Yuzuru Hanyu leads Nathan Chen at figure skating worlds

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Yuzuru Hanyu outscored Nathan Chen for the first time since the 2018 Olympics, topping the world figure skating championships short program in Stockholm on Thursday.

Hanyu, the two-time Olympic champion, landed two quadruple jumps in a 106.98-point effort skating to Robbie Williams‘ “Let Me Entertain You.”

Chen, undefeated since placing fifth in PyeongChang, fell on his opening quad Lutz and ended up third, also behind Yuma Kagiyama, the 17-year-old Youth Olympic champion from Japan.

Worlds continue later Thursday with the pairs’ free skate.

“I’m overall very satisfied, but having said that, there’s still a lot of room for improvement,” Hanyu said, according to a translator.

FIGURE SKATING WORLDS: Results | TV, Stream Schedule

Hanyu lost his previous five head-to-head programs with Chen, dating to the 2018 Olympic free skate.

He prevailed on Thursday despite spending most of the last year training alone in Japan, separated from Toronto-based coach Brian Orser and not going out save to the rink while finishing university studies. He conversed over video with Orser and choreographers Shae-Lynn Bourne and Jeffrey Buttle.

“I had to train on my own, and that really made me revisit skating, and my relationship with figure skating became much stronger,” he said.

Chen dominated their rivalry since his 17th-place Olympic short program, averaging 15 more points per program than the Japanese megastar going into worlds.

Skating right after Hanyu, Chen fell in competition for the first time since the December 2018 Grand Prix Final, ending a streak of 134 consecutive landed jumps. He has 8.13 points to make up in Saturday’s free skate.

“Medals are always something that I feel is so out of my control,” said Chen, trying to become the second man in the last 20 years to three-peat at worlds (Patrick Chan). “If I focus solely on trying to come in and beat this person or trying to do this or whatnot, I just feel like I’m then putting the wrong foot in the door.”

American Jason Brown was seventh on Thursday, as usual the highest-ranked man without a quad.

“The big unknown right now is just getting these programs out for the first time, trying to get the pacing right, being on difference ice surfaces for the first time in over a year,” said Brown, in his second competition since February 2020. “Today was a little bit more of a fight, but I’m proud of the fight I did.”

Vincent Zhou, the third American, was 25th and failed to qualify for the 24-man free skate. He fell twice among errors on all three of his jumping passes in his first major international competition since taking bronze at 2019 Worlds.

“It’s always better to talk about it than to drown in my own misery,” he joked afterward, noting full-body butterflies stepping onto the ice (though he landed a quad Lutz-triple toe loop combination warming up moments before his music began). “It feels like I let down my teammates and my country and myself, whatever, but dwelling on those things is only going to make me feel worse about it. I’m going to probably be miserable for a while, and then move on, put it in the past because today is absolutely not representative of who I am and how good I am as a skater. I really can’t let today get to my head.”

Zhou’s result means the U.S. can only qualify two of the maximum three Olympic men’s spots this week. Assuming Chen and Brown’s final results add up to no more than 13, the U.S. can earn that third spot at Nebelhorn Trophy in Germany in September using a skater other than Chen or Brown against a field lacking the world’s best.

Correction: An earlier version of this post reported that Yuma Kagiyama is the world junior champion. He is the world junior silver medalist.

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John McFall, Paralympic medalist, becomes first parastronaut in Europe

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The European Space Agency made history Wednesday by selecting an amputee who lost his leg in a motorcycle accident to be among its newest batch of astronauts — a leap toward its pioneering ambition to send someone with a physical disability into space.

John McFall, a 41-year-old Briton who lost his right leg when he was 19 and later won a Paralympic 100m bronze medal in 2008, called his selection at Europe’s answer to NASA “a real turning point and mark in history.”

“ESA has a commitment to send an astronaut with a physical disability into space … This is the first time that a space agency has endeavored to embark on a project like this. And it sends a really, really strong message to humanity,” he said.

The newly-minted parastronaut joins five career astronauts in the final selection unveiled during a Paris news conference — the conclusion of the agency’s first recruitment drive in over a decade aimed at bringing diversity to space travel.

McFall will follow a different path than his fellow astronauts because he will participate in a groundbreaking feasibility study exploring whether physical disability will impair space travel. It’s uncharted land, since no major Western space agency has ever put a parastronaut into space, according to the ESA.

Speaking with pride amid flashes of emotion, McFall said that he was uniquely suited to the mission because of the vigor of his mind and body.

“I’m very comfortable in my own skin. I lost my leg about twenty plus years ago, I’ve had the opportunity to be a Paralympic athlete and really explored myself emotionally … All those factors and hardships in life have given me confidence and strength — the ability to believe in myself that I can do anything I put my mind to,” he added.

“I never dreamt of being an astronaut. It was only when ESA announced that they were looking for a candidate with a physical disability to embark on this project that it really sparked my interest.”

The feasibility study, that will last two to three years, will examine the basic hurdles for a parastronaut including how a physical disability might impact mission training, and if modifications to spacesuits and aircraft are required, for example.

ESA’s Director of Human and Robotic Exploration David Parker said it was still a “long road” for McFall but described the fresh recruitment as a long-held ambition.

Parker said it started with a question. “Maybe there are people out there that are almost superhuman in that they’ve already overcome challenges. And could they become astronauts?”

Parker also says that he “thinks” it may be the first time the word “parastronaut” has been used, but “I do not claim ownership.”

“We’re saying that John (McFall) could be the first parastronaut, that means someone who has been selected by the regular astronaut selection process but happens to have a disability that would normally have ruled him out,” he said.

It will be at least five years before McFall goes into space as an astronaut — if he is successful.

Across the Atlantic, Houston is taking note. Dan Huot, a spokesman for NASA’s Johnson Space Center, home to the American agency’s astronaut corps, told the AP that “we at NASA are watching ESA’s para-astronaut selection process with great interest.”

Huot acknowledged that “NASA’s selection criteria currently remains the same” but said the agency is looking forward to working with the “new astronauts in the future” from partners such as the ESA.

NASA stressed that it has a safety-conscious process for vetting future astronauts who might be put in life-threatening situations.

“For maximum crew safety, NASA’s current requirements call for each crew member to be free of medical conditions that could either impair the person’s ability to participate in, or be aggravated by, spaceflight, as determined by NASA physicians,” Huot added.

NASA said future “assistive technology” might change the game for “some candidates” to meet their stringent safety requirements.

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Ilia Malinin in familiar position after Grand Prix Finland short program

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Ilia Malinin landed a quadruple Axel in his free skate to win his first two competitions this season. Less known was that the 17-year-old American had to come from behind to win each time.

An at least slightly injured Malinin looks up in the standings again after the short program of his third event, Grand Prix Finland. Malinin had erred landings on two of his three jumping passes in Friday’s short, where quad Axels are not allowed, then said he had a left foot problem, according to the International Skating Union.

“I’m a little bit injured, I’m playing it safe, protect it to make sure the injury doesn’t get worse,” he said, according to the ISU.

He tallied 85.57 points for second place, which is 3.39 fewer than leader Kevin Aymoz of France going into Saturday’s free skate.

Malinin, the world junior champion ranked No. 1 in the world in his first full senior season, merely needs to finish fourth or better (perhaps even fifth) to qualify for December’s Grand Prix Final, which pits the top six per discipline in the world in a preview of March’s world championships.

Grand Prix Finland concludes with all of the free skates on Saturday.

GRAND PRIX FINLAND: Results | Broadcast Schedule

Earlier Friday, world silver medalist Loena Hendrickx of Belgium led the women’s short with 74.88 points, edging Mai Mihara of Japan by 1.3. Hendrickx and Mihara are in position to qualify for the Grand Prix Final. World champion Kaori Sakamoto of Japan, South Korea’s Yelim Kim and American Isabeau Levito already have spots in the Final.

The world’s top ice dance couple this season, Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier, improved on their world-leading rhythm dance score by tallying 87.80 points. They lead Americans Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker by 6.87, with both couples in position to qualify for the Grand Prix Final.

Italians Rebecca Ghilardi and Filippo Ambrosini topped the pairs’ short program by 4.3 points over Americans Anastasiia Smirnova and Danil Siianytsia. The Italians rank fourth in the world this season behind three teams that aren’t in the Finland field but will be at the Grand Prix Final, including world champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier of the U.S.

Smirnova and Silanytsia are competing in their lone Grand Prix this season after withdrawing before Skate America, making them ineligible for Grand Prix Final qualification. Their short program score ranks fourth among American pairs this season, putting them in contention for one of three spots on the team for worlds, to be decided after January’s national championships.

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