Nathan Chen, Ashley Wagner
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Nathan Chen, Ashley Wagner headline Skate America; preview, TV schedule

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Nathan ChenAshley Wagner and Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani headline Skate America, live on NBC, NBCSN and the Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA this weekend.

Chen, Wagner and the Shibutani siblings, all reigning U.S. champions, seek berths in December’s Grand Prix Final, the biggest competition ahead of February’s Olympics.

The competition in Lake Placid, N.Y., is spread across three days.

Skate America broadcast schedule (all times ET)
Friday

Pairs Short — 6:30-7:30 p.m. (Olympic Channel) | SKATE ORDER
Men’s Short — 8-9:30 p.m. (Olympic Channel) | SKATE ORDER

Saturday
Pairs Free — 2-3:30 p.m. (Olympic Channel)
Men’s Free — 4-6 p.m. (NBC)
Short Dance — 7:30-9 p.m. (Olympic Channel) | SKATE ORDER
Women’s Short — 9-11 p.m. (NBCSN) | SKATE ORDER

Sunday
Free Dance — 2-3:30 p.m. (Olympic Channel)
Women’s Free — 4-6 p.m. (NBC)

All broadcasts will stream on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app. The Olympic Channel broadcasts will stream for subscribers on NBCSports.com/live, the NBC Sports app, OlympicChannel.com and the Olympic Channel app.

MORE: Figure skating season broadcast schedule

Men
Chen, the world’s second-ranked skater this season, will qualify for the Grand Prix Final with a finish of fourth or better. That shouldn’t be a problem.

The 18-year-old won his first two competitions this season, including beating Olympic and world champion Yuzuru Hanyu at his Grand Prix opener in Russia last month.

He landed six quadruple jumps between two programs in Russia but has the ability to add one or two more. He’ll face another quad king — China’s Jin Boyang, the world bronze medalist — in Lake Placid.

Both Chen and Jin should qualify for the Grand Prix Final, which takes the top six skaters per discipline from the fall Grand Prix series. The Final will be the single best indicator of Olympic medal favorites of all pre-Olympic competitions.

Chen broke out at last season’s Grand Prix Final, winning the free skate and placing second overall in his debut at the event. As of now, he’s a medal favorite along with Japan’s Shoma Uno, the top-ranked man in the world this season.

Chen’s training partner, Adam Rippon, will join him at the Grand Prix Final for a second straight year with a top-three finish at Skate America. It would mark an incredible comeback for the 28-year-old who was unable to defend his national title last season due to a broken foot.

The Olympic team of three men will be named after the U.S. Championships in January. The selections will be based not only on nationals results, but also on a skater’s body of work over the last two seasons.

Chen has all but wrapped up his first Olympic berth. Rippon can really boost his case with a second Grand Prix Final.

Women
Wagner, who also trains with Chen and Rippon in Southern California, is in must-win mode. Five of the six women’s spots for the Grand Prix Final are spoken for, and it will take a victory for Wagner to pass the clubhouse leader for the last spot.

Wagner has struggled since winning Skate America last season — sixth, seventh and third at her three international events. But this week’s field lacks Olympic medal favorites. It’s wide open.

Surprise world bronze medalist Gabrielle Daleman of Canada was sixth in her first two events this season.

Japanese Satoko Miyahara, the world’s second-best female skater last fall, missed last season’s worlds with a hip injury and then was sixth at her comeback event two weeks ago.

Then there’s Karen Chen, the surprise U.S. champion last season who turned more heads by placing fourth at worlds. She was seventh at her opening Grand Prix last month and is out of the running for the Grand Prix Final.

Another skater to watch is the third American in the field. Bradie Tennell, the top U.S. woman at last season’s junior worlds in seventh place, makes her senior Grand Prix debut.

Tennell actually has the highest score of any U.S. woman this season, 196.70 points at a low-level event in Italy in September. If Tennell can match it this week, she arguably becomes a favorite to make the three-woman Olympic team. She is ineligible for the Grand Prix Final because she didn’t receive two Grand Prix series assignments.

Ice Dance
The Shibutani siblings will make the Grand Prix Final with a finish of fourth or better.

No problem. The Skate America field lacks all of the other Olympic medal contenders from the U.S., Canada and France.

The Shibutanis go into Skate America seeking a repeat title and to reclaim the top spot in the U.S. rankings for the season.

U.S. bronze medalists Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue‘s score of 189.43 at Skate Canada bettered the Shibutanis’ total from Rostelecom Cup by .19 of a point.

Both couples’ scores are more than 10 points shy of the Olympic gold- and silver-medal favorites, Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France and Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada.

The U.S. Olympic team of three dance couples will be named after nationals. It would be a complete surprise if the team is anything different than the Shibutanis, Hubbell and Donohue and Madison Chock and Evan Bates.

Those three U.S. couples should make up half of the Grand Prix Final field for a third straight year.

Pairs
Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot and Canadians Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford are the class of this field.

Savchenko and Massot (a Frenchman attempting to gain German citizenship to compete in the Olympics) will make the Grand Prix Final with a top-two finish. They haven’t been lower than second in any event since the 2016 Worlds.

Duhamel and Radford, the 2015 and 2016 World champions who struggled last season, bounced back to win Skate Canada last month. A podium at Skate America would be enough to reach a seventh straight Grand Prix Final, the longest active streak across all disciplines.

Neither pair has been within 10 points this season of Chinese world champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, who aren’t competing at Skate America but will be the favorites at the Grand Prix Final.

A competition within the competition at Skate America will happen in U.S. pairs. The first- and fourth-place finishers at from last season’s nationals, plus the top U.S. pair from last season’s worlds, are all in this field.

The U.S. can send only one pair to the Olympics. Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim are in the driver’s seat despite missing last season’s nationals due to her life-threatening abdominal condition.

The Knierims are 10 points clear of any other U.S. pair this season.

Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier, who won the national title in the Knierims’ absence, struggled to a seventh-place finish at their opening Grand Prix last month.

Then there are Deanna Stellato and Nathan Bartholomay, who make a great story. Bartholomay is on his second partner since splitting with 2014 Olympic teammate Felicia Zhang.

Stellato, 34, is making her first Grand Prix appearance since 2000, when she was a singles skater in her only senior international season before injuries forced retirement.

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Ragan Smith finds joy in college gymnastics after life-changing decision

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Ragan Smith, after her first two weeks of college gymnastics, quickly pointed out the coolest part of competing for the Oklahoma Sooners. It’s the noise that erupts on the last pass of her floor exercise, or upon her dismount off the uneven bars or balance beam.

They are similar sounds to what drew her to commit to Oklahoma back in 2015, when she was 15 years old.

“The girls in practice were all cheering for each other,” she recalled in a phone interview earlier this month.

Last spring, Smith called Oklahoma coach K.J. Kindler with a request. The Texan wanted to enroll at OU that summer, a year earlier than planned. Originally, Smith committed to the university with the intention of deferring until after the 2020 Olympic season.

Smith, a Rio Olympic alternate in her first year at the senior elite level, began this Olympic cycle in 2017 by winning the U.S. all-around title. Granted, the triumph came during Simone Biles‘ one-year break. But consider that Smith’s margin of victory — 3.4 points — was greater than Biles’ average margin for her four national titles from 2013-16.

Everything changed for Smith on Oct. 6, 2017. Minutes before she was to compete as the favorite in the world championships all-around, she suffered an ankle injury warming up on vault (reportedly three torn ligaments). She was withdrawn from the meet and fought injuries for the rest of her elite career.

In calling Kindler last spring, Smith signaled she was ready to move on from Olympic-level or “elite” gymnastics. It is possible for collegians to compete at U.S. Championships or Olympic trials, but no woman with NCAA experience has made any of the last three Olympic teams.

“I felt like my time was done in elite,” said Smith, whose mother and aunt competed for Auburn and Maryland, respectively. “I really just wanted to move on with my life and everything.”

Kindler was walking in an academic center on campus when Smith called her last spring.

“[Smith] said, ‘I was in the shower, and I was thinking, and I think I really, really want to come,'” Kindler said. “‘My body is ready to be done with elite gymnastics, and my mind is ready to move forward, and I would love to come to school this year. Is there a spot for me?’

“We saved a spot in case she changed her mind [about waiting until after the Olympics], but the plan was always for her to defer. We never talked about anything else, so I was very surprised by the phone call.”

Kindler urged Smith to think it over. Discuss it with her elite coach, 1991 World all-around champion Kim Zmeskal.

“[Zmeskal] and I had a really good understanding of what Ragan’s goals were, which is why I think it had to be Ragan’s decision,” Kindler said. “I didn’t want to place any influence on anything. Kim thinks the world of Ragan. She was in full support. Her and I texted back and forth and spoke about it. She said she wanted Ragan to think about it a little bit, and she did do that, and still had decided that this was for her. I think Kim supported that decision, just as I said I would support whatever she wanted to do.”

Smith shared the news on July 7.

“I have moved on from the 1st chapter of my life and on to the 2nd,” was posted on her Instagram, accompanied by a photo of her in a crimson leotard. “I am so excited to be joining the class of 2019.”

Smith joined the defending national champion program, one that captured three of the last four NCAA titles. By enrolling a year early, Smith gets to be teammates with senior Maggie Nichols.

Nichols was second to Biles at the 2015 U.S. Championships, making her a bona fide contender for the Rio Olympic team. Early in 2016, Nichols tore a meniscus on a vault landing and underwent arthroscopic knee surgery. She announced retirement from elite gymnastics two days after finishing sixth at the Olympic trials, one spot behind Smith, and not being named to the Olympic team.

Smith said she has already benefited from Nichols’ experience, coming to her with questions to aid her transition.

“What an incredible opportunity to have Ragan and Maggie on the same team,” Kindler said.

The Sooners are 9-0 this year and 26-0 since the start of 2019. Smith was named Big 12 Newcomer of the Week each of the season’s first three weeks. Not incredibly surprising, given Smith’s pedigree.

Perhaps more notable: Kindler said Smith hasn’t had a single ankle problem since arriving in Norman in July.

Back in August 2018, Smith said the ankle still hurt sometimes, that she had not completed a practice without pain that whole year and a coach joked to her, “You already have a 100-year-old body.”

Smith is competing easier routines collegiately than as an elite, as is the norm. But Kindler found that her passion for the sport has not waned.

“As an elite athlete, you don’t necessarily have to learn anything when you come to college,” Kindler said. “In fact, you can scale back what you’re doing, but I feel like she has a real eagerness to continue to refine what she’s doing and to learn new skills. She wants to continue to get better, and I love that about her.”

At her first college meet, Smith remembered the feeling of adrenaline brought on by competing not just for herself, but for women with whom she will call teammates week in and week out for the coming years.

“I didn’t want to let go of elite because it’s been, like, my whole life and my dream and everything,” said Smith, who was inspired by McKayla Maroney‘s 2012 Olympic vault and then had a dog named Rio. “But at the same time, my mind was telling me to come to college and have fun. I’m glad I made that decision, because I love it here.”

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Dustin Johnson wonders if Olympic golf will properly fit into his schedule

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Dustin Johnson, the world’s fifth-ranked golfer, said he isn’t sure the Tokyo Olympics will fit well into his schedule, assuming he qualifies for what will be a very competitive U.S. team of four.

“Obviously representing the United States in the Olympics is something that, you know, definitely be proud to do,” he said when asked if the Ryder Cup and the Olympics are goals this year. “But is it going to fit in the schedule properly? I’m not really sure about that, because there’s so many events that are right there and leading up to it. So you know, I’m still working with my team to figure out what’s the best thing for me to do.”

Johnson, the 2016 U.S. Open winner and world No. 1 in 2017 and 2018, is the third-highest ranked American at the moment behind Brooks Koepka (who also spoke about the Olympics on Tuesday, saying they’re not as important as majors) and Justin Thomas.

Johnson is ranked one spot ahead of Tiger Woods, who has voiced intent to play in Tokyo should he qualify.

But the current world rankings, based on a two-year, rolling window of results, do not exactly mirror Olympic qualifying, which takes into account only results after the 2018 U.S. Open. Rankings guru @VC606 on Twitter has Thomas, Koepka, Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay as the current U.S. top four in Olympic qualifying. Woods is fifth and Johnson seventh.

The cutoff to determine the Olympic field of 60 golfers overall is after the U.S. Open in June.

The Olympic golf tournament is July 30-Aug. 2. There is no PGA Tour event that weekend. The FedEx Cup Playoffs start two weeks after the Olympics. Last season, Johnson did not play the tournaments that will immediately precede and follow the Olympics — the 3M Open and the Wyndham Championship.

Johnson did qualify for the Rio Olympics but withdrew a month before the Games, citing Zika virus concerns as other golfers did.

“This was not an easy decision for me, but my concerns about the Zika virus cannot be ignored,” Johnson said in a statement at the time. “[Wife] Paulina and I plan to have more children in the near future, and I feel it would be irresponsible to put myself, her or our family at risk.”

Paulina gave birth to their second son in June 2017.

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