Simone Biles

Simone Biles a tall favorite at P&G Championships; women’s preview

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PITTSBURGH — Simone Biles flinched and froze at a startling sight before walking out of Pittsburgh International Airport on Monday.

“Yeah, you’re on the wall,” Biles’ coach, Aimee Boorman, said about a large sign promoting the P&G Championships. “And you’re 30 feet tall in the arena.”

The real Biles’ feet don’t touch the floor in sitdown interviews, but everything about the Texan is bigger in and around the site of the P&G Championships.

Look up, and she’s a banner above a bridge crossing one of the three rivers. Look down, and she’s sidewalk art directing downtown foot traffic to the Consol Energy Center for the meet. The women’s competition at the P&G Championships starts Thursday and wraps Saturday (8 p.m. ET, live on NBC).

“It’s really weird seeing my face everywhere,” Biles said.

She said she isn’t immune to nerves, but Biles feels the same as last year in Hartford, where she entered P&Gs as a relative unknown and won the all-around title.

Biles, who is printed on room keys at one downtown hotel, is favored to successfully defend her crown. (Biles’ family, which is not staying at that hotel, made sure to take a key as a souvenir.)

“I find it a little weird,” Boorman said, “because she’s just Simone. She’s not a star at home.”

Biles stopped again walking into the arena Monday. Fans were waiting for her outside the athlete entrance. One gave her a card.

“It freaks her out,” Boorman said, “because she’s very humble.”

And very accomplished.

The home-schooled Biles became the third American woman to win four medals at a single World Championships last October, including the most coveted, all-around gold. She’s been compared to Shawn Johnson for her powerful, athletic skills and strengths on floor exercise, balance beam and vault.

Biles bought a belly ring and lost her braces after Worlds, went back to driving her little sister to school and returned to competition at the Secret Classic on Aug. 2 and ran away with the all-around title.

That cemented her ultra-favorite status for Pittsburgh, though she modestly said her goal this week is top three in the all-around. Perhaps only 2012 Olympian Kyla Ross, often Biles’ roommate at camps and competitions, could challenge her this week.

If Biles makes the six-woman team for the World Championships in Nanning, China, in October (chosen not in Pittsburgh but after a later selection camp), she will attempt to end a trend.

In the last 10 years, 10 different women have been the top American all-around finisher at the year’s biggest competition — Worlds or the Olympics.

Speaking of the Olympics, Biles may currently be the world’s greatest gymnast, but that is no guarantee she will wear red, white and blue in Rio de Janeiro in two years.

The best U.S. gymnast in 2010 was Rebecca Bross, who didn’t make the London Olympic team in 2012. Biles will turn 19 before the Rio Games in 2016. The oldest member of the 2012 U.S. Olympic team that won gold was 18.

“Not only getting to the top is important, but staying on the top is sometimes even harder,” U.S. National Team coordinator Martha Karolyi said. “In order to stay up there and repeat, you have to keep the discipline, the lifestyle the same. … It takes some sacrifices.”

Karolyi spoke of the sport’s rapid turnover rate after the 2013 World Championships when she said there were “several 13-year-olds gearing up for Rio.”

They aren’t ready to challenge Biles yet. The 2011, 2012 and 2013 U.S. junior all-around champions are all out of this week’s competition with injuries (an indication of another reason why it won’t be easy for Biles to sustain the next two years.)

Eight senior women are scheduled to compete on all four events on Thursday and Saturday, the lowest number since at least 1986, USA Gymnastics said. Thirteen in total are in the field.

One would think such a small pool to select from would hurt the overall U.S. team going into Worlds, but Karolyi doesn’t see it that way.

Only three routines per apparatus are needed in Nanning.

Biles and Ross were the world’s two best all-around gymnasts last year, and Karolyi pointed to others competing in Pittsburgh who could fill in the gaps — mentioning Brenna Dowell (strong on uneven bars), MyKayla Skinner (vault) and Madison Kocian (also bars) by name.

“I think, at this moment, we’re still standing pretty good in that direction,” Karolyi said. “We have the pieces that we need.”

U.S. gymnast wins all-around bronze at Youth Olympics

Nathan Chen hopes to hip hop his way to Skate America crown

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LAS VEGAS — In Las Vegas on Friday, an elegant Nathan Chen performed a romantic short program to Charles Aznavour’s “La Boheme,” earning 102.71 points and a 6.14-point lead at Skate America.

When the two-time world champion takes the ice for his free skate on Saturday, he’ll pop and lock to music from the Elton John biopic Rocketman — for the last 30 seconds or so of the program, he’ll be a hip hop dancer on skates.

After choreographer Marie-France Dubreuil presented Chen with the idea, it took him a while, or at least a couple of minutes, to get used to it.

“Originally, she just said Rocketman and I said, ‘Oh yeah, that’s fine,’” Chen said. “Then she threw in the hip hop. I said, ‘Wait a minute.’ She didn’t tell me until I got there and she played the music.”

“I figured it would be fine,” he added. “My issue was telling [coach] Raf [Arutunian]. I didn’t tell him until I got back to California, but when I did tell him he was actually totally on board with it.”

Whatever concerns the coach may have had vanished when Chen showed him the steps, created with Dubreuil’s collaborator Samuel Chouinard.

“First of all, it looks like it’s professionally done and he executes it professionally,” Arutunian said. “I was watching ice dance last year and many of couples (were) doing hip hop dancing, and I think he would be one of the best at it. If you do something, you should do well, and he is doing it so professionally, you cannot feel he has blades on. He manipulates his feet like he is in shoes.”

This isn’t exactly Chen’s first try at hip hop. He touched on it last season in his “Land of All” free skate, also created with Dubreuil and Chouinard.

“I was actually pretty cool with it because I worked with Sam last year. We did a tiny bit of hip hop to incorporate (into the program), it wasn’t truly hip hop,” Chen said. “I knew that’s (Sam’s) specialty, that’s what he’s great at, and I figured it would be fine.”

Chouinard, a Montreal-based choreographer and dancer, has created hip hop programs for other skaters, including Canada’s two-time Olympic ice dance champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. Many ice dancers incorporated hip hop into their short dances for the 2016-2017 season. But as Chen notes, trying it in men’s singles competition is a different story.

“I did consider that,” he admitted. “I haven’t seen much of this. I know (U.S. skater) Philip Warren has done something like it this year and other kids have, and of course dancers did it. It wasn’t something that is never done, but rarely do you see it with the top six guys (in the world).”

MORE: Nathan Chen calls 3 quads at Skate America ‘a given’

Chen has to be encouraged by the reaction of spectators at his practices here, who screamed and clapped when the skater busted his moves.

“It’s a judged sport and the way the audience reacts to the program has some influence on how the judges interpret your performance,” he said. “I think we don’t want to stick to one demographic in terms of the fan base, the audience. It’s nice to incorporate everything. It’s cool to see all the guys competing have completely different styles, so each program new, unique and fresh.”

Now a sophomore at Yale University, Chen’s balancing act between studies as a Statistics and Data Science major and elite figure skater competitor, is getting a bit trickier.

“Homework is time consuming, each homework assignment takes six to 12 hours to finish and I have a couple per week, so that’s a lot,” he said. “It’s mostly exam times that are really challenging, right now is a little bit easier time for me at school. Obviously it’s going to pick up. It’s tough, but as much as I’m in the situation, I just have to manage as best I can.”

Fortunately, Skate America takes place during an academic break. Japan Open earlier this month was another story; the trip caused him to miss a midterm exam, which he later made up.

“Competition after competition keeps me motivated, knowing I have to achieve a certain goal at each competition,” Chen said. “That’s what drives me through practices.”

MORE: How to watch Skate America

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Check out a free trial of the Figure Skating Pass during Skate America from Oct. 18-20. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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Nathan Chen holds commanding lead over Skate America men’s field

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Nathan Chen is on his way to winning his third Skate America title this weekend in Las Vegas to open the 2019-20 Grand Prix season. The two-time world champion hasn’t lost a Grand Prix event since his silver medal at the Grand Prix Final in 2016, and is about to make that list longer.

(In case you were wondering, Todd Eldredge has the most Skate America wins from the ’90s, with five.)

Chen, a sophomore at Yale University, scored 102.71 points in Friday’s short program and was the only man to break the 100-point barrier. Chen opened his short program, set to “La Boheme,” with a quadruple Lutz, followed by a triple Axel and a quad toe-triple toe combination.

Skate America results are here.

“I’m not entirely happy with how the program went, however, since this is the first outing, I’m pretty okay with how things went,” Chen said through U.S. Figure Skating. “I’m looking forward to competing tomorrow and hopefully cleaning up some of the mistakes I made today and keep moving forward.”

Russia’s Dmitry Aliev is in second place heading into Saturday’s free skate, trailing Chen at 96.57 points. His short program also included a quad Lutz and a quad toe. Canada’s Keegan Messing notched a personal best short program score with 96.34 points and is in third place.

2014 Olympian Jason Brown finds himself in fourth place with 83.45 points. Brown popped his triple Axel attempt into a single, which received zero points.

“It was a lapse of focus in the moment,” Brown said of his Axel attempt. “I should not have missed it; I have not missed one all week. I’m very irritated with myself. In the moment, you have to try not to relive it. Whether I was trying to stay relaxed about it or whether I was trying to attack it, I can’t remember. But I remember a moment of something right before [it happened]. I just said, ‘Don’t show emotion, just keep going.’ I think my experience definitely serves me well when it comes to making mistakes and having to pick back up like nothing happened. But that irritation doesn’t go away.”

The third American man in the field, Alex Krasnozhon, is in 10th place with 72.30 points.

MORE: How to watch Skate America

China’s Peng Cheng and Jin Yang, fourth at worlds last year, took a slim lead in the pairs’ short program earlier Friday. They told a 1.48 point lead over Russia’s Daria Pavliuchenko and Denis Khodykin, who sit in second place.

U.S. reigning national champions Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc are third with 68.20 points. The other two American teams in the field, Haven Denney and Brandon Frasier and Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson, are fourth and fifth, respectively.

“We’re building toward the world championships, and we’ve been very outspoken about our goal to be in the top five at worlds,” LeDuc said through U.S. Figure Skating. “Salt Lake was the first step, this is another. We’re building, and I think we’re really right on track for what we want. To have a big mistake in the program and still have a 68 is really awesome. We’re in a good place and excited to go into the free skate as well.”

Skate America continues Friday with the rhythm dance and ladies’ short programs, followed by the free skates in all disciplines on Saturday from Las Vegas. All of it can be seen live with the NBC Sports Gold “Figure Skating Pass,” which is offering a free trial for Skate America.

MORE: Nathan Chen calls 3 quads at Skate America ‘a given’

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Check out a free trial of the Figure Skating Pass during Skate America from Oct. 18-20. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!