U.S. Championships pairs preview: One Worlds spot on the line

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Three national champion pair teams are in the field this weekend at the 2019 U.S. Championships in Detroit. Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim are looking to claim their third national title and defend the one they won last year to vault them onto the Olympic team, while Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea know with only one spot at the world championships, the battle for first place will be hard-fought. Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier, the 2017 champions, will also compete.

The short program is Thursday and the free skate is Saturday. Check out the full schedule and live streaming information here.

Here’s a closer look at who might land on the podium.

Husband/wife duo Knierims aiming for third national title

The Knierims, who married in 2016, won the U.S. title in 2015 and 2018. They finished 15th at the world championships and the Olympics in 2018 and said wanted to make a change in their career. They split with longtime coach Dalilah Sappenfield to move to Germany and train with PyeongChang gold medalist Aliona Savchenko. After a few weeks, though, the couple unexpectedly split from Savchenko and moved to California to train with Todd Sand and Jenni Meno. They’ve been the top U.S. pair for several years not but inconsistencies, especially on their jumps, leave them vulnerable to threats from other teams.

MORE: 3 questions with the Knierims

2016 champions Kayne/O’Shea have Worlds on their minds

Kayne and O’Shea also changed coaches for this season, leaving Florida and joining Sappenfield in Colorado Springs. The move to Colorado did Kayne especially good, who has been injured for the last several seasons; with access to the Olympic Training Center, she said she feels healthy and strong before a national championship for the first time in years.

Kayne and O’Shea told reporters on their media call ahead of the competition that the single world championship spot is “on their minds.”

“We have always gone into nationals trying to skate our best, but this year we know we have to go and do that and we have to win,” O’Shea said.

MORE: 3 questions with Kayne and O’Shea

Cain/LeDuc adjusting goals for the season

Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc planned to “break out” as the top American pair this season, but their season took a turn when Cain fell on her head coming out of a lift in a small competition in Croatia in December. She was diagnosed with a concussion and was off the ice for several weeks. The pair remains a factor – they’ve been third and fourth at nationals in the past two years – but they may be hampered by their limited training time.

“We are really grateful that we have this opportunity to compete and we will give it everything we have!” Cain wrote in a lengthy Instagram post detailing her recovery and thanking her support team.

Other factors in the field

Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier won nationals in 2017. The Florida-based pair missed Grand Prix France in November with Denney’s ankle injury. This year, they are focused on improving their artistry, so watch for that during the U.S. Championships.

Deanna Stellato and Nathan Bartholomay have only been together since the spring of 2016 but finished third and fourth at nationals the past two years. Stellato came down with a stomach illness and the pair was forced to withdraw from Rostelecom Cup on the Grand Prix series after the short program. She said she’s been training at full strength now for about six weeks.

MORE: Nathan Chen goes for 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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Teri McKeever fired by Cal as women’s swimming coach after investigation

Teri McKeever
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Teri McKeever, the first woman to serve as a U.S. Olympic swimming head coach, was fired by the University of California at Berkeley after an investigation into alleged verbal and emotional abuse of swimmers that she denied.

McKeever was put on paid administrative leave from her job as head women’s swimming coach in May after an Orange County Register report that 20 current or former Cal swimmers said McKeever verbally and emotionally bullied her swimmers.

Cal athletics director Jim Knowlton wrote in a letter to the Cal team and staff that a resulting independent law firm report detailed “verbally abusive conduct that is antithetical to our most important values.”

“I strongly believe this is in the best interests of our student-athletes, our swimming program and Cal Athletics as a whole,” Knowlton said of McKeever’s firing in a press release. “The report details numerous violations of university policies that prohibit race, national origin and disability discrimination.”

The Orange County Register first published what it says is the full independent report here.

“I deny and unequivocally refute all conclusions that I abused or bullied any athlete and deny any suggestion I discriminated against any athlete on the basis of race, disability or sexual orientation,” McKeever said in a statement Tuesday confirming her firing and expressing disappointment in how the investigation was conducted. “While I am disappointed in the way my CAL Career will conclude, I wish to thank and celebrate the many student-athletes and staff that made my time in Berkeley a true blessing and gift.”

McKeever’s lawyer wrote that McKeever “will be filing suit to expose the manner in which gender has affected not only the evaluation of her coaching but harmed and continues to harm both female and male athletes.”

McKeever led Cal women’s swimming and diving for nearly 30 years, winning four NCAA team titles and coaching Olympic champions including Missy FranklinNatalie Coughlin and Dana Vollmer.

In 2004, she became the first woman to be on a U.S. Olympic swim team coaching staff, as an assistant. In 2012, she became the first woman to be head coach of a U.S. Olympic swim team. She was an assistant again for the Tokyo Games.

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Diana Taurasi returns to U.S. national basketball team

Diana Taurasi
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Diana Taurasi is set to return to the U.S. national basketball team next week for the first time since the Tokyo Olympics, signaling a possible bid for a record-breaking sixth Olympic appearance in 2024 at age 42.

Taurasi is on the 15-player roster for next week’s training camp in Minnesota announced Tuesday.

Brittney Griner is not on the list but is expected to return to competitive basketball later this year with her WNBA team, the Phoenix Mercury (also Taurasi’s longtime team, though she is currently a free agent), after being detained in Russia for 10 months in 2022.

Taurasi said as far back as the 2016 Rio Games that her Olympic career was likely over, but returned to the national team after Dawn Staley succeeded Geno Auriemma as head coach in 2017.

In Tokyo, Taurasi and longtime backcourt partner Sue Bird became the first basketball players to win five Olympic gold medals. Bird has since retired.

After beating Japan in the final, Taurasi said “see you in Paris,” smiling, as she left an NBC interview. That’s now looking less like a joke and more like a prediction.

Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve succeeded Staley as head coach last year. In early fall, she guided the U.S. to arguably the best FIBA World Cup performance ever, despite not having stalwarts Bird, Griner, Tina Charles and Sylvia Fowles.

Taurasi was not in contention for the team after suffering a WNBA season-ending quad injury in the summer. Taurasi, who is 38-0 in Olympic games and started every game at the last four Olympics, wasn’t on a U.S. team for an Olympics or worlds for the first time since 2002.

Next year, Taurasi can become the oldest Olympic basketball player in history and the first to play in six Games, according to Olympedia.org. Spain’s Rudy Fernandez could also play in a sixth Olympics in 2024.

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