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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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Beatrice Chepkoech crushes steeplechase world record (video)

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Kenyan Beatrice Chepkoech crushed the 3000m steeplechase world record by eight seconds at a Diamond League meet in Monaco on Friday.

Chepkoech clocked 8:44.32, easily beating Olympic champion Ruth Jebet‘s mark of 8:52.78. Coincidentally, the IAAF confirmed Friday that Bahrain’s Jebet, who was born in Kenya, has been suspended the last five months after testing positive for EPO.

Between Jebet and Chepkoech, the steeple world record has come down 14 seconds since the Rio Games. Chepkoech began competition running in 2011 and didn’t concentrate on the steeplechase until 2016.

“I was thinking maybe I can break 8:50, but not at all was I dreaming about 8:44,” Chepkoech said, according to meet organizers.

Chepkoech, 27, was best-known for missing the first water jump in the 2017 World Championships final, retracing her steps and recovering to finish fourth. That helped lead the way to the stunning U.S. one-two finish with Emma Coburn and Courtney Frerichs.

In Friday’s race, Frerichs broke Coburn’s American record by clocking 9:00.85 for second place.

Full Monaco results are here. The Diamond League moves to London for a two-day meet Saturday and Sunday (broadcast/stream info here).

In other Monaco events, Caster Semenya clocked her second-fastest 800m of all time to extend her near-three-year win streak. The Olympic and world champion clocked 1:54.60. Semenya’s personal best is still .97 shy of the world record.

“Today wanted to break 1:54 but maybe next time,” Semenya said. “I was not thinking about the world record today and actually it is not on my mind.”

A pursuit of the 35-year-old mark will be impacted severely if an IAAF rule limiting testosterone in female middle-distance runners goes into effect next season as scheduled. Semenya is challenging it to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Noah Lyles won the 200m in 19.65 seconds, the world’s fastest time since Usain Bolt‘s last world title in 2015. Lyles, the U.S. 100m champion, remained undefeated in outdoor 200m races since finishing fourth at the Olympic Trials as an 18-year-old.

Lyles did a somersault when introduced before the race and a standing back flip celebrating afterward.

Olympic champion Shaunae Miller-Uibo won the 400m in the world’s fastest time in nine years — 49.97 seconds — edging world silver medalist Salwa Eid Naser of Bahrain. Naser, 20, ran 49.08, destroying her Asian record of 49.55, but lost for the first time in nearly one year.

Botswana’s Nijel Amos ran the world’s fastest 800m since the epic 2012 Olympic final, clocking 1:42.14 against a field that did not include injured world-record holder David Rudisha.

Marie-Josée Ta Lou of the Ivory Coast won a deep 100m in 10.89 seconds, confirming she is currently the world’s fastest woman. Ta Lou also has the fastest time in the world this year of 10.85 and hasn’t lost over 100m in 2018. The race lacked world champion Tori Bowie, while Olympic champion Elaine Thompson was third in 11.02.

Kenyan Timothy Cheruiyot took the 1500m in the fastest time in the world since the 2015 Monaco meet — 3:28.41. Cheruiyot, who came to Monaco with the world’s top three times this year, edged world champion Elijah Manangoi (3:29.64).

Norway’s Jakob Ingebrigtsen, 17, was fourth in 3:31.18, taking 2.54 seconds off the U18 world record and nearly six seconds off his personal best, according to the IAAF. U.S. Olympic champion Matthew Centrowitz was seventh in 3:31.77, his fastest time since Monaco 2015.

World silver medalist Soufiane El Bakkali became the first steeplechaser to break eight minutes in three years. The Moroccan won in 7:58.15, while U.S. Olympic silver medalist Evan Jager was second in 8:01.02.

Two-time Olympic champion Christian Taylor beat Cuban-born Portuguese rival Pedro Pablo Pichardo in the triple jump, leaping 17.86 meters.

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Suspect confesses to Denis Ten killing

AP
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MOSCOW (AP) — One of two men detained in Kazakhstan on suspicion of killing Olympic figure skating medalist Denis Ten has confessed, authorities said Friday.

Prosecutor Berik Zhuyrektayev said in a televised statement that Nuraly Kiyasov “confessed his guilt in the presence of an attorney” while being questioned over the 25-year-old skater’s death Thursday in the Kazakh city of Almaty.

The prosecutor didn’t give further details of what exactly Kiyasov had said.

Police have also detained 23-year-old Arman Kudaibergenov in connection with Ten’s death, which has prompted national mourning. Authorities released a picture of the disheveled-looking man being held by masked men wearing body armor and camouflage uniforms.

Ten was stabbed after a dispute with people who allegedly tried to steal a mirror from his car in his home city of Almaty. He died in hospital of massive blood loss from multiple wounds, the Kazinform news agency said.

Prosecutors are treating his death as murder.

Kazinform reported that Kiyasov was taken to the scene of the crime under heavy security Friday as part of the investigation.

Ten’s bronze in Sochi in 2014 made him Kazakhstan’s first Olympic medalist in figure skating. He also won the Four Continents Championships in 2015 and was a world silver medalist in 2013.

He struggled with injuries in recent years and could only finish 27th at the PyeongChang Olympics.

Ten had been working on a script in recent months which the Kazakh-Russian director Timur Bekmambetov said Friday would now be turned into a movie.

“We’re definitely going to try to realize his idea and shoot a film dedicated to this multi-talented person,” Bekmambetov said in comments released by Kazakhstan’s embassy to Russia. “In his 25 years, Ten managed to do very much and had grand plans which he would surely have put into practice because he was a real hard worker.”

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