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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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Alex Zanardi, auto racer turned Paralympic champion, has 5-hour surgery to rebuild face after crash

Alex Zanardi
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SIENA, Italy (AP) — Italian auto racing champion-turned-Paralympic gold medalist Alex Zanardi underwent a five-hour surgery Monday to reconstruct his face following a crash on his handbike last month.

It was the third major operation that Zanardi has had since he crashed into an oncoming truck near the Tuscan town of Pienza on June 19 during a relay event.

Dr. Paolo Gennaro of Santa Maria alle Scotte Hospital in Siena said the operation required three-dimensional digital and computerized technology that was “made to measure” for Zanardi.

“The complexity of the case was fairly unique, although this is a type of fracture that we deal with routinely,” Gennaro said in a hospital statement.

After the surgery, Zanardi was returned to the intensive care unit in a medically induced coma.

“His condition remains stable in terms of his cardio-respiratory status and grave in terms of his neurological status,” the hospital medical bulletin read.

The 53-year-old Zanardi, who lost both of his legs in an auto racing crash nearly 20 years ago, has been on a ventilator since the crash.

Zanardi suffered serious facial and cranial trauma, and doctors have warned of possible brain damage.

Zanardi won four gold medals and two silvers at the 2012 and 2016 Paralympics. He also competed in the New York City Marathon and set an Ironman record in his class.

Last month, Pope Francis penned a handwritten letter of encouragement assuring Zanardi and his family of his prayers. The pope praised Zanardi as an example of strength amid adversity.

Shawn Johnson East shares struggles with body image, prescription drugs

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Shawn Johnson East, a 2008 Olympic gymnastics champion, detailed past struggles with body image and prescription drugs and reflected on her eating disorder as an elite athlete, to show there is hope to others in difficult situations.

“It all started with pregnancy and having my daughter,” East, who had daughter Drew in October, said on TODAY on Monday. “I had so many people asking me questions about how did pregnancy affect you mentally and how did you get your body back after having your daughter. I couldn’t answer that without giving a greater and a larger story.”

East first went public about her undiagnosed teenage eating disorders in 2015, three years after retiring from the sport. She said she limited herself to 700 calories per day and didn’t tell her parents.

In a June YouTube video, Johnson said she also binged and purged, including while dating future husband Andrew in the mid-2010s. And that she had depression and anxiety in 2011, when she returned to competition for the first time since the Beijing Games.

“I thought it would fix all of my problems,” East said of returning to gymnastics for a 2012 Olympic bid.

When East won “Dancing with the Stars” in 2009, she “hit a very low spot” going through puberty on national TV. She said she gained 15 pounds after the 2008 Olympics and started taking medications and drugs “to look like I did at the Olympics.” It included fad diets, diuretics and a three-week stretch of eating nothing but raw vegetables.

“Most pain of my entire life because I couldn’t digest anything,” she said.

At some point in 2011, East began feeling burned out. She was back to eating too few calories and overtraining. An unnamed USA Gymnastics doctor prescribed her Adderall “to lose more weight, have more energy and be more successful in gymnastics.” She took “heavy doses.”

“It helped my performances, but there were massive consequences to it,” she said. “I continued to compete into 2012, where I just started to get depressed.

“I was overdosing on Adderall. I was overdosing on any medication that wouldn’t be caught by USADA.”

Adderall was a banned substance in competition without a therapeutic use exemption, but was legal outside of competition.

“I was so controlled by other people’s opinions that I wouldn’t live up to that Olympic standard that I did anything to get it back and I could never have it back,” East said. “I didn’t learn that until later on.”

East’s mental hurdles re-emerged when she had a miscarriage in 2017. She blamed herself, believing her unhealthy lifestyle in the past was a contributor.

“Our natural inclination is to say, what did I do? And what did I do wrong?” she said. “It haunted me. I felt like I had sacrificed everything for an Olympic medal to not actually get the dream I had wanted my entire life [to have a child].”

With the help of a nutritionist and therapist and her husband, she conquered the demons through her 2019 pregnancy and childbirth.

“Having gone through a whole pregnancy and knowing that I felt confident through the whole thing, I feel like I’ve climbed Everest,” she said.

MORE: Why Nastia Liukin, Shawn Johnson went 8 years without talking

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