Ashley Wagner

Preview: Ashley Wagner, Gracie Gold headline Ladies’ field at U.S. Figure Skating Championships

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Four years after they represented the U.S. at the Vancouver Games, Rachael Flatt and Mirai Nagasu return to the U.S. Championships this week in Boston for another shot at the Olympics, but they aren’t the headliners in the chase for the team’s three spots in Sochi.

Instead, such distinction belongs to reigning and two-time national champion Ashley Wagner, who just missed out on the Vancouver team by placing third in 2010, and teenager Gracie Gold, who vaulted to a second-place finish at Nationals a year ago in her senior debut.

The ladies skate Thursday and Saturday nights at TD Garden with the Olympic selections being announced Sunday at a noon press conference.

“I’ve been training really hard going into Nationals, which is obviously such an important event this year,” said Wagner, who at age 22 is the favorite for a third straight U.S. title. “I want to do everything that I can do make sure I’m ready.”

U.S. Figure Skating Championships Previews: Men | Women | Ice Dance | Pairs | Schedule

Gold will look to do the same after her first season on the senior Grand Prix circuit. A year ago at Nationals she was ninth after the short program – beset by nerves – before she won the free skate, launching her to a silver-medal finish.

“The senior ladies – this is a big event,” Gold told reporters last week on a conference call. “I just need to trust my training in order to have a steadier Nationals this year, but with the same great outcome.”

Any color of medal for the girl called Gold would put Gracie in a strong position to be named to one of the three spots on the U.S. team this year after she won bronze at Skate Canada and placed fourth at the Grand Prix stop in Tokyo.

But nothing is certain for Wagner or Gold as a flurry of talented skater nip at their boots for the chance to head to Russia.

Agnes Zawadzki is one of them, the 19-year-old Chicago native having placed third at the last two U.S. Championships.

Zawadzki had struggles through the Grand Prix season, however, placing sixth and seventh at two events after changing back to her old coach, Tom Zakrajsek, in October, who also works with reigning U.S. men’s champion Max Aaron.

“I felt like that definitely was not what I wanted to present for the season, especially with the Olympics approaching,” Zawadzki said in an interview with NBCOlympics.com. “But I sat I’ve felt more consistent and confident with Tom and he’s kicking my butt. We’re working so hard.”

Boston-based Christina Gao also had difficulty at her Grand Prix assignments, placing fourth at Skate Canada and eighth in Paris. She’s taken the year off from Harvard to focus on her Olympic quest, but will need to snap a streak of four straight fifth-place finishes at Nationals in order to have a chance to make the team.

“[The Boston skaters] have such great programs this year that when we’re training together it’s such a good energy prior to the Olympics,” Gao said. “I can only imagine what it will feel like inside TD Garden. I’m really excited because I have a ton of friends at Harvard who I’ve told need to come and get tickets so they can come and watch.”

But there are other skaters for fans – and competitors – to watch, as well. Nagasu is perhaps the most notable, having been fourth at the 2010 Olympics and recently placing third at the Cup of Russia in November, the season’s final Grand Prix stop. Like Gao, she’ll need to up a string of two-straight seventh-place finishes to earn a shot at Sochi.

Injuries have derailed Flatt’s efforts, the 2010 national champion now making a comeback of sorts at 21 years old. The Stanford junior qualified via regional and sectional events and – always known as a steady skater – will look to deliver two reliable programs in Boston.

Courtney Hicks, fourth at Nationals a year ago, is coming off a solid season in which she won two Senior B events, just a step below the Grand Prix level. The 18-year-old beat Gold at the season-opening U.S. Figure Skating Classic in September in Salt Lake City and was fifth at Skate Canada.

Samantha Cesario, 20, aims to build off of two top-five finishes on the Grand Prix circuit from the year while Polina Edmunds, the reigning U.S. junior champion, won two junior Grand Prix gold medals this season and looks to make a splash at the age of 15.

Two-time U.S. champion Alissa Czisny ended her Olympic bid earlier this season with an ongoing injury, while two-time U.S. medalist Caroline Zhang struggled to a 10th-place finish at Skate America in October.

Wagner, who has placed fourth (2012) and fifth (2013) at the last two World Championships, says that the third-place finish that left her off the team in 2010 at Nationals has certainly motivated her.

“2010 absolutely still drives me,” she told reporters last week. “I owe it to myself for everything that I’ve given up – the sacrifices, the struggles – to make it onto this Olympic team and to do everything that I possibly can to make it onto the podium.”

NBC will air live coverage of the Ladies’ free skate Saturday night from 8 to 11 p.m. Eastern, as well as host a livestream of the event on NBCOlympics.com.

Caeleb Dressel, after 7 golds in 2017, is on record watch at swim worlds

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For Caeleb Dressel, the comparisons began in earnest two years ago when he matched Michael Phelps‘ record seven gold medals at a single world championships (albeit two were in mixed-gender relays that weren’t on the program when Phelps swam).

They will likely spread at this summer’s worlds, which begin Sunday in Gwangju, South Korea (TV schedule here). And they likely won’t dissipate through the next year and the Tokyo Olympics.

For as Dressel endured new obstacles in and out of the pool last summer, winning two of seven individual races at the two major 2018 meets, he came back this May and June with his fastest times since 2017 Worlds.

“I personally think he’s going to break three world records,” next week, NBC Sports analyst Rowdy Gaines said. “I think he’s going to break two for sure, 50m and 100m freestyle. The only one that’s doubtful, to me, would be the 100m fly.”

Dressel, the former prep prodigy who left the sport for five months before joining the University of Florida team in 2014, is expected to swim no less than the same program next week that he did in 2017.

That would mean eight races — the 50m and 100m freestyles and butterflies, the 4x100m free, 4x100m medley and two mixed-gender relays. Two years ago, Dressel won seven of eight, surprisingly taking fourth in the 50m fly (which is not on the Olympic program).

His coach in Gainesville, Gregg Troy, did not rule out adding a ninth event as part of the 4x200m free. However, that would likely give Dressel three swims in one session next Friday and next Saturday, something Phelps never did in his prime when contesting eight events at the Olympics and worlds.

The 2020 question is whether Dressel will try to swim a Phelpsian eight events in Toyko. With no 50m fly and only one mixed-gender relay on the Olympic program, he must add two events to get to eight, perhaps the 200m free and 4x200m free relay.

“I’m not too sure,” Dressel said. “I just want to stay focused on this year. I’ve got the biggest meet of my year coming up in less than a week. I’ll get through this meet, and then me and Troy, we’ll start looking forward next year and maybe add some new events. But I’m not too sure at the moment.”

Dressel turned pro last spring after an unprecedented NCAA career, where his routine included carrying a blue bandana in his mouth on the pool deck. The demands on his time were new, from choosing an agent to signing with a swimwear company.

Troy, who coached Ryan Lochte in his prime to overtake Phelps as the world’s best swimmer in 2011, said he may have overtrained Dressel before last summer’s nationals and Pan Pacific Championships.

After Pan Pacs, Dressel revealed that an earlier motorcycle incident where he was forced off the road by another motorist, but didn’t suffer serious injury, maybe interfered with training.

Now, Dressel chalks that summer to uncharacteristically poor swimming at the wrong time. “I can put as many excuses as I want on that, but that’s really just what it was,” he said. “I mean, it happens to athletes all over the world.

“I’m glad it happened when it did. It can mess with you. It can turn into a downward spiral of self-doubt if you don’t just pick and choose what you want to learn from bad experiences like that. I don’t take it as all too negative. I certainly wouldn’t want it to happen again. Just a bad meet. Move on from it.”

Troy went further, noting the scrutiny on Dressel. Phelps is retired, Lochte suspended (and, at age 34, staving off Father Time), creating an opening for a male U.S. swim star to pair with Katie Ledecky. In 2017, Dressel became that alpha.

“It’s one thing being the guy coming up. It’s another thing being the guy that’s hunted,” Troy said this week. “He’s a little more mature to handle all the outside factors that we had to deal with last summer.”

In 2017, Dressel’s winning times in the 50m and 100m freestyles and the 100m butterfly were a combined .56 shy of three world records. This year, he’s ranked Nos. 1, 3 and 5 in the world in those events.

His 2019 times are a combined .64 faster than his best pre-worlds times in 2017, which is why some believe he’s in for a special week in South Korea. But not everyone buys that logic.

“The meets leading up to it don’t really mean too much,” Dressel demurred.

Dressel didn’t have to peak this year for an NCAA Championships or a nationals (the world team was decided last summer) like in 2017. He had the luxury of putting all his focus the last several months on Gwangju.

“My gut feeling,” Gaines said, “I think he’s going to destroy ’em.”

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World’s fastest mom leads London Diamond League fields; stream schedule

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Jamaican sprinters headline this weekend’s Diamond League meet in London, while most American stars rest up for next week’s USATF Outdoor Championships.

Olympic champions Shelly-Ann Fraser-PryceElaine Thompson and Yohan Blake dot the two-day meet at the 2012 Olympic Stadium. NBC Sports Gold streams live coverage each morning at 8:15 and 8:50 ET.

Fraser-Pryce and Thompson, who combined to win the last three Olympic 100m and share the fastest time in the world this year of 10.73 seconds, are in separate events in London.

Fraser-Pryce goes in the 100m against the fastest women from Europe and Africa. Thompson faces a less daunting field in the 200m; she’s the only entrant who has run sub-22.3. They could both double up in the 100m and 200m at the world championships in Doha in two months.

As for Blake, he races after being called out by former training partner Usain Bolt for leaving their shared coach of several years, Glen Mills. Blake is the second-fastest man in history but hasn’t been within two tenths of his personal-best 9.69 in nearly seven years.

Here are the London entry lists. Here’s the schedule of events (all times Eastern):

Saturday
8:15 a.m. — Men’s Long Jump
9:04 — Women’s 400m
9:09 — Women’s Pole Vault
9:13 — Men’s 5000m
9:20 — Women’s Javelin
9:40 — Men’s Triple Jump
9:55 — Men’s 800m
10:06 — Women’s 200m
10:17 — Men’s 400m Hurdles
10:29 — Women’s 100m Hurdles
10:39 — Women’s 1500m
10:50 — Men’s 100m

Sunday
8:50 a.m. — Men’s Discus
9:04 — Men’s 400m
9:20 — Men’s High Jump
9:35 — Women’s 800m
9:40 — Women’s Long Jump
9:45 — Men’s Mile
9:56 — Women’s 5000m
10:19 — Men’s 200m
10:29 — Women’s 400m Hurdles
10:39 — Men’s 110m Hurdles
10:50 — Women’s 100m

Here are five events to watch:

Men’s 800m — Saturday, 9:55 a.m. ET
Perhaps the greatest race in history came on this track at the 2012 London Games — the men’s 800m final won by David Rudisha in a world record. Botswana’s Nijel Amos took silver that day at age 18 to become the fourth-fastest man ever. Amos has not earned a global championship medal since, but last Friday he clocked his fastest 800m since that evening in London. Here, he faces the next-fastest man in the world this year, Kenyan Ferguson Rotich, and the fastest man of 2017 and 2018, Kenyan Emmanuel Korir.

Men’s 100m — Saturday, 10:50 a.m. ET
Blake hasn’t raced a Diamond League this season and last won on this stage in 2017. Here, he gets an opportunity with the world’s fastest men — all Americans — sitting out. Andre De Grasse, who like Blake has been slowed by leg injuries, is the other marquee name, but he hasn’t broken 10 seconds in 13 tries since taking bronze in Rio, according to Tilastopaja.org.

Men’s Discus — Sunday, 8:50 a.m. ET
Perhaps the deepest field of the meet with the Olympic and world gold and silver medalists and the top three in the world this year. The favorite has to be Swede Daniel Ståhl, who takes up nine of the first 11 spots on the 2019 top list. Ståhl broke the Swedish record three weeks ago with the world’s top throw in 11 years.

Women’s 5000m — Sunday, 9:56 a.m. ET
Ethiopian-born Dutchwoman Sifan Hassan follows up her world record in the mile (4:12.33) from the last Diamond League stop in Monaco. Hassan was primarily a 1500m runner through the Rio Olympics (where she was fifth) but since added 5000m work. She faces the ultimate test here in world champion Hellen Obiri, the only woman who has been faster over the last two years.

Women’s 100m — Sunday, 10:50 a.m. ET
Fraser-Pryce owns fond memories at this track, though she missed the 2017 World Championships in London due to childbirth. She won her second Olympic 100m in London in 2012 and scored her first post-baby Diamond League win here last summer. Fraser-Pryce has a chance to become the third woman to break 10.75 three times in one year, joining Florence Griffith-Joyner (1988) and Marion Jones (1998). She could get the necessary push from Ivorian Marie-Josee Ta Lou and Brit Dina Asher-Smith, the fastest in the world in 2018.

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