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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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Alex Zanardi, auto racer turned Paralympic champion, has 5-hour surgery to rebuild face after crash

Alex Zanardi
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SIENA, Italy (AP) — Italian auto racing champion-turned-Paralympic gold medalist Alex Zanardi underwent a five-hour surgery Monday to reconstruct his face following a crash on his handbike last month.

It was the third major operation that Zanardi has had since he crashed into an oncoming truck near the Tuscan town of Pienza on June 19 during a relay event.

Dr. Paolo Gennaro of Santa Maria alle Scotte Hospital in Siena said the operation required three-dimensional digital and computerized technology that was “made to measure” for Zanardi.

“The complexity of the case was fairly unique, although this is a type of fracture that we deal with routinely,” Gennaro said in a hospital statement.

After the surgery, Zanardi was returned to the intensive care unit in a medically induced coma.

“His condition remains stable in terms of his cardio-respiratory status and grave in terms of his neurological status,” the hospital medical bulletin read.

The 53-year-old Zanardi, who lost both of his legs in an auto racing crash nearly 20 years ago, has been on a ventilator since the crash.

Zanardi suffered serious facial and cranial trauma, and doctors have warned of possible brain damage.

Zanardi won four gold medals and two silvers at the 2012 and 2016 Paralympics. He also competed in the New York City Marathon and set an Ironman record in his class.

Last month, Pope Francis penned a handwritten letter of encouragement assuring Zanardi and his family of his prayers. The pope praised Zanardi as an example of strength amid adversity.

Shawn Johnson East shares struggles with body image, prescription drugs

Shawn Johnson
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Shawn Johnson East, a 2008 Olympic gymnastics champion, detailed past struggles with body image and prescription drugs and reflected on her eating disorder as an elite athlete, to show there is hope to others in difficult situations.

“It all started with pregnancy and having my daughter,” East, who had daughter Drew in October, said on TODAY on Monday. “I had so many people asking me questions about how did pregnancy affect you mentally and how did you get your body back after having your daughter. I couldn’t answer that without giving a greater and a larger story.”

East first went public about her undiagnosed teenage eating disorders in 2015, three years after retiring from the sport. She said she limited herself to 700 calories per day and didn’t tell her parents.

In a June YouTube video, Johnson said she also binged and purged, including while dating future husband Andrew in the mid-2010s. And that she had depression and anxiety in 2011, when she returned to competition for the first time since the Beijing Games.

“I thought it would fix all of my problems,” East said of returning to gymnastics for a 2012 Olympic bid.

When East won “Dancing with the Stars” in 2009, she “hit a very low spot” going through puberty on national TV. She said she gained 15 pounds after the 2008 Olympics and started taking medications and drugs “to look like I did at the Olympics.” It included fad diets, diuretics and a three-week stretch of eating nothing but raw vegetables.

“Most pain of my entire life because I couldn’t digest anything,” she said.

At some point in 2011, East began feeling burned out. She was back to eating too few calories and overtraining. An unnamed USA Gymnastics doctor prescribed her Adderall “to lose more weight, have more energy and be more successful in gymnastics.” She took “heavy doses.”

“It helped my performances, but there were massive consequences to it,” she said. “I continued to compete into 2012, where I just started to get depressed.

“I was overdosing on Adderall. I was overdosing on any medication that wouldn’t be caught by USADA.”

Adderall was a banned substance in competition without a therapeutic use exemption, but was legal outside of competition.

“I was so controlled by other people’s opinions that I wouldn’t live up to that Olympic standard that I did anything to get it back and I could never have it back,” East said. “I didn’t learn that until later on.”

East’s mental hurdles re-emerged when she had a miscarriage in 2017. She blamed herself, believing her unhealthy lifestyle in the past was a contributor.

“Our natural inclination is to say, what did I do? And what did I do wrong?” she said. “It haunted me. I felt like I had sacrificed everything for an Olympic medal to not actually get the dream I had wanted my entire life [to have a child].”

With the help of a nutritionist and therapist and her husband, she conquered the demons through her 2019 pregnancy and childbirth.

“Having gone through a whole pregnancy and knowing that I felt confident through the whole thing, I feel like I’ve climbed Everest,” she said.

MORE: Why Nastia Liukin, Shawn Johnson went 8 years without talking

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