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.”

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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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Alysia Montano announces pregnancy with clever video, no racing plans

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U.S. Olympic 800m runner Alysia Montaño is due in November with her second child, but this time she has no current plan to race at the U.S. Championships while pregnant.

Montaño’s husband and manager, Louis, said Wednesday that she has no races on her calendar (nationals are in late June) but hopes to continue her fitness during pregnancy. She may do a couple of 5Ks this summer.

Earlier Wednesday, the family announced the pregnancy in a clever video.

The video included the couple’s first child, Linnea, was born in August 2014, two months after Montaño made worldwide headlines for racing while eight months pregnant at nationals.

Montaño, 31, last raced at the Millrose Games on Feb. 11 in her first meet since falling in the Olympic Trials 800m final on July 4.

Montaño is set to be awarded her first two world outdoor championships medals, four and six years after she ran those races, due to a former Russian rival’s doping ban.

MORE: Montaño finds little joy after Russian stripped of medals

Sweden drops 2026 Winter Olympic bid

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The city of Stockholm says it won’t bid for the 2026 Winter Olympics.

Karin Wanngard, the city official in charge of finances, says the reason is because the International Olympic Committee will not be able to report how big the financial contribution to the host city will be.

She says the figures “will arrive at the earliest in November.”

This means that time will be too short to get enough analysis for the issues raised by several actors,” said the Swedish lawmaker, whose Social Democratic Party had been supportive of hosting the event.

“We Social Democrats have always thought that the Olympic Games are important for Stockholm’s growth and development,” Wanngard said in a statement, adding there was little backing for the event. “Unfortunately, we are alone to have this position about the Olympic Games.”

Swedish Sports Confederation chairman Bjorn Eriksson said he and his organization “fully respect the decision as we also believe in a realistic budget and a sustainable economy.”

Sports Minister Gabriel Wikstrom also supported the decision, adding that the Social Democratic-led government was “ready to handle requests for financial guarantees.”

“We have also been clear that it is Stockholm’s city that must make its decision first,” he told Sweden news agency TT.

The news comes six days after the Swedish Olympic Committee named a CEO for the 2026 bid.

In January, the committee said that Stockholm staging the 2026 Winter Olympics was “possible and desirable” and that a formal bid was expected in March 2018.

In 2015, Stockholm pulled out of the race for the 2022 Winter Games after Swedish politicians refused to give financial backing. Swedish politicians were uncomfortable because of concerns over costs, the environment, post-Games use of venues, the environment and other issues.

The early 2026 bid plan called for 80 percent of the events in Stockholm, while most of the Alpine competitions would be in the northern resort of Are, more than 600 kilometers (400 miles) from the capital. A few skiing events would be in Falun, 215 kilometers (130 miles) northwest from there.

The 2026 Winter Olympics have one bidder — Sion, Switzerland.

Cities in Austria, Canada, Japan and have also discussed potential 2026 bids, as has Lillehammer, Norway, the 1994 Winter Olympic host. The U.S. is not expected to bid for the 2026 Winter Games.

The next two Winter Olympics will be in East Asia in PyeongChang in 2018 and Beijing in 2022, giving a European or North American city a greater opening to be the 2026 host.

The 2026 Olympic host city is expected to be chosen from an International Olympic Committee members vote in 2019.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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