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Tara Lipinski, Johnny Weir preview Grand Prix Final women’s, ice dance events

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Every woman in the Grand Prix Final field has lost this season, and with the reigning World champion not even making the six-skater event, the competition is one of the most open in recent memory.

U.S. Olympians Gracie Gold and Ashley Wagner will look to break up recent Russian and Japanese dominance in Barcelona this week.

Mao Asada, the most decorated in the exclusive field, will try to become the first singles skater to win five Grand Prix Final titles, a full decade after her first crown.

Icenetwork.com will provide live coverage of all Grand Prix Final programs for subscribers. NBC will air coverage Dec. 20 from 4-6 p.m. ET.

Here’s the schedule:

Thursday
Pairs short program — 2:30 p.m. ET
Men’s short program — 3:55 p.m. ET

Friday
Short dance — 1:05 p.m. ET
Pairs free skate — 2:20 p.m. ET
Women’s short program — 3:55 p.m. ET

Saturday
Free dance — 11:25 p.m. ET
Women’s free skate — 1:45 p.m. ET
Men’s free skate — 3 p.m. ET

Here are women’s and ice dance previews with thoughts from NBC Olympics analysts Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir:

Women’s Field (Best Grand Prix qualifying total score)
Yelena Radionova (211.32) — World bronze medalist
Yevgenia Medvedeva (206.76) — World junior champion
Satoko Miyahara (203.11) — World silver medalist
Gracie Gold (202.80) — Olympics, Worlds fourth-place finisher
Ashley Wagner (202.52) — Grand Prix Final bronze medalist
Mao Asada (197.48) — Three-time World champion

Preview
Last season’s Grand Prix Final and World champion, Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, struggled this fall and failed to qualify. That coupled with the fact that no women won both of their Grand Prix series events for the first time since 2006 gives everyone in the field a shot at gold.

Medvedeva and Radionova, two Russians born in 1999 who combined to win the last three World junior titles, may be the most reliable.

Gold, the top qualifier into this event, has six times finished between fourth and sixth in individual standings at the Olympics, Worlds and Four Continents Championships. A medal in her first Grand Prix Final would be a breakthrough.

Wagner, who won Skate Canada in October but finished fourth at NHK Trophy two weeks ago, has already been there, finishing second or third at each of the last three Grand Prix Finals. Another top-three would break her consecutive-podiums tie with Michelle Kwan for the American record.

Then there’s Asada, who won her first Grand Prix Final title in 2005 at age 15. The Japanese icon is shaking off rust after taking the 2014-15 season off. She won the Cup of China in October and then took third at NHK Trophy.

Lipinski’s Take
“If [Asada] skates fairly clean, it’s a shoo-in for her, especially if she lands the triple Axel. Mentally, she’s so far ahead of where these other skaters are at just because she’s gone to two Olympics and been up against the best in the world, someone like Yuna Kim. I think she has the wisdom and this calmness on the ice and this feeling of comfort that she gives to the audience and to the judges that pretty much no other skater out there can do.”

“Yevgenia has been my favorite new surprise of the season. We are used to all these new Russians, new little teenagers popping up … you wonder if Yevgenia can sustain this type of skating the next few years before [the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympics], but it’s exciting to watch because she’s so tough. I can feel that when she takes the ice. She has this steely look in her eyes. … As much as I think Mao will have it in the bag if she skates clean, I think Yevgenia is possibly the person who can bring home the gold.”

“[Gold] has always technically been so good that there’s no doubt in my mind she can win any event that she enters, but this is the first year that I actually sense a new Gracie, a Gracie that’s much more comfortable in her skin, much more comfortable in a competition setting. … But she does struggle getting two great skates out there [in one competition]. At the final, there’s no room, especially in the short program, to bury yourself.”

“Ashley, obviously her last event didn’t go so well, but you can’t really base anything on track record when it comes to her just because she’s feisty. Yeah, she’ll have a bad competition, but she’ll come out the next one guns blazing and nail it. … Ashley really brings a performance value that a lot of the other girls don’t have. Yes, you have to hit the jumps, but when you sell a program like Ashley does, that makes a huge difference.”

Weir’s Take
“The ladies are super interesting. For all this talk about the Russian teenagers, they didn’t really fare that well in the Grand Prix [season]. My personal favorite is Yevgenia Medvedeva, the Skate America champion and a barely silver medalist at Grand Prix Russia. She is, to me, the brightest star that Russia has produced. I love [Yulia] Lipnitskaya, I love Radionova, I love the other Russian ballerinas, but for me, Yevgenia, she has the whole package. She can spin. I actually feel her when she’s skating. The jumps are impeccable. For me, she’s my favorite. But Gracie Gold and Ashley Wagner, both in the Final, very exciting for the U.S. Gracie has been skating wonderfully in the Grand Prix series. I definitely think it’s going to come down to Medvedeva, Gracie Gold and probably Yelena Radionova.”

MORE: Gracie Gold reflects on being in France during Paris attacks

Ice Dance Field
Kaitlyn Weaver/Andrew Poje — Canada
Madison Chock/Evan Bates — U.S.
Anna Cappellini/Luca Lanotte — Italy
Maia Shibutani/Alex Shibutani — U.S.
Madison Hubbell/Zachary Donohue — U.S.
Yekaterina Bobrova/Dmitry Soloviyev — Russia

Preview
The U.S. put three ice dance teams into a Grand Prix Final for the first time, an impressive feat bolstered by the fact that the first U.S. Olympic ice dance champions, Meryl Davis and Charlie White, are not competing this season.

All three qualified U.S. dance teams won one of the six Grand Prix series events this fall and made the podium in their other Grand Prix starts.

The most decorated of the trio are Chock and Bates, who took silver at last season’s Worlds and Grand Prix Final. The Shibutani siblings’ top international finish was a bronze medal at the 2011 Worlds. Hubbell and Donohue qualified for their first Grand Prix Final.

But any predictions must begin with Weaver and Poje, who have won five straight Grand Prix series titles, including last season’s Grand Prix Final. The Canadians were upset at last season’s World Championships by the French couple of Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, who sat out this Grand Prix season due to Papadakis’ concussion.

Lipinski’s Take
“I’m excited to see Kaitlyn and Andrew against Madison and Evan because their styles are so different. I flip-flop back and forth as to which one is going to perform better. … Kaitlyn just steals the show for me when she’s out there, and I feel like Andrew is the perfect frame for their picture, strong and solid. It just lets her emotionally bring it home. … The storytelling on Madison and Evan’s part is what grabs me. It’s not this chemistry-filled, powerful skating that you get from Kaitlyn and Andrew, but it’s this beautiful, classical style that’s very unique to them.”

Weir’s Take
“Three American teams is really impressive. My personal favorite, Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, I think they bring something so special to the ice. They’re really in tune with their emotions. Nothing seems forced or fake to me with them. That’s what I like to see in my dancers. But you’ve got Cappellini and Lanotte, who are another favorite of mine going back to their very Italian, rich, sophisticated style, and I like that, too. But of course you’ve got the [2014 Grand Prix Final] gold and silver medalists coming to the competition as well in Weaver/Poje and Chock/Bates. But my personal favorites are the Italians and Hubbell/Donohue.”

MORE: Ashley Wagner eyes history at Grand Prix Final after ‘disaster’ in Japan

Lin Dan, badminton legend, retires: ‘It is very difficult to say goodbye’

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Lin Dan, arguably the greatest badminton player in history, announced retirement Saturday, citing “pain and injuries” in bowing out a year before the postponed Tokyo Olympics.

“I have been with the national team from 2000 to 2020, and it is very difficult to say goodbye,” 36-year-old Lin wrote to his four million Weibo fans, according to Badminton World Federation (BWF) translation. “Pain and injuries no longer allow me to fight with my teammates. I have gratitude, a heavy heart and unwillingness.”

Lin, nicknamed “Super Dan,” won Olympic singles titles in 2008 and 2012, plus five individual world titles. It’s the greatest resume for any badminton player from China, which owns twice as many medals as any other nation in the sport that debuted at the 1992 Barcelona Games.

He competed at the last four Olympics, won the sport’s Super Grand Slam (nine major titles) and had his own wax figure at Madame Tussauds in Shanghai.

Lin’s outbursts on and off the court led to some calling him the John McEnroe of badminton, but he is revered. In 2015, he was the second athlete on Forbes China‘s most popular celebrities list behind tennis player Li Na.

Lin’s pursuit of a fifth Olympics in Tokyo was looking out of reach. He dropped to No. 26 in the Olympic qualifying rankings, trailing four countrymen, including No. 5 Chen Long (Rio Olympic champion) and No. 11 Shi Yuqi (2018 World silver medalist). A nation can qualify a maximum of two individual players per gender for the Games.

“From where came his mastery? In short, his prowess was essentially due to the completeness of his game – in skill, physical ability and mental strength,” the BWF wrote in a press release. “Such was his craft that even well into his 30s, normally considered an advanced age for men’s singles, he could outplay younger and fitter opponents.”

NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.

MORE: Who is China’s greatest Olympian?

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MyKayla Skinner’s motivation for Tokyo: her Rio Olympic experience

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MyKayla Skinner remembers the little room at the SAP Center in San Jose. She remembers the wait, somewhere between 10 and 20 minutes.

After the 2016 U.S. Olympic Women’s Gymnastics Trials, the competitors (14 total performed) assembled while a selection committee convened in another space.

The committee finalized the five-woman Olympic team (plus three alternates), marched into the athletes’ room and delivered the verdict.

“They say the first four names, and then there’s that one spot left,” Skinner recalled. “I’m like, is it going to be me? You’re so tense just waiting there. All of us holding each other’s hands in the room. We’re all sitting there. It’s just, like, frozen dead silent. Then they say that fifth spot.”

Skinner doesn’t remember who was the fifth name. Just that it wasn’t her.

“I just broke down crying,” she said in a recent interview. “All that hard work I put in still wasn’t good enough. Even though it was. It’s just who they needed for the team.”

Skinner placed fourth in the all-around at those Olympic Trials, the highest finisher who was not named to the Olympic team. She was one of three alternates. If the Olympic team was chosen by all-around standings, a selection committee would not be necessary. Instead, gymnasts are puzzle pieces, chosen as who best fits the Olympic format: three gymnasts per apparatus in the team final and up to two per nation per individual final.

Skinner’s mind raced while she waited for the committee’s decision. She eventually settled on a gut feeling, that she would not make the team.

“I thought that it should be enough, but at the same I didn’t think that it would be,” said Lisa Spini, Skinner’s coach at Desert Lights Gymnastics in Chandler, Arizona. “I thought the team was already decided before the Olympic Trials.”

Spini said it was her toughest night as a gymnastics coach.

“Being an alternate is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in gymnastics,” said Skinner, who traveled to Brazil and, with fellow alternates Ashton Locklear and Ragan Smith, trained separately from the Olympic team. “The whole time I was in Rio, I probably cried every single night

“The Olympics should be something so special, but I feel like it was definitely miserable at times. It was really hard to enjoy being an alternate. With this comeback, that has pushed me so hard just because I was so close.”

You may have read about Skinner back in the spring, after the Tokyo Olympics were postponed to 2021.

It’s a devastating delay for a female gymnast, whose peak often lasts for one Olympic cycle (sometimes even shorter). Skinner is an exception, excelling for the better part of a decade on different levels.

She made her first world championships team in 2014. After Rio, she matriculated at the University of Utah, where she was twice an NCAA all-around runner-up and hit an NCAA record 161 straight routines without a fall. In 2019, she decided to come back to international competition — for an Olympic run — with one year left of NCAA gymnastics.

She is 23, the oldest of the 16-woman U.S. national team. She is trying to become the oldest woman to make a U.S. Olympic gymnastics team since 2004. And the first with NCAA experience to do so since Alicia Sacramone in 2008.

“The reason why a lot of college gymnasts couldn’t come back and do it is they’ve been so injured over the years,” Spini said. “Their body wouldn’t hold up. She’s been really lucky that way.”

Skinner could have easily followed the path of so many other stars who signaled the end of an elite career by going to college, where training and routines are less demanding.

She questioned herself often after the Tokyo postponement whether it was worth it to return to elite training. The Olympic team event roster size has been cut from five to four. Simone Biles is an overwhelming favorite to earn one spot. In the face of those odds, Skinner can’t shake a memory from Rio.

“I just go back to the moment of when I was sitting in the stands,” watching the Final Five earn gold, Skinner said. “I was so close to making the team. This has been my dream ever since I went to Desert Lights when I was 12.”

Skinner’s comeback is already a success. Last year, on three months of elite training, she placed eighth at the U.S. Championships. She was convinced to accept an invitation to the world championships selection camp, where six women would make the traveling team (one later named an alternate).

Like in 2016, Skinner placed fourth in the all-around competition before the roster was chosen.

Again, the gymnasts gathered for the announcement. This time, Skinner made the cut as the sixth woman named. Biles, the other 20-something at the camp and a friend, jumped in excitement.

The team traveled to Germany in late September. After training, one woman had to be designated the alternate. High performance team coordinator Tom Forster took Skinner aside one day on the way to lunch. She knew what was coming and broke down in tears, flashing back to 2016.

“Simone was like, hey, let’s go to the bathroom. She helped talk me through it and helped me calm down and definitely made me a feel a lot better,” said Skinner, who supported Biles and the U.S. team that competed in Stuttgart. She then wed Jonas Harmer in November and decided what must be done to make the Olympic team.

“We’re going to try to add in some big skills, which will put her difficulty level, probably, second only to Simone,” Spini said.

Skinner is documenting her last year-plus in elite gymnastics on a YouTube channel with 29,000 subscribers. She has been fortunate during the coronavirus pandemic to train at her gym if no more than 10 people were present. Many other gymnasts — and athletes across Olympic sports — spent weeks or months out of their facilities.

“I definitely don’t think I would have been able to have that much time off,” she said. “That’s really hard with gymnastics because you feel like, you take two days off, and it’s like you had a year off.”

One day this spring, Skinner’s mom called, in tears, fearing for her life with an illness that turned out to be the coronavirus. Both of her parents, in their 60s, had it and briefly lost their senses of taste. Her mom had breathing problems, but they recovered.

One night last month, Skinner had a dream about next year’s Olympic Trials. The Final Five all came back to compete, and Skinner was again named an alternate. She woke up. Skinner doesn’t know how she would handle that kind of disappointment in real life, again.

“So it’s kind of scary,” she said. Then Skinner thinks back to Rio, and that burning she felt while watching the Final Five win gold medals.

“This is what I’m supposed to do. This is what I’m meant to do is elite gymnastics,” said Skinner, who was born via life-threatening, early-labor C-section, needing to be revived by doctors. “I think it’s cool that I can have this opportunity to go and push myself one last time so I can reach that end goal.”

MORE: Gymnast Grace McCallum won a coin flip to become world champion

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