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Ice and dirt: Connor Fields leaves one championship to pursue another

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Connor Fields‘ heart is in Las Vegas. His BMX bike and last remaining goal in the sport are in Azerbaijan.

Fields, who in Rio became the first U.S. Olympic champion in an event that debuted in 2008, can continue a recent run of American dominance in BMX at the world championships in Baku on Saturday (Olympic Channel, 6 p.m. ET).

“I’ve won every single title possible except for one,” he said. Nationals, Pan American Games, World Cup season title and Olympic gold. But not yet a world title in the elite race that’s on the Olympic program.

“I’d like to take that off and complete the full set,” Fields said.

The timing is a little unfortunate for the 25-year-old who was born in Plano, Texas but has lived in the Las Vegas area since age 4. Fields is so associated with the city that when the NHL’s Las Vegas Golden Knights opened their team store last June, he was the featured athlete in promotions.

“They didn’t have any players yet,” Fields admitted. The expansion draft was a day after the store’s grand opening, which Fields was invited to attend with coach Gerard Gallant.

Last week, Fields made a last-minute (and surely costly) decision to attend Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final between the Golden Knights and Washington Capitals, before flying to Europe ahead of worlds. The Knights won the opener but lost the next three games.

Speaking from France, Fields said he planned to be home in Nevada for Games 6 and 7. It might be moot. The Capitals can lift the Cup with a Game 5 win in Vegas on Thursday (NBC, 8 p.m. ET).

Fields brought Golden Knights gear to France — even to the Palace of Versailles — but his priority is clear.

“World title, easy, not even a question,” Fields said. “I don’t get to take home a trophy or anything if the Golden Knights win.”

Fields would appear an underdog given World Cup results this year — 14th, 15th and 34th — but he won the last World Cup race of 2017 to place second in last season’s overall standings.

He isn’t the only American in medal contention. Rio silver medalist Alise Willoughby and Corben Sharrah swept the 2017 World titles in Rock Hill, S.C., ending an eight-year drought for the U.S. for either gender.

Fields and Willoughby are the only active U.S. cyclists in any discipline (BMX, mountain, road, track) with an individual Olympic medal. Willoughby and Sharrah are two of three active U.S. cyclists in any discipline with an individual world title in an Olympic event (43-year-old Amber Neben, women’s road time trial, 2008 and 2016).

Before BMX made its Olympic debut, a 14-year-old Fields wrote in Sharpie on his parents’ garage wall, “One day I will be national and world champion.”

Then, maybe in two years, an Olympic champion twice.

“I’ve got four years more of experience, four years more to draw from, both good and bad, and mistakes that have been made that I can try not to make it again,” said Fields, who was so overwhelmed at his first Olympics in 2012 that he couldn’t manage a bite of his oatmeal on race day, crashed in the final and finished seventh. “I feel less pressure going in. I’m Olympic champion. I always will be Olympic champion. Nobody can ever take the gold medal away from me. Now I just get the opportunity to get two.”

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Nathan Chen prepared to capture third national title

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Nathan Chen called into his media teleconference from the rink last week, still on his winter break between his freshman semesters at Yale University.

The signal wasn’t great inside, he said, and it momentarily spared him from answering a direct question about his GPA his first semester as a college student.

Back on the call, the reigning world champion admitted, “I’m not gonna say the exact number, but there are some A’s and B’s sprinkled in.

“Really no complaints. I got pretty good grades. I’m pretty happy with that.”

His skating report card from the fall reads equally as impressively. Chen won the title at Skate America to open the season, followed by a come-from-behind win at Grand Prix France. To cap it all off, he won a second-consecutive Grand Prix Final title.

All this while the 2018 Olympic team event bronze medalist is across the country from his longtime coach Rafael Arutunian and trying out telecoaching for the first time.

Back in California between semesters, Chen said Raf has asked him to stay full-time.

“Since the past two weeks that I’ve been here, literally every day he’s been like, ‘you gotta come back! You gotta come back! There’s so much that you can learn at the rink. I respect what your decision is at Yale but it’s been so great having you here.’ He really wishes that I could stay here full time but at the same time, I already started this path and I don’t really want to pull out just yet.”

As for his second semester in college, Chen is signed up for about 10 courses and will have about two weeks at the beginning of term to add and drop courses. He’ll be in classes – he’s not exactly sure which, though – for a week before attempting to notch his third-straight U.S. national title.

“I selected a bunch of courses, probably selected like 10 different courses. I’ll go in and the first week I will see which courses I like, which courses I don’t like.”

Competing during the spring semester might be harder. February’s Four Continents Championships, this year to be held in Anaheim, Calif., aren’t during a scheduled academic break. Conveniently, world championships are scheduled during Yale’s spring break.

“I’m not sure yet [if he’ll compete there if named to the team],” he said. “That’s still TBD. I would love to since it’s in California, and it’s a great event. We’ll see.”

But for now, competing well in Detroit is the next step.

“I have to skate as well as I can and regardless of the external things,” he said when asked if coming in as the reigning world champion or as the favorite affects him. “Just focus on all the things that I can do right now in training to make sure that I do the best I can in competition.”

The men’s short program is Jan. 26 followed by the free skate on Jan. 27.

MORE: Adam Rippon’s new year’s resolutions

As a reminder, you can watch the U.S. Championships live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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Mikaela Shiffrin wins Kronplatz giant slalom for her 10th win of the season

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Mikaela Shiffrin won the women’s giant slalom at the World Cup stop in Kronplatz, Italy, on Tuesday, marking her 10th victory of the 2018-19 season and 53rd World Cup win of her career. Shiffrin, the 2018 Olympic giant slalom gold medalist, led France’s Tessa Worley by 1.39 seconds after the first run. Although Worley outpaced Shiffrin in the second run, Shiffrin’s massive first-run margin allowed her to win the two-run event by 1.21 seconds. Italy’s Marta Bassino placed third. Full results are here. 

Shiffrin entered Kronplatz ranked third in the World Cup giant slalom standings, but moves into first place with the win. The 23-year-old also leads the overall World Cup leader board, as well as the slalom and super-G discipline standings. Shiffrin has won seven World Cup globes in her career (two overall, five slalom).

Shiffrin has already broken multiple records this season, including becoming the youngest skier to win 50 World Cup races, and there are still more records within striking distance. Shiffrin could break the record for most World Cup wins in a single seasons; the current record (14) was set by Switzerland’s Vreni Schneider in 1988-89.

The next stop for the women’s World Cup is this weekend in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, with two downhills scheduled for Friday and Saturday, and a super-G slated for Sunday. Shiffrin plans to skip the downhills, but enter the super-G. Lindsey Vonn, who missed the start of the season with a knee injury, is expected to make her return to competition in Friday’s downhill.