Ashley Wagner
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Ashley Wagner: ‘The end is in sight’

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Ashley Wagner has spoken openly during the ups and downs of the last few seasons about questioning how much longer she’ll skate and what exactly she wants to accomplish as her career winds down.

“The end is in sight,” Wagner said Friday. “That creates a whole new type of pressure.”

Wagner, 24, will carry the title of defending champion into the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in St. Paul, Minn., next week, where she eyes her fourth total National crown.

She can become the oldest U.S. women’s champion since Maribel Vinson in 1937, but Wagner spoke more Friday about her international standing.

“I want that World title,” she said. “I think that’s a tall order, by far, but I also think that if I go out and put out a solid program and performance, technically, I think that’s not entirely out of the question.”

Wagner has finished fourth, fifth, seventh and fifth at the World Championships the last four years. No U.S. woman has made an Olympic or Worlds podium since 2006, the longest drought since World War I.

The World Championships are in Boston in a little more than two months, creating the incentive for home-ice advantage to end the medal drought.

In the past two years, Wagner has said she’ll continue to skate as long as she can physically and mentally push through it and stressed that she won’t be “old” at age 26 during the 2018 Olympics.

She’s pointed to 2010 Olympic silver medalist Mao Asada and 2014 Olympic bronze medalist Carolina Kostner as examples of successful, mature skaters. Asada is 25. Kostner is 28. Neither has retired.

“I’m getting better every year,” said Wagner, who shattered U.S. Championships scoring records last January and, in the fall, broke her personal short program and free skate bests in international competitions. “I’m pushing my limits. … I know that I’m capable of much, much more.”

The U.S. title is expected to come down to Wagner and 20-year-old Gracie Gold, who have finished within two spots of each other at each of the last three World Championships.

Wagner and Gold placed fourth and fifth, respectively, at the Grand Prix Final in December, behind Russian winner Yevgenia Medvedeva (16 years old), Japan’s Satoko Miyahara (17) and Russian Yelena Radionova (17).

Wagner joked that recent Russian teenage champions last for about three years, “and then a new top Russian comes through.”

“I’ve been at the senior level, essentially for 10 years,” Wagner said. “I’ve been skating for almost 20. Skating has been a huge chapter in my life. It’s completely natural at this point to kind of have those moments of doubt because I feel like, everywhere I look, there’s a newer, fresher, younger skater, who is coming up that is technically sound and solid and practically undefeatable. It’s never-ending, so I think that for me, I am always having to work that much harder to stay relevant, to stay in shape, to keep on pushing the envelope. I know that 24 isn’t old, but at the same for this sport, it’s not young.”

Wagner, a military brat, calls herself “stubborn” and “hard-headed.”

That’s helped her overcome tearful performances, most recently a last-place short program at the Grand Prix Final in December that, again, left her questioning why she continues to compete.

The next day, Wagner broke her international-best score for a free skate, missing the podium by 1.32 points.

“I really don’t think that any other top lady has improved as much as I have at my age,” she said.

MORE: Gracie Gold doesn’t expect to compete as long as Ashley Wagner

Maria Sharapova wraps up tennis career after nearly two decades, career Slam

Maria Sharapova
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Maria Sharapova has announced her retirement after a professional tennis career that includes five Grand Slam wins, 36 singles titles and an Olympic silver medal.

Sharapova was only 17 when she won her first major in 2004 at Wimbledon. She won the U.S. Open in 2006 and the Australian Open in 2008 before completing her career Grand Slam in the 2012 French Open. She won the French Open again in 2014.

After moving from Russia to Florida at age 9 to train at the Bollettieri Academy, she made her professional debut just after her 14th birthday in 2001. She graduated to top-level events and majors within two years and reached the round of 16 at Wimbledon in 2003.

In 2004, she upset Lindsay Davenport and Serena Williams at Wimbledon and beat Williams again at the Tour Championships.

By 2005, the 6-foot-2 player had claimed the top spot in the world rankings. She remained in the top five for most of the next four years before suffering an injury to her right shoulder that limited her tournament schedule in 2008 and 2009. By 2011, she had reclaimed her status as a top-five player and remained there until 2016.

Her career declined after a positive drug test at the 2016 Australian Open. The substance in question, meldonium, had been given by Russian doctors to many athletes.

An initial suspension of two years was reduced to 15 months, but she wasn’t able to get back to her previous form. She won one more tournament in 2017 and reached the quarterfinals of the 2018 French Open, but she fared poorly in sporadic appearances in 2019. Her last match was a loss to Donna Vekic in the first round of the Australian Open in January.

SEE: Sharapova discusses reduced ban on TODAY

Her meldonium suspension also cost her commercial sponsorships and her role as a UN Development Program ambassador, which she earned with her work to help survivors of the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl.

She was involved in the Olympics as a silver medalist in 2012, losing to Williams in the final, and as one of the final torch bearers in the relay to the 2014 Olympics opening ceremony in her home country.

She’s also third on the all-time WTA earnings list behind Serena and Venus Williams, taking in more than $38m in her career on top of lucrative endorsement deals.

Federica Brignone hopes World Cup rival Mikaela Shiffrin will return soon

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Mikaela Shiffrin‘s prolonged absence from the World Cup Alpine skiing circuit has opened the door for Italy’s Federica Brignone to break the American’s grip on the season title, but Brignone hopes her friend and rival will be back in competition soon.

“I really do hope that she will return soon for herself so she can do again what she loves most,” Brignone said.

Brignone took the season lead from Shiffrin, who has won the last three World Cup overall titles, on Sunday and has a 73-point advantage with 11 of the season’s 40 races remaining. She also leads Shiffrin by 74 points in the giant slalom standings.

READ: Brignone moves into World Cup lead

No Italian woman has won the overall World Cup. Brignone was fifth in 2017 and won the Alpine combined discipline title last season.

Brignone will have a chance to clinch another Alpine combined discipline title and extend her overall lead in her home country this weekend. While some other sports events in Italy have been canceled or otherwise affected by the coronavirus outbreak, the host resort of La Thuile has so far been spared from the virus’ spread.

Slovakia’s Petra Vlhova, the only other skier with a realistic chance of winning the overall trophy, is dealing with a knee injury and might not be able to race this weekend. Vhlova leads Shiffrin by 20 points in the slalom standings.

Shiffrin has not competed since the death of her father Feb. 2, and she has not announced plans to return. She was not on pace to match her astounding 17-win 2018-19 season but still had six wins and had reached the podium in 13 of 19 races.

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