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

Ashley Wagner
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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.”

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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.

Chicago Marathon features Emily Sisson’s return, Conner Mantz’s debut, live on Peacock

Emily Sisson
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At Sunday’s Chicago Marathon, Emily Sisson makes her return, nearly three years after Olympic Trials disappointment. Conner Mantz makes one of the most anticipated U.S. men’s debuts in 26.2-mile racing.

It is not the norm, but an American will be one of the spotlight runners in both the men’s and women’s elite races at a major marathon. Peacock airs live coverage at 8 a.m. ET.

Sisson, 30, starts her first mass marathon since dropping out of the Olympic Trials on Feb. 29, 2020, her legs “destroyed” on the hilly Atlanta course where she started as arguably the favorite. She ran the virtual New York City Marathon later in 2020, but that was solo (and not in New York City). Her 2:38:00 isn’t recorded in her official results on her World Athletics bio.

Since, Sisson won the Olympic Trials 10,000m on the track and was the top American in Tokyo in 10th place. She moved back to the roads, winning national titles at 15km and the half marathon and breaking the American record in the latter.

Sisson vaulted into the elite group of U.S. female marathoners in 2019, when she clocked the second-fastest debut marathon in American history, a 2:23:08 on a windy day in London, where the early pace was slow.

At the time, it was the 12th-best U.S. performance all-time. In the last two years, Keira D’Amato, 37, and Sara Hall, 39, combined to run seven faster marathons. At Chicago, a flat course that produced a world record three years ago, Sisson can answer them and perhaps get close to D’Amato’s American record 2:19:12.

“I’m hoping sub-2:20,” coach Ray Treacy said, according to LetsRun.com. “With the [super] shoes and the training behind her, I would think that’s [worth] at least three minutes.”

It is less likely that Sisson can challenge for the win on Sunday given the presence of Kenyan Ruth Chepngetich, the 2019 World champion and defending champion in the Windy City. The 28-year-old mom is the fifth-fastest woman in history with a personal best of 2:17:08. And Ethiopian Ruti Aga, a podium finisher in Berlin, New York City and Tokyo with a best time of 2:18:34, though she has one marathon finish since the pandemic (a seventh place).

Like Sisson, Mantz has shown strong recent road racing form. The American men’s debut marathon record of 2:07:56 (Leonard Korir) is in play. If he can break that, Mantz will be among the five fastest U.S. marathoners in history.

Rarely has a U.S. male distance runner as accomplished as Mantz moved up to the marathon at such a young age (25). At BYU, he won NCAA cross-country titles in 2020 and 2021 and placed fifth in the Olympic Trials 10,000m, then turned pro and won the U.S. Half Marathon Championships last December.

“If everything goes as planned, I think sub-2:08 is realistic,” Mantz said in a Citius Mag video interview last month. “If everything goes perfect on the day, I think a sub-2:07, that’s a big stretch goal.”

The men’s field doesn’t have the singular star power of Chepngetich, but a large group of East Africans with personal bests around 2:05. The most notable: defending champion Seifu Tura of Ethiopia and 2021 Boston Marathon winner Benson Kipruto of Kenya.

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Alpine skiing to test new format for combined race

Alpine Skiing Combined
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Alpine skiing officials will test a new format for the combined event, a race that is under review to remain on the Olympic program.

French newspaper L’Equipe reported that the International Ski Federation (FIS) will test a new team format for the combined, which has been an individual event on the Olympic program since 1988. L’Equipe reported that a nation can use a different skier for the downhill and slalom in the new setup, quoting FIS secretary general Michel Vion.

For example, the U.S. could use Breezy Johnson in the downhill run and sub her out for Mikaela Shiffrin in the slalom run, should the format be adopted into senior competition.

The format will be tested at the world junior championships in January in St. Anton, Austria, according to the report.

In response to the report, a FIS spokesperson said, “Regarding the new format of the combined is correct, and our directors are working on the rules so for the moment the only thing we can confirm is that there will be this new format for the Alpine combined that has been proposed by the athletes’ commission.”

Some version of the combined event has been provisionally included on the 2026 Olympic program, with a final IOC decision on its place coming by April.

This will be the third consecutive World Cup season with no combined events. Instead, FIS has included more parallel races in recent years. The individual combined remains on the biennial world championships program.

L’Equipe also reported that the mixed team parallel event, which is being dropped from the Olympics, will also be dropped from the biennial world championships after this season.

“There is nothing definitive about that yet, but it is a project in the making,” a FIS spokesperson said in commenting on the report.

Vion said the mixed team event, which debuted at the Olympics in 2018, was not a hit at the Beijing Games and did not draw a strong audience, according to L’Equipe.

The World Cup season starts in two weeks with the traditional opening giant slaloms in Soelden, Austria.

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