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

Takeaways from the abbreviated 2019-20 season in ski and snowboard sports

Chris Corning
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Most ski sports don’t hold world championships in even-numbered years, but the coronavirus pandemic brought World Cup campaigns to an early conclusion two years ahead of the Beijing Olympics.

With the seasons over, the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Team is collecting goggles to provide to health-care workers.

Here’s what we learned in various sports:

ALPINE: Mikaela Shiffrin has company 

The U.S. ski star was on pace to win her fourth straight World Cup season trophy before her father’s sudden passing in early February. She planned to return in March with an outside chance at keeping her title, but the remaining races of the season were canceled. Italy’s Federica Brignone took the trophy, with Shiffrin second.

While Shiffrin held a substantial lead in the World Cup before her hiatus, she wasn’t as unbeatable as she was in the 2018-19 season, when she won a staggering 17 times. That’s an impossible bar to clear, but Shiffrin’s rivals made up enough ground to make future World Cup season titles and the career win record seem less certain than they seemed a year ago.

In Shiffrin’s final slalom race, a discipline in which she has rarely lost in recent years, she placed third behind Slovakia’s Petra Vlhova and Sweden’s Anna Swenn Larsson. Ten days before that, she was second to Vlhova, whose progress impressed Shiffrin. That marked that first time since 2014 that she lost two straight slaloms in the same season. (She was second in the 2016-17 season finale and second again in the 2017-18 season opener, then won 12 of the next 13 slaloms.)

Shiffrin’s ability to get on the podium in any race, no matter the discipline, will make her the World Cup favorite for years to come. But the big prize won’t be as easy as she has made it seem in recent years, and at 66 career victories, she’ll need time to catch Lindsey Vonn‘s women’s record of 82 wins and Ingemar Stenmark‘s overall record of 86.

CROSS-COUNTRY: Diggins, Bjornsen stay in world’s elite 

Jessie Diggins will forever be remembered for winning the 2018 Olympic team sprint with Kikkan Randall as NBC’s Chad Salmela screamed “HERE COMES DIGGINS,” but she also has a strong World Cup resume that she continues to build.

Diggins finished sixth in the season standings for the second straight year, a drop from her second-place finish in 2018 but still comfortably in the top 10. She was joined there by Sadie Maubet Bjornsen, who eighth-place season put her in the top 10 for the second time.

Bjornsen led the three-stage season opener in Ruka, Finland, after taking third in the sprint and finished fourth overall, one place ahead of Diggins, who took third in the pursuit. Diggins added four more podium finishes before the end of the season.

NORDIC COMBINED: Norway takes control 

Jarl Magnus Riiber won his second straight World Cup title at age 22, with fellow Norwegian Joergen Graabak taking a career-high second. Two more Norwegians were in the top six Jens Luraas Oftebro (fourth) and Espen Bjoernstad (sixth). 

In women’s Nordic combined, which is on track to become an Olympic event, U.S. athlete Tara Geraghty-Moats was a close second to Russia’s Stefaniya Nadymova.

READ: Geraghty-Moats has eyes on 2026

SKI JUMPING: U.S. women shut out 

A decade after leading the charge to get women’s ski jumping in the Olympics and eight years after teenager Sarah Hendrickson won the World Cup, the U.S. women went a whole season without an athlete picking up World Cup points. Hendrickson postponed her retirement but competed only on the Continental Cup this season.

U.S. women also won two of the first three ski jumping world championships Lindsey Van in 2009 and Hendrickson in 2013.

In men’s jumping, Austria’s Stefan Kraft edged out Germany’s Karl Geiger to reclaim the World Cup title he last held in 2017. Geiger’s previous career best was 10th in 2019. Japan’s Ryoyu Kobayashi, last year’s champion, took third.

FREESTYLE SKIING: Blunck keeps flying

U.S. halfpipe skier Aaron Blunck followed up his second straight world championship in 2019 with his first World Cup season title. Blunck won both events in the U.S. — December’s competition at Copper Mountain and February’s event at Mammoth Mountain. 

Colby Stevenson (slopestyle) and Alexander Hall (big air) were second in their events. Hall won twice, landing a switch left double 1800 to win in the Atlanta Braves’ SunTrust Park. Stevenson also won at the X Games in Aspen.

In women’s competition, 18-year-old Marin Hamill was second in slopestyle, and Jaelin Kauf finished in the top three for the third straight year.

French skier Perrine Laffont had a dominant season in women’s moguls, winning all six regular moguls events and two of four dual moguls, to take her second straight World Cup title.

SNOWBOARDING: Corning wins in Atlanta and in World Cup

Atlanta’s SunTrust Park hosted a World Cup big air competition, with Chris Corning and Japan’s Reira Iwabuchi winning. Corning also won in Cardrona, New Zealand, and took his second big air season title to go along with slopestyle titles in 2016, 2018 and 2019.

Dusty Henricksen was third in World Cup slopestyle on the strength of a win at Mammoth Mountain, followed by fellow U.S. teen Justus Henkes.

U.S. women’s snowboarders Jamie Anderson and Julia Marino won the only World Cup slopestyle events each one entered. Anderson also won the X Games slopestyle.

Olympic and world halfpipe champion Chloe Kim sat out the season after breaking an ankle in March 2019 and enrolling at Princeton.

BIATHLON: Never count out Dunklee 

Susan Dunklee hasn’t had great success on the World Cup circuit since taking a world championship silver medal in 2017, when she finished a career-best 10th in the World Cup, but she once again took world championship silver in the sprint at Antholz.

Norway’s Johannes Thingnes Boe won the men’s World Cup title despite missing two weeks after the birth of his first child, edging Frenchman Martin Fourcade by two points to spoil the seven-time World Cup champion’s final season.

Boe won his second straight World Cup title, as did Italy’s Dorothea Weirer in the women’s competition.

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Simon Ammann ramps up for one more run at Olympic ski jumping

Simon Ammann
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Simon Ammann, the Swiss ski jumper who gained fame for his resemblance to Harry Potter in 2002 and went to win all four Olympic ski jumps on North American soil this century, has walked back talk of retirement and now says he wants to continue through the 2022 Olympics.

Ammann won the normal hill and large hill in Salt Lake City in 2002. European ski jumpers don’t necessarily get attention from U.S. talk shows, but the 20-year-old Ammann had two things that set him apart. First, his wins were tremendous upsets. Second, he looked like Harry Potter.

He wound up appearing on “The Late Show with David Letterman,” which makes him a wild-card connection in the Kevin Bacon game the peripatetic actor was the other guest on the show that night, and Ammann happily posed with Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick after the show.

Eight years later, Ammann duplicated the feat in Vancouver. This time, he left behind the Harry Potter glasses behind, though he made an enthusiastic walk through the mixed zone wearing comically oversized sunglasses that made him look like the Buggles’ Trevor Horn in the “Video Killed the Radio Star” video, the first music video on MTV.

In 2010, his victories weren’t quite as unexpected. He won the World Cup season title that year, sandwiched between two second-place finishes.

In 2002, on the other hand, he took off from the Olympic hill at Park City having never won a World Cup event. His two wins in the Olympics were his first two in any international competition in the FIS database.

Ammann has also had success in major competition in Asia. He took gold and silver in the 2007 world championships in Sapporo, Japan, the first two of his four career world championship medals. He also won a World Cup event in Sapporo in 2010.

In recent years, though, Ammann hasn’t been competitive on the World Cup circuit. He has been on the podium only once since 2015. Since taking his last major-event medal in 2011, his best result in the world championships was seventh place in 2013.

But he’s already shown he can, like Harry Potter, conjure a surprising performance.

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