Mariah Bell

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Jason Brown’s big chance at NHK Trophy; preview, schedule

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For the third time in four years, Jason Brown has a great shot to qualify for the six-skater Grand Prix Final, the most exclusive event in figure skating.

He can clinch a Grand Prix Final berth for the first time this week at NHK Trophy in Japan, live on the Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA.

The Grand Prix Final, held every December, takes the top six men from the fall Grand Prix series, where skaters can compete twice and then are ranked by combined results.

Usually, a skater must make the podium in both qualifiers to reach the Grand Prix Final.

Grand Prix Final berths are most important in the Olympic season for Americans. U.S. Figure Skating will name the three-man Olympic team after the U.S. Championships in January. The picks will be based on not only nationals results but also recent domestic and international performances.

In 2014, Brown was the youngest U.S. Olympic male singles skater since 1976. Later that year, Brown missed the Grand Prix Final by .16 of a point. He took silver at his first qualifier but stumbled to fifth at his second event.

Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu eked out that last 2014 Grand Prix Final spot over Brown by finishing fourth at NHK Trophy. Hanyu and Brown will go head-to-head this week at NHK with Grand Prix Final berths again at stake.

In 2015, Brown would have made the Grand Prix Final with a runner-up finish at NHK Trophy. But he withdrew before the event with a back injury.

Then last season, Brown would have made the Grand Prix Final by placing third at NHK. But he was seventh, slowed by right leg soreness that eventually developed into a stress fracture.

Brown’s Grand Prix Final fate will mostly or fully be decided at NHK again this week. He was second at Skate Canada last month. That means Brown will almost surely qualify for the Grand Prix Final if he’s second again this week.

He could even make it with a fourth- or fifth-place finish, depending on how the rest of the Grand Prix season plays out.

Brown is definitely a podium favorite this week.

Besides Hanyu and Brown, only one other man at NHK ranked in the top 12 in the world last season — 2016 U.S. champion Adam Rippon, competing at the top international level for the first time in 11 months due to a broken foot.

NHK Trophy broadcast schedule (all times Eastern)
Friday (Short Programs)
Pairs — 12:30 a.m.
Women — 2 a.m.
Men — 5 a.m.
Ice Dance — 11 p.m.

Saturday (Free Skates)
Pairs — 12:30 a.m.
Women — 3 a.m.
Men — 5:30 a.m.
Ice Dance — 10 p.m.

NBC will air a recap show Saturday at at 1:30 p.m.

Men
Hanyu thrives in front of home fans. He’s going for a three-peat at NHK, where he shattered Patrick Chan‘s world record score two years ago and routed an up-and-coming Nathan Chen in 2016.

Hanyu was beaten by two-time world champion Javier Fernandez and Chen at his first two events this season, but he always gets off to slow starts. Nobody in this week’s field is an Olympic medal favorite. Hanyu won’t see them again until the Grand Prix Final next month.

The real intrigue is between Brown and Rippon, the next two strongest men in the field. A clutch performance from Brown to all but qualify for the Grand Prix Final could really boost his credentials to U.S. Figure Skating’s Olympic selection committee.

Rippon did qualify for last year’s Grand Prix Final before breaking his foot. If he outscores Brown at NHK, the 27-year-old will go into Skate America in two weeks looking to qualify for the Final again.

After Chen, the race for the last two U.S. Olympic men’s spots appears to be among Brown, Rippon, Vincent Zhou and Max Aaron. NHK is a chance for Brown and Rippon to further make their cases.

Women
The competition here also appears to be for silver and bronze. Russian Yevgenia Medvedeva, the biggest Olympic gold-medal favorite across all figure skating events, goes for her 11th win in 12 career top-level senior international events.

Carolina Kostner is the second-ranked woman this Grand Prix season. Satoko Miyahara ranked No. 2 last fall. They’re both in this week’s field. Kostner, 30, can pretty much wrap up her first Grand Prix Final berth in six years with a podium.

Miyahara is competing for the first time since December due to a fractured hip. Once the biggest threat to Medvedeva, Miyahara is now in a fight to make the two-woman Japanese Olympic team.

Mariah Bell and Mirai Nagasu are also on the Olympic bubble. The third- and fourth-place finishers from last season’s nationals were sixth and ninth at their Grand Prix openers last month. This might be the last time we see them before the U.S. Championships.

Pairs
World champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong are big favorites for a second win in as many weeks. They posted the best score in the world this season — by nearly seven points — at home in Beijing last weekend.

Olympic silver medalists Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov were a distant second in the Grand Prix opener last month. Another runner-up here will likely be enough to reach the Grand Prix Final for the first time since winning it in 2015.

Americans Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim return to the Grand Prix after missing all of last fall due to her life-threatening abdominal condition. It won’t take much for the Knierims to strengthen their hold atop U.S. pairs given what we’ve seen from the others so far this fall. The U.S. has one pairs spot for PyeongChang.

Ice Dance
Tessa Virtue 
and Scott Moir are undefeated in their comeback after sitting out the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons, but they are not the top-ranked couple in the world going into their second Grand Prix this season.

That’s because world silver medalists Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France snatched the world record last week.

The two couples won’t face off until the Grand Prix Final next month, but no doubt Virtue and Moir are competing against that score (200.43) at NHK.

Meanwhile, U.S. bronze medalists Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue bid for a third straight trip to the Grand Prix Final. They need a runner-up here to keep that hope alive.

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U.S. Olympic figure skating picture at Grand Prix season midpoint

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Five figure skating storylines at the halfway point of the Grand Prix season …

1. Nathan Chen can win gold, but which men will join him on the U.S. Olympic team?

The 18-year-old wunderkind has the second-highest score of all men among the first three of six Grand Prix events, trailing only world silver medalist Shoma Uno of Japan (scroll for full standings). Chen should qualify for December’s six-man Grand Prix Final with a top-three finish at Skate America on Thanksgiving weekend.

Perhaps a bit surprisingly, there’s a great chance for another U.S. man to join Chen at the Grand Prix Final. That’s because Jason Brown and Max Aaron finished second and third, respectively, in their first of two Grand Prix starts.

The Olympic team of three men will be announced after the U.S. Championships in January. A selection committee will choose the skaters based not only on nationals results, but also performances from the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons.

Qualifying for the Grand Prix Final, the biggest annual competition outside of worlds, would be a huge resume booster. So big that a skater could finish outside the top three at nationals and be put on the Olympic team on the merit of that sort of international accomplishment.

Brown or Aaron could make his first Grand Prix Final with another podium finish this week (Brown in Japan) and next (Aaron in France).

Brown, who made the 2014 Olympic team at age 19 and finished ninth in Sochi, struggled with injuries the last two seasons and has not cleanly landed a fully rotated quadruple jump in competition. He makes up for it with artistic marks, which helped him take bronze at nationals (one month after a stress fracture in his right fibula) and seventh at worlds last season.

Aaron was not favored to make the Olympic team coming into this season. He was ninth at last year’s nationals — after being top four each of the previous four years. But Aaron had a personal-best free skate at Cup of China on Saturday, landing three quads, and is now firmly in the Olympic discussion.

U.S. silver medalist Vincent Zhou, who won the world junior title in March, fell three times between two programs at his Grand Prix debut last week. He was still fourth and just 3.03 points behind Aaron.

Then there is Adam Rippon, who joined Chen at last year’s Grand Prix Final. Rippon was then unable to defend his title at nationals (broken foot). Rippon skates at his first Grand Prix in Japan this week, followed by Skate America two weeks later. He could make another Grand Prix Final with two podiums.

2. U.S. women still bunched

None of the top four U.S. women — vying for three Olympic spots — from last season distinguished themselves from the pack in their Grand Prix debuts.

U.S. bronze medalist Mariah Bell had the highest score of the group, good enough for sixth place at Rostelecom Cup and 15th overall so far this season. Ashley Wagner‘s bronze-medal effort at Skate Canada was actually 4.62 points shy of Bell’s total.

U.S. champion Karen Chen was seventh at Skate Canada, while Mirai Nagasu was ninth at Rostelecom Cup.

Russia and Japan each have four women who rank higher than the best American so far this season, which shows where the power lies in women’s skating.

Could any other Americans step up? Courtney Hicks, whose best nationals finish was fourth in 2013, nearly beat Wagner at Skate Canada in her only Grand Prix assignment.

Then there is Polina Edmunds, the 2014 Olympian who is slated for her first Grand Prix in two years next week in France. She will look to massively improve on a 13th-place finish in a lower-level event a month ago.

The highest-scoring U.S. woman this season has zero Grand Prix experience. That’s Bradie Tennell, who was fourth at a small event in Italy in September. Her Grand Prix debut at Skate America could shake things up.

3. For three U.S. couples, the dance resumes

There is little doubt who will fill the three U.S. Olympic spots in ice dance.

Maia Shibutani and Alex ShibutaniMadison Chock and Evan Bates and Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue have been the top three couples at nationals, in some order, each of the last five years (excluding Sochi gold medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who are not active).

Only once in that span have Hubbell and Donohue beaten the Shibtuanis or Chock and Bates in any competition. Which makes their scores in three separate Grand Prix events this fall so interesting.

Hubbell and Donohue have the highest U.S. score (by .19 over the Shibutanis) after each couple’s opening Grand Prix.

For the remainder of the Grand Prix series, the three U.S. couples are again separated. Hubbell and Donohue go in Japan this week, followed by Chock and Bates in France next week and then the Shibutanis at Skate America.

They’re all in line to qualify for the Grand Prix Final, which would make a great nationals preview.

Meanwhile, the favorites for Olympic gold and silver remain French Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron and Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who traded world records the last two weeks in separate competitions.

4. Top U.S. pairs team set for Grand Prix return

Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim remain the favorites for the one U.S. Olympic pairs spot heading into their first Grand Prix since 2015 this week.

Though the Knierims missed most of last season due to her life-threatening abdominal condition, they came back to place 10th at worlds.

The U.S. champions in their absence, Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier, were 20th at worlds and opened their Grand Prix season with their worst result (seventh at Skate Canada) in seven career starts.

5. Canada loses its grip on team event

Pressure is on Patrick Chan to find his form, or Canada may be beaten by Russia again in the Olympic team event.

Chan, the world champion in 2011, 2012 and 2013 who took a year off after silver in Sochi, bombed in the Skate Canada free skate and then pulled out of this week’s Grand Prix in Japan.

Canada is strong in the other disciplines — world champions in ice dance, world silver and bronze medalists in the women’s event and the 2015 and 2016 World champions in pairs. But Chan has been its only reliable man in recent seasons.

This season, Chan ranks 20th in the world. Canada needs him.

Russia, meanwhile, may have finally found its successor to Yevgeny PlushenkoMikhail Kolyada was fourth at 2016 Worlds and then won Cup of China on Saturday.

Kolyada outscoring Chen in both programs of an Olympic team event could completely swing the standings in Russia’s favor.

Russia has the world’s best female skater in Yevgenia Medvedeva (plus the world junior champion), the world bronze medalists in pairs and a respectable ice dance couple in Yekaterina Bobrova and Dmitry Soloviyev that should place no worse than fourth in the team event.

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Grand Prix Season Top Scores
Men
1. Shoma Uno (JPN) — 301.10 (Skate Canada)
2. Nathan Chen (USA) — 293.79 (Rostelecom Cup)
3. Yuzuru Hanyu (JPN) — 290.77 (Rostelecom Cup)
4. Mikhail Kolyada (RUS) — 279.38 (Cup of China)
5. Mikhail Kolyada (RUS) — 271.06 (Rostelecom Cup)
6. Jin Boyang (CHN) — 264.48 (Cup of China)
7. Jason Brown (USA) — 261.14 (Skate Canada)
8. Max Aaron (USA) — 259.69 (Cup of China)
9. Vincent Zhou (USA) — 256.66 (Cup of China)
10. Misha Ge (UZB) — 255.33 (Rostelecom Cup)

Women
1. Yevgenia Medvedeva (RUS) — 231.21 (Rostelecom Cup)
2. Carolina Kostner (ITA) — 215.98 (Rostelecom Cup)
3. Alina Zagitova (RUS) — 213.88 (Cup of China)
4. Kaetlyn Osmond (CAN) — 212.91 (Skate Canada)
5. Wakaba Higuchi (JPN) — 212.52 (Cup of China)
6. Wakaba Higuchi (JPN) — 207.17 (Rostelecom Cup)
7. Yelena Radionova (RUS) — 206.82 (Cup of China)
8. Mai Mihara (JPN) — 206.07 (Cup of China)
9. Marin Honda (JPN) — 198.32 (Cup of China)
10. Gabrielle Daleman (CAN) — 196.83 (Cup of China)
15. Mariah Bell (USA) — 188.56 (Rostelecom Cup)
18. Ashley Wagner (USA) — 183.94 (Skate Canada)
19. Courtney Hicks (USA) — 182.57 (Skate Canada)
20. Mirai Nagasu (USA) — 178.25 (Rostelecom Cup)
24. Karen Chen (USA) — 170.40 (Skate Canada)

Ice Dance
1. Gabriella Papadakis/Guillaume Cizeron (FRA) — 200.43 (Cup of China)
2. Tessa Virtue/Scott Moir (CAN) — 199.86 (Skate Canada)
3. Kaitlyn Weaver/Andrew Poje (CAN) — 190.01 (Skate Canada)
4. Madison Hubbell/Zachary Donohue (USA) — 189.43 (Skate Canada)
5. Maia Shibutani/Alex Shibutani (USA) — 189.24 (Rostelecom Cup)
6. Yekaterina Bobrova/Dmitry Soloviyev (RUS) — 184.74 (Rostelecom Cup)
7. Madison Chock/Evan Bates (USA) — 184.50 (Cup of China)

Pairs
1. Sui Wenjing/Han Cong (CHN) — 231.07 (Cup of China)
2. Yevgenia Tarasova/Vladimir Morozov (RUS) — 224.25 (Rostelecom Cup)
3. Meagan Duhamel/Eric Radford (CAN) — 222.22 (Skate Canada)
4. Aliona Savchenko/Bruno Massot (GER) — 215.66 (Skate Canada)
5. Vanessa James/Morgan Cipres (FRA) — 214.37 (Skate Canada)
18. Haven Denney/Brandon Frazier (USA) — 172.95 (Skate Canada)

Yuzuru Hanyu-Nathan Chen duel opens Grand Prix season

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The Grand Prix figure skating season will determine the Olympic favorites. It begins this week with a duel between the current leading man — Yuzuru Hanyu — and the last skater to beat him in major competition — U.S. champion Nathan Chen.

The Rostelecom Cup in Moscow opens the six-event series of qualifying events for the Grand Prix Final in Japan in December.

The Rostelecom live broadcast schedule on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA (all times Eastern):

Friday
Men’s Short — 7 a.m.
Short Dance — 9 a.m.
Pairs Short — 11:30 a.m.
Women’s Short — 1 p.m.

Saturday
Men’s Free — 6:30 a.m.
Free Dance — 9 a.m.
Pairs Free — 10:30 a.m.
Women’s Free — 12:30 p.m.

NBC will air a highlights show Sunday from 12-2 p.m. ET. All coverage will stream on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app. Olympic Channel coverage will also stream on Olympicchannel.com and the Olympic Channel app.

Men
Hanyu and Chen are the clear headliners in Moscow. They swapped wins last season.

Chen, then 17, outscored the 22-year-old Hanyu in the Grand Prix Final free skate (Hanyu won overall). He then defeated the Japanese megastar at the Four Continents Championships in February at the PyeongChang Olympic venue. Hanyu ended the season on top at the world championships as Chen ran out of gas in his first senior season and finished sixth.

Hanyu will go into the Olympics in February as the first man since Dick Button in in 1952 to enter as the reigning Olympic and world champion.

This season, Hanyu has already looked vulnerable. He broke his world-record short program score at a small event in Canada last month. But then he struggled with jumps throughout his fifth-place free skate and ended up second behind Spaniard Javier Fernández, reportedly slowed by a knee injury.

That inconsistency is a trademark. Hanyu has never won his opening Grand Prix start in seven tries.

Chen is taking a measured approach as one of about six men with real Olympic medal potential.

After attempting six quads in his world champs free skate, he did three at his opening event this season last month. Chen ramped up to four in the free skate-only Japan Open two weeks ago, and it looked like he wanted five.

Also in the field: Olympic bronze medalist Denis Ten, Russian champion Mikhail Kolyada

Women
The women’s field is deeper this week. It includes overwhelming Olympic favorite Yevgenia Medvedeva, undefeated since finishing second at Rostelecom two years ago.

Perhaps Medvedeva’s biggest threats are not competing this week — Canadian Kaetlyn Osmond, Russian Alina Zagitova and Japanese Marin Honda.

But the field does include the last woman to beat Medvedeva — countrywoman Yelena Radionova — and two U.S. women in the running for three available Olympic spots — Mirai Nagasu and Mariah Bell.

Mirai Nagasu, who was fourth at the 2010 Olympics and controversially left off the 2014 Olympic team, is looking like a favorite to return to the Winter Games next year.

Though Nagasu was fourth at last season’s U.S. Championships, she beat U.S. champion Karen Chen and bronze medalist Mariah Bell at her season opener last month. She then bettered Chen by 18.37 points in the free-skate only Japan Open.

Bell, who broke out at her Grand Prix debut last season, struggled with nerves en route to a 12th-place finish at last season’s worlds. She then fell in both programs at her season opener last month, finishing well behind Nagasu and Chen.

The three-woman U.S. Olympic team, named after nationals in January, will be chosen based off results from throughout the previous two years. The Grand Prix season then is not just a tune-up.

Nagasu, Bell, Chen and Ashley Wagner are the top U.S. women at the moment, but Bell more than the other three could use a strong Grand Prix opener.

Also in the field: Olympic bronze medalist Carolina Kostner, Japanese silver medalist Wakaba Higuchi

Pairs
The top two Russian teams are the only pairs from the top eight at last year’s worlds competing in Moscow.

World bronze medalists Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov and Olympic silver medalists Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov are tasked with continuing more than 50 years of Russian pairs dominance in PyeongChang.

Russian or Soviet pairs won gold at every Olympics from 1964 through 2006. After getting no medals in Vancouver, Tatyana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov returned the nation to the top spot in Sochi. Volosozhar and Trankov haven’t competed since the 2016 Worlds — they welcomed their first child — and it’s unknown if they’ll return for Russian Nationals in December.

Regardless, Tarasova and Morozov and Stolbova and Klimov are almost sure to be two of Russia’s three pairs in PyeongChang. Tarasova and Morozov claimed a hard-earned bronze at worlds with Tarasova skating with 10 stitches in her left leg from a pre-short program practice accident.

Stolbova and Klimov missed all last fall due to Stolbova’s leg injury, then beat Tarasova and Morozov at Russian Nationals. They were 13th in the worlds short program but third in the free skate, behind Chinese Sui Wenjing and Han Cong and Germans Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot.

Also in the field: U.S. silver medalists Marissa Castelli and Mervin Tran (ineligible for the Olympics), Skate America winners Julianne Séguin and Charlie Bilodeau

Ice Dance
Siblings Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani, the top U.S. couple the last two seasons, open their Olympic season against a very beatable field.

The Shibutanis, world silver and bronze medalists the last two years, are the only dancers in Moscow to make a world podium in this Olympic cycle.

Absent are the last two world champions — Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and France’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron — the clear Olympic gold- and silver-medal favorites.

The Shibutanis could be challenged this week, though. Six-time Russian champions Yekaternia Bobrova and Dmitry Soloviyev actually outscored the Shibutanis in the worlds free dance last season (fifth overall).

Also in the field: World junior champions Rachel Parsons and Michael Parsons

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