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Three questions with Vincent Zhou before U.S. Championships

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Vincent Zhou was off-balance a little this season so far. He was hampered by a back injury over the summer that delayed his training, which led to a sense of unpreparedness for the U.S. International Classic in September, where he finished fourth.

On the Grand Prix series, he was fifth at Skate America and fourth at Grand Prix Japan. But he competed at Tallinn Trophy in December, earning a silver, and believes he’s now back on track and ready for the U.S. Championships in Detroit this weekend.

Here’s what we learned from his media teleconference (or as Zhou jokingly said to reporters on the call, “welcome to my TED Talk”):

1. After some under rotation calls throughout the fall, Zhou has pushed himself to be squeaky-clean on his landings.

“The only thing it’s really done for me is push me to make it clearer – to make my jumps cleaner. One of my number one focuses since then has been making the rotation clearer. That’s one of the things I hope people will see in Detroit because I have been training better in that aspect.”

“I can only acknowledge the fact that I’ve been improving and working very hard on it. Hopefully the results show at nationals. It hasn’t been easy, redefining my standard of what is OK in terms of rotation or not. But I’m getting much stronger in that aspect.”

2. Zhou went to his choreographers for a tune-up before Nationals.

“I was able to go to Toronto for a week to kind of rework my program with Lori Nichol for the short and Jeff Buttle for the free skate. We made some pretty significant changes to the programs. I feel like they’re much better than before now. Not only have the programs improved, but also spending the week in Toronto really – without hammering away at the quads – helped me (I don’t want to say rediscover) but it helped me find out how much I really enjoy the creative process and the freedom and the flow that comes with good skating. I value that much more and I hope that it shows when I skate.

“It’s very difficult to be in the river current of a pure, unadulterated flow of a program, the choreography. Doing quads kind of snaps you out of that. but I’m trying to integrate the two together. It’s a work in progress for sure. I believe there have been pretty significant changes and good ones, too.”

Zhou also mentioned he’d been working with Tom Dickson, who’s been helping “place my shoulders, my arms, in relation to my head and combining that with the best position to create flow more easily.”

3. Last year’s success is just that – last year. Instead, Zhou is looking ahead.

“It’s not just duplicating what happened last year, but moving beyond it. I think my skating is in a different place than it was last year… I wanted so badly to make the Olympic team… I wanted to make this season more about improving my skating, the quality of my skating, my programs. I’m really looking forward to showing that in Detroit.”

MORE: Nathan Chen prepared to capture third national title

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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Katie Ledecky wins race by 30 seconds, takes back No. 1 ranking

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In her last race of the year, Katie Ledecky ensured she would finish 2019 as the world’s fastest 1500m freestyler.

Ledecky clocked 15:35.98 at the U.S. Open in Atlanta, winning the longest event on the Olympic pool program by 29.97 seconds. Typical for Ledecky, who owns the nine fastest times in history. This one came in at No. 8. Full meet results are here.

Ledecky scratched the 1500m free final at the summer world championships due to illness. Italian Simona Quadarella went on to win that title in 15:40.89, which was the world’s fastest time this year until Saturday night.

“I didn’t have time on my mind at all today. I just wanted to have a consistent swim,” Ledecky, undefeated in 1500m free finals for nine years, said on NBCSN. “That’s probably the best mile that I’ve had in a while.”

The women’s 1500m freestyle debuts at the Olympics in Tokyo. Ledecky is expected to add that to her Rio Olympic individual lineup of 200m, 400m and 800m frees, assuming she is top two in each event at the June Olympic trials.

In other events Saturday, Erika Brown handed Simone Manuel a rare defeat in the 100m freestyle. Brown, a University of Tennessee senior, clocked 53.42 and lowered her personal best by .71 between prelims and the final. Brown moved from sixth to fourth in the U.S. rankings this year, upping her stock as a contender to make the Olympic 4x100m free relay pool via a top-six finish at trials.

Brown previously lowered her personal best in the 50m free on Thursday. She ranks third in the U.S. this year in that event.

Emily Escobedo dealt Lilly King a rare domestic defeat in the 200m breaststroke. Escobedo lowered her personal best by .87 and clocked 2:22.00, moving to seventh fastest in the world this year and remaining fourth among Americans.

In the men’s 200m breast, Olympic champion Dmitriy Balandin of Kazakhstan was beaten by Cody Miller, the Olympic 100m breast silver medalist. Both were slower than their best times this year.

The next significant swim meet is a Tyr Pro Series stop in Knoxville, Tenn., from Jan. 16-19.

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Mikaela Shiffrin runner-up in Lake Louise downhill

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LAKE LOUISE, Alberta (AP) — Here’s a scary thought for her competition: Mikaela Shiffrin is still getting comfortable with the intensity and the speed of the downhill.

That’s why podium finishes are still a little surprising even to her.

The American three-time overall World Cup champion finished runner-up to Nicole Schmidhofer of Austria in a downhill race Saturday. Schmidhofer cruised through the course in 1 minute, 49.92 seconds to edge Shiffrin by 0.13 seconds. Francesca Marsaglia of Italy wound up third.

Schmidhofer has four career World Cup wins, with three of them arriving at Lake Louise.

Known as a tech specialist, Shiffrin is steadily getting up to speed in the speed events. This was Shiffrin’s fourth career World Cup podium finish in the downhill, which includes a Lake Louise win in 2017.

So, does Shiffrin anticipate this kind of downhill success?

“No, no, no,” the 24-year-old from Colorado said. “It’s certainly not normal (for a downhill podium). Even racing downhill doesn’t feel normal. But I feel every year like I have more experience and get more comfortable.”

Shiffrin currently sits at 62 World Cup wins, which ties her with Austrian great Annemarie Moser-Proell for second-most on the women’s side. Lindsey Vonn had 82 wins before her retirement.

“I’m certainly more comfortable with the long skis,” Shiffrin said of downhill racing. “Right now, it’s enjoying it, because speed is a little bit extra for me. My goal is to be able to succeed in speed as well. It’s making the transition and trying to have fun with it.”

Czech Republic skier and snowboarder Ester Ledecka finished fourth Saturday. She was the surprise winner of Friday’s season-opening downhill, which was delayed and shortened by heavy snowfall on the mountain. The race Saturday was restored to its full length.

Next up, a super-G on Sunday.

“It’s always been a little bit tricky for me from downhill skis to super-G skis and to change the timing a little bit,” Shiffrin said. “I’m going to have fun.”

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