Karen Chen holds off Ashley Wagner for shocking U.S. title

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KANSAS CITY — Karen Chen was as surprised as anyone that she won the U.S. title.

“I’m just in complete shock,” said Chen, who was eighth last year. “It was hard for me to believe that this day would come.”

Chen, 17, overcame nearly two seasons’ worth of struggles to win her first national championship Saturday night. She posted the highest short-program and free-skate scores and topped a field that included three Olympians.

Most notably Ashley Wagner, who finished second, 2.44 points behind. Wagner, a three-time U.S. champion and 2016 World silver medalist, just missed becoming the oldest women’s gold medalist in 90 years.

Wagner didn’t seem to mind her first U.S. silver medal, though, because she’s surely going to be on the three-woman world championships team named Sunday.

“This is perfect for me,” said Wagner, who came into the week as the clear favorite. “It gives me the opportunity to go in [to the world championships] with my head down and keep on working. I know where I lost my points. … I’m not planning on peaking here.”

Mariah Bell, who shares a coach with Wagner, jumped from sixth after the short program to finish third and likely lock down the last worlds spot. Full results are here.

Gracie Gold, who finished fourth at the Olympics and the last two worlds, tumbled to sixth place and is likely to miss worlds for the first time in her five-year senior career. Gold reflected on her disastrous season afterward.

It was also a heartbreaking day for 2010 Olympian Mirai Nagasu, who fell from second after the short program to finish fourth, 3.02 behind Bell.

Nagasu had four of her jumps called under-rotated in her free skate. Nagasu was heartbreakingly left off the 2014 Olympic team. It looks like she finished one spot shy of making the worlds team, which is chosen by a committee.

“I am speechless,” Nagasu said. “I knew I was ready, and I just didn’t deliver tonight. … This isn’t the way I wanted it to go, but I think that people are defined by how they react to things.”

Like Chen. The Fremont, Calif., native burst onto the scene two years ago, finishing third at nationals behind Wagner and Gold at age 15.

She was too young to be selected for the 2015 Worlds team. Little had been heard about Chen since (though plenty has been from U.S. men’s leader Nathan Chen, also 17 years old but unrelated).

She dropped to eighth at the 2016 U.S. Championships and came into Kansas City as the seventh-ranked U.S. woman this season. Struggling to find comfortable boots — a common skater problem — has plagued her. She went through 14 pairs in a four-month stretch.

But Chen felt plenty comfortable Thursday, performing a rare clean program for the lead.

“I skated the short of my dreams,” Chen said. “I wanted to follow it up with a close to perfect long.”

It was pretty darn close. Chen landed all of her jumps clean, including seven triples.

“This moment was something that I really dreamed about,” Chen said. “It was far from reality.”

Wagner will likely be leading a world championships team with two rookies in Chen and Bell.

It’s the most pressure-packed worlds of the four-year cycle, because the skaters’ placements determine how many Olympic spots each nation receives.

To ensure the maximum three spots at the Olympics, the top two U.S. finishers at worlds must add up to no more than 13 (sixth and seventh, for example).

Japan and Russia will send three skaters each with the talent to finish in the top five. Canadian champion Kaetlyn Osmond is also a medal threat. Wagner, sitting next to Chen and Bell, stressed that they should “tune out the noise” going into the biggest competition of their careers.

“It is so easy to be devoured by you guys because you all have eaten me alive before,” Wagner, who made her worlds debut in 2008, told the media. “Karen just has to deliver what she did here, Mariah has to do the same thing, and we’ll be set.”

Earlier Saturday, Maia and Alex Shibutani were beaten in the free dance but held on to repeat as U.S. championsHaven Denney and Brandon Frazier were the best of a flawed pairs field to earn their first U.S. title.

The U.S. Championships conclude Sunday with the men’s free skate (4 p.m. ET, NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app). Nathan Chen, 17, is in position to become the youngest U.S. men’s champion in 51 years.

Check out NBCsports.com/USFIGS for all-access coverage all weekend.

VIDEO: Tara Lipinski reflects on winning 1997 U.S. title at age 14

Mark Spitz takes on Katie Ledecky’s challenge

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Swimmers around the world took on Katie Ledecky‘s milk-glass challenge since it became a social media sensation, including one of the few Americans with more Olympic gold medals.

Mark Spitz, who won seven golds at the 1972 Munich Games, took 10 strokes in an at-home pool while perfectly balancing a glass of what appeared to be water on his head.

“Would’ve been faster with the ‘stache, @markspitzusa, but I still give this 7 out of 7 gold medals,” Ledecky tweeted.

Spitz joined fellow Olympic champions Susie O’Neill of Australia and American Matt Grevers in posting similar videos to what Ledecky first shared Monday.

In Tokyo next year, Ledecky can pass Spitz’s career gold-medal count of nine if she wins all of her expected events — 200m, 400m, 800m and 1500m freestyles and the 4x200m free relay.

Then she would trail one athlete from any country in any sport — Michael Phelps, the 23-time gold medalist who has yet to post video of swimming while balancing a glass on his head.

MORE: Spitz puts Michael Phelps’ career in perspective

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Serena Williams, reclusive amid pandemic, returns to tennis eyeing Grand Slam record

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Serena Williams travels with “like 50 masks” and has been a little bit of a recluse since early March and the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I don’t have full lung capacity, so I’m not sure what would happen to me,” Williams said Saturday, two days before the start of the WTA’s Top Seed Open in Lexington, Ky., her first tournament since playing Fed Cup in early February. “I’m sure I’ll be OK, but I don’t want to find out.”

Williams, 38, has a history of blood clots and pulmonary embolisms. She faced life-threatening complications following her Sept. 1, 2017, childbirth that confined her to a bed for six weeks. She said her daily routine was surgery and that she lost count after the first four.

More recently, Williams enjoyed “every part” of the last six months at home in Florida, her longest time grounded since her teens.

“I’ve been a little neurotic, to an extent,” on health and safety, she said. “Everyone in the Serena bubble is really protected.”

Williams is entered to play next week in Lexington and at consecutive tournaments in New York City later this month — the Western & Southern Open and U.S. Open, the latter starting Aug. 31.

Williams is the highest-ranked player in the Lexington field at No. 9. Others include 2017 U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens, older sister Venus Williams and 16-year-old Coco Gauff.

She has been bidding ever since having daughter Olympia to tie Margaret Court‘s record 24 Grand Slam singles titles, albeit many of Court’s crowns came before the Open Era and, notably at the Australian Open, against small fields lacking the world’s best players. Williams reached the last two Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals, losing all of them.

She showed her seriousness in committing early to this year’s U.S. Open by installing a court at home with the same surface. Three of the top 10 female singles players already said they will skip the U.S. Open due to travel and/or virus concerns, including No. 1 Ash Barty.

“Tennis is naturally a socially distanced sport, so it was kind of easy to go back and just walk on my side of the court and have my hitter walk on his side of the court,” Williams said.

The French Open starts two weeks after the U.S. Open ends. Williams was asked if she will fly to Europe for tournaments this autumn.

“I see myself doing it all, if it happens,” she said.

The Tokyo Olympics are too far away to make plans.

“We’ll have to kind of wait to see what happens in the fall,” she said. “One thing I have learned with this pandemic is don’t plan.”

MORE: Past U.S. Open champions get wild cards

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