasu (USA) — 178.25 (Rostelecom Cup)
24. Karen Chen (USA) — 170.40 (Skate Canada)

Ice Dance
1. Gabriella Papadakis/Guillaume Cizeron (FRA) — 200.43 (Cup of China)
2. Tessa Virtue/Scott Moir (CAN) — 199.86 (Skate Canada)
3. Kaitlyn Weaver/Andrew Poje (CAN) — 190.01 (Skate Canada)
4. Madison Hubbell/Zachary Donohue (USA) — 189.43 (Skate Canada)
5. Maia Shibutani/Alex Shibutani (USA) — 189.24 (Rostelecom Cup)
6. Yekaterina Bobrova/Dmitry Soloviyev (RUS) — 184.74 (Rostelecom Cup)
7. Madison Chock/Evan Bates (USA) — 184.50 (Cup of China)

Pairs
1. Sui Wenjing/Han Cong (CHN) — 231.07 (Cup of China)
2. Yevgenia Tarasova/Vladimir Morozov (RUS) — 224.25 (Rostelecom Cup)
3. Meagan Duhamel/Eric Radford (CAN) — 222.22 (Skate Canada)
4. Aliona Savchenko/Bruno Massot (GER) — 215.66 (Skate Canada)
5. Vanessa James/Morgan Cipres (FRA) — 214.37 (Skate Canada)
18. Haven Denney/Brandon Frazier (USA) — 172.95 (Skate Canada)

Erin Hamlin nears end of historic U.S. luge career

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Erin Hamlin is looking forward to normalcy. She is getting married next summer in her hometown. She is thinking about career moves. She is trying to figure out the rest of her life.

It is probably her last luge season. It is definitely her last Olympic season.

As such, it would be easy to fall into the trap of saying that winning a gold medal at PyeongChang in February would be the only thing that makes this season a success.

It’s important, sure, but Hamlin is entering her 13th year of World Cup racing with a much broader view and insisting that she’s going to enjoy whatever time she has left on her sled.

“I’m not going to hyperfocus myself on one result or bust,” Hamlin said. “Very likely, it’s going to be my last time in a lot of places, sliding on a lot of tracks. So I think more so, it’s going to be a lot of soaking it all in.”

That process starts Saturday, when the World Cup season opens in Igls, Austria.

Hamlin, who turns 31 on Sunday, is coming off the finest year of her career — she won a gold medal and two silvers at the world championships for the biggest haul ever by an American luger, got two World Cup wins and finished fourth in world rankings.

She might be going out, and there’s a chance she can go out on top.

“We’re working hard to convince her to stay,” longtime U.S. teammate Emily Sweeney said.

Sweeney knows that’s probably futile.

Sliders always tend to cycle out after an Olympics, no matter if it’s bobsled, skeleton or luge, and the Americans will see plenty of veterans take their last rides this winter.

A few U.S. sliders already retired this fall, in part because they weren’t going to have a shot at an Olympic berth.

For her part, Hamlin hasn’t officially said this is the end.

“There’s never really as concrete of a plan as you hope there would be, because you never know what can happen,” Hamlin said. “But at the moment, what I’m excited to do is see what other opportunities are there and what other adventures await.”

Hamlin has been in the world’s top 10 in each of the past 11 seasons — the second-longest current streak of any woman in luge, one year behind German legend Tatjana Huefner.

She won a World Cup each of the past three years, took the world title in sprint last winter and became the first U.S. Olympic singles luge medalist in 2014 with a bronze.

A lesson learned that season: Not expecting much can work wonders. That’s one of the reasons why PyeongChang isn’t taking up all the bandwidth in her brain.

“That’s the nature of winter sports in a Winter Olympic year, there being so much focus on the Games,” Hamlin said. “How I went into the last Olympics taught me a lot. I had no expectation of walking away from the last Olympics with a medal. At this point, goal No. 1 is to make the team and beyond that, I know if I slide as I’m capable of I can be pretty fast and I can do well.”

The schedule this season is hectic.

This weekend’s stop in Austria starts a run of five races in five weekends, with the next two in Germany followed by another in Calgary, Alberta, and then on home ice in Lake Placid, N.Y., on Dec. 15-16.

When that Lake Placid World Cup is over, the U.S. Olympic team will be named.

So when Hamlin needs an escape from all that, the wedding is there to bring her back to reality.

It will be at her parents’ home in July. It will, without question, be the social event of the season in Remsen, N.Y., where the one-time high school soccer player has annually left her tiny hometown brimming with pride.

“Pretty exciting,” Hamlin said. “It’s definitely adding a whole new aspect to an Olympic year, planning a wedding, but it’s cool. It gives me a good distraction when I need to think about something other than sliding.”

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Kaetlyn Osmond leads Grand Prix France as co-favorite falls (video)

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Canadian Kaetlyn Osmond topped the Grand Prix France short program, moving closer to another Grand Prix Final berth on Friday.

The world silver medalist was flawed — performing a triple-double combination rather than a triple-triple and putting a hand down on another jump landing.

She goes into Saturday’s free skate with a 1.26-point lead over Russian Maria Sotskova. Japan’s Yuna Shiraiwa is third, while the lone American Polina Edmunds is ninth.

Co-favorite Alina Zagitova of Russia fell and dropped to fifth place in Grenoble.

In the short dance, France’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron improved on their personal best with 81.40 points, the third-highest all-time in an eight-year-old system.

Russians Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov lead French Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres by 4.66 going into Saturday’s pairs free skate.

The event continues later Friday with the men’s short, live on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA.

GP FRANCE: Full Results | TV Schedule

Osmond, 21, was a revelation last season, winning her first Grand Prix medals in four years, making her first Grand Prix Final and finishing second to dominant Russian Yevgenia Medvedeva at worlds.

She’s continued that this fall, winning her first two events in Canada to solidify Olympic medal favorite status. One Canadian woman has won an individual Olympic medal in the last 25 years — Joannie Rochette‘s emotional bronze in 2010.

Zagitova, the 15-year-old world junior champion, fell on her opening triple Lutz. Zagitova won her Grand Prix debut in China two weeks ago and ranks second to training partner Medvedeva in top scores this season.

Medvedeva, Zagitova and Sotskova are the favorites to claim Russia’s three Olympic women’s spots. Sotskova, 17, made the podium in all three of her Grand Prix starts but was a disappointing eighth at last season’s worlds.

Edmunds tallied 56.31 points Friday, stepping out of the landing of her opening triple-triple jump combination.

Still, she improved on her short program from her earlier event this season, where she scored 49.62 with errors on all of her jumps.

Edmunds, the youngest U.S. Olympic competitor across all sports in Sochi, went 20 months between competitions, missing the entire 2016-17 season due to a bone bruise in her right foot.

She is an underdog to make the three-woman U.S. team for PyeongChang that will be named after nationals in January.

Russian Elizaveta Tuktamysheva continued her string of underwhelming programs since her 2015 World title. She fell on a triple Axel attempt and singled a Lutz, plummeting to last place of 11 skaters.

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Internationaux de France
Women’s Short Program
1. Kaetlyn Osmond (CAN) — 69.05
2. Maria Sotskova (RUS) — 67.79
3. Yuna Shiraiwa (JPN) — 66.05
9. Polina Edmunds (USA) — 56.31

Short Dance
1. Gabriella Papadakis/Guillaume Cizeron (FRA) — 81.40
2. Madison Chock/Evan Bates (USA) — 73.55
3. Alexandra Stepanova/Ivan Bukin (RUS) — 70.02
6. Elliana Pogrebinsky/Alex Benoit (USA) — 60.64

Pairs
1. Yevgenia Tarasova/Vladimir Morozov (RUS) — 77.84
2. Vanessa James/Morgan Cipres (FRA) — 73.18
3. Nicole Della Monica/Matteo Guarise (ITA) — 70.65
6. Marissa Castelli/Mervin Tran (USA) — 58.99