Marissa Castelli, Simon Shnapir

Marissa Castelli, Simon Shnapir lead pairs at U.S. Championships

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Home ice was kind to Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir.

The reigning national champions who train in Boston led after the pairs short program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships at TD Garden on Thursday.

They beat their personal best by more than 10 points, scoring 73.13 points skating to Santana for a cushion of 6.63.

“I was in shock at first; I was not expecting that,” Castelli said, according to The Associated Press. “I like to try to calculate it in my head. I would have been happy with 66 or 67, so it was just insane.”

Castelli and Shnapir are in the driver’s seat for one of two U.S. Olympic pairs berths. It marked confirmation that Castelli and Shnapir are the top U.S. pairs team. Their title last year came with an asterisk as the previous U.S. champions were absent due to injury.

Their closest competition Thursday was a bit of a surprise — reigning U.S. bronze medalists Felicia Zhang and Nathan Bartholomay followed by DeeDee Leng and Timothy LeDuc, who were ninth last year.

The pairs free skate starts at 2:45 p.m. on Saturday (NBC, NBC Sports Live Extra, 3-6 p.m.). The two U.S. Olympic pairs teams, based largely but not solely off the final standings, will be announced Sunday around noon.

U.S. Championships: Ice Dance Preview | Men’s Preview | Schedule | Short Program Start Orders

Castelli and Shnapir’s short program included clean side-by-side triple Salchows and a strong throw triple Salchow.

The biggest eye opener was Leng and LeDuc, who followed flawed efforts from more accomplished couples by posting a cleaner 66.40-point performance.

2012 U.S. champions Caydee Denney and John Coughlin, he of the incredible back tattoo, were fourth at 65.40. Denney, a 2010 Olympian at 16 with a different partner, doubled a planned triple toe loop and had trouble with her landing on a throw triple flip.

“I wish we would have performed a little bit better — a lot better,” Denney told reporters. “I think right now all we can do is trust ourselves and really just move on and throw everything into Saturday’s performance and try to do the best that we can.”

2013 U.S. silver medalists Alexa Scimeca and Christopher Knierim were fifth at 64.68. They fell, nearly in unison, on side-by-side triple Salchows.

Unpredictable results are common in U.S. pairs, where few strong couples stay together for more than a few years and the previous five years produced five different U.S. champions.

In fact, the last pair to win back-to-back titles, Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker, won their golds in 2008 and 2009 and then failed to make the 2010 U.S. Olympic Team. 

No U.S. pair has won an Olympic medal since 1988. That does not figure to change in Sochi. The favorites will be Russians, Germans, Chinese and Canadians.

Pairs Short Program
1. Marissa Castelli/Simon Shnapir — 73.13
2. Felicia Zhang/Nathan Bartholomay — 66.50
3. DeeDee Leng/Timothy LeDuc — 66.40
4. Caydee Denney/John Coughlin — 65.40
5. Alexa Scimeca/Christopher Knierim — 64.68

Sarah Hughes joins NBC Olympics for Sochi

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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