Alina Zagitova, Rika Kihira
AP

World Championships ladies’ preview: Japanese, Russian skaters face off for top prize

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In all of her international competitions this season, phenom Rika Kihira of Japan has gone undefeated. Her only loss was at Japan’s national championships, won by Kaori Sakamoto. Four-time Japanese national champion Satoko Miyahara claimed the bronze.

All three will compete at the World Championships in Saitama, Japan from March 18-24 – home ice for the skaters in a country that loves skating like no other.

Their biggest challenges will come from the Russian ladies, though the best that country has to offer may be among the juniors. The strongest of Russia’s three ladies this year seems to be newly-crowned European champion Sofia Samodurova, who will be joined at worlds by two former training partners, Olympic gold and silver medalists Alina Zagitova and Yevgenia Medvedeva.

They will likely make up the top six in the field if they skate well. Here is a closer look:

Rika Kihira, Japan

Credentials: Grand Prix Final winner, Four Continents gold medalist

Kihira won both of her Grand Prix assignments in the fall to qualify and win at the Grand Prix Final in December, her first head-to-head with reigning Olympic gold medalist Zagitova. Worlds is a second chance to see how the 16-year-olds stack up against each other.

She has the highest short program score of the season as well as the second-highest free skate score this year.

Worth noting: Kihira will likely attempt triple Axels in both her short program and her free skate, as she’s done throughout the season.

Kaori Sakamoto, Japan

Credentials: Fourth at Four Continents, fourth at the Grand Prix Final, sixth place finish in PyeongChang, Japanese national champion

Sakamoto won Four Continents in 2018 before competing in PyeongChang and finishing sixth. The momentum continued through the fall, where she picked up a silver and bronze on the Grand Prix circuit. She clinched a spot in the Final and finished fourth before claiming her first Japanese national title. Most recently, she finished fourth at Four Continents in February.

Satoko Miyahara, Japan

Credentials: Two-time world medalist (silver, 2015; bronze, 2018), four-time Four Continents medalist, two-time Grand Prix Final silver medalist, fourth in PyeongChang

Miyahara has recorded some of the highest scores of the season. The four-time Japanese national champion is known for her delicate, artistic skating and sometimes being penalized for under-rotated jumps. Skating at home should only help in both of those realms.

Sofia Samodurova, Russia

Credentials: 2019 European champion, two-time Grand Prix series medalist (silver, bronze)

This is Samodurova’s first season as a senior skater, and she’s certainly stepped out with a bang. She qualified for the Grand Prix Final in December, finishing fifth, and then surpassed Alina Zagitova for the European crown in January.

Worth noting: With inconsistencies in both of her teammates’ results, Samodurova could be the highest-finishing Russian lady at Worlds.

Alina Zagitova, Russia

Credentials: Olympic gold medalist (2018), Olympic silver medalist (team event) European silver medalist (2019), Grand Prix Final champion (2017)

Zagitova won gold in PyeongChang when she was just 15 years old – one of her only recent clean free skates. This season, despite winning both of her Grand Prix assignments, it hasn’t been the same. She won a senior B early in the season, earned silver at the Grand Prix Final, but finished fifth at Russian nationals and went bust in the free skate at Europeans – yet still was able to manage a silver medal there. She figures to be in the mix as she hasn’t competed since, and should be well-rested.

Worth noting: Zagitova is beloved in Japan, which might ease her nerves. The country bestowed a dog on the Olympic champion, Masaru, who is equally popular. Masaru means “victory” in Japanese.

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🎈🐕 Масару сегодня 1 годик 🎀!!! С Днём Рождения, моя любимая 🐕! Моя радость, поддержка и вдохновение!!! Будь здоровой и послушной 🐶🎁🎉 🎈🐕今日、マサルが1歳の誕生日をむかえました🎀 私の愛犬、誕生日おめでとう!🐕あなたがいてくれて私は本当に幸せで、あなたは私の支えであり、私を鼓舞してくれる存在です!これからも素直で元気に過ごしてくれることを祈っています🐶🎁🎉 🎈🐕 Masaru is celebrating her 1st year today !!! Happy Birthday, my lovely dog! 🐕 You are my happiness, support and inspiration! Wish you to be healthy and obedient 🐶🎁🎉 #масару #акитаину #акита #собака #люблю #япония #masaru #マサル #秋田犬 #日本 # 愛してる #akitas # japan #puppy #mylove

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Yevgenia Medvedeva, Russia

Credentials: Two-time world champion (2016, 2017), Two-time Olympic silver medalist (team, individual), two-time Grand Prix Final champion

It would be wrong to discount Medvedeva, the two-time world champion who was undefeated in competition for nearly a two-year stretch. She moved to Toronto during the offseason to train under Brian Orser and had a disappointing showing at most of her competitions. Yet she was spot-on when it counted, at the Russian competition widely considered to be the world championship selection meet, beating out 2015 world champion Yelizaveta Tuktamysheva for the third spot behind Zagitova and Samodurova.

Worth noting: Medvedeva is competing with a different short program than earlier this season. She had been using Natalie Cole’s “Orange Colored Sky,” but swapped it for “Tosca” by Giacomo Puccini. She’s also immensely popular in Japan.

The U.S. ladies:

Bradie Tennell and Mariah Bell will represent the U.S. in Saitama, where one of their biggest challenges will be to secure a third spot for next year’s world championships. To do so, their combined finishes need to add up to less than 13; for example, if Tennell finished sixth and Bell finished seventh.

Tennell has been building momentum all season. She won her senior B season opener, followed by a fourth place and a bronze medal on the Grand Prix circuit, and a victory at another senior B competition. Then, she claimed silver at nationals in January and placed fifth at Four Continents in February. She told NBCSports.com/figure-skating she thinks she’s making artistic progress this season, too.

Bell, the two-time U.S. bronze medalist, has finished 12th at the world championships the past two years. She most recently finished sixth at Four Continents. She’s on the precipice of putting it all together, as she told NBCSports.com/figure-skating in January.

Alysa Liu, the 13-year-old who won U.S. nationals, is too young to compete at the World Championships or World Junior Championships, which took place two weeks ago.

Honorable mention: Kazakhstan’s Yelizabet Tursynbaeva, who trains alongside Zagitova in Moscow, will likely attempt a quadruple Salchow in the free skate. She was credited for a fully rotated attempt during her free skate at Four Continents in February, but fell. A clean quad has never been landed at a senior ladies’ international competition.

Canada’s Gabrielle Daleman won a gold medal in the team event at the PyeongChang Olympics, but has struggled on and off the ice this season. The 2017 World bronze medalist was sixth to open her season at a senior B competition, withdrew from the Grand Prix to focus on mental health, and then led after the short program at Canadian nationals but finished fifth overall. Due to a slip on the ice early in the season, she has suffered from concussion symptoms, on top of depression and anxiety, according to an interview her mother gave Canadian media. She has also opened up about having ADHD, a learning disability, and an eating disorder.

South Korea’s Lim Eun-soo, who trains with Bell under Rafael Arutunian in California, is another skater to watch. So is Belgium’s Loena Hendrickx.

MORE: Nathan Chen, student and skater, tries to have two parts in harmony again at world championships

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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Asbel Kiprop, Olympic 1500m champ, banned four years

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Kenyan Asbel Kiprop, the 2008 Olympic 1500m champion and a three-time world champ, was banned four years after testing positive for EPO in November 2017, according to track and field’s doping watchdog organization.

The ban is backdated to Feb. 3, 2018, when the 29-year-old was provisionally suspended after the failed test.

Kiprop repeatedly denied doping since last May, when he first acknowledged the positive test. Most recently, a 3,000-word defense from his lawyer was posted on Kiprop’s Facebook page.

Kiprop’s defenses included saying he was a victim of extortion and that he was offered “a reward” of becoming an anti-doping ambassador if he admitted guilt. The Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU), the IAAF’s independent organization to monitor doping and corruption, denied the latter last May.

A disciplinary panel dismissed six defenses from exonerating him, including the possibility his sample was spiked, in handing out the four-year ban.

Kiprop, the pre-eminent 1500m runner of the last decade, can appeal the ban.

At 19, he finished second in the Beijing Olympic 1500m but was upgraded to gold a year later after Bahrain’s Rashid Ramzi failed a drug test. He is the youngest Olympic 1500m medalist of all time, according to the OlyMADMen.

Kiprop went on to earn three straight world titles in the 1500m in 2011, 2013 and 2015, matching the feats of retired legends Noureddine Morceli and Hicham El Guerrouj.

He struggled in the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, finishing last in the London final with a hamstring injury and sixth in the Rio final won by American rival Matthew Centrowitz.

Kiprop has targeted El Guerrouj’s world record of 3:26:00, missing the mark by .69 of a second in 2015.

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Maggie Nichols is second woman in 20 years to repeat as NCAA all-around champ

Maggie Nichols
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Oklahoma junior and world champion gymnast Maggie Nichols became the first woman to repeat as NCAA all-around champion in 12 years, returning from a heel injury to compete on all four events for the first time since January on Friday.

Nichols, a Rio Olympic hopeful before being beset by a torn meniscus in 2016, joined 2004 Olympic silver medalist Courtney Kupets as the only women to win back-to-back NCAA all-arounds in the 2000s.

A junior, Nichols can next year join Jenny Hansen as the only women to three-peat in NCAA history.

Oklahoma goes for a third team title in four years on Saturday night against UCLA (featuring Olympic champions Madison Kocian and Kyla Ross), LSU and Denver.

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NCAA Women’s Gymnastics Championships Individual Results
All-Around
1. Maggie Nichols (Oklahoma) — 39.7125
2. Lexy Ramler (Minnesota) — 39.6625
2. Kyla Ross (UCLA) — 39.6625
4. Sarah Finnegan (LSU) — 39.65
5. Kennedi Edney (LSU) — 39.6

Vault
1. Kennedi Edney (LSU) — 9.95
1. Derrian Gobourne (Auburn)
1. Maggie Nichols (Oklahoma)
1. Kyla Ross (UCLA)

Uneven Bars
1. Sarah Finnegan (LSU) — 9.95

Balance Beam
1. Natalie Wojcik (Michigan) — 9.95

Floor Exercise
1. Alicia Boren (Florida) — 9.95
1. Lynnzee Brown (Denver)
1. Brenna Dowell (Oklahoma)
1. Kyla Ross (UCLA)