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Can Nathan Chen, Alysa Liu lead an American skating rebound?

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DETROIT (AP) — The present and future of American figure skating were on display at last week’s national championships.

Nathan Chen and Alysa Liu were captivating, but it remains to be seen how much they can help the U.S. rebound on the international stage.

Chen, the reigning world champion, is rolling right along after winning a third straight title at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. His performance was expected, but the biggest new star to emerge at this competition was the 13-year-old Liu, who became the youngest person to win an individual championship in the event’s history.

“She’s the hope,” said Tara Lipinski, who won the national title at age 14 in 1997 and was supplanted by Liu as the youngest women’s champion. “Obviously, it’s been many years since there’s been a U.S. lady on an Olympic podium.”

The last time an American won an Olympic medal in women’s figure skating was in 2006, when Sasha Cohen took silver. The U.S. won bronze in the team competition at each of the past two Olympics, but the Americans came up empty in the men’s and women’s individual events in both Pyeongchang and Sochi.

In Chen, the Americans already have a high-flying star. He won the Olympic free skate last year with an unprecedented six quad jumps, and while a poor short program cost him a medal, he has three straight national titles and last year’s world title to his credit at age 19.

“He’s pushing the sport in ways that, growing up in the sport, I could have only dreamed,” said Jason Brown, who finished third over the weekend. “It’s really impressive, and he definitely pushes me to push every other boundary that I can.”

Chen defeated Vincent Zhou by over 58 points Sunday, and right now, the main question seems to be how well Chen can balance his skating with his studies at Yale. So far, so good, it seems.

“I really don’t mind the training atmosphere that I’m in. I’m really lucky and really honored to have the opportunity to be able to skate at Yale,” he said. “Some competitions have been really good, some competitions have not necessarily been so good under these circumstances, but ultimately, I feel like I’m improving competition to competition.”

Chen is skipping the Four Continents Championships in California next month but can try to defend his world title in Japan in March.

Liu, meanwhile, faces a more uncertain international future. After Lipinski won at nationals in ’97, she took gold at the Nagano Olympics the following year. Liu’s national title came three years before the next Olympics, and under the current age restriction, she’s not eligible to compete at Worlds until 2022.

That may be frustrating for those who want to see her compete on the biggest stage, but it could also stave off the pressure for a little while.

“There are some obvious places where I can be better and (I will keep) working on those,” she said. “Focusing on myself is what works for me. Just focusing on being the best version and best skater that I can be.”

Liu landed a rare triple Axel in her short program and two more in the free skate, so it’s only natural to view her as someone who can help the American women start closing the gap.

“There’s other countries that are producing talent that are 12- and 13-year-olds, doing quads and multiple quad jumps, and it’s impossible for the U.S. ladies to technically compete with that. They’re lagging so far behind,” said Lipinski, now a commentator with NBC. “Now she’s changing this, and I think she is setting the tone and is going to push the next generation of U.S. skaters.”

MORE: Lipinski calls Liu the future

As a reminder, you can watch Four Continents and the world 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

Shawn Johnson
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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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