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U.S. a world power in ice dance going into Grand Prix Final

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Even without the defending Olympic champions, the proof is right there on the ice: The U.S. has become the world power in ice dance.

For the second straight year, three American couples have made the Grand Prix Final, which starts Friday in Marseille, France. U.S. champions and world silver medalists Maia and Alex Shibutani; 2015 U.S. champions Madison Chock and Evan Bates, and three-time U.S. bronze medalists Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue make up half the field — for a second consecutive season.

That sure impresses Charlie White, who with Meryl Davis became the first Americans to win ice dance gold at the Olympics, in 2014.

“I’m not sure there’s a better way to show the dominance of U.S. ice dancing better than having three teams making the Grand Prix Final two years in a row,” he said. “It’s been amazing to see these three teams proving themselves time and time again at these stacked Grand Prix events.

“The experience gained, and consistency shown by this group of U.S. dance teams will certainly help their chances at giving their best showing at an event like the Olympics.”

Chock and Bates and the Shibutanis already have been down that road, finishing eighth and ninth in Sochi. Since then, their performances have been on a steady upward course, with the brother and sister Shibutanis winning nationals this year and finishing second at worlds. Chock and Bates took the U.S. title in 2015 and finished just behind the Shibutanis at this year’s worlds.

All of today’s couples owe credit to their — uh, foreskaters? — for taking ice dancing from the outcast stepchild in American figure skating to the top of the world. And they know it.

“I think it is sort of a product of the growth of the sport in our country spearheaded by Meryl and Charlie, and before them, Tanith (Belbin) and Ben (Agosto), Peter (Tchernyshev) and Naomi (Lang), and back to Liz (Punsalan) and Jerod (Swallow),” said Bates, who teamed with Chock in 2011. “We have been working on this for a long time, the last few decades, really. Now, in the world of ice dancing we are recognized as the top country.”

Added the Shibutanis: “Earlier in our career, we trained with both Meryl and Charlie, and Tanith and Ben. Their accomplishments have been inspiring and have done a lot to improve the visibility of ice dance in the U.S. They are our friends and they have always been very supportive and encouraging. We are working to continue to build on what they started.”

For decades, Russians dominated ice dance, in part because of the coaching available in the Soviet Union and then in Russia. Other than the brilliant Britons Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean and their mesmerizing performances in the 1980s, it was rare for anyone else to make frequent visits to the medals podium.

Today, it is rare when an American couple does not win a gold, silver or bronze.

“I think that the U.S. has a particularly great developmental program that has created an abundance of talented athletes representing Team USA on the international circuit,” Hubbell said. “For ice dance in particular, U.S. Figure Skating has made huge strides in becoming one of the most competitive federations. I have had the support of U.S. Figure Skating for over 10 years now, and I grew up training and competing with Chock and Bates, and the Shibutanis. I believe it is the supportive, competitive environment that we have grown up with that has pushed us to have three teams in the Grand Prix Final for the second season consecutively.”

Also pushing are the coaches, some of which were trained in the Russian systems. Igor Shpilband, then Natalia Linichuk and Gennadi Karponosov, worked with Belbin and Agosto. Marina Zoueva guided Davis’ and White’s careers.

Shpilband works with Chock and Bates, and the Shibutanis work with Zoueva.

“No. 1, you have to credit the coaching,” said White, who also won Olympic silver in 2010 and took six straight U.S. championships with Davis. “Skaters can work themselves into the ground all day every day, but unless they have the choreography and expertise of top-level coaches, that work will not pay off.”

But there’s more to it than that, Davis insisted.

When the three U.S. duos compete in the Grand Prix Final against 2010 Olympic champions and 2014 runners-up Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada — the other surpassing ice dance couple of the last decade — plus France’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, the two-time reigning world champs, the Americans will bring something else to the rink.

“No. 2 is the incredible hard work and dedication to the sport by the U.S. ice dance teams,” White says. “Coming from the history that we have in the sport internationally, I think U.S. ice dancers always feel they have something to prove. And right now they are proving themselves time and time again.”

MORE: Meryl Davis provides update on possible return

Russian skiers stay suspended awaiting Olympic doping cases

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LAUSANNE, Switzerland — Six Russian cross-country skiers will stay suspended until an IOC panel judges if they were part of a state-backed doping conspiracy at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport says the Olympic commission – chaired by International Olympic Committee member Denis Oswald – should deliver rulings “during the summer period.”

The court says the skiers will stay provisionally suspended until at least Oct. 31. They include Alexander Legkov, the Olympic 50-kilometer freestyle champion, and Maxim Vylegzhanin, a three-time silver medalist at Sochi.

The skiers appealed against interim bans imposed by the International Ski Federation in December after they were implicated by World Anti-Doping Agency investigator Richard McLaren.

CAS hearings this month did not examine detailed doping allegations against Legkov, Vylegzhanin, Alexey Petukhov, Evgenia Shapovalova, Evgeniy Belov and Julia Ivanova.

Tori Bowie upsets Elaine Thompson; Gatlin, Felix struggle at Pre

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Tori Bowie ran a statement 200m at the Pre Classic, clocking the fastest-ever time before the month of June and upsetting Olympic champion Elaine Thompson of Jamaica.

And she called it a training race.

“My coach made it clear that we were just training for nationals,” Bowie, huffing and puffing after winning in 21.77 seconds, told Lewis Johnson on NBC. “No pressure at all.”

Bowie, the Olympic 100m silver medalist and 200m bronze medalist, beat her personal best by .22 of a second.

While Bowie starred, U.S. stalwarts Allyson Felix and Justin Gatlin dropped to fifth-place finishes Saturday.

Full Pre Classic results are here.

Athletes are preparing for the U.S. Championships from June 23-25, a qualifying meet for the world championships in London in August.

Felix finished fifth in the 200m behind Bowie, Olympic 400m champion Shaunae Miller, Thompson and Olympic 200m silver medalist Dafne Schippers.

“Not that great, not that great today,” Felix said, according to meet officials. “I feel like my training is going well, it was good to get out here and see where I was at.”

Felix has a bye into the worlds in the 400m as defending world champion but is no longer a medal favorite in the 200m, where she won Olympic silver in 2004 and 2008 and gold in 2012. She clocked 22.33 seconds for fifth Saturday, which was .35 behind third-place Thompson.

Felix missed the 2016 Olympic team in the 200m by .01 while slowed by an ankle injury. But in 2015, a healthy Felix ran faster than 22.33 in all four of her 200m races.

Gatlin finished fifth in the 100m in 9.97 seconds, continuing his slowest season in recent years. At 35 years old, he is no longer looking like the top rival to Usain Bolt, who debuts in his farewell season June 10.

In fact, Gatlin may be in danger of not making the U.S. team in the 100m, which will be the top three finishers at nationals in four weeks.

In contrast, American Ronnie Baker is looking like a medal contender. He won Saturday in 9.86 seconds, which would be the fastest time in the world this year if not for too much tailwind (2.4 meters/second).

Baker, 23, has been a surprise this season, breaking 10 seconds a total of three times including Saturday. He was eliminated in the 2016 Olympic Trials semifinals and had not broken 10 seconds with legal wind before this year.

“My thoughts were, I’ve got every chance to win this just as much as everyone else does,” Baker told Lewis Johnson on NBC. “9.86 is unbelievable.”

Norway’s Jakob Ingebrigtsen, a 16-year-old, became one of the youngest-ever to break four minutes in the mile. He finished 11th against a field of older runners.

Four-time Olympic champion Mo Farah held off Ethiopian Yomif Kejelcha to extend his 5000m winning streak to 11 meets dating to 2013. Farah clocked 13:00.7 to Kejelcha’s 13:01.21.

It marked Farah’s last track race in the U.S. as the Oregon-based Brit plans to switch to marathon running after the world championships in August.

Rio gold medalist Caster Semenya barely extended her 800m undefeated streak to 16 finals. The scrutinized South Africa edged Olympic bronze medalist Margaret Wambui by one tenth of a second, clocking 1:59.78.

Olympic champion Omar McLeod took the 110m hurdles in 13.01 seconds, the fastest time in the world this year. McLeod beat a field that included Aries Merritt, the 2012 Olympic champion and world-record holder (12.80), and 2013 World champion David Oliver.

Christian Taylor, a two-time Olympic champion, recorded the third-best triple jump of all time, 18.11 meters.

Rio bronze medalist Sam Kendricks won the pole vault against a field that included Olympic champion Thiago Braz of Brazil, world-record holder Renaud Lavillenie of France and Swedish phenom Armand Duplantis, a Louisiana high school junior. Kendricks cleared 5.86 meters.

Olympic bronze medalist Ashley Spencer won the 400m hurdles in 53.38 seconds, a personal best and the fastest time in the world this year. Olympic champion Dalilah Muhammad was fifth in her first 400m hurdles race of the year.

In the shot put, Olympic champion Ryan Crouser unleashed a 22.43-meter throw to beat a field including world champion Joe Kovacs.

Jasmin Stowers won the 100m hurdles in 12.59 seconds, .03 off the fastest time in the world this year. The field lacked suspended Olympic champion Brianna Rollins and world-record holder Keni Harrison, who recently suffered a broken hand.

Russian Maria Lasitskene won the high jump in her first competition outside of Russia since 2015, when she was world champion. Lasitskene competed as a neutral athlete Saturday as Russia is still banned from international competition due to its poor anti-doping record. Her 2.03-meter clearance matched the best in the world since June 2013.

The Diamond League continues in Rome on June 8, with coverage on NBC Sports Gold.

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