Patrick Chan

Grand Prix Final offers glimpse at Olympic figure skating picture

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The biggest international event from now until the Olympics is missing three active Olympic champions, but it will still provide a strong look at Sochi medal prospects.

The Grand Prix Final takes the top six from each discipline over six qualifying events, which began with Skate America in October. If the Olympics are the most prized figure skating competition, the Grand Prix Final is the most elite.

Universal Sports will have TV coverage beginning Thursday. NBC will have coverage from noon-2 p.m. ET on Sunday.

This year’s event is in Fukuoka, Japan, which is 14 hours ahead of Eastern time.

Here’s the schedule:

Thursday
Men’s short program — 4:40 a.m. ET
Women’s short program — 5:50 a.m. ET

Friday
Pairs short program — 3 a.m. ET
Short dance — 4:15 a.m. ET
Men’s free skate — 5:30 a.m. ET

Saturday
Pairs free skate — 2:15 a.m. ET
Free dance — 3:50 a.m. ET
Women’s free skate — 5:20 a.m. ET

Here’s a preview of each discipline:

Men

Qualifiers: Patrick Chan, Tatsuki Machida, Yuzuru Hanyu, Maksim Kovtun, Daisuke Takahashi (withdrew), Yan Han, Nobunari Oda (replacement)

The three-time reigning world champion Chan solidified his Olympic favorite status by winning both of his qualifying events — Skate Canada, Trophee Bompard — including a total score of 295.27 in Paris. Nobody else came within 25 points of that mark in any qualifying event.

Machida surprised in winning the opening Skate America and joining a crowded field of Japanese men seeking one of three Olympic spots.

Machida, the 2010 world champion Takahashi (out with leg injury), the 2012 world bronze medalist Hanyu and Oda all have Sochi medal potential. At least one of them will not make it to the Games, though.

Kovtun, too, is unlikely to be Russia’s lone men’s singles Olympic entrant with three-time Olympic medalist Yevgeny Plushenko in the picture (but not in the Fukuoka field).

It would be a surprise to see anybody other than Chan prevail in Fukuoka. The Canadian seeks his third Grand Prix Final title in the last four years. He was upset by Takahashi in 2012 at the Sochi Olympic venue.

“The Grand Prix final is going to be a challenge,” said Chan, according to Agence France-Presse. “The Japanese will have the definite [home] advantage.”

Women

Qualifiers: Mao Asada, Yulia Lipnitskaya, Ashley Wagner, Anna Pogorilaya, Adelina Sotnikova, Yelena Radyonova

Like Chan, Asada was in a class of her own at her two qualifying events. The 2010 Olympic silver medalist scored 204.55 and 207.59  in winning Skate America and NHK Trophy. Nobody else topped 200 points this season.

“Everything has been going well this season so I believe I can go higher still,” Asada said, according to AFP.

Two-thirds of the Grand Prix Final field is Russian, but only two Russians will make it to the Olympics. Radyonova, 14, will not be one of them because of age rules.

The two-time reigning U.S. champion Wagner is in the Grand Prix Final for the second straight year. She’s a definite Sochi medal threat and will look to close the gap on Asada, who beat Wagner by 15 points at last year’s Grand Prix Final and by 11 points at Skate America in October.

The results here won’t paint a clear Olympic picture though. One must be mindful of reigning Olympic and world champion Yuna Kim making her season debut in Zagreb, Croatia, this week.

Pairs

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Qualifiers: Tatyana Volosozhar/Maksim Trankov, Aliona Savchenko/Robin Szolkowy, Pang Qing/Tong Jian, Kirsten Moore-Towers/Dylan Moscovitch, Meagan Duhamel/Eric Radford, Pang Cheng/Zhang Hao

The Russians Volosozhar and Trankov are the reigning world, European and Grand Prix Final champions.

They achieved the highest pairs scores in history this season — and then went even higher — and haven’t finished lower than first since the 2011 Grand Prix Final.

It’s unlikely anybody will break that streak in Fukuoka, so just sit back and enjoy Trankov’s yellow pants.

Savchenko and Szolkowy are favorites for silver, the same medal they won at worlds and Europeans behind the Russians last season. The Germans are four-time world champions, all coming before Trankov and Volosozhar rose to the zenith of the sport.

The remaining Chinese and Canadian pairs are all Olympic medal contenders but obviously without the accolades of the Russians and Germans.

Ice Dance

Qualifiers: Meryl Davis/Charlie White, Tessa Virtue/Scott Moir, Yekaterina Bobrova/Dmitry Soloviyev, Nathalie Pechalat/Fabian Bourzat, Kaitlyn Weaver/Andrew Poje, Anna Cappellini/Luca Lanotte

Davis and White are the reigning world champions. Virtue and Moir are the reigning Olympic champions. They are rivals, yes, but training partners, too. They will face off in competition for the first (and only) time this season before the Sochi Games.

What should we expect?

Davis and White to prevail, just as they have at the last four Grand Prix Finals. The Americans scored 188.23 and 186.65 in their two qualifying events, bettering the Canadians’ 181.03 and 180.96.

The gap between Davis and White and Virtue and Moir appears to be growing. The Americans won by a margin of 3.56 at last year’s Grand Prix Final in December, then 3.04 points at the Four Continents Championships in February and 4.52 at the World Championships in March.

Bronze is up for grabs among the Russians, French, Canadians and Italians.

Yuna Kim returns in Croatia

World short-track speedskating championships will be moved, postponed or canceled

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The International Skating Union announced Tuesday that the world short-track speedskating championships will not proceed as scheduled because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Seoul’s Mokdong Ice Rink, where the competition was set to be held March 13-15, held the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships earlier this month but closed on Monday.

The ISU left open the possibility that the championships will be postponed or relocated, but the window to do so may close rapidly.

“Taking into account the uncertain world-wide development of the coronavirus, the limited and uncertain available time slots during the coming weeks and the logistical challenges of potential organizers and participating teams, a postponement and/or relocation of the Championships would be difficult to achieve,” the ISU said. “Nevertheless, a postponement and/or relocation of this Championships might be considered if the circumstances would allow so in due time.”

South Korea is one of short-track speedskating’s traditional powers. Last year, the country dominated the world championships in Sofia, Bulgaria, winning both relays and taking gold in all of the men’s individual races. South Korea also led the medal count on home ice in the 2018 Olympics.

The coronavirus outbreak has forced the cancellation of many events in China, where the illness was first found. The world indoor track and field championships were pushed back a whole year.

With the virus spreading to other regions, other countries’ sports schedules are being affected. Several soccer games are proceeding in empty stadiums in Italy and Iran.

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Daniel Romanchuk’s ascent to marathon stardom accelerated at University of Illinois

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The rise of Daniel Romanchuk has been one of the major stories of this Paralympic cycle. The wheelchair racer was eliminated in the first round of all five of his races in Rio.

But now, he’s the world’s best marathoner with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, a world-record holder on the track and already qualified for the Tokyo Games.

Romanchuk, born with spina bifida, was profiled by NBC Sports Chicago as part of a series of NBC Sports Regional Networks pieces published this week — marking 150 days until the Tokyo Olympics and six months until the Tokyo Paralympics.

NBC RSN Olympic and Paralympic Profiles
NBC Sports Bay Area

Abbey Weitzeil (Swimming) — LINK

NBC Sports Boston
Margaret Bertasi (Rowing) — LINK
Abbey D’Agostino Cooper (Track and Field) — LINK

NBC Sports Chicago
Ryan Murphy (Swimming) — LINK

NBC Sports Northwest
Galen Rupp (Marathon) — LINK
Mariel Zagunis (Fencing) — LINK

NBC Sports Philadelphia
Vashti Cunningham (Track and Field) — LINK
Julie Ertz (Soccer) — LINK

NBC Sports Washington
Katie Ledecky (Swimming) — LINK
Kyle Snyder (Wrestling) — LINK

Romanchuk, 21, swept the Boston, London, Chicago and New York City Marathon titles in 2019. He attributes that success to his native Baltimore and his training residence of the University of Illinois.

At age 2, he was enrolled in Baltimore’s Bennett Blazers, an adaptive sports program for children with physical disabilities. Tatyana McFadden, a 17-time Paralympic medalist who dominated women’s wheelchair marathons, planted her athletic roots there.

“Their motto is to teach kids they can before they’re told they can’t,” Romanchuk said.

Things really blossomed for Romanchuk after he moved from Baltimore to the University of Illinois. Illinois was designated a U.S. Paralympic training site in 2014 and has produced McFadden, Jean Driscoll and other U.S. Paralympic stars.

“Without this program, I certainly would not be where I am,” Romanchuk said. “It’s a very unique combination of coaching and teammates.”

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MORE: Ten Paralympic hopefuls to watch for 2020 Tokyo Games