Alina Zagitova’s win ups pressure on Ashley Wagner for last GP Final spot

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Russian Alina Zagitova‘s Olympic-medal-worthy free skate at Grand Prix France meant one thing for American Ashley Wagner.

Wagner essentially must win Skate America next week to qualify for December’s Grand Prix Final, the biggest international competition before February’s Olympics.

Zagitova, the 15-year-old world junior champion, leaped from fifth after Friday’s short program to win in Grenoble on Saturday.

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The training partner of Olympic favorite Yevgenia Medvedeva recorded the third-highest free-skate score under a 13-year-old judging system.

That’s 151.34 points with seven triple jumps — all in the second half of the four-minute program to earn 10 percent bonus.

Only Medvedeva has scored higher — 160.46 and 154.40 at her last two events of an undefeated 2016-17 season.

Zagitova outclassed a field headlined by world silver medalist Kaetlyn Osmond of Canada.

Osmond, who led by 1.26 after the short program, fell on a triple loop and singled an Axel in her free skate to fall to third place — 7.03 behind Zagitova.

Another Russian, Maria Sotskova, remained in second place, 5.02 back of Zagitova, with a personal-best 208.78 points.

Medvedeva, Zagitova and Sotskova are all going to the Grand Prix Final, which takes the top six skaters from the fall Grand Prix season. Russia can send three women to the Olympics, and these are the clear favorites to be chosen after nationals in late December.

Olympic bronze medalist Carolina Kostner of Italy (the only woman from the top six in Sochi skating this season) and Osmond are also qualified for the Grand Prix Final.

The last Grand Prix Final spot will be decided at Skate America in Lake Placid, N.Y., next week.

It will go to one of three skaters — Russian Polina Tsurskaya, Japanese Wakaba Higuchi or Wagner.

Higuchi is the clubhouse leader with second- and third-place finishes in her two Grand Prix starts this fall. She is the last hope for Japan to keep a streak of qualifying at least one woman for the Grand Prix Final for a 17th straight year.

Japan has promising skaters, but zero Olympic medal favorites and only two women’s spots in PyeongChang. It had the maximum three spots at the Olympics in 2006, 2010 and 2014.

Wagner and Tsurskaya are tied in Grand Prix points, having finished third in their respective events earlier this fall.

If either Wagner or Tsurskaya wins Skate America, she goes to the Grand Prix Final.

A Skate America win would be a major resume boost for Wagner, since the three-woman U.S. Olympic team picks will be based not only on January’s nationals results but also from finishes in major competition the previous two seasons.

Wagner is the only active U.S. woman to win a Grand Prix (she’s done it five times) and the only one to make a Grand Prix Final in 10 years (also five times).

Wagner could make the Grand Prix Final with a runner-up at Skate America.

In that case, Tsurskaya would obviously have to finish lower, plus Wagner would need a personal best by more than 20 points to beat Higuchi via tiebreaker scores.

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Internationaux de France
Women’s Results
1. Alina Zagitova (RUS) — 213.80
2. Maria Sotskova (RUS) — 208.78
3. Kaetlyn Osmond (CAN) — 206.77
10. Polina Edmunds (USA) — 157.77

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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