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

Ragan Smith finds joy in college gymnastics after life-changing decision

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Ragan Smith, after her first two weeks of college gymnastics, quickly pointed out the coolest part of competing for the Oklahoma Sooners. It’s the noise that erupts on the last pass of her floor exercise, or upon her dismount off the uneven bars or balance beam.

They are similar sounds to what drew her to commit to Oklahoma back in 2015, when she was 15 years old.

“The girls in practice were all cheering for each other,” she recalled in a phone interview earlier this month.

Last spring, Smith called Oklahoma coach K.J. Kindler with a request. The Texan wanted to enroll at OU that summer, a year earlier than planned. Originally, Smith committed to the university with the intention of deferring until after the 2020 Olympic season.

Smith, a Rio Olympic alternate in her first year at the senior elite level, began this Olympic cycle in 2017 by winning the U.S. all-around title. Granted, the triumph came during Simone Biles‘ one-year break. But consider that Smith’s margin of victory — 3.4 points — was greater than Biles’ average margin for her four national titles from 2013-16.

Everything changed for Smith on Oct. 6, 2017. Minutes before she was to compete as the favorite in the world championships all-around, she suffered an ankle injury warming up on vault (reportedly three torn ligaments). She was withdrawn from the meet and fought injuries for the rest of her elite career.

In calling Kindler last spring, Smith signaled she was ready to move on from Olympic-level or “elite” gymnastics. It is possible for collegians to compete at U.S. Championships or Olympic trials, but no woman with NCAA experience has made any of the last three Olympic teams.

“I felt like my time was done in elite,” said Smith, whose mother and aunt competed for Auburn and Maryland, respectively. “I really just wanted to move on with my life and everything.”

Kindler was walking in an academic center on campus when Smith called her last spring.

“[Smith] said, ‘I was in the shower, and I was thinking, and I think I really, really want to come,'” Kindler said. “‘My body is ready to be done with elite gymnastics, and my mind is ready to move forward, and I would love to come to school this year. Is there a spot for me?’

“We saved a spot in case she changed her mind [about waiting until after the Olympics], but the plan was always for her to defer. We never talked about anything else, so I was very surprised by the phone call.”

Kindler urged Smith to think it over. Discuss it with her elite coach, 1991 World all-around champion Kim Zmeskal.

“[Zmeskal] and I had a really good understanding of what Ragan’s goals were, which is why I think it had to be Ragan’s decision,” Kindler said. “I didn’t want to place any influence on anything. Kim thinks the world of Ragan. She was in full support. Her and I texted back and forth and spoke about it. She said she wanted Ragan to think about it a little bit, and she did do that, and still had decided that this was for her. I think Kim supported that decision, just as I said I would support whatever she wanted to do.”

Smith shared the news on July 7.

“I have moved on from the 1st chapter of my life and on to the 2nd,” was posted on her Instagram, accompanied by a photo of her in a crimson leotard. “I am so excited to be joining the class of 2019.”

Smith joined the defending national champion program, one that captured three of the last four NCAA titles. By enrolling a year early, Smith gets to be teammates with senior Maggie Nichols.

Nichols was second to Biles at the 2015 U.S. Championships, making her a bona fide contender for the Rio Olympic team. Early in 2016, Nichols tore a meniscus on a vault landing and underwent arthroscopic knee surgery. She announced retirement from elite gymnastics two days after finishing sixth at the Olympic trials, one spot behind Smith, and not being named to the Olympic team.

Smith said she has already benefited from Nichols’ experience, coming to her with questions to aid her transition.

“What an incredible opportunity to have Ragan and Maggie on the same team,” Kindler said.

The Sooners are 9-0 this year and 26-0 since the start of 2019. Smith was named Big 12 Newcomer of the Week each of the season’s first three weeks. Not incredibly surprising, given Smith’s pedigree.

Perhaps more notable: Kindler said Smith hasn’t had a single ankle problem since arriving in Norman in July.

Back in August 2018, Smith said the ankle still hurt sometimes, that she had not completed a practice without pain that whole year and a coach joked to her, “You already have a 100-year-old body.”

Smith is competing easier routines collegiately than as an elite, as is the norm. But Kindler found that her passion for the sport has not waned.

“As an elite athlete, you don’t necessarily have to learn anything when you come to college,” Kindler said. “In fact, you can scale back what you’re doing, but I feel like she has a real eagerness to continue to refine what she’s doing and to learn new skills. She wants to continue to get better, and I love that about her.”

At her first college meet, Smith remembered the feeling of adrenaline brought on by competing not just for herself, but for women with whom she will call teammates week in and week out for the coming years.

“I didn’t want to let go of elite because it’s been, like, my whole life and my dream and everything,” said Smith, who was inspired by McKayla Maroney‘s 2012 Olympic vault and then had a dog named Rio. “But at the same time, my mind was telling me to come to college and have fun. I’m glad I made that decision, because I love it here.”

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Dustin Johnson wonders if Olympic golf will properly fit into his schedule

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Dustin Johnson, the world’s fifth-ranked golfer, said he isn’t sure the Tokyo Olympics will fit well into his schedule, assuming he qualifies for what will be a very competitive U.S. team of four.

“Obviously representing the United States in the Olympics is something that, you know, definitely be proud to do,” he said when asked if the Ryder Cup and the Olympics are goals this year. “But is it going to fit in the schedule properly? I’m not really sure about that, because there’s so many events that are right there and leading up to it. So you know, I’m still working with my team to figure out what’s the best thing for me to do.”

Johnson, the 2016 U.S. Open winner and world No. 1 in 2017 and 2018, is the third-highest ranked American at the moment behind Brooks Koepka (who also spoke about the Olympics on Tuesday, saying they’re not as important as majors) and Justin Thomas.

Johnson is ranked one spot ahead of Tiger Woods, who has voiced intent to play in Tokyo should he qualify.

But the current world rankings, based on a two-year, rolling window of results, do not exactly mirror Olympic qualifying, which takes into account only results after the 2018 U.S. Open. Rankings guru @VC606 on Twitter has Thomas, Koepka, Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay as the current U.S. top four in Olympic qualifying. Woods is fifth and Johnson seventh.

The cutoff to determine the Olympic field of 60 golfers overall is after the U.S. Open in June.

The Olympic golf tournament is July 30-Aug. 2. There is no PGA Tour event that weekend. The FedEx Cup Playoffs start two weeks after the Olympics. Last season, Johnson did not play the tournaments that will immediately precede and follow the Olympics — the 3M Open and the Wyndham Championship.

Johnson did qualify for the Rio Olympics but withdrew a month before the Games, citing Zika virus concerns as other golfers did.

“This was not an easy decision for me, but my concerns about the Zika virus cannot be ignored,” Johnson said in a statement at the time. “[Wife] Paulina and I plan to have more children in the near future, and I feel it would be irresponsible to put myself, her or our family at risk.”

Paulina gave birth to their second son in June 2017.

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