U.S. Figure Skating Championships women’s preview

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For the last few years, the U.S. Championships has been all about the Ashley WagnerGracie Gold rivalry. While Wagner and Gold are both podium threats again this week, the individual story for each has taken interesting turns in the last year.

Recall that last year Wagner had to rally just to finish third at the U.S. Championships. But she followed that up with a silver medal at the world championships, becoming the first U.S. woman to earn an individual Olympic or worlds medal in a decade.

Then Wagner won Skate America in October. In her 10th senior season, Wagner seemed to have it figured out as much as ever. Until her next event in China in November, when Wagner finished sixth, her worst result in 25 career Grand Prix starts.

Which Wagner will show up in Kansas City?

Then there’s Gold, who won last year’s nationals with a magnificent free skate. Gold followed that by topping the short program at the 2016 World Championships, putting her in position to end the U.S. medal drought.

But Gold had the sixth-best free skate at worlds, stumbling to fourth place overall. The sting of that performance stayed with her for just about the rest of 2016. Gold struggled so much in the fall season that it wouldn’t be shocking to see her miss the nationals podium for the first time, and perhaps not make the three-woman world championships team.

Which Gold will show up in Kansas City?

Behind Wagner and Gold are skaters who have experienced up-and-down careers like 2010 Olympian Mirai Nagasu and Courtney Hicks as well as younger skaters who have developed in this Olympic cycle — Mariah BellKaren Chen and Amber Glenn.

Who knows how they will perform under the pressure of a U.S. Championships, one year before the Olympics.

“The ladies is a real mixed bag,” NBC Olympics analyst Johnny Weir said.

Thursday
Women’s short program — 9:30 p.m.-midnight ET, NBCSN | STREAM LINKSTART ORDER
Saturday
Women’s free skate — 8-11 p.m. ET, NBC | STREAM LINK

MORE: U.S. Championships broadcast schedule
PREVIEWS: Men | Women | Pairs | Ice Dance

Ashley Wagner
Age: 25
Hometown: Los Angeles
2016 World silver medalist
Three-time U.S. champion

Wagner can become the oldest U.S. women’s champion since 1927. If she skates like she did at Skate America, that should be enough. Wagner’s score there was the highest by an American woman this season by nearly five points, and she wasn’t even at her best. If she skates like she did last time out at Cup of China in November, Wagner will not win her fourth national title this week.

Johnny Weir’s Take: The clear favorite. She has had the most consistent and promising season of the U.S. ladies, despite the fact that she didn’t make the Grand Prix Final. Her consistency has been head-and-shoulders above that of Gracie Gold. If she skates the way Ashley Wagner skates, given Gracie Gold’s instability lately, it is her title to lose.

MORE: Wagner, Chen share ice, favorite status for U.S. Champs

Gracie Gold
Age: 21
Hometown: Los Angeles
Two-time U.S. champion
Fourth at 2014 Olympics, 2015 World Championships, 2016 World Championships

Gold mulled skipping the fall season, still depressed after falling off the worlds podium. After lacing up her skates, she finished fifth and eighth in her two Grand Prix starts, then a desultory sixth at a lower-level event in December that caused her to seek out an old coach for desperate help. Gold echoed renewed confidence in speaking to the media last week, but will it translate to her programs?

Tara Lipinski’s Take: You never really know which form Gracie is going to show up in. The only thing that’s really blocking her is the mind. That can always turn around very quickly. It’s much harder to turn around a technical problem.

MORE: Gold finally forgives herself for worlds failure

Mirai Nagasu
Age: 23
Hometown: Colorado Springs
2008 U.S. champion
Fourth at 2010 Olympics

With Gold’s struggles and the absence of Olympian Polina Edmunds, Nagasu is arguably a top-three favorite this week. Especially if she attempts and hits the triple Axel she’s been practicing. What a comeback it could be for Nagasu, who won her only U.S. title nine years ago and last qualified outright for a worlds team in 2010.

Tara Lipinski’s Take: She’s always the wild card. She’s been in it so long. She trains so hard, and she wants it so badly. When you look at her track record, it sort of seems that one competition she does well, the next one is a disaster.

Mariah Bell
Age: 20
Hometown: Lakewood, Calif.
2016 Skate America silver medalist

Bell is this year’s new face. She finished second to her new training partner Wagner at Skate America with the second-best total score by a U.S. woman this season. However, Bell scored 24 fewer points at her most recent competition in November.

Tara Lipinski’s Take: She’s flying under the radar. It’s all fitting together for her right now. This is a key chance for her to make her mark at nationals, especially depending on what Gracie skates like.

Courtney Hicks
Age: 21
Hometown: Aliso Viejo, Calif.
2016 Rostelecom Cup bronze medalist
2015 NHK Trophy silver medalist

Hicks is an annual name on the contender list but has never capitalized on her athleticism to land in the U.S. Championships top three in four appearances. Hicks and Wagner are the only U.S. women to make Grand Prix podiums in both of the last two seasons, but her top total score this season ranks sixth among U.S. women.

Karen Chen
Age: 17
Hometown: Riverside, Calif.
2015 U.S. bronze medalist

Chen stunned by taking bronze at nationals two years ago, becoming the youngest woman to finish that high since Nagasu took the title in 2008. Chen hasn’t followed that up with much international success, but she still has time to develop.

Amber Glenn
Age: 17
Hometown: Dallas
2014 U.S. junior champion

Glenn showed up on the radar by topping Gold at a lower-level event in December. Her score there ranks her No. 5 among U.S. women this season, and she’s the only contender on this list who hasn’t competed in the Grand Prix series. See how she fares with a little more attention this week.

MORE: Polina Edmunds’ injury keeps her out for a year … and counting

Shelby Houlihan shatters American 5000m record

Shelby Houlihan
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Shelby Houlihan chopped 10.52 seconds off her own American 5000m record, clocking 14:23.92 at a Bowerman Track Club intrasquad meet in Portland, Ore., on Friday night.

Houlihan, who was 11th in the Rio Olympic 5000m, has in this Olympic cycle improved to become one of the greatest female distance runners in U.S. history.

She first broke Shannon Rowbury‘s American record in the 5000m by 4.47 seconds in 2018. In 2019, she broke Rowbury’s American record in the 1500m by 1.3 seconds in finishing fourth at the world championships in 3:54.99.

On Friday, Houlihan and second-place Karissa Schweizer both went under the American record. Schweizer, 24 and three years younger than Houlihan, clocked 14:26.34, staying with Houlihan until the winner’s 61-second final lap.

“I knew Karissa was going to try to come up on me and take the lead. She does that every time,” Houlihan told USATF.tv. “I had decided I was not going to let that happen.”

Houlihan improved from 41st to 12th on the world’s all-time 5000m list, 12.77 seconds behind Ethiopian Tirunesh Dibaba‘s world record.

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Can T.J. Oshie, other established Olympic hockey stars hold on for 2022?

T.J. Oshie
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T.J. Oshie will be 35 years old during the next Winter Olympics. Jonathan Quick will be 36. Now that the NHL is one key step closer to returning to the Winter Games, the question surfaces: which 2014 Olympians will have a difficult time returning to rosters in 2022?

Oshie was the last of the 14 forwards chosen for the U.S. Olympic team for Sochi, beating out Bobby Ryan and Brandon Saad, in part for his shootout prowess.

In group play against Russia, Oshie was memorably tapped by U.S. head coach Dan Bylsma six times in a shootout, including all five in the sudden-death rounds. Oshie beat Sergei Bobrovsky four times, including the game winner.

“After I went out for my third attempt, I figured I was going to keep going,” Oshie said, according to USA Hockey. “Each time I would look up to see what [Bylsma] had to say, and he would just give me a nod every time. I kind of started laughing toward shot five and six because it was getting kind of ridiculous.”

Oshie became known as “T.J. Sochi” on social media. President Barack Obama congratulated him on Twitter. The U.S. eventually lost to Canada in the semifinals and Finland in the bronze-medal game.

When the NHL chose not to send its players to the PyeongChang Winter Games, it may have spelled the end of Oshie’s Olympic career.

Consider that the oldest forward on the 2014 U.S. Olympic team was 29, six years younger than Oshie will be come 2022. A recent Olympic roster prediction from The Hockey Writers put Oshie in the “Just Missed Out” list.

NBC Sports NHL analyst Pierre McGuire has Oshie among the finalists for the last forward spots in his early U.S. roster prediction.

“I wouldn’t discount T.J. Oshie because shootout is still part of it,” McGuire said. “He still has his shootout moves, even though he’s not getting any younger.”

Quick, the unused third goalie in 2010, played 305 out of 365 minutes in net for the U.S. in Sochi. He was coming off a Stanley Cup in 2012 and en route to another one in 2014.

Since, he was sidelined by a knee injury that required surgery. He remains the Los Angeles Kings’ No. 1 goalie, which almost automatically puts an American in the Olympic roster discussion these days.

“Somebody like Jonathan definitely merits consideration just because of his achievement level over time, but I think he’d be the first person to tell you injuries have definitely affected him,” McGuire said of Quick, looking to become the second-oldest U.S. goalie to play in the Olympics after Tom Barrasso in 2002. “It’s not going to be easy for him.”

The U.S. could bypass Quick for three Olympic rookies in 2022. Connor Hellebuyck, John Gibson and Ben Bishop have superior save percentages and goals-against averages and more games played than Quick since the start of the 2018-19 season.

A wild card is Spencer Knight, the 19-year-old No. 1 from the world junior championships who last year became the highest-drafted goalie since 2010 (No. 13 to the Florida Panthers). Knight would break defenseman Bryan Berard‘s record as the youngest U.S. Olympic hockey player in the NHL era.

The Canadian roster has traditionally been deeper than the U.S. The talent is overwhelming at center, led by Sidney CrosbyConnor McDavidPatrice Bergeron and Nathan MacKinnon. The Canadians must get creative if the likes of veterans Jonathan Toews and John Tavares will join them in Beijing.

Toews, then 21, was the best forward at the 2010 Vancouver Games and Canada’s only one on the all-tournament team. While Toews’ last NHL All-Star selection was in 2017, his last two seasons have been his best in terms of points per game since 2011.

“The one thing that Canada is very good at, they do it extremely well, they select players that fit roles,” McGuire said, noting Mike Richards shifting to the wing during the 2010 Olympics. “When you look at the overwhelming depth that Canada has, that’s going to be the thing that’s going that’s going to be very interesting to watch to see how it plays out at center.”

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