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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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Helen Maroulis to miss world championships, eyes still on defending Olympic title

Helen Maroulis
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Helen Maroulis, the lone U.S. female wrestler to win an Olympic title, sat out this past weekend’s world team trials, which means she will not compete at the world championships in September.

Maroulis is working her way back from blowing out her right shoulder in a first-round loss at worlds on Oct. 24, after she returned from a concussion. She underwent surgery in November and was cleared to return earlier this spring before tweaking the shoulder again.

Maroulis said Friday she was cleared again to compete at trials but chose rest, recovery and her long-term health given what happened in 2018.

“It’s not coming from a place of fear,” she said. “I’m just not ready yet.

“If trials were end of June, everything would be perfect. I’m still feeling good and confident for 2020.”

As Maroulis stressed at 2018 Worlds, she prioritizes health over wrestling.

“Not just for myself, but to set an example because I get a lot of messages from kids on Instagram — I have a concussion, or my teammate has a concussion.” Maroulis said in October. “There’s this wrestler mindset to just push through — you’re the toughest, find a way to win. But there’s just a lot more to it.”

Maroulis, 27, put together one of the most dominant stretches in sport from 2015-17, going 78-1 overall among three different weight classes and going unscored upon at two world championships.

In between, she beat Saori Yoshida in the Rio Olympic 53kg final, preventing the Japanese legend from a record fourth Olympic title.

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Ex-partner of deceased figure skater John Coughlin says she was abused

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — One of the former skating partners of two-time U.S. pairs champion John Coughlin has accused him in a series of social media posts of sexually assaulting her over a 2-year period.

Bridget Namiotka said on Facebook that Coughlin, who died by suicide in January, hurt “at least 10 people including me.” She skated with Coughlin from 2004, when she was 14, through the 2007 season.

Namiotka’s attorney confirmed to The Associated Press that the comments were made by her.

The U.S. Center for SafeSport and U.S. Figure Skating had given Coughlin, who became a coach and TV commentator after his retirement, an interim suspension for unspecified conduct. He was barred from attending events and activities sanctioned by the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Coughlin was found dead Jan. 18 at his father’s home in Kansas City, Missouri.