U.S. Figure Skating Championships women’s preview: who delivers under pressure?

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This week’s U.S. Figure Skating Championships marks the last competition to determine the U.S. Olympic team. Three women will be chosen by a committee to compete in Beijing. A look at the contenders (listed in order of best single total score this season) …

The autumn Grand Prix season is the best indicator for prospects at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, but no U.S. woman made a Grand Prix podium this season for the first time in history.

While Alysa Liu (fourth and fifth in Grand Prix starts) is the established favorite this week, the primary question is who will stand up at nationals to seize an Olympic spot? There are a handful of skaters who have shown they are capable.

Alysa Liu
2019, 2020 U.S. champion
2020 World junior bronze medalist

Liu, who in 2019 became the youngest senior U.S. figure skating champion at age 13, since navigated growth spurts, coaching changes (the most recent in November) and injuries to post the best total score for a U.S. woman this season. It’s a nice bounce back after a tough 2020-21, when she was fourth at nationals. She ranks fifth in the world if you take out the extra Russians who won’t be at the Olympics. Liu will need a triple Axel and/or a quadruple jump to compete with the Russians, should they skate clean, but hasn’t attempted a quad since 2020 World Juniors. She has tried five triple Axels this season. All but one were under-rotated or downgraded. She won’t need either this week.

Mariah Bell
2020 U.S. silver medalist
2017, 2019 U.S. bronze medalist

A contender to make the 2018 Olympic team until finishing fifth at those nationals. She was also fifth at last year’s nationals, but at her last competition in November, Bell posted the second-best score by an American woman this season. The hopes of Bell, and other skaters other than Liu, may rest on the triple-triple jump combination. Only Liu and Amber Glenn hit a positively graded triple-triple in the fall Grand Prix Series, each doing so once among four programs. Adam Rippon, a former training partner, is one of Bell’s coaches and choreographers.

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Isabeau Levito
2021 U.S. junior champion

At 14, too young for the Olympics, but a podium contender nonetheless in her senior nationals debut. Levito, profiled here, hit all six of her triple-triple attempts between two Junior Grand Prix starts this season. She finished first and second in those events, qualifying for December’s six-skater Junior Grand Prix Final. She withdrew from that event before it was canceled, unable to prepare after missing seven weeks of training due to a stress reaction in her right tibia. Has been training regularly since early December and deemed herself ready for nationals.

Karen Chen
2018 Olympics, 11th place
2017, 2021 Worlds, fourth place
2017 U.S. champion

Never made a Grand Prix podium, but those fourth-place finishes at the world championships stand out. Chen (unrelated to Nathan) didn’t compete in the 2018-19 season due to injury (while considering retiring), then in 2019-20 balanced skating with a pre-med track at Cornell. Now she’s focused on skating and ranks third among Olympic-eligible Americans by best total score this season, a scant 1.47 points ahead of Glenn. The last U.S. women’s singles skater to compete in back-to-back Olympics was Sasha Cohen in 2002 and 2006.

Amber Glenn
2021 U.S. silver medalist

Glenn’s body of work wasn’t enough to make the two-skater 2021 World Championships team despite finishing second at nationals, coming back from a freak concussion. This season, she’s one of three Americans to break 200 points on the Grand Prix (Liu, Bell) and is neck and neck with Chen for third in domestic rankings. Tried a triple Axel in four of her five events this summer and fall but never landed it fully rotated. Making a first Olympic team at age 22 would be an exhibit of persistence. Glenn finished 13th, eighth, eighth, seventh and fifth at senior nationals before making the podium for the first time last season. Has 1.3 million TikTok followers.

Lindsay Thorngren
2020 U.S. junior champion
2021 U.S. Championships, sixth place

So new that she doesn’t have a Wikipedia page. Thorngren, who turned 16 on Dec. 5, ranks fifth among the Olympic contenders but has six positively graded triple-triples this season, most of any U.S. Olympic hopeful, according to SkatingScores.com. She also tried three triple Axels, though all were downgraded and she is not expected to try it at nationals. The fact that Thorngren skipped the novice level and, last year in her senior nationals debut, made the podium her goal tells you a bit about her competitive drive. Thorngren’s story is similar to Polina Edmunds, who made the 2014 Olympic team despite having never competed on the senior international level.

NBC Olympic research contributed to this report.

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Football takes significant step in Olympic push

Flag Football
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Football took another step toward possible Olympic inclusion with the IOC executive board proposing that the sport’s international federation — the IFAF — be granted full IOC recognition at a meeting in October.

IOC recognition does not equate to eventual Olympic inclusion, but it is a necessary early marker if a sport is to join the Olympics down the line. The IOC gave the IFAF provisional recognition in 2013.

Specific measures are required for IOC recognition, including having an anti-doping policy compliant with the World Anti-Doping Agency and having 50 affiliated national federations from at least three continents. The IFAF has 74 national federations over five continents with almost 4.8 million registered athletes, according to the IOC.

The NFL has helped lead the push for flag football to be added for the 2028 Los Angeles Games. Flag football had medal events for men and women at last year’s World Games, a multi-sport competition including Olympic and non-Olympic sports, in Birmingham, Alabama.

Football is one of nine sports that have been reported to be in the running to be proposed by LA 2028 to the IOC to be added for the 2028 Games only. LA 2028 has not announced which, if any sports, it plans to propose.

Under rules instituted before the Tokyo Games, Olympic hosts have successfully proposed to the IOC adding sports solely for their edition of the Games.

For Tokyo, baseball-softball, karate, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing were added. For Paris, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing were approved again, and breaking will make its Olympic debut. Those sports were added four years out from the Games.

For 2028, the other sports reportedly in the running for proposal are baseball and softball, breaking, cricket, karate, kickboxing, lacrosse, motorsports and squash.

All of the other eight sports reportedly in the running for 2028 proposal already have a federation with full IOC recognition (if one counts the international motorcycle racing federation for motorsports).

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Helen Maroulis stars in wrestling documentary, with help from Chris Pratt

Helen Maroulis, Chris Pratt

One of the remarkable recent Olympic comeback stories is the subject of a film that will be shown nationwide in theaters for one day only on Thursday.

“Helen | Believe” is a documentary about Helen Maroulis, the first U.S. Olympic women’s wrestling champion. It is produced by Religion of Sports, the venture founded by Gotham Chopra, Michael Strahan and Tom Brady. Showing details are here.

After taking gold at the 2016 Rio Games, Maroulis briefly retired in 2019 during a two-year stretch in which she dealt with concussions and post-traumatic stress disorder. The film focuses on that period and her successful bid to return and qualify for the Tokyo Games, where she took bronze.

In a poignant moment in the film, Maroulis described her “rock bottom” — being hospitalized for suicidal ideations.

In an interview, Maroulis said she was first approached about the project in 2018, the same year she had her first life-changing concussion that January. A wrestling partner’s mother was connected to director Dylan Mulick.

Maroulis agreed to the film in part to help spread mental health awareness in sports. Later, she cried while watching the 2020 HBO film, “The Weight of Gold,” on the mental health challenges that other Olympians faced, because it resonated with her so much.

“When you’re going through something, it sometimes gives you an anchor of hope to know that someone’s been through it before, and they’ve overcome it,” she said.

Maroulis’ comeback story hit a crossroads at the Olympic trials in April 2021, where the winner of a best-of-three finals series in each weight class made Team USA.

Maroulis won the opening match against Jenna Burkert, but then lost the second match. Statistically, a wrestler who loses the second match in a best-of-three series usually loses the third. But Maroulis pinned Burkert just 22 seconds into the rubber match to clinch the Olympic spot.

Shen then revealed that she tore an MCL two weeks earlier.

“They told me I would have to be in a brace for six weeks,” she said then. “I said, ‘I don’t have that. I have two and a half.’”

Maroulis said she later asked the director what would have happened if she didn’t make the team for Tokyo. She was told the film still have been done.

“He had mentioned this isn’t about a sports story or sports comeback story,” Maroulis said. “This is about a human story. And we’re using wrestling as the vehicle to tell this story of overcoming and healing and rediscovering oneself.”

Maroulis said she was told that, during filming, the project was pitched to the production company of actor Chris Pratt, who wrestled in high school in Washington. Pratt signed on as a producer.

“Wrestling has made an impact on his life, and so he wants to support these kinds of stories,” said Maroulis, who appeared at last month’s Santa Barbara Film Festival with Pratt.

Pratt said he knew about Maroulis before learning about the film, which he said “needed a little help to get it over the finish line,” according to a public relations company promoting the film.

The film also highlights the rest of the six-woman U.S. Olympic wrestling team in Tokyo. Four of the six won a medal, including Tamyra Mensah-Stock‘s gold.

“I was excited to be part of, not just (Maroulis’) incredible story, but also helping to further advance wrestling and, in particular, female wrestling,” Pratt said, according to responses provided by the PR company from submitted questions. “To me, the most compelling part of Helen’s story is the example of what life looks like after a person wins a gold medal. The inevitable comedown, the trauma around her injuries, the PTSD, the drive to continue that is what makes her who she is.”

Maroulis, who now trains in Arizona, hopes to qualify for this year’s world championships and next year’s Olympics.

“I try to treat every Games as my last,” she said. “Now I’m leaning toward being done [after 2024], but never say never.”

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