Max Aaron

Olympic men’s spots wide open at U.S. Figure Skating Championships

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Max Aaron and Adam Rippon just missed four years ago. Jason Brown and Jeremy Abbott were champions.

The skaters will reconvene as four contenders for two Olympic spots at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Boston this week. The men’s short program is Friday night, the free skate Sunday and the team announcement Sunday night.

The competition is billed as up for grabs, and limiting it to a quartet may prove short-sighted. U.S. men’s figure skating, while competitive and unpredictable domestically, is in the doldrums internationally.

Sochi marks the first Olympics in 20 years for which the U.S. failed to qualify the maximum three men’s skaters. No man competing this week has won an Olympic or World Championships medal.

2010 Olympic champion Evan Lysacek announced he would not attempt to defend his gold medal in December, citing a hip injury. Two-time Olympian Johnny Weir retired in October.

The last time they competed at the same U.S. Championships was four years ago in Spokane, Wash., where the three-man team for Vancouver was named.

Aaron, Brown, Rippon and Abbott were there, too.

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

Aaron, then a 17-year-old converted hockey player, led following the junior short program in Spokane after finishing eighth at sectionals the year before.

“Since we are all so close at the top, it really is anyone’s game,” he said before the free skate at the 2010 U.S. Championships, a phrase he could easily repeat going into Boston.

Aaron’s maturation saw him similarly jump from eighth at the 2012 U.S. Championships to win in 2013, making him a favorite to reach Sochi.

His ascension seemed to stop there. Aaron finished seventh at the World Championships in March, respectable for the current state of U.S. men.

This season, he fell repeatedly in international events and seemed to bottom out at NHK Trophy in Japan, botching jumps in both programs and finishing seventh out of nine skaters.

“Every time I watch a performance, I’m disgusted with how I’ve skated,” Aaron said. “I’m very embarrassed.”

Aaron is known for his quadruple jumps. He ambitiously added one to his free skate for this season, giving him three total in the program. In response to his embarrassing performances, he’s since dropped back to two quads in the free skate, like he had when he won the national title.

Aaron will aim to duplicate his golden performance from last year’s U.S. Championships. He will hope not to repeat 2010, where he ceded his short program lead and finished third behind a 15-year-old making his junior debut named Jason Brown.

Brown is a ponytailed skater with Arsenio Hall in his corner.

He’s the rising star of the U.S. men, having won bronze and silver at the last two World Junior Championships and adding an even more impressive bronze at a Grand Prix event in Paris in November. Only Olympic gold-medal favorites Patrick Chan and Yuzuru Hanyu were better than Brown in the Paris field.

“Every event this season has taught me more and more,” said Brown, who doesn’t perform quads (yet) but does skate to Irish “Riverdance” music. “As the season has gone on, I’ve gotten more confident about the fact that I can make this Olympic Team and I can get my first U.S. title.”

If he does so, Brown will repeat Aaron’s feat of jumping from eighth to first at back-to-back U.S. Championships.

Four years ago, Brown celebrated his U.S. junior gold medal by taking a seat at Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena and watching the senior men perform for spots on the Vancouver Olympic Team. There, he saw Rippon and Abbott go up against Lysacek, Weir and others.

Rippon, then 20, was the two-time reigning world junior champion. He was the future of U.S. men’s figure skating given Lysacek, Weir and Abbott were 24 or older.

“I definitely felt like the baby [in Spokane],” Rippon said. “I felt like I had this outside shot of making the Olympic Team and what a dream come true it would be. … I don’t know if I really believed if I could be part of the team at that time.”

He couldn’t. Rippon finished fifth in 2010, committing back-to-back young skater’s mistakes in his short program, stopping himself at the boards after a jump and falling on his butt on a footwork sequence.

Rippon has yet to evolve into a consistent senior threat at the international level in the years since, but neither has any other U.S. man. He showed signs of improvement this season, two years after leaving Olympic silver medalist coach Brian Orser and one year after moving to California, where the second-guessing skater would become the yin to confident training partner Ashley Wagner‘s yang.

Rippon won silver at Skate America in October, his first Grand Prix event medal in nearly three years. He has one quad jump planned in each of his programs in Boston.

“I’ve put myself in a really good position,” Rippon said, before channeling Wagner’s moxie. “I feel like this should be my U.S. title.

“You have to look at me because I’m demanding your attention. I’m telling you that I’m one of the best and you have to watch.”

That would have described Abbott’s performance at the 2010 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, where the Coloradoan won the second of his back-to-back national titles. It was a bit of a surprise, beating the reigning world champion Lysacek, and confirmed his 2009 gold was no fluke.

Abbott has never finished lower than fourth in seven U.S. Championships, which would lead one to believe he’s a favorite to be one of the two men chosen for Sochi.

Yet he’s disappointed time and again in major international competition — ninth at the 2010 Olympics, twice 11th at the World Championships and eighth at his last worlds appearance in 2012.

He looked lost in taking sixth at Skate Canada in October but rebounded to win bronze at NHK Trophy in November, beating Aaron. His total score was fourth highest among Americans this season, trailing Brown, Rippon and Aaron.

The quartet’s top scores this Grand Prix season are within six points of each other. To put that tight race in perspective, Abbott won the 2010 U.S. Championship by 25 points.

“I can do the tricks, and I can skate; I have great skating skills and artistry and well-choreographed programs,” Abbott recently told National Public Radio. “For me, the biggest obstacle is just bringing it all together.”

Matthew Centrowitz redeems, Jenny Simpson upset at USATF Outdoors

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Matthew Centrowitz won his fifth U.S. 1500m title, while Jenny Simpson‘s run of four straight ended at the USATF Outdoor Championships in Des Moines on Saturday.

Centrowitz, who in Rio became the first U.S. Olympic 1500m champion in 108 years, emerged from a bunched pack in the final 200 meters to win in 3:43.37.

The 28-year-old returned to the top after being beaten by Olympic teammate Robby Andrews last year. Centrowitz struggled with injuries and illness in 2017, including an emergency-room visit with a viral infection. At 2017 Worlds, a listless Centrowitz was last in his first-round heat and said he was unable to get more than two straight weeks of healthy training all season.

Centrowitz crossed the Drake Stadium finish line Saturday afternoon, a comfortable .26 ahead of Izaic Yorks, and held his hand to his ear to mimic a phone call. He said he was sending a message for somebody, whom he would not name, to call him.

“Satisfaction out there,” Centrowitz told Lewis Johnson on NBC. “A little sense of relief, get back on top.”

Simpson, the Olympic bronze medalist, was beaten by Olympic 5000m runner Shelby Houlihan for the second time this season. The Sioux City native Houlihan surged past Simpson on the final straight, just as she did at the Pre Classic last month.

“I’m totally bummed, but I guess I have a lot of practice at losing as well as winning,” Simpson told media in Des Moines. “It felt a little weird being at U.S. Championships and getting outkicked.”

Houlihan won in 4:05.48, .73 ahead of runner-up Simpson.

“I feel like she’s way ahead of me,” Houlihan said of Simpson. “She’s someone I’ve looked up to since high school.”

An American record fell Saturday. Deanna Price took the women’s hammer record back from Gwen Berry with a 78.12-meter throw, the best in the world this year.

USATF Outdoors conclude Sunday on NBC (4-6 p.m. ET) and NBC Sports Gold (12:30-6 p.m.), highlighted by 200m, 5000m and 110m hurdles finals.

USATF Outdoors: TV Schedule | Results | Women’s Preview | Men’s Preview

Also Saturday, Shakima Wimbley and Kahmari Montgomery won their first U.S. titles in the 400m.

Wimbley prevailed in 49.52, lowering her personal best by .66, tying the fastest time in the world this year and torching a field lacking the last two world champions, Phyllis Francis and Allyson Felix. Wimbley showed promise at the Pre Classic last month, finishing third behind Olympic champion Shaunae Miller-Uibo and Francis.

Montgomery clocked 44.58 to win, two weeks after finishing seventh at the NCAA Championships for the University of Houston. The men’s field lacked 2008 Olympic champion LaShawn Merritt and Michael Norman, the fastest man in the world this year who opted to race the 200m this week.

World-record holder Kendra Harrison repeated as 100m hurdles champion. Harrison clocked 12.46, off of her world record of 12.20. Olympic champion Brianna McNeal, who beat Harrison in Shanghai on May 12, was not in the field.

World gold and silver medalists Emma Coburn and Courtney Frerichs went one-two in the 3000m steeplechase. Coburn, the Olympic bronze medalist, earned her seventh national title in eight years by clocking 9:17.70. She pulled away from Frerichs on the last lap to win by .99. Nobody else finished within 15 seconds.

“[Frerichs] gave me a run for my money,” Coburn, who has been beaten by a countrywoman once in eight years, said on NBC. “This is going to be a battle that’s worth watching for years to come.”

In the pole vault, Olympic bronze medalist and world champion Sam Kendricks cleared 5.85 meters for his fifth straight U.S. title.

Vashti Cunningham repeated as high jump champion by clearing 1.95 meters. Cunningham, whose father and coach is retired NFL All-Pro quarterback Randall Cunningham, was 13th at the Olympics and 10th at the world championships.

Darrell Hill upset Olympic champion Ryan Crouser in the shot put, winning with a 21.57-meter throw. Hill improved to 3-17 against Crouser. Crouser came to Des Moines with the top 23 throws by an American this year out of his 24 total legal throws, according to Tilastopaja.org. But on Saturday he had five fouls in six throws. His only legal throw was 20.99 meters for second place.

NCAA runner-up Kenny Selmon won the 400m hurdles from lane eight against a field that lacked Olympic champion Kerron Clement. Selmon clocked 48.21 seconds, three tenths ahead of TJ Holmes, who was fifth at 2017 Worlds.

The favorites advanced to Sunday’s semifinals in the 200m and 110m hurdles, including 400m indoor world-record holder Michael Norman and Olympian Ameer Webb in the 200m and world-record holder Aries Merritt, Olympian Devon Allen and NCAA champion Grant Holloway in the hurdles.

MORE: Lyles, Norman, green teens at Olympic Trials, now stars at USATF Champs

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U.S. Open changes seeding policy for pregnancies

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Serena Williams will learn Wednesday if she is seeded at Wimbledon, while a top U.S. Open official is already reportedly saying its seeds will be revised if a return from pregnancy comes into play, though not naming Williams specifically.

The U.S. Open, the fourth and final Grand Slam tournament of the year in September, would “revise the seedings if pregnancy is a factor in the current rankings of a player,” USTA president and chairwoman Katrina Adams said, according to The New York Times.

Williams, a 23-time Grand Slam singles champion, was not given one of 32 seeds at the French Open in May, her first Grand Slam since coming back from having daughter Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jron Sept. 1.

Her ranking had fallen to No. 453 due to maternity leave. She could enter the major tournament due to the WTA’s protected ranking rule, but it was up to Grand Slam organizers whether to give her a seed.

Williams reached the semifinals of her last eight U.S. Opens, missing the New York event in 2010 and 2017. She has won it six times. Her current ranking is No. 183.

If Williams neither makes a deep Wimbledon run nor plays plenty of summer hard-court matches, it’s likely the U.S. Open will have to decide whether to give her a seed. It sounds like organizers are prepared to.

“It’s the right thing to do for these mothers that are coming back,” Adams said, according to the report, adding that players should not be “penalized” for starting a family.

Williams reached the fourth round of the French Open in her first Grand Slam since winning the 2017 Australian Open while pregnant (but before the world learned). She withdrew before a round of 16 showdown with Maria Sharapova due to a pectoral muscle injury and has not played in a tournament since.

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