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Ashley Wagner, ‘a mess’ in most recent event, still the favorite at U.S. Champs

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Ashley Wagner goes into her 10th senior U.S. Championships next week with a lengthy two months of rest since her last competition, which happened to be the worst outing of her Grand Prix career.

Usually, Wagner would have skated at the Grand Prix Final in December, but because she finished a career-low sixth at a Grand Prix event in China in November, she failed to qualify for the six-skater Grand Prix Final for the first time since 2011.

All Wagner needed was a fourth place in China to book a final berth. That shouldn’t have been a very difficult task, given she took a world championships silver medal last season and won Skate America in October. Wagner was riding the best skating of her career into Beijing.

But her old nemesis, under-rotating jumps, emerged in China. She finished outside the top five for the first time in her 25 Grand Prix starts dating to 2007.

“I was really furious with myself for blowing an opportunity that was right there, and the door was wide open for me [to qualify for the Grand Prix Final],” Wagner said Tuesday, adding that she was mentally and physically tired in China, leading to “a mess” of a performance. “I could either be mad and sit at home and watch these girls, know that I can compete with them, [or] work harder so that going to worlds I can be a top athlete that is competitive with these up-and-coming ladies.”

The second half of Wagner’s season begins with next week’s U.S. Championships in Kansas City, where the now-relaxed skater hopes to win a fourth title in six years.

She went about a new technique of training jumps to increase her quick-twitch motion, hopefully leading to fully rotating them consistently.

“Mentally, I’m feeling very confident,” Wagner said. “At this point in my career it is very easy for me to get mentally worn out and worn down, but I usually feel strongest when my training is backing me up and when I know that I am physically fit.”

VIDEO: Kristi Yamaguchi previews nationals

The 25-year-old is the oldest and most accomplished contender in a weakened field.

Defending U.S. champion Gracie Gold struggled mightily in the fall. Polina Edmunds, the U.S. silver medalist last season, hasn’t competed in one year due to a foot injury and has already pulled out of nationals.

But Wagner, perhaps still thinking about China, wouldn’t say she’s the favorite.

“The door is wide open for everyone,” she said. “I think that there is no obvious or clear front-runner. … I’m competing against myself, because I’m usually my own worst enemy at nationals. If I think about everybody else, that’s not going to help me.”

U.S. Figure Skating will choose three women after nationals to send to the world championships in Helsinki in March. Wagner will make a sixth straight worlds team with a top-three finish in Kansas City, and perhaps still be selected with a lower result.

Kansas City is a bit of a homecoming for Wagner. It’s one of the nine places she lived in a 10-year span growing up in a military family. She says it’s where her Olympic dream began, watching on TV as Tara Lipinski took gold at the 1998 Nagano Winter Games when Wagner was 6.

Wagner realized that dream by making the Sochi Olympic team — despite finishing fourth at nationals. She doesn’t intend for her career to end at next year’s Olympics.

“That puts so much pressure on an athlete to make it a dream season of all seasons,” Wagner said of making retirement plans. “If I feel like I’m still building and still improving, and I have something left to give, then by all means I’m going to keep on skating, because that’s how crazy I am about this sport. At the same time, I’m not the kind of athlete, I don’t ever want to be around long enough to watch my career dwindle out. So, for me, I’ll know when the time comes, but I’m not planning on retiring after the Olympics.”

MORE: Polina Edmunds out of U.S. Championships

Matthew Centrowitz redeems, Jenny Simpson upset at USATF Outdoors

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Matthew Centrowitz won his fifth U.S. 1500m title, while Jenny Simpson‘s run of four straight ended at the USATF Outdoor Championships in Des Moines on Saturday.

Centrowitz, who in Rio became the first U.S. Olympic 1500m champion in 108 years, emerged from a bunched pack in the final 200 meters to win in 3:43.37.

The 28-year-old returned to the top after being beaten by Olympic teammate Robby Andrews last year. Centrowitz struggled with injuries and illness in 2017, including an emergency-room visit with a viral infection. At 2017 Worlds, a listless Centrowitz was last in his first-round heat and said he was unable to get more than two straight weeks of healthy training all season.

Centrowitz crossed the Drake Stadium finish line Saturday afternoon, a comfortable .26 ahead of Izaic Yorks, and held his hand to his ear to mimic a phone call. He said he was sending a message for somebody, whom he would not name, to call him.

“Satisfaction out there,” Centrowitz told Lewis Johnson on NBC. “A little sense of relief, get back on top.”

Simpson, the Olympic bronze medalist, was beaten by Olympic 5000m runner Shelby Houlihan for the second time this season. The Sioux City native Houlihan surged past Simpson on the final straight, just as she did at the Pre Classic last month.

“I’m totally bummed, but I guess I have a lot of practice at losing as well as winning,” Simpson told media in Des Moines. “It felt a little weird being at U.S. Championships and getting outkicked.”

Houlihan won in 4:05.48, .73 ahead of runner-up Simpson.

“I feel like she’s way ahead of me,” Houlihan said of Simpson. “She’s someone I’ve looked up to since high school.”

An American record fell Saturday. Deanna Price took the women’s hammer record back from Gwen Berry with a 78.12-meter throw, the best in the world this year.

USATF Outdoors conclude Sunday on NBC (4-6 p.m. ET) and NBC Sports Gold (12:30-6 p.m.), highlighted by 200m, 5000m and 110m hurdles finals.

USATF Outdoors: TV Schedule | Results | Women’s Preview | Men’s Preview

Also Saturday, Shakima Wimbley and Kahmari Montgomery won their first U.S. titles in the 400m.

Wimbley prevailed in 49.52, lowering her personal best by .66, tying the fastest time in the world this year and torching a field lacking the last two world champions, Phyllis Francis and Allyson Felix. Wimbley showed promise at the Pre Classic last month, finishing third behind Olympic champion Shaunae Miller-Uibo and Francis.

Montgomery clocked 44.58 to win, two weeks after finishing seventh at the NCAA Championships for the University of Houston. The men’s field lacked 2008 Olympic champion LaShawn Merritt and Michael Norman, the fastest man in the world this year who opted to race the 200m this week.

World-record holder Kendra Harrison repeated as 100m hurdles champion. Harrison clocked 12.46, off of her world record of 12.20. Olympic champion Brianna McNeal, who beat Harrison in Shanghai on May 12, was not in the field.

World gold and silver medalists Emma Coburn and Courtney Frerichs went one-two in the 3000m steeplechase. Coburn, the Olympic bronze medalist, earned her seventh national title in eight years by clocking 9:17.70. She pulled away from Frerichs on the last lap to win by .99. Nobody else finished within 15 seconds.

“[Frerichs] gave me a run for my money,” Coburn, who has been beaten by a countrywoman once in eight years, said on NBC. “This is going to be a battle that’s worth watching for years to come.”

In the pole vault, Olympic bronze medalist and world champion Sam Kendricks cleared 5.85 meters for his fifth straight U.S. title.

Vashti Cunningham repeated as high jump champion by clearing 1.95 meters. Cunningham, whose father and coach is retired NFL All-Pro quarterback Randall Cunningham, was 13th at the Olympics and 10th at the world championships.

Darrell Hill upset Olympic champion Ryan Crouser in the shot put, winning with a 21.57-meter throw. Hill improved to 3-17 against Crouser. Crouser came to Des Moines with the top 23 throws by an American this year out of his 24 total legal throws, according to Tilastopaja.org. But on Saturday he had five fouls in six throws. His only legal throw was 20.99 meters for second place.

NCAA runner-up Kenny Selmon won the 400m hurdles from lane eight against a field that lacked Olympic champion Kerron Clement. Selmon clocked 48.21 seconds, three tenths ahead of TJ Holmes, who was fifth at 2017 Worlds.

The favorites advanced to Sunday’s semifinals in the 200m and 110m hurdles, including 400m indoor world-record holder Michael Norman and Olympian Ameer Webb in the 200m and world-record holder Aries Merritt, Olympian Devon Allen and NCAA champion Grant Holloway in the hurdles.

MORE: Lyles, Norman, green teens at Olympic Trials, now stars at USATF Champs

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U.S. Open changes seeding policy for pregnancies

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Serena Williams will learn Wednesday if she is seeded at Wimbledon, while a top U.S. Open official is already reportedly saying its seeds will be revised if a return from pregnancy comes into play, though not naming Williams specifically.

The U.S. Open, the fourth and final Grand Slam tournament of the year in September, would “revise the seedings if pregnancy is a factor in the current rankings of a player,” USTA president and chairwoman Katrina Adams said, according to The New York Times.

Williams, a 23-time Grand Slam singles champion, was not given one of 32 seeds at the French Open in May, her first Grand Slam since coming back from having daughter Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jron Sept. 1.

Her ranking had fallen to No. 453 due to maternity leave. She could enter the major tournament due to the WTA’s protected ranking rule, but it was up to Grand Slam organizers whether to give her a seed.

Williams reached the semifinals of her last eight U.S. Opens, missing the New York event in 2010 and 2017. She has won it six times. Her current ranking is No. 183.

If Williams neither makes a deep Wimbledon run nor plays plenty of summer hard-court matches, it’s likely the U.S. Open will have to decide whether to give her a seed. It sounds like organizers are prepared to.

“It’s the right thing to do for these mothers that are coming back,” Adams said, according to the report, adding that players should not be “penalized” for starting a family.

Williams reached the fourth round of the French Open in her first Grand Slam since winning the 2017 Australian Open while pregnant (but before the world learned). She withdrew before a round of 16 showdown with Maria Sharapova due to a pectoral muscle injury and has not played in a tournament since.

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