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Five takeaways from world figure skating championships

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Five thoughts wrapping up the figure skating season after the world championships ended in Milan last weekend … 

1. Nathan Chen finished one program shy of a perfect season

Chen had the best season imaginable for somebody who did not earn an individual Olympic medal. Though the Olympic short program disaster made the podium unreachable, he rebounded with the best free skate by nearly nine points. He won his other six competitions and in the finale, worlds, had his best showing of them all to become the second man to break the 320-point barrier.

It creates a dichotomy going into next season and the next Olympic cycle. Chen clearly had the best overall season in men’s skating (Yuzuru Hanyu won the Olympics but was second in his other two competitions before missing two months due to injury), but to the casual fan the next four years will be a comeback from a fifth-place finish in PyeongChang.

About next season: No Olympics, but Chen’s task is tall. The world championships will be on home ice for Hanyu and Olympic and world silver medalist Shoma Uno.

2. Russian dominance defeated

After going one-two at the Olympics, Russia nearly failed to qualify the maximum three spots for 2019 Worlds.

Olympic champion Alina Zagitova‘s three-fall free skate dropped her to fifth overall in Milan. Olympian Maria Sotskova also fell and had four jumps called under rotated, sliding from fifth to eighth. If either Zagitova or Sotskova slipped one more place, Russia would have two women instead of three at next year’s worlds.

Credit Canadian Kaetlyn Osmond for being the only gold-medal contender to deliver in the free skate. It had been her nemesis early this eason. For all the praise Zagitova received leading into and during PyeongChang (deserved), Osmond actually beat her in the short program at Grand Prix France and the Grand Prix Final in the autumn before struggling with late jumps in her free skates.

Osmond will benefit next season from this: Russia’s two best junior skaters can’t compete at senior worlds until 2020. So it will be up to Zagitova and Olympic silver medalist Yevgenia Medvedeva to keep it rolling, each coming off a defeat to end her season.

3. Bradie Tennell is the U.S. hope

Tennell, who was not on the Olympic radar until late last summer, was the top U.S. finisher at all of her competitions this season (not done since Ashley Wagner in 2012-13), closing with a solid sixth-place finish at worlds.

Mirai Nagasu (10th at the Olympics and worlds) is about to turn 25. Ashley Wagner is soon to be 27. Neither has publicly committed to skating next season. Tennell is the new face of U.S. women’s skating now and perhaps for years to come.

The 20-year-old from suburban Chicago had the benefit of her first healthy year as a senior. She went into the Olympics as the only woman without a fall the entire season. Tennell finally looked human at her last two events — a fall in her Olympic short program, two under rotations in her Olympic free skate and four negatively graded jumping passes in her world free skate. Not surprising for a skater at the end of by far the busiest season her young career.

4. Rivalry missing at the top of ice dance

Ice dance was defined by rivalries between training partners at the last two Olympics, but now it looks like the discipline with the clearest No. 1 heading into next season (pending rule changes that could impact scoring).

By all indications (but not official yet), PyeongChang gold medalists Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir are done competing. The silver medalists, Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, haven’t lost to anybody other than Virtue and Moir in more than three years. And that included a world title on Saturday with the highest score under the current points system.

Papadakis and Cizeron, who three years ago became the youngest ice dance world champs in 40 years, scored 200-plus points at all six of their top-level international events this season. Minus Virtue and Moir, no other couple has ever scored 197.

As for everyone else, keep this in mind: Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue may have missed the Olympic medals with Donohue’s free-dance fall, but they finished the season with the world’s best score in the non-Virtue/Moir/Papadakis/Cizeron division. Their world-silver-medal score would have beaten Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani for bronze at the Olympics by four points.

5. Questions for pairs

Russia missed the pairs’ medals at an Olympics for just the second time since 1964, but by next season could be back atop the discipline.

PyeongChang bronze medalists Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford retired after the Olympics.

PyeongChang silver medalists Sui Wenjing and Han Cong missed worlds due reportedly to another significant foot injury for Sui. In 2016, Sui underwent right ankle and left foot surgeries and was unable to stand for three months. Though she is only 22 and came back from those surgeries to win a world title in 2017, this is a concern.

The Olympic and world champions from Germany, Aljona Savchenko and Bruno Massot, could continue to dominate, but the 34-year-old Savchenko hasn’t committed to skating next season.

Russia had two of the top four pairs at worlds — Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov and Natalya Zabiyako and Aleksandr Enbert. None are older than 28.

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MORE: Best figure skating moments from PyeongChang

USOC fires official as Larry Nassar report released

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The U.S. Olympic Committee fired chief of sport performance Alan Ashley in the wake of an independent report released Monday that said neither he nor former CEO Scott Blackmun elevated concerns about the Larry Nassar sexual abuse allegations when they were first reported to them.

The 233-page independent report detailed an overall lack of response when the USOC leaders first heard about the Nassar allegations from the then-president of USA Gymnastics, Steve Penny.

Blackmun resigned in February because of health concerns.

The report says the USOC took no action between first hearing of the allegations in July 2015 and September 2016, when the Indianapolis Star published an account of Nassar’s sex abuse. The report concludes that lack of action allowed Nassar to abuse dozens more girls over the 14 months of silence.

Nassar is serving decades in prison on charges of child pornography and for molesting young women and girls under the guise of medical treatment; many of his accusers testified in heart-wrenching detail at his sentencing hearing.

Though Ashley was the only one to get fired in the immediate aftermath of its release, the report paints a harsh picture of leadership of the entire U.S. Olympic movement, from the offices of the USOC to what it portrays as an essentially rogue, unchecked operation at the Karolyi Ranch in Texas — the training center run by Bela and Martha Karolyi where some of the abuse occurred.

The report concludes that one of Penny’s key objectives was to keep the allegations under wraps, to avoid “sending shockwaves through the community,” as he said in a conversation with an FBI agent.

Meanwhile, Penny is portrayed as repeatedly trying to get the FBI to investigate Nassar, but the report concludes “the investigation appears to have languished … for over seven months” in the FBI’s Detroit office. USAG took the allegations to the FBI’s Los Angeles office, but not until the newspaper report came out did that office take action.

The report says Penny notified Blackmun and Ashley that Nassar had retired in September 2015, but that both leaders had deleted the email, which referenced Nassar by name.

The report details the USOC’s relationships with the sports organizations it oversees as too deferential and not involved enough in policymaking to ensure athlete safety.

“In this governance model, the USOC exerted its broad statutory authority and monetary influence over individual sports primarily for the purpose of encouraging success at the Olympic Games, effectively outsourcing any decisions regarding on-the-ground child-protective practices to the NGBs,” the report states.

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U.S. figure skating rankings going into national championships

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A discipline-by-discipline look at U.S. figure skaters’ best season scores with no more top-level events until the U.S. Championships from Jan. 24-27 in Detroit …

Men
1. Nathan Chen — 282.42
2. Chen — 280.57
3. Chen — 271.58
4. Jason Brown — 263.42
5. Brown — 256.33
6. Brown — 234.97
7. Vincent Zhou — 234.25
8. Brown — 233.23
9. Zhou — 225.75
10. Camden Pulkinen — 223.95

Chen is on his way to a third straight national title, while Brown has been a pleasant surprise this fall after changing coaches in the offseason. The Sochi Olympian and 2015 U.S. champion even beat Chen in one program on the Grand Prix Series. Zhou, after placing sixth in PyeongChang, has struggled with under-rotations on jumps but is still in the driver’s seat for one of three world championships spots.

Women
1. Bradie Tennell — 206.41
2. Tennell — 202.41
3. Ting Cui — 199.79
4. Mariah Bell — 198.96
5. Tennell — 197.78
6. Bell — 196.60
7. Tennell — 192.89
8. Bell — 190.25
9. Bell — 188.97
10. Ashley Lin — 181.21

Two world team spots for the women. Tennell and Bell are the top returning veterans this season, but remember that 2017 U.S. champion Karen Chen has yet to compete with a foot injury. Then there are Ting, 16, and Alysa Liu, a 13-year-old who isn’t age eligible for junior or senior worlds but can compete in the senior division at nationals. Liu landed triple Axels in both programs at sectionals last month, scoring 212.97 points (though domestic scores are often inflated and not comparable with international scores).

Ice Dance
1. Madison Hubbell/Zachary Donohue — 205. 35
2. Hubbell/Donohue — 200.82
3. Hubbell/Donohue — 200.76
4. Hubbell/Donohue — 197.42
5. Kaitlin Hawayek/Jean-Luc Baker — 184.63
6. Hawayek/Baker — 184.04
7. Hawayek/Baker — 181.47
8. Rachel Parsons/Michael Parsons — 180.95
9. Lorraine McNamara/Quinn Carpenter — 180.57
10. Christina Carreira/Anthony Ponomarenko — 180.22

The only active U.S. couple to beat Hubbell and Donohue in direct competition is Madison Chock and Evan Bates, but the two-time world medalists missed the entire fall season due to Chock’s ankle surgery. With Olympic bronze medalists Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani sitting out this season and maybe done competing altogether, Hubbell and Donohue will be clear favorites to repeat as national champions.

Three U.S. couples will go to worlds. Hawayek and Baker, after qualifying for their first Grand Prix Final, are primed to go back after placing 10th last season. The status of Chock and Bates will largely determine who rounds out the world team.

Pairs
1. Tarah Kayne/Danny O’Shea — 191.43

2. Alexa Scimeca Knierim/Chris Knierim — 190.49
3. Knierim/Knierim — 182.84
4. Ashley Cain/Timothy LeDuc — 181.56
5. Kayne/O’Shea — 177.69
6. Knierim/Knierim — 177.22
7. Deanna Stellato/Nathan Bartholomay — 176.44
8. Cain/LeDuc — 175.06
9. Stellato/Bartholomay — 174.91
10. Stellato/Bartholomay — 174.78

Kayne and O’Shea, who likely would have made the Olympic team if the U.S. qualified more than one pair for PyeongChang, surprised by posting that 191 at the last event of the Grand Prix Series three weeks ago. The U.S. has just one pair at worlds this season for the first time since 1984 and last earned a medal in 2002. Kayne and O’Shea and the Knierims are ranked Nos. 9 and 10 in the world this season. Cain is recovering after falling head-first on the ice from a botched lift on Friday night.

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