Worlds preview: U.S. ladies aim to break eight-year slump

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With two Olympic medal winners out of the World Figure Skating Championships and three top-10 finishers for the U.S. heading there this week, a long-standing streak could be broken in Saitama, Japan.

No American woman has landed on the podium at Worlds since Kimmie Meissner and Sasha Cohen won gold and bronze, respectively, in 2006, a dry spell that could end if things go the way of the red, white and blue beginning Thursday.

Gracie Gold, the reigning national champion, presents the country’s best shot of ending that streak, the 18-year-old having finished fourth at the Olympic Games last month. Ashley Wagner (seventh in Sochi) and Polina Edmunds (ninth) have outside shots at medals, as well.

More: Full Worlds schedule and streaming times | Entry list

“I want to skate two great, clean programs – that’s always my goal,” the 15-year-old Edmunds told NBCSports.com in a phone interview last week. “Above that, I want to be in a good placement. At the Olympics I was top 10 and I hope to place higher at Worlds.”

A higher placement is highly likely for Edmunds as both the reigning Olympic champion Adelina Sotnikova and silver medalist Yuna Kim will not make the trip to Worlds. Sotnikova is said to be resting and preparing for the 2014-15 season at home. Kim, meanwhile, announced her retirement at the conclusion of the Sochi Games.

The ladies event is nonetheless packed with intrigue as host Japan will hope to send Mao Asada, the 2010 Olympic silver medalist, into retirement with another world title, the 23-year-old having won this event in 2008 and 2010.

Asada crashed out of medal contention last month in Sochi with a devastating short program that left her in 16th place. She rebounded in the free skate, performing flawlessly and finishing sixth overall.

Like Asada, Olympic bronze medalist and fellow former world champ (2012) Carolina Kostner will look for a golden swan song in Saitama, the Italian having had a career-crowning performance in Sochi.

More: World Figure Skating Championships men’s preview | Pairs preview

The American Gold has been steadily improving on the ice since joining forces with legendary coach Frank Carroll in October. The Los Angeles-based Chicago native’s fourth-place finish in Sochi landed her just off the medal stand a year after making her senior debut at the U.S. Championships in 2013.

It was last year at Worlds that Wagner and Gold finished fifth and sixth respectively, helping the U.S. earn a third spot for the Sochi Games. The U.S. women should secure the same third place at Worlds again this year with the burgeoning star in Edmunds, the surprise silver medalist at Nationals in January.

“I’m excited, but this is just another competition for me. I’m really comfortable headed into Worlds,” said Edmunds, adding that her eyes are fixed on the 2018 Pyeongchang Games. “I think that every competition I go to throughout the next four years is a step leading up to the next Olympics and it’s my goal to get there again. I know that anything can happen but I just want to keep moving forward with my skating.”

Gold and Wagner, 22, have expressed that they’ll both make an effort to qualify for the Pyeongchang Olympics, as well. Neither were available for interviews with NBCSports.com.

With Sotnikova out of the picture, 15-year-old Yulia Lipnitskaya will look to take her place atop the world’s medal stand after faltering in the ladies’ individual event in Sochi. Lipnitskaya was the toast of Russia after skating impeccably in the team event (helping Russia win gold) only to fall in both her short and long programs and finish fifth overall, far behind Sotnikova.

The flexible teen is joined by countrywoman Anna Pogorilaya, a talented if not hot-and-cold skater at the age of 15.

Other names to watch include home favorites Akiko Suzuki (eight in Sochi) and Kanako Murakami (12th) as well as France’s Mae Berenice Meite (10th) and Valentina Marchei of Italy (11th).

Controversy continues to swirl around the sport as the Korean Skating Union and the Korean Olympic Committee announced last week that they would file an official complaint over Kim’s silver medal at the Olympics last month.

Asada, Kostner, Gold, Lipnitskaya, Wagner and Pogorilaya are all legitimate shots to medal. Asada and Kostner are both looking for their fifth World Championship podium appearance.

But for Edmunds, the Sochi experience has the teenager buzzing for more success.

“I have a lot of great memories from Sochi,” she said. “I know that throughout the years I’m going to have more and more great memories from big events. It’s really exciting to move forward with that under my belt. It was amazing – I’m never going to forget that.”

Icenetwork.com will provide live coverage for subscribers. Ladies skate Thursday for the short program (2:45 a.m. ET) and Saturday for the free skate (4:15 a.m. ET). NBC will air a World Championships recap show April 13 from 3-6 p.m. ET.

Leanne Smith leads U.S. gold medalists at para swim worlds

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Leanne Smith has never competed at a Paralympics. Came into this week’s world championships with zero world medals. But she leaves London with three individual golds, most for any American, one year before the Tokyo Games.

Smith, 21, won the 150m individual medley, 50m breaststroke and 100m freestyle in her classification, all in American record times. The last two titles came on the final day of the seven-day meet on Sunday.

Smith, diagnosed with a rare neurological muscle disease called dystonia in January 2012, began swimming in 2013. By 2017, she broke a world record and then debuted at the world championships with a best individual finish of sixth.

The U.S. finished with 35 total medals and 14 golds, ranking sixth in the overall standings. Ukraine, usually strong at the Paralympics, led the way with 55 medals. Full results are here.

Jessica Long, the second-most-decorated U.S. Paralympian in history with 23 medals, earned six this week — five silvers and a bronze — to give her 52 career world championships medals.

Two-time Paralympian Mallory Weggemann earned two golds this week, giving her 15 world titles in three appearances (her others being in 2009 and 2010).

She won 50m titles in the butterfly and freestyle. Weggemann won a 2012 Paralympic 50m free title but was fortunate just to make it back for Rio after a 2014 accident that she said was harder to come back from than her teenage paralysis. She left Rio with no medals but a resolve to return for a third Games in Tokyo.

“I’m two seconds away from bursting into tears,” Weggemann said after winning the first of her two golds in the 50m fly, according to U.S. Paralympics. “I had a really rough go these past three years since Rio, so to finally be back after busting my butt to be here, and to be here in London of all places, is absolutely incredible.”

Fellow Rio Paralympians McKenzie Coan and Robert Griswold added two golds a piece.

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MORE: Five storylines to watch for Tokyo Paralympics

Heimana Reynolds wins skateboard world title, nears an Olympic goal from age 10

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In February 2009, a 10-year-old Heimana Reynolds was profiled by his local NBC TV station on Oahu.

“My goal is to become a professional skateboarder and compete in the X Games and the Olympics,” he said, according to the report.

Skateboarding would not be added to the Olympics for another seven years. But here Reynolds is, age 21, having just won the world title in park, one of two skateboarding events that debut at the Games in Tokyo.

Reynolds, who wasn’t named to the four-man U.S. national team in March, consolidated his lead in the Olympic qualification rankings by prevailing over a pair of Brazilians in Sao Paulo on Sunday.

A shirtless Reynolds scored 88 points in the final, beating Luis Francisco (85.50) and Pedro Quintas (85).

No more than three Americans can make the Olympic team in the event, which will make it difficult if three-time Olympic halfpipe snowboarding champion Shaun White decides to continue his skateboarding pursuit. White was the sixth-best American, bowing out in the semifinals in 13th place on Saturday in just his second contest since returning to competitive skating last year.

Back to Reynolds. He grew up on the North Shore and attended the Punahou School, where Barack Obama is the most famous alum. His first name is Tahitian, reportedly referring to the power of Jesus’ crown of thorns.

Reynolds, the son of a surfer, proved a natural on land. After pre-teen media profiles, he blossomed into a world silver medalist last year. He won an Olympic qualifier in China in July to take the top spot in the Olympic rankings despite a best career X Games finish of sixth.

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