Alina Zagitova first after World Championship short program; drama in pairs’ short

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Gold medal favorite Rika Kihira of Japan dug herself into a hole with a popped triple Axel attempt at the World Figure Skating Championships in Saitama, Japan on Wednesday.

The Four Continents champion scored 70.90 points, good enough for seventh place headed into Friday’s free skate. She rallied to land her triple flip, triple toe combination and her triple Lutz.

Instead, it’s Olympic champion Alina Zagitova currently atop the leader board with 82.08 points. She opened her “Phantom of the Opera” program with a triple Lutz, triple loop combination and had a clean double Axel and triple flip. Despite being the reigning Olympic gold medalist, Zagitova has never won a world title on the senior level. She was fifth at last year’s World Championships.

The last time the two 16-year-olds met, at the Grand Prix Final in December, Kihira came away with the victory.

Japanese national champion Kaori Sakamoto sits in second with 76.86 points. She skated a clean program, opening with a triple flip, triple toe. She executed a double Axel and a triple loop to finish out the program.

“Today was my season’s best skate, so I feel that I was victorious over myself,” she told the International Skating Union.

Kazakhstan’s Elizabet Tursynbaeva is in third with 75.96 points, and expected to attempt a quadruple Salchow in the free skate. She trains with Zagitova in Moscow. No clean quad has been landed in senior ladies’ competition.

Two-time world champion Yevgenia Medvedeva from Russia, the Olympic silver medalist, sits in fourth after a redemptive short program which scored 74.23.

“You owned that baby, you owned it,” new coach this season Tracy Wilson told Medvedeva as she exited the ice. Medvedeva’s coaching change, plus her up and down season, put her in doubt to even skate at the World Championships.

The Americans, Mariah Bell and Bradie Tennell, finished in sixth and 10th, respectively, after the short program. Bell has been 12th at the past two World Championships, and in her debut in 2018, Tennell finished sixth.

“Everything I have done this season has prepared me for this moment,” Bell said through U.S. Figure Skating. “I thought ‘I’ve done this so many times, it’s just one more time.’ I knew I could do it so I’m happy I got through it.”

Wednesday, Tennell was called for under-rotating the toe of her triple Lutz, triple toe combination.

One of the Americans’ 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 Bell holds onto sixth and Tennell finished seventh.

Full results are here.

Overnight Wednesday, some high drama in the pairs’ short program. In the six-minute warmup, Vanessa James collided with Matteo Guarise, though both skaters appeared to be OK. Nicole Della Monica and Guarise finished the short program in eighth (67.29 points) and relatively unscathed, however gold medal favorites James and Morgan Cipres finished a shocking seventh. Cipres doubled a planned triple toe and James fell on the throw triple flip. They scored 68.67 points.

“We’ve had some hard situations but we always push through them,” James told Olympic Channel.

Guarise called it a “shock” and “distracting” in a post-skate interview.

Russians Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov sit in first place with 81.21 points after a short program with no major mistakes. Olympic silver medalists Sui Wenjing and Han Cong from China skated cleanly as well, finishing in second place with 79.24 points. The second Chinese pair in the field, Peng Cheng and Yang Jin, are currently third with 75.51 points.

The lone American pair, Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc, scored 66.93 for ninth place ahead of the free skate. Cain fell on their side-by-side triple loops. Their top priority is to finish the championships within the top 10 to ensure two U.S. quota spots at the 2020 World Championships.

“We’ve trained really consistently coming into this competition and this was just a fluke mistake where I was too far forward,” Cain said. “I was happy with how I recovered, but as an athlete I was upset with myself and want to do better tomorrow.

MORE: Schedule/How to watch | Ladies’ preview | Pairs’ preview

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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