Katie Ledecky, Kyle Snyder named U.S. Olympic athletes of the year

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Katie LedeckyKyle Snyder and the women’s national hockey team earned best-of-the-year honors at the Team USA Awards on Wednesday night.

NBC will air coverage of the awards Dec. 23 from 5-6 p.m. ET.

Ledecky won Female Athlete of the Year for the third time after marking her largest medal haul ever at a major international meet — five golds and one silver at the world championships in Budapest in July.

She beat out finalists Mikaela Shiffrin (first World Cup overall title), Helen Maroulis (won her five world matches by a combined 53-0 en route to repeat gold), Lindsey Jacobellis (fifth world snowboard cross title) and Heather Bergsma (two golds, one bronze at speed skating worlds).

Snyder became the fourth wrestler to earn Male Athlete of the Year after repeating as world champion by beating Russian Abdulrashid Sadulayev in the 97kg freestyle final, dubbed the Match of the Century.

Snyder handed the Russian Tank, the Olympic 86kg champion, his first loss in nearly four years in August.

The other men’s finalists were swimmer Caeleb Dressel (seven golds at worlds), pole vaulter Sam Kendricks (world title, undefeated year), biathlete Lowell Bailey (first American to win an Olympic or world biathlon title) and skier McRae Williams (world gold, X Games silver in slopestyle).

The women’s hockey national team earned Team of the Year for the first time since it won the first Olympic women’s hockey title in 1998.

The U.S. women nearly boycotted the world championship due to a pay dispute. They reached an agreement with USA Hockey three days before the tournament. Despite little prep time, they went undefeated in Plymouth, Mich., beating rival Canada 3-2 in overtime in the April final.

The other team finalists were women’s water polo (fifth world title) and bobsledders Elana Meyers Taylor and Kehri Jones (world champions).

Paralympic Athletes of the Year went to track and field athletes Tatyana McFadden and Mikey Brannigan and the men’s sled hockey team.

Coaches of the Year went to national freestyle wrestling coach Bill Zadick and Para Nordic skiing coach Eileen Carey.

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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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