Ashley Wagner, fickle field chase Olympics at figure skating nationals

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Next week, the U.S. women’s singles champion will be determined in San Jose.

The Olympic team of three women will also be decided by a committee behind the proverbial closed doors after the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

Neither competition is easily predictable.

The marquee event of the Winter Olympics has also been the most chaotic for U.S. figure skating over the last year.

It starts with Ashley Wagner, as it usually does.

The three-time U.S. champion and 2016 World silver medalist struggled last season, her least successful campaign in six years.

This year hasn’t been better. At 26, she is the oldest woman in next week’s field by two years.

“I have not had a good season at all,” said Wagner, who would finish fourth next week if every skater repeats her best score from fall events. “It’s frustrating as an athlete to train as hard as I do every day and then go out to competition and kind of freeze.”

Wagner’s longtime rival, Gracie Gold, is sitting out this season to treat depression, anxiety and an eating disorder.

Three others outscored Wagner this fall — upstart Bradie Tennell, 2010 Olympian Mirai Nagasu and training partner Mariah Bell.

A fourth, Karen Chen, was the top American at the two biggest events last season — nationals and worlds.

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So, who is the favorite next week?

“That’s not an answer you’re going to get from me,” Nagasu said. “It’s not important to me.”

What is important is finishing in the top three, which in most cases would be enough to get on the Olympic team.

But the feeling is that not everything will be resolved after the free skate one week from Friday. That night could be a restless one for some skaters, before the team is expected to be announced the next morning.

Especially after what happened in 2014 — fourth-place Wagner getting on the Olympic team over third-place Nagasu — and the committee’s discretionary criteria.

Six skaters to watch next week:

Ashley Wagner
Three-time U.S. champion
2016 World silver medalist
2017-18 U.S. ranking: 4th

The only woman in the field with a world medal said she feels “dramatically better” after withdrawing during her Skate America free skate due to an ankle infection on Nov. 26.

She received an antibiotics injection and was out of skates for a week, which was followed by an announcement that she changed her free skate program from “Moulin Rouge!” to “La La Land.”

Wagner’s biggest challenge is a familiar one for U.S. women — under-rotated jumps. Judges docked her on seven of her 13 jumping passes in the fall Grand Prix season, but panels at U.S. Championships are generally more forgiving.

Wagner would be the oldest U.S. Olympic women’s singles skater since 1928.

Karen Chen
2017 U.S. champion
4th at 2017 World Championships
2017-18 U.S. ranking: 6th

Chen has this going for her: The selection committee is tasked to weigh the 2018 U.S. Championships results equally with the 2017 World Championships. Chen was fourth at worlds, three spots ahead of Wagner and eight spots ahead of Bell.

An argument can be made that if the Olympic team is chosen today, the 18-year-old Kristi Yamaguchi protegé should be the No. 1 selection.

But Chen hasn’t looked like an Olympian this season. She was seventh and eighth at her two Grand Prix starts and sixth out of six skaters at the free-skate only Japan Open, struggling with jumps and voicing nervousness of the added pressure with the Olympics ahead.

Her season’s best score is a whopping 21.3 points behind the U.S. leader Tennell but only 5.76 shy of the third-best American woman from the fall. It might not require much of an improvement to land on the podium in San Jose.

Mirai Nagasu
4th at 2010 Olympics
2008 U.S. champion
2017-18 U.S. ranking: 2nd

The sentimental favorite next week after being bumped off the three-woman 2014 Olympic team despite finishing third at those nationals.

Nagasu was once the phenom of U.S. women’s skating.

She won her only national title in 2008 at age 14. She was fourth at the 2010 Olympics and topped the 2010 World Championships short program over the likes of Yuna Kim and Mao Asada (Nagasu disintegrated in the free skate and was seventh).

She faded after that. Nagasu boasts longevity — top seven at nine of the last 10 nationals — but competed at one world championships since 2010 (as an injury replacement).

This season brought a spark in the form of a triple Axel. She landed the toughest jump in senior women’s skating twice in September, becoming the second American to do so in international competition after Tonya Harding. (Nagasu’s landings were imperfect, however, two-footed).

Given what happened four years ago, does Nagasu have to win to force the committee to put her on the team?

“I don’t necessarily feel like I have to win,” she said, adding that she hasn’t decided if this will be her last nationals. “I want to be top two, because that [Olympics] team event is something I really want to be part of.”

Nagasu spoke of fearlessness and not shying from risk.

“It’s time to go in for the kill,” she said.

Bradie Tennell
2017 Skate America bronze medalist
2015 U.S. junior champion
2017-18 U.S. ranking: 1st

Ninth at last season’s nationals. Best U.S. woman this season. The 19-year-old from suburban Chicago is the face of unpredictability in U.S. women’s skating.

Tennell went into Skate America on Thanksgiving weekend as the highest-scoring American this season. She recorded more personal bests there — at her first Grand Prix — for the bronze medal. Her total was the highest by a U.S. woman in international competition since Wagner’s silver at the March 2016 Worlds.

“I did my job,” Tennell said then. “I think I have [put myself in the Olympic conversation].”

Tennell received positive grades of execution on all 15 of her jumps at Skate America with zero under-rotations. That stood out among the top U.S. women who struggled in the air this year.

She went off the radar after winning the 2015 U.S. junior title. Tennell was reportedly slowed by stress fractures in her lower back later in 2015 and in 2016, which may explain the ninth at last season’s nationals.

Mariah Bell
2017 U.S. bronze medalist
12th at 2017 World Championships
2017-18 U.S. ranking: 3rd

Joined Wagner’s training group in August 2016. Broke out by taking silver behind Wagner at last season’s Skate America and bronze behind Chen and Wagner at nationals.

The 21-year-old said she struggled with nerves at last season’s worlds — where she was 12th in her debut. She placed sixth and ninth in her two Grand Prix starts this fall (jumping problems), but her best score from this season is bettered only by Tennell and Nagasu.

Polina Edmunds
2014, 2016 U.S. silver medalist
9th at 2014 Olympics
2017-18 U.S. ranking: 13th

The youngest U.S. competitor across all sports in Sochi hasn’t been the same since the 2016 nationals. She went 20 months between competitions, missing the entire 2016-17 season due to a bone bruise in her right foot.

The Santa Clara University student was 10th and 13th in her two international events this fall, scoring 30 and 40 points shy of her personal best.

Edmunds was the pleasant surprise of the 2014 U.S. Championships and will need an even bigger shock to make a second Olympic team.

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Hayato Sakamoto, Japanese baseball MVP, tests positive for coronavirus

Hayato Sakamoto
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Hayato Sakamoto, an MVP of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) league, is one of two players from the Yomiuri Giants to test positive for the coronavirus, according to several Japanese media reports.

Sakamoto, a 31-year-old shortstop, and catcher Takumi Oshiro tested positive ahead of the NPB’s planned June 19 start to the season that had been delayed to the coronavirus.

The tests showed traces of the coronavirus, according to Kyodo News.

The Giants canceled Wednesday’s practice game with the Seibu Lions to limit the spread of the virus.

Sakamoto is the reigning Central League MVP. He has been called the Derek Jeter of Japan for playing the same position as the Yankee great and being the veteran captain of Japan’s equivalent club, the Giants, which own a record 22 Japan Series titles.

Sakamoto, who played in the last two World Baseball Classics, has been considered a lock for Japan’s baseball team at the Tokyo Games in 2021 as the most well known active player who hasn’t left for Major League Baseball. MLB is not expected to allow its top players to participate in the Olympics, which would keep the likes of Shohei Ohtani and Masahiro Tanaka off the Olympic roster.

The sport returns to the Olympic program for the first time since 2008, though it is not on the 2024 Olympic program nor guaranteed a place at the 2028 Los Angeles Games.

Japan reached the semifinals of all five Olympic baseball tournaments when the sport was previously on the medal program but never took gold.

In a 2018 survey, Sakamoto was ranked as Japan’s eighth-most popular athlete across all sports, foreign or domestic, active or retired.

Sky Brown, 11-year-old Olympic skateboard hopeful, suffers serious injuries in fall

Sky Brown Skateboard Fall
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Sky Brown, an 11-year-old British Olympic skateboarding hopeful, recently suffered her worst fall, requiring surgery, she said in a video posted from a hospital bed.

Brown suffered skull fractures and broke her left wrist and hand and was at first unresponsive upon arrival to a hospital, according to the BBC, which quoted her father.

Video of the fall from a skateboarding ramp was posted on her social media. She appeared to be wearing a helmet in the video.

“I don’t usually post my falls or talk about them because I want people to see the fun in what I do,” Brown said. “But this was my worst fall, and I just want everyone to know that, it’s OK, don’t worry. I’m OK. It’s OK to fall sometimes. I’m just going to get back up and push even harder. I know there’s a lot of things going on in the world right now. I want everyone to know that whatever we do, we’ve just go to do it with love and happiness.”

Brown is the 2019 World bronze medalist in the new Olympic sport’s park discipline.

Later Tuesday, Brown reposted an Instagram post from what appeared to be her father’s account. The caption of that post said Brown fell 15 feet to flat concrete.

“I held her in my arms and she bled helplessly moaning in and out of consciousness waiting for the helicopter to take her to the Hospital,” the caption read. “We spent the night sick and terrified not knowing if Sky was going to make it through the night, as the ICU team tried to get her conscious and kept her alive.

“4 days later Sky sits across from me with her full memory back, smiling, watching TikTok while Eating her favorite bad snacks.”

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Last week the worst thing I could ever ever imagined happened to @skybrown . She fell about 15ft off the side of a vert ramp to flat concrete. I held her in my arms and she bled helplessly moaning in and out of consciousness waiting for the helicopter to take her to the Hospital. We spent the night sick and terrified not knowing if Sky was going to make it through the night, as the ICU team tried to get her conscious and kept her alive. We prayed and begged God to give Sky another chance. Word came back while she was still unconscious, multiple fractures to her skull, a broken left arm, which she broke into pieces because she used it to break her fall, broken right fingers and lacerations to her heart and lungs. 4 days later Sky sits across from me with her full memory back, smiling, watching TikTok while Eating her favorite bad snacks. More importantly her Doctors and the trauma team say it’s a miracle how well she is dealing with the pain and recovering incredibly fast. They said it’s shocking and believe it’s because of her grit, positivity and attitude. Skys brother @oceanbrown has been so brave. He saw his sister fall to the ground lying in a pool of blood and was screaming in tears that night outside of the hospital. He has still not allowed into the hospital to see her. They miss each-other dearly, but no siblings are allowed to enter the hospital because of coronavirus. They’ve been spending hours a day on FaceTime with each other making funny faces to one another in fits of giggles and laughter. Sky promises Ocean daily that she will make a fast recovery so they can be together again. Sky is constantly joking and smiling and it’s hurts my heart to even imagine for a second a world without Sky; extremely thankful that I don’t have to. Thank you to the heroes that are the doctors, nurses and hospital staff that have tirelessly worked on her and helped her get to this point.

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