Figure skating preview: Yuna Kim, Yulia Lipnitskaya, Mao Asada lead the way

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SOCHI, Russia – Once again the Olympics comes down to the ladies’ figure skating event in the closing days, and once again the ladies won’t disappoint in a dramatic flurry of sequins, Salchows and on-ice storylines that are brought to life – this year, in particular – with plenty of drama.

Defending Olympic gold medalist and reigning world champion Yuna Kim is the favorite in many books, but also a largely unknown entity after having not competed in the Grand Prix season in the lead-up to Sochi, instead only skating at a small event in Croatia in December, and then the South Korean National Championships last month.

The runner-up to Kim four years ago, Mao Asada factors into the medal conversation should she bring her patented (and unmatched) triple Axel to the table, while a 15-year-old Russian named Yulia Lipnitskaya has already captured the imagination of the host country, winning the ladies’ portion of the inaugural figure skating team event.

And Americans Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold – fifth and sixth, respectively – at the World Championships a year ago, are outside hopes for the podium.

Below, a full rundown of the ladies’ event, set to begin Wednesday night at the Iceberg Skating Palace and concluding Thursday.

American trio
It’s highly unlikely that there will be a gold for Gold – or for Wagner – though the American women, along with 15-year-old Polina Edmunds, bring a strong presence for Team USA onto Olympic ice in Sochi.

Gold has improved significantly since placing sixth at the World Championships last March, joining forces with legendary coach Frank Carroll in September and then winning the U.S. Championships in January, registering the event’s highest-ever overall score.

“The women’s field is so packed this year with veterans and young Russians,” Gold, 18, told reporters leading up to the Olympics. “I definitely think that I have a chance at winning a medal. It’s about who’s going to focus and leave everything out on the ice.”

The same goes for 22-year-old Wagner, who has long been a top-five contender in the world ranks but was fourth at the U.S. Championships, a performance that brought about doubts of her ability to perform under Olympic pressure in Sochi. She was clean yet tentative in the team competition short program, where Gold was a bit stronger in the free skate for the U.S.

“I feel like technically Gracie has a really good shot at the podium,” said Tara Lipinski, the 1998 Olympic champion and a NBC Sports commentator. “When there’s pressure involved, it changes a lot of performances. Ashley is coming back as a little bit of an underdog. It might set her up nicely, actually.”

Edmunds was the surprise at Nationals, where she skated in her first senior event and vaulted herself to second place. The San Jose-based skater has the triple-triple combination like Gold and Wagner, and will be skating in her first-ever senior international in Sochi.

“The fact that this is her first senior international doesn’t really change anything,” said Edmunds’ coach, David Glynn. “Even though this is the Olympics, what she has to do on the ice is the same.”

Podium posturing
Can Yuna Kim do the same as she did in 2010 and make figure skating history? She leads an internationally eclectic list of names that could top the podium, and if she wins a second straight Olympic gold she’ll be just the third woman in history to do so, and the first since Katarina Witt did so in 1984 and 1988.

“Yuna is just so secure with who she is on the ice because she’s been through everything in her career, and that makes her exude confidence,” Lipinski said. “It’s what sets her apart from all the others.”

Asada, the Japanese 23-year-old who was second to Kim four years ago, will look to swap places with the South Korean here. Asada won three gold medals on the international circuit this fall, utilizing her rare triple Axel (no other top woman even tries the jump) as her biggest weapon. Asada re-tuned her skating after the Vancouver Games, re-building her jumps from the ice up and suffering through two seasons of poor finishes as a result.

There have been no poor results for 15-year-old Lipnitskaya, who won two Grand Prix events this fall and the Russian National Championships in December. The lithe, ballet-like skating of the uber-flexible Lipnitskaya is what helped her win the ladies’ portion of the new team event, though no other medal contender skated both programs. (Yuna Kim didn’t participate at all.)

“Lipnitskaya is just so well organized and thoughtful out on the ice,” said Lipinski, who won her Olympic gold at 15 in Nagano. “If you look at the peak process for an athlete in a season, it’s working out perfectly for Yulia. Winning the team event portion sets her up really nicely for singles.”

Fringe fighters
Four years ago as the Sochi Olympics were being promoted across Russia, Adelina Sotnikova was the face of the Games for figure skating. Now 17, the teen is playing second fiddle to Lipnitskaya, but still brings a strong resume to the ice and – if she skates lights out – can be in the medal conversation.

The same goes for 27-year-old veteran Carolina Kostner. The Italian veteran has a flowing style that few others can match in their programs, though the 2012 world champion hasn’t been able to rise to the occasion at the Olympics, placing ninth in 2006 and then crashing to 16th in Vancouver.

Also keep an eye on: Akiko Suzuki and Kanako Murakami of Japan; Valentina Marchei of Italy and Canada’s Kaetlyn Osmond.

What to watch for
The aforementioned triple-triple is big for every lady on the ice, usually performed at the beginning of both the short program and free skate. It’s especially important for Wagner, who struggled on the combination at the U.S. Championships last month.

The crowd will play a major part in the competition, as it has roared for Russian skaters throughout the Games. Lipnitskaya and Sotnikova both skate in the final group Tuesday night, and will be looking for an extra boost inside the boisterous Iceberg Skating Palace.

How will Yuna Kim fair? That will be on everyone’s mind as the 2010 Olympic champion takes to the ice. She said it herself on Tuesday after practice: “I’m not as good as I was four years ago.” But will she be good enough to win gold?

At U.S. Open swim meet, teens make a splash with Olympic trials on horizon

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While Olympic and world champions Katie LedeckySimone Manuel and Chase Kalisz notched expected victories at the U.S. Open on Thursday, a trio of teenagers lowered personal bests to further establish their Tokyo Olympic hopes.

At the top domestic meet of the winter, Alex WalshCarson Foster and Kieran Smith each earned runner-up finishes, but their performances stood out in the big picture: looking at June’s Olympic trials, where the top two per individual event make the team.

Walsh, a rising Nashville high school senior, took 2.23 seconds off her 200m individual medley best. She clocked 2:09.01, overtaken by .17 by Melanie Margalis, the Rio Olympic and 2019 World Championships fourth-place finisher.

Full meet results are here.

Walsh moved from fifth-fastest in the U.S. this year to No. 2 behind Margalis, passing Olympic and world championships veterans Ella EastinKathleen Baker and Madisyn Cox. Of those swimmers, only Eastin was also in Thursday’s final.

Walsh joined her younger sister, Gretchen, in Olympic qualifying position based on 2019 times. Gretchen, 16, ranks fourth in the U.S. in the 100m free this year. The top six in that event at trials are in line to make the Olympic 4x100m free relay pool.

The Walshes could become the third set of sisters to make the same U.S. Olympic swim team, and the second to do it in pool swimming after Dana and Tara Kirk in 2004.

Foster, 18, continued his ascent Thursday in taking second to Kalisz in the men’s 200m IM. The world junior champion lowered his personal best in the prelims and the final, getting down to 1:57.59. Foster passed Ryan Lochte, who is nearly twice his age, in Thursday’s final and in the 2019 U.S. rankings. Only Kalisz and Michael Andrew have been faster among Americans this year.

Foster is trying to become the youngest U.S. Olympic male swimmer since 2000, when a 15-year-old Michael Phelps made his Olympic debut. Foster, who has been breaking Phelps national age-group records since he was 10, committed to the University of Texas in March 2018, two years before he graduates high school in Ohio.

Then there’s Kieran Smith, now a prime candidate to fill a huge void in the 400m freestyle. Zane Grothe is the only American ranked in the top 20 in the world this year.

Smith, a 19-year-old from the University of Florida, took 2.29 seconds off his lifetime best on Thursday to jump from outside the top 10 to No. 2 in the U.S. on the year. Smith was already ranked No. 2 in the country in the 200m free.

Two more runners-up in the 50m freestyles — Erika Brown to Manuel and Zach Apple to Brazilian Bruno Fratus — lowered personal bests to move to No. 3 in each U.S. ranking list this year.

The U.S. Open continues Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. ET with live coverage on NBCSN and streaming on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app.

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Nathan Chen distances Yuzuru Hanyu in Grand Prix Final short program

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A brilliant Nathan Chen outscored a flawed Yuzuru Hanyu for a fourth straight head-to-head program, taking a 12.95-point lead at the Grand Prix Final in Turin, Italy, on Thursday.

Chen, the two-time reigning world champion, tallied 110.38 points going into Saturday’s free skate. He landed a quadruple Lutz, triple Axel and quad toe loop-triple toe loop combination.

It’s the highest short program score in the world this season, leading the American to say “wow” in the kiss-and-cry area. His coach, the often-gruff Rafael Arutyunyan, banged his knee against his pupil’s.

Hanyu, the two-time reigning Olympic champion, hit a quadruple Salchow and triple Axel but then stepped out of a quad toe landing. He therefore failed to include a required jumping combination and ended up in second place.

“I wanted to do a great performance and do a good competition against [Chen], but that didn’t happen this time,” Hanyu, who was without longtime coach Brian Orser, or any other coach, said through a translator. Hanyu said Orser was busy last week, so he chose to use his lone accreditation on another coach who had travel delays.

Hanyu is not out of title contention. His world-leading free skate score this season is 16.61 points better than Chen’s best free skate from the fall Grand Prix Series.

Chen is undefeated since placing fifth at the PyeongChang Olympics, but this is just his second head-to-head with Hanyu in that span. Chen defeated Hanyu at March’s world championships, where the Japanese megastar was likely affected by an ankle injury.

After Thursday’s program, Chen repeated what he said before the competition: he still feels like he’s chasing Hanyu.

“Yuzu is like the goat, he’s the greatest of all time, really,” Chen said. “So, to have this opportunity to be able to share the ice with a guy like that, someone that I’ve looked up to for a long time, someone that I’ve watched grow up through the junior ranks when I was like a baby, it’s really cool to be able see him now. It’s really cool to even just be able to see him person.”

The Grand Prix Final, the biggest annual event outside the world championships, continues Friday with the rhythm dance, women’s short and pairs’ free skate. A full TV and live stream schedule is here.

Earlier in pairs, Chinese Sui Wenjing and Han Cong took their first step toward a first Grand Prix Final title. The Olympic silver medalists tallied 77.50, leading Russians Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitriy Kozlovskiy by .85 going into Friday’s free skate.

Sui and Han were imperfect, with Sui putting her hand down on a throw triple flip landing. They are undefeated in this Beijing Olympic cycle and own the world’s top total score this season.

The U.S. failed to qualify a pair for the six-team Final for the 11th time in the last 12 years.

Grand Prix Final
Men’s Short Program
1. Nathan Chen (USA) — 110.38
2. Yuzuru Hanyu (JPN) — 97.43
3. Kevin Aymoz (FRA) — 96.71
4. Dmitriy Aliyev (RUS) — 88.78
5. Alexander Samarin (RUS) — 81.32
6. Jin Boyang (CHN) — 80.67

Pairs’ Short Program
1. Sui Wenjing/Han Cong (CHN) — 77.50
2. Aleksandra Boikova / Dmitriy Kozlovskiy (RUS) — 76.65
3. Daria Pavliuchenko/Denis Khodykin (RUS) — 75.16
4. Anastasia Mishina/Aleksandr Galliamov (RUS) — 71.48
5. Peng Cheng/Jin Yang (CHN) — 69.67
6. Kirsten Moore-Towers/Michael Marinaro (CAN) — 67.08

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