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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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MORE: North Korea misses Olympic figure skating deadline, but door still open

Christian Coleman expects to be cleared in doping whereabouts case

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U.S. sprinter Christian Coleman, whose time of 9.81 seconds in the 100m is the fastest in the world this year, released a statement Saturday denying reports that he has missed three doping tests in 12 months, a “whereabouts” violation that could result in a two-year ban.

“I’m not a guy who takes any supplements at all, so I’m never concerned about taking drug tests, at any time,” Coleman said. “What has been widely reported concerning filing violations is simply not true. I am confident the upcoming hearing on September 4th will clear the matter and I will compete at World Championships in Doha this fall. Sometime after the hearing, I will be free to answer questions about the matter, but for now I must reserve and respect the process.”

U.S. Anti-Doping Agency records show the agency has tested Coleman 11 times through Aug. 20. The agency requires elite athletes to give “whereabouts,” a few details on where they expect to be each day, so that they may take out-of-competition tests.

The 23-year-old sprinter would be the heavy favorite in the world championships, following up his silver medal between Justin Gatlin and Usain Bolt in 2017, two months after he won the NCAA title. He is one of only eight athletes to break the 9.8-second mark in the 100m, and he posted the world’s best time in 2017 and 2018.

READ: Gatlin and Coleman beat Bolt in Jamaican star’s farewell championship

Since a loss to Noah Lyles in Shanghai in May, a race in which both Americans posted a time of 9.86, Coleman has won all three events he has entered — the Bislett Games in June, the Prefontaine Classic later in June, and the USATF Championships in July.

He withdrew from last week’s Diamond League meet in Birmingham.

The world championships start Sept. 27 in Doha.

U.S. men’s basketball roster named for FIBA World Cup, includes one Olympian

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Kemba Walker and one player with Olympic experience, Harrison Barnes, headline the U.S. roster for next month’s FIBA World Cup, where the U.S. is still expected to clinch its Tokyo Olympic spot despite an absence of the NBA’s best players and Saturday’s exhibition loss to Australia.

An injured Kyle Kuzma was dropped from the 13 finalists who gathered in Australia for pre-tournament exhibitions. Walker and Khris Middleton are the only two players on the team who were All-Stars last season. The full roster:

Harrison Barnes, Sacramento Kings
Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics
Joe Harris, Brooklyn Nets
Brook Lopez, Milwaukee Bucks
Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks
Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz
Mason Plumlee, Denver Nuggets
Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics
Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers
Kemba Walker, Boston Celtics
Derrick White, San Antonio Spurs

The U.S. group play schedule:

Sept. 1 vs. Czech Republic
Sept. 3 vs. Turkey
Sept. 5 vs. Japan

San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich will make his U.S. head coaching tournament debut at the World Cup, succeeding Mike Krzyzewski, who led the Americans to Olympic titles in 2008, 2012 and 2016.

Many notables dropped out before or during this month’s training camp and practices: including Olympians Anthony Davis, James Harden, Kevin Love and Kyle Lowry. Other 2020 Olympic hopefuls such as LeBron James and Stephen Curry withdrew before the camp roster was named.

It has become custom for the World Cup team to include few Olympians. The 2014 roster included two players from the London Olympics (Davis, Harden). The 2010 World Cup team had zero Beijing Olympians.

Saturday’s loss to Australia marked the U.S.’ first defeat with NBA players since the 2006 World Championship, snapping a 78-game win streak.

The U.S. will qualify for the Tokyo Games if it is one of the top two teams from the Americas at the World Cup. There is also a last-chance qualifying tournament next year.

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