Five fun facts about Sochi

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It’s never too early to look waaaaay ahead toward the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia (also, heads up: the 2014 Winter Olympics are in Sochi, Russia, and only 17 months away). Here are five fun facts you probably didn’t know about the next host city.

1. Geography!
Sochi lies on the Eastern edge of the Black Sea, putting it in the same geopolitical neighborhood as Ukraine, Turkey and – get excited – Georgia (the country). Tensions between Russia and its former Soviet satellite tend to boil over every so often, so here’s hoping that doesn’t happen around the Olympics — or ever again, for that matter.

2. Celebrity!
Despite the U.S. history lesson given to her by Serena Williams in London 2012’s gold medal match, Maria Sharapova remains one of the elite players in the women’s game right now – and the 25-year-old began her career at a tennis academy in Sochi.

3. Politics!
The Sochi Games will be the second time Russia has hosted the Olympics, but the first time (fingers crossed) that the U.S. has attended an Olympics in Russia – Team USA boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics because back then America and the Soviets weren’t exactly best buds.

4. Oppression! Relaxation!
Sochi has been a resort town since its coastline was settled in the late 1800s, and even the grimmest days of Communism didn’t change that – former Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin loved it so much that he is said to have had a vacation home there. Today over two million visitors come to Sochi each year.

5. Climate!
With its resort-like atmosphere, it’s charming summer weather (the summers are supposedly gorgeous, though it’s the town’s proximity to the Caucasus Mountains that helped win it the 2014 Games), and the fact that it’s a lot closer to the Mediterranean than one might imagine, Sochi is often referred to as the ‘Russian Riviera.’ Be prepared to hear that moniker tossed around a lot next winter.

Aaron Stern is a regular contributor to OlympicTalk. Feel free to send all hate-Tweets here.

Michael Phelps to participate in Shark Week

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NEW YORK (AP) — Olympic champ Michael Phelps is participating in Discovery network’s Shark Week this summer, although he won’t be asked to outswim one.

It’s not immediately clear what Phelps will be doing, although Discovery President Rich Ross said Tuesday he’s intrigued about seeing the fastest human swimmer interact with nature’s fastest. Perhaps Phelps can be encouraged to go underwater in a shark cage, he said.

The week of shark-themed programming in mid-summer is annually Discovery’s biggest event. Now that it is approaching its 29th year, programmers are on the lookout for a new wrinkle.

Phelps has won 28 Olympic swimming medals, 23 of them gold.

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World Figure Skating Championships ice dance preview

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Alex Shibutani says he and sister Maia have made a statement the past two years.

“With our ability to perform when the stakes are highest,” he said.

The stakes don’t get much higher than this week.

The Shibutani siblings, breakout world silver medalists a year ago, lead three U.S. couples who finished in the top six at the 2016 World Championships into this year’s worlds in Helsinki.

It is the strongest ice dance field since the Sochi Olympics. The PyeongChang Winter Games medal contenders will be confirmed this week.

The clear favorites are Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the 2010 Olympic champions competing this season for the first time since taking silver in Sochi. Virtue and Moir returned from their two-year break to post the three highest total scores of all time in their last three international competitions.

“This is probably the most prepared we’ve been for a world championships,” Moir said, while adding, “this was a warm-up season.”

PREVIEWS: Men | Women | Pairs | Dance | TV schedule

The Shibutanis finished second (with a personal-best score) to Virtue and Moir at the most recent event, the Four Continents Championships at the 2018 Olympic venue in South Korea in February. The margin separating the two couples — 5.1 points — was considerable.

“We’re sort of in a way in a race against ourselves to try and see how good we can get and how good we can become,” Alex Shibutani said. “Each competition along the way is another step to that eventual goal [the Olympics].”

At worlds, the Shibutanis are in the medal mix with France’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, who won the last two world titles.

The French, already the youngest world champs in 40 years, are trying for the first ice dance three-peat in 20 years.

But they have not progressed this season, unable to match or better their winning score from the 2016 World Championships.

Papadakis and Cizeron train in Montreal with Virtue and Moir, but they struggled (held against their own standard) in both competitions outside of French borders this season. And in different areas — step sequences, twizzles, lifts.

Conversely, it looks like the Shibutanis’ biggest obstacles are well behind them. They went from a world bronze medal in their first senior season together in 2011 to four straight years off the podium.

The Shibutanis hit a nadir at the Sochi Olympics with a ninth-place finish, worst of the three U.S. couples. Maia’s tights snagged on Alex’s sequined jacket during a lift.

The devoted vloggers countered doubts after Sochi by stressing their youth — Alex was 22 then; Maia was 19. They talked about weathering the journey and sticking to a meticulous creative process.

It paid off with their first U.S. title last year, followed by that world silver medal in Boston.

“Last year’s results at the world championships were very energizing for us,” Alex Shibutani said. “People are aware of the career trajectory that we have had. We’ve set ambitious goals because we were so motivated following that result and that exciting string of competitions that we had last season.”

The Shibutanis were actually outscored by two-time world medalists Madison Chock and Evan Bates in the U.S. Championships free dance in January. They stormed back with that personal best at Four Continents, though, erasing any doubt that they are the U.S. couple expected to make the podium in Helsinki.

The U.S. has earned 12 ice dance medals at the last 12 World Championships. In that same span, the U.S. brought home eight medals combined from men’s, women’s and pairs.

The Shibutanis feel confident they will extend recent American success in their discipline.

They would also create more history for sibling skaters. They’re already the most accomplished brother-sister duo since Isabelle and Paul Duchesnay of France won three straight world medals followed by Olympic silver in Albertville.

“We really elevated the way that we compete and perform,” at Four Continents last month, Alex Shibutani said. “Our skating has reached another level.”

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