U.S. Olympic team full of surprises, stars; what’s left for PyeongChang

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Nearly half of the U.S. Olympic team was named last week. After several surprises, a few more big names look to clinch their spots in the coming days.

NBC’s coverage of the PyeongChang Winter Games begins in exactly one month on Feb. 8.

Here’s a look at where the U.S. Olympic team stands:

It will end up including more than 200 athletes. One week ago, there were 44 qualified athletes.

Now, there are 127 qualified athletes (full list here), including the entire figure skating and speed skating teams, plus the bulk of the hockey teams.

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Key storylines from qualifiers so far:

Nathan Chen (figure skating): The only undefeated male singles skater this season won by a whopping 40 points at nationals with seven quadruple jumps between two programs. The 19-year-old will go up against Japanese stars Yuzuru Hanyu and Shoma Uno as the medal favorites in PyeongChang.

Bradie Tennell (figure skating): Largely an unknown a few months ago, Tennell leaned on consistent jumping to win her first U.S. title, one year after placing ninth at nationals. She is unquestionably the best U.S. woman, but an individual Olympic medal will be a tall ask. She ranks 14th in the world this season.

Adam Rippon and Mirai Nagasu (figure skating): These two veterans told incredible comeback stories to make the team. Rippon, at 28, is the oldest U.S. Olympic rookie singles skater since 1936. The only man to win two world junior titles waited eight years to make it to the Games. He barely qualified, being placed on the team over runner-up Ross Miner after placing fourth at nationals.

Nagasu won her first national title at age 14 in 2008. Then she finished fourth at the 2010 Olympics. She was third at the 2014 Nationals but left off that Olympic team for fourth-place Ashley Wagner. Nagasu wiped away the tears and added a new jump this season, becoming the second American after Tonya Harding to land a triple Axel in international competition. That move helped her get second at nationals and return to the Olympics.

Mikaela Shiffrin (Alpine skiing): Shiffrin became the youngest Olympic slalom champion in Sochi at age 18. She’s since blossomed into the world’s best all-around skier, including winning six of the last seven World Cup races. Shiffrin is now favored for three gold medals in PyeongChang, which would match the record for an Alpine skier at one Winter Games.

New-look hockey teams: The U.S. men’s hockey team includes no NHL players for the first time since 1994. That means a roster mixed with collegians, minor-leaguers and guys playing for European-league teams. The captain is Brian Gionta, the leading goal scorer on the 2006 Olympic team who is currently without a club team.

The U.S. women return 10 Olympians, but there are many changes from the team that lost to Canada in an overtime Olympic final four years ago. The new coach is 1990s NHL goalie Robb Stauber. All three goalies are rookie Olympians. The final two cuts were veterans from Sochi and several world championship teams.

Breaking barriers: Ghana-born 17-year-old Maame Biney is the first African-American woman to make an Olympic short track speed skating teamErin Jackson, a former roller derby skater, became the first African-American woman to make a long-track speed skating Olympic team, four months after picking up the sport full-timeJordan Greenway, a Boston College junior, is the first African-American hockey player to make the Olympic team.

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Athletes who surprisingly missed the Olympic team:

Ashley Wagner (figure skating): The three-time U.S. champion and 2016 World silver medalist finished fourth at the national championships last week. She was left off the three-woman Olympic team by a selection committee that didn’t feel she had strong enough results the past year to merit bumping one of the top three finishers from nationals.

Jason Brown (figure skating): The only man with Olympic experience at this year’s nationals had a disastrous free skate. Brown fell from third to sixth and out of the PyeongChang picture. The bubbly Brown was a sensation four years ago with his “Riverdance” free skate and was hoping to perform to the “Hamilton” soundtrack in South Korea.

Alex Carpenter (hockey): The last forward cut from the U.S. women’s hockey team. Carpenter, the daughter of longtime NHL forward Bobby Carpenter, led the U.S. with four goals in Sochi and scored the 2016 World Championship final game-winning goal in overtime against Canada. She played in the last four world championships.

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Remaining qualifying storylines:

Shaun White (snowboarding): The rest of the Olympic snowboarding team will be determined at qualifiers the next two weekends. White, the 2006 and 2010 halfpipe gold medalist, finished fourth in Sochi. Rededicated, he’s in strong position to automatically qualify at one of the last two qualifiers, despite needing 62 face stitches after a preseason crash. Even if he struggles, there is a safety net. The last spot on the team is chosen by a committee, and White certainly has a strong resume to state his case.

Lindsey Vonn (Alpine skiing): There’s no doubt the 33-year-old is going to PyeongChang. She can officially clinch her spot as early as this weekend with her first World Cup races since a holiday break. Known for crashing and winning, Vonn has done both this season and remains a favorite to become the oldest female Olympic Alpine medalist.

Gus Kenworthy (freestyle skiing): The world’s best freeskier hopes to make the Olympic team in both halfpipe and slopestyle (should be four men in each event). But it’s not an easy task. In slopestyle, Kenworthy is going up against two Olympic medalists (Joss Christensen and Nick Goepper), the world champion (McRae Williams) and another Sochi Olympian in Bobby Brown.

In halfpipe, Sochi gold medalist David WiseTorin Yater-Wallace and Alex Ferreira already have wins in qualifiers, and Winter X Games champ Aaron Blunck is also ahead of Kenworthy in the early qualifying standings.

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French Open: Karolina Pliskova, top player sans Slam, again exits early

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No. 2 seed Karolina Pliskova exited yet another Grand Slam in the early stages, falling to 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia in the second round at Roland Garros on Thursday.

Ostapenko, whose only match wins at the French Open before this week came in her title run three years ago, bounced the big-serving Czech 6-4, 6-2.

Pliskova put fewer than half of her first serves in play, while Ostapenko fired 27 winners to 19 unforced errors. Pliskova was on the ropes in her first round, too, needing three sets to get past an Egyptian qualifier.

“Maybe same level as the match before, but of course [Ostapenko] is much better player,” Pliskova said. “Not much to say about this match.”

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women | TV Schedule

Later Thursday, top-ranked Novak Djokovic had a second straight win ceding just five games, 6-1, 6-2, 6-2 over Lithuanian Ricardas Berankis. Djokovic undefeated in 2020 save his U.S. Open default for smacking a ball that inadvertently struck a linesperson, next gets Colombian lucky loser Daniel Elahi Galán.

Nobody else in Djokovic’s half of the draw at the start of the tournament made a French Open semifinal before.

Pliskova is the highest-ranked player of either gender (No. 4) without a Grand Slam title, yet hasn’t made it past the fourth round at a major since the 2019 Australian Open.

She’s played six Slams as a No. 1 or No. 2 seed, one shy of Caroline Wozniacki‘s total before she broke through at the 2018 Australian Open and two shy of Simona Halep‘s total before she won the 2018 French Open.

Ostapenko, meanwhile, is having a very different career.

She won the 2017 Roland Garros title, two days after turning 20, while ranked 47th. She hasn’t gotten past the third round of a major since 2018 Wimbledon, including first-round French Open exits the last two years, and is back down to No. 43 in the WTA rankings.

“It’s hard to compare with 2017. As I said, it was like three years ago, and I was much younger, and also I was fearless. Nobody knew me,” Ostapenko said. “The world doesn’t stop with winning only one Grand Slam. Of course I want to achieve more, and I want to be back in top five, top 10.”

She dropped just nine games in four sets this week.

Ostapenko gets 87th-ranked Spaniard Paula Badosa in third round. Badosa dispatched 2018 French Open runner-up Sloane Stephens 6-4, 4-6, 6-2.

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Figure skating’s Grand Prix fields look very different this season

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Before Nathan Chen is expected to go for a historic fifth straight U.S. figure skating title in January, he will, in a first, compete against most of his top countrymen later this month.

Fields for the Grand Prix Series, figure skating’s autumn international circuit, were published Thursday. As expected, every top skater entered will compete in his or her home country, or nearest to where he or she trains, and in one of the six events.

Traditionally, skaters compete in two of the six events and are scattered among competitions in the U.S., Canada, France, Russia, China and Japan based on world rankings.

But the International Skating Union restricted travel this season due to the coronavirus pandemic. Skaters are limited to compete locally. And the Grand Prix Final at the conclusion of the Grand Prix Series has been postponed from its scheduled December setting in Beijing.

That means that Chen vies for a record-tying fourth straight Skate America crown in Las Vegas in three weeks against a field mostly made up of countrymen, including Olympic teammate Vincent Zhou and U.S. bronze medalist Tomoki Hiwatashi.

In all, there are eight U.S. men entered in Skate America, 11 women (including past national champions Bradie Tennell and Gracie Gold), six pairs and nine ice dance couples (including U.S. champions Madison Chock and Evan Bates and Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue), plus some skaters from other nations who train in the U.S.

Traditionally, a country has no more than three entries per discipline at a Grand Prix event.

GRAND PRIX FIELDS: Men | Women | Pairs | Ice Dance

Sochi Olympian Jason Brown, who trains in Toronto, is entered in Skate Canada the week after Skate America.

Two-time U.S. women’s champion Alysa Liu will not be old enough for the Grand Prix Series until the 2021-22 Olympic season.

All of the reigning Olympic champions are absent from the series.

Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan previously announced he wouldn’t compete due to virus-related travel risks. Russian Alina Zagitova extended her indefinite break from competition dating to last autumn, rather choosing to participate in a skating-themed TV series.

Ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada retired. The German pairs’ team of Aljona Savchenko and Bruno Massot last competed in the 2018 Olympic season.

Instead, the headliners include Chen, the two-time world champion undefeated since placing fifth in PyeongChang. And a deep crop of Russian teenage women, all of course entered in the Rostelecom Cup in Moscow in November.

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