Shocking U.S. failures and awesome Japanese successes in men’s short program at figure skating worlds

ISU World Figure Skating Championships - Stockholm: Day Two
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Shock.

Nathan Chen of the United States opened his short program at the World Figure Skating Championships Thursday by falling on a jump in an individual competition for the first time after having stayed upright on 120 straight dating to 2018. That meant he lost a program after winning 19 straight live individual competitions since the 2018 French Grand Prix short. Now in third place, 8.13 points behind the leader, Chen will be hard pressed to win a third straight world title.

Vincent Zhou of the United States, the reigning world bronze medalist, made an utter hash of all three short program jumping passes and finished 25th, one place below what was needed to advance to Saturday’s free skate. That complicates U.S. hopes for three men’s spots at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.

And awe.

Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan may not have been fully content with his skating, but the two-time Olympic champion finished first after making no mistakes in an electric performance that fulfilled the title of his music, “Let Me Entertain You,” by Robbie Williams.

Yuma Kagiyama of Japan, a 17-year-old in his senior worlds debut, skated fearlessly at Mach 2, collected the highest combined scores of the day for two jumping passes with quads and a huge personal best score (100.96) while finishing second to his countryman, Hanyu (106.98).

And awwwwwwwwwww.

Keegan Messing of Canada skated charmingly to an Ed Sheeran romantic ballad, then tapped his wedding ring to acknowledge his wife, Lane Hodson, who is expecting the couple’s first child in July. Messing wound up a solid fifth, just .01 behind Mikhail Kolyada of Russia.

So the men’s short program Thursday in Stockholm was as packed with a variety of surprises as the women’s had been Wednesday.

FIGURE SKATING WORLDS: Results | TV, Stream Schedule

And there were, naturally, nits to pick about the scoring, as the judges were quite generous with Chen’s component marks and parsimonious with those of his teammate, Jason Brown, even though Brown’s seventh place (but just 2.27 from fourth) owed equally to his not having a quadruple jump.

Brown’s striking, angular interpretation of Nina Simone’s powerful version of “Sinnerman,” inspired by the Alvin Ailey ballet to that music, somehow got a lower PCS score than Chen’s unremarkable performance to Latin-themed music. And Chen lost only 1.53 PCS points to the masterful Hanyu, even though Chen had a sloppy combination spin.

Nearly all the point difference between Chen (98.85) and Hanyu came from the minus-5.75 grade of execution and the minus-1.00 fall deduction from Chen’s botched quad lutz. Coincidentally, his last fall, at the 2018 Grand Prix Final, also was on that jump.

“I was a little bit shocked,” Chen admitted. “As soon as I took off, I was like, `This isn’t going well.’”

Chen said he felt fortunate the lutz wasn’t meant to be the opener of the required jump combination so he didn’t have to revamp the rest of the 2-minute, 50-second program on the fly. Simply regrouping after a big error is hard enough.

“In a clean program, when you pick off the first couple jumps, the rest of the program kind of goes on autopilot, whereas when you make a mistake, you have to really, really think about what you are doing to prevent further mistakes,” Chen said.

Chen did make one more mistake, on the spin, but he had strong execution of his final two jumping passes, a triple Axel and quad flip-triple toe combination. The latter got the highest score of the day (19.86) for the jump combination.

Based on the base values for the elements each programmed in his winning free skates at their respective 2021 national championships, Chen would start Saturday’s free skate with an approximately eight-point advantage over Hanyu before GOE and PCS are added.

That difference assumes five quads for Chen, four for Hanyu. It would shrink considerably if Chen jettisons the quad lutz, which he has now botched two straight times (a landing step out and minus-4.14 GOE at nationals), which he said Thursday was possible if it didn’t go well in practices the next couple days.

Post-2018 rules allowing repetition of just one type of quad and Chen’s justifiable reluctance to try a quad loop, which he does not land consistently, mean he cannot realistically hope to do five without the lutz.

“At this point in time, the risk isn’t always worth it,” Chen said. “There’s a fine line between what you are capable of doing and what you have to push to do.”

Hanyu put himself in a strong position to win a third world title and beat Chen for the first time in their three meetings since the 2018 Olympics by not making a huge error in the short program, as had happened at the 2019 World Championships and 2019 Grand Prix Final.

“Overall, I’m very satisfied, but there is still a lot of room for improvement, that I know,” said Hanyu, 26, who has had eight higher short program scores in a career remarkable for both its achievement and longevity.

Kagiyama, coached by his father, Masakazu, a two-time Olympic figure skater, credited insouciance for the way he attacked his short program. The seeming successor to Hanyu (should he ever retire) blasted into a quad salchow-triple toe and quad toe to open, getting high GOEs, and he kept the energy and performance level high throughout.

“Because it was my first [senior] worlds, I had nothing to lose, and I could just go and enjoy myself,” Kagiyama said. “There was some tension, but I was so excited I really wanted to get onto the ice.”

Zhou, sixth in the 2018 Olympics, let the tension get to him despite years more experience – or maybe because of it, because he knew what was at stake.

“I was really nervous,” Zhou said. “I had stomach butterflies in my whole body.”

Zhou tried to convince himself he would be fine, but that didn’t work. He fell on the opening jump, a quad lutz that was downgraded; did not fully rotate either jump of a quad salchow-triple toe combination; and fell on a triple axel that also was not fully rotated.

“I bombed my [2018] Olympic short program, so I know how tough that feels,” Chen said. “He’s going to learn from this competition, I’m sure of that.”

Chen also was aware Zhou’s failure to make the free skate muddles the process for the United States to get a third Olympic spot.

Even though Chen and Brown are likely to have final placements good enough to earn the third spot (adding up to 13 or fewer), a rule passed after the 2018 Olympics no longer makes that automatic.

If a country with three skaters at the pre-Olympic worlds does not get all three into the free skate, it must send a skater to a qualifying event next fall. If, as is likely, that becomes the case for Team USA, neither Chen nor Brown could be chosen to do that qualifier.

“This is certainly not a result I even wanted to consider coming into this competition,” Zhou said. “I feel like I let down my teammates, my country and myself.

Ow.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Olympic Winter Games, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

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Diana Taurasi says 2024 Paris Olympics ‘on my radar’

Diana Taurasi
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Diana Taurasi said immediately after winning her fifth Olympic gold medal in Tokyo that she might try for a record sixth in Paris.

It’s still on her mind 17 months out of the 2024 Paris Olympics.

“It’s something that it’s on my radar,” Taurasi told The Associated Press in a phone interview Tuesday after the first day of a USA Basketball training camp in Minnesota, her first national team activity since Tokyo. “I’m still competitive, still driven, still want to play, I still love being a part of USA Basketball.”

Taurasi will be 42 at the time of the Paris Games — older than any previous Olympic basketball player — but said if she’s healthy enough she’d like to give it a go.

“If the opportunity comes to play and be a part of it, it’s something I’ve always taken a lot of pride in,” said Taurasi, who shares the record of five Olympic basketball gold medals with the retired Sue Bird. “When you get to my age at this point in my career, you just try to win every day. Right now this is a good opportunity to be part of this team moving forward we’ll see what happens.”

She said she would have played at the FIBA World Cup last year in Australia, but had a quad strain that kept her out of the end of the WNBA season.

“I got hurt a little bit before. I had a good conversation with Coach (Cheryl) Reeve and (USA Basketball CEO Jim) Tooley. I felt like I hadn’t played enough basketball to be out there and help,” Taurasi said. “That’s the biggest thing with USA Basketball is being able to help the team win.”

Reeve said Monday that when she succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach a few months after Tokyo, she wasn’t sure whether Taurasi would play for the national team again. That was before her conversation with Taurasi.

“I look forward to having a chance to have her be around and be, as I told her, a great voice,” Reeve said. “Obviously, the competitive fire that she competes with is something that we all do well with.”

In Tokyo, Taurasi started all six games and averaged 18.8 minutes per game, sixth-most on the team (fewer than backup guard Chelsea Gray). Her 5.8 points per game were her fewest in her Olympic career, though she was dealing with a hip injury.

Taurasi is an unrestricted free agent although she is expected to return back to Phoenix where she’s spent her entire career since getting drafted No. 1 overall in 2003.

“Phoenix still has things they need to work out,” the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer said.

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Alexis Pinturault wins world championships combined; American in fourth

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France’s Alexis Pinturault won the world Alpine skiing championships combined at his home venue after defending world champion Marco Schwarz blew a lead in the final seconds of his slalom run.

Pinturault, a 31-year-old who hadn’t won a race in nearly two years (the longest drought of his distinguished career), prevailed by one tenth of a second over the Austrian Schwarz in Courchevel, France.

“I hope to enjoy it because it was pretty difficult some months ago,” Pinturault said.

Austrian Raphael Haaser took bronze in an event that combined times from a morning super-G run and an afternoon slalom run, one day after his older sister took bronze in the women’s combined.

River Radamus was fourth, a quarter of a second from becoming the first U.S. man to win an Alpine worlds medal since 2015. Radamus’ best event is the giant slalom, which is scheduled for Feb. 17 at worlds.

“It’s nice, but honestly, you don’t come to world championships hoping to get fourth,” Radamus said.

Five skiers finished within 2.98 seconds of the winner in an event that has been dropped from the annual World Cup schedule and is under review to remain on the Olympic program.

ALPINE WORLDS: Results | Broadcast Schedule

Pinturault had the fastest super-G run by six hundredths over Schwarz. Schwarz, a slightly better slalom skier than Pinturault, erased that deficit early in the slalom and had a three tenths lead at the last intermediate split.

He gave it all away about six gates from the finish, slamming on the brakes. Moments later, he crossed the finish line one tenth behind Pinturault, who reacted by pumping his fists in the air.

The Frenchman earned his first race victory since the March 2021 World Cup Finals giant slalom, where he clinched his first World Cup overall title, the biggest annual prize in ski racing. Last season, Pinturault went winless on the World Cup for the first time since he was a teenage rookie in 2011, plus went medal-less at the Olympics.

Pinturault, who grew up in Courchevel and now co-owns the family’s five-star Hotel Annapurna there, had retirement cross his mind in the offseason, according to Eurosport. He skipped a pre-worlds Sunday press conference due to illness.

Nonetheless, Pinturault was on the front page of French newspapers this week, including L’Equipe on Tuesday. In a sports cover story for Le Figaro, Pinturault said that, given the circumstances, it would be almost a “nice surprise” to go for a medal at these worlds.

Olympic champion Johannes Strolz of Austria skied out of the slalom after tying for 29th in the super-G.

Olympic silver and bronze medalists Aleksander Aamodt Kilde of Norway and Jack Crawford of Canada were among the speed specialists who did not start the slalom. They essentially used the event as a training run for Thursday’s super-G.

Worlds continue Wednesday with the women’s super-G, where Mikaela Shiffrin is a medal contender but not the favorite. She can tie the modern-era records for individual world championships gold medals (seven) and total medals (12).

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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