Pressure rests on Ashley Wagner’s shoulders in team event

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SOCHI, Russia – Suddenly Team USA is fighting an uphill battle in the new Olympic figure skating team event. And where does its hopes rest? Squarely on the shoulders of Ashley Wagner.

A disappointing night left the medal-favored Americans outside the top three in a tie for fifth (and technically in seventh overall) with Wagner and the ice dance team of Meryl Davis and Charlie White to skate their short programs Saturday night.

The new Olympic team figure skating event features ten teams, but only five which will advance to the free skate portion of the competition. With two-time world champions Davis/White almost assured a first- or second-place finish in the short dance, Wagner, the most controversial member of Team USA, needs to skate her best in the short program.

“This will be her moment to rise to the challenge and prove to everyone that she deserves to be here,” said Tara Lipinski, the 1998 Olympic champion and an NBC analyst.

“It’s on her shoulders,” added former Olympian Johnny Weir, also a commentator for NBC. “Our hopes rest on the one skater who caused the most controversy by being here.”

Wagner hasn’t officially been announced for Saturday night’s ladies’ short program, though she has been in Sochi all week practicing her short program.

Wagner was caught in controversy following the U.S. Championships last month when she finished in fourth place, but was chosen for the team because of her success on the international stage, including three Grand Prix medals this past season.

WATCH: Ashley Wagner’s practice session for her new routine

Wagner has a stronger international profile than the Canadian, Chinese, German and French skaters who will potentially start above her Saturday. The short dance will be held before the ladies’ short program that night.

The U.S. finds itself in such a struggle after four-time champion Jeremy Abbott had a dismal night, falling on his opening quadruple jump before popping a triple Axel into a single. Pairs team Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir made up some ground, placing fifth in their segment.

“Looking at what happened tonight, that’s not what we expected,” Lipinski said. “Jeremy had a rough night, but we still have a chance.”

Wagner has long expressed her affinity for her Pink Floyd “Shine on Me Crazy Diamond” short program, which opens with a triple-triple combination and showcases the 22-year-old’s tough, aggressive skating.

“It’s Ashley’s chance to say, ‘I am woman, hear me roar,’” Weir said.

MORE: Photos from Team USA’s practice session

After long being talked as one of the favorites for the inaugural team event, the U.S. is left outside looking in. Numerically, the Americans would have to crumble not to make the free skate portion of the competition, most likely hop-scotching China and Germany, who are weak in the ladies and ice dance segments.

“I think it’s anybody’s game,” said Shnapir after his skate with Castelli. “We have two great disciplines coming up and I think we have the opportunity to pull up and to get up to that top tier and I think that’s where we’re going to end up.”

It was a horror of a night for Abbott, the four-time national champion scoring a 65.65, some 30 points below his marks at Nationals a month ago.

“I’m torn apart that I did that for Team USA,” Abbott said after his short program. “I really wanted to pull out a win here for us and help us earn a medal – perhaps even a gold. I’ve let them down.”

Wagner – along with Davis and White – are expected to be announced for the team short programs at a press conference Friday.

Elena Fanchini, medal-winning Alpine skier, dies at 37

Elena Fanchini
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Italian skier Elena Fanchini, whose career was cut short by a tumor, has died. She was 37.

Fanchini passed away Wednesday at her home in Solato, near Brescia, the Italian Winter Sports Federation announced.

Fanchini died on the same day that fellow Italian Marta Bassino won the super-G at the world championships in Meribel, France; and two days after Federica Brignone — another former teammate — claimed gold in combined.

Sofia Goggia, who is the favorite for Saturday’s downhill, dedicated her win in Cortina d’Ampezzo last month to Fanchini.

Fanchini last raced in December 2017. She was cleared to return to train nearly a year later but never made it fully back, and her condition grew worse in recent months.

Fanchini won a silver medal in downhill at the 2005 World Championships and also won two World Cup races in her career — both in downhill.

She missed the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics because of her condition.

Fanchini’s younger sisters Nadia and Sabrina were also World Cup racers.

USA Boxing to skip world championships

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USA Boxing will not send boxers to this year’s men’s and women’s world championships, citing “the ongoing failures” of the IBA, the sport’s international governing body, that put boxing’s place on the Olympic program at risk.

The Washington Post first reported the decision.

In a letter to its members, USA Boxing Executive Director Mike McAtee listed many factors that led to the decision, including IBA governance issues, financial irregularities and transparency and that Russian and Belarusian boxers are allowed to compete with their flags.

IBA lifted its ban on Russian and Belarusian boxers in October and said it would allow their flags and anthems to return, too.

The IOC has not shifted from its recommendation to international sports federations last February that Russian and Belarusian athletes be barred, though the IOC and Olympic sports officials have been exploring whether those athletes could return without national symbols.

USA Boxing said that Russian boxers have competed at an IBA event in Morocco this month with their flags and are expected to compete at this year’s world championships under their flags.

“While sport is intended to be politically neutral, many boxers, coaches and other representatives of the Ukrainian boxing community were killed as a result of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, including coach Mykhaylo Korenovsky who was killed when a Russian missile hit an apartment block in January 2023,” according to the USA Boxing letter. “Ukraine’s sports infrastructure, including numerous boxing gyms, has been devastated by Russian aggression.”

McAtee added later that USA Boxing would still not send athletes to worlds even if Russians and Belarusians were competing as neutrals and without their flags.

“USA Boxing’s decision is based on the ‘totality of all of the factors,'” he said in an emailed response. “Third party oversite and fairness in the field of play is the most important factor.”

A message has been sent to the IBA seeking comment on USA Boxing’s decision.

The women’s world championships are in March in India. The men’s world championships are in May in Uzbekistan. They do not count toward 2024 Olympic qualifying.

In December, the IOC said recent IBA decisions could lead to “the cancellation of boxing” for the 2024 Paris Games.

Some of the already reported governance issues led to the IOC stripping IBA — then known as AIBA — of its Olympic recognition in 2019. AIBA had suspended all 36 referees and judges used at the 2016 Rio Olympics pending an investigation into a possible judging scandal, one that found that some medal bouts were fixed by “complicit and compliant” referees and judges.

The IOC ran the Tokyo Olympic boxing competition.

Boxing was not included on the initial program for the 2028 Los Angeles Games announced in December 2021, though it could still be added. The IBA must address concerns “around its governance, its financial transparency and sustainability and the integrity of its refereeing and judging processes,” IOC President Thomas Bach said then.

This past June, the IOC said IBA would not run qualifying competitions for the 2024 Paris Games.

In September, the IOC said it was “extremely concerned” about the Olympic future of boxing after an IBA extraordinary congress overwhelmingly backed Russian Umar Kremlev to remain as its president rather than hold an election.

Kremlev was re-elected in May after an opponent, Boris van der Vorst of the Netherlands, was barred from running against him. The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled in June that van der Vorst should have been eligible to run against Kremlev, but the IBA group still decided not to hold a new election.

Last May, Rashida Ellis became the first U.S. woman to win a world boxing title at an Olympic weight since Claressa Shields in 2016, taking the 60kg lightweight crown in Istanbul. In Tokyo, Ellis lost 3-0 in her opening bout in her Olympic debut.

At the last men’s worlds in 2021, Robby Gonzales and Jahmal Harvey became the first U.S. men to win an Olympic or world title since 2007, ending the longest American men’s drought since World War II.

The Associated Press and NBC Olympic research contributed to this report.

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