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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

Penny Oleksiak edges Simone Manuel, Regan Smith sizzles again in Knoxville

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Penny Oleksiak and Simone Manuel nearly duplicated their Olympic gold-medal tie. The Canadian Oleksiak edged Manuel by .03 in the 100m freestyle at a Tyr Pro Series stop in Knoxville, Tenn., on Sunday night.

Oleksiak clocked 53.41 seconds, coming back from .37 behind Manuel at the 50-meter mark. The two tied for the Rio Olympic title in an Olympic record 52.70 seconds four years ago. Oleksiak was the surprise, a 16-year-old who came into the Games ranked eighth in the world for the year.

Since, Manuel swept the 2017 and 2019 World titles. Oleksiak was sixth at 2017 Worlds and withdrew before the 100m free at 2019 Worlds. She ranked 21st in the world last year. Oleksiak’s time Sunday was her fastest since 2017.

Full Knoxville meet results are here. The Pro Series’ next stop is Des Moines from March 4-7.

In other events Sunday, world-record holder Regan Smith won the 200m backstroke in 2:05.94, the fastest time ever outside of a national championships or major international meet. Smith, 17, achieved the same feat on Saturday in the 100m back, where she also broke the world record at last summer’s worlds.

Madisyn Cox won a matchup of the three fastest U.S. women in the 200m individual medley in 2019. She clocked 2:09.88, beating Alex Walsh by a half-second and Melanie Margalis by .54.

It was Cox’s fastest time since she took bronze at the 2017 World Championships. She missed the 2019 Worlds after failing a 2018 drug test over what she said was a contaminated multivitamin.

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Mikaela Shiffrin among favorites eliminated early in parallel giant slalom

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Mikaela Shiffrin was upset in the round of 16 of the first World Cup parallel giant slalom by unheralded Frenchwoman Clara Direz, who went on to earn her first win on Sunday.

Shiffrin had the fastest qualifying time but was bounced in the second round of head-to-head racing in Sestriere by Direz. Direz, 24, came into the day with a best career finish of seventh.

Direz was 16th-fastest in qualifying, 1.02 seconds behind Shiffrin combining times from two runs. Direz edged Shiffrin by .13 in their head-to-head run. Shiffrin appeared to be at a disadvantage being put on the red course, which produced just three winners among 20 one-run matchups.

“It is fun; I think I like the parallel GS actually more than the parallel slalom, but it’s a little bit difficult,” Shiffrin said. “I think there’s still a lot of work we have to do, and FIS [the International Ski Federation] has to do to really make the race as even as it can be because for sure you can see, there’s always a faster course. But today it’s like they’re not even the same course at all. Especially in the last four, five gates on the blue course, you can even see just looking up the hill that it’s straighter than the red course.

“Today I would say it’s a day where the luck [of which course you draw randomly] really plays a role.”

Direz eventually beat Austrian Elisa Moerzinger in the final. Direz was on the blue course for three of her four one-run rounds. Full results are here.

Higher-ranked racers used to be have their choice of courses in the parallel format.

“Maybe that wasn’t fair, either, but I think there must be a way to make it something that is more even, but at the same time, yeah, I don’t really have the answers on how to do that, either,” Shiffrin said. “It’s still in its infancy, this event.”

Shiffrin has a track record of success in parallel slaloms and similar city events, winning five of her last six starts. But the parallel GS proved problematic for the world’s best in slalom.

Swiss Wendy Holdener and Slovakian Petra Vlhova were also eliminated before the quarterfinals after being second- and third-fastest in qualifying. Holdener was also on the red course. Vlhova lost in the round of 32, when skiers were taking runs on both the blue and red courses.

Sestriere marked the last weekend of technical races (slaloms/giant slaloms) until mid-February. The next three weekends feature downhills and super-Gs. Shiffrin is expected to travel to Bansko, Bulgaria, for the first set on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

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