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Simone Biles eyes medal that has eluded her at world championships

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Whenever Simone Biles takes the competition floor, she’s setting out for some kind of history. But it’s what’s in her own past that’s motivating at this week’s world championships, her first international meet since bagging four gold medals at the Rio Olympics.

“I’ve never medaled in a bar final [uneven bars], but I’ve only been in one,” Biles said last week when asked the event she would most like to win aside from the team competition. “Maybe if I could make a bar final, that would be pretty cool because I think of all the medals you can get and the finals you can participate in, I always admire the bar workers just because it’s so hard mentally and physically.”

Biles’ U.S. team is an overwhelming favorite to earn a sixth straight Olympic or world title in Doha — the longest female run of dominance in the sport since the 1970s Soviet teams.

She’s just as expected to grab a fourth world all-around crown, breaking a tie with Russian Svetlana Khorkina for the female record. (Worlds were not held as often in the era of legends Larisa Latynina, Vera Caslavska and Nadia Comaneci.)

Men’s qualifying starts Thursday. The U.S. women’s qualifying session is Saturday. The women’s team final is next Tuesday, followed by the all-around two days later and individual apparatus finals the two days after that.

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Biles is the lone member of the U.S. women’s team of six (one will be named an alternate) who has competed at an Olympics or in a world championships team competition.

That doesn’t mean they’re not decorated.

Morgan Hurd won the world all-around title in Biles’ year off in 2017 (when there was no team event). Ragan Smith was favored over Hurd for last year’s gold before tearing ankle ligaments on a warm-up vault minutes before introductions. Riley McCusker made the U.S. all-around podium the last two years.

But of Rio’s Final Five, only Biles has competed on the elite level since the Games.

“We have a different group of girls,” Biles said. “They’re all upcoming and trying to make a name for themselves. … Here I am a veteran.”

Most of Biles’ teammates speak of her in awe.

“Just watching her compete is inspiring,” said Kara Eaker, a balance beam star who was 10 years old when Biles won her first world title in 2013.

What else Biles can do next week in Doha: with three gold medals, pass Vitaly Scherbo‘s 12 for the most in worlds history. Have a vault named after her, if she becomes the first woman to perform the Cheng with an extra half twist. Biles stuck it at the world team selection camp two weeks ago.

“It’s shocking, actually, how easily she does some of these moves,” said Tom Forster, in his first year as U.S. high-performance team director. Forster was asked last week about which five gymnasts of the six were going to compete for the U.S. “I know you’re not going to be surprised by this, but definitely going to use Simone,” was his lone concrete statement.

“She’s really the epitome of what coaches talk about in every sport, an athlete that’s very focused, works really hard, has natural ability and has good technique,” Forster continued. “It’s uncommon to get all those attributes together in one person in any sport. When you do, you get Simone.”

The lone apparatus that Biles has not conquered internationally is the uneven bars. In 2014, Biles said all she wanted for Christmas was to become a good bars worker. During her year off, she dreamed that she went back to the gym and couldn’t do a single giant swing on the apparatus.

Biles has made one uneven bars final at worlds — placing fourth in 2013 — and was 14th in Rio.

When Biles returned to training less than a year ago, her new coach, Laurent Landi, was best known for guiding a bars specialist — Olympic silver medalist Madison Kocian. In her comeback this summer, Biles brought her most difficult bars set yet and won her first national title on the apparatus.

“Never thought at this point in my career I would be most confident on bars,” she tweeted last month.

Biles snapchatted from Doha on Friday the first page of a book’s third chapter titled, “You are not Special.” Read into that what you will. An excerpt:

“Cultivating the mind through learning from failures is more effective than making yourself feel special even for the most trivial things. … High self-esteem is displayed in recognizing your weaknesses and striving to overcome them.”

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Mikaela Shiffrin races for another reindeer

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Mikaela Shiffrin already has three Olympic medals. She can win her third reindeer on Saturday.

Shiffrin headlines the first slalom of the World Cup season in Levi, Finland, live on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA and streaming via NBC Sports Gold’s Snow Pass.

The first run is at 4:15 a.m. ET. The second is at 7.

The traditional (and unconventional) winner’s prize in Finland is a reindeer. Shiffrin captured the Levi slalom in 2013 and 2016, naming her furry friends Rudolph and Sven.

The reindeer stay in Finland while Shiffrin criss-crosses Europe and North America on the World Cup tour.

Shiffrin lost in her trademark discipline in Levi last fall to a new rival, Petra Vlhova of Slovakia.

Motivated, Shiffrin won the next six slaloms before skiing out of the last slalom before the Olympics. Then in PyeongChang, Shiffrin shockingly finished fourth in defense of her Sochi Olympic title (after a giant slalom gold and before a super combined silver).

She bounced back, winning the last two World Cup slaloms of the 2017-18 season.

In the past, Shiffrin voiced a goal of winning every slalom in a season. She won all but three each of the last two years. Levi is the first of 12 World Cup slaloms this season.

Shiffrin must overcome the three women who made the PyeongChang podium ahead of her — Swede Frida Hansdotter, Swiss Wendy Holdener and Austrian Katharina Gallhuber.

She has already shown strong form, taking third in the season-opening giant slalom in Soelden, Austria, three weeks ago.

Nothing but a third reindeer will suffice in Saturday’s slalom, though.

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Gracie Gold wants to be new skater in comeback event; TV/stream schedule

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When Gracie Gold was in treatment for anxiety, depression and an eating disorder last year, she received a message from two-time Olympian Jeremy Abbott.

“If you ever want to come back to skating, I want to do an exhibition piece for you as a gift,” Abbott, who has taken up choreography in retirement, told his friend. Gold said it was a sweet offer and thanked him.

“At that point I don’t think that she had thought about coming back at all,” Abbott said last week.

Several months later, Gold had thought it over. She contacted Abbott in the spring.

“I’m going to make a go at this. Would you be willing to do my programs?” Abbott recalled Gold telling him. “I was shocked,” Abbott continued, “but also, at the same time, I was not.”

Gold, a two-time U.S. champ who finished fourth at the 2014 Olympics, competes this week for the first time since the January 2017 U.S. Championships. NBC Sports Gold streams live coverage of Rostelecom Cup from Moscow.

Day Time (ET) Event Network
Friday 6 a.m. Men’s Short NBC Sports Gold | STREAM LINK
8 a.m. Rhythm Dance NBC Sports Gold | STREAM LINK
10:30 a.m. Pairs’ Short NBC Sports Gold | STREAM LINK
12 p.m. Women’s Short NBC Sports Gold | STREAM LINK
Saturday 5:30 a.m. Men’s Free NBC Sports Gold | STREAM LINK
7:30 a.m. Free Dance NBC Sports Gold | STREAM LINK
9:30 a.m. Pairs’ Free NBC Sports Gold | STREAM LINK
11:30 a.m. Women’s Free NBC Sports Gold | STREAM LINK
Sunday 12 p.m. Highlights NBC | STREAM LINK

Gold, who detailed her last two years in a video published a month ago, is refraining from more interviews until after she skates. Abbott choreographed both her short and long programs, making a few trips to her Pennsylvania training base in the last six months. Gold is coached by former French skater Vincent Restencourt.

“She told me that she wanted to be a new skater and a new Gracie,” Abbott said. “She said that she always admired the artistry that I had and that she really wanted to bring something new to her skating.”

Abbott said her program music choices — “I Put a Spell On You” and “She Used to Be Mine,” the latter from the Broadway musical “Waitress” — reflect the new Gold. The former is “a little more mature and a little more sexy and playful than anything she’s done in the past.” The latter speaks to how she got from there to here in the last two years.

“At one point, she was on top of the world and had everything at her feet,” Abbott said. (Gold has said she spiraled psychologically after squandering a short-program lead at the 2016 Worlds and missing the podium altogether.) “Then she had some really big struggles and had to really step back from the life that she knew. Now she’s having to rebuild herself. It’s kind of looking back at who she was and who she used to be and now where she is and who she wants to become.”

Gold made it clear to Abbott whom she wanted to become.

“She was like, ‘I always was viewed as a jumper and not a skater. I always wanted to be an artist, but everyone told me stick to what you’re best at,'” Abbott said. “Working with her, she is an artist. She is sensitive. She understands the music. She gets it.”

Abbott visited Gold once this fall for choreography touch-ups and will not be in Moscow with her and Restencourt. Rather, he will be performing in 1984 Olympic champion Scott Hamilton‘s show in Nashville on Sunday.

Abbott doesn’t know how Gold is handling the comeback nerves or what to expect of her jumps.

“This isn’t like a big massive coming-out party for her,” he said. “This is really just the first step to get her feet back under her, get her going again because the plan isn’t about this competition. The plan isn’t about this season. The plan is really about building for her future and the next four years.”

The field is led by Olympic champion Alina Zagitova, fellow Russian Sofia Samodurova and Japanese Yuna Shiraiwa, all 16-year-olds with a chance to make December’s exclusive, six-skater Grand Prix Final.

This is Gold’s lone competition until the new year. Many will watch and wonder how she stacks up among Americans heading into January’s national championships. (Two U.S. women are ranked in the top 30 in the world this season, with many big names sitting out the fall.)

“From where her life was, I think it takes some major balls to even put herself back into this situation,” said Abbott, who noted that when he first visited Gold in the spring, she had her double jumps back. “For where she came from, she’s made huge strides. It’s really been impressive to watch her growth.”

In the men’s field, double Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu is a heavy favorite given the absence of his top rivals, Nathan Chen and Shoma Uno. Canadian Keegan Messing and Russian Mikhail Kolyada are also in the mix to qualify for the Grand Prix Final.

In pairs, Russians Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov are the clear favorites on home ice, but Americans Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc carry the intrigue.

They have a great chance at the Grand Prix Final if they can finish second, after taking third at Skate America four weeks ago. Cain and LeDuc rank fourth in the Rostelecom field by best scores this season but are only 4.21 points behind the second-ranked pair.

Russians Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin headline the ice dance. They’re ranked second in the world behind Americans Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue, who clinched their Grand Prix Final spot three weeks ago.

As a reminder, you can watch the ISU Grand Prix Series live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. GO HERE 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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