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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Grigory Rodchenkov, Russian doping whistleblower, still lives in fear

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His head covered in a black balaclava, adjusting dark goggles obscuring his eyes, Grigory Rodchenkov grows anxious if any part of his face can be seen.

Exposing Russia’s state-sponsorship doping scheme forced Rodchenkov into hiding in the United States five years ago. Revealing his current identity is still too risky for the chemist turned whistleblower, even in a video interview from an undisclosed location.

“It’s my security measures because I have physical threats to be assassinated,” Rodchenkov told The Associated Press. “And I want to live.”

Evidence from Rodchenkov that has already turned Vladimir Putin‘s Russia into international sporting outcasts continues to be used in cases against athletes along with data from his former laboratory in Moscow.

“Putin, he is quite logical. He separates opposition in two ways — enemies … betrayers,” Rodchenkov said. “I am falling in the betrayers’ category and all betrayers should be beheaded, cut, dead. So there is no doubt that he wants me to be dead.”

It has not deterred him from documenting his life story in “The Rodchenkov Affair: How I Brought Down Putin’s Secret Doping Empire,” revisiting how he conspired with his country to corrupt sports and then tries to show contrition by turning star witness.

Rodchenkov was the brains behind the Duchess cocktail of anabolic steroids and cover-up that turned Russia into a medal machine at the home Olympics in Sochi in 2014, topping the standings with 13 gold medals before disqualifications.

Russian spies ensured the Duchess would not be detected in doping tests as FSB agents used a hole in the wall of the Sochi laboratory to swap out the dirty samples with clean urine at night.

“For me, it was the end of doping control,” Rodchenkov said. “If we can do it, why others cannot?”

The doping cover-up extended beyond the Winter Olympics, into the Summer Games, Paralympics, world track and field championships and every major sport.

Some Russians were barred from competing at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Games and 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games as the International Olympic Committee remains opposed to blanket bans on countries.

So Russian athletes can still compete on the international stage if they can show they are clean, despite a four-year ban from major international sporting events being imposed on the nation last year for a fresh cover-up, including tampering with data gained from Rodchenkov’s former lab in Moscow.

“Sport is a part of Putin’s politics and showing to the West how good Russia is,” Rodchenkov said. “You cannot trust Russia. You cannot trust the certification authorities, and (anti-doping) laboratories cannot be allowed to be restored within the foreseeable future.”

Especially now, according to Rodchenkov, following constitutional changes allowing Putin to run for two more six-year terms, in 2024 and 2030,

“Until 2036,” Rodchenkov said, “no trust.”

But why now trust Rodchenkov as he presents a virtuous image at odds with his deep collusion with the state to cheat?

“When you are laboratory director and you have 50 employees and you are reporting to your high ups at the ministry, I could not even think about morals,” he said, dismissing concerns about any long-term damage to the health of athletes he allowed to be pumped with steroids.

“It’s extremely debatable and still ungrounded,” he said. “We see the generation who is now in the end of their lives of 70s and 80s, which are still … in a good physical condition after steroid programs.”

Go back four decades and Rodchenkov was starting out in a Soviet system learning how to manipulate doping controls.

“I had honestly, I’m sorry, but I had huge feelings of accomplishment,” he said. “Those athletes I helped to (win) were extremely talented and I could not understand, with the coach, how he or she may lose to others. The only explanation was doping. Then using some programs, we won gold medals. Honestly it was like leveling the field.

“Again, ‘morals’ is maybe vocabulary from American life but not from Soviet and Russian. In (the) Soviet (Union) it was the Soviet moral, in Russia there is no morals.”

It helps when the athletes are compliant.

“This is the huge problem of the militarization of Russia sport,” Rodchenkov said. “They follow orders, they are disciplined but they cannot tell the truth because they have given the oath to the Russian state and consider foreigners as potential enemies or even actual enemies. That’s why in Russia there are three ways – lying, cheating and denying.”

Rodchenkov has had to convince the world he has shed those ways and is coming clean. More of the cases he helped to cover-up could soon come to light after the World Anti-Doping Agency shared data – of samples tested up to 2015, and tampering that continued into 2019 – that was retrieved from the Moscow testing lab at the heart of the state-backed doping program.

“The problem is that the people from outside cannot understand what is going on inside sports,” he said. “Only whistleblowers could do that. But in corrupted countries you have to escape and we need to be preserved.”

For Rodchenkov that means living a life constantly in fear of being recognized as happened on a train in the US.

“It was a student,” he recalled. “I told him, `Forget you are meeting me, yes it’s me, don’t tell anyone.’ … I disappeared again.”

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Noah Lyles, more world champs race in Monaco; TV, live stream schedule

Noah Lyles
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Noah Lyles headlines a bevy of world champions slated for the first full-on Diamond League meet of the abbreviated track and field season, live on NBC Sports on Friday.

Monaco hosts the strongest fields of any meet since the world championships 10 months ago. Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA and NBC Sports Gold air coverage on Friday at 2 p.m. ET.

Reigning world champions include Lyles (200m), Grant Holloway (110m hurdles), Donavan Brazier (800m) and Sam Kendricks (pole vault), and those are just the Americans.

Swede Mondo Duplantis, who twice raised the pole vault world record in February, takes on Kendricks in Monaco. Distance stars Sifan Hassan, Hellen Obiri, Beatrice Chepkoech, Timothy Cheruiyot and Joshua Cheptegei dot the fields, too.

The Diamond League season was due to start in April, but the coronavirus pandemic halted large-gathering track meets until now. Repurposed versions of Diamond League meets in Oslo and Zurich were held the last two months with fewer events and athletes and some entrants racing from different countries.

After Monaco, more Diamond League meets are scheduled for Stockholm (Aug. 23), Lausanne (Sept. 2), Brussels (Sept. 4), Naples (Sept. 17), Doha (Sept. 25) and China (Oct. 17).

Here are the Monaco entry lists. Here’s the schedule of events (all times Eastern):

1:40 p.m. ET — Men’s Pole Vault
2:03 — Men’s 110m Hurdles
2:05 — Women’s High Jump
2:12 — Men’s 800m
2:17 — Women’s Triple Jump
2:19 — Women’s 5000m
2:42 — Men’s 400m Hurdles
2:50 — Women’s 100m
2:57 — Men’s 1500m
3:07 — Women’s 400m
3:13 — Men’s 5000m
3:32 — Men’s 200m
3:39 — Women’s 100m
3:47 — Men’s 3000m Steeplechase

Here are five events to watch (statistics via Tilastopaja.org):

Men’s Pole Vault — 1:40 p.m.
The top field event of the meet includes the reigning Olympic champion (Brazil’s Thiago Braz), reigning world champion (Kendricks) and the world-record holder (Duplantis, who must be the favorite here). Kendricks and Duplantis already went head-to-head this spring, competing virtually from respective home pole-vault setups. Kendricks took their first six head-to-heads, back when Duplantis was a teenager, but the Louisiana-born Swede won all four of their indoor duels in February. Duplantis is the clear Tokyo Olympic favorite until proven otherwise.

Men’s 800m — 2:12 p.m.
The top four from the 2019 World Championships are entered. Brazier, 23, caught fire the last year. He broke the American record to win the world title. He broke his own American indoor record in February. Then, last month, Brazier took 1.33 seconds off his 1500m personal best. Nobody in the Monaco field has beaten Brazier since the start of 2018.

Women’s 5000m — 2:19 p.m.
Ethiopian-born Dutchwoman Sifan Hassan in world champion at 1500m and 10,000m, but she’s lost four of five meetings with two-time world champion Hellen Obiri of Kenya at 5000m. Hassan appears to be gearing up to race the 5000m in Tokyo, though, saying last month her eye was on a 1500m-5000m Olympic double had the Games been held this year. The 1500m preliminary heats and the 5000m final are separated by about 12 hours at the Olympics next year. Also in this field: three-time Olympian and former American record holder Shannon Rowbury, set for her first Diamond League race in nearly three years and since the birth of daughter Sienna.

Men’s 1500m — 2:57 p.m.
Last we saw Kenyan Timothy Cheruiyot in a 1500m, he led wire-to-wire en route to a 2.12-second victory in the world championships final. Only one man has beaten Cheruiyot in three years, countryman Elijah Manangoi, who is provisionally suspended due to whereabouts failures. The Monaco field does include Norwegian Jakob Ingebrigtsen (second-fastest man of 2019), Ethiopian Yomif Kejelcha (indoor mile world-record holder), Pole Marcin Lewandowski (world bronze medalist) and Craig Engels (2019 U.S. champion who was 10th at worlds).

Men’s 200m — 3:32 p.m.
Lyles and younger brother Josephus Lyles go head-to-head for the first time since January 2017. Noah has lost just one outdoor 200m since placing fourth at the 2016 Olympic Trials coming out of high school. Josephus, primarily a 400m sprinter in his developmnt, last month took a half-second off a five-year-old 200m personal best. His new best time — 20.24 seconds — would have placed third at the 2019 USATF Outdoor Championships behind Noah (19.78) and Christian Coleman (20.02).

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