Max Aaron
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Surprise U.S. leader at Skate America

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A U.S. champion is in great position to end the home drought at Skate America, but it’s neither Gracie Gold nor Jason Brown.

Max Aaron, the 2013 U.S. champion who just missed the Sochi Olympics, cleanly landed all of his jumps, including a quadruple toe loop in combination, to lead after the short program in Milwaukee on Friday.

“I’ve been waiting for it to happen,” Aaron said in a U.S. Figure Skating video. “I just changed my mental game around, my competing around. I want to be back on top. I want to make the World [Championships] team again. I want to be that guy that’s reliable.”

The Olympic team bronze medalists Gold and Brown erred on jumps and were second and eighth, respectively, in the women’s and men’s standings.

NBC and NBC Sports Live Extra will air the women’s free skate Saturday from 5-6 p.m. ET. The men’s free skate is later Saturday. NBCSN will air coverage Sunday from 10-11:30 p.m. ET.

Aaron scored a personal-best 86.67 points and leads by .14 of a point over China’s Han Yan in the Grand Prix series opener. It’s a step toward a comeback for the 23-year-old former hockey player.

Aaron set himself up to make his first Olympic team by winning the 2013 U.S. title but fell to third at the 2014 U.S. Championships, missing the two-man Sochi team, and fourth at last season’s U.S. Championships, missing the three-man World Championships team.

Now Aaron could notch the biggest international victory of his career and the first Grand Prix title for an American man since 2011. The last U.S. man to win Skate America was Evan Lysacek in 2009.

The pre-competition favorites all faltered in the men’s short program.

Shoma Uno, the World junior champion from Japan, and Denis Ten, the Olympic and World bronze medalist from Kazakhstan, both fell on quadruple toe loops and sit fourth and sixth, respectively.

Brown, the reigning U.S. champion who was fourth at Worlds, singled the second half of a jump combination and is in eighth place.

“I look at it as a learning experience,” Brown said in a U.S. Figure Skating video. “Now I’m going to take it with me.”

Gold doubled a planned triple flip and is 5.53 points behind reigning World junior champion Evgenia Medvedeva of Russia.

“I think maybe I just lost a little bit of my attack,” Gold told media. “Really been working on coming out of the gate strong. I do clean shorts in practice … just a slip-up.”

VIDEOS: Evgenia Medvedeva | Gracie Gold

World silver medalist Satoko Miyahara of Japan was third, followed by U.S. bronze medalist Karen Chen and Yulia Lipnitskaya, the Russian darling of the Sochi Olympic team event.

Gold, 20, and Chen, 16, are trying to become the first U.S. woman to win Skate America since Ashley Wagner in 2012.

The reigning Olympic and World champions on the men’s and women’s sides — Yuzuru HanyuJavier FernandezAdelina Sotnikova and Elizaveta Tuktamysheva — are not competing at Skate America.

MORE FIGURE SKATING: Full 2015-16 broadcast schedule

Richard Callaghan, figure skating coach, banned for life

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Richard Callaghan, a figure skating coach best known for helping Tara Lipinski earn 1998 Olympic gold, was ruled permanently ineligible for violations including sexual misconduct involving a minor.

Callaghan can still appeal the sexual misconduct violation, according to the U.S. Center for SafeSport, a watchdog for U.S. Olympic sports organizations that updated Callaghan’s status Wednesday.

He was first suspended in March 2018 pending an investigation into allegations first made against him more than 20 years ago.

Earlier this month, another former skater, Adam Schmidt, said in a lawsuit that he was sexually molested as a teenager by Callaghan starting in 1999.

Callaghan was previously accused of sexual misconduct in April 1999 by Craig Maurizi, one of his former students and later an assistant to him in San Diego and Detroit.

Maurizi told The New York Times that Callaghan had engaged in inappropriate sexual contact with him beginning when he was 15 years old. The alleged misconduct had begun nearly 20 years earlier. Callaghan denied the allegations.

In March 2018, Callaghan told ABC News: “That’s 19 or 20 years ago. I have nothing to say.”

Maurizi’s previous grievance against Callaghan with the U.S. Figure Skating Association, the precursor to U.S. Figure Skating, was dismissed on procedural grounds.

He was Callaghan’s assistant at the Detroit Skating Club until they split after Lipinski turned pro, left Callaghan and decided to train with Maurizi.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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MORE: Eight matchups to watch in figure skating Grand Prix Series

Pita Taufatofua, Tonga flag bearer, finishes last in kayak debut

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Pita Taufatofua, the Tonga Olympic flag bearer who went viral in Rio and PyeongChang, began his quest to make a third straight Olympics in a third different sport with a last-place finish in his opening-round heat at the world sprint kayak championships in Hungary on Wednesday.

The start of the heat appeared delayed as Taufatofua struggled to get his kayak into position in the water. He was left at the start as the other six kayakers raced out and finished between 33 and 40 seconds. Taufatofua took 58.19 seconds, the slowest of 53 finishers among seven total heats.

“Well that was slightly better than the first time I competed in Taekwondo or skiing,” was tweeted from Taufatofua’s account. “Would have liked to start facing the right way but that’s life.”

Taufatofua, 35, was the oldest athlete in the heat by nearly a decade. He is also entered in doubles races with Tonga canoe federation president Malakai Ahokava with heats Thursday and Friday.

Taufatofua hopes to compete at the Tokyo Olympics in taekwondo, where he competed in Rio, and in sprint kayak.

But he hasn’t competed in taekwondo in three years and just started training kayak this spring. At worlds, Taufatofua told the BBC he is still having trouble staying afloat in the water.

Taufatofua said in announcing the new sport in April that it would be “largely impossible” to qualify for Tokyo. He could be the first athlete to compete in a different sport in three straight Olympics (Summer and Winter) since the Winter Games began in 1924, according to the OlyMADMen.

“It’s certainly going to be the greatest challenge that I’ve ever had to embark on,” he said then.

Taufatofua’s results at worlds this week has little bearing on his Olympic qualifying prospects. Rather, he just needed to compete in Hungary to stay eligible for the Olympics.

The key will be an Oceania qualifying event early next year, where one Olympic bid is available. He will likely have to beat the best kayakers from Australia and New Zealand to grab it. Australian Stephen Bird placed eighth at the Rio Olympics and 11th at the 2018 World Championships.

If Taufatofua fails, he could receive a special tripartite invitation sometimes offered to smaller nations like Tonga.

Taufatofua became a social-media celebrity by marching into the Rio Olympic Opening Ceremony shirtless and oiled up. He then lost in the first round via mercy rule in his taekwondo tournament.

He made a quixotic bid for the PyeongChang Winter Games in cross-country skiing — and accomplished the feat, barely, in a sport that has lenient qualifying requirements for nations with a lack of Winter Games depth.

Taufatofua finished 114th out of 116 in his 15km Olympic cross-country skiing race, nearly 23 minutes behind the winner.

If Taufatofua is able to carry the Tongan flag at a third Opening Ceremony, he will definitely be shirtless again, in a similar outfit to what he wore in Rio and PyeongChang, he said last year.

MORE: Five-time Olympic kayak medalist banned four years

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