U.S. Figure Skating Championships pairs’ preview: bunched battle for Olympic spots

ISU World Figure Skating Championships - Stockholm: Day Two
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This week’s U.S. Figure Skating Championships marks the last competition to determine the U.S. Olympic team. Two pairs’ teams 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 top two U.S. pairs are separated by .just .18 of a point by best total score this season in significant competitions. The top four pairs are separated by 7.65 points.

It has been 20 years since a U.S. pair finished in the top five at the Olympics, and 34 years since the last medal.

That doesn’t figure to change in Beijing — the top teams from Russia and China are in another echelon — but, as usual and unlike other disciplines, the battles for the national title and Olympic spots are really up for grabs.

Update: Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier withdrew Wednesday after Frazier tested positive for the coronavirus. They will petition for a spot on the Olympic team. More here.

Alexa Knierim/Brandon Frazier
2021 U.S. champions
Knierim: Three-time U.S. champion, 2018 Olympian with Chris Knierim
Frazier: 2017 U.S. champion with Haven Denney

Teamed up in 2020, after each skater’s previous partner retired, and quickly became the top U.S. pair, winning both Skate America and nationals. U.S. pairs skating has been so volatile that Knierim is trying to become the first pairs skater to make back-to-back Olympics in 20 years (Kyoko Ina, also with different partners). Knierim and Frazier’s spot at the top is under pressure: Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc put up a score at their last Grand Prix event this fall that’s .18 shy of Knierim and Frazier’s best this fall. Then, in their last competition before nationals, Knierim and Frazier struggled in their free skate and were outscored by another U.S. pair for the first time (Audrey Lu and Misha Mitrofanov).

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Ashley Cain-Gribble/Timothy LeDuc
2019 U.S. champions

Fourth at the 2018 U.S. Championships, when only one Olympic spot was at stake. Cain-Gribble and LeDuc won the national title the next year, then the season after that posted the highest international score by a U.S. pair. They have the most shared experience on the senior level of the top U.S. pairs and are right there with Knierim and Frazier this season. However, they have finished better than third at nationals just once, and it’s likely going to take first or second this week to be selected for Beijing. Both skaters came back from concussions in this Olympic cycle. Cain-Gribble contracted Covid in the summer, was briefly in the hospital and later learned she developed asthma from the virus. She uses an inhaler daily for training. LeDuc could become the first publicly out non-binary athlete to compete at a Winter Olympics.

Jessica Calalang/Brian Johnson
2020, 2021 U.S. silver medalists

Should make the Olympic team if they repeat their national championships finish the last two years. However, Calalang and Johnson have never competed at the world championships. The 2020 Worlds were canceled due to the pandemic, and they withdrew before 2021 Worlds due to Calalang testing positive for a banned stimulant. She was eventually cleared, several months later, after it was found that it can turn up in cosmetics that she used. Train with Knierim and Frazier.

Audrey Lu/Misha Mitrofanov
2021 U.S. Championships, fourth place

Have momentum after winning a lower-level event in Croatia in December, beating a field that included Knierim and Frazier and Calalang and Johnson. Still rank fourth in the U.S. this season by best score among significant events, but as noted not far out from the top pairs. At 19 and 24, they are the youngest of the top U.S. pairs. In the last Olympic year, they won the U.S. junior title, then placed fifth at junior worlds and moved up to senior the next season. They finished sixth, sixth and fourth at senior nationals in this Olympic cycle. In late December, Lu’s face caught Mitrofanov’s toe pick on a death spiral, resulting in four stitches in her left cheek.

NBC Olympic research contributed to this report.

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IOC looks for ways Russian athletes ‘who do not support war’ could compete as neutrals

Thomas Bach
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GENEVA (AP) — Russian athletes who do not endorse their country’s war in Ukraine could be accepted back into international sports, competing under a neutral flag, IOC president Thomas Bach said in an interview published Friday.

“It’s about having athletes with a Russian passport who do not support the war back in competition,” Bach told Italian daily Corriere della Sera, adding, “We have to think about the future.”

Most sports followed IOC advice in February and banned Russian teams and athletes from their events within days of the country’s military invasion of Ukraine.

With Russians starting to miss events that feed into qualifying for the 2024 Paris Olympics, an exile extending into next year could effectively become a wider ban from those Games.

In an interview in Rome, Bach hinted at IOC thinking after recent rounds of calls with Olympic stakeholders asked for views on Russia’s pathway back from pariah status.

“To be clear, it is not about necessarily having Russia back,” he said. “On the other hand — and here comes our dilemma — this war has not been started by the Russian athletes.”

Bach did not suggest how athletes could express opposition to the war when dissent and criticism of the Russian military risks jail sentences of several years.

Some Russian athletes publicly supported the war in March and are serving bans imposed by their sport’s governing body.

Olympic gold medalist swimmer Yevgeny Rylov appeared at a pro-war rally attended by Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Gymnast Ivan Kuliak displayed a pro-military “Z” symbol on his uniform at an international event.

Russian former international athletes are being called up for military service in the current mobilization, according to media reports. They include former heavyweight boxing champion Nikolai Valuev and soccer player Diniyar Bilyaletdinov.

Russians have continued to compete during the war as individuals in tennis and cycling, without national symbols such as flags and anthems, even when teams have been banned.

Bach told Corriere della Sera it was the IOC’s mission to be politically neutral and “to have the Olympic Games, and to have sport in general, as something that still unifies people and humanity.”

“For all these reasons, we are in a real dilemma at this moment with regard to the Russian invasion in Ukraine,” he suggested. “We also have to see, and to study, to monitor, how and when we can come back to accomplish our mission to have everybody back again, under which format whatsoever.”

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How did U.S. women’s basketball replace its legends? It starts with Alyssa Thomas.

Alyssa Thomas
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If this FIBA World Cup marks the beginning of a new era of U.S. women’s basketball, it is notable, if not remarkable, that no player has been more visible than Alyssa Thomas.

Thomas is making her global championship debut in Sydney. She is the only woman on the team in her 30s. Rarely, if ever, has a player who waited this long to put on a U.S. uniform made such an impact out of the gate. Certainly not since the last major tournament in Australia, when 30-year-old Yolanda Griffith starred at the 2000 Olympics.

Over the last week, Thomas leads the U.S. in minutes played and is one of two players to start all seven games along with Breanna Stewart, the Tokyo Olympic MVP. She ranks fourth on the team in scoring (10.6 points per game), is tied for second in rebounding (6.7), second in assists (4.6) and first in steals (2.7).

The Americans, with their new breakthrough power forward, face China in Saturday’s final, seeking a fourth consecutive world title and 60th consecutive victory between Olympic and world championship play dating to 2006.

“She takes a lot of pressure off of us,” two-time WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson said after Thomas had 13 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists in a quarterfinal win over Serbia. “I think she’s the glue of this team, the X-factor of this team, because that’s her game and that’s her style.”

Thomas earned the nickname “Baby Bron Bron” at the University of Maryland for her LeBron James-like play. USA Basketball took notice in 2013, when she was one of six collegians named to a 33-player national team training camp.

But that participation was the last of Thomas’ bullet points on her USA Basketball bio for another nine years, until she was named to the FIBA World Cup qualifying team last February.

Thomas had to wait her turn.

The U.S. was loaded in the frontcourt in the 2010s with more established players — Candace ParkerTina CharlesSylvia FowlesBrittney GrinerElena Delle Donne — and then Stewart and Wilson came along, becoming arguably the two most valuable Americans in the last Olympic cycle.

Thomas produced, to that point, the best WNBA season of her career in 2020, but tore an Achilles playing overseas in January 2021, ruling out any chance of making the Tokyo Olympic team. (Thomas was not in the 36-player national team pool at the time of her injury.)

The combination of players’ absences this year — Charles, after three Olympic golds, ceded to younger players, Fowles retired and Griner is being detained in Russia — and Cheryl Reeve becoming head coach created an opportunity.

Thomas seized it, leading the Connecticut Sun to the WNBA Finals, where she recorded triple-doubles in the last two games of a series loss to the Las Vegas Aces. Then she boarded a plane to Sydney for her first major international experience and has similarly flourished.

Jennifer Rizzotti, part of the USA Basketball selection committee, said the 6-foot-2 Thomas combines the movement of Lindsay Whalen, the passing of Parker and the physicality of Rebekkah Brunson. She plays with labrum tears in each shoulder. There’s no single player like her.

“There’s definitely some post players that have that point forward mentality, but not quite with the guard skills that Alyssa has,” Rizzotti said. “I don’t see anybody, including guards, that can do what she does in the open court. Then you talk about how disruptive she is defensively and her ability to guard one through five. A’ja can guard one through five, Stewie can guard one through five, but nobody’s as disruptive as Alyssa is. On the perimeter and off the ball.”

Thomas also fit what Reeve, who succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach, was looking for in retooling the roster following the retirement of Sue Bird and possible end of Diana Taurasi‘s national team career at age 40.

“[Reeve] made it clear that she was hoping with the guard turnover that we would be able to play faster, more athletically, more possessions in the game,” Rizzotti said. “And therefore, she wanted to have post players that could push tempo, that could facilitate and kind of fit in with a ball-handling, passing mentality from the trail spot.”

Still, Thomas did not expect to be putting on a USA jersey this year. “Shocked” is the word USA Basketball chose to describe her reaction to making this team.

“It was kind of a surprise,” she said, according to USA Basketball. “I had just really taken my name out of it.”

Rizzotti said Thomas is an example — a very successful one, it turns out — of an asset in the eyes of the selection committee: patience.

“I think a lot of players feel like if they don’t make the USA national team right away, it’s never going to happen,” she said. “You get the comments like, oh, it’s political, or they keep inviting the same guys back. And it’s not true.”

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