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

Tommy Ford ends U.S. men’s World Cup drought at Beaver Creek

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Tommy Ford earned his first World Cup win at age 30 and ended the U.S. men’s longest victory and podium droughts in two decades.

Ford won the giant slalom in Beaver Creek, Colo., on Sunday, the last North American race on tour this season. He prevailed by eight tenths of a second combining times over two runs.

“It doesn’t beat doing it here. I’ve been working hard,” Ford, in his 86th World Cup start dating to 2009, said on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA. “No secret, just kept it simple and really trusted what I was doing.”

Norwegians Henrik Kristoffersen and Leif Kristian Nestvold-Haugen were second and third. American Ted Ligety, fourth after the opening run, finished 11th.

Full results are here.

Ford became the first U.S. man to win a World Cup since Travis Ganong took a downhill on Jan. 27, 2017. He also became the first U.S. male podium finisher since Ligety in January 2018. Both were the longest droughts for the program since the late 1990s.

Ford, a 2010 and 2018 Olympian who missed the 2014 Olympics due to a broken femur, had been working toward this moment.

He finished a World Cup career-high fourth at the season-opening giant slalom in Soelden, Austria, on Oct. 27. Last season, the Oregon native and former Dartmouth student had a pair of fifths.

The men’s World Cup moves to Val d’Isere, France, next weekend for a giant slalom and slalom.

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Katie Ledecky wins race by 30 seconds, takes back No. 1 ranking

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In her last race of the year, Katie Ledecky ensured she would finish 2019 as the world’s fastest 1500m freestyler.

Ledecky clocked 15:35.98 at the U.S. Open in Atlanta, winning the longest event on the Olympic pool program by 29.97 seconds. Typical for Ledecky, who owns the nine fastest times in history. This one came in at No. 8. Full meet results are here.

Ledecky scratched the 1500m free final at the summer world championships due to illness. Italian Simona Quadarella went on to win that title in 15:40.89, which was the world’s fastest time this year until Saturday night.

“I didn’t have time on my mind at all today. I just wanted to have a consistent swim,” Ledecky, undefeated in 1500m free finals for nine years, said on NBCSN. “That’s probably the best mile that I’ve had in a while.”

The women’s 1500m freestyle debuts at the Olympics in Tokyo. Ledecky is expected to add that to her Rio Olympic individual lineup of 200m, 400m and 800m frees, assuming she is top two in each event at the June Olympic trials.

In other events Saturday, Erika Brown handed Simone Manuel a rare defeat in the 100m freestyle. Brown, a University of Tennessee senior, clocked 53.42 and lowered her personal best by .71 between prelims and the final. Brown moved from sixth to fourth in the U.S. rankings this year, upping her stock as a contender to make the Olympic 4x100m free relay pool via a top-six finish at trials.

Brown previously lowered her personal best in the 50m free on Thursday. She ranks third in the U.S. this year in that event.

Emily Escobedo dealt Lilly King a rare domestic defeat in the 200m breaststroke. Escobedo lowered her personal best by .87 and clocked 2:22.00, moving to seventh fastest in the world this year and remaining fourth among Americans.

In the men’s 200m breast, Olympic champion Dmitriy Balandin of Kazakhstan was beaten by Cody Miller, the Olympic 100m breast silver medalist. Both were slower than their best times this year.

The next significant swim meet is a Tyr Pro Series stop in Knoxville, Tenn., from Jan. 16-19.

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