Can Russia take another gold, this time in figure skating pairs?

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SOCHI, Russia – Having won zero gold medals at the Vancouver Olympics in figure skating, Russia looks to earn its second in two events as the pairs competition gets underway on Tuesday night at the Iceberg Skating Palace.

After helping lead the Russians to gold in the inaugural team event, Tatyana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov are the heavy favorites going into pairs at the Sochi Games, the reigning world champions also owning the three highest scores of the season leading into the Olympics.

But fellow veterans Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy are four-time world champions, and recently took down the Russians at the Grand Prix Final, marking Volosozhar/Trankov’s first loss in nearly two years.

Here, a full preview of the pairs event, which gets underway Tuesday night at 7 p.m. local time at the Sochi Iceberg Palace and concludes Wednesday night.

A Two-Team Race for Gold
It will be home-ice advantage for Volosozhar/Trankov, who wowed in their short program Thursday night in the team event, though they skipped the free skate Saturday to help them rest ahead of the pairs competition, which had the fastest turnaround of any individual copmetition following the new event.

Savchenko/Szolkowy skipped the team event altogether, with Germany not considered a medal threat there. The Russians, who joined forces in the spring of 2010, competed with other partners at the Vancouver Games, where Savchenko/Szolkowy claimed the bronze medal.

These are two teams with interwoven pasts: Savchenko, who has roots in Ukraine, took Volosozhar – who was also born in Ukraine – under her wing and helped Tatyana with pairs training, only now to see the Russian as part of the favorite team heading into the Olympic Games.

The Russians told NBCOlympics.com during the Grand Prix season that the only pressure they felt was their own, though anything could happen at the Olympics.

“We only have pressure for each other – we push each other everyday,” Trankov said in an interview at Skate America in October. “You never know, especially with the Olympics, what will happen. You cannot plan these competitions. You just work and hope that everything will be OK.”

It wasn’t OK at the Grand Prix Final in December, when the Russians faltered several times in their free skate, leaving the door open for the Germans to beat them.

“It’s hard to see any other team being first or second. They’re both so solid,” said 1998 Olympic champion Tara Lipinski, an NBC figure skating analyst. “For the Russians, I see it as their gold to lose. The Russians have to skate well – they have to do what they’re expected to do or I think we could be surprised a little. If any team is going to move in on them, it’s the Germans.”

Battle for Bronze
A host of teams will be fighting for the bronze medal, led by 2010 Vancouver silver medalists Pang Qing and Tong Jian, a pair of 34-year-olds in a sport that is dominated by teenagers and 20-somethings. The Chinese have taken a backseat after winning the World Championships in 2010, however, as Canadian and Russian teams have inserted themselves into the podium conversation.

Most notable among them are Canadians Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford as well as Kirsten Moore-Towers and Dylan Moscovitch, who were third and fourth, respectively, at the World Championships in 2013. Both Canadian teams were stellar in the team event, Duhamel/Radford skating the short program and Moore-Towers/Moscovitch the free skate – to help Canada earn a silver medal.

But Russia will have a play at the bronze medal as well, particularly with Vera Bazarova and Yuri Lariyonov, who have three European Champoinships medals to their names and were second to Volosozhar/Trankov at the Russian National Championships in December. Kesnia Stolbova and Fyodor Klimov, could be a factor, as well, having gotten their skates under them in the free skate portion of the team event, winning it with an entertaining and unique “Addams Family” program.

American Hopes
A bronze would be a long-shot hope for both American pairs entered, led by reigning and two-time national champions Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir.

The duo, who measure in at five feet and six-foot-four, respectively, attempt a rare throw quadruple Salchow in their James Bond-themed free skate, which Castelli stayed upright on – just barely – during the team event.

“We’ve been doing this element since day one of the season,” Shnapir told reporters Sunday at a press conference. “We have never thought about taking it out,” Castelli added.

The stars would have to align for the Americans to land on the podium: they were 13th at the World Championships a year ago.

“We’re not looking for gold – for us it’s about getting the full experience,” Shnapir said last month. “For our own goals we want to put out the best programs we can. We feel like we’ve done the best we can.”

“As competitors, I think they’re really strong,” Lipinski said of the Boston-based team. “They’ve been together for so long and I love the height difference – they’re just such a dynamic team. That quad sets them apart.”

Felicia Zhang and Nathan Bartholomay are the second American pair, who – along with Castelli/Shnapir – make their Olympic debut in Sochi.

“We were a little bit of the underdogs at Nationals, but that role doesn’t change the way we approach the Olympics, either” Bartholomay said. “We have really consistent programs and rely on that when we go out on the ice.”

“We want to show everyone that we’re here for a reason,” said Zhang, who trains with Bartholomay in Ellenton, Florida. “We’ve worked hard these past few  years and we’re just honored to be here.

Castelli/Shnapir will skate sixth in the pairs short program Tuesday night while Zhang/Bartholomay will follow them in seventh.

What to Watch For
The Russians Volosozhar/Trankov are artful in both their “Masquerade Waltz” short program and “Jesus Christ Superstar” free skate, the former in which they wear ballet-inspired princess and soldier costumes and the latter which has had the Internet chattering over Trankov’s yellow pants, a burnt-gold pair of trousers that has spawned its own mock Twitter handle.

While Castelli/Shnapir’s throw quadruple Salchow is one to watch, so too is Savchenko/Szolkowy’s throw triple Axel, which they have had success with off and on throughout the season. It’s a dramatic finish to their “Nutcracker” free skate.

Volosozhar/Trankov is looking to become the first pairs team to win an Olympic gold in front of a home crowd since the 1936 Games in Germany, when Maxi Herber and Ernst Baier captured first place. Savchenko/Szolkowy, however,  have a bit of history on their side, as only once – in 1998 – did the pairs team that won the Grand Prix Final not go on to win at the Olympics.

If any of Volosozhar/Trankov, Stolbova/Klimov, Duhamel/Radford, Moore-Towers/Moscovitch or Castelli/Shnapir win a medal in the pairs event, they will become the first figure skaters to win two medals in one Olympics with the addition this year of the team event.

Caeleb Dressel, after 7 golds in 2017, is on record watch at swim worlds

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For Caeleb Dressel, the comparisons began in earnest two years ago when he matched Michael Phelps‘ record seven gold medals at a single world championships (albeit two were in mixed-gender relays that weren’t on the program when Phelps swam).

They will likely spread at this summer’s worlds, which begin Sunday in Gwangju, South Korea (TV schedule here). And they likely won’t dissipate through the next year and the Tokyo Olympics.

For as Dressel endured new obstacles in and out of the pool last summer, winning two of seven individual races at the two major 2018 meets, he came back this May and June with his fastest times since 2017 Worlds.

“I personally think he’s going to break three world records,” next week, NBC Sports analyst Rowdy Gaines said. “I think he’s going to break two for sure, 50m and 100m freestyle. The only one that’s doubtful, to me, would be the 100m fly.”

Dressel, the former prep prodigy who left the sport for five months before joining the University of Florida team in 2014, is expected to swim no less than the same program next week that he did in 2017.

That would mean eight races — the 50m and 100m freestyles and butterflies, the 4x100m free, 4x100m medley and two mixed-gender relays. Two years ago, Dressel won seven of eight, surprisingly taking fourth in the 50m fly (which is not on the Olympic program).

His coach in Gainesville, Gregg Troy, did not rule out adding a ninth event as part of the 4x200m free. However, that would likely give Dressel three swims in one session next Friday and next Saturday, something Phelps never did in his prime when contesting eight events at the Olympics and worlds.

The 2020 question is whether Dressel will try to swim a Phelpsian eight events in Toyko. With no 50m fly and only one mixed-gender relay on the Olympic program, he must add two events to get to eight, perhaps the 200m free and 4x200m free relay.

“I’m not too sure,” Dressel said. “I just want to stay focused on this year. I’ve got the biggest meet of my year coming up in less than a week. I’ll get through this meet, and then me and Troy, we’ll start looking forward next year and maybe add some new events. But I’m not too sure at the moment.”

Dressel turned pro last spring after an unprecedented NCAA career, where his routine included carrying a blue bandana in his mouth on the pool deck. The demands on his time were new, from choosing an agent to signing with a swimwear company.

Troy, who coached Ryan Lochte in his prime to overtake Phelps as the world’s best swimmer in 2011, said he may have overtrained Dressel before last summer’s nationals and Pan Pacific Championships.

After Pan Pacs, Dressel revealed that an earlier motorcycle incident where he was forced off the road by another motorist, but didn’t suffer serious injury, maybe interfered with training.

Now, Dressel chalks that summer to uncharacteristically poor swimming at the wrong time. “I can put as many excuses as I want on that, but that’s really just what it was,” he said. “I mean, it happens to athletes all over the world.

“I’m glad it happened when it did. It can mess with you. It can turn into a downward spiral of self-doubt if you don’t just pick and choose what you want to learn from bad experiences like that. I don’t take it as all too negative. I certainly wouldn’t want it to happen again. Just a bad meet. Move on from it.”

Troy went further, noting the scrutiny on Dressel. Phelps is retired, Lochte suspended (and, at age 34, staving off Father Time), creating an opening for a male U.S. swim star to pair with Katie Ledecky. In 2017, Dressel became that alpha.

“It’s one thing being the guy coming up. It’s another thing being the guy that’s hunted,” Troy said this week. “He’s a little more mature to handle all the outside factors that we had to deal with last summer.”

In 2017, Dressel’s winning times in the 50m and 100m freestyles and the 100m butterfly were a combined .56 shy of three world records. This year, he’s ranked Nos. 1, 3 and 5 in the world in those events.

His 2019 times are a combined .64 faster than his best pre-worlds times in 2017, which is why some believe he’s in for a special week in South Korea. But not everyone buys that logic.

“The meets leading up to it don’t really mean too much,” Dressel demurred.

Dressel didn’t have to peak this year for an NCAA Championships or a nationals (the world team was decided last summer) like in 2017. He had the luxury of putting all his focus the last several months on Gwangju.

“My gut feeling,” Gaines said, “I think he’s going to destroy ’em.”

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World’s fastest mom leads London Diamond League fields; stream schedule

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Jamaican sprinters headline this weekend’s Diamond League meet in London, while most American stars rest up for next week’s USATF Outdoor Championships.

Olympic champions Shelly-Ann Fraser-PryceElaine Thompson and Yohan Blake dot the two-day meet at the 2012 Olympic Stadium. NBC Sports Gold streams live coverage each morning at 8:15 and 8:50 ET.

Fraser-Pryce and Thompson, who combined to win the last three Olympic 100m and share the fastest time in the world this year of 10.73 seconds, are in separate events in London.

Fraser-Pryce goes in the 100m against the fastest women from Europe and Africa. Thompson faces a less daunting field in the 200m; she’s the only entrant who has run sub-22.3. They could both double up in the 100m and 200m at the world championships in Doha in two months.

As for Blake, he races after being called out by former training partner Usain Bolt for leaving their shared coach of several years, Glen Mills. Blake is the second-fastest man in history but hasn’t been within two tenths of his personal-best 9.69 in nearly seven years.

Here are the London entry lists. Here’s the schedule of events (all times Eastern):

Saturday
8:15 a.m. — Men’s Long Jump
9:04 — Women’s 400m
9:09 — Women’s Pole Vault
9:13 — Men’s 5000m
9:20 — Women’s Javelin
9:40 — Men’s Triple Jump
9:55 — Men’s 800m
10:06 — Women’s 200m
10:17 — Men’s 400m Hurdles
10:29 — Women’s 100m Hurdles
10:39 — Women’s 1500m
10:50 — Men’s 100m

Sunday
8:50 a.m. — Men’s Discus
9:04 — Men’s 400m
9:20 — Men’s High Jump
9:35 — Women’s 800m
9:40 — Women’s Long Jump
9:45 — Men’s Mile
9:56 — Women’s 5000m
10:19 — Men’s 200m
10:29 — Women’s 400m Hurdles
10:39 — Men’s 110m Hurdles
10:50 — Women’s 100m

Here are five events to watch:

Men’s 800m — Saturday, 9:55 a.m. ET
Perhaps the greatest race in history came on this track at the 2012 London Games — the men’s 800m final won by David Rudisha in a world record. Botswana’s Nijel Amos took silver that day at age 18 to become the fourth-fastest man ever. Amos has not earned a global championship medal since, but last Friday he clocked his fastest 800m since that evening in London. Here, he faces the next-fastest man in the world this year, Kenyan Ferguson Rotich, and the fastest man of 2017 and 2018, Kenyan Emmanuel Korir.

Men’s 100m — Saturday, 10:50 a.m. ET
Blake hasn’t raced a Diamond League this season and last won on this stage in 2017. Here, he gets an opportunity with the world’s fastest men — all Americans — sitting out. Andre De Grasse, who like Blake has been slowed by leg injuries, is the other marquee name, but he hasn’t broken 10 seconds in 13 tries since taking bronze in Rio, according to Tilastopaja.org.

Men’s Discus — Sunday, 8:50 a.m. ET
Perhaps the deepest field of the meet with the Olympic and world gold and silver medalists and the top three in the world this year. The favorite has to be Swede Daniel Ståhl, who takes up nine of the first 11 spots on the 2019 top list. Ståhl broke the Swedish record three weeks ago with the world’s top throw in 11 years.

Women’s 5000m — Sunday, 9:56 a.m. ET
Ethiopian-born Dutchwoman Sifan Hassan follows up her world record in the mile (4:12.33) from the last Diamond League stop in Monaco. Hassan was primarily a 1500m runner through the Rio Olympics (where she was fifth) but since added 5000m work. She faces the ultimate test here in world champion Hellen Obiri, the only woman who has been faster over the last two years.

Women’s 100m — Sunday, 10:50 a.m. ET
Fraser-Pryce owns fond memories at this track, though she missed the 2017 World Championships in London due to childbirth. She won her second Olympic 100m in London in 2012 and scored her first post-baby Diamond League win here last summer. Fraser-Pryce has a chance to become the third woman to break 10.75 three times in one year, joining Florence Griffith-Joyner (1988) and Marion Jones (1998). She could get the necessary push from Ivorian Marie-Josee Ta Lou and Brit Dina Asher-Smith, the fastest in the world in 2018.

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