Yuzuru Hanyu
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Is Yuzuru Hanyu beatable? World Championships men’s preview

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BOSTON — This edition of the World Figure Skating Championships could be billed as the greatest three-man competition in 28 years. Except one skater is in a class of his own.

Three different men’s World champions from the last three years will go head-to-head-to-head at Worlds for the first time since 1988 this week in Boston.

There is defending champ Javier Fernandez of Spain. There is three-time World champion Patrick Chan of Canada, at his first Worlds since his last title in 2013.

And then there is the man who deserves his own paragraph, Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu, the Olympic and World champion of 2014.

Three men from three continents, but one is the clear gold-medal favorite.

“There’s definitely people that can take the title from Yuzu,” NBC Olympics analyst Johnny Weir said, “but at this point it’s definitely his to lose.”

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Hanyu, a 21-year-old who trains in Toronto under 1988 Olympic silver medalist Brian Orser (one of that 1988 Worlds trio), had actually been beaten in four of his last five top-level international competitions going into November.

But he soared at his next two fall events, shattering Chan’s 2013 record for most points in the decade-old judging system (by a whopping 27.13) at NHK Trophy in Japan. And bettering that by another 8.03 at the Grand Prix Final in Barcelona, where he distanced second-place Fernandez by 37.48 points.

“When he skates well and clean, it is untouchable,” NBC Olympics analyst Tara Lipinski said. “But we’ve seen Yuzu fall apart or make several mistakes or get sloppy.”

Like in his last two defeats.

Chan outscored Hanyu in both programs at Skate Canada in October, in the Canadian’s first top-level competition since taking double silver at the Sochi Olympics. Hanyu stood sixth in the short program after receiving zero points for two of his three jumping passes, then fell on a triple Lutz in the free skate.

At last year’s Worlds, Fernandez became the first Spaniard to take the title. Hanyu fell on his lone quadruple jump attempt in the free skate, as Fernandez overtook him in Shanghai.

And in Hanyu’s last competition, the Japanese Championships on Christmas weekend, he fell three times over two programs (but still won by 19.21).

“He isn’t faultless,” Weir said. “It would definitely take a real disaster of a performance for him not to be the front-runner, not to have that victory almost assured. But if he is a little bit off, Patrick Chan and Javier Fernandez both showed really stong performances at the Europeans [in January] and Four Continents [Championships in February].”

True. In their aforementioned most recent competitions, Fernandez put down his highest-scoring short program ever (a total bettered only by Hanyu under this system), and Chan recorded his best free skate ever (again, bettered only by Hanyu in this decade).

Soon but unlikely this week, Hanyu, Fernandez and Chan could be rivaled by a pair of 18-year-olds for gold.

China’s Jin Boyang landed six quads at the Four Continents Championships, finishing second to Chan.

Japan’s Shoma Uno, the reigning World junior champ, arrived on the senior stage by beating Fernandez and Chan at the free skate-only Japan Open exhibition in October. Then he kept Chan off the podium at the Grand Prix Final in December.

“Jin Boyang in particular, he’s got the technical firepower, but the artistry, no matter how well he jumps, his artistry is what brings him off the podium,” Weir said. “Shoma Uno is wonderful technically and artistically. It’s going to be about controlling his nerves and keeping it all together.”

A medal is not expected from the U.S. contingent of national champion Adam RipponMax Aaron and Worlds rookie Grant Hochstein. In Rippon and Aaron’s five combined Worlds appearances, the best finish was Rippon’s sixth in 2010.

Rippon has backed off from February hopes of adding a quadruple toe loop or a quadruple Salchow to his quadruple Lutz. He said after practice Monday at TD Garden that he plans only the Lutz and only in the free skate.

Rippon, still the only man to win back-to-back World junior titles (2008 and 2009), is strong in other areas such as spins. But even he recognized the void when asked what one thing he would take from Hanyu, Fernandez or Chan’s bags of tricks.

“I would take their quads,” he said. “But I hope that if I took it, they wouldn’t have it back.”

The key for the U.S. men will be the number 13. If the top two U.S. men’s placements this week add up to greater than 13, the U.S. will downsize from three men to two for the 2017 World Championships.

That means that one of Rippon, Aaron and Hochstein must finish sixth or better to have any shot at meeting a combined 13.

“A big ask,” Weir said. “If everyone skates their best … that really puts the United States men looking at a top-10 finish almost as if it would be like winning a medal.”

Here are Lipinski and Weir’s medal predictions from last week:

Lipinski
Gold: Hanyu (JPN)
Silver: Fernandez (ESP)
Bronze: Chan (CAN) or Uno (JPN)

Weir
Gold: Hanyu (JPN)
Silver: Chan (CAN)
Bronze: Fernandez (ESP)

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Ragan Smith finds joy in college gymnastics after life-changing decision

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Ragan Smith, after her first two weeks of college gymnastics, quickly pointed out the coolest part of competing for the Oklahoma Sooners. It’s the noise that erupts on the last pass of her floor exercise, or upon her dismount off the uneven bars or balance beam.

They are similar sounds to what drew her to commit to Oklahoma back in 2015, when she was 15 years old.

“The girls in practice were all cheering for each other,” she recalled in a phone interview earlier this month.

Last spring, Smith called Oklahoma coach K.J. Kindler with a request. The Texan wanted to enroll at OU that summer, a year earlier than planned. Originally, Smith committed to the university with the intention of deferring until after the 2020 Olympic season.

Smith, a Rio Olympic alternate in her first year at the senior elite level, began this Olympic cycle in 2017 by winning the U.S. all-around title. Granted, the triumph came during Simone Biles‘ one-year break. But consider that Smith’s margin of victory — 3.4 points — was greater than Biles’ average margin for her four national titles from 2013-16.

Everything changed for Smith on Oct. 6, 2017. Minutes before she was to compete as the favorite in the world championships all-around, she suffered an ankle injury warming up on vault (reportedly three torn ligaments). She was withdrawn from the meet and fought injuries for the rest of her elite career.

In calling Kindler last spring, Smith signaled she was ready to move on from Olympic-level or “elite” gymnastics. It is possible for collegians to compete at U.S. Championships or Olympic trials, but no woman with NCAA experience has made any of the last three Olympic teams.

“I felt like my time was done in elite,” said Smith, whose mother and aunt competed for Auburn and Maryland, respectively. “I really just wanted to move on with my life and everything.”

Kindler was walking in an academic center on campus when Smith called her last spring.

“[Smith] said, ‘I was in the shower, and I was thinking, and I think I really, really want to come,'” Kindler said. “‘My body is ready to be done with elite gymnastics, and my mind is ready to move forward, and I would love to come to school this year. Is there a spot for me?’

“We saved a spot in case she changed her mind [about waiting until after the Olympics], but the plan was always for her to defer. We never talked about anything else, so I was very surprised by the phone call.”

Kindler urged Smith to think it over. Discuss it with her elite coach, 1991 World all-around champion Kim Zmeskal.

“[Zmeskal] and I had a really good understanding of what Ragan’s goals were, which is why I think it had to be Ragan’s decision,” Kindler said. “I didn’t want to place any influence on anything. Kim thinks the world of Ragan. She was in full support. Her and I texted back and forth and spoke about it. She said she wanted Ragan to think about it a little bit, and she did do that, and still had decided that this was for her. I think Kim supported that decision, just as I said I would support whatever she wanted to do.”

Smith shared the news on July 7.

“I have moved on from the 1st chapter of my life and on to the 2nd,” was posted on her Instagram, accompanied by a photo of her in a crimson leotard. “I am so excited to be joining the class of 2019.”

Smith joined the defending national champion program, one that captured three of the last four NCAA titles. By enrolling a year early, Smith gets to be teammates with senior Maggie Nichols.

Nichols was second to Biles at the 2015 U.S. Championships, making her a bona fide contender for the Rio Olympic team. Early in 2016, Nichols tore a meniscus on a vault landing and underwent arthroscopic knee surgery. She announced retirement from elite gymnastics two days after finishing sixth at the Olympic trials, one spot behind Smith, and not being named to the Olympic team.

Last season, Nichols became the first woman to repeat as NCAA all-around champion in 12 years.

Smith said she has already benefited from Nichols’ experience, coming to her with questions to aid her transition.

“What an incredible opportunity to have Ragan and Maggie on the same team,” Kindler said.

The Sooners are 9-0 this year and 26-0 since the start of 2019. Smith was named Big 12 Newcomer of the Week each of the season’s first three weeks. Not incredibly surprising, given Smith’s pedigree.

Perhaps more notable: Kindler said Smith hasn’t had a single ankle problem since arriving in Norman in July.

Back in August 2018, Smith said the ankle still hurt sometimes, that she had not completed a practice without pain that whole year and a coach joked to her, “You already have a 100-year-old body.”

Smith is competing easier routines collegiately than as an elite, as is the norm. But Kindler found that her passion for the sport has not waned.

“As an elite athlete, you don’t necessarily have to learn anything when you come to college,” Kindler said. “In fact, you can scale back what you’re doing, but I feel like she has a real eagerness to continue to refine what she’s doing and to learn new skills. She wants to continue to get better, and I love that about her.”

At her first college meet, Smith remembered the feeling of adrenaline brought on by competing not just for herself, but for women with whom she will call teammates week in and week out for the coming years.

“I didn’t want to let go of elite because it’s been, like, my whole life and my dream and everything,” said Smith, who was inspired by McKayla Maroney‘s 2012 Olympic vault and then had a dog named Rio. “But at the same time, my mind was telling me to come to college and have fun. I’m glad I made that decision, because I love it here.”

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Dustin Johnson wonders if Olympic golf will properly fit into his schedule

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Dustin Johnson, the world’s fifth-ranked golfer, said he isn’t sure the Tokyo Olympics will fit well into his schedule, assuming he qualifies for what will be a very competitive U.S. team of four.

“Obviously representing the United States in the Olympics is something that, you know, definitely be proud to do,” he said when asked if the Ryder Cup and the Olympics are goals this year. “But is it going to fit in the schedule properly? I’m not really sure about that, because there’s so many events that are right there and leading up to it. So you know, I’m still working with my team to figure out what’s the best thing for me to do.”

Johnson, the 2016 U.S. Open winner and world No. 1 in 2017 and 2018, is the third-highest ranked American at the moment behind Brooks Koepka (who also spoke about the Olympics on Tuesday, saying they’re not as important as majors) and Justin Thomas.

Johnson is ranked one spot ahead of Tiger Woods, who has voiced intent to play in Tokyo should he qualify.

But the current world rankings, based on a two-year, rolling window of results, do not exactly mirror Olympic qualifying, which takes into account only results after the 2018 U.S. Open. Rankings guru @VC606 on Twitter has Thomas, Koepka, Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay as the current U.S. top four in Olympic qualifying. Woods is fifth and Johnson seventh.

The cutoff to determine the Olympic field of 60 golfers overall is after the U.S. Open in June.

The Olympic golf tournament is July 30-Aug. 2. There is no PGA Tour event that weekend. The FedEx Cup Playoffs start two weeks after the Olympics. Last season, Johnson did not play the tournaments that will immediately precede and follow the Olympics — the 3M Open and the Wyndham Championship.

Johnson did qualify for the Rio Olympics but withdrew a month before the Games, citing Zika virus concerns as other golfers did.

“This was not an easy decision for me, but my concerns about the Zika virus cannot be ignored,” Johnson said in a statement at the time. “[Wife] Paulina and I plan to have more children in the near future, and I feel it would be irresponsible to put myself, her or our family at risk.”

Paulina gave birth to their second son in June 2017.

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