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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Alina Zagitova eyes more gold at worlds; women’s preview

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Alina Zagitova hasn’t lost internationally in 18 months, and that doesn’t figure to change this week at the world championships in Milan.

The 15-year-old Russian is favored to become the youngest world gold medalist since Tara Lipinski (duplicating her feat from the Olympics) and make it five straight Olympic or world titles for Russian women, the longest streak for one country since American Carol Heiss won six straight Olympic/world titles from 1956 through 1960.

Zagitova would also become the first Olympic women’s champion to win worlds the following month since Kristi Yamaguchi in 1992. That’s largely because Olympic champions usually skip worlds in Olympic years. Since Yamaguchi, the only one to compete was Yuna Kim, who grabbed silver in 2010.

Zagitova may be young, but she may not have the longevity of Kim to make it to a second Olympics. Russia turns over a new class of elite women’s skaters every year.

Two weeks ago, 13-year-old Alexandra Trusova won the world junior title as the first woman to land two different quadruple jumps in one program. Trusova isn’t old enough to compete at the senior worlds until 2020.

Zagitova’s current rival and training partner, Olympic silver medalist and 2016 and 2017 World champion Yevgenia Medvedeva, withdrew from worlds due to injury.

WORLDS: TV Schedule | Pairs Preview | Nagasu’s Outlook

Which leaves the last two Olympic bronze medalists, Kaetlyn Osmond of Canada and Carolina Kostner of Italy, plus PyeongChang fourth-place finisher Satoko Miyahara of Japan as the top challengers this week.

None finished within seven points of Zagitova at any competition this season, the Russian’s first on the senior international level.

Zagitova set herself apart at the Olympics by putting all of her jumps in the second half of her programs for 10 percent bonuses and landing them all with positive grades of execution.

The U.S. contingent includes national champion Bradie Tennell, two-time Olympian Mirai Nagasu and Mariah Bell (replacement for 2017 U.S. champion Karen Chen).

It is the end of a challenging season for U.S. women. In the autumn, none qualified for the Grand Prix Final for a second straight year (after at least one had done so each of the previous seven seasons).

In PyeongChang, no U.S. woman finished in the top six for the first time in Winter Games history. Tennell, who emerged this season after placing ninth at 2017 Nationals, was the top U.S. Olympic finisher in ninth.

Tennell goes into worlds as the top seeded American — seventh — by best international scores this season.

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Olympic golf qualifying, format largely unchanged for 2020

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The Tokyo 2020 Olympic golf tournaments qualifying and format will remain largely the same as they were for the sport’s return to the Games in 2016, according to Golf Channel, citing a memo sent to PGA Tour players.

The format will again be four rounds of stroke play with 60 men and 60 women taken from the world rankings, according to the report.

The qualifying window to determine the rankings will be July 1, 2018 to June 22, 2020 for men and July 8, 2018 to June 29, 2020 for women. That’s a slight change, as for 2016 the dates were the same for men and women.

The 2016 process saw a maximum of two men and two women per country, or up to four if they were ranked in the top 15.

Then-PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said one month after the Rio Games that he hoped the Olympic golf format would be changed to have more medals awarded.

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