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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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Richard Callaghan, figure skating coach, banned for life

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Richard Callaghan, a figure skating coach best known for helping Tara Lipinski earn 1998 Olympic gold, was ruled permanently ineligible for violations including sexual misconduct involving a minor.

Callaghan can still appeal the sexual misconduct violation, according to the U.S. Center for SafeSport, a watchdog for U.S. Olympic sports organizations that updated Callaghan’s status Wednesday.

He was first suspended in March 2018 pending an investigation into allegations first made against him more than 20 years ago.

Earlier this month, another former skater, Adam Schmidt, said in a lawsuit that he was sexually molested as a teenager by Callaghan starting in 1999.

Callaghan was previously accused of sexual misconduct in April 1999 by Craig Maurizi, one of his former students and later an assistant to him in San Diego and Detroit.

Maurizi told The New York Times that Callaghan had engaged in inappropriate sexual contact with him beginning when he was 15 years old. The alleged misconduct had begun nearly 20 years earlier. Callaghan denied the allegations.

In March 2018, Callaghan told ABC News: “That’s 19 or 20 years ago. I have nothing to say.”

Maurizi’s previous grievance against Callaghan with the U.S. Figure Skating Association, the precursor to U.S. Figure Skating, was dismissed on procedural grounds.

He was Callaghan’s assistant at the Detroit Skating Club until they split after Lipinski turned pro, left Callaghan and decided to train with Maurizi.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Pita Taufatofua, Tonga flag bearer, finishes last in kayak debut

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Pita Taufatofua, the Tonga Olympic flag bearer who went viral in Rio and PyeongChang, began his quest to make a third straight Olympics in a third different sport with a last-place finish in his opening-round heat at the world sprint kayak championships in Hungary on Wednesday.

The start of the heat appeared delayed as Taufatofua struggled to get his kayak into position in the water. He was left at the start as the other six kayakers raced out and finished between 33 and 40 seconds. Taufatofua took 58.19 seconds, the slowest of 53 finishers among seven total heats.

“Well that was slightly better than the first time I competed in Taekwondo or skiing,” was tweeted from Taufatofua’s account. “Would have liked to start facing the right way but that’s life.”

Taufatofua, 35, was the oldest athlete in the heat by nearly a decade. He is also entered in doubles races with Tonga canoe federation president Malakai Ahokava with heats Thursday and Friday.

Taufatofua hopes to compete at the Tokyo Olympics in taekwondo, where he competed in Rio, and in sprint kayak.

But he hasn’t competed in taekwondo in three years and just started training kayak this spring. At worlds, Taufatofua told the BBC he is still having trouble staying afloat in the water.

Taufatofua said in announcing the new sport in April that it would be “largely impossible” to qualify for Tokyo. He could be the first athlete to compete in a different sport in three straight Olympics (Summer and Winter) since the Winter Games began in 1924, according to the OlyMADMen.

“It’s certainly going to be the greatest challenge that I’ve ever had to embark on,” he said then.

Taufatofua’s results at worlds this week has little bearing on his Olympic qualifying prospects. Rather, he just needed to compete in Hungary to stay eligible for the Olympics.

The key will be an Oceania qualifying event early next year, where one Olympic bid is available. He will likely have to beat the best kayakers from Australia and New Zealand to grab it. Australian Stephen Bird placed eighth at the Rio Olympics and 11th at the 2018 World Championships.

If Taufatofua fails, he could receive a special tripartite invitation sometimes offered to smaller nations like Tonga.

Taufatofua became a social-media celebrity by marching into the Rio Olympic Opening Ceremony shirtless and oiled up. He then lost in the first round via mercy rule in his taekwondo tournament.

He made a quixotic bid for the PyeongChang Winter Games in cross-country skiing — and accomplished the feat, barely, in a sport that has lenient qualifying requirements for nations with a lack of Winter Games depth.

Taufatofua finished 114th out of 116 in his 15km Olympic cross-country skiing race, nearly 23 minutes behind the winner.

If Taufatofua is able to carry the Tongan flag at a third Opening Ceremony, he will definitely be shirtless again, in a similar outfit to what he wore in Rio and PyeongChang, he said last year.

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