U.S. Figure Skating Championships women’s preview

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Ashley Wagner can become the oldest U.S. women’s figure skating champion in 79 years this week. Standing in her way? Gracie Gold.

Wagner, 24, and Gold, 20, combined to win the last four national titles and finished within two places of each other at last three World Championships.

Each hopes to become the first U.S. woman to earn an individual Olympic or World Championships medal since 2006 at this spring’s Worlds in Boston.

“This event is going to be the best event at Nationals,” 1998 Olympic champion and NBC analyst Tara Lipinski said. “You have Gracie and Ashley technically evenly matched. They both struggle when it comes to actually competing and having that mental nerve when it counts.”

The winner automatically qualifies for Worlds. The other two women on the Worlds team will likely be the silver and bronze medalists but will be chosen by a committee following the U.S. Championships.

Icenetwork.com will stream the short program from St. Paul, Minn., on Thursday at 9 p.m. ET. NBC and NBC Sports Live Extra will air the free skate live on Saturday at 8 p.m.

Here’s the full competition and broadcast schedule.

Here’s a look at women’s skaters to watch:

Ashley Wagner
Age: 24
Hometown: Los Angeles
Credentials: 2012-13, ’15 U.S. champion, seventh at 2014 Olympics, fifth at 2015 World Championships

Last year, Wagner became the first woman to win three U.S. titles since Michelle Kwan (who won nine). This year, Wagner can become the oldest U.S. women’s champion since Maribel Vinson in 1937.

At 24, she’s still at or near the top of her game. She won Skate Canada in November and placed fourth at the Grand Prix Final in December, proving the best U.S. woman in fall competition (based on results, not necessarily scores, more on that in the Gold section).

Wagner’s goals go beyond national championships. Her best shot at a Worlds medal may come in two months, with home-ice advantage in Boston. She’s also looking to the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympics, with a chance to better a seventh-place finish from Sochi.

Lipinski’s Take: “Ashley, to me, is a slightly stronger competitor [than Gold]. Mentally, when she goes out there, she gets mad, and she can really sell a performance.”

Ashley Wagner: ‘The end is in sight’

Gracie Gold
Age: 20
Hometown: Hermosa Beach, Calif.
Credentials: 2014 U.S. champion, fourth at 2014 Olympics and 2015 World Championships

Gold finished 15.48 points behind Wagner at the 2015 U.S. Championships, when Wagner shattered Gold’s records for highest Nationals women’s free skate and total scores. Gold competed then under less-than-ideal preparation, following a small stress fracture in her left foot late that fall.

She came back to better Wagner at the World Championships by 3.95 points two months later. They finished fourth and fifth.

This season, Gold posted better scores than Wagner in the Grand Prix series (by 2.59 in the short program; 5.62 in the free skate). But Wagner then beat Gold by 5.02 in the Grand Prix Final in December, making up a 6.48-point deficit from the short program. Again, they were fourth and fifth.

Lipinski’s Take: By far she is the best in the U.S. Technically, she is insane. When I watch her in practice, she hits triple, triple, triple, one after another, just like it’s nothing. She gives me chills. When I asked her what happens when you go out and have to compete, she just says she struggles to get into that zone.

“Even though she did not win last year, I still believe this is hers to lose.”

Gracie Gold discusses retirement

Karen Chen
Age: 16
Hometown: Fremont, Calif.
Credentials: 2015 U.S. bronze medalist

Chen’s third-place finish in her senior Nationals debut last year could have put her on the three-woman World Championships team, but she was too young for the event. So fourth-place Polina Edmunds went instead. Chen took eighth at Junior Worlds (after being ninth in 2014).

This season, her first as a senior international skater, Chen placed fifth at both Skate America and Cup of China. Edmunds and Courtney Hicks, two other contenders to make the Worlds team, posted better Grand Prix series scores than Chen.

Polina Edmunds
Age: 17
Hometown: San Jose, Calif.
Credentials: 2014 U.S. silver medalist, ninth at 2014 Olympics, eighth at 2014-15 World Championships

Edmunds joined Gold and Wagner as the third U.S. woman at the 2014 Olympics and 2014 and 2015 World Championships, but her hold on that place is very tenuous.

For one, she was fourth at last year’s Nationals behind Chen. She won the Four Continents Championship a month later over Gold and Japan’s best skaters, but did not follow that up this past fall. Edmunds was sixth at Skate Canada and fourth at Rostelecom Cup, though she would finish third this week if all skaters repeat their best Grand Prix scores.

Mirai Nagasu
Age: 22
Hometown: Colorado Springs, Colo.
Credentials: 2014 U.S. bronze medalist, 2008 U.S. champion, fourth at 2010 Olympics

The 2010 Olympian won the U.S. Championships the last time they were held in St. Paul in 2008 but was seventh or worse at Nationals three of the last four years. The outlier was her famous third-place finish in 2014, when fourth-place Wagner made the Olympic team instead.

Nagasu would finish sixth this week if all skaters repeat their best Grand Prix season scores, though Nagasu received one Grand Prix start, while most others got two.

Courtney Hicks
Age: 20
Hometown: Chino Hills, Calif.
Credentials: 2015 NHK Trophy silver medalist

Hicks, the 2011 U.S. junior champion, notched the best Grand Prix finish by a U.S. woman other than Wagner and Gold in more than three years with her silver at NHK Trophy in Japan in November.

She’s been known to practice a triple Axel, not done by a U.S. woman since 2006 World champion Kimmie Meissner, but did not perform it in her two Grand Prix starts in the fall. She’ll almost certainly need to beat her best U.S. senior Nationals finish — fourth in her 2013 debut — to make her first Worlds team.

VIDEO: Dorothy Hamill remembers 1976 Olympic figure skating title on TODAY

Chad le Clos seeks Sun Yang’s Olympic gold medal for doping case

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NAPLES, Italy (AP) — Chad le Clos believes he has a claim on Sun Yang’s gold medal from the Rio Olympics, with a verdict imminent on the Chinese swimmer’s latest doping case.

“He should be banned. It’s as simple as that,” Le Clos said in an interview with The Associated Press this week. “Anyone who tests positive should be banned. I should get my gold medal back from Rio.

“Not for the moment. I lost that. I don’t really care about that,” Le Clos added on Wednesday. “It’s just for my record. If I break my leg and I can’t swim again I want my record to say, ‘Two individual golds, two individual silvers.’ Because that’s what it should be.”

Le Clos’ Olympic record currently contains one gold medal and three silvers — including a second-place finish to Sun in the Rio Olympic 200m free

Odds are, though, that Sun won’t lose any Olympic titles when the Court of Arbitration for Sport issues its ruling over his alleged refusal to provide blood and urine in September 2018 in a visit by sample collectors to his home in China. During the late-night confrontation, a security guard used a hammer to smash a container holding Sun’s blood as the swimmer lit the scene with his mobile phone.

The World Anti-Doping Agency appealed after swimming federation FINA merely warned Sun and cited doubts about credentials shown by three sample collection officials.

A three-time Olympic champion, Sun could be banished from the sport for up to eight years but any ban likely won’t be backdated before September 2018 — meaning all of his Olympic medals seem safe.

But there’s also the fact that international swimming authorities worked to protect Sun from being banned, according to a Swiss supreme court document.

FINA has faced criticisms in the past for favoring Sun during his career. It did not announce Sun’s three-month ban for doping imposed by Chinese authorities until after it ended in 2014.

“I just hope the system and whatever we have is really accurate,” said Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszú, who won three golds in Rio. “I just hope the decisions they are making is fair and is for the sport and not for other reasons.”

The medals that Sun risks losing most are the two golds that he won at last year’s world championships in the 200m and 400m frees. At the event in Gwangju, South Korea, fellow medalists Mack Horton of Australia and Duncan Scott of Britain refused to stand with him on the podium.

Sun has denied any wrongdoing. Any ban imposed in the coming days would likely prevent him from competing at this year’s Tokyo Olympics.

“I have nothing against anybody. It’s not personal,” Le Clos said. “It’s just how the world should be. If you cheat or if you do something wrong, like if you false start, you get disqualified. It’s simple as that.”

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U.S. Olympic luger Emily Sweeney looks forward from depression bout

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Luge’s World Cup campaign ends this weekend in Germany, where most of the best 100 sliders in the sport will be looking to close their international seasons on a high note.

Emily Sweeney won’t be among them.

Her season ended a couple weeks ago, on her terms.

The U.S. veteran is officially two years into her recovery from a crash at the PyeongChang Olympics that she walked away from — even with a broken neck and broken back — and two years away, she hopes, from being a medal contender at the Beijing Games.

She decided to listen to her body and step away from the frantic end of the season, heading home instead to meet her sister’s new baby and formulate a plan for her offseason.

Here’s what she has learned: Fractures heal, but everything else takes time. So while her body still betrays her from time to time on the track, an additional focus on the mental game is what Sweeney hopes will get her to the medal podium in Beijing in 2022.

“I am very comfortable about thinking about my weaknesses because I failed so much early on,” Sweeney said. “I didn’t make two Olympic teams right in a row. I constantly had to look at myself and say ‘What’s wrong? What am I not like?’ I had to be creative with my training and with the whole process. And so, I think I’m pretty comfortable with challenges.”

That’s why, this season, when she felt like her body couldn’t do it anymore she simply went home. The decision was not easy: Her team is still competing, she has plenty of friends on the circuit and her longtime boyfriend — Italian star Dominik Fischnaller — is a serious contender to win the men’s World Cup overall title.

But a setback right now could throw a serious wrench into her Olympic plans. The problem was pressure, not in the sense of what’s comes with the prospects of winning or losing in competition, but the massive gravitational force that sliders feel and fight through when they are on the ice at speeds often topping 80mph. It takes tremendous strength, and Sweeney’s neck still isn’t always up to the challenge. So, with wear and tear of the season taking a toll, she headed home.

“It’s not a question of if I’m good enough,” said Sweeney, who won a medal at last season’s world championships — cementing her status as one of the fastest women on ice. “I see it in my splits. I would have first-place splits, then get to the pressure and I ended up 15th. I just couldn’t keep going through this cycle of pushing it, pushing it, pushing it and then losing all my speed as soon as I can’t hold my head up anymore.”

So she’s working on her body and her mind.

Sweeney is one of the most-upbeat sliders on the luge circuit; always smiling, always happy, and most of the time her good mood is genuine. After the crash, however, the good mood wasn’t always there, and it took Sweeney some time to realize that there was more wrong than just the fractures in her neck and back.

“I went into a depression,” Sweeney said. “It’s weird saying that. But it feels foreign to me to say I broke my neck and my back two years ago. And it feels dramatic to say, which I guess I need to just get more comfortable with that. But I think that just the way I was raised was like, ‘All right, brush it off and move on.’ And that’s why I think I appear a lot of times like it’s just sunshine and rainbows, but this one forced me to stop. But you have to. And the alternative is to stay at that low and that just becomes miserable.”

From therapy came a plan: Do one thing a day to feel better toward the ultimate goal of medaling in 2022.

Most days, she succeeds. When Sweeney is right, especially in sprint events, few women in the world have a chance of catching her. Her sliding career is peaking. Her mental game, she thinks, is catching up.

And now she’s got two years to put the whole package together.

“Being an Olympian was my dream since I was 7 years old,” Sweeney said. “And then I became an Olympian, and I said, ‘Well, that’s not enough. I want a medal.’”

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