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?

Major League Baseball sponsors U.S. Olympic softball team

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NEW YORK (AP) — Major League Baseball is using its financial muscle to support the U.S. women’s softball team, which already is assured a spot in the Tokyo Olympics while the American men’s baseball team struggles to qualify.

MLB announced an agreement Thursday to become presenting sponsor of the women’s “Stand Beside Her” tour, a slate of exhibition games leading up to the Olympic tournament from July 22-28.

“We’re both bat and ball sports. Even though we’re not the same sport, there are so many similarities that you just can’t ignore,” said Kim Ng, MLB’s senior vice president for baseball operations. “It was important for us to make sure that they have this acknowledgment and recognition of their ability and their talent.”

Softball began as an Olympic sport for the 1996 Atlanta Games. The U.S. won gold medals in 1996, 2000 and 2004 with players that included Dot Richardson, Jennie Finch and Jessica Mendoza, then lost to Japan in the 2008 gold-medal game.

Baseball and softball were dropped for the next two Olympics, then restored for this year, when the U.S. and Japan will be joined by Australia, Canada, Italy and Mexico for games in Fukushima and Yokohama but not Tokyo. The sports are likely to be dropped for 2024 in Paris but could return four years later in Los Angeles.

The U.S. men’s baseball team stumbled in its first attempt to qualify, wasting a ninth-inning lead against Mexico in the final game of the Premier12 tournament in November and losing in the 10th. The U.S. has two more chances to join Israel, Japan, Mexico and South Korea in the Olympic field: an Americas tournament in Arizona from March 22-26 and a final tournament in Taiwan from April 1-5.

MLB is not allowing players on 40-man big league rosters to compete in qualifying, and few top pitching prospects were at the November tournament.

Softball has no such issues. The Olympics are the sport’s highest-profile event.

“The platform for us is 10 times bigger,” American outfielder Haylie McCleney said. “For us, it’s a great opportunity for people that have never watched softball before, people that have only followed it at the collegiate level, to really see how fun our game is to watch, how pure it is. If people are baseball fans, I guarantee they’re going to love softball because it’s pretty much just a faster game – it’s shorter, it’s quicker, it’s more entertaining to watch, in my opinion.”

The 2008 gold-medal softball game took 1 hours, 45 minutes — less than half the 3:45 average for this year’s World Series.

As part of the deal with MLB, the softball team’s official training facility will be at the Jackie Robinson Training Complex in Vero Beach, Florida, the old Dodgertown spring training camp.

MLB Network will include programming from the tour, which currently starts Feb. 4 in Tampa and has about three dozen stops.

The U.S. women’s soccer team has attracted huge television audiences. MLB sees softball as an opportunity for the sport’s growth.

“These are world-class athletes,” Ng said. “Because we have not been in the Olympics for the last 12 years, they just haven’t had that stage. So it’s really important at this point that we show as much support as we can for them.”

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MORE: U.S. athletes qualified for Tokyo Olympics

Rafael Nadal advances at Australian Open; American back on Slam stage

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Rafael Nadal joined Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open third round, sweeping Argentine Federico Delbonis 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-1 on Thursday.

Nadal, whose lone Australian Open title came in 2009, gets countryman Pablo Carreno Busta in Saturday’s third round. He could face No. 23 Nick Kyrgios of Australia in round four, but neither Federer nor Djokovic until the final.

No. 4 Daniil Medvedeva and No. 2 Karolina Pliskova and No. 4 Simona Halep were also winners Thursday. Friday’s third-round action is headlined by defending champion Naomi Osaka facing 15-year-old U.S. phenom Coco Gauff.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women

The only top-20 seed to lose Thursday was No. 20 Karolina Muchova of the Czech Republic. American CiCi Bellis bounced her 6-4, 6-4.

This was a big deal for Bellis: Two full years and four right arm operations have come and gone since she was last healthy enough to participate in a Grand Slam tournament.

Bellis was something of a teen prodigy. In her very first tour-level match, at age 15 at the 2014 U.S. Open, she stunned 12th-seeded Dominika Cibulkova, an Australian Open runner-up, to become the youngest American to win a match at Flushing Meadows in 28 years.

She reached No. 35 in the rankings at 17, when she won WTA Newcomer of the Year honors.

Then came the series of health problems, including for torn tendons in her wrist, to shorten a bone in her arm and for bone spurs in her elbow. All the time away from the tour has her at No. 600 in the rankings currently, but she was able to get into the draw in Australia via the protected ranking rule.

In other action, U.S. Open runner-up Medvedev  found himself seated in the nosebleed section at Margaret Court Arena, even though he was playing his second-round match there.

That’s because the No. 4-seeded Russian found himself dealing with something he said happens to him a couple of times each year: a nosebleed.

Medvedev blotted his nose with a towel and then was treated by a trainer while his 7-5, 6-1, 6-3 over Spanish qualifier Pedro Martinez was delayed for more than five minutes late in the second set.

“Can happen to me sometimes. Doesn’t usually happen during the match, so I had to stop (playing). Usually takes like four minutes — three, four minutes. … But it’s nothing,” Medvedev said.

MORE: Another top U.S. tennis player cools on Olympics

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