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World figure skating champions make Olympic season debuts this week

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Nobody can accuse the last two male figure skating world champions of ducking the competition.

Yuzuru Hanyu and Javier Fernández, training partners who combined to win every global title since 2014, open their Olympic seasons by competing against each other this week.

The Japanese megastar and the Spanish trailblazer headline the Autumn Classic, a lower-level event in Quebec starting Thursday.

The men’s short program is Friday (8:15 p.m. ET) and the free skate Saturday (8 ET). A live stream is here.

Showdowns like this are usually reserved for, at the earliest, the Grand Prix series in late October and November.

Hanyu and Fernández are very familiar with each other, having shared a coach in Canadian Brian Orser, the 1988 Olympic silver medalist, since 2012. They train in Toronto.

In that time, Hanyu became the first Japanese man to win an Olympic title (and the second teen from any nation to do it). He followed it up with world titles later in 2014 and this year.

Fernández achieved unfathomable success for a Spanish skater — world titles in 2015 and 2016, overtaking Hanyu in the free skate both times.

In PyeongChang, Hanyu can become the first man to repeat as Olympic champion since Dick Button in 1952. Fernández can become the third Spaniard to earn a Winter Olympic medal of any color in any sport, and the first since 1992.

But first they face off in Quebec.

Hanyu is the decided favorite after winning last season’s world title by breaking his own free skate record score. He moved up from fifth after the short program, while Fernández dropped from first after the short to fourth.

However, Hanyu has proven beatable early in the season, losing his first two international events in 2014, then one of his first two in 2015 and 2016.

More pressure is on Fernández, who missed the podium at the two biggest events last season — worlds and the Grand Prix Final. He is 26 years old. Aside from Hanyu, every medalist at worlds and the Grand Prix Final was a teen.

Another world champion makes an international season debut this week — Russian Yevgenia Medvedeva.

She skates at the lower-level Nepela Trophy in Slovakia on Thursday and Saturday. The 17-year-old is on the longest major winning streak in singles skating in 30 years, having not lost since November 2015.

The Nepela field includes the only woman to beat Medvedeva in a senior competition — countrywoman Yelena Radionova. But Radionova faded to fifth at last year’s Russian Championships and is in a battle just to make the Olympic team.

Medvedeva might better be judged against two women who aren’t in Slovakia but won B-level events last week.

Alina Zagitova, 15 and the 2017 World junior champion, won her senior international debut in Italy with 218.46 points. That score would have won silver at last season’s senior worlds.

Marin Honda, 16 and the 2016 World junior champion, won her senior international debut in Salt Lake City with 198.42 points.

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VIDEO: Nathan Chen makes more history at season opener

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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