Anna Cappellini, Luca Lanotte

Cappellini and Lanotte hold on for surprise ice dance title

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Even without the top two teams in the world, the ice dance competition at the World Figure Skating Championships brimmed with drama.

Saturday afternoon it concluded with the the three podium spots separated by just 0.06 points, Italy’s Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte edging out Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje of Canada (second) and France’s Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat (third) by the smallest of fractions for gold.

Top-ranked duos Meryl Davis and Charlie White and Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir skipped the World Championships after winning gold and silver, respectively, at the Sochi Olympics, but that didn’t seem to matter to the Saitama, Japan, audience, which was enraptured with a genuine fight to the finish.

Cappellini and Lanotte, Italy’s first world champions in ice dance since Barbara Fusar-Poli and Maurizio Margaglio won in 2001, were fourth in the free dance, but held on for the gold thanks to their lead after the short dance.

More: Hanyu roars back for men’s title | Savchenko/Szolkowy win in pairs

“We really have no words. We’re in complete shock,” Cappellini told the crowd after their win. “It was such a long season and we were really at the end of our energy. I was already happy with the way that we performed.”

Yelena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov, bronze medalists in Sochi, won the free dance, though their efforts left them in fourth after a poor short program had them in fifth place coming into Saturday.

Ilinykh/Katsalapov skated with extra fire on the ice Saturday as rumors swirled around Worlds that they would disband as a team after the competition, allegations they denied.

Katsalapov let out an impassioned yell as they finished their darkened portrayal of “Swan Lake,” which was instrumental in their podium finish at the Olympics last month.

More: Final ice dance standings, scores

The U.S. had plenty to be proud of, though this marks the first time since 2008 that no American ice dancers landed on the podium.

Madison Chock and Evan Bates were fifth overall and brother-sister duo Maia and Alex Shibutani finished sixth, moving up from eighth- and ninth-place efforts at the Olympics.

It was a second Worlds bronze for Pechalat/Bourzat in three years, the French veterans who at 30 and 33, respectively, are said to be skating at their final competition. It was their 11th World Championships.

Weaver/Poje skated last Saturday afternoon, their Latin medley filled with flair and passion. When their score flashed on the screen they had to double check their opponents’ efforts, Poje confirming their silver-medal status.

“Second,” he said in the Kiss and Cry. “Second.”

Cappellini broke down in tears when the score for her and Lanotte was shown, their short dance providing the cushion they needed to hold onto the world title. This is their first world championship medal of any kind, coming on the heels of their first-ever European Championships title in January. They were sixth in Sochi.

“This was an amazing week for us,” Lanotte said. “Just amazing.”

Ice dance overall standings
1. Anna CAPPELLINI/Luca LANOTTE ITA 175.43
2. Kaitlyn WEAVER/Andrew POJE CAN 175.41
3. Nathalie PECHALAT/Fabian BOURZAT FRA 175.37
4. Yelena ILINYKH/Nikita KATSALAPOV RUS 174.38
5. Madison CHOCK/Evan BATES USA 167.59
6. Maia SHIBUTANI/Alex SHIBUTANI USA 158.57
17. Alexandra ALDRIDGE/Daniel EATON USA 137.37

World Figure Skating Championships pairs preview

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Volosozhar and Trankov couldn’t do it. Neither did Shen and Zhao. Nor Gordeeva and Grinkov.

Canadians Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford can win a third straight pairs world title next week, a feat not seen since Irina Rodnina and Alexander Zaitsev of the Soviet Union won six in a row from 1973 through 1978.

But they don’t feel like favorites.

“We’re coming in a little more under the radar,” Radford said.

They lost their two most recent international competitions — third at the Grand Prix Final in December; second at the Four Continents Championships in February.

Duhamel and Radford are seeded fifth by best international scores this season going into the world championships in Helsinki (broadcast schedule here).

“Sometimes it feels like worlds last year was so long ago,” Radford said.

Last year in Boston, Duhamel and Radford had the performance of their seven-year partnership in the world championships free skate. They tallied a personal-best 153.81 points, more than seven points clear of their previous best.

It was easily enough to overtake Chinese short-program leaders Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, who were relegated to silver behind the Canadians for a second straight year.

This season, Duhamel and Radford haven’t come within 13 points of their 2016 World Championships total. Duhamel went through “an unforeseeable circumstance” in her personal life in November that she chooses not to reveal.

They implemented the throw triple Axel, but Duhamel fell three times in a four-event stretch this fall. They lost by nearly 13 points at December’s Grand Prix Final, which ended with a Duhamel backstage meltdown.

“We never fell like that at home [in practice],” Duhamel said on the IceTalk podcast. “It started to shake us up a little bit.”

They replaced the throw triple Axel in their program. Without it in February, both skaters had trouble with jumps at Four Continents at the 2018 Olympic venue and finished nearly 13 points behind Sui and Han.

“We kind of went back to square one, to the drawing board after Four Continents, reassessing what’s gone on this season, why are we underperforming, why are we not succeeding in competition the way we are training,” Duhamel said.

They made program changes, notably on their throw and jump entrances and overhauling the footwork in their short program.

Duhamel adopted a rescue dog from South Korea. Radford, who had surgery over the summer to remove a cyst from his ankle bone, leaned on a sports psychologist.

“I personally feel a lot more relaxed and seemless,” Radford said. “That feeling has come a little bit later this season.”

Five pairs could take gold in Helsinki in perhaps the most wide-open event.

Germans Aliona Savchenko and (French-born) Bruno Massot won both of their fall Grand Prix events but missed the Grand Prix Final after she tore an ankle ligament. They returned to take silver at the European Championships in January with the best score of their two-year partnership.

Young Russians Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov stepped up to win the Grand Prix Final, the second-biggest annual competition, and then the European Championships. But free-skate struggles have dogged them this season.

Another Russian pair, Olympic silver medalists Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov, are perhaps the biggest wild card. They missed the fall season due to Stolbova’s left leg injury, but then beat Tarasova and Morozov in their season debut at the Russian Championships. Stolbova fell on their throw triple flip in both programs at the European Championships in January, and they finished fourth.

Then there are Sui and Han, looking to break through for a first senior world title in their sixth try (though Sui is just 21 years old, and Han 24). They missed the fall season after Sui underwent right ankle and left foot surgeries last spring. They returned at Four Continents and posted personal-best free skate and total scores, ranking only behind Tarasova and Morozov for the season.

U.S. pairs Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim and Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier have both missed significant time due to injury in the last two years. They are behind the top pairs from Canada, China and Russia.

The U.S. hasn’t put a pair in the world championships top five since 2006, and that doesn’t figure to change next week.

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MORE: Ashley Wagner knows pressure’s on her at worlds

NBC Sports researcher Sarah Hughes contributed to this report.

Ashley Caldwell will win or lose Olympic aerials gold with triples

AP
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PARK CITY, Utah (AP) — As a teenager, Ashley Caldwell never had problems hanging with the boys when it came to doing the biggest flips off the aerials ramp. Now in her 20s, she sees no reason for that to change.

Caldwell will make or miss her third U.S. Olympic team, then potentially win or lose the gold medal in South Korea, by doing triple flips off the kicker while most of the women are doing doubles. It’s an all-or-nothing proposition that sets the bar high, and sends a certain message, regardless of whether she finishes first or last.

“It’s not just about trying to be there by myself,” Caldwell says. “It’s about maybe inspiring some younger girls to say, `I should be able to push to whatever I’m capable of doing, not necessarily what people say my gender is capable of doing.”‘

Caldwell never shirked from joining the teenage boys when they started moving to the bigger kickers and adding an extra flip to the doubles they did as kids.

Triples are the price of admission for the men, and while not unheard of among the women, the list of athletes who will try them is short: Jacqui Cooper, Alla Tsuper and Xu Mengtao are among the few who have tried them over the years. They’re also among the best to ever fly off a ramp.

At the Sochi Olympics, Lydia Lassila of Australia became the first woman to land a quadruple-twisting triple flip on snow in training. The next night, she brought it to the medals round, and though she touched her hand to the ground on the landing, she won a bronze medal anyway and stole the headlines.

“That’s who I’m inspired by,” Caldwell said that night. “She’s trying to push the sport so that girls are jumping like the boys, and she’s doing it, and it’s really impressive.”

At freestyle world championships earlier this month, Caldwell sent her message when she became the first woman to cleanly land that same triple-flipping, quadruple-twisting jump in competition (video here).

“It was the first time I had every coach come up to me and shake my hand before the score even came up,” said Todd Ossian, who works with Caldwell as head coach of the U.S. aerials team.

And yet, Caldwell was oh-so-close to not being able to even try that winning jump.

Aerials competitions go through a series of qualifying and elimination rounds that include only one jump each. Consistency is rewarded, and most women train a variety of double flips to make it through the rounds, then bring out their most intricate jump – more often than not, also a double – for when the medals are awarded.

Caldwell doesn’t go that route. She tries triples every time she steps onto the hill.

It adds extra – some might say unnecessary – risk to the early rounds. When the field was being cut from 12 to nine at world championships, for instance, Caldwell didn’t land her triple flip. She was able to squeak into the top nine and advance only because her degree of difficulty for the triple was so high.

“I’m OK sacrificing some good competition results to increase my consistency on the triple,” says Caldwell, giving a nod to the reality that training days on snow are precious and she needs to use them to focus on the jumps she’ll be performing when the contests start.

The recently ended season tested the limits of how much Caldwell was willing to sacrifice. In meet after meet, from Moscow to Minsk to an Olympic test event in South Korea, difficulties with the triple kept her far away from the podium. In the World Cup standings, Caldwell finished 10th.

To her, that’s more a badge of honor than a sign of failure. In a sport that oddly transforms daredevils into conformists, and rewards consistency over risk-taking, Caldwell plans to keep pushing anyway.

In doing triples, her mission is as much about winning as bringing others along for the ride.

“I want the crowd to feel like they know who won,” Caldwell said. “I want it to be impressive. I just want people to say, `That’s sweet. That’s what’s deserved.’ If a lot of girls are doing triples up there and I fall, there would still be a lot of girls who would do well. I’m cool with that. If I mess up, that’s OK. But I want the sport to look good.”

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VIDEO: Top U.S. aerials skier crashes hard at World Cup