Preview: Two former winning teams face off at U.S. Figure Skating Championships in pairs

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Two Olympic spots are at stake in pairs skating this weekend at the U.S. Championships in Boston and two top teams enter into the National Championships having won the event the last time they skated it.

For defending champions Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir, it was a year ago that they captured their first-ever national title, while the duo of Caydee Denney and John Coughlin won in 2012, sitting out the competition last year due to injury.

The pairs teams will face a host of competition for berths at the Sochi Olympics during the four-day event at the TD Garden which begins Thursday afternoon and concludes Saturday in the pairs event.

For Denney/Coughlin, the appearance at Nationals marks a continued comeback after a torn labrum in Coughlin’s hip (the same injury that put Evan Lysacek out of the Sochi Games) set the team out following a successful Grand Prix season in 2012.

U.S. Figure Skating Championships Previews: Men | Women | Ice Dance | Pairs | Schedule

The Colorado-based team could not defend their national title in Omaha in January and sat out the World Championships in March. But they’ve made marked improvements during the Grand Prix season in 2013, placing fourth at Skate America befor winning bronze at the Grand Prix of France.

“Our technical element score (TES) was at its highest in Paris, [but] we stay humble and continue to work,” Coughlin said on a conference call with reporters. “We’re honest with ourselves and focused on showing that we are an elite team. Our confidence is high after being the best American team on the Grand Prix [this season].”

Castelli/Shnapir would like to prove Coughlin wrong in front of a home crowd in Boston. The team – which has a height diffence of 16 inches (Marissa is 5’0” and Simon is 6’4”) – had a less convincing Grand Prix effort in 2013, missing the podium in both Detroit (sixth) and Tokyo (fourth).

“We’re thrilled that the Championships are here in our backyard,” Shnapir told journalists recently. “Training has been going well and we’ve been working hard going through our programs and sections every single day. We’ve just been drilling everything and feel ready to go.”

Shnapir would be making a return to a different backyard should he and Castelli qualify for the Winter Games: the 26-year-old was born in Moscow before moving to the U.S. with his family when he was just 18 months old, but speaks Russian and would have family members attend in Sochi.

While Denney/Coughlin and Castelli/Shnapir are the clear front-runners to earn the two allotted spots in pairs, there are a host of other teams that will try and throw a wrench in their compatriots’ Olympic plans.

Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim, who paired up less than two years ago, were second at Nationals a year ago and had two Grand Prix assignments during the Olympic season, placing fifth at the cup of China and then sixth in Moscow at the Cup of Russia.

Felicia Zhang and Nate Bartholomay, the bronze medalists from the 2013 Nationals, struggled during the Grand Prix season, placing seventh at Skate America and sixth at the Cup of China.

Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier could be the most competitive of the outliers, having placed fifth at both of their Grand Prix assignments. The duo began skating together in 2004 after switching to the ice from roller skating.

Haven is the younger sister to Caydee, meaning a little sibling rivalry could come alive at the TD Garden – or a duo of siblings might be headed to the Olympics not named Shibutani (Maia and Alex, ice dancers).

But the home-ice advantage is something that Castelli hopes to use her own family for in her and Shnapir’s advantage, even if it means a little added pressure during an Olympic season.

“Skating in our hometown is the best advantage that we could have,” Castelli said. “At first I was really nervous, it was really terrifying. But it’s such a blessing to have everyone who supports me come and cheer me on and share this moment with me; it’s going to be so much more motivating. We’re extremely excited.”

The pairs kick off the senior Nationals competition at 4:15 p.m. on Thursday in Boston. NBC will air live coverage of the pairs free skate Saturday afternoon from 3 to 6 p.m. Eastern, as well as host a livestream of the event on NBCOlympics.com.

Denney/Coughlin worked through injury together

Geraint Thomas cuts Julian Alaphilippe’s Tour de France lead

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FOIX, France (AP) — When one French rider starts to fade, another comes to the fore. One way or the other, France may still be on course for its first Tour de France winner since 1985.

Dancing over his saddle, his mouth wide open and gasping for air, Thibaut Pinot launched a ferocious attack Sunday and profited from the first signs of weakness in the high mountains from French race leader Julian Alaphilippe to edge closer to the yellow jersey in the overall standings.

Ascending the last uphill finish in the Pyrenees with a display of power and fluidity that signaled that he’ll also be a major contender to win the Tour, Pinot gained time on all his rivals for the second consecutive day following his triumph at the famed Tourmalet mountain in the previous stage.

Heading to the second and final rest day Monday ahead of what promises to be a climactic final week in the Alps, the race is exquisitely poised. Six riders are all within 2 minutes, 14 seconds of each other at the top of the standings.

The six terrible ascents above 2,000 meters (6,500 feet) in the Alps, peppered over three mountain stages, will likely decide who will stand on top of the podium on the Champs-Elysees next Sunday.

TOUR DE FRANCE: TV Schedule | Full Standings

“The high mountains have only just begun,” said Alaphilippe. “The Alps are going to be a big mouthful.”

Surging from the mist and rain, Pinot crossed the finish line of Sunday’s Stage 15 in second place, 33 seconds behind Simon Yates, who posted a second stage win after a long solo raid, three days after his first stage victory in the southwestern mountain range.

The 29-year-old Pinot was irresistible when he made his move seven kilometers from the summit. Only Emanuel Buchmann and defending champion Geraint Thomas’ teammate Egan Bernal could follow. But Pinot accelerated again about 2 kilometers later to drop them for good.

Pinot moved to fourth place overall, 1 minute, 50 seconds behind Alaphilippe.

“The weather conditions and the stage were good for me, I had good sensations, I needed to make the most of it,” said Pinot. “I need to keep going up in the general classification, the most difficult stages are looming.”

While Pinot was escorted by his faithful Groupama-FDJ teammate David Gaudu in the final ascent toward Prat d’Albis, Alaphilippe was isolated without a single teammate to help him in the 12-kilometer climb and cracked, yet managed to salvage his yellow jersey.

Alaphilippe was so exhausted after his effort up the hill, where he grimaced through the rain, that he had to grip a roadside barrier afterward while he caught his breath.

“If I crack I hope he’ll carry the torch for the French,” Alaphilippe said about Pinot.

Thomas, who had already conceded time to Pinot at the Tourmalet, remained second in the general classification. He got dropped when Pinot took the lead from a reduced group of contenders but did not panic. He rode at his pace until he accelerated with 1.5 kilometers left to cut the overall gap on Alaphilippe from 2 minutes, 2 seconds to 1:35. Steven Kruijswijk of the Netherlands stood third overall, 1:47 off the pace.

Thomas said after the stage he could have tried to follow Pinot earlier but instead opted for a conservative approach because he did not want to bring back Alaphilippe to the front. Bernal was with Pinot and the Welshman would not take the risk of chasing down their common rival. Bernal, a Colombian with excellent climbing skills, remains involved in the fight for the yellow jersey, 2:02 behind Alaphilippe.

“I felt better than yesterday but I needed to try to pace it when it all kicked off,” Thomas said. “It’s a difficult one, tactics wise. I wanted to go, I had the legs to go but I wasn’t going to chase down Egan Bernal with Alaphilippe on my wheel.”

Coming right after the ascent of the Tourmalet, Stage 15 ran close to the ancient Cathar castles and was a punishing ride totaling more than 39 kilometers of climbing.

Alaphilippe was so exhausted after his effort up the hill, where he grimaced and dribbled through the rain, that he had to grip a roadside barrier afterward while he caught his breath.

“If I crack I hope he’ll carry the torch for the French,” Alaphilippe said about Pinot.

Yates, the Vuelta defending champion, was given a free reign by the peloton when he took part in an early breakaway as he was not a threat overall. He made his decisive move about 9 kilometers from the line.

“I’m very proud of that,” Yates said of his second victory at this Tour.

Watch world-class cycling events throughout the year with the NBC Sports Gold Cycling Pass, including all 21 stages of the Tour de France live & commercial-free, plus access to renowned races like La Vuelta, Paris-Roubaix, the UCI World Championships and many more.

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Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce turns back the clock, wins another Diamond League

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Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce continues to show she’s just as fast as before childbirth, winning a Diamond League 100m in 10.78 seconds in London on Sunday.

Fraser-Pryce, a 32-year-old, two-time Olympic champion, beat a field that included the two fastest women of 2018, Brit Dina Asher-Smith (10.92) and Ivorian Marie-Josee Ta Lou (10.98).

It lacked the only woman ranked higher than Fraser-Pryce this season, Rio Olympic champion Elaine Thompson, who edged her countrywoman at the Jamaican Championships on June 21.

But Fraser-Pryce has now broken 10.79 three times this season, her first time doing so since 2013. She could become the oldest woman to win an Olympic or world 100m title in Doha in two months.

“10.78 is a fabulous time,” she said. “My aim for Doha is definitely to be on the podium. For me, it’s a long season from here, so I am hoping my experience will come into play.”

Full London results are here. The meet lacked U.S. stars who are preparing for this week’s USATF Outdoor Championships, where world champs spots are at stake. The Diamond League resumes Aug. 18 in Birmingham, Great Britain.

Also Sunday, Kenyan Hellen Obiri won an anticipated head-to-head with Ethiopian-born Dutchwoman Sifan Hassan in the 5000m. Obiri, the world champion, clocked 14:20.36, the world’s fastest time in two years. Hassan, who nine days ago broke the mile world record, took third in a European record 14:22.12.

Swede Daniel Ståhl won a discus that included the world’s top three this year and the reigning Olympic and world gold and silver medalists. Stahl launched a 68.56-meter throw to overtake Jamaican Fedrick Dacres.

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