Stacy Lewis goes into U.S. Women’s Open with Olympic hopes revived

Stacy Lewis
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About nine months ago, Stacy Lewis figured she had no chance to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics and earn the medal she missed by one bobbling putt in Rio.

“With where I was in the rankings, and tournaments were getting canceled, I just assumed there was no opportunity,” she said by phone Monday. “The Olympics really hadn’t been on my radar at all.”

Now, a return to the Olympics in 2021 is plausible. Strong play in her home state of Texas the next two weeks could vault Lewis into the top 15 in the world, a necessary floor to make the U.S. team come the June rankings cutoff.

“Normally we’re done before Thanksgiving and you put the clubs away and you don’t worry about it,” Lewis said. “It’s definitely strange this year.”

She’s entered in this week’s Volunteers of America Classic (Golf Channel TV schedule here) and next week’s U.S. Women’s Open (live on NBC, Golf Channel and Peacock). Lewis, in a bounce-back season, is ranked 33rd in the world.

If the Olympic golf field was determined by today’s rankings, the U.S. team would be Nelly Korda (No. 3 in the world), Danielle Kang (No. 4) and Lexi Thompson (No. 11). The top four U.S. women qualify for Tokyo, if they are all in the top 15 in the world.

“I have more time to make it,” Lewis said. “I’m paying attention more to the rankings now and where I stand.”

Lewis, a two-time major winner, still remembers her 15-foot putt on the 72nd hole in Rio that stopped a ball’s roll short of the cup. She shot a 66 — after a third-round 76 — and missed a potential playoff for a bronze medal by one shot.

“It was awful,” she said. “It stinks, but at the same time, finishing fourth is better than not having a chance at all to win a medal.”

Lewis was one of 17 U.S. athletes to finish fourth in Rio in an individual event. Most of the other 16 competed in disciplines where the Olympics are unquestionably the biggest competition in their sport.

Lewis said the feeling of placing fourth in an Olympic golf tournament is similar to finishing runner-up at one of the annual majors (which she has done three times).

“Second at the Olympics is OK,” she said. “It’s a consolation prize that you still get a medal, but most of us are going there to win a gold. If you get one of the other two, it’s a nice bonus.”

Lewis still got something for finishing fourth: a drug test, just in case something happened above her that could alter the final medal standings.

She flew home to Texas with her husband, Gerrod Chadwell, whom she married a week before the Olympic tournament. Lewis then had daughter Chesnee in October 2018. She went on maternity leave earlier that year ranked 33rd in the world. She came back, after six months, the following January ranked 61st.

In the final week of 2019, Lewis fell outside the top 100 for the first time since 2008, when she finished her college career at Arkansas (and, best as she can recall, last played a December tournament, winning q-school). Her season was cut short by back pain and a rib cage injury.

The Olympic postponement to 2021, announced in March, offered a second chance for the 35-year-old Lewis, the only U.S. woman to hold the world No. 1 ranking at any point in the last decade (in 2013 and 2014).

This past August, when the Tokyo Games would have just wrapped up, she recorded her first tournament win in nearly three years. The next month, she finished fifth at the ANA Inspiration, her first top 10 at a major in three years.

“Winning and the Olympics getting postponed to next year, I mean those are two of the best things that could happen for me, really,” she said.

It’s still very much a climb as things stand. Not only must Lewis jump back into the top 15, but she must also fend off four other Americans ranked between Nos. 26-31, all younger than her.

Lewis, who grew up near Houston, believes she’ll get a boost with the site of the U.S. Open, which will offer a bevy of ranking points as a major. It’s being played at two courses at Champions Golf Club in Houston. She estimated she’s played between 10 and 12 rounds on each course.

“Normally, the hard part about a U.S. Open is getting to know the golf course,” she said. “I’ve played out there a lot, especially over the last few months.”

The pandemic has helped her game. There have been fewer “extras,” from pro-am parties to sponsor and media obligations to fulfill. That has meant more family time.

“She’s sleeping more,” she said of Chesnee. “We still have those nights where she’s up.”

Lewis is eager for another shot at an Olympic medal, putting it up with (if not above) winning another major. Her Rio experience, which also included interacting with other athletes and watching other sports, put her fourth-place finish in perspective.

“These other athletes truly only get once every four years for their major championships,” she said.

As for golf, “At the time, I thought that winning a major was over winning an Olympic medal,” she said. “After being there, I don’t think you can compare the two.”

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Ilia Malinin eyed new heights at figure skating worlds, but a jump to gold requires more

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At 18 years old, Ilia Malinin already has reached immortality in figure skating for technical achievement, being the first to land a quadruple Axel jump in competition.

The self-styled “Quadg0d” already has shown the chutzpah (or hubris?) to go for the most technically difficult free skate program ever attempted at the world championships, including that quad Axel, the hardest jump anyone has tried.

It helped bring U.S. champion Malinin the world bronze medal Saturday in Saitama, Japan, where he made more history as the first to land the quad Axel at worlds.

But it already had him thinking that the way to reach the tops of both the worlds and Olympus might be to acknowledge his mortal limits.

Yes, if Malinin (288.44 points) had cleanly landed all six quads he did instead of going clean on just three of the six, it would have closed or even overcome the gap between him and repeat champion Shoma Uno of Japan (301.14) and surprise silver medalist Cha Jun-Hwan (296.03), the first South Korean man to win a world medal.

That’s a big if, as no one ever has done six clean quads in a free skate.

And the energy needed for those quads, physical and mental, hurts Malinin’s chances of closing another big gap with the world leaders: the difference in their “artistic” marks, known as component scores.

Malinin’s technical scores led the field in both the short program and free skate. But his component scores were lower than at last year’s worlds, when he finished ninth, and they ranked 10th in the short program and 11th in the free this time. Uno had an 18.44-point overall advantage over Malinin in PCS, Cha a 13.47 advantage.

FIGURE SKATING WORLDS: Chock, Bates, and a long road to gold | Results

As usual in figure skating, some of the PCS difference owes to the idea of paying your dues. After all, at his first world championships, eventual Olympic champion Nathan Chen had PCS scores only slightly better than Malinin’s, and Chen’s numbers improved substantially by the next season.

But credit Malinin for quickly grasping the reality that his current skating has a lot of rough edges on the performance side.

“I’ve noticed that it’s really hard to go for a lot of risks,” he said in answer to a press conference question about what he had learned from this competition. “Sometimes going for the risks you get really good rewards, but I think that maybe sometimes it’s OK to lower the risks and go for a lot cleaner skate. I think it will be beneficial next season to lower the standards a bit.”

So could it be “been-there, done-that” with the quad Axel? (and the talk of quints and quad-quad combinations?)

Saturday’s was his fourth clean quad Axel in seven attempts this season, but it got substantially the lowest grade of execution (0.36) of the four with positive marks. It was his opening jump in the four-minute free, and, after a stopped-in-your tracks landing, his next two quads, flip and Lutz, were both badly flawed.

And there were still some three minutes to go.

Malinin did not directly answer about letting the quad Axel go now that he has definitively proved he can do it. What he did say could be seen as hinting at it.

“With the whole components factor … it’s probably because you know, after doing a lot of these jumps, (which) are difficult jumps, it’s really hard to try to perform for the audience,” he said.

“Even though some people might enjoy jumping, and it’s one of the things I enjoy, but I also like to perform to the audience. So I think next season, I would really want to focus on this performing side.”

Chen had told me essentially the same thing for a 2017 Ice Network story (reposted last year by NBCOlympics.com) about his several years of ballet training. He regretted not being able to show that training more because of the program-consuming athletic demands that come with being an elite figure skater.

“When I watch my skating when I was younger, I definitely see all this balletic movement and this artistry come through,” Chen said then. “When I watch my artistry now, it’s like, ‘Yes, it’s still there,’ but at the same time, I’m so focused on the jumps, it takes away from it.”

The artistry can still be developed and displayed, as Chen showed and as prolific and proficient quad jumpers like Uno and the now retired two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan have proved.

For another perspective on how hard it is to combine both, look at the difficulty it posed for the consummate performer, Jason Brown, who had the highest PCS scores while finishing a strong fifth (280.84).

Since Brown dropped his Sisyphean attempts to do a clean quad after 26 tries (20 in a free skate), the last at the 2022 U.S. Championships, he has received the two highest international free skate scores of his career, at the 2022 Olympics and this world meet.

It meant Brown’s coming to terms with his limitations and the fact that in the sport’s current iteration, his lack of quads gives him little chance of winning a global championship medal. What he did instead was give people the chance to see the beauty of his blade work, his striking movement, his expressiveness.

He has, at 28, become an audience favorite more than ever. And the judges Saturday gave Brown six maximum PCS scores (10.0.)

“I’m so happy about today’s performance,” Brown told media in the mixed zone. “I did my best to go out there and skate my skate. And that’s what I did.”

The quadg0d is realizing that he, too, must accept limitations if he wants to achieve his goals. Ilia Malinin can’t simply jump his way onto the highest steps of the most prized podiums.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 12 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.

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Shoma Uno repeats as world figure skating champion; Ilia Malinin tries 6 quads for bronze

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Japan’s Shoma Uno repeated as world figure skating champion, performing the total package of jumps and artistry immediately after 18-year-old American Ilia Malinin attempted a record-tying six quadruple jumps in his free skate to earn the bronze medal.

Uno, 25 and the leader after Thursday’s short program, prevailed with five quad attempts (one under-rotated) in Saturday’s free skate.

He finished, fell backward and lay on home ice in Saitama, soaking in a standing ovation amid a sea of Japanese flags. Japan won three of the four gold medals this week, and Uno capped it off with guts coming off a reported ankle injury.

He is the face of Japanese men’s skating after two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu retired in July and Olympic silver medalist Yuma Kagiyama missed most of this season with leg and ankle injuries.

“There were many shaky jumps today, but I’m happy I was able to get a good result despite not being in a good condition these past two weeks,” Uno said, according to the International Skating Union (ISU). “I know I caused a lot of concerns to everyone around me, but I was able to pay them back and show my gratitude with my performance today.”

Silver medalist Cha Jun-Hwan became the first South Korean man to win a world championships medal. Cha, a 21-year-old who was fifth at the Olympics, had to change out broken skate boots before traveling to Japan, one year after withdrawing from worlds after a 17th-place short program, citing a broken skate boot.

FIGURE SKATING WORLDS: Results

Malinin, ninth in his senior worlds debut last year, planned the most difficult program of jumps in figure skating history — six quads, including a quad Axel. Malinin is the only person to land a quad Axel in competition and did so again Saturday. He still finished 12.7 points behind Uno and 7.59 behind Cha.

Malinin had the top technical score (jumps, spins, step sequences) in both programs, despite an under-rotation and two other negatively graded jumps among his seven jumping passes in the free skate.

His nemesis was the artistic score, placing 10th and 11th in that category in the two programs (18.44 points behind Uno). Unsurprising for the only teen in the top 13, who is still working on that facet of his skating, much like a young Nathan Chen several years ago.

“After doing a lot of these jumps — hard, difficult jumps — it’s really hard to try to perform for the audience,” said Malinin, who entered worlds ranked second in the field by best score this season behind Uno.

Chen, who is unlikely to compete again after winning last year’s Olympics, remains the lone skater to land six fully rotated quads in one program (though not all clean). Malinin became the youngest U.S. male singles skater to win a world medal since Scott Allen in 1965. He was proud of his performance, upping the ante after previously trying five quads in free skates this season, but afterward weighed whether the risk was worth it.

“Sometimes going for the risk, you get really good rewards, but I think that maybe sometimes it’s OK to lower the risks and try not to take as much risk and go for a lot cleaner skate,” he said. “I think that’ll be beneficial to do next season is to lower the standards a bit.”

Malinin was followed by Frenchman Kévin Aymoz, who before the pandemic was the world’s third-ranked skater behind Chen and Yuzuru Hanyu, then placed ninth, 11th and 12th at the last three global championships.

Jason Brown, a two-time U.S. Olympian, was fifth in his first international competition since last year’s Olympics. He was the lone man in the top 15 to not attempt a quad, a testament to his incredible artistic skills for which he received the most points between the two programs.

“I didn’t think at the beginning of the year that I even would be competing this year, so I’m really touched to be here,” the 28-year-old said, according to the ISU. “I still want to keep going [competing] a little longer, but we’ll see. I won’t do promises.”

Earlier Saturday, Madison Chock and Evan Bates became the oldest couple to win an ice dance world title and the second set of Americans to do so. More on that here.

World championships highlights air Saturday from 8-10 p.m. ET on NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app.

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