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Pairs vie for one Olympic spot at U.S. Figure Skating Championships

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When Alexa Scimeca Knierim dropped below 90 pounds in 2016, debilitated by a life-threatening illness, it was hard to believe she and her husband would arrive at this point, days before the Olympic team is named.

Alexa and Chris — the Knierims — are the prohibitive favorites to claim the lone U.S. Olympic pairs figure skating spot.

The U.S. will send its smallest pairs contingent to the Games since the first Winter Olympics in 1924. Pairs is the U.S.’ weakest figure skating discipline. No Olympic medals since 1988.

A U.S. Figure Skating committee will announce the Olympic team after the pairs free skate at nationals on Saturday.

The Knierims could be that team even if they are beaten in San Jose and haven’t won the national title since 2015.

That’s because the Knierims have been the top-scoring U.S. pair in international competition each of the last four seasons.

And because the committee chooses the Olympic figure skating team based not only on nationals results, but also on performances from the last year.

“We are in a good place with the criteria set out,” Chris Knierim said.

Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier won the U.S. title last season but were 20th at worlds, the main reason why the U.S. failed to qualify multiple pairs for the Olympics.

The Knierims were absent from last January’s nationals due to Alexa’s illness and three abdominal surgeries but returned and were 10th at worlds.

Denney and Frazier know that a repeat national crown might not be enough to get to PyeongChang.

“Whether we agree or disagree, our federation has every right to make their decisions,” Frazier said. “It is completely out of our control.”

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Alexa Scimeca Knierim/Chris Knierim
2015 U.S. champions
Top U.S. pair at last three world championships
2017-18 U.S. ranking: 1st

The top-scoring U.S. pair in international competition every season in this Olympic cycle. The wed in June 2016, during a stretch where Alexa suffered from a mysterious illness that kept them from training for seven months. She underwent three abdominal surgeries, resulting in a several-inch scar running north-south on her belly.

The Knierims returned to competition in February and immediately posted the highest score by a U.S. pair for the season. Then they were 10th at worlds, again better than any other U.S. pair in this Olympic cycle.

“Physically, I didn’t believe I would be able to be in the position I am today,” Scimeca Knierim said. “Grateful to have the chance to skate again.”

This season, the Knierims competed three times in the fall and posted the three highest scores by U.S. couples across all competitions. They’re ranked 16th in the world, struggling with side-by-side jumps but intending to bring back their quad twist this week.

Haven Denney/Brandon Frazier
2017 U.S. champions
Two-time Skate America silver medalists
2017-18 U.S. ranking: 5th

Denney and Frazier are the defending national champs and the only U.S. pair to make a Grand Prix podium in either of the last two seasons. Yet they are decided underdogs this week.

A big reason why was their 20th-place at worlds, counting two falls in the short program and failing to advance to the free skate. The disaster meant the U.S. qualified one pair spot for the Olympics rather than the two they had at the previous five Winter Games.

The former roller skating pairs team was seventh in both Grand Prix starts this fall, their lowest finishes in four senior seasons together.

Ashley Cain/Tim LeDuc
2017 U.S. bronze medalists
2017-18 U.S. ranking: 4th

They topped the short program at last season’s nationals eight months after first teaming up. LeDuc had not competed in pairs since the 2014 U.S. Championships. Cain was nearly 4 1/2 years removed from her last pairs event.

Cain and LeDuc go into nationals ranked fourth among U.S. pairs this season, but unlike the Olympic contenders ahead of them have not competed domestically. They counted at least one fall at all three of their international events in Italy, Germany and China.

Tarah Kayne/Danny O’Shea
2016 U.S. champions
2017-18 U.S. ranking: 7th

The surprise U.S. champions two seasons ago withdrew from last season’s nationals due to Kayne’s concussion after hitting her head in a short program fall. Kayne then underwent unrelated February right knee surgery.

In their return at an early December event, they scored 20 points lower than their personal best.

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New Zealand sweeps Rugby World Cup Sevens, celebrates with haka

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SAN FRANCISCO — New Zealand has won a World Cup Sevens double for the second time after the men’s team beat England 33-12 in San Francisco on Sunday to follow the Black Ferns’ win in the women’s tournament.

The New Zealand teams won the men’s and women’s titles in Russia in 2013 and again were dominant.

Sione Molia scored two of New Zealand’s five tries in the men’s final, and South Africa held off Olympic champion Fiji 24-19 to take bronze.

The weekend results mean New Zealanders are the men’s and women’s World Cup holders in the traditional 15-a-side rugby and the sevens.

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MORE: U.S. women get fourth at Rugby World Cup Sevens

Tour de France rider expelled for punching cyclist

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CARCASSONNE, FRANCE (AP) — Team Sky rider Gianni Moscon was expelled from the Tour de France on Sunday after he appeared to deliberately hit a fellow cyclist during the race.

The Italian lashed out at French rider Elie Gesbert of Team Fortuneo while both were competing during Stage 15 from Millau to Carcassonne.

“I’m sorry for today’s incident, and I totally regret my actions,” Moscon said. “I would like to personally apologize to Elie Gesbert…. What happened was wrong and was a bad example coming from me to everyone, and I want to publicly apologize. … I make no excuse for it and accept the decision of the race organizers.”

Team Sky director Dave Brailsford said the team would consider taking further action against Moscon after the Tour concludes next weekend.

The 24-year-old Moscon was suspended by Sky for six weeks last year for using a racial slur against an opponent.

His expulsion leaves Sky with seven riders.

Sky’s Geraint Thomas is leading the race ahead of teammate Chris Froome after 15 of 21 stages.

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