Yevgenia Medvedeva repeats as world champ; Karen Chen saves U.S.

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With another record score, Russian Yevgenia Medvedeva became the first female figure skater to repeat as world champion since Michelle Kwan in 2001 in Helsinki on Friday.

U.S. champion Karen Chen, in her worlds debut, finished fourth to clinch the maximum three 2018 Olympic spots for the U.S. women.

The skaters to fill those spots will be announced after the January 2018 U.S. Championships.

Chen is now the front-runner after her surprise U.S. title in January and the struggles of 2016 World silver medalist Ashley Wagner (seventh at these worlds) and two-time U.S. champion Gracie Gold (failed to make worlds) this season.

There is no doubting Medvedeva, a 17-year-old who enjoys cartoons and K-pop, is the clear favorite for Olympic gold in PyeongChang.

Medvedeva smashed her world record for free-skate and total scores Friday, ending up with a flawless seven triple jumps and 233.41 points. She won by a whopping 13.28 points over Canadian Kaetlyn Osmond. Another Canadian, Gabrielle Daleman, took bronze.

“A little bit nervous [in] 6-minute warm-up before my [free] skate,” Medvedeva said. “I just told [myself], Yevgenia, you must keep calm. I skated well and had fun.”

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Medvedeva hasn’t lost since November 2015, which was her only defeat in two seasons as a senior skater. She just completed the most dominant two-year stretch in women’s skating since Katarina Witt in the 1980s.

She is the face of Olympic sports in her scrutinized country at the moment, one of two Russians to win individual world titles in Olympic events this winter sports season.

Medvedeva was asked this in Friday night’s press conference:

It’s been a tough time for Russian sport in general, in many respects. How important is it for you to do well for Russian sport, and what does this victory perhaps mean for Russian sport in general?

After a translator interpreted the question, Medvedeva took 10 seconds to gather her thoughts. She then spoke in Russian for 75 seconds, one of the longest answers she has given in such a setting.

“That’s one of the most difficult questions I’ve had,” Medvedeva said. “I hope that all the work that my coaches and myself are inputting every day brings something positive to the country. Yeah, it is sad to hear all the news and read the news and hear the news. I think we just should support each other. I know from my own experience what a great role support plays. We should not give up and move forward.”

Osmond and Daleman are the first Canadian women’s medalists since Joannie Rochette in 2009. It’s the first time two Canadian women made the podium at a worlds or Olympics.

Chen, a 17-year-old with Taiwanese parents, was a revelation at the U.S. Championships, bagging gold in January after placing eighth the year before.

She struggled at her most recent event, taking 12th at the Four Continents Championships in February, where she was slowed by the flu, nerves and boot problems.

But she rebounded in Helsinki, placing fifth in the short program with a personal best by 5.52 points. In the free skate, she had a personal best by 8.2 points, despite falling and stepping out of the landing on her last two jumps.

“That was everything that I dreamed of,” said Chen, who shares a hometown of Fremont, Calif., with mentor Kristi Yamaguchi, the 1992 Olympic champion.

Chen skated under the pressure of knowing she needed a relatively strong program to ensure the U.S. would get three Olympic spots. The U.S. had at least three women’s skaters at all but two Winter Olympics since the first Winter Games in 1924.

Before she went onto the ice for warm-up, Chen saw that Wagner was in third place with six skaters left. Chen and Wagner’s placements needed to add up to 13 or fewer for the U.S. to get three Olympic spots.

If the final group of six skaters, including Chen, skated decently, Wagner would finish ninth, meaning Chen would need to improve from fifth after the short program to finish fourth.

“I needed to skate pretty close to clean,” Chen said of her thoughts as she prepared for the most important program of her young career. “Right after I had that thought, I blocked it out right away and just realized that I’m here, and it’s my first time here and I wanted to enjoy this moment and I want to be relaxed and calm because that’s when I know I skate best.”

Chen clinched the three spots when she skated into the lead by 1.41 points.

The Americans ended up qualifying three spots easily, because Russians Maria Sotskova and Anna Pogorilaya, both in the final group, had poor free skates and slotted in behind Wagner.

That didn’t change the fact that Chen delivered for her teammates.

“Let’s take a moment to all thank [Chen] for saving America because let’s be honest she did,” Wagner tweeted. “First time at worlds and she saves the day.”

Wagner, at her seventh worlds, struggled with her combination jumps Friday. She had the seventh-best score in the short program and the 10th-best in the free skate, ending her worst season since 2010-11.

“Medaling at the Olympic Games is my ultimate goal,” said Wagner, who was also seventh in Sochi. “Looking at the way I performed here, that might not seem very tangible right now, but I know the athlete I am, I know how prepared I am and I just didn’t skate that way today.”

The third American, Mariah Bell, was 12th in her worlds debut.

“I’ve gone from competition to competition feeling little variations of my nerves,” Bell said. “This one was probably the worst. I had trouble sleeping and a little bit of trouble during my practices.”

The world championships conclude with the men’s free skate and free dance on Saturday, with coverage on NBCSN, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app starting at 12:30 p.m. ET.

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Women’s Results
Gold: Yevgenia Medvedeva (RUS) — 233.41
Silver: Kaetlyn Osmond (CAN) — 218.13

Bronze: Gabrielle Daleman (CAN) — 213.52
4. Karen Chen (USA) — 199.29
7. Ashley Wagner (USA) — 193.54
12. Mariah Bell (USA) — 187.23

Jordan Thompson, U.S. volleyball’s new weapon, took unique route to NCAA history

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It was about this time last year that Jordan Thompson first appeared on the radar of U.S. women’s volleyball coach Karch Kiraly. Since, Thompson emerged as the youngest starter, and arguably a star, for the national team.

She goes into what could be her final weekend of college volleyball as one of the most dominant athletes in any sport. And one of the most unique stories in NCAA history.

Thompson plays not for a Big Ten or Pac-12 powerhouse, but for Cincinnati, a school that, before she arrived, never made it past the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

The unranked Bearcats upset second-ranked Pittsburgh in the second round last Saturday. They play Penn State, winner of six of the last 12 NCAA titles, in the Sweet 16 on Friday.

In 33 games this season, Thompson has registered a Division I-leading 768 kills, which is 143 more than the next most prolific attacker. That margin of 143 is the same number that separates No. 2 from No. 31.

Last season, she had 827 kills, which was 240 more than anybody else and a single-season record (by 112 kills) since NCAA match formats shifted from 30-point to 25-point sets in 2008.

She is a contender, if not a favorite, to be AVCA National Player of the Year. All of the previous winners dating to 1985 came from schools that reached at least one Final Four.

On Oct. 4, a UCF player’s face caught the wrong end of a Thompson attack. Cincinnati teammates watching from the bench dropped to the floor in astonishment.

Thompson tallied 50 kills in one match alone on Nov. 3, becoming the first D-I player to do so in 20 years.

That happened on Senior Day. Before that match, Thompson received a plaqued No. 23 jersey and flowers.

She posed for a photo standing with her husband, former Cincinnati offensive lineman Blake Yager, her mother, Mary, whose bribes helped Thompson develop into an attacker, and her father, 1990s Harlem Globetrotter Tyrone Doleman (and brother of Pro Football Hall of Famer Chris Doleman).

Mary has been most instrumental, raising Thompson as a single mom in Minnesota. Thompson, who is 6 feet, 4 inches now, was always tall for her age.

She played youth basketball against older girls and grew frustrated by the physical contact. Kneepads weren’t comfort enough. She decided to give volleyball a try in middle school.

“She was very timid,” Mary said of her daughter, who has since gotten 10 tattoos, including one of a hummingbird. “She would tell me she didn’t want to hurt anyone on the other side of the net. I told her I would give her a dollar for every time she would whack it. And I would give her $10 if she would actually hit someone on the other end of the court.”

It took a while, but Thompson was motivated by her love of horses. The payouts from her mom went toward a saddle and a bridal. A box with horse equipment remains in the family garage back home.

“She was trying to build up her supplies to be able to one day say to me, look, I’ve got a saddle, I’ve got all of my tack, I’ve got stuff to clean the hooves, can we get a horse now?” Mary said. 

After just two years of club volleyball, Thompson received her first Division-I scholarship offer. It came from Syracuse. Thompson was a high school sophomore.

“In the back of my head, I’m thinking, I’m never going to get another offer, so I better take this one,” she said.

Thompson was intent on Syracuse for a year before a coaching change led her to decommit. She wasn’t sure if many schools knew she had reopened her recruiting. A Minnesota club teammate had committed to Cincinnati and suggested Thompson take a visit.

The Bearcats went 3-29 the season before she committed.

“I said, Jordan, you can play D-I at Texas. You can go to Nebraska,” Mary said. “She was like, no, no, I want to play all four years. I actually want to get playing time, mom. She really struggled believing how good she could be.”

The biggest obstacle came junior year. In a preseason training session, Thompson collided with that Minnesota club teammate, Jade Tingelhoff, and tore the UCL in her dominant, right arm. She was in an armpit-to-wrist brace for two months post-Tommy John surgery, including three weeks with her arm locked in place.

She couldn’t brush her hair, had a hard time brushing her teeth and found it difficult showering and getting dressed.

She still went to every Bearcats game and traveled with the team. Cincinnati went from 22-10 her sophomore season to 13-19 that year without her on the court.

“It ended up being OK,” Tingelhoff said. “She came back that next season — I’m not kidding — 10 times as better than she was even the previous year.”

As a redshirt junior, Thompson and her 827 kills helped Cincinnati to a 26-8 record and its first NCAA Tournament win in seven years. She also caught the eye of Kiraly by the end of that 2018 season.

“She was one of the elite players in all of college volleyball,” he said. “Probably the only one who came from a conference other than the ones known for producing the most NCAA champions, like the Big Ten and the Pac-12.”

By last spring break, Thompson had become a favorite of U.S coaches at a camp to help select teams for summer international tournaments.

She had a one-on-one conversation with Kiraly, the only person to own Olympic indoor and beach gold medals. The legend told her she had potential to play at the Pan American Games. Later, he upped the praise to say she was ready for the top-level Nations League, a precursor to Olympic qualifying.

Thompson made her national team debut in May. By August, she came off the bench to help spur a comeback in a crucial Olympic qualifying match. The next day, she was in the starting lineup for the U.S.’ final Olympic qualifier, where the Americans clinched a Tokyo 2020 berth.

“I think a lot people don’t know she is still in college,” two-time U.S. Olympic outside hitter Jordan Larson said then. “She still has one more year left.”

Agents reached out, but Thompson had no intention of giving up her final year of NCAA eligibility. She wanted to make history at Cincinnati. That was secured with the Sweet 16 berth.

With the new year, she will trade the Cincinnati red and black for Team USA colors. She will keep in mind what the U.S. coaching staff told the team during Olympic qualifying and what she called a dream summer.

“My big goal in life was I just wanted to be in the USA gym,” said Thompson, who is working on her master’s in criminal justice. “To hear that we’re all working towards this goal of trying to make this roster, and we are being looked as potential players to make that roster, my jaw dropped. To know that it’s even a remote possibility is mind-blowing.”

VIDEO: Brazil volleyball star faints during courtside interview

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Tahiti chosen for Olympic surfing competition at 2024 Paris Games

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Paris 2024 Olympic organizers want the surfing competition to be held in Tahiti, an island in French Polynesia that is about 9,800 miles from Paris.

It would break the record for the farthest Olympic medal competition to be held outside the host. In 1956, equestrian events were moved out of Melbourne due to quarantine laws and held five months earlier in Stockholm, some 9,700 miles away.

The Paris 2024 executive board approved the site Thursday — specifically, the village of Teahupo’o — and will propose it to the IOC. It beat out other applicants Biarritz, Lacanau, Les Landes and La Torche, all part of mainland France.

“If, ever, we have two alternatives, and where one alternative gives the athletes of a particular sport more closeness to the heart of the Games and allows them to enjoy the magic and the spirit of the Games better, then in the interest of the athletes, we prefer this solution,” IOC President Thomas Bach said in June when asked about Tahiti’s interest in hosting surfing.

Surfing will debut at the 2020 Tokyo Games but is not on the permanent Olympic program. Surfing was among sports added to the Paris 2024 program in June and could be added for the 2028 Los Angeles Games.

MORE: U.S. athletes qualified for Tokyo Olympics

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