Worlds preview: Changing of the guard lingers for pairs figure skaters

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Is this the competition where the changing of the guard becomes reality on the world stage in pairs figure skating?

Reigning Olympic gold medalists Tatyana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov will sit out the World Championships, set to start Tuesday evening (EST) in Saitama, Japan, leaving the door open for the next generation of Olympic champions to take over the throne.

The leading contenders for said spot are Volosozhar and Trankov’s Russian compatriots Ksenia Stolbova and Fyodor Klimov, the surprise silver medalists from the Sochi Games last month.

More: Full Worlds schedule and streaming times | Entry list

It will be German veterans Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy who will look to stall that shift for a bit longer, however, the four-time world champions coming off a second consecutive Olympic bronze medal, this one highly disappointing.

Savchenko/Szolkowy were second after the short program in Sochi only to falter on two elements in their free skate, finishing behind the two Russian teams.

The U.S. will pin its hopes on its Olympic line-up, with two-time U.S. champions Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir leading the charge (ninth in Sochi) and fellow Olympians Felicia Zhang and Nathan Bartholomay (12th) also set to compete.

2012 U.S. champions Caydee Denney and John Coughlin pulled out of the event last week due to an ankle injury sustained by Denney, opening the spot for Zhang/Bartholomay.

“We’re just hoping to continue with our good streak of getting new personal bests,” Boston-based Castelli, 23, told NBCSports.com in a phone interview last week. “Not all the top teams from Sochi are going to be there, so we want to be even higher than top 10 – maybe top seven or six. Mostly we want to go out there and skate two clean programs.”

More: World Figure Skating Championships men’s preview

In addition to Volosozhar/Trankov, Sochi fourth-placers Pang Qing and Tong Jian will not compete in Saitama. The veteran Chinese pair won silver at the 2010 Vancouver Games and were world champions in 2006 and 2010.

Canada sends two teams with medal aspirations: Kirsten Moore-Towers and Dylan Moscovitch (fifth in Sochi) and Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford (seventh). A year ago, Duhamel/Radford won the bronze medal at the World Championships in front of a home crowd.

Castelli/Shnapir will look to continue to improve on their rare throw quadruple Salchow jump after Castelli nearly landed it cleanly twice in Sochi. They were the only team to attempt the element at the Olympics.

“The quad Salchow has its good days and its bad days,” Castelli explained. “I own that throw and I guarantee you when we get to competition – we did it at the Olympics – I’m going to take that confidence and use it.”

The two American teams – like the men’s singles skaters – will look to combine for a 13th-place finish to gain three spots for the U.S. at the World Championships next year, something the Americans haven’t achieved since Worlds in 2003.

“We’re just focusing on our task at hand and want to do a good job,” Castelli said. “If both teams do a great job, then we’ll get that third pairs team and that’s something we ultimately hope for.”

It’s a long shot for the U.S., which was a combined 21st in Sochi.

At 22 and 23 respectively, Stolbova/Klimov look to become the youngest world champions since compatriots Yelena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze won in 1998 at 20 and 21.

At a combined age of 64, Savchenko (30) and Szolkowy (34) would become the oldest world champions in pairs since 1968 when legendary Soviet husband-and-wife team Liudmila Belousova and Oleg Protopopov won at the ages of 32 and 35, respectively.

Tensions were high after Savchenko and Szolkowy’s free skate performance in Sochi, in which Szolkowy fell on a triple toe loop, his second such fall in an Olympic long program (he did so in 2010, as well). A disappointed Savchenko attended their medalist press conference with little to say and practiced with a different partner leading up to the Sochi gala.

China’s Peng Cheng and Zhang Hao will look to move up from an eighth-place finish in Sochi while Russians Vera Bazarova and Yuri Lariyonov want to better their overall sixth place. Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres of France hope to improve from 10th.

Castelli said without Volosozhar and Trankov in attendance the feeling in the field would be different, though no less important.

“I think it changes a little bit to not have the Olympic champions there,” she said. “I’ve never been to Worlds after the Olympics, so I’ve been asking people who have and they’ve told me it’s just as competitive as any other major event. I’m looking forward to that aspect. Even with the Olympics, we’ve been training for this since last June and this is the last stop along the way.”

Icenetwork.com will provide live coverage for subscribers. Pairs skate Tuesday for the short program (9 p.m. EST) and Wednesday for the  free skate (10:30 p.m.). NBC will air a World Championships recap show April 13 from 3-6 p.m. ET.

Nina Roth’s team wins Olympic Curling Trials despite violation (video)

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Nina Roth harbored hopes of curling in the Olympics ever since the sport returned to the Winter Games in 1998, when she was a Girl Scout.

It took nearly 20 years, but she’s now on her way.

Roth, a 29-year-old nurse from Wisconsin, led a four-woman team to win the U.S. Olympic Trials finals against Jamie Sinclair‘s rink in Omaha on Saturday.

Roth, the skip, plus vice skip Tabitha Peterson, second Aileen Geving and lead Becca Hamilton make up the U.S. Olympic women’s curling team. They’re all Olympic rookies. A fifth curler, an alternate, is expected to be added later.

Roth and Sinclair traded overtime wins Thursday and Friday, forcing a winner-goes-to-PyeongChang decider Saturday to end the three-game series.

In the ninth of 10 ends, Roth committed a hog-line violation that cost her the lead, failing to let go of her last stone before it passed a line that entered it into play.

But Roth scored two in the last end to win 7-6, thanks to Sinclair missing on her last throw.

One day when Roth was 10, and her mom was her Girl Scout troop leader, the troop tried curling at the local club in McFarland, Wis.

“I loved it and signed up for junior league immediately,” said Roth, whose dad was a recreational curler.

Roth showed early promise, winning two junior national titles. After watching the 2006 Olympic Trials in her hometown as a high schooler, she competed in the 2010 Olympic Trials when she was 20 (very young for a curler).

She has a tattoo of a curling stone and an American flag on her right foot.

Roth’s team is new and relatively young compared to the most recent U.S. Olympic women’s teams. They’re all between 27 and 30 years old.

USA Curling’s high performance program matched them together in June 2016.

Since, Roth and Hamilton regularly drove four hours northwest from Southern Wisconsin to Blaine, Minn., to meet Geving and Peterson for practices. They passed the time on Interstate 94 by singing along to early 2000s punk rock.

“Our favorite song, this is embarrassing, Weird Al [Yankovic‘s] ‘Albuquerque,'” Roth told NBC Olympic research in September of the 11-minute, 22-second epic. “Becca knows all the words already.”

Roth’s team lost to Sinclair at last season’s nationals but earned the worlds berth over Sinclair via better season-long results.

Roth’s team would finish fifth out of 12 teams at worlds. Not bad considering the last three U.S. Olympic women’s teams combined to go 5-22 at the Games.

Peterson, a 28-year-old pharmacist, is going to PyeongChang after being on the runner-up team at the 2014 Olympic Trials.

Geving, 30, made her first Olympic team at her fourth Trials.

Hamilton, 27, will be hoping older brother Matt will join her in PyeongChang. Matt is on John Shuster‘s team that plays a winner-goes-to-PyeongChang game Saturday night in Omaha (NBCSN, 7:30 ET).

The Hamiltons can also qualify for the Olympics in mixed doubles, a new event at the Winter Games. So can Roth with Kroy Nernberger. Those trials are in December in Blaine.

The U.S. has earned one Olympic curling medal, a 2006 men’s bronze. The best U.S. women’s finish was fourth in 2002. Curling was part of the first Winter Olympics in 1924 and every Olympics since 1998.

Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, Norway and Great Britain are the world powers in curling.

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MORE: It’s all about family as curling Hamiltons vie for Olympics

Papadakis, Cizeron break ice dance world record (video)

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The Olympic ice dance favorite is very much up for debate.

Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir may be undefeated in their comeback, but French Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron have now broken the world record total score twice in three weeks.

Papadakis and Cizeron, the 2015 and 2016 World champions, tallied 201.98 points to win Grand Prix France on Saturday.

GP FRANCE: Full Results | TV Schedule

Two weeks ago, they became the first couple to break 200 points under an eight-year-old system (though scores have inflated overall during this stretch).

Now, Papadakis and Cizeron head into December’s Grand Prix Final for their first head-to-head with Virtue and Moir since last spring’s world championships.

Virtue and Moir, the 2010 Olympic gold medalists and 2014 Olympic silver medalists, took the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons off before returning to competition last season.

The Canadians went undefeated in 2016-17, including relegating Papadakis and Cizeron to silver in all three of their head-to-heads. The French haven’t lost to anybody else in nearly three years.

They will be joined at the Grand Prix Final by two-time world medalists Madison Chock and Evan Bates of the U.S.

They’re likely to be joined at the six-couple Grand Prix Final by more Americans — three-time world medalists Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani and Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue.

At this point, it looks like those three U.S. couples will battle for bronze in PyeongChang.

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MORE: Figure skating season broadcast schedule

Internationaux de France
Ice Dance
1. Gabriella Papadakis/Guillaume Cizeron (FRA) — 201.98 WR
2. Madison Chock/Evan Bates (USA) — 181.85
3. Alexandra Stepanova/Ivan Bukin (RUS) — 177.24
7. Elliana Pogrebinsky/Alex Benoit (USA) — 154.14