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Yuzuru Hanyu-Nathan Chen duel opens Grand Prix season

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The Grand Prix figure skating season will determine the Olympic favorites. It begins this week with a duel between the current leading man — Yuzuru Hanyu — and the last skater to beat him in major competition — U.S. champion Nathan Chen.

The Rostelecom Cup in Moscow opens the six-event series of qualifying events for the Grand Prix Final in Japan in December.

The Rostelecom live broadcast schedule on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA (all times Eastern):

Friday
Men’s Short — 7 a.m.
Short Dance — 9 a.m.
Pairs Short — 11:30 a.m.
Women’s Short — 1 p.m.

Saturday
Men’s Free — 6:30 a.m.
Free Dance — 9 a.m.
Pairs Free — 10:30 a.m.
Women’s Free — 12:30 p.m.

NBC will air a highlights show Sunday from 12-2 p.m. ET. All coverage will stream on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app. Olympic Channel coverage will also stream on Olympicchannel.com and the Olympic Channel app.

Men
Hanyu and Chen are the clear headliners in Moscow. They swapped wins last season.

Chen, then 17, outscored the 22-year-old Hanyu in the Grand Prix Final free skate (Hanyu won overall). He then defeated the Japanese megastar at the Four Continents Championships in February at the PyeongChang Olympic venue. Hanyu ended the season on top at the world championships as Chen ran out of gas in his first senior season and finished sixth.

Hanyu will go into the Olympics in February as the first man since Dick Button in in 1952 to enter as the reigning Olympic and world champion.

This season, Hanyu has already looked vulnerable. He broke his world-record short program score at a small event in Canada last month. But then he struggled with jumps throughout his fifth-place free skate and ended up second behind Spaniard Javier Fernández, reportedly slowed by a knee injury.

That inconsistency is a trademark. Hanyu has never won his opening Grand Prix start in seven tries.

Chen is taking a measured approach as one of about six men with real Olympic medal potential.

After attempting six quads in his world champs free skate, he did three at his opening event this season last month. Chen ramped up to four in the free skate-only Japan Open two weeks ago, and it looked like he wanted five.

Also in the field: Olympic bronze medalist Denis Ten, Russian champion Mikhail Kolyada

Women
The women’s field is deeper this week. It includes overwhelming Olympic favorite Yevgenia Medvedeva, undefeated since finishing second at Rostelecom two years ago.

Perhaps Medvedeva’s biggest threats are not competing this week — Canadian Kaetlyn Osmond, Russian Alina Zagitova and Japanese Marin Honda.

But the field does include the last woman to beat Medvedeva — countrywoman Yelena Radionova — and two U.S. women in the running for three available Olympic spots — Mirai Nagasu and Mariah Bell.

Mirai Nagasu, who was fourth at the 2010 Olympics and controversially left off the 2014 Olympic team, is looking like a favorite to return to the Winter Games next year.

Though Nagasu was fourth at last season’s U.S. Championships, she beat U.S. champion Karen Chen and bronze medalist Mariah Bell at her season opener last month. She then bettered Chen by 18.37 points in the free-skate only Japan Open.

Bell, who broke out at her Grand Prix debut last season, struggled with nerves en route to a 12th-place finish at last season’s worlds. She then fell in both programs at her season opener last month, finishing well behind Nagasu and Chen.

The three-woman U.S. Olympic team, named after nationals in January, will be chosen based off results from throughout the previous two years. The Grand Prix season then is not just a tune-up.

Nagasu, Bell, Chen and Ashley Wagner are the top U.S. women at the moment, but Bell more than the other three could use a strong Grand Prix opener.

Also in the field: Olympic bronze medalist Carolina Kostner, Japanese silver medalist Wakaba Higuchi

Pairs
The top two Russian teams are the only pairs from the top eight at last year’s worlds competing in Moscow.

World bronze medalists Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov and Olympic silver medalists Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov are tasked with continuing more than 50 years of Russian pairs dominance in PyeongChang.

Russian or Soviet pairs won gold at every Olympics from 1964 through 2006. After getting no medals in Vancouver, Tatyana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov returned the nation to the top spot in Sochi. Volosozhar and Trankov haven’t competed since the 2016 Worlds — they welcomed their first child — and it’s unknown if they’ll return for Russian Nationals in December.

Regardless, Tarasova and Morozov and Stolbova and Klimov are almost sure to be two of Russia’s three pairs in PyeongChang. Tarasova and Morozov claimed a hard-earned bronze at worlds with Tarasova skating with 10 stitches in her left leg from a pre-short program practice accident.

Stolbova and Klimov missed all last fall due to Stolbova’s leg injury, then beat Tarasova and Morozov at Russian Nationals. They were 13th in the worlds short program but third in the free skate, behind Chinese Sui Wenjing and Han Cong and Germans Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot.

Also in the field: U.S. silver medalists Marissa Castelli and Mervin Tran (ineligible for the Olympics), Skate America winners Julianne Séguin and Charlie Bilodeau

Ice Dance
Siblings Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani, the top U.S. couple the last two seasons, open their Olympic season against a very beatable field.

The Shibutanis, world silver and bronze medalists the last two years, are the only dancers in Moscow to make a world podium in this Olympic cycle.

Absent are the last two world champions — Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and France’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron — the clear Olympic gold- and silver-medal favorites.

The Shibutanis could be challenged this week, though. Six-time Russian champions Yekaternia Bobrova and Dmitry Soloviyev actually outscored the Shibutanis in the worlds free dance last season (fifth overall).

Also in the field: World junior champions Rachel Parsons and Michael Parsons

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Ehsan Hadadi, Iran’s first Olympic track and field medalist, has coronavirus

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Ehsan Hadadi, Iran’s lone Olympic track and field medalist, tested positive for the coronavirus, according to World Athletics and an Iranian news agency.

“We’ve received word from several Asian journalists that Iranian discus thrower Ehsan Hadadi has tested positive for coronavirus,” according to World Athletics. “[Hadadi] trains part of the year in the US, but was home in Tehran when he contracted the virus.”

Hadadi, 35, became the first Iranian to earn an Olympic track and field medal when he took silver in the discus at the 2012 London Games. Hadadi led through four of six rounds before being overtaken by German Robert Harting, who edged the Iranian by three and a half inches.

He was eliminated in qualifying at the Rio Olympics and placed seventh at last fall’s world championships in Doha.

Jordan Larson preps for her last Olympics, one year later than expected

Jordan Larson
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Whether the Tokyo Olympics would have been this summer or in 2021, Jordan Larson knew this: It will mark her final tournament with the U.S. volleyball team, should she make the roster.

“I’m just not getting any younger,” said Larson, a 33-year-old outside hitter. “I’ve been playing consistently overseas for 12 years straight with no real offseason.

“I also have other endeavors in my life that I want to see. Getting married, having children, those kinds of things. The older I get, the more challenging those become.”

Larson, who debuted on the national team in 2009, has been a leader the last two Olympic cycles. She succeeded Christa Harmotto Dietzen as captain after the Rio Games. Larson started every match at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics.

As long as Larson was in the building, the U.S. never had to worry about the outside hitter position, said two-time Olympian and NBC Olympics volleyball analyst Kevin Barnett.

“She played as if she belonged from the start,” he said. “They will miss her all-around capability. They’ll miss her ability to make everyone around her better. She’s almost like having a libero who can hit.”

Karch Kiraly, the Olympic indoor and beach champion who took over as head coach after the 2012 Olympics, gushed about her court vision.

“It’s a little dated now, but somebody like Wayne Gretzky just saw things that other people didn’t see on the hockey rink,” Kiraly said in 2018. “And I remember reading about him one time, and the quote from an opposing goalie was, oh my god, here he comes, what does he see that I don’t see right now? She sees things sooner than most people.”

Larson grew up in Hooper, Neb., (population 830) and starred at the University of Nebraska. She was a three-time All-American who helped the team win a national title as a sophomore. She had the opportunity to leave Nebraska and try out for the Olympics in 2008 but chose to remain at school for her final season.

She earned the nickname “Governor” as a Cornhusker State sports icon.

Larson helped the U.S. win its first major international title at the 2014 World Championship. She was also part of the program’s two stingers — defeats in the 2012 Olympic final and 2016 Olympic semifinals, both matches where the U.S. won the first set (and convincingly in 2012).

“It just gives me chills thinking about it now,” Larson said of the Rio Olympic semifinals, where Serbia beat the U.S. 15-13 in the fifth. “That team, we put in so much. Not just on the court but off the court working on culture and working on how are we best for each other. How can we be the best team? How can we out-team people? Certain teams have a better one player that’s a standout that we maybe didn’t have or don’t have. So how can we out-team the other teams? We had just put in so much work that was just heartbreaking.”

Larson and the Americans rebounded to win the bronze-medal match two days later.

“I don’t know anybody that didn’t have their heart ripped out. It was just a soul-crusher of a match,” Kiraly said of the semifinal. “More meaningful was what a great response everybody, including Jordan, mounted to the disappointment of that loss.”

The U.S. took fifth at worlds in 2018 and is now ranked second in the world behind China.

Larson spent the past club season in Shanghai. The campaign ended in mid-January. She hadn’t heard anything about the coronavirus when she took her scheduled flight back to California, learning days later that LAX started screening for it. Now, she’s working out from her garage.

Larson is in line to become the fifth-oldest U.S. Olympic women’s volleyball player in history, according Olympedia and the OlyMADMen.

Her decade of experience could go a long way to help the next generation of outside hitters, led by three-time NCAA champion and Sullivan Award winner Kathryn Plummer.

“If you’re coming into the USA program as an outside hitter, in the next year or the quad or the quad after that,” Barnett said, “the measuring stick is going to be Jordan Larson.”

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