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Jason Brown’s big chance at NHK Trophy; preview, schedule

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For the third time in four years, Jason Brown has a great shot to qualify for the six-skater Grand Prix Final, the most exclusive event in figure skating.

He can clinch a Grand Prix Final berth for the first time this week at NHK Trophy in Japan, live on the Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA.

The Grand Prix Final, held every December, takes the top six men from the fall Grand Prix series, where skaters can compete twice and then are ranked by combined results.

Usually, a skater must make the podium in both qualifiers to reach the Grand Prix Final.

Grand Prix Final berths are most important in the Olympic season for Americans. U.S. Figure Skating will name the three-man Olympic team after the U.S. Championships in January. The picks will be based on not only nationals results but also recent domestic and international performances.

In 2014, Brown was the youngest U.S. Olympic male singles skater since 1976. Later that year, Brown missed the Grand Prix Final by .16 of a point. He took silver at his first qualifier but stumbled to fifth at his second event.

Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu eked out that last 2014 Grand Prix Final spot over Brown by finishing fourth at NHK Trophy. Hanyu and Brown will go head-to-head this week at NHK with Grand Prix Final berths again at stake.

In 2015, Brown would have made the Grand Prix Final with a runner-up finish at NHK Trophy. But he withdrew before the event with a back injury.

Then last season, Brown would have made the Grand Prix Final by placing third at NHK. But he was seventh, slowed by right leg soreness that eventually developed into a stress fracture.

Brown’s Grand Prix Final fate will mostly or fully be decided at NHK again this week. He was second at Skate Canada last month. That means Brown will almost surely qualify for the Grand Prix Final if he’s second again this week.

He could even make it with a fourth- or fifth-place finish, depending on how the rest of the Grand Prix season plays out.

Brown is definitely a podium favorite this week.

Besides Hanyu and Brown, only one other man at NHK ranked in the top 12 in the world last season — 2016 U.S. champion Adam Rippon, competing at the top international level for the first time in 11 months due to a broken foot.

NHK Trophy broadcast schedule (all times Eastern)
Friday (Short Programs)
Pairs — 12:30 a.m.
Women — 2 a.m.
Men — 5 a.m.
Ice Dance — 11 p.m.

Saturday (Free Skates)
Pairs — 12:30 a.m.
Women — 3 a.m.
Men — 5:30 a.m.
Ice Dance — 10 p.m.

NBC will air a recap show Saturday at at 1:30 p.m.

Men
Hanyu thrives in front of home fans. He’s going for a three-peat at NHK, where he shattered Patrick Chan‘s world record score two years ago and routed an up-and-coming Nathan Chen in 2016.

Hanyu was beaten by two-time world champion Javier Fernandez and Chen at his first two events this season, but he always gets off to slow starts. Nobody in this week’s field is an Olympic medal favorite. Hanyu won’t see them again until the Grand Prix Final next month.

The real intrigue is between Brown and Rippon, the next two strongest men in the field. A clutch performance from Brown to all but qualify for the Grand Prix Final could really boost his credentials to U.S. Figure Skating’s Olympic selection committee.

Rippon did qualify for last year’s Grand Prix Final before breaking his foot. If he outscores Brown at NHK, the 27-year-old will go into Skate America in two weeks looking to qualify for the Final again.

After Chen, the race for the last two U.S. Olympic men’s spots appears to be among Brown, Rippon, Vincent Zhou and Max Aaron. NHK is a chance for Brown and Rippon to further make their cases.

Women
The competition here also appears to be for silver and bronze. Russian Yevgenia Medvedeva, the biggest Olympic gold-medal favorite across all figure skating events, goes for her 11th win in 12 career top-level senior international events.

Carolina Kostner is the second-ranked woman this Grand Prix season. Satoko Miyahara ranked No. 2 last fall. They’re both in this week’s field. Kostner, 30, can pretty much wrap up her first Grand Prix Final berth in six years with a podium.

Miyahara is competing for the first time since December due to a fractured hip. Once the biggest threat to Medvedeva, Miyahara is now in a fight to make the two-woman Japanese Olympic team.

Mariah Bell and Mirai Nagasu are also on the Olympic bubble. The third- and fourth-place finishers from last season’s nationals were sixth and ninth at their Grand Prix openers last month. This might be the last time we see them before the U.S. Championships.

Pairs
World champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong are big favorites for a second win in as many weeks. They posted the best score in the world this season — by nearly seven points — at home in Beijing last weekend.

Olympic silver medalists Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov were a distant second in the Grand Prix opener last month. Another runner-up here will likely be enough to reach the Grand Prix Final for the first time since winning it in 2015.

Americans Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim return to the Grand Prix after missing all of last fall due to her life-threatening abdominal condition. It won’t take much for the Knierims to strengthen their hold atop U.S. pairs given what we’ve seen from the others so far this fall. The U.S. has one pairs spot for PyeongChang.

Ice Dance
Tessa Virtue 
and Scott Moir are undefeated in their comeback after sitting out the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons, but they are not the top-ranked couple in the world going into their second Grand Prix this season.

That’s because world silver medalists Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France snatched the world record last week.

The two couples won’t face off until the Grand Prix Final next month, but no doubt Virtue and Moir are competing against that score (200.43) at NHK.

Meanwhile, U.S. bronze medalists Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue bid for a third straight trip to the Grand Prix Final. They need a runner-up here to keep that hope alive.

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USOC CEO Scott Blackmun diagnosed with prostate cancer

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — Scott Blackmun, the CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee, has been diagnosed with prostate cancer and will not travel to South Korea for the PyeongChang Olympic Opening Ceremony.

The 60-year-old executive sent an email to staff Monday notifying them of his diagnosis and said he would have surgery later this week.

Blackmun is beginning his ninth year as the USOC’s leader.

He said physicians recommended he start treatment as soon as possible, and the treatment could prevent him from traveling to PyeongChang at all.

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Joss Christensen left off Olympic team; full U.S. freestyle skiing roster

Joss Christensen
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Joss Christensen, who led a U.S. ski slopestyle podium sweep in Sochi, was left off the 29-athlete team for PyeongChang on Monday.

Christensen attempted to come back from a May ACL tear (with meniscus damage) but was unable to finish on the podium in any of the Olympic qualifiers.

Here’s the full roster:

Aerials
Ashley Caldwell — 2010, 2014 Olympian
Kiley McKinnon
Madison Olsen
Mac Bohonnon — 2014 Olympian
Jonathon Lillis
Eric Loughran

Halfpipe
Maddie Bowman — 2014
Annalisa Drew — 2014
Devin Logan — 2014
Brita Sigourney — 2014
Aaron Blunck — 2014
Alex Ferreira
David Wise — 2014
Torin Yater-Wallace — 2014

Moguls
Tess Johnson
Jaelin Kauf
Keaton McCargo
Morgan Schild
Casey Andringa
Emerson Smith
Troy Murphy
Brad Wilson — 2014

Slopestyle
Caroline Claire
Devin Logan — 2014 (in slopestyle)
Darian Stevens
Maggie Voisin — 2014 (did not compete in Sochi)
Nick Goepper — 2014
Alex Hall
Gus Kenworthy — 2014
McRae Williams

MORE: U.S. Olympic roster now over 200 athletes; full list

In slopestyle, Christensen’s Sochi podium mates Gus Kenworthy and Nick Goepper earned automatic Olympic spots earlier this month.

World champion McRae Williams and Alex Hall got the nods for two spots picked by a committee on Monday. They ranked Nos. 3 and 4 behind Kenworthy and Goepper in Olympic qualifying standings, while Christensen was eighth.

Sochi women’s slopestyle silver medalist Devin Logan became the first American to make an Olympic team in two different freestyle skiing events — slopestyle and halfpipe.

In aerials, 2017 World champions Ashley Caldwell and Jonathon Lillis were added to the team Monday. So were Mac BohonnonEric Loughran and Madison Olsen.

Kiley McKinnon was the only aerialist to automatically qualify earlier this month.

Caldwell is going to her third Olympics. She finished 10th in 2010 and 2014, competing in the former as the youngest U.S. athlete across all sports as a 16-year-old.

Last season, Caldwell added her first world title to a resume that already included six World Cup victories and the 2016 World Cup season title. She finished third, seventh, ninth, 13th and 31st in five World Cups so far this season.

Lillis, 23, is going to his first Olympics. He won last season’s world title in a huge surprise, having never won a World Cup event (and only finishing on the podium once before). He has a best finish of sixth in six World Cup events this season.

McKinnon and Bohonnon swept the World Cup season titles in 2015. They also went to elementary school together in Connecticut.

Six of the eight halfpipe skiers qualified earlier this season. The additions Monday were Annalisa Drew and Aaron Blunck, who were the top performers from Olympic qualifiers who didn’t clinch automatic spots.

The halfpipe team is the exact same as in Sochi except for Alex Ferreira replacing Lyman Currier.

Maddie Bowman and David Wise are the defending Olympic gold medalists from the event that debuted in Sochi.

Of the eight moguls skiers, only Brad Wilson has Olympic experience, finishing 20th in Sochi.

The top medal hope is Jaelin Kauf, a 21-year-old daughter of two moguls skiers. Kauf qualified automatically for the Olympic team earlier this month and leads the World Cups standings.

Andringa is a great story. The 22-year-old lived in a tent with his brother in Steamboat Springs, Colo., this summer to supplement training costs. He raced World Cup for the first time on Jan. 6 and placed seventh and fifth in his first two starts to earn a spot on the team.

The top U.S. moguls skier the last two Olympics — Hannah Kearney — retired in 2015.

The U.S. is not sending a ski cross racer to the Olympics for the first time. The event debuted in 2010, and the U.S. has never earned a medal.

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