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Heather Bergsma wins world title, could be top U.S. medalist in 2018

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After a disappointing Sochi Olympics, speed skater Heather Bergsma could be setting up for a historic rebound in PyeongChang.

The American reinforced her dominance in the 1000m at the World Single Distance Championships at the 2018 Olympic venue on Saturday, winning by .49 of a second in Gangneung, South Korea.

“I had hoped to [win], but I wasn’t sure what the other skaters were going to do,” Bergsma said. “I try not to hear times [of other skaters] before I went, because I just wanted to focus on myself.”

Japan’s Nao Kodaira, who won the 500m in Gangneung on Friday, took silver behind Bergsma. Dutchwoman Jorien ter Mors earned bronze after relegating Bergsma to silver in the 1000m and 1500m a year ago.

Full world championships results are here. NBCSN, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app will air coverage Saturday at 6:30 p.m. ET.

Bergsma will skate in the 1500m, her favorite race, and the mass start on the last day of worlds on Sunday, likely dueling with the Netherlands’ Ireen Wuest for gold in the former. Wuest, the most decorated woman across all sports in Sochi with five medals, won the 3000m at worlds on Thursday.

Bergsma could very well be the top U.S. medal winner across all sports in PyeongChang. The medal-projection service Gracenote has her winning three medals next year — gold in the 1000m and 1500m and bronze in the 500m. No American in any sport won more than two medals in Sochi. No American has won three medals with two gold at a Winter Olympics since Eric Heiden swept the five speed skating events in Lake Placid in 1980.

Bergsma has been on a tear since finishing seventh, seventh and eighth in her three individual races in Sochi as part of U.S. speed skating’s much-publicized failure for multiple reasons. She went into those Winter Games favored to become the first U.S. woman to win an Olympic speed skating medal since 2002.

“Really motivated, I just want to come back and prove that I can do it,” said Bergsma, a former inline skater from North Carolina who made her Olympic debut in 2010.

She moved to the Netherlands two months after Sochi and married Dutch Olympic 10,000m champion Jorrit Bergsma, who had proposed to her in April 2013 by etching “Will You Marry Me?” into Myrtle Beach sand on a family vacation. Bergsma is still learning the native language. On Saturday, she answered the first few questions in an interview with Netherlands broadcaster NOS in Dutch, then switched to English.

“I can understand it really good, but speaking, especially after a race, all the words just disappear,” Bergsma later said in a phone interview, adding that she takes hourlong Skype lessons five days per week.

In the last three seasons, Bergsma broke the 1000m and 1500m world records and won world titles in the 500m and 1000m. Teammate Brittany Bowe snatched the 1000m mark eight days after Bergsma reset it, but Bowe is out due to effects from a July concussion. Bergsma has not been as strong in the 500m this season and finished eighth in the worlds race Friday.

Bergsma used the 500m this week as “a wake-up to the system.” Training more endurance in recent years, her opening 100-meter times have slowed, and she’s less able to keep up with the sprint specialists.

“In the first 100 meters I’m losing half a second,” she said. “When you have an extra lap there or two in the 1500m, you’re able to relax more and keep the speed better. I feel better in the 1000m, but the 1500m is still one of my favorites.”

Bergsma could skate in five events at the Olympics — 500m, 1000m, 1500m, team pursuit and mass start — but the 500m is droppable given its place on the schedule, one day before the team pursuit begins. If Bergsma cedes the 500m, she would have at least one day off between each event in PyeongChang.

Also Saturday, four-time Olympic medalist Shani Davis placed fifth in the men’s 1000m, .72 of a second behind winner Kjeld Nuis, the World Cup leader from the Netherlands. Canadian Vincent De Haitre took silver, followed by another Dutch skater, Kai Verbij.

The Czech Republic’s Martina Sablikova won her 11th straight Olympic or world title in the 5000m. Germany’s Claudia Pechstein, a 44-year-old with nine Olympic medals, took silver, 1.55 seconds behind.

Jorrit Bergsma took silver, 5.06 seconds behind Sven Kramer in the 10,000m. Bergsma was one second faster than Kramer through 23 of 25 laps in the grueling, 13-minute race, before fading horribly in the last 800 meters.

MORE: 18 U.S. Olympic hopefuls to watch for PyeongChang

WATCH LIVE: U.S. Figure Skating Championships rhythm dance, women’s free skate

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Can Bradie Tennell hold off 14-year-old Alysa Liu? The U.S. Figure Skating Championships crowns its female medalists on Friday, live on NBC Sports.

Action starts with the rhythm dance at 4:30 p.m. ET for NBC Sports Gold subscribers, with NBCSN broadcast coverage joining in at 5. The women start at 7:25 on Gold, with NBC TV coverage starting at 8.

LIVE STREAM: Rhythm dance — Gold | NBCSN | Skate Order
LIVE STREAM: Women’s free skate — Gold | NBC | Skate Order

Tennell topped Thursday’s short program with a clean slate of jumps, plus the highest artistic score.

She bettered Liu in the short program last year, too, but fell in the free skate to take silver. Liu, meanwhile, landed two triple Axels to win by 3.92 points and become the youngest U.S. champion in history.

Another skater to watch is Gracie Gold, the two-time U.S. champion competing at nationals for the first time in three years. Gold, lauded for her return from an eating disorder, depression and anxiety, struggled with jumps in the short and is in 13th place of 18 skaters.

In the rhythm dance, past U.S. champions Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue and Madison Chock and Evan Bates are expected to begin a duel that should come down to Saturday’s free dance.

Key Skate Times
5:32 p.m. — Madison Hubbell/Zachary Donohue
5:38 — Kaitlin Hawayek/Jean-Luc Baker
5:44 — Madison Chock/Evan Bates
8:07 — Gracie Gold
10:03 — Karen Chen
10:11 — Amber Glenn
10:27 — Bradie Tennell
10:35 — Mariah Bell
10:43 — Alysa Liu

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NATIONALS: TV Schedule | Full Results

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

Iran’s only female Olympic medalist, who defected, eyes Tokyo Games as German or refugee

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LÜNEN, Germany (AP) — Iran’s only female Olympic medalist said Friday she wants to compete for Germany after defecting from her native country.

Kimia Alizadeh is trying to rebuild her life and career after she announced this month she had left Iran, citing sexism on the part of officials there.

“Even if I do not make it to the Olympics, it does not matter because I have made up my mind,” Alizadeh said at a meeting with journalists at a taekwondo club.

“I am sure that I will be judged by many, but I am just 21 years old and can attend world tournaments and future Olympics. However, I will spare no effort to get the best result at this time as well.”

She added she doesn’t expect ever to compete in Iran again.

Alizadeh was just 18 when she won bronze in taekwondo at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, catapulting her to instant fame at home. Despite Iran’s long history of victories in men’s wrestling and weightlifting, no Iranian woman had ever won a medal before.

However, Alizadeh was frustrated with life in Iran despite her Olympic success. In an Instagram post this month announcing she had left Iran, she accused Iranian officials of sexism and criticized wearing the mandatory hijab headscarf.

Alizadeh hasn’t given up hope of being able to compete at this year’s Olympics in Tokyo. However, getting there would require highly unusual exemptions from the usual rules on nationality switches and qualification, regardless of whether she tries to represent Germany or the International Olympic Committee’s refugee team.

Alizadeh spent time in the Netherlands before heading to Germany this week to meet with taekwondo officials there. The German Taekwondo Union has spoken up in favor of Alizadeh staying in the country in what it calls a first step toward her gaining nationality and becoming eligible to compete for Germany.

“If the German government assists me and I can go through this process as fast as possible, I might be able to make it to the Olympics, too,” she said.

In recent years, many Iranian athletes have left their country, citing government pressure. In September, the former world judo champion Saeed Mollaei moved to Germany after walking off the Iranian team at the world championships in Japan. He said Iranian officials had tried to force him to withdraw so as not to compete against an Israeli opponent.

Alireza Faghani, an Iranian international soccer referee, also left Iran for Australia last year.

Alizadeh said she just wants “a peaceful life,” and she’s not looking back.

“I have a great feeling to have made a decision for my life that would definitely change my future,” she said. “I think it is not even clear enough now and. in the years to come, I will understand what a good decision I made.”

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MORE: Full list of U.S. athletes qualified for Tokyo Olympics