Yevgenia Medvedeva tops worlds short; Ashley Wagner not top American

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Russian Yevgenia Medvedeva took magnificent and relaxed first steps toward becoming the first repeat women’s world figure skating champion since 2001, topping the short program with a near-record score in Helsinki on Wednesday.

The 17-year-old tallied 79.01 points skating clean, highlighted by a triple flip-triple toe loop jump combination. She leads by 3.03 points over Canadian Kaetlyn Osmond heading into Friday’s free skate. Another Canadian, Gabrielle Daleman, is third.

Surprise U.S. champion Karen Chen is in fifth after the best short of her international career — 69.98 points — in her worlds debut.

Chen is two spots ahead of 2016 World silver medalist Ashley Wagner, who had 69.04 points. Wagner, at her seventh world championships, scored 4.11 more points last year, when she was in fourth after the short.

The other American, Mariah Bell, is 13th.

The top two U.S. placements after the free skate must add up to no more than 13 in order for the U.S. to earn the maximum three spots at the 2018 Olympics. They are currently at 12.

Full worlds short program results are here.

Later Wednesday, the pairs short program produced surprises. The two-time defending world champions placed seventh. The only Olympic medalist pair in the field was 13th.

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Medvedeva, who has lost once in two seasons as a senior skater, is noted for her motivation to set personal bests. She missed her short-program world record by two tenths on Wednesday, and, unsurprisingly, reacted to her score by exchanging words with her coach before the customary smile.

“They were good scores,” Medvedeva said later in a press conference, via translator. “I will try to give the maximum in the free skate.”

Medvedeva prepared for her title defense by listening to music throughout the day — K-pop — before taking the ice at 3:30 p.m. local time.

After her typical, class-of-its-own skate, she showed the calm and laughter of a veteran skater, chuckling several times during the press conference. Even speaking some English.

It would be a shock if Medvedeva doesn’t become the first repeat world champ since Michelle Kwan. She would complete the most dominant two seasons since Katarina Witt in the 1980s.

“Last year I didn’t quite understand what was happening because it was my first world senior championship,” Medvedeva said. “Now I don’t feel any pressure”

Medvedeva had the highest scores for technical elements (jumps and spins) and artistic components (transitions, interpretation of music, etc.), again showcasing her overall dominance. She admires both aspects. She was asked, too, to name an expressive skater whom she admired.

“I can’t right now name anyone for the past, but I would like to point out Ashley Wagner,” Medvedeva said. “Ashley is able to portray any kind of character in the music. She can be lyrical. She can be totally different.”

Wagner had a clean skate Wednesday, but received lower grades of execution for her jumps. She tweeted “3 points” afterward, referencing her deficit from third place and a spot on the podium going into the free skate.

“I know that I am in fighting distance,” she said. “I really do not have that much to catch up on.”

Chen, the surprise U.S. champion, tallied a personal best by 5.52 points with a clean short program in her world championships debut. Despite her national title, Chen was the biggest question mark of the U.S. women coming into worlds, seeded 17th in the field among best international scores this season.

“I did realize that there is a lot more pressure here, but I didn’t want to let it affect me,” said Chen, who seems past the flu, nerves and boot problems that plagued her in a 12th-place finish at the Four Continents Championships in February. “[Four Continents] was a wake-up call for me.”

Bell, the U.S. bronze medalist and also a worlds rookie, scored 61.02, putting both hands on the ice on her opening triple-triple jump combination.

“Short has this season been a program that has been a little more mentally challenging for me,” she said.

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MORE: U.S. pairs skater back from life-threatening condition

Women’s Short Program
1. Yevgenia Medvedeva (RUS) — 79.01
2. Kaetlyn Osmond (CAN) — 75.98
3. Gabrielle Daleman (CAN) — 72.19
5. Karen Chen (USA) — 69.98
7. Ashley Wagner (USA) — 69.04
13. Mariah Bell (USA) — 61.02

Simone Biles returns to the gym, going from mental drain to physical pain

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For Simone Biles, this was supposed to be the stretch run of a legendary career.

Instead, she returned to her gym on May 18 with long-term thoughts of waiting 14 months until the Tokyo Olympics. And the immediate aches of a world-class gymnast who just missed nearly two months of regular training.

“After that amount of time off, it kind of sucks because your body hurts and then you get really sore,” Biles said in a pre-recorded ESPNW interview that aired Thursday. “So you just have to get back into the swing of things. But it felt nice to see my coaches, my teammates, and just to be back on the equipment and in the environment.”

In that same Texas gym three months ago, Biles had a far different outlook. One that would have put fear into any gymnast who still harbored ambition of ending her near-seven-year win streak.

“I never felt more ready this early in the season,” she said. “I was so ready for the Olympics to be this year.”

Biles repeated in interviews the last two months that the Olympic postponement to 2021 was devastating. Thoughts zig-zagged: How do I go on another year, at age 23, in a sport recently dominated by (but not limited to) teenagers?

“I’m getting pretty old,” she said in the interview published Thursday. “Will I be at the top of my game?”

Biles proved the last two years — after a year off — that she can win — and comfortably — while not at her best. She grabbed the 2018 World all-around title by a record margin — with two falls. Last year, she became the most decorated gymnast in world championships history. In Tokyo, she can become the first woman to repeat as Olympic all-around champion, and the only one older than 20, in more than 50 years.

This for a gymnast whose early goal was to earn a college scholarship. Biles did, to UCLA, but had to give it up by turning professional.

“So I’ve exceeded that,” Biles said. “And then I wanted to go to world championships and Olympics, and I’ve been to five worlds and one Olympic Games. So, I’d be more than happy [to walk away].”

After gymnastics, Biles has another goal — to be a voice for foster kids. She was in foster care multiple times before being adopted at age 6 by grandparents Ron and Nellie.

Those plans, along with so much else for Biles and so many others, have been pushed back a full year.

“I was already being mentally drained and almost, not done with the sport, but just going into the gym and feeling tired and being like, OK, I’m going to get my stuff [done], get out,” she said. “We have this one end goal, and now that it’s postponed another [year], it’s just like, how are we going to deal with that? We’re already being drained, and so it’s to keep the fire in the sport within yourself alive.”

MORE: Top U.S. gymnasts disagree with Tokyo Olympic age rule

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2022 Pan Pacific Championships canceled as swimming calendar shifts

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The Pan Pacific Swimming Championships, a quadrennial major international meet, will not be held in 2022 “out of respect for the recent changes to the international sporting calendar,” according to a press release.

The Pan Pacs’ charter nations — the U.S., Australia, Canada and Japan — agreed to the move. The 2026 event will be held in Canada, which was supposed to be the 2022 host.

The decision came after the 2021 World Championships were moved to May 2022, following the Tokyo Olympics moving from 2020 to 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic. The quadrennial multi-sport Commonwealth Games — which includes Australia and Canada, but not the U.S. or Japan — are scheduled for July 27-Aug. 7, 2022.

“Organizing a third major championships in that window presented several challenges,” according to the Pan Pacs release.

Pan Pacs mark the third-biggest major international meet for U.S. swimmers, held in non-Olympic, non-world championships years.

MORE: Caeleb Dressel co-hosts a podcast. It’s not about swimming.

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