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World Championships men’s preview: Can Nathan Chen defend his world title?

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Nathan Chen last competed at January’s U.S. Championships, where he won his third consecutive national title.

He put together two of the best performances of his career at nationals, though he has yet to do a clean short program internationally this season. Whether Chen is able to defend his 2018 world title in Saitama, Japan from March 18-24 will likely depend on hitting his short program.

As the old skating adage says, you can’t win a competition based on a short program, but you can lose it.

Unlike some of the other competitors he’ll face in the field, Chen, a Yale University freshman spending his spring break at the world championships, is rested. He hasn’t competed since January, opting to sit out February’s Four Continents Championships. That said, he remains undefeated this season.

His biggest challengers:

Yuzuru Hanyu, Japan

Credentials: Two-time Olympic gold medalist (2014, 2018); two-time world champion (2014, 2017)

Hanyu won both of his Grand Prix assignments in the fall, despite taking a hard practice fall Nov. 17 at the Grand Prix Russia. He withdrew from the subsequent Grand Prix Final and also missed the Japanese national championships.

“I was doing everything I could to make the national championships, so I’m very disappointed that I cannot participate,” Hanyu said in a statement at the time, according to Japanese media. “I will make an effort to return to competition as soon as the pain and limitations are gone.”

At a press conference before the world championships, Hanyu said, “I can’t say my injury has healed completely, but I feel I’ve been able to bring myself to a level that is acceptable to me…I’ve done 120% of what I could do in Toronto,” according to a translation posted online.

The latest news from Japan is that Hanyu says he is “100 percent.”

When NBCSports.com/figure-skating spoke to his coach, Brian Orser, in January, he said his pupil’s focus was on Worlds.

Worth noting: The intangible factor of competing on home ice, especially in a country that loves skating as much as Japan does, will play a factor Hanyu. He won his first world title in Saitama in 2014.

Shoma Uno, Japan

Credentials: Olympic silver medalist (2018), two-time world silver medalist (2017, 2018), 2019 Four Continents Champion

The Four Continents title Uno won in Anaheim, Calif. in February might’ve been his ultimate breakthrough. Fighting through a sprained ankle, Uno earned the highest free skate score recorded this season to win his first ISU Championship title. He is the Olympic silver medalist, two-time Worlds silver medalist, and he has been on the podium at the Grand Prix Final four times — though never in the top spot. Uno figures to be in the podium mix.

Worth noting: Like Hanyu, Uno will also be competing on home ice.

The U.S. men:

U.S. silver and bronze medalists Vincent Zhou and Jason Brown will join Chen in Saitama.

Zhou won a bronze at Four Continents, his most recent competition. Since then, he told reporters on a conference call, he’s been working toward more clean landings on his jumps. He has been penalized for under-rotations throughout this season.

Brown wasn’t at his best at Four Continents, where he notched a fifth place finish. This season, he moved away from his longtime coach to join Orser’s camp, where he trains alongside Hanyu and South Korea’s Cha Jun-Hwan. Brown says he is steadily improving and taking it day-by-day, keeping his eye more on the 2022 Olympic Games than this season’s results. He’s beloved in Japan and even started learning Japanese a few years ago.

Honorable mention: When Jin Boyang is on, he’s a threat, just like Russia’s Mikhail Kolyada. Both could become vulnerable if they start to make mistakes, though. Cha grabbed a bronze medal at the Grand Prix Final, and Czech skater Michal Brezina and Canada’s Keegan Messing were also in the Final. Italy’s Matteo Rizzo most recently claimed the European bronze medal, stamping him as one to watch as well.

MORE: How to watch the World Figure Skating 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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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