Ashley Wagner, fickle field chase Olympics at figure skating nationals

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Next week, the U.S. women’s singles champion will be determined in San Jose.

The Olympic team of three women will also be decided by a committee behind the proverbial closed doors after the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

Neither competition is easily predictable.

The marquee event of the Winter Olympics has also been the most chaotic for U.S. figure skating over the last year.

It starts with Ashley Wagner, as it usually does.

The three-time U.S. champion and 2016 World silver medalist struggled last season, her least successful campaign in six years.

This year hasn’t been better. At 26, she is the oldest woman in next week’s field by two years.

“I have not had a good season at all,” said Wagner, who would finish fourth next week if every skater repeats her best score from fall events. “It’s frustrating as an athlete to train as hard as I do every day and then go out to competition and kind of freeze.”

Wagner’s longtime rival, Gracie Gold, is sitting out this season to treat depression, anxiety and an eating disorder.

Three others outscored Wagner this fall — upstart Bradie Tennell, 2010 Olympian Mirai Nagasu and training partner Mariah Bell.

A fourth, Karen Chen, was the top American at the two biggest events last season — nationals and worlds.

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So, who is the favorite next week?

“That’s not an answer you’re going to get from me,” Nagasu said. “It’s not important to me.”

What is important is finishing in the top three, which in most cases would be enough to get on the Olympic team.

But the feeling is that not everything will be resolved after the free skate one week from Friday. That night could be a restless one for some skaters, before the team is expected to be announced the next morning.

Especially after what happened in 2014 — fourth-place Wagner getting on the Olympic team over third-place Nagasu — and the committee’s discretionary criteria.

Six skaters to watch next week:

Ashley Wagner
Three-time U.S. champion
2016 World silver medalist
2017-18 U.S. ranking: 4th

The only woman in the field with a world medal said she feels “dramatically better” after withdrawing during her Skate America free skate due to an ankle infection on Nov. 26.

She received an antibiotics injection and was out of skates for a week, which was followed by an announcement that she changed her free skate program from “Moulin Rouge!” to “La La Land.”

Wagner’s biggest challenge is a familiar one for U.S. women — under-rotated jumps. Judges docked her on seven of her 13 jumping passes in the fall Grand Prix season, but panels at U.S. Championships are generally more forgiving.

Wagner would be the oldest U.S. Olympic women’s singles skater since 1928.

Karen Chen
2017 U.S. champion
4th at 2017 World Championships
2017-18 U.S. ranking: 6th

Chen has this going for her: The selection committee is tasked to weigh the 2018 U.S. Championships results equally with the 2017 World Championships. Chen was fourth at worlds, three spots ahead of Wagner and eight spots ahead of Bell.

An argument can be made that if the Olympic team is chosen today, the 18-year-old Kristi Yamaguchi protegé should be the No. 1 selection.

But Chen hasn’t looked like an Olympian this season. She was seventh and eighth at her two Grand Prix starts and sixth out of six skaters at the free-skate only Japan Open, struggling with jumps and voicing nervousness of the added pressure with the Olympics ahead.

Her season’s best score is a whopping 21.3 points behind the U.S. leader Tennell but only 5.76 shy of the third-best American woman from the fall. It might not require much of an improvement to land on the podium in San Jose.

Mirai Nagasu
4th at 2010 Olympics
2008 U.S. champion
2017-18 U.S. ranking: 2nd

The sentimental favorite next week after being bumped off the three-woman 2014 Olympic team despite finishing third at those nationals.

Nagasu was once the phenom of U.S. women’s skating.

She won her only national title in 2008 at age 14. She was fourth at the 2010 Olympics and topped the 2010 World Championships short program over the likes of Yuna Kim and Mao Asada (Nagasu disintegrated in the free skate and was seventh).

She faded after that. Nagasu boasts longevity — top seven at nine of the last 10 nationals — but competed at one world championships since 2010 (as an injury replacement).

This season brought a spark in the form of a triple Axel. She landed the toughest jump in senior women’s skating twice in September, becoming the second American to do so in international competition after Tonya Harding. (Nagasu’s landings were imperfect, however, two-footed).

Given what happened four years ago, does Nagasu have to win to force the committee to put her on the team?

“I don’t necessarily feel like I have to win,” she said, adding that she hasn’t decided if this will be her last nationals. “I want to be top two, because that [Olympics] team event is something I really want to be part of.”

Nagasu spoke of fearlessness and not shying from risk.

“It’s time to go in for the kill,” she said.

Bradie Tennell
2017 Skate America bronze medalist
2015 U.S. junior champion
2017-18 U.S. ranking: 1st

Ninth at last season’s nationals. Best U.S. woman this season. The 19-year-old from suburban Chicago is the face of unpredictability in U.S. women’s skating.

Tennell went into Skate America on Thanksgiving weekend as the highest-scoring American this season. She recorded more personal bests there — at her first Grand Prix — for the bronze medal. Her total was the highest by a U.S. woman in international competition since Wagner’s silver at the March 2016 Worlds.

“I did my job,” Tennell said then. “I think I have [put myself in the Olympic conversation].”

Tennell received positive grades of execution on all 15 of her jumps at Skate America with zero under-rotations. That stood out among the top U.S. women who struggled in the air this year.

She went off the radar after winning the 2015 U.S. junior title. Tennell was reportedly slowed by stress fractures in her lower back later in 2015 and in 2016, which may explain the ninth at last season’s nationals.

Mariah Bell
2017 U.S. bronze medalist
12th at 2017 World Championships
2017-18 U.S. ranking: 3rd

Joined Wagner’s training group in August 2016. Broke out by taking silver behind Wagner at last season’s Skate America and bronze behind Chen and Wagner at nationals.

The 21-year-old said she struggled with nerves at last season’s worlds — where she was 12th in her debut. She placed sixth and ninth in her two Grand Prix starts this fall (jumping problems), but her best score from this season is bettered only by Tennell and Nagasu.

Polina Edmunds
2014, 2016 U.S. silver medalist
9th at 2014 Olympics
2017-18 U.S. ranking: 13th

The youngest U.S. competitor across all sports in Sochi hasn’t been the same since the 2016 nationals. She went 20 months between competitions, missing the entire 2016-17 season due to a bone bruise in her right foot.

The Santa Clara University student was 10th and 13th in her two international events this fall, scoring 30 and 40 points shy of her personal best.

Edmunds was the pleasant surprise of the 2014 U.S. Championships and will need an even bigger shock to make a second Olympic team.

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IOC creates pool of Russians eligible for PyeongChang Olympics

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LAUSANNE, Switzerland (AP) — The International Olympic Committee said Friday it has created a pool of 389 Russians who are eligible to compete under a neutral flag at next month’s Winter Olympics amid the country’s doping scandal.

An IOC panel whittled down an initial list of 500 to create what the IOC calls “a pool of clean athletes.”

That could potentially make it possible for Russia to meet its target of fielding around 200 athletes in PyeongChang — slightly fewer than in Sochi in 2014, but more than in Vancouver in 2010.

It wasn’t immediately clear why 111 other Russians were rejected by the IOC.

The IOC didn’t list the athletes who were accepted or rejected but said it hadn’t included any of the 46 the IOC previously banned for doping at the Sochi Olympics.

Valerie Fourneyron, the former French Sports Minister leading the invitation process, said the pool also left out any Russians who had been suspended in the past for doping offenses.

“This means that a number of Russian athletes will not be on the list,” she said. “Our work was not about numbers, but to ensure that only clean athletes would be on the list.”

That would appear to rule out potential Russian medal contenders like former NHL hockey player Anton Belov and world champion speed skater Pavel Kulizhnikov, both of whom served bans in the past but have since resumed competing.

“More than 80 percent of the athletes in this pool did not compete at the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014,” the IOC said in a statement. “This shows that this is a new generation of Russian athletes.”

The IOC will use the pool list to issue invitations to Russian athletes to compete in PyeongChang, after checking their record of drug testing and retesting some samples they gave previously.

The IOC also said it recommended barring 51 coaches and 10 medical staff “associated with athletes who have been sanctioned” for Sochi doping.

The IOC has allowed the Russian Olympic Committee to select its preferred athletes despite being suspended by the IOC last month over drug use and an elaborate cover-up at the Sochi Olympics, including swapping dirty samples for clean urine.

Russian sports officials say they simply want to give the IOC recommendations to ensure that top athletes aren’t accidentally left out in favor of reserves.

The Russians will officially be known as “Olympic Athletes from Russia,” and they will wear gray and red uniforms that don’t feature any Russian logos.

If they win gold medals, the Olympic flag will be flown and the Olympic anthem played.

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Aly Raisman faces Larry Nassar; watch and read her speech

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Aly Raisman spoke for 13 minutes at Larry Nassar‘s sentencing hearing on Friday.

Here’s what she said (video here and at bottom of post):

I didn’t think I would be here today. I was scared and nervous. It wasn’t until I started watching the impact statements from the other brave survivors that I realized I, too, needed to be here. Larry, you do realize now that we, this group of women you so heartlessly abused over such a long period of time, are now a force, and you are nothing.

The tables have turned, Larry. We are here, we have our voices, and we are not going anywhere.

And now, Larry, it’s your turn to listen to me. There is no map that shows you the pathway to healing. Realizing that you are a survivor of sexual abuse is really hard to put into words. I cannot adequately capture the level of disgust I feel when I think about how this happened.

Larry, you abused the power and trust I and so many others placed in you, and I am not sure I will ever come to terms with how horribly you manipulated and violated me.

You were the USA Gymnastics national team doctor, the Michigan [State doctor] and the United States Olympic team doctor. You were trusted by so many and took advantage of countless athletes and their families. The effects of your actions are far-reaching. Abuse goes way beyond the moment, often haunting survivors for the rest of their lives, making it difficult to trust and impacting their relationships.

It is all the more devastating when such abuse comes at the hand of such a highly regarded doctor. Since it leaves survivors questioning the organizations and even the medical profession itself upon which so many rely.

I am here to face you, Larry, so you can see I’ve regained my strength, that I’m no longer a victim. I’m a survivor. I am no longer that little girl you met in Australia, where you first began grooming and manipulating. As for your letter yesterday, you are pathetic to think that anyone would have any sympathy for you.

You think this is hard for you? Imagine how all of us feel. Imagine how it feels to be an innocent teenager in a foreign country, hearing a knock on the door, and it’s you. I don’t want you to be there, but I don’t have a choice.

Treatments with you were mandatory. You took advantage of that. You even told on us if we didn’t want to be treated by you, knowing full well the troubles that would cause for us. Lying on my stomach with you on my bed, insisting that your inappropriate touch would heal my pain. The reality is you caused me a great deal of physical, mental and emotional pain.

You never healed me. You took advantage of our passions and our dreams. You made me uncomfortable, and I thought you were weird. But I felt guilty because you were a doctor, so I assumed I was the problem for thinking badly of you.

I wouldn’t allow myself to belief that the problem is you. From the time we are little, we are taught to trust doctors. You are so sick that I can’t even comprehend how angry I feel when I think of you.

You lied to me and manipulated me to think that when you treated me you were closing your eyes because you had been working hard when you were really touching me, an innocent child, to pleasure yourself.

Imagine feeling like you have no power and no voice. Well, you know what Larry, I have both power and voice, and I am only beginning to just use them. All these brave women have power, and we will use our voices to make sure you get what you deserve, a life of suffering spent replaying the words delivered by this powerful army of survivors.

I am also here to tell you to your face, Larry, that you have not taken gymnastics away from me. I love this sport, and that love is stronger than the evil that resides in you and those who enabled you to hurt many people.

You already know you are going away to a place where you won’t be able to hurt anybody ever again, but I am here to tell you that I will not rest until every last trace of your influence on this sport has been destroyed like the cancer it is.

Your abuse started 30 years ago, but that’s just the first reported incident we know of. If over these many years just one adult listened and had the courage and character to act, this tragedy could have been avoided. I and so many others would have never, ever met you. 

Larry, you should have been locked up a long, long time ago. Fact is, we have no idea how many people you victimized or what was done or not done that allowed you to keep doing it. And to get away with it for so long. Over those 30 years, when survivors came forward, adult after adult, many in positions of authority, protected you, telling each survivor it was OK, that you weren’t abusing them. In fact, many adults had you convince the survivors that they were being dramatic or were mistaken. 

This is like being violated all over again. How do you sleep at night? You were decorated by USA Gymnastics and the United States Olympic Committee, both of which put you on advisory boards and committees to come up with policies that would protect athletes from this kind of abuse.

You are the person they had “take the lead of athlete care.” You are the person they say “provided the foundation for our medical system.” I cringe to think that your influence remains in the policies that are supposed to keep athletes safe, that these organizations have for years claimed “state of the art.”

To believe in the future of gymnastics is to believe in change, but how are we to believe in change when these organizations aren’t even willing to acknowledge the problem? It’s easy to put out statements talking about how athlete care is the highest priority. But they’ve been saying that for years, and all the while this nightmare was happening. False assurances from organizations are dangerous, especially when people want so badly to believe them. They make it easier to look away from the problem and enable bad things to continue to happen. And even now, after all that has happened, USA Gymnastics has the nerve to say the very same things it has said all along.

Can’t you see how disrespectful that is? Can’t you see how much that hurts?

A few days ago, USA Gymnastics put out a statement attributed to its president and CEO, Kerry Perry, saying she came to listen to the courageous women and said, “their powerful voices leave an indelible imprint on me and will impact my decision as president and CEO every day.”

This sounds great, Ms. Perry, but at this point, talk is cheap. You left midway through the day, and no one has heard from you or the board.

Kerry, I have never met you, and I know you weren’t around for most of this, but you accepted the position of president and CEO of USA Gymnastics. And I assume by now you are very well aware of the weighty responsibility you’ve taken on. Unfortunately, you’ve taken on an organization that I feel is rotting from the inside and while this may not be what you thought you were getting into, you will be judged by how you deal with it.

A word of advice, continuing to issue statements of empty promises thinking that will pacify us will no longer work.

Yesterday, USA Gymnastics announced that it was terminating its lease at the ranch, where so many of us were abused. I am glad that it is no longer a national team training site, but USA Gymnastics neglected to mention that they had athletes training there the day they released the statement.

USA Gymnastics, where is the honesty? Where is the transparency? Why must the manipulation continue?

Neither USA Gymnastics nor the USOC have reached out to express sympathy or even offer support. Not even to ask, how did this happen? What do you think we can do to help?

Why have I and others here, probably, not heard anything from the leadership at the USOC? Why has the United States Olympic Committee been silent? Why isn’t the USOC here right now?

Larry was the Olympic doctor, and he molested me at the 2012 London Olympic Games. They say now they applaud those who have spoken out, but it’s easy to say that now when the brave women who started speaking out back then, more than a year after the USOC says they knew about Nassar, they were dismissed.

At the 2016 Olympic Games, the president of the USOC said that the USOC would not conduct an investigation and even defended USA Gymnastics as one of the leaders in developing policies to protect athletes. That’s the response a courageous woman gets when she speaks out? And when others joined those athletes and began speaking out with more stories of abuse, were they acknowledged?

No. It is like being abused all over again. I have represented the United States of America at two Olympics and have done so successfully, and both USA Gymnastics and the United States Olympic Committee have been very quick to capitalize and celebrate my success.

But did they reach out when I came forward? No.

So, at this point, talk is worthless to me. We’re dealing with real lives and the future of our sport. We need to believe this won’t happen again. For this sport to go on, we need to demand real change, and we need to be willing to fight for it.

It’s clear now that if we leave it up to these organizations, history is likely to repeat itself. To know what changes are needed requires us to understand what exactly happened and why it has happened.

This is a painful process, but it’s the only way to identify all the factors that contributed to this problem and how they can be avoided in the future. This is the only way to learn from these mistakes and make gymnastics a safer sport.

If ever there was a need to fully understand a problem, it is this one right now. To accept that problem is limited to just what we know now is irresponsible, delusional even. Each new day seems to bring a new survivor. We have no idea just how much damage you caused, Larry. And we have no idea how deep these problems go. Now is the time to acknowledge that the very person who sits here before us now, who perpetrated the worst epidemic of sexual abuse in the history of sports, who is going to be locked up for a long, long time, this monster was also the architect of policies and procedures that are supposed to protect athletes from sexual abuse for both USA Gymnastics and the USOC.

If we are to believe in change, we must first understand the problem and everything that contributed to it. Now is not the time for false reassurances. We need an independent investigation of exactly what happened, what went wrong and how it can be avoided for the future. Only then can we know what changes are needed. Only then can we believe such changes are real.

Your honor, I ask you to give Larry the strongest possible sentence, which his actions deserve, for by doing so you will send a message to him and to other abusers that they cannot get away with their horrible crimes. They will be exposed for the evil they are, and they will be punished to the maximum extent of the law.

Let this sentence strike fear in anyone who thinks it is OK to hurt another person. Abusers, your time is up. The survivors are here, standing tall, and we are not going anywhere. And please, your honor, stress the need to investigate how this happened so that we can hold accountable those who empowered and enabled Larry Nassar. So we can repair and once again believe in this wonderful sport.

My dream is that one day everyone will know what the words, “me, too,” signify, but they will be educated and able to protect themselves from predators like Larry so that they will never, ever, ever have to say the words, “me, too.”

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