Nathan Chen leads Grand Prix Final despite mistake

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Even without a jumping combination, Nathan Chen leads the Grand Prix Final going into Friday night’s free skate.

Japanese phenom Rika Kihira had no such problem, nailing her triple Axel and posting the highest women’s short program score this season, ahead of Olympic champion Alina Zagitova in Vancouver on Thursday.

Chen topped a flawed men’s field at the second-biggest annual international competition, tallying 92.99 points despite putting his hands down on a quadruple toe loop landing, failing to tack a triple toe loop on the end of it.

“Every mistake that I make in any program is something I both learn from but also something that I dwell on a little bit,” Chen said through U.S. Figure Skating, adding that he plans at least three quads in the free. “Of course I’m not completely satisfied with this program that I did today, but I’m glad that I got all of my levels. I’ve been struggling with my flip in the short program for the last couple of seasons so I’m glad I was able to do that here.”

The 19-year-old U.S. and world champion takes a 1.33-point lead over Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno into the free, looking to repeat as Grand Prix Final champion. The Final takes the top six skaters per discipline from the fall Grand Prix Series and is often a preview of sorts for the March world championships.

Uno, who took silver to Chen at last season’s Final and worlds, put a hand down landing his opening quadruple flip. The 20-year-old 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.

“Today at the practice, both in the morning and the six minutes warm up, I couldn’t jump properly,” Uno said, according to the International Skating Union. “I am not ill or injured. I have absolutely no excuse as to why I couldn’t jump. I wish I could say there was a reason. The fact that I could do everything well in practice and couldn’t do in the competition probably means that the mental side is part of the problem and is my weakness,”

Men’s Short Program
1. Nathan Chen (USA) — 92.99
2. Shoma Uno (JPN) — 91.67
3. Michal Brezina (CZE) — 89.21
4. Cha Jun-Hwan (KOR) — 89.07
5. Sergei Voronov (RUS) — 82.96
6. Keegan Messing (CAN) — 79.56

The Grand Prix Final continues Friday night with the rhythm dance, pairs’ short and men’s free skates, live on NBC Sports Gold and NBCSN.

GP FINAL PREVIEWS: Men | Women | Pairs | Ice DanceTV Schedule

Aside from Chen and Uno, the Grand Prix Final lacks any other men from the top seven at the PyeongChang Olympics or March’s world championships. Yuzuru Hanyu, the Olympic champion, is sitting out the event a second straight year with a right ankle injury.

Chen broke out at the Final two years ago, winning the free skate and placing second overall to Hanyu in his senior international debut season. He then won the event last season, at the time the biggest victory of his young career.

Chen and Hanyu haven’t gone head-to-head since the Olympics and likely will not until the world championships in Saitama, Japan, in March.

The women’s short featured an anticipated showdown between 16-year-olds: Zagitova, who has lost just once in two seasons as a senior skater, and Kihira, who has now landed a triple Axel clean and fully rotated three times in six tries in her senior debut season.

Kihira’s 82.51 supplanted Zagitova as the highest short score this season. Zagitova hit all of her jumps with positive grades of execution, too (77.93 points), but Thursday proved the theory that if both skaters go clean, Kihira will win.

“I was extremely surprised when I saw that score of 82.51, because it was not a score that I would have imagined would ever come up,” Kihira said, according to the ISU.

Zagitova, looking to make it five straight Grand Prix Final titles for Russian women, said she felt nervous and a little tense. She also declined to answer a question about how Kihira’s rise has affected her.

“I try not to pay attention to other skaters’ performances,” she said through a translator.

Women’s Short Program
1. Rika Kihira (JPN) — 82.51
2. Alina Zagitova (RUS) — 77.93
3. Elizaveta Tuktamysheva (RUS) — 70.65
4. Kaori Sakamoto (JPN) — 70.23
5. Sofia Samodurova (RUS) — 68.24
6. Satoko Miyahara (RUS) — 67.52

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.

MORE: Rika Kihira more than a new Miss Triple Axel

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World champion wins doping case citing bodily fluids from boyfriend

AP
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LAUSANNE, Switzerland (AP) — A world champion canoeist won a doping case Monday after persuading a tribunal that her positive test was caused by bodily fluid contamination from her boyfriend.

The International Canoe Federation (ICF) ended its investigation into 11-time world champion Laurence Vincent Lapointe, who tested positive for a steroid-like substance in July. She faced a four-year ban and could have missed her event’s Olympic debut at the Tokyo Games.

The Canadian canoe sprint racer and her lawyer detailed in a news program that laboratory analysis of hair from her then-boyfriend showed he was likely responsible for a tiny presence of ligandrol in her doping sample.

“The ICF has accepted Ms. Vincent Lapointe’s evidence which supports that she was the victim of third-party contamination,” the governing body said in a statement, clearing her to return to competition.

The legal debate is similar to tennis player Richard Gasquet’s 2009 acquittal in the “cocaine kiss” case. The Court of Arbitration for Sport accepted Gasquet’s defense that kissing a woman who had taken cocaine in a Miami nightclub, after he had withdrawn injured from a tournament, caused his positive test.

The 27-year-old Vincent Lapointe was provisionally suspended for almost six months and missed the 2019 World Championships, which was a key qualifying event for the Tokyo Olympics. American 17-year-old Nevin Harrison won the 200m world title in her absence.

She can still qualify for the Olympic debut of women’s canoe sprint events with victory at a World Cup event in May in Germany.

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U.S. women’s soccer team begins Olympic qualifying, which should rest on one match

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The U.S. women’s soccer team has never been in danger in Olympic qualifying, but that doesn’t change this fact: It must win on Feb. 7 to reach the Tokyo Games.

The CONCACAF tournament begins Tuesday in Houston, where the world champion Americans face world No. 72 Haiti. The last two group games are against No. 68 Panama on Friday and No. 37 Costa Rica on Feb. 3. The top two nations from the group advance to Feb. 7 semifinals.

The U.S. roster, with 18 of its 20 players coming from the 2019 World Cup team, is here.

Since CONCACAF qualifies two nations to the Olympics, the semifinals are the deciding games.

Should the U.S. win its group, it would face the runner-up from the other group in a winner-goes-to-Tokyo match. The other group (world ranking):

Canada (8)
Mexico (37)
Jamaica (53)
St. Kitts and Nevis (127)

Chaos could result in the unlikely event that either the U.S. or Canada finishes second in its group, and the two North American powers play a semifinal.

The U.S. is undefeated in Olympic qualifying history, since the tournament format began in 2004 — 15-0 with a goal differential of 88-1 (not counting matches played once they’ve already clinched qualification). The lone goal allowed came in a group-stage match in 2008, when the U.S. was already assured a spot in the semifinals.

Still, the U.S. knows the feeling of one poor outing in an important match. In 2010, it lost to Mexico in a winner-to-the-World Cup match. The U.S. was forced to win a last-chance, home-and-home playoff against a UEFA team — Italy — for the last spot in the World Cup.

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