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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

Alina Zagitova hands Yevgenia Medvedeva first loss in 2 years

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Russian Yevgenia Medvedeva is no longer the clear favorite in the Winter Olympics’ marquee event.

The two-time world champion lost for the first time in more than two years, upset by training partner Alina Zagitova at the European Figure Skating Championships in Moscow.

Italian Carolina Kostner earned bronze.

Zagitova, the 15-year-old world junior champion, set personal bests in the short program and free skate and totaled 238.24 points. She beat Medvedeva by 5.38 points.

Medvedeva, in her first competition since November due to a broken foot, fully rotated all of her jumps Saturday, but Zagitova was cleaner. She also stumbled out of a double Axel in her short program.

“I did not feel the injury,” Medvedeva said after the short program, according to the International Skating Union. “Everything has healed.”

Full results are here. NBCSN will air coverage Saturday at 9 p.m. ET.

Zagitova was born three months after the Salt Lake City Olympics and without a name for her first year. Her parents eventually decided on Alina after watching Olympic rhythmic gymnastics champion Alina Kabayeva on TV.

She had been working to this point in her first senior international season. She swept her two fall Grand Prix starts, then won the Grand Prix Final in December, all without Medvedeva in the field.

On Saturday, she landed all of her jumps (including seven triples) in the second half of her program for 10 percent bonuses. It’s the type of technical content layout ambitious enough to challenge Medvedeva.

“I think that Zhenia [Medvedeva] is her role model in life, in behavior, in her way to work,” shared coach Eteri Tutberidze said last year, according to Goldenskate.com. “Alina absolutely tries to copy her way to work, the amount of work and she doesn’t stop. This helps. I can sometimes show Zhenia and say, ‘Look how Alina is working,’ and I tell Alina, ‘Look how Zhenia is working.’”

Medvedeva, whose last defeat was in November 2015, also won both of her Grand Prix starts, posting the world’s highest scores this season, while dealing with foot pain.

She underwent an MRI that revealed a crack, then withdrew from the Grand Prix Final and the Russian Championships in December. She is still expected to be on the Olympic Athlete from Russia team in PyeongChang.

Kostner, the 2014 Olympic bronze medalist who made her Europeans debut in 2003, fell on her opening triple Lutz and landed just three triple jumps Saturday.

She hung on to win a medal at her 11th straight European Championships.

Russian Maria Sotskova, the Grand Prix Final silver medalist, fell on her last triple jump, a Lutz, among other landing troubles. She placed fourth.

Those four skaters are the Olympic medal contenders along with Canadians Kaetlyn Osmond and Gabrielle Daleman and Japanese Satoko Miyahara and Kaori Sakamoto.

U.S. champion Bradie Tennell ranks 14th in the world this season.

NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.

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Julia Marino, Hailey Langland qualify for Olympics; U.S. sweeps possible

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The addition of snowboard big air to the Olympics next month means Jamie AndersonJulia Marino and Hailey Langland have two chances for a U.S. podium sweep in PyeongChang.

Marino and Langland qualified for the U.S. big air and slopestyle team Saturday, joining the already qualified Anderson, who won slopestyle’s debut in Sochi.

Anderson, Marino and Langland swept the podium in that order at the last Olympic qualifier in slopestyle in Mammoth Mountain, Calif.

They also made up three of the top four riders at the 2017 X Games big air and slopestyle.

The U.S. has never swept the Winter Olympic medals in a women’s event but could do so in big air, slopestyle and even snowboard halfpipe in PyeongChang.

MORE: U.S. Olympic roster

While Anderson is the veteran, an X Games medalist 11 of the last 12 years, Marino and Langland represent the new wave of U.S. big air and slopestyle riders.

Marino, a 20-year-old from Connecticut who trains in Quebec, earned slopestyle and big air medals at X Games Aspen and Oslo last year in her debuts at those events.

They included slopestyle gold in Aspen over Anderson.

Langland, a 17-year-old from Southern California who plays the ukulele, guitar and piano, won the first X Games women’s big air title last year and took bronze in slopestyle in 2016.

Born in 2000, she is younger than any previous female Olympic snowboarding medalist.

“She reminds me of a younger me,” Anderson said, according to NBC Olympic Research.

The U.S. could add a fourth woman to the big air/slopestyle team, likely either Jessika Jenson or Ty Walker, a pair of 2014 Olympians in slopestyle.

The U.S. men are not as strong internationally in big air and slopestyle, where the Olympic favorites hail from Canada and Norway.

Kyle Mack won the last qualifier Saturday — without the top international riders in the field — to clinch the third and last automatic spot on the men’s big air/slopestyle team.

Chris Corning and Red Gerard previously qualified for PyeongChang. A fourth rider can be added via discretionary selection.

U.S. Olympic Qualifying Standings
Snowboard Big Air/Slopestyle 
(through five of five events)
Three riders auto qualify per gender; one possible discretionary spot
1. Chris Corning — 2,000* QUALIFIED
1. Red Gerard — 2,000* QUALIFIED
3. Kyle Mack — 1,800* QUALIFIED

4. Chandler Hunt — 1,400* (2nd and 3rd)
5. Ryan Stassel — 1,400 (2nd and 3rd)

1. Jamie Anderson — 2,000* QUALIFIED
2. Julia Marino — 1,800* QUALIFIED
3. Hailey Langland — 1,600* QUALIFIED
4. Jessika Jenson — 1,600 (1st and 3rd)
5. Ty Walker — 1,300 (2nd and 4th)
*Has automatic qualifying minimum of one top-three result against entire field.

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