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Olympic figure skating season starts with September must-sees

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The international figure skating season begins next week. By the end of the month, we’ll already have some answers for key questions heading into the Olympics.

Let’s dive in:

1. Which three women make the U.S. Olympic team?

This answer will not come definitively until after the U.S. Championships in January, but three of the top contenders compete at next week’s U.S. International Classic in Salt Lake City — Karen ChenMariah Bell and Mirai Nagasu, who finished first, third and fourth at last season’s nationals.

The Olympic team is chosen by a committee that analyzes not only performances at nationals, but also recent international competitions. Which makes the next few months — starting with lower-level events next week and rising to the fall Grand Prix series — key for all of the American women given every single one was flawed last season.

Chen won the U.S. title and was the top American at worlds (fourth), but she struggled in her other six events. Bell chalked up a 12th-place finish at worlds to the worst nerves of her life. The 2010 Olympian Nagasu could unleash a triple Axel this season, but she was 10th, fourth and fourth at the last three nationals.

Last season was forgettable for all three 2014 Olympians. Ashley Wagner had her least successful campaign in six years. Gracie Gold hit rock bottom, changed coaches and announced last week that she is seeking unspecified “professional help” before her debut in November. Polina Edmunds didn’t compete at all in 2016-17 due to a bone bruise in her right foot.

2. What about the U.S. men?

Nathan Chen, the 18-year-old who broke out by landing a record five quadruple jumps in one program last year, is probably the most likely singles skater to make the Olympic team, male or female.

And Chen begins the Olympic season at the U.S. International Classic in his hometown of Salt Lake City. So does 2013 U.S. champion Max Aaron, who is certainly in the mix for one of the three Olympic spots.

Vincent Zhou and Jason Brown, who were second and third at last season’s nationals, compete in separate events the following week. Adam Rippon, the 2016 U.S. champion, makes his international return from a broken foot in October.

With teens Chen and Zhou bringing an arsenal of quads, a four-revolution jump may for the first time be a necessity to make the U.S. Olympic team. Aaron, Brown and Rippon, all in their 20s, have struggled to consistently land quads.

3. The best U.S. medal hope?

Has to be sibling ice dancers Maia and Alex Shibutani, the only Americans to earn medals at each of the last two world championships. Silver in 2016. Bronze in 2017.

They are the most successful active U.S. skaters now that Meryl Davis and Charlie White will not attempt to defend their Olympic dance title from Sochi.

But it’s very possible the U.S. fails to win a gold or silver figure skating medal at an Olympics for the first time since 1972.

The Shibutanis have never beaten the world’s top couple — Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir — and haven’t bettered the world No. 2 — French Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron — in nearly four years.

All should be at the Grand Prix Final in December, which will be a measuring-stick competition. But the Shibutanis aren’t locked in as the top U.S. dancers.

Madison Chock and Evan Bates outscored the Shibutanis in the free dance at the U.S. Championships and the short dance at the world championships. Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue also bettered the siblings in the short at worlds. Keep an eye on all of their scores at the Grand Prix events.

4. Who are the Olympic favorites?

Until proven otherwise, gold-medal discussions start with the 2017 World champions.

Russian Yevgenia Medvedeva hasn’t lost in nearly two years and posted the three highest total scores of all time at her final three competitions last season. What makes Medvedeva an even bigger favorite is that the runners-up to her at major competitions have been musical chairs. And that the best women from Sochi — Adelina Sotnikova, Yulia Lipnitskaya and Yuna Kim — are out of the picture.

Perhaps the skaters worth the most looks this fall are senior debutants — Marin Honda and Alina Zagitova, who won the last two world junior titles after Medvedeva in 2015.

The men’s field has no shortage of challengers to reigning Olympic and world champion Yuzuru Hanyu. Hanyu, seeking to become the first repeat Olympic men’s champion since Dick Button in 1952, would be an underdog if he hadn’t dragged himself from fifth place after the worlds short program to capture his first title in three years in April.

The new generation arrived last year — Chen, 18, beat Hanyu at the PyeongChang Olympic venue, and Hanyu was joined on the world podium by a pair of 19-year-olds — Shoma Uno of Japan and Jin Boyang of China.

Hanyu will face his chief rival and training partner — double world champion Javier Fernandez of Spain — at a lower-level event in Canada in two weeks. A rare early season showdown.

Canada could go into PyeongChang with favorites in ice dance (Virtue and Moir, undefeated last year after two seasons off) and pairs (two-time world champions Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford). But the latter must shake off a seventh-place finish at worlds in the fall Grand Prix series to be considered rivals to Chinese Sui Wenjing and Han Cong.

Hopefully, clarity will come soon regarding Olympic pairs champions Tatyana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov. The Russians haven’t competed since the 2016 World Championships, with Volosozhar giving birth to their daughter last February. They are not entered in any Grand Prix events. If they’re not back by the Russian Championships in December, you won’t see them at the Olympics.

5. Will North Koreans be in PyeongChang?

North Korea is used to winning Summer Olympic medals, but it has scant Winter Olympic history and sent zero athletes to the Sochi Games.

There’s a chance North Korea doesn’t qualify anyone for PyeongChang. Its most successful athletes across all winter sports are pairs skaters Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik, who are entered in the final Olympic qualification event in three weeks in Germany.

If Ryom and Kim perform like they did last season, they should qualify a North Korean pairs spot for PyeongChang by finishing top four later this month.

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Takeaways from World Figure Skating Championships

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Five thoughts following the world figure skating championships, looking toward the Olympics … 

1. Reality check for Nathan Chen

When Nathan Chen beat Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu at the Four Continents Championships in February, he scored 307.46 points, the highest in the world this season to that point. It instantly made him a medal favorite at worlds, and arguably the gold-medal favorite.

While Chen failed to deliver on those expectations, finishing sixth in Helsinki, he is still very much an Olympic medal contender given the surrounding circumstances of the world championships.

For one, his eye-popping score at Four Continents would have earned bronze in Helsinki. It would have taken 12 more points than his Four Continents total to unseat Shoma Uno for silver.

That’s a large improvement to ask of a 17-year-old, younger than any previous men’s world champion, even with Chen adding a record sixth quadruple jump attempt to his free skate. He fell three times between two programs in Helsinki and still managed 290.72 points, higher than four of his other five international events this season.

That Chen was considered a gold-medal threat in perhaps the greatest men’s field ever assembled was a testament to his unprecedented rise the last several months.

Chen came into this season with a personal best of 236.76 points in international competition and no senior international experience. And coming off hip surgery that kept him off the ice for nearly half of 2016.

He ended it by upping his personal best by nearly 71 points, becoming the first man to land five quadruple jumps in a free skate (doing so twice) and beating Hanyu, Uno, two-time world champion Javier Fernandez and three-time world champion Patrick Chan at various competitions.

Chen was the only man in the top 13 at worlds younger than age 19. He admitted to nerves, causing a lack of sleep, and boot discomfort in Helsinki. Common problems for skaters, and ones that tend to lessen with experience.

Hanyu was seventh in the short program at his first worlds in 2012, despite landing a quad and a triple Axel. He singled a Lutz. Uno was seventh overall at his first worlds last season. Chen could very well be following their trend.

2. Three U.S. men vying for last two Olympic spots

With Chen placing sixth and Jason Brown seventh, the U.S. qualified the maximum three spots for PyeongChang without any margin for error.

Brown, often criticized for his inability to land a quadruple jump, deserves credit here. The top six in men’s skating is clearly defined — Hanyu, Uno, Jin Boyang, Fernandez, Chan and Chen — and Brown managed to beat the rest of the field despite attempting only one quad in Helsinki (and falling on it).

Brown’s component scores — the artistic marks — were higher than Jin and Chen in both the short and free.

Which will make for a captivating 2017-18 season for the U.S. men.

Chen is already a near-lock for PyeongChang, given it’s expected a selection committee will choose the trio based on results from the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons. Chen can boast his U.S. and Four Continents titles from this season, plus a Grand Prix Final silver medal.

Brown might look like a favorite to make his second straight Olympic team, too, but that could quickly change in the fall.

Remember, 16-year-old Vincent Zhou beat Brown by nine points for silver at the U.S. Championships in January but was left off the worlds team largely for his lack of experience. Zhou went on to win the world junior title with the highest score ever in junior international competition by nearly 11 points, landing three quads in his free skate.

Then there is 2016 U.S. champion Adam Rippon, who missed nationals with a broken left foot. Rippon, 27, was stronger than Brown in the fall season, qualifying into the six-skater Grand Prix Final in December with Hanyu, Uno, Fernandez, Chan and Chen.

There is a clear dropoff after that. No other U.S. men’s skater was within 15 points of that quartet’s bests internationally this season, and they combined to post the 16 highest international scores among Americans this season.

3. U.S. women’s Olympic picture less clear

This season provided the biggest shake-up in U.S. women’s skating in several years. The Ashley WagnerGracie Gold teeter-totter at the top is no longer the overriding storyline.

With three Olympic spots available, Karen Chen ends the season with the best early Olympic selection credentials — a national title and a fourth-place finish at worlds.

Wagner followed the best result of her career — silver at the 2016 Worlds — with her worst season since 2011. She failed to qualify for the Grand Prix Final for the first time since 2012 and was seventh at worlds, her lowest result there since 2014.

Still, Wagner was the strongest American woman over the course of the season. It would be a shock if she doesn’t make a second Olympic team.

Everyone else is more of a wild card. There is Mariah Bell, who finished 12th in her worlds debut but outscored training partner in the free skate. Bell was the second-best U.S. skater in the fall behind Wagner.

There is Mirai Nagasu, whose 194.95 points at Four Continents in February was more than Wagner and Bell’s totals at worlds. The 2010 Olympian was fourth at the U.S. Championships, though, and will likely need to break into the top three next January to return to the Olympics.

Two Sochi Olympians are mysteries at this point. Polina Edmunds, the youngest U.S. competitor across all sports in Sochi at age 15, hasn’t competed since the January 2016 U.S. Championships due to a foot injury.

Finally, Gold. Her disastrous season was well-documented, but it would not take that much of an improvement to get into the Olympic team picture. Gold changed coaches after finishing sixth at nationals in January, moving from California to Michigan. She remains the last woman to beat Russian Yevgenia Medvedeva in a program.

4. U.S. dance, pairs continue down different paths

Siblings Maia and Alex Shibutani salvaged a bronze for the U.S. in the final worlds event, keeping the Americans from going medal-less at a pre-Olympic worlds for the first time since 1993.

By results, U.S. dance took a step back from 2016, when it put three couples in the top six at worlds for the first time since 1955.

This year, the Shibutanis were third, followed by Madison Chock and Evan Bates in seventh and Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue in ninth.

A silver lining? Hubbell and Donohue were third after the short dance, one year after the Shibutanis and Chock and Bates both made the world podium. They plummeted due to Donohue’s fluke fall on a twizzle.

The U.S. has three ice dance couples capable of earning a medal in PyeongChang, though bronze may be the ceiling given the abilities of Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and France’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron.

Conversely, the U.S. hit a nadir in pairs. By virtue of weak worlds results, the U.S. will send one pairs team to an Olympics for the first time since the first Winter Games in 1924. Pairs is the U.S.’ weakest discipline — no Olympic medals since 1988.

The top U.S. pair at worlds — Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim — finished 10th. The Knierims performed admirably, given Scimeca Knierim’s comeback from a life-threatening abdominal condition.

However, U.S. pairs champions Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier had a disastrous short program, placing 20th. If they had been top 16, the U.S. would have qualified two pairs for PyeongChang.

5. Olympic team event is Canada’s to lose

Russia is not favored to repeat as Olympic champion in the team event. The Russians lack a men’s star and trail the medalists in ice dance.

Instead, Canada looks likely to upgrade on its silver medal from the event’s debut in Sochi. In 2014, Canada’s weakness came in the women’s discipline, but now it is a strength after Kaetlyn Osmond and Gabrielle Daleman both made the podium in Helsinki.

It looks like the Canadians can count on Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir in both the short and free dance and Patrick Chan in both men’s programs.

Though 2015 and 2016 World champions in pairs Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford struggled to seventh place in Helsinki, another Canadian pair, Lyubov Ilyushechkina and Dylan Moscovitch, took sixth, giving the nation some flexibility. (Assuming Ilyushechkina gains Canadian citizenship.

In Sochi, the team event required each nation to sub out skaters in two of the four disciplines between the short and long programs. The Canadians can do this in PyeongChang without much drop-off in the women’s and pairs events.

Russia would take silver in the team event in PyeongChang if skaters repeat their worlds results. The U.S. would earn a second straight bronze, with China its biggest threat.

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Tessa Virtue, Scott Moir, despite trip, win world title in comeback season

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Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir capped an undefeated and record-breaking comeback season, winning their third world ice dance title and first since 2012 on Saturday.

Even with Moir tripping during their free dance, they totaled 198.62 points, the highest score of all time. They topped the two-time defending world champions, training partners Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France, by 2.58 points.

“[Virtue] held my butt up today,” Moir said afterward.

Americans Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani took bronze, 13.44 points behind Virtue and Moir, the 2010 Olympic gold medalists and 2014 Olympic silver medalists.

The Shibutani siblings, silver medalists a year ago, moved up from fourth after the short dance. They snagged the lone U.S. medal in any event at worlds.

Full Results | TV Schedule

Americans Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue were in position for their first world medal going into the free dance, but Donohue fell during their twizzles. They dropped from third to ninth.

As for Virtue and Moir, they were saved by a 5.54-point lead from Friday’s short dance. Immediately before they took the ice Saturday, Papadakis and Cizeron posted the highest free dance score of all time, leaving crowd members in tears.

“It’s not a lot of fun to come out after Gabby and Guillaume,” Moir said.

After two years away from competition, Virtue and Moir completed an undefeated season in which they recorded the four highest total scores of all time in their last four international events. That made Moir’s trip during a step sequence so shocking, causing an audible crowd gasp as he put one hand down on the ice to keep from falling down completely.

The other U.S. couple, Madison Chock and Evan Bates, finished seventh after taking silver in 2015 and bronze in 2016.

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Ice Dance Results
Gold: Tessa Virtue/Scott Moir (CAN) — 198.62

Silver: Gabriella Papadakis/Guillaume Cizeron (FRA) — 196.04
Bronze: Maia Shibutani/Alex Shibutani (USA) — 185.18
7. Madison Chock/Evan Bates (USA) — 182.04
9. Madison Hubbell/Zachary Donohue (USA) — 177.70