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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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Adam Jones, five-time MLB All-Star, becomes Olympic eligible

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Should the U.S. qualify for baseball’s Olympic return, a five-time MLB All-Star could be eligible for its roster in Tokyo. And he has interest.

Outfielder Adam Jones signed with the Orix Buffaloes of Japan’s domestic league, which, unlike MLB, will take an Olympic break next summer to allow players to take part in the first Olympic baseball tournament in 12 years.

Jones, 34, made no mention of Olympic eligibility in a social media post announcing the signing. His Instagram avatar is a photo of him in a Team USA jersey from the World Baseball Classic.

Jones’ agent later said that Jones does have interest in playing for the U.S. in Tokyo, should an American team qualify in the spring.

“To play over in Japan has always been a desire of Adam’s, and the timing worked out that the Olympics happens to be played in Tokyo the first year of his contract,” Jones’ agent wrote in an email. “It wasn’t one of the factors on his decision BUT more of a [sic] addition to the overall package to decide to go.”

Jones called being part of the U.S.’ 2017 WBC title, “probably the best experience of my life so far, especially with sports,” according to The Associated Press. He was one of five players to be on the U.S. team at each of the last two World Baseball Classics.

The U.S. still faces a difficult task to qualify for the Tokyo Games. It lost to Mexico last month in its first of up to three chances at qualifying tournaments, using a roster of mostly double-A and triple-A caliber players.

Major Leaguers are not expected to be made available for qualifying or for the Tokyo Games.

The next two qualifying tournaments will be in late March (an Americas qualifier in Arizona) and early April (a final, global qualifying event in Chinese Taipei). It remains to be seen how MLB clubs will go about releasing minor leaguers for a tournament that will take place during spring training.

Jones could become the third player with prior MLB All-Star experience to compete at the Olympics from any nation, joining Australian catcher Dave Nilsson and Canadian pitcher Jason Dickson.

Jones made five All-Star teams during an 11-year stint with the Baltimore Orioles from 2008-18 before playing for the Arizona Diamondbacks last season.

Many players competed at the Olympics before making an MLB All-Star team, including Stephen Strasburg and Jason Giambi.

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Russia boxers to boycott Olympics if sanctions not lifted

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Russian boxers will only take part in the Tokyo Olympics if doping sanctions forcing them to compete as neutral athletes are overturned, the general secretary of the Russian Boxing Federation told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

Umar Kremlev said he has spoken with the Olympic boxing team and they “unanimously” rejected the conditions laid out by the World Anti-Doping Agency as punishment for manipulating doping data.

The WADA sanctions, announced on Monday, ban the use of the Russian team name, flag or anthem at a range of major sports competitions over the next four years, including next year’s Olympics.

“They said we won’t go without our flag and anthem,” Kremlev said. “We aren’t going for medals, but for that feeling that I brought the highest honor home for my country.”

Separately, the speaker of Russia’s upper house of parliament said Russia could create an alternative to the Olympics.

“This ruling show the clear crisis in international sports institutions. I believe that Russia could host its own games at home,” Valentina Matvienko said in comments reported by the Interfax news agency.

There is a precedent. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Soviet Union refused to compete in the Olympics and hosted its own Spartakiads — named after the ancient rebel slave Spartacus — with a strong socialist slant. However, the Soviet Union began competing at the Olympics in 1952 and Russians generally take great pride in the country’s Olympic achievements since then.

If the sanctions aren’t overturned, Kremlev said Russian boxers would prefer to turn pro rather than compete at the Olympics.

“A world champion (in professional boxing) is better known than an Olympic champion,” Kremlev said, adding the Russian anthem would be played before pro title fights.

Kremlev said boxers are being asked to shoulder the blame for offenses committed in other sports. He said they would still stay at home even if Russia’s athletes in other sports decided to take part.

“If other sports are guilty and people have breached the WADA code, why are we punished?” he said. “We are for honest sport and against doping. We want our sport to be clean … If someone breaks the rules, we push them out.”

Russia is a major power in amateur and Olympic boxing. It hosted both men’s and women’s world championships this year, finishing at the top of the medals table at the women’s event and second in the men’s championships. The International Olympic Committee has taken direct charge of boxing at the Tokyo Olympics after criticizing chronic financial problems and infighting at the International Boxing Association.

Russian Sports Minister Pavel Kolobkov talked up Russia’s chances of overturning the WADA sanctions.

“I think that there is every basis to appeal the decision, because our experts have presented their position, and they have the same database as WADA does,” Kolobkov said in comments reported by state news agency TASS. “There is an answer to every question and the whole process is ahead of us.”

The official decision on whether to dispute the sanctions will be made on Dec. 19 by the Russian anti-doping agency’s supervisory board, but senior figures, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, have signaled their preference for taking the matter to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

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