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Nathan Chen may need to ante up at Grand Prix Final

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Two years ago, a 17-year-old Nathan Chen had no expectation of qualifying for the Grand Prix Final, let alone topping the free skate to finish second at the second-biggest annual international competition.

One year ago, Chen won the Final, the biggest victory by a U.S. singles skater since Evan Lysacek‘s gold at the 2010 Olympics. It propelled him into the PyeongChang Games as the favorite, undefeated for the season. He bombed in a 17th-place short program but recovered, leading the free skate to place fifth overall and winning the world title by the largest margin in history a month later.

Chen’s third Grand Prix Final this week should carry the least intense ramifications. It’s the more relaxed season after the Olympics. Yuzuru Hanyu, the 2014 and 2018 Olympic champion, is absent a second straight year with an ankle injury after topping the fall Grand Prix rankings.

Olympic and world silver medalist Shoma Uno is the only skater in this week’s six-man field who has ever challenged Chen.

And Chen is taking it relatively easy this fall, balancing Yale freshman classes with training on his own, 3,000 miles from his Southern California-based coach. In his two Grand Prix starts, Chen averaged about half of the eight quadruple jumps he attempted at the Olympics. He still won comfortably.

“He’s going to have to pull out more in the Final,” NBC Sports analyst Tara Lipinski said. “You’re going to be up against someone like Shoma Uno, who has the quads, and if he skates clean can challenge him.”

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Johnny Weir agreed while noting that both favorites showed some inconsistency while sweeping their Grand Prix starts in October and November. Chen suffered his first fall since the Olympics at Internationaux de France two weeks ago, allowing quad-less Jason Brown to beat him by 9.47 points in the short program.

“A year ago, that would have been unheard of,” Weir said. “With that said, I think Nathan will use this time between Grand Prix France and the Grand Prix Final to really buckle down and train hard and work hard. His quads were effortless in the free skate in France, but he also showed the world he is vulnerable [in the short].”

Uno has something to prove, too, beyond an ability to put together a clean program after four falls in as many Grand Prix Series skates the last two months.

He made the last three Grand Prix Final podiums, the last two world championships podiums, the last two Four Continents Championships podiums and the Olympic podium, but never on the top step. Hanyu has the gold medals he covets.

“Shoma Uno is so hungry to show the world that he is Japan’s leading man,” Weir said, “that he’s going to come with all his firepower.”

Somebody will take home an unexpected medal this week. It could be 28-year-old Czech Michal Březina, in his first Final in six years. Or 31-year-old Russian Sergey Voronov, the oldest singles skater in the event’s history. Or Canadian Keegan Messing or South Korean Cha Jun-Hwan, first-timers who ranked Nos. 18 and 25 in the world last season. But that medal will likely be bronze.

“It’s going to be a battle between Nathan and Shoma,” Lipinski said. “If Nathan puts out his full program with more quads than he has this season, I think it’s his.”

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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Bernard Lagat commits to Olympic marathon trials, eyes age record

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Bernard Lagat, a 44-year-old, five-time Olympian, reportedly said he will race the Olympic marathon trials on Feb. 29 in a bid to break his own record as the oldest U.S. Olympic runner.

“I feel like I can still improve,” Lagat said, according to Runner’s World. “I’m going to give it my best.”

Lagat, a two-time Olympic 1500m medalist, moved to the marathon after becoming the oldest U.S. Olympic runner in history at the Rio Games, placing fifth in the 5000m.

He clocked 2:17:20 in his 26.2-mile debut at the 2018 New York City Marathon. He lowered it to 2:12:10 at the Gold Coast Marathon in Australia on July 7 but did not previously commit to entering the trials.

If Lagat finishes in the top three at the marathon trials, he is in line to become the third-oldest U.S. Olympic track and field athlete in history. The oldest are race walker John Deni (49 years old in 1952) and hammer thrower Matt McGrath (48 years old in 1924), according to the OlyMADMen.

Lagat ranks outside the top 20 among U.S. marathoners in this Olympic cycle. The fastest are Galen Rupp (2:06:07), Leonard Korir (2:07:56, from Sunday’s Amsterdam Marathon) and Scott Fauble (2:09:09).

No American has competed in six Olympics in track and field. Lagat’s first two Olympic appearances were for Kenya.

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Natalie Geisenberger, Olympic luge champion, will not race this season

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For the first time in eight years, there will be a new World Cup women’s luge champion.

Germany’s Natalie Geisenberger — the seven-time defending champion and two-time defending Olympic singles gold medalist — announced that she isn’t sliding this season because she and her husband are expecting their first child in April.

“Our happiness is on the way,” Geisenberger said on her Facebook page.

Geisenberger plans to return next season and still has hopes to compete at the 2022 Beijing Olympics, where she could match fellow German great Georg Hackl’s feat of winning three consecutive singles golds.

With Geisenberger not sliding this season, the top returning women from last year’s World Cup standings now are Julia Taubitz of Germany and Summer Britcher of the U.S. — second and third, respectively, in 2018-19.

Geisenberger has a luge record-tying four Olympic golds in all, being part of Germany’s victories in the team relays in Sochi in 2014 and Pyeongchang in 2018 as well.

Her 49 World Cup singles wins are another record, and she’s one of two sliders to win seven consecutive World Cup titles — Austria’s Markus Prock took the men’s championships each year from 1990-91 through 1996-97.

Geisenberger’s break from sliding only adds to how the World Cup standings — and the German roster — will look very different this season. Dajana Eitberger, who was fourth in last season’s World Cup standings, is also pregnant and expecting a baby in February. And Tatjana Huefner, who was sixth overall last season, has retired.

Huefner won five consecutive World Cup titles before Geisenberger took over and began her seven-year streak of championships. Geisenberger earned medals 11 times in 12 singles races last year — six golds, four silvers and one bronze.

“We are so happy for you even though we will miss you this season!” two-time Olympic singles gold medalist Felix Loch of Germany wrote in a message to Geisenberger on Instagram.

Geisenberger has been in the top three of the World Cup standings in 12 consecutive seasons. She was third in 2007-08, finished second in each of the next four seasons, and then began her title streak in 2012-13.

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