Javier Fernandez, Yuzuru Hanyu

Tara Lipinski, Johnny Weir preview World Championships men’s, pairs events

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The last time Yuzuru Hanyu skated in Shanghai, he fell five times during his performance, with a bandage wrapped around his head and a blood-stained chin on Nov. 8.

The Olympic champion is back in the Chinese city this week, looking to become the first Japanese skater to repeat as World champion.

“He’s had quite a challenging season with a number of obstacles,” said his coach, two-time Canadian Olympic silver medalist Brian Orser, according to The Associated Press. “But each time he seems to bounce back.”

RELATED: World Championships schedule

In November, Hanyu and China’s Yan Han collided violently in a warm-up at a Grand Prix series event in Shanghai.

Hanyu, 20, was checked by medical staff and performed his free skate less than an hour later, finishing second overall despite fall, after fall, after fall, after fall, after fall.

He returned to Japan the next day, being wheeled through an airport in front of many fans. Three weeks later, Hanyu fell on jumps in both of his programs at his next competition and finished fourth.

Still, he snuck into December’s Grand Prix Final, the biggest competition this season outside the World Championships.

At the Grand Prix Final, Hanyu again fell in both of his programs. Yet he still won by a whopping 34.26 points.

Then came his next problem, bladder surgery that kept him off the ice in January.

Despite all that, both NBC Olympics analysts Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir tapped Hanyu as the favorite at Worlds this week.

“Hanyu was so strong at the Grand Prix Final, and despite making the one mistake [the fall], he was in such good form, so classy and so dignified, and skating a way that an Olympic champion should skate,” Weir said. “It will be hard for anyone to overtake him because he is so respected by the judges and the International Skating Union.”

If anyone can deny Hanyu, Lipinski and Weir agreed it’s Kazakhstan’s Denis Ten, the Olympic bronze medalist who won the Four Continents Championship in Seoul in February.

Ten’s total score at Four Continents — 289.46 — would have beaten Hanyu at the Grand Prix Final, but Ten didn’t qualify for the Grand Prix Final due to early season struggles.

“When [Ten] is on, it’s magical,” Lipinski said. “He sets himself apart from the group because he is the all-around skater. He has every part of the package. He has the speed, the quads [jumps], the beautiful quality of his skating.”

Another rival is Spain’s Javier Fernandez, who took second to Hanyu at the Grand Prix Final and is the two-time reigning World bronze medalist. But Fernandez’s best skating this season hasn’t rivaled Hanyu or Ten at their best.

Then there are the three Americans, who are unlikely to grab the first U.S. men’s medal since Evan Lysacek‘s gold in 2009 but hopeful of retaining three berths for the 2016 World Championships in Boston.

Lipinski and Weir agree that’s a very reachable goal. The top two U.S. men, out of Jason Brown, Adam Rippon and Joshua Farris, must have combined placements equal to or better than 13 to attain it. For example, Brown to finish sixth and Rippon seventh.

The best American may be Farris, even though he was third at the U.S. Championships in January and is making his senior Worlds debut. The 2013 World junior champion could have won the U.S. title had he not mistakenly put three double toe loops in his free skate at Nationals.

Farris, 20, took a planned quad jump out of his short program due to boot issues, but he is coming off a breathtaking second-place performance at Four Continents.

“Josh is proving that he has staying power,” Lipinski said. “He is a breath of fresh air. The style he skates in, the way that he feels the music. He’s in tune with his performances and brings a very different style than someone like Jason.”

RELATED: Farris expects Worlds perfection, four months after embarrassment

Brown, also 20, in January became the youngest U.S. champion since 2004 and in Sochi became the youngest U.S. Olympic men’s singles skater since 1976.

He will not put a quad jump in either program in Shanghai, after two-footing a landing on his first in-competition quad attempt at Four Continents. That might be a decision that hangs with Brown beyond Worlds and into next season.

“Once you do [a quad] once, at your very first event, and it doesn’t go too well, then taking it out and not trying it, all summer it becomes this elephant in the room, and you can blow it out in your mind,” Lipinski said. “It becomes tough to overcome.”

RELATED: Brown explains quad decision for Worlds

Then there’s Rippon, a two-time World junior champion making his third Worlds appearance and first since 2012. Rippon has a quad Lutz in his arsenal, but landing it and keeping the rest of his program intact is far from a sure thing.

“He doesn’t have the consistency,” Lipinski said. “It’s all about the mental game.”

A U.S. pair could finish higher at Worlds than the best U.S. man for the first time since 2011. U.S. champions Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim boast a quad twist and were fifth at Four Continents, against a field of the top U.S., Canadian and Chinese pairs.

Throw in the Russians this week, but Scimeca and Knierim are aiming for the top six. That would match or better the best U.S. finish in pairs since 2006.

“It’s realistic, but for me they’re a team that if they do make a mistake and start to get sloppy, it upsets the whole performance,” Lipinski said.

Lipinski, Weir preview Worlds women’s, ice dance events

Carreira, Ponomarenko understand the depth of U.S. ice dance at nationals

Carreira and Ponomarenko
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GREENSBORO, N.C. Heading into the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Greensboro this week, up-and-coming ice dancers Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko focused on their “quads” not four-revolution jumps, but still pretty tough to execute.

“(Our coaches) have us doing double run-through weeks, triple run-throughs, even quadruple run-throughs, to make sure we’re fully ready,” Carreira said. “We’re drilling a lot more, so at nationals we go in 100 percent confident.”

Pasquale Camerlengo, who trains the team along with primary coach Igor Shpilband, agreed that the run-up to Greensboro has been grueling for the skaters from Novi, Mich.

“We always plan a week we call the quads, performing (programs) four times,” Camerlengo said. “We’re trying to make them ready physically and work their stamina, to handle their programs in competition, which is a little bit different than in practice. Physically, they’re ready for it.”

Tough practices are just one component of what’s been a challenging but productive sophomore senior season for the two-time world junior medalists, fifth in the U.S. in 2019.

Thus far, they’ve competed at six international competitions, stretching from Lake Placid, N.Y., in August to NHK Trophy in Sapporo, Japan, in late November. Six is a lot, considering other top teams they’ll compete against in Greensboro have competed three to five times so far this season.

“Igor wants to get more experience at the senior level, and also more world points,” Carreira, 19, said. “For that we have to compete. We get out there and compete as much as we can, so our programs feel more trained.”

Those programs – a rhythm dance to Cole Porter’s “It’s Too Darn Hot” and flamenco free dance to “Farrucas” – stretch their abilities far more than last season’s routines. Competing every two weeks or so left little time to make adjustments, so the past six weeks were the key to their preparation for Greensboro.

“We pushed a lot of changes we needed to make until after NHK, to smooth out the programs and really train them,” Ponomarenko, 19, said.

He added that the grueling first half of 2019-20 was a necessary ice dance rite of passage.

“It’s very different from our first season. We really didn’t know what to expect. Now we kind of know where we’re at and how we can improve. We definitely feel the sophomore slump this year, but we just want to compete and keep putting our good performances.”

On paper, Carreira and Ponomarenko’s 2018 Grand Prix results – which included a bronze medal at Rostelecom Cup – look more impressive than the sixth-place finishes they earned at Skate America and NHK this season. But the skaters don’t think the placements tell the full story.

“Last season, results-wise, it might have looked better, because a lot of (top) teams took the Grand Prix season off last season,” Carreira said. “This season, I feel our programs are more difficult and we’re skating better. We want to improve our consistency so that we can compete with the top teams.”

It doesn’t take much to lose points in an ice dance routine, especially on step sequences and “twizzles,” a series of fast rotations moving across the ice. A few slips here – including a small mistake on their twizzles in the rhythm dance at Skate America – can easily drop teams out of the top group.

“They always have the feeling they could do more,” Camerlengo said. “But the season is a progression. They’re getting better and better. That’s the goal, to have them (be) more reliable.”

“They need to do what they’re capable of,” he added. “They just have to do what they’ve learned, with no fear, and just go for it.”

In Greensboro, Carreira and Ponomarenko will have to throw caution to the wind to grab one of the three U.S. ice dance spots at the 2020 World Figure Skating Championships in Montreal this March.

With Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue, and Madison Chock and Evan Bates, very likely battling for gold, the Michigan skaters have their sights set on bronze. It’s a herculean task, considering the reigning U.S. bronze medalists, Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, qualified for the Grand Prix Final last season and notched career-best scores at Skate Canada this fall.

All three of those teams train together in Montreal. 

But Carreira and Ponomarenko think their programs, strengthened by adjustments and all of those quadruple run-throughs, give them a fighting chance.

“(A bronze medal) is more realistic now than last season,” Carreira said.

“I believe we’ve really grown as skaters,” Ponomarenko said. “Our programs are much more difficult, which has really helped us improve. I believe the podium at nationals is very reasonable. It could be achieved with some good skating.”

Other teams could be in the mix. Last season, Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter placed a strong fourth, but injuries forced them to withdraw from one of their Grand Prix events this fall. A new pairing, Caroline Green and Michael Parsons, has gelled quickly, winning two medals at Challenger Series international events.

“The level of U.S. ice dance level is high, the depth in the U.S. is really the top worldwide,” Camerlengo said. “But the podium, it is reasonable for Christina and Anthony. They have been working hard and they have a very good level to fight for the medal. We’ll see how they will perform here. They’re ready for it.”

Not all of the team’s challenges are on the ice. The Montreal-born Carreira – who has lived and trained in Novi since she was 13 – faces hurdles gaining her U.S. citizenship, without which the couple cannot compete at the Olympics. Last May, she petitioned U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to be deemed an “alien with extraordinary ability” under the immigration code, which would help smooth the way for legal permanent residency status. She was denied and filed suit against the USCIS, later dropping the action.

Carreira is still working to achieve a pathway to U.S. citizenship and prefers not to discuss the issue.

“I can’t really say anything,” she said. “We’re working on it, we’re hoping for the best.”

Citizenship issues never entered the skaters’ minds when they teamed up in the spring of 2014. Ponomarenko and his parents, 1988 Olympic ice dance champions Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko, had long admired Carreira’s skating. When he and his former partner Sarah Feng split after the 2014 U.S. Championships, he tried out with Carreira in Novi.

“We really worked well together from the beginning,” Ponomarenko said. “I had wanted to skate with Christina for a really long time even before getting together, so it was no-brainer. The bump in the road (citizenship) can be worked through.”

“There were so many good factors it would be, I think, stupid to let something that can be fixed get in the way of (our partnership),” Carreira said. “We didn’t even think about it.”

The ice dance competition in Greensboro kicks off with the rhythm dance on Friday afternoon, with medalists decided with the free dance on Saturday night.

MORE: 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships TV, live stream schedule

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. 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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Coronavirus forces Olympic soccer and boxing qualifiers to move

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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Olympic qualifying events in two sports were moved from the Chinese city of Wuhan on Wednesday because of an outbreak of a deadly viral illness.

A four-nation Asian qualifying group for the women’s soccer tournament was switched from the city at the center of the health scare to Nanjing.

The Asia-Oceania boxing qualifying tournament scheduled for Feb. 3-14 in Wuhan was cancelled. No new plans were announced.

The decisions followed Chinese health authorities telling people in Wuhan to avoid crowds and public gatherings.

The Asian Football Confederation said the round-robin group — featuring host China, Australia, Taiwan and Thailand — will be played on Feb. 3-9, retaining the same dates, in Nanjing.

More than 500 people have been infected and at least 17 killed since the outbreak emerged last month. The illness comes from a newly identified type of coronavirus.

Cases have also been reported in the United States, Japan, South Korea and Thailand. All involve people from Wuhan or who recently traveled there.

In the soccer qualifiers in China, two teams advance to a four-nation playoff round in March. That will decide which two teams from Asia join host Japan at the Tokyo Olympics.

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