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Olympic figure skating season starts with September must-sees

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The international figure skating season begins next week. By the end of the month, we’ll already have some answers for key questions heading into the Olympics.

Let’s dive in:

1. Which three women make the U.S. Olympic team?

This answer will not come definitively until after the U.S. Championships in January, but three of the top contenders compete at next week’s U.S. International Classic in Salt Lake City — Karen ChenMariah Bell and Mirai Nagasu, who finished first, third and fourth at last season’s nationals.

The Olympic team is chosen by a committee that analyzes not only performances at nationals, but also recent international competitions. Which makes the next few months — starting with lower-level events next week and rising to the fall Grand Prix series — key for all of the American women given every single one was flawed last season.

Chen won the U.S. title and was the top American at worlds (fourth), but she struggled in her other six events. Bell chalked up a 12th-place finish at worlds to the worst nerves of her life. The 2010 Olympian Nagasu could unleash a triple Axel this season, but she was 10th, fourth and fourth at the last three nationals.

Last season was forgettable for all three 2014 Olympians. Ashley Wagner had her least successful campaign in six years. Gracie Gold hit rock bottom, changed coaches and announced last week that she is seeking unspecified “professional help” before her debut in November. Polina Edmunds didn’t compete at all in 2016-17 due to a bone bruise in her right foot.

2. What about the U.S. men?

Nathan Chen, the 18-year-old who broke out by landing a record five quadruple jumps in one program last year, is probably the most likely singles skater to make the Olympic team, male or female.

And Chen begins the Olympic season at the U.S. International Classic in his hometown of Salt Lake City. So does 2013 U.S. champion Max Aaron, who is certainly in the mix for one of the three Olympic spots.

Vincent Zhou and Jason Brown, who were second and third at last season’s nationals, compete in separate events the following week. Adam Rippon, the 2016 U.S. champion, makes his international return from a broken foot in October.

With teens Chen and Zhou bringing an arsenal of quads, a four-revolution jump may for the first time be a necessity to make the U.S. Olympic team. Aaron, Brown and Rippon, all in their 20s, have struggled to consistently land quads.

3. The best U.S. medal hope?

Has to be sibling ice dancers Maia and Alex Shibutani, the only Americans to earn medals at each of the last two world championships. Silver in 2016. Bronze in 2017.

They are the most successful active U.S. skaters now that Meryl Davis and Charlie White will not attempt to defend their Olympic dance title from Sochi.

But it’s very possible the U.S. fails to win a gold or silver figure skating medal at an Olympics for the first time since 1972.

The Shibutanis have never beaten the world’s top couple — Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir — and haven’t bettered the world No. 2 — French Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron — in nearly four years.

All should be at the Grand Prix Final in December, which will be a measuring-stick competition. But the Shibutanis aren’t locked in as the top U.S. dancers.

Madison Chock and Evan Bates outscored the Shibutanis in the free dance at the U.S. Championships and the short dance at the world championships. Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue also bettered the siblings in the short at worlds. Keep an eye on all of their scores at the Grand Prix events.

4. Who are the Olympic favorites?

Until proven otherwise, gold-medal discussions start with the 2017 World champions.

Russian Yevgenia Medvedeva hasn’t lost in nearly two years and posted the three highest total scores of all time at her final three competitions last season. What makes Medvedeva an even bigger favorite is that the runners-up to her at major competitions have been musical chairs. And that the best women from Sochi — Adelina Sotnikova, Yulia Lipnitskaya and Yuna Kim — are out of the picture.

Perhaps the skaters worth the most looks this fall are senior debutants — Marin Honda and Alina Zagitova, who won the last two world junior titles after Medvedeva in 2015.

The men’s field has no shortage of challengers to reigning Olympic and world champion Yuzuru Hanyu. Hanyu, seeking to become the first repeat Olympic men’s champion since Dick Button in 1952, would be an underdog if he hadn’t dragged himself from fifth place after the worlds short program to capture his first title in three years in April.

The new generation arrived last year — Chen, 18, beat Hanyu at the PyeongChang Olympic venue, and Hanyu was joined on the world podium by a pair of 19-year-olds — Shoma Uno of Japan and Jin Boyang of China.

Hanyu will face his chief rival and training partner — double world champion Javier Fernandez of Spain — at a lower-level event in Canada in two weeks. A rare early season showdown.

Canada could go into PyeongChang with favorites in ice dance (Virtue and Moir, undefeated last year after two seasons off) and pairs (two-time world champions Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford). But the latter must shake off a seventh-place finish at worlds in the fall Grand Prix series to be considered rivals to Chinese Sui Wenjing and Han Cong.

Hopefully, clarity will come soon regarding Olympic pairs champions Tatyana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov. The Russians haven’t competed since the 2016 World Championships, with Volosozhar giving birth to their daughter last February. They are not entered in any Grand Prix events. If they’re not back by the Russian Championships in December, you won’t see them at the Olympics.

5. Will North Koreans be in PyeongChang?

North Korea is used to winning Summer Olympic medals, but it has scant Winter Olympic history and sent zero athletes to the Sochi Games.

There’s a chance North Korea doesn’t qualify anyone for PyeongChang. Its most successful athletes across all winter sports are pairs skaters Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik, who are entered in the final Olympic qualification event in three weeks in Germany.

If Ryom and Kim perform like they did last season, they should qualify a North Korean pairs spot for PyeongChang by finishing top four later this month.

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MORE: What to watch every day of the PyeongChang Olympics

Alex Zanardi, auto racer turned Paralympic champion, has 5-hour surgery to rebuild face after crash

Alex Zanardi
AP
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SIENA, Italy (AP) — Italian auto racing champion-turned-Paralympic gold medalist Alex Zanardi underwent a five-hour surgery Monday to reconstruct his face following a crash on his handbike last month.

It was the third major operation that Zanardi has had since he crashed into an oncoming truck near the Tuscan town of Pienza on June 19 during a relay event.

Dr. Paolo Gennaro of Santa Maria alle Scotte Hospital in Siena said the operation required three-dimensional digital and computerized technology that was “made to measure” for Zanardi.

“The complexity of the case was fairly unique, although this is a type of fracture that we deal with routinely,” Gennaro said in a hospital statement.

After the surgery, Zanardi was returned to the intensive care unit in a medically induced coma.

“His condition remains stable in terms of his cardio-respiratory status and grave in terms of his neurological status,” the hospital medical bulletin read.

The 53-year-old Zanardi, who lost both of his legs in an auto racing crash nearly 20 years ago, has been on a ventilator since the crash.

Zanardi suffered serious facial and cranial trauma, and doctors have warned of possible brain damage.

Zanardi won four gold medals and two silvers at the 2012 and 2016 Paralympics. He also competed in the New York City Marathon and set an Ironman record in his class.

Last month, Pope Francis penned a handwritten letter of encouragement assuring Zanardi and his family of his prayers. The pope praised Zanardi as an example of strength amid adversity.

Shawn Johnson East shares struggles with body image, prescription drugs

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Shawn Johnson East, a 2008 Olympic gymnastics champion, detailed past struggles with body image and prescription drugs and reflected on her eating disorder as an elite athlete, to show there is hope to others in difficult situations.

“It all started with pregnancy and having my daughter,” East, who had daughter Drew in October, said on TODAY on Monday. “I had so many people asking me questions about how did pregnancy affect you mentally and how did you get your body back after having your daughter. I couldn’t answer that without giving a greater and a larger story.”

East first went public about her undiagnosed teenage eating disorders in 2015, three years after retiring from the sport. She said she limited herself to 700 calories per day and didn’t tell her parents.

In a June YouTube video, Johnson said she also binged and purged, including while dating future husband Andrew in the mid-2010s. And that she had depression and anxiety in 2011, when she returned to competition for the first time since the Beijing Games.

“I thought it would fix all of my problems,” East said of returning to gymnastics for a 2012 Olympic bid.

When East won “Dancing with the Stars” in 2009, she “hit a very low spot” going through puberty on national TV. She said she gained 15 pounds after the 2008 Olympics and started taking medications and drugs “to look like I did at the Olympics.” It included fad diets, diuretics and a three-week stretch of eating nothing but raw vegetables.

“Most pain of my entire life because I couldn’t digest anything,” she said.

At some point in 2011, East began feeling burned out. She was back to eating too few calories and overtraining. An unnamed USA Gymnastics doctor prescribed her Adderall “to lose more weight, have more energy and be more successful in gymnastics.” She took “heavy doses.”

“It helped my performances, but there were massive consequences to it,” she said. “I continued to compete into 2012, where I just started to get depressed.

“I was overdosing on Adderall. I was overdosing on any medication that wouldn’t be caught by USADA.”

Adderall was a banned substance in competition without a therapeutic use exemption, but was legal outside of competition.

“I was so controlled by other people’s opinions that I wouldn’t live up to that Olympic standard that I did anything to get it back and I could never have it back,” East said. “I didn’t learn that until later on.”

East’s mental hurdles re-emerged when she had a miscarriage in 2017. She blamed herself, believing her unhealthy lifestyle in the past was a contributor.

“Our natural inclination is to say, what did I do? And what did I do wrong?” she said. “It haunted me. I felt like I had sacrificed everything for an Olympic medal to not actually get the dream I had wanted my entire life [to have a child].”

With the help of a nutritionist and therapist and her husband, she conquered the demons through her 2019 pregnancy and childbirth.

“Having gone through a whole pregnancy and knowing that I felt confident through the whole thing, I feel like I’ve climbed Everest,” she said.

MORE: Why Nastia Liukin, Shawn Johnson went 8 years without talking

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