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.”

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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.

Ill Katie Ledecky withdraws from world championships races

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An ill Katie Ledecky withdrew from her next two events at the world swimming championships, USA Swimming announced less than two hours before she was scheduled to race on Tuesday morning in South Korea.

“Katie has not been feeling well since arriving to Gwangju on [Wednesday], and these precautionary measures are being taken to ensure her well-being and proper recovery, and to allow her to focus her energy on an abbreviated schedule,” National Team Managing Director Lindsay Mintenko said in a statement.

Doctors are still identifying the specific problem with lab work, said her coach, Greg Meehan. Ledecky is out of the 200m and 1500m freestyles Tuesday but could still swim the 4x200m free relay on Thursday and the 800m free on Friday and Saturday.

Meehan said Ledecky’s slow last 50 meters of Sunday’s opening 400m free final, where she was passed and relegated for silver, was “a little bit of a sign” of a problem.

Meehan also said she was “having a hard time” in the final 500 meters of her last race, the 1500m free heats on Monday morning, where she posted the fastest time by 2.69 seconds. He checked with Ledecky and doctors after that race.

“She was feeling a little bit better last night, and then we were hopeful today,” Meehan said. “But woke up this morning and was not feeling well at all. We’re just going to take it session by session and then day by day. And then if we can get her back in the meet at some point, that would be ideal scenario.”

Ledecky did not mention a medical issue in speaking to the media Sunday after she suffered her first loss in the 400m free in a major international meet.

“This doesn’t take away from what Ari did,” Meehan said of 18-year-old gold medalist Ariarne Titmus of Australia. “The message isn’t that it’s an excuse for coming up with a silver medal.”

Ledecky would have been in line to swim the 1500m free final and 200m free semifinals within about an hour of each other on Tuesday, the most difficult turnaround of her slate this week and perhaps for any swimmer at the meet.

Ledecky won the Rio Olympic 200m freestyle but was relegated to silver and bronze in the event at the 2017 Worlds and 2018 Pan Pacific Championships. She ranks No. 5 in the world this year in the event, the shortest distance that she races individually at major meets.

Titmus owns the fastest 200m free time this year.

Ledecky, who has never withdrawn from an event at a major international meet in eight years at this level, is undefeated at 1500m. She owns the eight fastest times in history, and her world record is 18.4 seconds faster than the No. 2 performer all time in an event that makes its Olympic debut in Tokyo.

Also withdrawing before the 200m free were Canadian Taylor Ruck, who won the 2018 Pan Pacs, and Australian Emma McKeon, who shared 2017 World silver with Ledecky. Ruck’s decision was due to her busy program overall and focusing on other events. McKeon is also ill.

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Sydney McLaughlin takes juggling act to USATF Outdoor Champs

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Sydney McLaughlin can juggle. She can also ride a unicycle. And she has been known to juggle and ride a unicycle at the same time.

“But I haven’t done both of them at the same time in a long time,” the 400m hurdler added. “I’m getting older now.”

About to turn 20 next month, she is juggling quite a few things these days — a new coach, living on the West Coast, making the transition from college to the pro circuit and the weight of lofty expectations. Her name constantly pops up among the ones to watch heading into the Tokyo Olympics next summer.

That’s hardly a surprise: In 2016 and at just 16, McLaughlin became the youngest U.S. track and field athlete to qualify for the Olympics in more than four decades.

Pressure doesn’t bother her. She just keeps her eye on the prize like she did as a kid when her dad would coax her to run with the reward of a chocolate candy bar.

Winning is her incentive now — and it’s just as sweet.

“For me it’s kind of just focusing on myself and making sure I’m doing everything possible to be successful,” McLaughlin said ahead of the U.S. track and field championships, which start Thursday at Drake Stadium in Des Moines, Iowa.

A year ago, McLaughlin turned pro after spending a season at Kentucky and winning the NCAA 400 hurdles crown.

Since then, the New Jersey native has been adjusting to life in Los Angeles and working with 2004 Olympic 100m hurdles gold medalist Joanna Hayes. McLaughlin won her Diamond League 400m hurdles debut in Oslo, Norway, last month over U.S. teammate and Olympic champion Dalilah Muhammad.

That despite knocking down the first hurdle.

“It’s good to know the strength was there,” said McLaughlin, who also won in Monaco on July 12. “But definitely have to work on the hurdles form and everything.”

McLaughlin will be one of the favorites when the 400m hurdles start Friday. It’s a loaded field that also includes Muhammad, 2015 world champion silver medalist Shamier Little and bronze medalist Cassandra Tate, ’16 Olympic bronze medalist Ashley Spencer. Since reigning world champion Kori Carter has an automatic spot to worlds in Doha this fall, there are three more spots up for grabs in the event.

“There’s so much depth,” McLaughlin said. “It’s particularly hard to make that team.”

McLaughlin teamed up in early November with Hayes, who ran the 400m hurdles before switching over to the 100m hurdles. Any chance McLaughlin makes a similar move?

“We always joke about it,” McLaughlin said. “We’ll have to see about that one.”

One hurdle at a time. Her focus remains on steadily learning the nuances of the taxing 400 hurdles event.

“She’s talented and there’s no need to put everything on the line or everything into it in one year,” Hayes explained. “Give her room to grow and make strides.”

Hayes gets asked this often: Can McLaughlin one day break the world record? The mark sits at 52.34 seconds set by Yuliya Pechonkina of Russia in 2003. McLaughlin’s top time is 52.75 seconds, which she ran in May 2018.

“We don’t talk about, ‘OK, we’re going to try to break the world record,’” Hayes said. “We go in there and try to execute a great race. If you do that, eventually records will come.”

Growing up, McLaughlin wasn’t all that jazzed about running. Her father, Willie, would provide plenty of motivation in the form of candy.

“He said, ‘If you run I’ll give you a chocolate bar.’ I ran the 100m and actually won,” recalled McLaughlin, who started a juggling club while in high school and recently got back into the hobby. “I think I was more excited about the chocolate bar than the fact I won. I guess he lured me into the sport.”

She is still motivated by reward — a good performance earns her either a nap or a cheeseburger.

It’s the simple things in life.

McLaughlin comes from an athletic family. Her dad was a 400m semifinalist at the 1984 Olympic Trials and her mother, Mary, ran in high school. Her two brothers and sister also have competitive running backgrounds.

And when the siblings get together, it becomes rivalry time. Sydney pairs with her brother Taylor and they’re pitted against her sister Morgan and brother Ryan. The competitions range from bowling to board games to push-ups.

“We usually win,” cracked McLaughlin, the Gatorade national high school track athlete of the year in ’16 and ’17. “Anything that involves winning you can best believe that we’re competing with each other.”

In her spare time, she’s active on social media and offers tips to kids not that much younger than her.

“I definitely think having people look up to you and ask you for advice drives you to want to do better and continue to have success,” McLaughlin said. “I have fun with being that role model that does things the right way.”

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