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Nathan Chen eyes biggest U.S. win since Sochi; Grand Prix Final preview

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In the nearly four years since the Sochi Olympics, U.S. skaters earned world championships medals and topped Grand Prix series events. Even captured world junior titles.

But this week, two months before PyeongChang, could come the most prestigious victory for a U.S. skater since Meryl Davis and Charlie White became the first U.S. Olympic ice dance champions.

This week is the Grand Prix Final, the second-biggest annual competition after the world championships. It’s also the most exclusive, taking the top six per discipline from the fall Grand Prix series.

And it’s the single biggest indicator of Olympic medal prospects among all pre-PyeongChang competitions this season.

There are six total U.S. entries at the Final in Nagoya, Japan, matching the nation’s biggest-ever contingent — three each in the men’s event and ice dance.

A preview of all four disciplines:

GRAND PRIX FINAL: TV Schedule | Entries/Rankings

MEN
U.S. champion Nathan Chen is the only undefeated male skater in the world this season. He enters Nagoya as a co-favorite at worst with world silver medalist Shoma Uno of Japan.

The world’s other top men’s skaters — world gold and bronze medalists Yuzuru Hanyu and Jin Boyang and two-time world champion Javier Fernandez — aren’t in Nagoya this week. Each dealt with illness or injury this fall but is expected to be fine for the Olympics, where they should join Chen and Uno as the medal favorites.

The absences would take some of the prestige out of a Chen win this week. But beating Uno — the highest-scoring man this season — and wiping away the memory of an error-filled Skate America free skate would be very beneficial.

The last U.S. singles skater to win the Grand Prix Final was Alissa Czisny in 2010. The last U.S. man, Evan Lysacek in 2009 en route to Olympic gold.

Chen and Uno are joined in Nagoya but the 2015 and 2016 U.S. champions — Jason Brown and Adam Rippon — and Russians Mikhail Kolyada and Sergei Voronov.

For Brown and Rippon, just getting to the Grand Prix Final boosts their resumes to be chosen by a committee for the three-man Olympic team following nationals in one month. Though Brown didn’t qualify for the Final outright. He got in with Jin’s withdrawal last week.

WOMEN
The winner here will likely not become the Olympic favorite.

That’s because Russian Yevgenia Medvedeva, undefeated for two years, is out with a broken foot (but expected back if not for the Russian Championships, then definitely the European Championships in January).

In her absence, training partner Alina Zagitova, the 15-year-old world junior champion, enters with the best credentials this season — aside from Medvedeva, the only woman to win both Grand Prix starts plus highest score in the world.

The most likely challengers are Olympic bronze medalist Carolina Kostner, runner-up to Medvedeva in her two Grand Prix starts, and Canadian Kaetlyn Osmond and Japanese Satoko Miyahara, past world silver medalists.

No American in the field for a second straight year.

ICE DANCE
The Grand Prix season brought a change. France’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, the world champions in 2015 and 2016, posted the two highest scores of all time in their two Grand Prix starts.

They broke the world record held by Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who won all three of their head-to-heads with the French last season, including at the world championships.

This will be their first head-to-head this season. It will determine the Olympic favorite.

Nobody else has been within five points of the French or Canadians this season, a clear dividing line in dance rankings.

The favorites to join them on the podium have to be U.S. champions Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani, who did just that at last season’s Grand Prix Final and worlds.

In winning Skate America, the Shibutanis posted the second-highest U.S. score under an eight-year system. It trailed only Davis and White from the Sochi Olympics.

Joining the Shibutanis at the Grand Prix Final for a third straight year are U.S. silver and bronze medalists Madison Chock and Evan Bates and Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue. Chock and Bates haven’t beaten the Shibutanis since the 2015 Grand Prix Final, and Hubbell and Donohue never have.

Those three couples are overwhelming favorites to make up the U.S. Olympic ice dance contingent named after nationals.

PAIRS
An event that looked wide open after last year’s Grand Prix Final has since been dominated by Chinese Sui Wenjing and Han Cong. They are the biggest favorites in this week’s field.

Sui and Han are undefeated since returning from Sui’s ankle and foot surgeries in February, including leading the world rankings by 10 points this season.

Their primary competition this week may be the world-record score of 237.71 set by Sochi Olympic champions Tatyana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov, who are no longer active. Sui and Han put up a personal-best 234.53 last time out.

A few teams are jockeying to be the primary challenger.

Russians Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov rank No. 2 in the world this season by total score and also won both of their Grand Prix starts.

Germans Aljona Savchenko and Bruno Massot, the world silver medalists, won the most recent Grand Prix, Skate America, with a personal-best free skate.

Canadians Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford and Russians Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov each have season’s best scores within 2.03 points of Tarasova and Morozov.

MORE: Figure skating season broadcast schedule

Adam Rippon gets second as Russians sweep NHK Trophy (video)

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What a 28th birthday for Adam Rippon.

The 2016 U.S. champion took second in his first top-level competition in 11 months, emphatically returning from a broken foot that kept him out last winter.

Rippon landed an under-rotated quadruple Lutz plus eight triples in his free skate at NHK Trophy on Saturday. He tallied 261.99 points, finishing 9.13 behind Russian winner Sergei Voronov.

“Being 28 rocks!” Rippon said after his skate in Osaka, Japan.

It was a Russian sweep of the singles titles at the fourth of six Grand Prix events this fall.

Olympic super favorite Yevgenia Medvedeva fell in a free skate at a second straight Grand Prix and still extended her two-year winning streak.

NHK TROPHY: Scores | Figure Skating TV Schedule

Conversely, Voronov used a personal best by 18.57 points, along with two quads in his free skate, to win his first Grand Prix in his 12th season. The 30-year-old became the oldest man to win a Grand Prix event by nearly three years (Daisuke Takahashi, 2013 NHK Trophy).

Voronov and Rippon will both compete at Skate America in two weeks, eyeing berths in December’s Grand Prix Final, which takes the top six men from the fall Grand Prix season.

Jason Brown, a 2014 U.S. Olympian and 2015 U.S. champion, saw a great opportunity to all but book his first Grand Prix Final berth slip through his fingers this weekend. Brown, third after the short program, fell on both of his triple Axels in the free skate and ended up fourth.

Brown went into NHK as the leading man after the withdrawals of Olympic gold and silver medalists Yuzuru Hanyu and Patrick Chan.

A runner-up would have put Brown in all-but-safe position to make the Grand Prix Final. Now, he must wait and watch the results of the next two Grand Prix events to see where he stands.

Medvedeva tallied 224.39 points, beating Olympic bronze medalist Carolina Kostner of Italy by 12.15 points. Both Medvedeva and Kostner qualified for December’s six-skater Grand Prix Final, the second-biggest annual event.

Kostner, 30, broke American Todd Eldredge‘s record as the oldest singles skater to qualify for a Grand Prix Final.

Russian Polina Tsurskaya was third, followed by American Mirai Nagasu. Nagasu boosted her resume for Olympic consideration with the highest Grand Prix score by a U.S. woman this season.

U.S. bronze medalist Mariah Bell was ninth after she placed sixth at her previous Grand Prix. Neither Nagasu nor Bell qualified for the Grand Prix Final.

Also Saturday, Chinese Sui Wenjing and Han Cong won their second Grand Prix in as many weeks. The world champions prevailed by a comfortable 11.79 over Russians Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov.

Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim, the favorites to grab the one U.S. Olympic pairs spot, finished fifth with a score 11.11 points better than any other Americans this season.

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MORE: U.S. Olympic figure skating picture at Grand Prix midpoint

NHK Trophy Results
Men

1. Sergey Voronov (RUS) — 271.12
2. Adam Rippon (USA) — 261.99
3. Alexei Bychenko (ISR) — 252.07
4. Jason Brown (USA) — 245.95

Women
1. Yevgenia Medvedeva (RUS) — 224.39
2. Carolina Kostner (ITA) — 212.24
3. Polina Tsurskaya (RUS) — 210.19
4. Mirai Nagasu (USA) — 194.46
9. Mariah Bell (USA) — 166.04

Pairs
1. Sui Wenjing/Han Cong (CHN) — 234.53
2. Ksenia Stolbova/Fedor Klimov (RUS) — 222.74
3. Kristina Astakhova/Alexei Rogonov (RUS) — 203.64
5. Alexa Scimeca Knierim/Christopher Knierim (USA) — 192.51

Russians top NHK Trophy short program (video)

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Yevgenia Medvedeva is once again ahead at a Grand Prix event, but she’s not the only Russian leader.

Medvedeva and Sergey Voronov topped Friday’s short programs at NHK Trophy in Osaka, Japan, the fourth of six Grand Prix events this fall.

Medvedeva, the two-time world champion undefeated for two years, had her typical clean program will all of her jumps in the second half for a 10 percent bonus.

She tallied 79.99 points. Medvedeva is the only female skater to break 80 under the 13-year-old scoring system.

The overwhelming PyeongChang favorite goes into Saturday’s free skate with a 5.42-point lead over Olympic bronze medalist Carolina Kostner of Italy.

NHK: Broadcast Schedule | Scores

Kostner, 30, is in great position to become the oldest singles skater to qualify for December’s Grand Prix Final, breaking American Todd Eldredge‘s record from 2001.

Americans Mirai Nagasu and Mariah Bell are fifth and ninth, respectively, in what could be their final competition before the U.S. Championships in January.

Nagasu landed a fully rotated triple Axel but was given a negative grade-of-execution score. She under-rotated two other jumps.

Bell, the top-scoring U.S. woman on the Grand Prix series so far this fall, had trouble with her opening triple-triple combination and also doubled a planned triple flip.

Nagasu and Bell are among the top contenders to make the three-woman Olympic team, along with 2017 U.S. gold and silver medalists Karen Chen and Ashley Wagner.

In the men’s event, Voronov took the lead in the absence of Olympic gold and silver medalists Yuzuru Hanyu and Patrick Chan, who withdrew last week and Friday morning, respectively.

Hanyu suffered an ankle injury in a Thursday practice fall (video here).

Voronov landed a quadruple toe loop in a clean short program to tally 90.06 points. The 30-year-old has been competing on the Grand Prix since 2006 but has zero wins (six podium finishes, though).

He leads Israel’s Alexei Bychenko by 4.54 going into Saturday’s free skate.

Jason Brown and Adam Rippon, the 2015 and 2016 U.S. champions, are third and fourth.

Brown lost points by performing a triple-double combination rather than a triple-triple. Rippon, like Brown, did not attempt a quadruple jump.

Both Americans could qualify for their first Grand Prix Final, the second-biggest annual event after worlds. The Final takes the top six skaters from the Grand Prix season based on combined results in each skater’s two Grand Prix starts.

Brown already has a runner-up finish from last month. A podium finish Saturday will likely be enough to make the Final in Nagoya in December.

Rippon, sixth at last year’s Grand Prix Final before breaking his foot, has his second Grand Prix at Skate America in two weeks.

Also Friday, Chinese Sui Wenjing and Han Cong topped the pairs short by 4.38 points over Russians Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov.

Sui and Han, the reigning world champions, are seeking their second Grand Prix win in as many weeks.

Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim, the favorites to grab the one U.S. Olympic pairs spot, are fourth after tallying the best short program score by Americans this season by 2.6 points.

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MORE: U.S. Olympic figure skating picture at Grand Prix midpoint

NHK Trophy Short Programs
Men

1. Sergey Voronov (RUS) — 90.06
2. Alexei Bychenko (ISR) — 85.52
3. Jason Brown (USA) — 85.36
4. Adam Rippon (USA) — 84.95

Women
1. Yevgenia Medvedeva (RUS) — 79.99
2. Carolina Kostner (ITA) — 74.57
3. Polina Tsurskaya (RUS) — 70.04
5. Mirai Nagasu (USA) — 65.17
9. Mariah Bell (USA) — 57.25

Pairs
1. Sui Wenjing/Han Cong (CHN) — 79.43
2. Ksenia Stolbova/Fedor Klimov (RUS) — 75.05
3. Kristina Astakhova/Alexei Rogonov (RUS) — 70.47
4. Alexa Scimeca Knierim/Christopher Knierim (USA) — 65.86