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Nathan Chen eyes biggest U.S. win since Sochi; Grand Prix Final preview

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In the nearly four years since the Sochi Olympics, U.S. skaters earned world championships medals and topped Grand Prix series events. Even captured world junior titles.

But this week, two months before PyeongChang, could come the most prestigious victory for a U.S. skater since Meryl Davis and Charlie White became the first U.S. Olympic ice dance champions.

This week is the Grand Prix Final, the second-biggest annual competition after the world championships. It’s also the most exclusive, taking the top six per discipline from the fall Grand Prix series.

And it’s the single biggest indicator of Olympic medal prospects among all pre-PyeongChang competitions this season.

There are six total U.S. entries at the Final in Nagoya, Japan, matching the nation’s biggest-ever contingent — three each in the men’s event and ice dance.

A preview of all four disciplines:

GRAND PRIX FINAL: TV Schedule | Entries/Rankings

MEN
U.S. champion Nathan Chen is the only undefeated male skater in the world this season. He enters Nagoya as a co-favorite at worst with world silver medalist Shoma Uno of Japan.

The world’s other top men’s skaters — world gold and bronze medalists Yuzuru Hanyu and Jin Boyang and two-time world champion Javier Fernandez — aren’t in Nagoya this week. Each dealt with illness or injury this fall but is expected to be fine for the Olympics, where they should join Chen and Uno as the medal favorites.

The absences would take some of the prestige out of a Chen win this week. But beating Uno — the highest-scoring man this season — and wiping away the memory of an error-filled Skate America free skate would be very beneficial.

The last U.S. singles skater to win the Grand Prix Final was Alissa Czisny in 2010. The last U.S. man, Evan Lysacek in 2009 en route to Olympic gold.

Chen and Uno are joined in Nagoya but the 2015 and 2016 U.S. champions — Jason Brown and Adam Rippon — and Russians Mikhail Kolyada and Sergei Voronov.

For Brown and Rippon, just getting to the Grand Prix Final boosts their resumes to be chosen by a committee for the three-man Olympic team following nationals in one month. Though Brown didn’t qualify for the Final outright. He got in with Jin’s withdrawal last week.

WOMEN
The winner here will likely not become the Olympic favorite.

That’s because Russian Yevgenia Medvedeva, undefeated for two years, is out with a broken foot (but expected back if not for the Russian Championships, then definitely the European Championships in January).

In her absence, training partner Alina Zagitova, the 15-year-old world junior champion, enters with the best credentials this season — aside from Medvedeva, the only woman to win both Grand Prix starts plus highest score in the world.

The most likely challengers are Olympic bronze medalist Carolina Kostner, runner-up to Medvedeva in her two Grand Prix starts, and Canadian Kaetlyn Osmond and Japanese Satoko Miyahara, past world silver medalists.

No American in the field for a second straight year.

ICE DANCE
The Grand Prix season brought a change. France’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, the world champions in 2015 and 2016, posted the two highest scores of all time in their two Grand Prix starts.

They broke the world record held by Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who won all three of their head-to-heads with the French last season, including at the world championships.

This will be their first head-to-head this season. It will determine the Olympic favorite.

Nobody else has been within five points of the French or Canadians this season, a clear dividing line in dance rankings.

The favorites to join them on the podium have to be U.S. champions Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani, who did just that at last season’s Grand Prix Final and worlds.

In winning Skate America, the Shibutanis posted the second-highest U.S. score under an eight-year system. It trailed only Davis and White from the Sochi Olympics.

Joining the Shibutanis at the Grand Prix Final for a third straight year are U.S. silver and bronze medalists Madison Chock and Evan Bates and Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue. Chock and Bates haven’t beaten the Shibutanis since the 2015 Grand Prix Final, and Hubbell and Donohue never have.

Those three couples are overwhelming favorites to make up the U.S. Olympic ice dance contingent named after nationals.

PAIRS
An event that looked wide open after last year’s Grand Prix Final has since been dominated by Chinese Sui Wenjing and Han Cong. They are the biggest favorites in this week’s field.

Sui and Han are undefeated since returning from Sui’s ankle and foot surgeries in February, including leading the world rankings by 10 points this season.

Their primary competition this week may be the world-record score of 237.71 set by Sochi Olympic champions Tatyana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov, who are no longer active. Sui and Han put up a personal-best 234.53 last time out.

A few teams are jockeying to be the primary challenger.

Russians Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov rank No. 2 in the world this season by total score and also won both of their Grand Prix starts.

Germans Aljona Savchenko and Bruno Massot, the world silver medalists, won the most recent Grand Prix, Skate America, with a personal-best free skate.

Canadians Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford and Russians Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov each have season’s best scores within 2.03 points of Tarasova and Morozov.

MORE: Figure skating season broadcast schedule

WATCH LIVE: U.S. Figure Skating Championships rhythm dance, women’s free skate

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Can Bradie Tennell hold off 14-year-old Alysa Liu? The U.S. Figure Skating Championships crowns its female medalists on Friday, live on NBC Sports.

Action starts with the rhythm dance at 4:30 p.m. ET for NBC Sports Gold subscribers, with NBCSN broadcast coverage joining in at 5. The women start at 7:25 on Gold, with NBC TV coverage starting at 8.

LIVE STREAM: Rhythm dance — Gold | NBCSN | Skate Order
LIVE STREAM: Women’s free skate — Gold | NBC | Skate Order

Tennell topped Thursday’s short program with a clean slate of jumps, plus the highest artistic score.

She bettered Liu in the short program last year, too, but fell in the free skate to take silver. Liu, meanwhile, landed two triple Axels to win by 3.92 points and become the youngest U.S. champion in history.

Another skater to watch is Gracie Gold, the two-time U.S. champion competing at nationals for the first time in three years. Gold, lauded for her return from an eating disorder, depression and anxiety, struggled with jumps in the short and is in 13th place of 18 skaters.

In the rhythm dance, past U.S. champions Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue and Madison Chock and Evan Bates are expected to begin a duel that should come down to Saturday’s free dance.

Key Skate Times
5:32 p.m. — Madison Hubbell/Zachary Donohue
5:38 — Kaitlin Hawayek/Jean-Luc Baker
5:44 — Madison Chock/Evan Bates
8:07 — Gracie Gold
10:03 — Karen Chen
10:11 — Amber Glenn
10:27 — Bradie Tennell
10:35 — Mariah Bell
10:43 — Alysa Liu

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NATIONALS: TV Schedule | Full Results

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

Iran’s only female Olympic medalist, who defected, eyes Tokyo Games as German or refugee

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LÜNEN, Germany (AP) — Iran’s only female Olympic medalist said Friday she wants to compete for Germany after defecting from her native country.

Kimia Alizadeh is trying to rebuild her life and career after she announced this month she had left Iran, citing sexism on the part of officials there.

“Even if I do not make it to the Olympics, it does not matter because I have made up my mind,” Alizadeh said at a meeting with journalists at a taekwondo club.

“I am sure that I will be judged by many, but I am just 21 years old and can attend world tournaments and future Olympics. However, I will spare no effort to get the best result at this time as well.”

She added she doesn’t expect ever to compete in Iran again.

Alizadeh was just 18 when she won bronze in taekwondo at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, catapulting her to instant fame at home. Despite Iran’s long history of victories in men’s wrestling and weightlifting, no Iranian woman had ever won a medal before.

However, Alizadeh was frustrated with life in Iran despite her Olympic success. In an Instagram post this month announcing she had left Iran, she accused Iranian officials of sexism and criticized wearing the mandatory hijab headscarf.

Alizadeh hasn’t given up hope of being able to compete at this year’s Olympics in Tokyo. However, getting there would require highly unusual exemptions from the usual rules on nationality switches and qualification, regardless of whether she tries to represent Germany or the International Olympic Committee’s refugee team.

Alizadeh spent time in the Netherlands before heading to Germany this week to meet with taekwondo officials there. The German Taekwondo Union has spoken up in favor of Alizadeh staying in the country in what it calls a first step toward her gaining nationality and becoming eligible to compete for Germany.

“If the German government assists me and I can go through this process as fast as possible, I might be able to make it to the Olympics, too,” she said.

In recent years, many Iranian athletes have left their country, citing government pressure. In September, the former world judo champion Saeed Mollaei moved to Germany after walking off the Iranian team at the world championships in Japan. He said Iranian officials had tried to force him to withdraw so as not to compete against an Israeli opponent.

Alireza Faghani, an Iranian international soccer referee, also left Iran for Australia last year.

Alizadeh said she just wants “a peaceful life,” and she’s not looking back.

“I have a great feeling to have made a decision for my life that would definitely change my future,” she said. “I think it is not even clear enough now and. in the years to come, I will understand what a good decision I made.”

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MORE: Full list of U.S. athletes qualified for Tokyo Olympics