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Takeaways from Four Continents Championships

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Shoma Uno performs a record-setting free skate. Sui Wenjing and Han Cong return to competition. Rika Kihira continues her climb. Madison Chock and Evan Bates win their first title at an ISU Championships. 

Now that the 2019 Four Continents Figure Skating Championships, held in Anaheim, Calif. is in the books, here are some of the big takeaways:

Nathan Chen will need his A+ game to repeat as World champion. Japan’s Shoma Uno won his first Four Continents title and with the highest free score of the season, 197.36 points. (It’s also the highest free skate score ever, but various judging changes this season make it unfair to compare it to past seasons’ scores.)

Uno, who has struggled with multiple sprained ankles since the Japanese Championships in late December, landed three quads and two triple Axels in his “Moonlight Sonata” program in Anaheim. He could round into even better form for the 2019 World Figure Skating Championships in Saitama, Japan a month from now. Yuzuru Hanyu, troubled by an ankle ligament injury, was not in Anaheim. Japan’s two-time Olympic champion hasn’t competed since Rostelecom Cup in mid-November, but vows to compete in Saitama and try for a third world title.

Rika, Rika, Rika. Japan’s Rika Kihira confirmed her status as the odds-on favorite to win the ladies’ title at Worlds – not only because of her triple Axel and rapidly improving skating skills, but because of her strong mental game. The 16-year-old arrived in Anaheim with a new boot on her left foot, an old (and too soft) boot on her right foot, and mismatched blades: one was silver, one was gold. A fall on a triple Lutz in practice injured her left ring finger, causing considerable pain. Yet after popping her triple Axel into a single and placing fifth in the short program, she performed a clutch free skate to win the title. Kihira is undefeated in international competition this season, including wins at both of her Grand Prix events and the Grand Prix Final.

U.S. can earn two pairs’ spots for the 2020 World Championships. Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc performed two solid programs at Four Continents, and can increase their scores if they tweak a few elements to get higher levels. They have a good chance to crack the top 10 in Saitama, which would qualify the U.S. to enter two pairs the following season.

“Overall it’s going to take two really strong performances from us, to get those spots,” Cain said. “We can’t make any big mistakes. We want to hit the 200-point mark. I think if we just get our levels, we’ll be right there.”

Pair’s title in Saitama still looks wide open. China’s Sui Wenjing and Han Cong won Four Continents by just .06 points over Canadians Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro; the Canadians won the short program, but a costly error on a lift in their free skate cost them the title.

The Olympic silver medalists were impressive but did not look unbeatable: Sui, who missed the first half of the season with a right foot stress fracture, fell on triple jumps in both the short program and free skate. Strong performances by Russia’s Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov or France’s Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres could win the day. If James and Cipres do win, it will be the first time a French pair has won worlds since 1932. Of course, Sui and Han still have a month to improve.

No guarantees in ice dance. The shocking fourth-place finish of Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue in Anaheim showed their margin for error is thin. It is unlikely the U.S. champions will repeat the lift error that cost them more than four points, but even a smaller mistake – especially on step sequences in the rhythm dance – could cost them a world medal.

As their training partner, Jean-Luc Baker, explained in Anaheim: “The intricacy of the tango (rhythm dance) is significantly harder than what we had last year with the rhumba. The image the technical panel wants to see and what they are asking for, is so minuscule that one small thing like that angle of your skate can cost you three points.”

Three-time world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France have separated themselves from the rest. While Hubbell and Donohue are still the favorites for silver, one slip opens the door for teams including Chock and Bates; Canadians Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, and Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier; and Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin of Russia.

Tomoki Hiwatashi marked himself a favorite for the World junior podium. Hiwatashi, fourth at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships last month, skated his best programs ever in Anaheim to place eighth. His coach, Christy Krall, thinks he has made a breakthrough.

“Nationals really changed his persona,” she said. “He’s been very inspired. I think he understands that he has a great chance and the ability to be a very keen competitor, which he has always wanted to be.”

The 19-year-old won a world junior bronze in 2016 and in this, his final year of eligibility, could win another medal. The favorite for the event, held in Zagreb, Croatia Mar. 4-10, is Canada’s Stephen Gogolov, this season’s Junior Grand Prix Final champion.

Four Continents reporter’s notebook: Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 | Day 5

As a reminder, you can watch 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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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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