U.S.’ ‘most improved’ gymnast hopes to best Gabby Douglas at American Cup

Maggie Nichols
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NEWARK, N.J. — Maggie Nichols will walk into the Prudential Center for the AT&T American Cup on Saturday (NBC and NBC Sports Live Extra, 1 p.m. ET) more than ready to compete against the Olympic all-around champion, her friend and usual teammate Gabby Douglas.

Nichols will have two very important things on her side: a mature new floor routine and the approval of U.S. national team coordinator Martha Karolyi.

In practice Thursday, Nichols did a run-through of her brand-new floor exercise, which has more of the Latin-inspired choreography that became her signature in 2015.

Her previous routine, which earned bronze at the 2015 World Championships, used a piece of paso doble music called “España Cañí.”

Her new music for 2016 — the music Nichols hopes to hear in Rio in August — is similar, “a tango-ish sort of thing,” she said.

“It’s still very new,” Nichols said Thursday, “so it won’t be as good as I probably can dance. I’ll try my best.”

The sophisticated routine reflects the grown-up athlete Nichols has become after her breakout 2015.

In August, she led after the first three of eight rotations at the P&G Championships, eventually finishing second behind Simone Biles and ahead of 2012 Olympians Douglas, Aly Raisman and Kyla Ross.

Two months later, she earned team gold and floor bronze in her World Championships debut in Glasgow, Scotland.

She also added high school graduate to her list of accomplishments, finishing classes at Roseville Area High in Minnesota in December.

She’s now focused entirely on gymnastics. Nichols plans to stay amateur and compete collegiately at Oklahoma in January 2017, after the expected post-Olympic whirlwind dies down.

While her résumé speaks for itself, it was the endorsement of Karolyi that marked her as a Rio contender.

“Maggie Nichols, the biggest improvement I can see in this quadrennium is her,” Karolyi said last August. “At the beginning, she was just average, new elite, two and a half, three years ago. And every year, very seriously, very committed, very dedicated, she worked her way, and I think at this moment she is showing definitely world-class gymnastics.”

Nichols feels she’s still improving.

“My skills are getting cleaner, and everything’s getting more powerful,” she said.

Karolyi’s feedback has been more about mentality, that she urged Nichols to “stay really focused and calm and do what I usually do.”

Not that Nichols or Karolyi are worried that she’ll falter under the pressure at the American Cup.

“Maggie never missed a routine last season in any competition,” Karolyi told USA Gymnastics. “She handles very well the pressure, and she is one of those girls who really likes to perform. Sometimes gymnasts get a little intimidated, but not her.”

Nichols isn’t thinking about the fact that she’ll be facing off with the reigning Olympic all-around champion on Saturday.

Though Douglas earned World Championships all-around silver behind Biles in October, Nichols posted an all-around score in the team final that would have won bronze in the individual final.

Does Nichols consider herself the favorite Saturday?

“I haven’t thought too much about it, but it’s my goal so that’d be really cool if it came out that way,” Nichols said.

A few months before the London Olympics, Douglas posted the highest score at the American Cup, but the win wasn’t official because she was competing as an exhibition athlete.

All four U.S. female all-around Olympic champions — Douglas, Nastia Liukin, Carly Patterson and Mary Lou Retton — won the American Cup the same year as their Olympic title.

Biles, the three-time U.S. and World all-around champion and Rio Olympic favorite, was not entered in the American Cup.

USA Gymnastics could enter a maximum of two gymnasts and wanted to get an early look at Douglas and Nichols.

Biles is slated to make her 2016 debut at the Jesolo Trophy in Italy in two weeks.

MORE: Mary Lou Retton reflects on American Cup win 

Correction: Due to an editing error, Maggie Nichols was incorrectly credited with posting a higher World Championships all-around score than Gabby Douglas in an earlier version of this post.

Alexa Knierim, Brandon Frazier top pairs’ short at U.S. Figure Skating Championships

Alexa Knierim, Brandon Frazier
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World champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier lead after the pairs’ short program in what may be their last U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

Knierim and Frazier, who last March became the first U.S. pair to win a world title since 1979, tallied 81.96 points to open the four-day nationals on Thursday.

They lead by 15.1 over Emily Chan and Spencer Howe going into Saturday’s free skate in San Jose, California. The top three teams from last year’s event — which Knierim and Frazier missed due to him contracting COVID-19 — are no longer competing together.

After nationals, a committee selects three U.S. pairs for March’s world championships in Japan.

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Full Scores | Broadcast Schedule

Before the fall Grand Prix Series, the 31-year-old Knierim said this will probably be their last season competing together, though the pair also thought they were done last spring. They don’t expect to make a final decision until after a Stars on Ice tour this spring.

“I don’t like to just put it out there and say it is the last or not going to be the last because life just has that way of throwing curveballs, and you just never know,” Frazier said this month. “But I would say that this is the first nationals where I’m going to go in really trying to soak up every second as if it is my last because you just don’t know.”

Knierim is going for a fifth U.S. title, which would tie the record for a pairs’ skater since World War II, joining Kyoka Ina, Tai Babilonia, Randy Gardner, Karol Kennedy and Peter Kennedy. Knierim’s first three titles, and her first Olympics in 2018, were with husband Chris, who retired in 2020.

Knierim is also trying to become the first female pairs’ skater in her 30s to win a national title since 1993. Knierim and ice dancer Madison Chock are trying to become the first female skaters in their 30s to win a U.S. title in any discipline since 1995.

After being unable to defend their 2021 U.S. title last year, Knierim and Frazier reeled off a series of historic results in what had long been the country’s weakest discipline.

They successfully petitioned for an Olympic spot and placed sixth at the Games, best for a U.S. pair since 2002. They considered retirement after their world title, which was won without the top five teams from the Olympics in attendance. They returned in part to compete as world champions and to give back to U.S. skating, helping set up younger pairs for success.

They became the first U.S. pair to win two Grand Prix Series events, then in December became the first U.S. pair to make a Grand Prix Final podium (second place). The world’s top pairs were absent; Russians banned due to the war in Ukraine and Olympic champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong from China leaving competition ice (for now).

Knierim and Frazier’s real test isn’t nationals. It’s worlds, where they will likely be the underdog to home favorites Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara, who edged the Americans by 1.3 points in the closest Grand Prix Final pairs’ competition in 12 years.

Nationals continue with the rhythm dance and women’s short program later Thursday.

NBC Sports’ Sarah Hughes (not the figure skater) contributed to this report.

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2023 U.S. Figure Skating Championships scores, results

2023 U.S. Figure Skating Championships
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Full scores and results from the 2023 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in San Jose …

Pairs Short Program
1. Alexa Knierim/Brandon Frazier — 81.96
2. Emily Chan/Spencer Howe — 66.86
3. Ellie Kam/Danny O’Shea —- 65.75
4. Valentina Plazas/Maximiliano Fernandez — 63.45
5. Sonia Baram/Danil Tioumentsev —- 63.12
6. Katie McBeath/Nathan Bartholomay —- 56.96
7. Nica Digerness/Mark Sadusky — 50.72
8. Maria Mokhova/Ivan Mokhov —- 46.96
9. Grace Hanns / Danny Neudecker — 46.81
10. Linzy Fitzpatrick/Keyton Bearinger — 45.27
11. Nina Ouellette/Rique Newby-Estrella — 43.99

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Broadcast Schedule | New Era for U.S.

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