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Nathan Chen, top U.S. women open figure skating season

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Nathan Chen opens his season, while three of the top female contenders for the U.S. Olympic team also compete at the U.S. International Classic in Salt Lake City starting Thursday.

The lower-level event will stream live on Icenetwork.com for subscribers (all times Eastern):

Pairs short program — Thursday, 6:30 p.m.
Men’s short program — Thursday, 8:30 p.m.
Short dance — Friday, 3:20 p.m.
Women’s short program — Friday, 5 p.m.
Pairs free skate — Friday, 6:50 p.m.
Men’s free skate — Friday, 9 p.m.
Free dance — Saturday, 6:30 p.m.
Women’s free skate — Saturday, 8:30 p.m.

Chen, the 18-year-old who landed a record seven quadruple jumps en route to the U.S. title in January, is the headliner. He is expected to ease into the season, attempting fewer quads on Thursday and Friday in his hometown.

It would be surprising if Chen doesn’t win, even with watered-down programs. The field also includes 2013 U.S. champion Max Aaron, who was ninth at last year’s nationals, and Japanese bronze medalist Takahito Mura.

Picking a women’s winner is not as clear-cut.

Three of the top four women from January’s U.S. Championships face off in an early test ahead of the fall Grand Prix series and nationals in January. The U.S. Olympic team (three men, three women, three dance couples, one pair) will be selected by a committee after nationals, taking into account results in the Grand Prix series.

So Karen ChenMariah Bell and Mirai Nagasu have greater incentive to be in strong form this week. An early win against countrywomen could set the tone to make it to PyeongChang.

Chen, the surprise U.S. champion, fell twice in her short program in this event last year and finished third, behind Japanese star Satoko Miyahara and Bell.

Bell is coming off a surprise year where she finished third at nationals. But she struggled with nerves at worlds in the early spring and ended up 12th.

Then there’s Nagasu, the 2010 Olympian who finished fourth at the last two nationals. She has been training a triple Axel and even without it could leap past Chen and Bell this week given her international experience.

An interested onlooker may be Ashley Wagner, the U.S. silver medalist who is expected to make her international season debut next month.

But the favorite this week could be Japanese Marin Honda, a 16-year-old world junior champion making her senior international debut. Honda owns the top personal-best score in the field.

The pairs field includes the top two American couples from last season — Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim and Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier.

U.S. bronze medalists Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue lead the ice dance entrants.

Also this weekend, U.S. Olympian Jason Brown takes on world silver medalist Shoma Uno at the Lombardia Trophy in Italy.

Brown finished third at last year’s nationals and seventh at worlds after overcoming a stress fracture in his right fibula. Nathan Chen, Brown, Vincent Zhou and Adam Rippon are the frontrunners for the three Olympic men’s spots.

Lombardia Trophy will also mark the senior international debut of Russian Alina Zagitova, the reigning world junior champion and a training partner of Olympic gold-medal favorite Yevgenia Medvedeva.

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MORE: Five storylines for figure skating season

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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