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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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Katie Ledecky swims fastest at U.S. Open from B final

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For what must have been the first time in seven years, Katie Ledecky failed to qualify for an A final in one of her primary events on Friday morning. No matter, she swam the fastest 200m freestyle at the U.S. Open from the B final at night.

Ledecky, owner of 20 combined Olympic and world titles, clocked 1:56.24 to win the B final by nearly three seconds in Atlanta. In the very next race, American record holder Allison Schmitt touched first in the A final in 1:56.47.

Full results are here. The final day of the meet airs live on Saturday at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app.

Ledecky has rarely lost domestically in freestyles from 200m through 1500m since she made her first Olympic team at age 15 in 2012.

She kept the streak intact, giving her a sweep of the 200m, 400m and 800m frees in the first three days of the U.S. Open, what could be the deepest domestic meet before the Olympic trials in June.

Internationally, Ledecky faced challengers in the 200m free in this Olympic cycle, unlike the last one. Italian veteran and world-record holder Federica Pellegrini won the last two world titles, with Ledecky missing the event this summer due to her mid-meet illness.

Ledecky ranks seventh in the world in the 200m free this year but likely would have been faster if she was able to race at her best at world champs.

Domestically, Simone Manuel has crept up, clocking 1:56.09 to lead off the 4x200m free relay at worlds to rank second among Americans in 2019. Manuel was the third-fastest American on Friday, recording 1:57.21, her fastest time ever outside of a major summer meet.

In other events Friday, Phoebe Bacon upset world-record holder Regan Smith in the 100m backstroke. Bacon, who like Smith is 17 years old, overtook Smith in the last 25 meters and prevailed by .05 in 58.63. Bacon, while shy of Smith’s world record 57.57, took .39 off her personal best to become the fifth-fastest in the world this year.

Olympic and world champion Lilly King dominated the 100m breaststroke, beating a strong field by .62 of a second in 1:05.65.

Chase Kalisz won a potential Olympic trials preview in the 400m individual medley in 4:13.07. Kalisz, the Rio silver medalist, held off 18-year-old Carson Foster by 1.69 seconds. Ryan Lochte, the 2012 Olympic champion in the event, was fifth, 6.65 seconds behind.

Rio Olympian Townley Haas won the men’s 200m free in 1:45.92, his fastest time since August 2018. Haas, the 2017 World silver medalist, improved to the second-fastest American in the event this year behind Andrew Seliskar.

Torri Huske won the 100m butterfly on the eve of her 17th birthday. Huske clocked 57.48, taking .23 off her personal best to move from sixth fastest to third fastest in the U.S. this year.

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Ester Ledecka stuns again, wins World Cup downhill from bib No. 26

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Consider 26 a lucky number for Ester Ledecka.

Ledecka, the snowboard champion who stunningly captured the PyeongChang Olympic super-G from bib No. 26, won her first World Cup ski race on Friday — also from bib No. 26.

Ledecka was fastest in a downhill at Lake Louise, Alberta.

She kept Swiss Corinne Suter from her first World Cup win by .35 of a second. Austrian Stephanie Venier was third. Mikaela Shiffrin was 10th in her weakest discipline. Full results are here.

“I am for sure more shocked than everybody here,” Ledecka said. “I was a little bit, not disappointed about the run, but I was not super satisfied. Then I was really surprised about the time.”

Ledecka, an Olympic and world champion in Alpine snowboarding from the Czech Republic, had a previous best Alpine skiing World Cup finish of seventh. The top-ranked racers all go in the top 20 of the start list.

Last season, Ledecka raced more World Cup skiing events than snowboarding events for the first time. She was forced to choose between world championships in skiing and in snowboarding due to schedules and picked the former with a top finish of 15th.

She’s undecided about her upcoming schedule. She could continue on the Alpine skiing tour with a super-G in Switzerland next weekend, or she could fly to Italy for a snowboarding event.

The women race another downhill and a super-G in Lake Louise the next two days. A full TV and live stream schedule for the weekend races is here.

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MORE: 2019-20 Alpine skiing season TV schedule