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

In a tie, Wendy Holdener puts to rest a remarkable stat in Alpine skiing

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Swiss Wendy Holdener ended one of the most remarkable victory droughts in sports by tying for the win with Swede Anna Swenn Larsson in a World Cup slalom in Killington, Vermont, on Sunday.

Holdener, after 15 second-place finishes and 15 third-place finishes in her career, stood on the top step of a World Cup slalom podium for the first time. She shared it with Swenn Larsson, who had six World Cup slalom podiums before Sunday and also earned her first win.

They beat Austrian Katharina Truppe by .22 of a second combining times from two runs.

ALPINE SKIING: Full Results | Broadcast Schedule

Holdener, 29, previously won three World Cups in other disciplines, plus two world championships in the combined and Olympic and world titles in the team event.

“To be tied first when I came into the finish was such a relief,” Holdener said while shoulder to shoulder with Swenn Larsson. “On the end, it’s perfect, because now we can share our first win together.”

Mikaela Shiffrin had the best first-run time but lost her lead midway through the second run and finished fifth. Shiffrin, who won the first two slaloms this season last weekend, was bidding for a 50th World Cup slalom victory and a sixth win in six slaloms in Killington.

“I fought. I think some spots I got a little bit off my timing, but I was pushing, and that’s slalom,” she said before turning her attention to Holdener and Swenn Larsson. “It’s a pretty special day, actually.”

The women’s Alpine skiing World Cup moves next weekend to Lake Louise, Alberta, with two downhills and a super-G.

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Injured Ilia Malinin wins Grand Prix Finland, qualifies for Grand Prix Final

Ilia Malinin
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Ilia Malinin, competing “a little bit injured” this week, still won Grand Prix Finland and goes into the Grand Prix Final in two weeks as the world’s top-ranked male singles skater.

Malinin, who was second after Friday’s short program, landed four clean quadruple jumps in Saturday’s free skate to overtake Frenchman Kevin Aymoz.

Malinin, who landed a quad flip in competition for the first time, according to SkatingScores.com, also attempted a quad Axel to open his program, but spun out of the landing and put his hand down on the ice.

Malinin also won his previous two starts this season in come-from-behind fashion. The 17-year-old world junior champion became the first skater to land a clean, fully rotated quad Axel in September, then did it again in October at Skate America, where he posted the world’s top overall score this season.

Next, Malinin can become the second-youngest man to win the Grand Prix Final after Russian Yevgeny Plushenko. His biggest competition is likely to be world champion Shoma Uno of Japan, who like Malinin won both of his Grand Prix starts this fall. Malinin and Uno have not gone head-to-head this season.

Grand Prix Finland highlights air on NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app on Sunday at 3:30 p.m. ET.

FIGURE SKATING: Results | Broadcast Schedule

Earlier, Japan’s Mai Mihara overtook world silver medalist Loena Hendrickx of Belgium to become the only woman to win both of her Grand Prix starts this season. Mihara prevailed by .23 of a point. The top three women this season by best total score are Japanese, led by a junior skater, 14-year-old Mao Shimada, who isn’t Olympic age-eligible until 2030.

Mihara and Hendrickx qualified for the Grand Prix Final, joining world champion Kaori Sakamoto and Rinka Watanabe, both of Japan, South Korean Yelim Kim and American Isabeau Levito, the world junior champion.

Italians Rebecca Ghilardi and Filippo Ambrosini won both pairs’ programs and qualified for their first Grand Prix Final.

Japan’s Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara and Americans Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier headline the Final. Both pairs won each of their Grand Prix starts earlier this fall. The Japanese have the world’s two best scores this season. The Americans are reigning world champions.

At least one Russian or Chinese pair made every Grand Prix Final podium — usually pairs from both countries — but neither nation competed in pairs this Grand Prix season. All Russian skaters are banned due to the war in Ukraine. China’s lone entry on the Grand Prix across all disciplines was an ice dance couple.

Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier improved on their world-leading score for this season in winning the ice dance by 17.03 points over Americans Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker. Both couples qualified for the Grand Prix Final in the absence of all three Olympic medalists this fall.

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