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Autumn Classic Preview: Jason Brown’s road to Beijing Olympics begins

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When Jason Brown takes the ice for his short program at the Autumn Classic International in Oakville, Ontario on Friday, he doesn’t expect to be firing on all cylinders yet.

For Brown, it’s his first competition since he won a bronze medal at the 2018 Four Continents Figure Skating Championships in February. The 2015 U.S. champion declined an invitation to the 2018 World Figure Skating Championships in favor of a long vacation to mull his competitive future. Then, after trying out several different training sites, he moved to Toronto to train in Brian Orser and Tracy Wilson’s group at the Cricket Skating and Curling Club.

“Every day I work with them, learning their (jump) technique,” Brown said at U.S. Figure Skating’s Champs Camp last month. “It’s been harder than I thought it would be. You take what you think you know and they kind of change it all, to fit their method. I’m trying to learn it the best I can, but it’s a process.”

Brown possesses some of the sport’s finest skating skills and spins, but has not yet landed a clean quadruple jump in competition. Several missed jumps resulted in a sixth-place finish at the 2018 U.S. Figure Skating Championships last season, costing him a shot at a second Olympic team. In May, he announced he was leaving Colorado Springs and his coach of more than two decades, Kori Ade, to train under Orser and Wilson.

“They are picking apart everything, every triple jump,” Brown said. “We’re taking the time because we’re looking at it as a four-year thing… I want to peak in 2022 (for the Beijing Olympics). That’s where my head is. I want to start from the ground up.”

It hasn’t been all work for Brown in Toronto. He and another newcomer to the Cricket Club, two-time world champion Yevgenia Medvedeva of Russia, have become fast friends and spend much of their free time exploring the city.

“That was also something important to me, in a new training site,” Brown said. “I wanted to be in a city. If you look at it, I’m going to be here (for ages) 23 through 27, and I wanted to be living somewhere that I could grow and explore.”

Brown, like many of the other competitors, will show two new programs at the Autumn Classic, held today through Saturday. The event is the fifth of ten ISU Challenger Series events this fall. While considered a few notches below the ISU Grand Prix Series in prestige, the skaters competing in Oakville hold a combined 19 Olympic and world medals, including team medals. The event will stream live on Skate Canada’s Dailymotion page. Here’s what to watch for:

Hanyu, Hanyu, Hanyu: The two-time Olympic champion puts butts in the seats. The Oakville arena, which seats about 4,000, is sold out for his events, with hundreds of diehard “Fanyus” trekking the 6,500 miles from Tokyo to Ontario. Like Brown and Medvedeva, the Japanese star trains at the Cricket Club; at a press event there on Aug. 30, he announced his new programs: a short to Raúl di Blasio’s “Otonal” and a free skate called “Origin,” inspired by Yevgeni Plushenko’s “Tribute to Nijinsky” program first used during the 2003/2004 season.

With two Olympic golds and two world titles in his pocket, Hanyu told reporters that the pressure was off.

“(Before) I had to meet other people’s expectations and get good results,” Hanyu is quoted by International Figure Skating magazine. “But, I am satisfied that as a result (of my Olympic success) I have been released from the pressure that I have to produce results. I think, and feel, that I can skate for myself from now on. I want to go back to my skating origins.”

Still, Hanyu is famously competitive. In 2016 at this event, he landed the first quadruple loop in competition. He has been training a quadruple Axel, a jump featuring four-and-a-half rotations. It’s unlikely he will be ready to show it in Oakville, but there’s always a chance.

The “new” Medvedeva: Like Brown, the 18-year-old Russian seeks a fresh start in Toronto. She created her programs with Canadian David Wilson, marking the first time she has worked with non-Russian choreographer on competitive material.  In practice sessions in Oakville on Wednesday, she looked sharp, landing triple-triple combinations and joking easily with Orser and Wilson. She will be challenged in Oakville by Japan’s world silver medalist Wakaba Higuchi, as well as…

A “new” Bradie Tennell: The U.S. champion generated positive buzz this summer, skating well at a club competition and arriving at Champs Camp fit and prepared. Known mostly as a jumper, the 2018 Olympian wants to grow her artistry this season. She also has a new combination: triple Lutz-triple loop, the same element Alina Zagitova used to win Olympic gold in Pyeongchang.

“I’m definitely more confident in myself and what I’m doing,” Tennell says. “I believe in myself a lot more. I don’t think I’m as timid. I’m really working on not being as shy, just kind of letting my personality come through in everything.”

Tennell is joined by 17-year-old U.S. teammate Starr Andrews, competing in her second Challenger event of the season. Andrews is bidding to become the fourth U.S. lady, after Tonya Harding, Mirai Nagasu, and Alyssa Liu, to land the triple Axel in international competition. She included it in her free skate at the Asian Open early last month, but did not fully rotate the jump. Will it happen on Friday?

MORE: 12-year-old is third U.S. woman to land triple Axel internationally

Small, but interesting, pairs’ and ice dance fields: Canada’s reigning world bronze medalists Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, who will sit out the Grand Prix this season, debut their new programs. Their next competition will be the 2019 Canadian Figure Skating Championships. In pairs, world bronze medalists Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres of France are favored, but will be challenged by Canada’s top pair, Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro.  2017 U.S. champions Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier, who train alongside James and Cipres in Florida, are on the comeback trail after a disappointing fifth-place finish at the U.S. Championships last season. A new U.S. pair, Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson, make their debut.

MORE: Adam Rippon donates Olympic costume to Smithsonian

Hirscher leads by 0.56 seconds after first run in World Champs slalom

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Marcel Hirscher swept into the finish area and wagged his finger triumphantly in front of the camera.

The message was clear: The ski king is back.

The Austrian produced an emphatic response to relinquishing his giant slalom title two days earlier at the world championships by taking a 0.56-second lead after the first run of the slalom on Sunday.

Only Alexis Pinturault of France was within a second of Hirscher, who was on course to win a record-tying seventh career gold medal at the worlds.

Marco Schwarz of Austria was in third place, 1.22 seconds off the lead.

Hirscher, the seven-time overall World Cup champion, showed no ill-effects from the cold that has been affecting him this week. After the giant slalom on Friday, he said he would be going straight back to bed to rest up for the slalom.

He looked in good working order on Sunday.

As the third skier on the course, Hirscher took 1.70 seconds off No. 2 starter Henrik Kristoffersen, who beat Hirscher to GS gold on Friday, and more than two seconds off Clement Noel, who came to the worlds in form after wins in Wengen and Kitzbuehel.

Save for Hirscher crashing, only Pinturault looks capable to denying the Austrian a third slalom gold at the worlds — something only the great Ingemar Stenmark has achieved. Pinturault was only 0.06 seconds behind Hirscher at the third checkpoint but he went wide at the first turn on the final descent and lost half a second.

“I’m still in the fight,” Pinturault said, “and still have a chance in the second leg. That’s the essential (thing).”

Daniel Yule of Switzerland was 0.28 behind Hirscher at the last split before falling at the start to the final descent.

Hirscher also won the slalom at the 2013 and 2017 worlds. A seventh career gold at the worlds would tie the men’s record held by compatriot Toni Sailer from the late 1950s.

Austria, a storied Alpine skiing nation, needs Hirscher to deliver in the final event to avoid finishing the world championships without a gold medal for the first time since Crans Montana, Switzerland, in 1987. The women’s team has already finished with no medals and that hasn’t happened since Schladming, Austria, in 1982.

Watch an encore presentation of the first run on NBCSN at 7:00 a.m. ET. The second and deciding run can be seen live starting at 8:00 a.m. ET on NBCSN and NBC Sports Gold.

Mikaela Shiffrin proving she’s in league of her own

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There are ski racers, and then there is Mikaela Shiffrin.

NBC Sports essayist Tim Layden calls Shiffrin the “rarest creature,” a prodigy who continues to get better with age.

Shiffrin’s stardom took off with her heart-stopping slalom gold medal in the 2014 Olympics. It looked like she would ascend to an even higher level four years later in PyeongChang when she claimed a gold medal in the giant slalom, but then she lost a battle with her nerves and failed to win a medal in the slalom. She did capture a silver in the combined event.

That Olympic disappointment has fueled her historic World Cup season. She became the youngest skier to pass the 50 win mark. She broke the women’s career record for slalom victories, and she became the first skier ever to win four-straight world championship titles in a single event.

A true prodigy indeed.