Steve Holcomb

Bobsled, skeleton World Cup season preview

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This will be the most scrutinized U.S. bobsled and skeleton season ever given Steve Holcomb is the defending Olympic champion, Elana MeyersNoelle Pikus-Pace and Katie Uhlaender are gold-medal threats and a certain hurdler is trying to make her first Winter Olympic team.

The U.S. Olympic Team will be determined largely on World Cup season results through Jan. 19. The top pilots and sliders based on FIBT Rankings will go to Sochi, as well as discretionary selections made after Jan. 19.

The U.S. is expected to qualify the maximum quota of three bobsleds in every event (two-man, four-man, two-woman), but skeleton will be tougher. The U.S. would have qualified two of the maximum three skeleton sliders if based solely on 2012-13 rankings.

Here’s the World Cup/Olympic schedule:

Calgary, Alberta — Nov. 29-30
Park City, Utah — Dec. 6-7
Lake Placid, N.Y. — Dec. 13-15
Winterberg, Germany — Jan. 3-5
St. Moritz, Switzerland — Jan. 10-12
Igls, Austria — Jan. 17-19
Koenigssee, Germany — Jan. 24-26
Olympics — Feb. 13-23

Here are three storylines going into the Olympic season:

1. Can Steve Holcomb repeat?

Holcomb drove the Night Train to an Olympic title in 2010, ending a 62-year gold-medal drought for U.S. men’s bobsled. Winning in Sochi will be harder.

“There’s a number of new drivers that weren’t around in Vancouver [in 2010] or weren’t competitive,” Holcomb said. “You’re going to have three very fast Russian teams, where in Vancouver there was only one. You’ve got two Canadians that are really fast. You’ve got a Latvian, who was brand new in Vancouver, that wasn’t really that good. And he’s good now.”

And then there’s the venue. Experience on a track is key for a pilot, which is why Holcomb’s best results have come on North American ice. He swept the two- and four-man World Championships in Lake Placid in 2012. He was fourth and third in the two- and four-man World Championships in St. Moritz, Switzerland, in 2013.

Holcomb, 33, hasn’t won a World Cup or World Championship race on a European track in nearly four years. He was 11th in the two-man and 12th in the four-man at the 2012-13 season finale at the Sochi Olympic track in February.

But the Park City native points to his 13 years of piloting as reason to believe he can pick up the nuances of foreign tracks quickly.

“I’m a lot more comfortable,” he said. “These foreign tracks are a lot more familiar.”

Compare Holcomb’s World Cup results against all German sleds, Russian Aleksandr Zubkov, Canadian Lyndon Rush and Latvian Oskars Melbardis for a gauge on his Olympic medal prospects.

source: Getty Images2. Challenges for U.S. women’s bobsledders

The most dominant bobsled pilot in the world is Canadian Kaillie Humphries. She’s won eight of the last 11 World Cup races dating to the 2011-12 season and is the reigning world and Olympic champion.

That’s what 2010 Olympic bronze medalist Elana Meyers is looking up at going into her first Olympics as a pilot. Meyers, a former college softball player, was a push athlete at the 2010 Olympics.

Her transition to driving has been as smooth as the ice she slides on. Meyers won silver behind Humphries at the World Championships in January. She also took silver at the Sochi event in February, beating Humphries but coming in behind 2006 Olympic champion Sandra Kiriasis of Germany.

Meyers teamed with push athlete Katie Eberling at worlds, but Aja Evans, a Big Ten shot put champion, was her partner in Sochi and appears set to reprise the role this season.

Which brings up the question of Lolo Jones, the two-time Olympic hurdler in her second full season as a bobsled push athlete. Jones appears to be third in the American push athlete order, behind Evans and Eberling, at the start of the season.

Jones was the fourth U.S. push athlete at the World Championships, sitting out the individual event in favor of 2010 Olympian Emily Azevedo but coming on for the mixed relay.

Watch how Meyers fares against Humphries leading up to the Olympics, and for which push athletes are used in World Cup races for a sense of the Olympic picture.

3. Puzzling skeleton picture

Start with the men. Latvian Martins Dukurs has won 19 of the last 21 World Cup races, but he is neither the reigning Olympic nor world champion.

The Olympic champion, beer-guzzling Canadian Jon Montgomery, is in doubt to even make his Olympic team. The world champion, Russian Aleksandr Tretiakov, hasn’t won a World Cup event in nearly three years.

The top Americans are 2010 Olympian John Daly and Matt Antoine. Daly, who stars in the YouTube series “Your Daly Nitro” with bobsledder Steve Langton, finished fifth at the World Championships in February.

Women’s skeleton is even more head-scratching. Don’t worry about 2010 Olympic champion, Amy Williams. The Brit is now a rally driver.

The reigning world champion is another Brit, Shelley Rudman. But Rudman was seventh in the World Cup standings last season, finishing above fifth once in nine races one year after winning the World Cup title.

The reigning World Cup champ is German Marion Thees, but she was eighth at the World Championships and fourth at the Sochi season finale.

And then there are the Americans. Katie Uhlaender, 29, won the 2012 World Championship before attempting to make the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team in weightlifting. She returned to skeleton and was the only woman with a combined four first- or second-place World Cup finishes last year.

Noelle Pikus-Pace, 30, is back from retirement and child birth. She was arguably the best slider last season, making the podium five times in six World Cup races (skipping the other three) and winning silver at worlds, six years after her world championship.

Even if early World Cup results provide clear rankings, it will be tough to confidently predict Olympic champions.

Olympic sprinter retires, would likely consider bobsledding if asked

Carreira, Ponomarenko understand the depth of U.S. ice dance at nationals

Carreira and Ponomarenko
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GREENSBORO, N.C. Heading into the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Greensboro this week, up-and-coming ice dancers Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko focused on their “quads” not four-revolution jumps, but still pretty tough to execute.

“(Our coaches) have us doing double run-through weeks, triple run-throughs, even quadruple run-throughs, to make sure we’re fully ready,” Carreira said. “We’re drilling a lot more, so at nationals we go in 100 percent confident.”

Pasquale Camerlengo, who trains the team along with primary coach Igor Shpilband, agreed that the run-up to Greensboro has been grueling for the skaters from Novi, Mich.

“We always plan a week we call the quads, performing (programs) four times,” Camerlengo said. “We’re trying to make them ready physically and work their stamina, to handle their programs in competition, which is a little bit different than in practice. Physically, they’re ready for it.”

Tough practices are just one component of what’s been a challenging but productive sophomore senior season for the two-time world junior medalists, fifth in the U.S. in 2019.

Thus far, they’ve competed at six international competitions, stretching from Lake Placid, N.Y., in August to NHK Trophy in Sapporo, Japan, in late November. Six is a lot, considering other top teams they’ll compete against in Greensboro have competed three to five times so far this season.

“Igor wants to get more experience at the senior level, and also more world points,” Carreira, 19, said. “For that we have to compete. We get out there and compete as much as we can, so our programs feel more trained.”

Those programs – a rhythm dance to Cole Porter’s “It’s Too Darn Hot” and flamenco free dance to “Farrucas” – stretch their abilities far more than last season’s routines. Competing every two weeks or so left little time to make adjustments, so the past six weeks were the key to their preparation for Greensboro.

“We pushed a lot of changes we needed to make until after NHK, to smooth out the programs and really train them,” Ponomarenko, 19, said.

He added that the grueling first half of 2019-20 was a necessary ice dance rite of passage.

“It’s very different from our first season. We really didn’t know what to expect. Now we kind of know where we’re at and how we can improve. We definitely feel the sophomore slump this year, but we just want to compete and keep putting our good performances.”

On paper, Carreira and Ponomarenko’s 2018 Grand Prix results – which included a bronze medal at Rostelecom Cup – look more impressive than the sixth-place finishes they earned at Skate America and NHK this season. But the skaters don’t think the placements tell the full story.

“Last season, results-wise, it might have looked better, because a lot of (top) teams took the Grand Prix season off last season,” Carreira said. “This season, I feel our programs are more difficult and we’re skating better. We want to improve our consistency so that we can compete with the top teams.”

It doesn’t take much to lose points in an ice dance routine, especially on step sequences and “twizzles,” a series of fast rotations moving across the ice. A few slips here – including a small mistake on their twizzles in the rhythm dance at Skate America – can easily drop teams out of the top group.

“They always have the feeling they could do more,” Camerlengo said. “But the season is a progression. They’re getting better and better. That’s the goal, to have them (be) more reliable.”

“They need to do what they’re capable of,” he added. “They just have to do what they’ve learned, with no fear, and just go for it.”

In Greensboro, Carreira and Ponomarenko will have to throw caution to the wind to grab one of the three U.S. ice dance spots at the 2020 World Figure Skating Championships in Montreal this March.

With Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue, and Madison Chock and Evan Bates, very likely battling for gold, the Michigan skaters have their sights set on bronze. It’s a herculean task, considering the reigning U.S. bronze medalists, Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, qualified for the Grand Prix Final last season and notched career-best scores at Skate Canada this fall.

All three of those teams train together in Montreal. 

But Carreira and Ponomarenko think their programs, strengthened by adjustments and all of those quadruple run-throughs, give them a fighting chance.

“(A bronze medal) is more realistic now than last season,” Carreira said.

“I believe we’ve really grown as skaters,” Ponomarenko said. “Our programs are much more difficult, which has really helped us improve. I believe the podium at nationals is very reasonable. It could be achieved with some good skating.”

Other teams could be in the mix. Last season, Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter placed a strong fourth, but injuries forced them to withdraw from one of their Grand Prix events this fall. A new pairing, Caroline Green and Michael Parsons, has gelled quickly, winning two medals at Challenger Series international events.

“The level of U.S. ice dance level is high, the depth in the U.S. is really the top worldwide,” Camerlengo said. “But the podium, it is reasonable for Christina and Anthony. They have been working hard and they have a very good level to fight for the medal. We’ll see how they will perform here. They’re ready for it.”

Not all of the team’s challenges are on the ice. The Montreal-born Carreira – who has lived and trained in Novi since she was 13 – faces hurdles gaining her U.S. citizenship, without which the couple cannot compete at the Olympics. Last May, she petitioned U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to be deemed an “alien with extraordinary ability” under the immigration code, which would help smooth the way for legal permanent residency status. She was denied and filed suit against the USCIS, later dropping the action.

Carreira is still working to achieve a pathway to U.S. citizenship and prefers not to discuss the issue.

“I can’t really say anything,” she said. “We’re working on it, we’re hoping for the best.”

Citizenship issues never entered the skaters’ minds when they teamed up in the spring of 2014. Ponomarenko and his parents, 1988 Olympic ice dance champions Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko, had long admired Carreira’s skating. When he and his former partner Sarah Feng split after the 2014 U.S. Championships, he tried out with Carreira in Novi.

“We really worked well together from the beginning,” Ponomarenko said. “I had wanted to skate with Christina for a really long time even before getting together, so it was no-brainer. The bump in the road (citizenship) can be worked through.”

“There were so many good factors it would be, I think, stupid to let something that can be fixed get in the way of (our partnership),” Carreira said. “We didn’t even think about it.”

The ice dance competition in Greensboro kicks off with the rhythm dance on Friday afternoon, with medalists decided with the free dance on Saturday night.

MORE: 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships TV, live stream schedule

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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Coronavirus forces Olympic soccer and boxing qualifiers to move

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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Olympic qualifying events in two sports were moved from the Chinese city of Wuhan on Wednesday because of an outbreak of a deadly viral illness.

A four-nation Asian qualifying group for the women’s soccer tournament was switched from the city at the center of the health scare to Nanjing.

The Asia-Oceania boxing qualifying tournament scheduled for Feb. 3-14 in Wuhan was cancelled. No new plans were announced.

The decisions followed Chinese health authorities telling people in Wuhan to avoid crowds and public gatherings.

The Asian Football Confederation said the round-robin group — featuring host China, Australia, Taiwan and Thailand — will be played on Feb. 3-9, retaining the same dates, in Nanjing.

More than 500 people have been infected and at least 17 killed since the outbreak emerged last month. The illness comes from a newly identified type of coronavirus.

Cases have also been reported in the United States, Japan, South Korea and Thailand. All involve people from Wuhan or who recently traveled there.

In the soccer qualifiers in China, two teams advance to a four-nation playoff round in March. That will decide which two teams from Asia join host Japan at the Tokyo Olympics.

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