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Shaun White working on back-to-back 1440s for Olympics

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PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (AP) — Shaun White sat on the couch at home and watched history’s best halfpipe contest unfold.

He’s planning on making the next contest — the one where they hand out the Olympic gold medal — an even better show.

White said Thursday that he is working on the tricks that Japan’s Ayumu Hirano used to win the Winter X Games last month. Hirano became the first person to string together back-to-back 1440s in what was widely regarded as the best show ever seen in a halfpipe.

“I’m excited to compete with him,” White said. “He’s really pushing it, and he did an amazing combination that I’m working on myself. I don’t think we’ve seen my best run.”

White’s best run, at least this season, came at Snowmass in an Olympic qualifier in January. White used one 1440, along with his patented double McTwist 1260, to win the contest with a maximum score of 100 — one of the rare times that mark has ever been handed out.

NBCOlympics.com: Scotty James says he feels “shafted” by recent halfpipe judging

It established him as the man to beat at the Olympics. But a short two weeks later came X Games, where Hirano strung together his back-to-back 1440s — the first time that had ever been done in a competition — and Scotty James finished a close second on a run that included three 1260s, including one in which he rides and spins backward into the wall to execute the double cork.

“To this point, it was the most progressive halfpipe contest we’d ever seen,” said JJ Thomas, the 2002 bronze medalist who coaches White. “And I think now, as long as the weather holds up, this one will probably be even better.”

Practice on the Olympic halfpipe starts Friday, with the men’s final set for next Wednesday in South Korea (Tuesday night in the U.S.).

White is in his fourth Olympics. Though he has two gold medals and is, far and away, the most recognizable figure in his sport, he concedes his fourth-place finish in Sochi was a blow.

NBCOlympics.com: Shaun White sees parallels between himself and Michael Phelps

“It was a nice eye-opener for me of what life’s really like,” he said. “The bubble is shattered, and what’s next? I was able to make that decision.”

The decision was to keep moving forward, upping the ante, and the risk, in order to return to the top. For White more than anyone, that means only one thing: winning the Olympics.

And yet, for the second straight Olympics, he’ll come in not setting the bar, the way he did in 2010 with the double McTwist, but trying to duplicate tricks someone else has done.

Heading into 2014, Iouri Podladtchikov showed off his YOLO flip — which was the first 1440 landed in competition — then brought it into the Olympics, where he landed it and White did not.

Heading into 2018, it’s Hirano’s back-to-back 1440s.

“That’s king right now,” Thomas said.

White was impressed, too. But he is not one to back down.

“It was great to watch those guys runs and see their best,” White said. “Now, I get a chance to throw my best and see how it stacks up.”

How Arianna Fontana quietly skated into short track history

Arianna Fontana
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Arianna Fontana is silently one of the greatest short track skaters in Olympic history.

Her numbers at the Games speak for themselves; one gold, two silver, and five bronze. Those eight total medals make her the most decorated female short track skater by two medals, and tie her with legends Apolo Ohno and Viktor Ahn for most Olympic medals ever won by a short track skater.

But it is her numbers outside the Olympic stage that really call attention to her Olympic success. She is a 14-time world medalist, which is no small feat, but her podium appearances are spread over a 12-year competitive career. Someone like Elise Christie, for example, has won 12 world championships medals in just five years. And also unlike Christie, Fontana has never won an overall title.

But Christie struggled on the sport’s biggest stage in both Sochi and PyeongChang, and has yet to win her first Olympic medal. Fontana, on the other hand, has become such a consistent podium presence over the last two Games that she almost makes it look easy.

Before retiring from competition, Ohno won 21 world medals, eight of them gold. Ahn, still competing but not one of the athletes invited to competed at the PyeongChang Olympics as an Olympic Athlete from Russia, has to date has won 35 world medals, 20 of which were gold.

Fontana does not come from a short track power like South Korea or China, perhaps another reason why she is not more notorious.

Most of her medals are bronze, which could be used as a strike against her, but just ask Lindsey Vonn how hard she worked to get hers this year.

Fontana’s first medal came at the 2006 Torino Olympics, when she helped the Italian women to bronze in the 3000m relay at just 15 years old. Fontana earned her first individual medal, a bronze in the 500m, four years later in Vancouver.

But in Sochi, she exploded, making the podium in three out of four events: the 500m, where she won silver, and the 1500m and 3000m relay, where she picked up two more bronzes.

“I thought I was going to win a gold medal in Sochi but I still don’t have that,” Fontana said to the ISU in early 2017. “That’s there up in my mind and sometimes it comes out and says, ‘Hey, you still miss me? So come get me!'”.

But after the 2014-15 season, Fontana’s desire for gold was eclipsed by something else: burnout.

“I was pretty tired mentally. My body was ready to race again but my mind was not. It was hard for me. After the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, I had some doubts about whether to keep skating or not,” Fontana said to the ISU. “Maybe it would have been better to take that year right after the Olympic Games off, but I decided to keep going. It is not that I regret it, but I had some hard times that season.”

She stayed active during her time off, learning how to box, which eased the transition back to skating.

Her pursuit for gold was what motivated her comeback, and in 2018 Fontana got what she came back for.

“When I saw I was first, I was just yelling and started crying. I worked for four years and the last four months were really hard for me. I was really focused on getting here in the best shape ever,” Fontana said after earning the 500m Olympic title.

“I was chasing it and finally I got it.”

In addition to her 500m gold medal, Fontana also added a 1000m bronze and 3000m relay bronze.

Fontana has spoken about retirement, but has not made a definitive decision. She will only be 31 years old by the time 2022 rolls around, so she could feasibly add to her medal haul if she competes. What she has made clear is that when she does leave the sport she hopes to become a personal trainer.

Whenever she does retire Fontana should be considered not only one of the greatest Italian athletes or greatest short track skaters, but also one of the greatest Winter Olympians.

How to watch Closing Ceremony of 2018 Winter Olympics

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Another Olympics is in the books.

The PyeongChang Closing Ceremony will cap off the 2018 Winter Games Sunday morning, beginning at 6 a.m. ET / 3 a.m. PT with a live stream of the events.

Jessie Diggins has been named the U.S. flag bearer after an incredibly gutsy performance to take home the country’s first-ever gold medal in Cross-Country.

How, when and where to watch the Closing Ceremony

Stream LIVE on NBCOlympics.com and the NBC Sports app: Sunday at 6 a.m. ET / 3 a.m. PT (Stream here)

The live stream will feature all the sights and sounds of the Closing Ceremony without any commentary.

Watch on TV: Sunday at 8 p.m. ET / 5 p.m. PT on NBC (Stream here)

The Olympic figure skating commentating trio of Tara Lipinski, Johnny Weir and Terry Gannon will host the Closing Ceremony on NBC in primetime beginning at 8 p.m. ET / 5 p.m. PT.

“It’s a huge honor and privilege,” Lipinski said. “I’m so excited to embark on this new and exciting adventure and bring the Closing Ceremony to the U.S.”

“This is a glorious and unexpected experience that I can’t wait to get fancy for!” Weir said.

Mike Tirico – NBC’s primetime host throughout the PyeongChang Games – hosted the Closing Ceremony for Rio in 2016 alongside Ryan Seacrest and Mary Carillo.

Tirico and Katie Couric hosted the PyeongChang Opening Ceremony in South Korea two weeks ago.

Sunday night’s primetime edition of the Closing Ceremony will also feature simulstreams on NBCOlympics.com and the NBC Sports app. (Stream here)