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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In a tie, Wendy Holdener puts to rest a remarkable stat in Alpine skiing

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Swiss Wendy Holdener ended one of the most remarkable victory droughts in sports by tying for the win with Swede Anna Swenn Larsson in a World Cup slalom in Killington, Vermont, on Sunday.

Holdener, after 15 second-place finishes and 15 third-place finishes in her career, stood on the top step of a World Cup slalom podium for the first time. She shared it with Swenn Larsson, who had six World Cup slalom podiums before Sunday and also earned her first win.

They beat Austrian Katharina Truppe by .22 of a second combining times from two runs.

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Holdener, 29, previously won three World Cups in other disciplines, plus two world championships in the combined and Olympic and world titles in the team event.

“To be tied first when I came into the finish was such a relief,” Holdener said while shoulder to shoulder with Swenn Larsson. “On the end, it’s perfect, because now we can share our first win together.”

Mikaela Shiffrin had the best first-run time but lost her lead midway through the second run and finished fifth. Shiffrin, who won the first two slaloms this season last weekend, was bidding for a 50th World Cup slalom victory and a sixth win in six slaloms in Killington.

“I fought. I think some spots I got a little bit off my timing, but I was pushing, and that’s slalom,” she said before turning her attention to Holdener and Swenn Larsson. “It’s a pretty special day, actually.”

The women’s Alpine skiing World Cup moves next weekend to Lake Louise, Alberta, with two downhills and a super-G.

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Injured Ilia Malinin wins Grand Prix Finland, qualifies for Grand Prix Final

Ilia Malinin
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Ilia Malinin, competing “a little bit injured” this week, still won Grand Prix Finland and goes into the Grand Prix Final in two weeks as the world’s top-ranked male singles skater.

Malinin, who was second after Friday’s short program, landed four clean quadruple jumps in Saturday’s free skate to overtake Frenchman Kevin Aymoz.

Malinin, who landed a quad flip in competition for the first time, according to SkatingScores.com, also attempted a quad Axel to open his program, but spun out of the landing and put his hand down on the ice.

Malinin also won his previous two starts this season in come-from-behind fashion. The 17-year-old world junior champion became the first skater to land a clean, fully rotated quad Axel in September, then did it again in October at Skate America, where he posted the world’s top overall score this season.

Next, Malinin can become the second-youngest man to win the Grand Prix Final after Russian Yevgeny Plushenko. His biggest competition is likely to be world champion Shoma Uno of Japan, who like Malinin won both of his Grand Prix starts this fall. Malinin and Uno have not gone head-to-head this season.

Grand Prix Finland highlights air on NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app on Sunday at 3:30 p.m. ET.

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Earlier, Japan’s Mai Mihara overtook world silver medalist Loena Hendrickx of Belgium to become the only woman to win both of her Grand Prix starts this season. Mihara prevailed by .23 of a point. The top three women this season by best total score are Japanese, led by a junior skater, 14-year-old Mao Shimada, who isn’t Olympic age-eligible until 2030.

Mihara and Hendrickx qualified for the Grand Prix Final, joining world champion Kaori Sakamoto and Rinka Watanabe, both of Japan, South Korean Yelim Kim and American Isabeau Levito, the world junior champion.

Italians Rebecca Ghilardi and Filippo Ambrosini won both pairs’ programs and qualified for their first Grand Prix Final.

Japan’s Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara and Americans Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier headline the Final. Both pairs won each of their Grand Prix starts earlier this fall. The Japanese have the world’s two best scores this season. The Americans are reigning world champions.

At least one Russian or Chinese pair made every Grand Prix Final podium — usually pairs from both countries — but neither nation competed in pairs this Grand Prix season. All Russian skaters are banned due to the war in Ukraine. China’s lone entry on the Grand Prix across all disciplines was an ice dance couple.

Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier improved on their world-leading score for this season in winning the ice dance by 17.03 points over Americans Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker. Both couples qualified for the Grand Prix Final in the absence of all three Olympic medalists this fall.

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