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Jason Brown’s big chance at NHK Trophy; preview, schedule

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For the third time in four years, Jason Brown has a great shot to qualify for the six-skater Grand Prix Final, the most exclusive event in figure skating.

He can clinch a Grand Prix Final berth for the first time this week at NHK Trophy in Japan, live on the Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA.

The Grand Prix Final, held every December, takes the top six men from the fall Grand Prix series, where skaters can compete twice and then are ranked by combined results.

Usually, a skater must make the podium in both qualifiers to reach the Grand Prix Final.

Grand Prix Final berths are most important in the Olympic season for Americans. U.S. Figure Skating will name the three-man Olympic team after the U.S. Championships in January. The picks will be based on not only nationals results but also recent domestic and international performances.

In 2014, Brown was the youngest U.S. Olympic male singles skater since 1976. Later that year, Brown missed the Grand Prix Final by .16 of a point. He took silver at his first qualifier but stumbled to fifth at his second event.

Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu eked out that last 2014 Grand Prix Final spot over Brown by finishing fourth at NHK Trophy. Hanyu and Brown will go head-to-head this week at NHK with Grand Prix Final berths again at stake.

In 2015, Brown would have made the Grand Prix Final with a runner-up finish at NHK Trophy. But he withdrew before the event with a back injury.

Then last season, Brown would have made the Grand Prix Final by placing third at NHK. But he was seventh, slowed by right leg soreness that eventually developed into a stress fracture.

Brown’s Grand Prix Final fate will mostly or fully be decided at NHK again this week. He was second at Skate Canada last month. That means Brown will almost surely qualify for the Grand Prix Final if he’s second again this week.

He could even make it with a fourth- or fifth-place finish, depending on how the rest of the Grand Prix season plays out.

Brown is definitely a podium favorite this week.

Besides Hanyu and Brown, only one other man at NHK ranked in the top 12 in the world last season — 2016 U.S. champion Adam Rippon, competing at the top international level for the first time in 11 months due to a broken foot.

NHK Trophy broadcast schedule (all times Eastern)
Friday (Short Programs)
Pairs — 12:30 a.m.
Women — 2 a.m.
Men — 5 a.m.
Ice Dance — 11 p.m.

Saturday (Free Skates)
Pairs — 12:30 a.m.
Women — 3 a.m.
Men — 5:30 a.m.
Ice Dance — 10 p.m.

NBC will air a recap show Saturday at at 1:30 p.m.

Men
Hanyu thrives in front of home fans. He’s going for a three-peat at NHK, where he shattered Patrick Chan‘s world record score two years ago and routed an up-and-coming Nathan Chen in 2016.

Hanyu was beaten by two-time world champion Javier Fernandez and Chen at his first two events this season, but he always gets off to slow starts. Nobody in this week’s field is an Olympic medal favorite. Hanyu won’t see them again until the Grand Prix Final next month.

The real intrigue is between Brown and Rippon, the next two strongest men in the field. A clutch performance from Brown to all but qualify for the Grand Prix Final could really boost his credentials to U.S. Figure Skating’s Olympic selection committee.

Rippon did qualify for last year’s Grand Prix Final before breaking his foot. If he outscores Brown at NHK, the 27-year-old will go into Skate America in two weeks looking to qualify for the Final again.

After Chen, the race for the last two U.S. Olympic men’s spots appears to be among Brown, Rippon, Vincent Zhou and Max Aaron. NHK is a chance for Brown and Rippon to further make their cases.

Women
The competition here also appears to be for silver and bronze. Russian Yevgenia Medvedeva, the biggest Olympic gold-medal favorite across all figure skating events, goes for her 11th win in 12 career top-level senior international events.

Carolina Kostner is the second-ranked woman this Grand Prix season. Satoko Miyahara ranked No. 2 last fall. They’re both in this week’s field. Kostner, 30, can pretty much wrap up her first Grand Prix Final berth in six years with a podium.

Miyahara is competing for the first time since December due to a fractured hip. Once the biggest threat to Medvedeva, Miyahara is now in a fight to make the two-woman Japanese Olympic team.

Mariah Bell and Mirai Nagasu are also on the Olympic bubble. The third- and fourth-place finishers from last season’s nationals were sixth and ninth at their Grand Prix openers last month. This might be the last time we see them before the U.S. Championships.

Pairs
World champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong are big favorites for a second win in as many weeks. They posted the best score in the world this season — by nearly seven points — at home in Beijing last weekend.

Olympic silver medalists Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov were a distant second in the Grand Prix opener last month. Another runner-up here will likely be enough to reach the Grand Prix Final for the first time since winning it in 2015.

Americans Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim return to the Grand Prix after missing all of last fall due to her life-threatening abdominal condition. It won’t take much for the Knierims to strengthen their hold atop U.S. pairs given what we’ve seen from the others so far this fall. The U.S. has one pairs spot for PyeongChang.

Ice Dance
Tessa Virtue 
and Scott Moir are undefeated in their comeback after sitting out the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons, but they are not the top-ranked couple in the world going into their second Grand Prix this season.

That’s because world silver medalists Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France snatched the world record last week.

The two couples won’t face off until the Grand Prix Final next month, but no doubt Virtue and Moir are competing against that score (200.43) at NHK.

Meanwhile, U.S. bronze medalists Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue bid for a third straight trip to the Grand Prix Final. They need a runner-up here to keep that hope alive.

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Mark Spitz takes on Katie Ledecky’s challenge

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Swimmers around the world took on Katie Ledecky‘s milk-glass challenge since it became a social media sensation, including one of the few Americans with more Olympic gold medals.

Mark Spitz, who won seven golds at the 1972 Munich Games, took 10 strokes in an at-home pool while perfectly balancing a glass of what appeared to be water on his head.

“Would’ve been faster with the ‘stache, @markspitzusa, but I still give this 7 out of 7 gold medals,” Ledecky tweeted.

Spitz joined fellow Olympic champions Susie O’Neill of Australia and American Matt Grevers in posting similar videos to what Ledecky first shared Monday.

In Tokyo next year, Ledecky can pass Spitz’s career gold-medal count of nine if she wins all of her expected events — 200m, 400m, 800m and 1500m freestyles and the 4x200m free relay.

Then she would trail one athlete from any country in any sport — Michael Phelps, the 23-time gold medalist who has yet to post video of swimming while balancing a glass on his head.

MORE: Spitz puts Michael Phelps’ career in perspective

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Serena Williams, reclusive amid pandemic, returns to tennis eyeing Grand Slam record

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Serena Williams travels with “like 50 masks” and has been a little bit of a recluse since early March and the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I don’t have full lung capacity, so I’m not sure what would happen to me,” Williams said Saturday, two days before the start of the WTA’s Top Seed Open in Lexington, Ky., her first tournament since playing Fed Cup in early February. “I’m sure I’ll be OK, but I don’t want to find out.”

Williams, 38, has a history of blood clots and pulmonary embolisms. She faced life-threatening complications following her Sept. 1, 2017, childbirth that confined her to a bed for six weeks. She said her daily routine was surgery and that she lost count after the first four.

More recently, Williams enjoyed “every part” of the last six months at home in Florida, her longest time grounded since her teens.

“I’ve been a little neurotic, to an extent,” on health and safety, she said. “Everyone in the Serena bubble is really protected.”

Williams is entered to play next week in Lexington and at consecutive tournaments in New York City later this month — the Western & Southern Open and U.S. Open, the latter starting Aug. 31.

Williams is the highest-ranked player in the Lexington field at No. 9. Others include 2017 U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens, older sister Venus Williams and 16-year-old Coco Gauff.

She has been bidding ever since having daughter Olympia to tie Margaret Court‘s record 24 Grand Slam singles titles, albeit many of Court’s crowns came before the Open Era and, notably at the Australian Open, against small fields lacking the world’s best players. Williams reached the last two Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals, losing all of them.

She showed her seriousness in committing early to this year’s U.S. Open by installing a court at home with the same surface. Three of the top 10 female singles players already said they will skip the U.S. Open due to travel and/or virus concerns, including No. 1 Ash Barty.

“Tennis is naturally a socially distanced sport, so it was kind of easy to go back and just walk on my side of the court and have my hitter walk on his side of the court,” Williams said.

The French Open starts two weeks after the U.S. Open ends. Williams was asked if she will fly to Europe for tournaments this autumn.

“I see myself doing it all, if it happens,” she said.

The Tokyo Olympics are too far away to make plans.

“We’ll have to kind of wait to see what happens in the fall,” she said. “One thing I have learned with this pandemic is don’t plan.”

MORE: Past U.S. Open champions get wild cards

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