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Assessing the Grand Prix figure skating season at the halfway point

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The Grand Prix figure skating season — whose results are the best indicators of favorites for national and world championships — is at its midpoint.

Skate America, Skate Canada and Rostelecom Cup are behind us. Trophée de France, Cup of China and NHK Trophy are ahead, followed by the Grand Prix Final (six skaters per discipline) in December.

The U.S. Championships are in January, followed by the world championships in Helsinki in late March and early April.

With the Olympics a 15 months away, jockeying for position this season is more important than the previous two. Here is where things stand for each discipline:

MEN
Top Grand Prix Scores
1. Javier Fernandez (ESP) — 292.98 (Rostelecom Cup)
2. Shoma Uno (JPN) — 285.07 (Rostelecom Cup)
3. Shoma Uno (JPN) — 279.34 (Skate America)
4. Jason Brown (USA) — 268.38 (Skate America)
5. Patrick Chan (CAN) — 266.95 (Skate Canada)
6. Yuzuru Hanyu (JPN) — 263.06 (Skate Canada)
7. Adam Rippon (USA) — 261.43 (Skate America)

Top U.S. Grand Prix Scores
1. Jason Brown — 268.38 (Skate America)
2. Adam Rippon— 261.43 (Skate America)
3. Max Aaron — 235.58 (Rostelecom Cup)
4. Timothy Dolensky — 226.53 (Rostelecom Cup)
5. Grant Hochstein — 204.69 (Skate Canada)

What’s remarkable here is the progression in scores in the last three seasons. Two years ago, the top men’s score after the third Grand Prix was 269.09. Last year, it was 271.14.

Uno was the best skater in September and October, winning all three of his events, but Fernandez looked more like a world champion in his debut last weekend. The Olympic champion Hanyu is a notoriously slow starter. His Skate Canada score was actually higher than his Grand Prix debuts in 2014 and 2015.

We’ll have a better sense of the American picture after Nathan Chen makes his Grand Prix season debut in France this week. Chen, 17 and the youngest man to finish top three at the U.S. Championships since 1973, beat Patrick Chan at a lower-level event in October.

WOMEN
Top Grand Prix Scores
1. Yevgenia Medvedeva (RUS) — 220.65 (Skate Canada)
2. Anna Pogorilaya (RUS) — 215.21 (Rostelecom Cup)
3. Kaetlyn Osmond (CAN) — 206.45 (Skate Canada)
4. Ashley Wagner (USA) — 196.44 (Skate America)
5. Yelena Radionova (RUS) — 195.60 (Rostelecom Cup)
6. Satoko Miyahara (JPN) — 192.08 (Skate Canada)
7. Mariah Bell (USA) — 191.49 (Skate America)

Top U.S. Grand Prix Scores
1. Ashley Wagner — 196.44 (Skate America)
2. Mariah Bell — 191.49 (Skate America)
3. Gracie Gold — 184.22 (Skate America)
4. Courtney Hicks — 182.98 (Rostelecom Cup)
5. Mirai Nagasu — 151.42 (Skate Canada)

Medvedeva hasn’t lost in one year and seems unlikely to follow the trend of recent Russian stars who flamed out after one strong season (2015 World champion Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, 2014 Olympic champions Yulia Lipnitskaya and Adelina Sotnikova). She picked up at Skate Canada right where she left off at the world championships last season.

Wagner and Pogorilaya, who joined Medvedeva on the worlds podium last April, won the other two Grand Prix events in the first half. The surprise has been Osmond, who tacked 30 points onto her personal-best total score in this her fourth season of international competition.

Wagner is still the class of the U.S. group, in part because Gold is off to a slow start (fifth at Skate America) after taking much of the summer off from training. U.S. silver medalist Polina Edmunds isn’t competing in the Grand Prix season due to a foot injury. If Gold or Edmunds is not back and in top form at the U.S. Championships in January, Bell is looking like the most promising riser in several years.

Pairs
Top Grand Prix Scores
1. Meagan Duhamel/Eric Radford (CAN) — 218.30 (Skate Canada)
2. Aliona Savchenko/Bruno Massot (GER) — 207.89 (Rostelecom Cup)
3. Yu Xiaoyu/Zhang Hao (CHN) — 202.08 (Skate Canada)
4. Natalya Zabiyako/Alexander Enbert (RUS) — 197.77 (Rostelecom Cup)
5. Julianne Séguin/Charlie Bilodeau (CAN) — 197.31 (Skate America)
6. Haven Denney/Brandon Frazier (USA) — 192.65 (Skate America)
7. Lubov Ilyushechkina/Dylan Moscovitch (CAN) — 190.22 (Skate Canada)

Top U.S. Scores
1. Haven Denney/Brandon Frazier — 192.65 (Skate America)
2. Haven Denney/Brandon Frazier — 188.23 (Skate Canada)
3. Tarah Kayne/Danny O’Shea — 173.50 (Skate America)
4. Marissa Castelli/Mervin Tran — 171.95 (Skate America)

Duhamel and Radford may well be en route to a third straight world title (not done in pairs since 1978). Not only did they win Skate Canada for a third straight year, but the two pairs who joined them on the 2016 World Championships podium aren’t competing in the Grand Prix season. Neither are Olympic champions Tatyana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov due to pregnancy.

However, Savchenko and Massot raised eyebrows by attempting a throw quadruple Salchow at the end of their Rostelecom Cup free skate. If they can control it — Savchenko fell in Moscow — the gap to the Canadians closes considerably.

The U.S. is once again lacking pairs consistency. The top Americans from the last two worlds, Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim, are out due to Scimeca’s health problems. The surprise 2016 U.S. champions, Kayne and O’Shea, were beaten at Skate America by Denney and Frazier, who sat out last season after Denney blew out her right knee.

Ice Dance
Top Grand Prix Scores
1. Tessa Virtue/Scott Moir (CAN) — 189.06 (Skate Canada)
2. Madison Chock/Evan Bates (USA) — 188.24 (Skate Canada)
3. Yekaterina Bobrova/Dmitry Soloviyev (RUS) — 186.68 (Rostelecom Cup)
4. Maia Shibutani/Alex Shibutani (USA) — 185.75 (Skate America)
5. Piper Gilles/Paul Poirier (CAN) — 182.57 (Skate Canada)
6. Madison Chock/Evan Bates (USA) — 182.13 (Rostelecom Cup)
7. Anna Cappellini/Luca Lanotte (ITA) — 180.35 (Skate Canada)

Top U.S. Scores
1. Madison Chock/Evan Bates — 188.24 (Skate Canada)
2. Maia Shibutani/Alex Shibutani — 185.75 (Skate America)
3. Madison Chock/Evan Bates — 182.13 (Rostelecom Cup)
4. Madison Hubbell/Zachary Donohue — 175.77 (Skate America)
5. Kaitlin Hawayek/Jean-Luc Baker — 162.19 (Skate Canada)

The two-time reigning world champions, France’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, make their Grand Prix season debut this week. In their absence, the dance results have gone pretty much to form. Virtue and Moir, the 2010 Olympic champions who sat out the previous two seasons, impressed by beating two-time world medalists Chock and Bates on home ice at Skate Canada.

In the U.S., Chock and Bates and the Shibutani siblings remain in close contention in the early national title handicapping. Hubbell and Donohue finished right behind them at the last four U.S. Championships. That doesn’t figure to change in January. As the U.S. should get three couples at the 2018 Olympics, Hubbell and Donohue will be very interested if Meryl Davis and Charlie White decide to return next season.

MORE: Figure skating season broadcast schedule

FIFA rules on Olympic men’s soccer tournament age eligibility

Gabriel Jesus
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For the first time since 1988, some 24-year-olds will be eligible for the Olympic men’s soccer tournament without using an over-age exception.

FIFA announced Friday that it will use the same age eligibility criteria for the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 that it intended to use in 2020 — that players born on or after Jan. 1, 1997 are eligible, plus three over-age exceptions. FIFA chose not to move the birthdate deadline back a year after the Olympics were postponed by one year.

Olympic men’s soccer tournaments have been U-23 events — save those exceptions — since the 1992 Barcelona Games. In 1984 and 1988, restrictions kept European and South American players with World Cup experience ineligible. Before that, professionals weren’t allowed at all.

Fourteen of the 16 men’s soccer teams already qualified for the Games using players from under-23 national teams. The last two spots are to be filled by CONCACAF nations, potentially the U.S. qualifying a men’s team for the first time since 2008.

The U.S.’ biggest star, Christian Pulisic, and French superstar Kylian Mbappe were both born in 1998 and thus would have been under the age limit even if FIFA moved the deadline to Jan. 1, 1998.

Perhaps the most high-profile player affected by FIFA’s decision is Brazilian forward Gabriel Jesus. The Manchester City star was born April 3, 1997, and thus would have become an over-age exception if FIFA pushed the birthdate rule back a year.

Instead, Brazil could name him to the Olympic team and still keep all of its over-age exceptions.

However, players need permission from their professional club teams to play in the Olympics, often limiting the availability of stars.

MORE: Noah Lyles details training near woods, dog walkers

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Jenny Thompson’s new team is on the front line fighting coronavirus

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Two weeks ago, Jenny Thompson, the 12-time Olympic swimming medalist turned anesthesiologist, told close friends about the worrisome situation at her hospital in Charleston, S.C.

Thompson and her perioperative team of 40 or 50 were stressed that they would not have the most effective personal protective equipment (PPE) for when the coronavirus pandemic peaks there, projected to be later this month.

The messages caused fellow former Stanford swimmers and Olympic teammates Gabrielle Rose and Lea Maurer to act.

“She almost never asks for any sort of help or support,” Maurer said. “She’s Herculean in her ability to take on life and all its challenges.”

Rose and Maurer started a GoFundMe titled “Go Jenny Go” on March 22 for help to purchase PPE for the hospital. At the time, critical care doctors were “scrambling to piece together purchases on their own in anticipation of their high risk patients,” Maurer wrote.

Thompson said the PPE situation is better now. The GoFundMe was suspended Wednesday. Future support is directed to help those in New York City. Thompson specifically noted a GoFundMe for NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and the COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund.

More than $9,000 was raised in less than two weeks. Also, the hospital started receiving more PPE on its own. Thompson’s team now feels prepared for what’s to come.

“People were responding and donating from all chapters of my life,” Thompson said by phone Thursday. “People I didn’t even know. Family from USA Swimming and international swimming. It’s really touched me to know that so many people care and are able to donate, help share the message.”

Thompson woke at 4 a.m. several days this week with thoughts of her peers in New York City. Healthcare workers there have cited a lack of PPE in putting their own lives at risk while they fight to save others. Some have contracted the virus.

“We’ve been fortunate [in South Carolina]. I feel lucky,” Thompson said. “We’ll definitely be in a place where we’re taking care of a lot of Covid patients, but we’re not there yet.

“I’ve heard people say, people in healthcare knew what they were signing up for. I never signed up to get sick and potentially die from this job. I always assumed that I would have the protection or the supplies needed to help me do my job, and that’s been a real struggle nationwide.”

Thompson went to medical school in New York at Columbia University starting in 2001.

“I’d been there maybe a couple weeks at Columbia, when 9/11 happened,” she said. “I remember feeling very helpless as a first-year medical student. I wanted to help so badly, but there really wasn’t much I could do. All my classmates felt the same way. I’ve always had that as part of the making of me as a doctor, having to go through crisis, but I never imagined a pandemic. I guess some people prepare for this sort of thing their whole life, but I didn’t.”

The term “front lines” has been applied to healthcare workers around the globe. Thompson said it’s apt at her hospital.

“We definitely have Covid here, but we have not had a major outbreak like some other cities,” she said. “We consider every patient who we give general anesthesia and intubate to be a potential risk. As anesthesia providers and people who intubate the airway, we are on the front line. We are at a much higher risk of getting sick without the right PPE.”

Thompson’s team feels more ready for the peak with every passing day. They’re simulating, donning and doffing and scheduling to work longer shifts starting next week. The preparation extends home, where she has a husband and three children.

“I have, like, four different pairs of shoes,” Thompson said. “I spray my socks with fabric disinfectant. I take them off in the car, and then I put on flip-flops. Then when I get home, I shower and put my clothes in the wash immediately. It’s a strange place to be, but just consider everything I touch to be contaminated in an effort to protect myself.”

Both Rose and Maurer still see in Thompson that swimmer who awed them in college. As Thompson trained to become the most decorated female U.S. Olympian in history, she studied at Stanford and then Columbia to become a doctor.

“I knew I wanted to take care of critically ill patients,” she said.

As a swimmer, Thompson was known as the ultimate teammate. Eight Olympic gold medals in relays, often an anchor. Always there. Dependable.

“She knows that she’s going to make a difference,” Maurer said. “She knows that she’s going to achieve that goal. She knows that she’s going to help to make people better. And so she does it.”

Thompson believes the next few weeks will be unlike anything she’s ever faced.

“Everybody was sort of freaking out in the beginning and feeling very stressed, and I think that at some level has not gone away,” she said. “That’s going to stay with us, but we have a we-can-do-this-together fighting mentality that we are leaning on each other for. It’s really no different than being a part of any kind of team.”