Meryl Davis & Charlie White, Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir, an ice dance preview

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SOCHI, Russia – American ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White already have Olympic bronze (from this year’s team event) and silver (from the 2010 Vancouver Games) medals, and Sunday they set out for the missing – golden – piece at the Sochi Games.

But standing in their way are 2010 Olympic champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the Canadians who share a coach and train alongside Davis/White, making their Olympic showdown one of the most anticipated match-ups of these Games.

RELATED: Davis/White vs. Virtue/Moir rivalry breakdown

After splitting the first two World Championships crowns following the Vancouver Games, Davis/White have seemed to inch ahead of Virtue/Moir, not losing in nearly two years, coming in as reigning world champions and easily taking the ice dance portion of the team event last week.

While the battle for the gold medal promises to be fierce and dramatic, so too will the ensuing fight for the bronze in the ice dance event inside Iceberg Skating Palace, which gets underway on Sunday and concludes Monday night.

Rivalry Renewed
After not competing against one another for nearly a year, Davis/White and Virtue/Moir have battled twice in the last 10 weeks, though the outcomes have been vastly different score-wise. At the Grand Prix Final in December, the Americans barely edged out their foes, setting a world record en route to their record 16th Grand Prix gold medal.

But last week in the new Olympic team event, Davis/White won going away thanks to errors in both the short and free dances from Virtue/Moir, winning by a margin of 10 points.

“We were very proud of the way that we skated in the team event,” White told reporters at a press conference Thursday. “The perfectionists that we are, we’re looking forward to putting out performances that can top what we did in the team event.”

Davis/White have often been called America’s “most assured gold” of these Games, though the skaters disagree with that.

“The great thing about ice dancing right now is that it’s a true sport,” White said. “It’s very competitive; there is a lot of great talent that can rise to the top. You have to skate great if you want to go out and win, and that goes for every team. All we can do is worry about going out and skating our best. There’s no shoo-in.”

The American duo – as well as the Canadians – has skated together since they were kids. Davis/White say they have no issue with being the favorites.

“We’ve worked hard to earn that right,” said Davis, who is a year older than White at 27. “We’ve worked hard to be in the place that we are in now. We wouldn’t have put in all that work to get there if it wasn’t where we wanted to be. We feel like we’re in a great spot.”

American Prospects
The American ice dance team as a whole is in a great spot after years of not being part of the international conversation. Madison Chock and Evan Bates said they were inspired by compatriots Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto’s silver medal at the 2006 Games. Only a duo since 2011, Chock/Bates were seventh at the World Championships last year and have two U.S. silvers behind Davis/White at Nationals.

Siblings Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani round out the American ice dance effort, having won bronze at the World Championships in 2011. The Shibutanis skate to a Michael Jackson medley for their free dance, a program that has been a crowd favorite this season.

The Battle for Bronze
While Davis/White and Virtue/Moir are expected to fight it out for the top of the podium just as they did in Vancouver, the battle for bronze should be equally as fierce, led by two teams that have won World Championships third-place finishes over the last two years.

Russians Yekaterina Bobrova and Dmitry Soloviyev are four-time reigning national champions and skated to third place in the team short dance segment, ahead of French veterans Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat, a team that has two European Championships to its name – in 2011 and 2012 – as well as the 2012 World Championships bronze.

Also to watch? Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte, the Italians who won their first European Championships gold last month in Budapest. Virtue/Moir’s teammates Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje were fifth at the World Championships a year ago, but are getting on the ice for the first time in Sochi Sunday night. A second Russian team, Yelena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov, could factor in, as well, having skated to a third-place finish in the free dance of the team event.

The Russians will have home-ice advantage and an eager crowd after it was silenced during the men’s singles event when sole Russian entrant Yevgeny Plushenko pulled out with an injury prior to its start.

Bobrova/Soloviyev and Ilinykh/Katsalopv both have the experience of skating on the Iceberg ice in the team event and – as we saw in the team and pairs event – the crowd can certainly play a role in buoying the Russian skaters.

Closing Thoughts

Do Davis/White expect to win gold after their two years of unrivaled success?

“It’s not something we really think about,” White said. “If that moment comes then maybe we can enjoy it. Right now we want to put out a memorable performance. That’s what we’ve been preparing for our whole season in practice. We’re not preparing to win a gold medal, but instead to do something on the ice that we’re proud of and can remember forever.”

10 takeaways from the U.S. Figure Skating Championships

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GREENSBORO, N.C. — Here, the NBC Sports figure skating contributors reflect on the standout moments of the 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Nathan Chen and Alysa Liu of course come to mind, though there were plenty of other moments to remark upon along the way. 

Women

1. Alysa Liu proved that she could do it again. She validated her insistence that there was no more pressure in successfully defending a title compared to winning her first title. 

Plus, the amusement of seeing the 4-foot-10 14-year-old needing help ascending the top step of the awards podium doesn’t get old either. Mariah Bell and Bradie Tennell helped hoist her for the second year in a row. Liu next competes at world juniors, where she will take on a formidable pair of Russian “K’s”: Kamila Valieva and Ksenia Sinitsyna, both of whom outscored her on the Junior Grand Prix circuit. To win the crown, Liu may need a fully rotated quadruple Lutz, something that eluded her in Greensboro.

2. Speaking of Bell, she comes out of the championships with her already-improving confidence another notch higher after the free skate of her life and her best nationals finish ever, a silver medal. In tears before she even hit her final pose, she deservedly got an overwhelming standing ovation.

When asked how she felt about being the No. 1 senior U.S. woman, she said, “It’s a very special feeling. I haven’t had that before in my career, so that was awesome. The coolest thing about it was how into it the crowd was.” 

Now, let the calculations begin: can Bell and Tennell gain three U.S. women’s spots for next season’s world championships? To do so, the sum of their placements at the 2020 World Figure Skating Championships cannot be greater than 13 (for example, sixth and seventh).

3. Rounding out the memorable moments of the women’s event were the returns of Olympians Karen Chen and Gracie Gold. Chen, the 2017 national champion, missed the entirety of last season with a right foot stress fracture, and now is a freshman at Cornell. She finished fourth, and gained an assignment at the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships early next month. With her competitive juices flowing again, Chen told reporters she was considering taking a gap year from college.

Two-time U.S. champion Gold, of course, triumphed simply by qualifying for her first national championships since 2017 after time away from the sport for treatment for depression, anxiety and an eating disorder. After a mediocre short program, Gold did a respectable free skate, and the crowd gave her a standing ovation, an emotional reward that left her with grateful tears. It moved Gold, who finished 12th, to vow she would continue her comeback for at least another season.

Men

4. Nathan Chen’s fourth straight U.S. title puts him in the company of five men since World War II, all of whom won Olympic gold medals, with Brian Boitano (85-88) the most recent. Chen, a Yale sophomore, was the first to do it in the IJS and quadruple jump eras (he went six-for-six in quads in the two programs), and the fourth came after a case of the flu bad enough he could practice only intermittently the first two weeks of January. “I don’t know anybody who could recover and do what he did after that sickness,” coach Rafael Arutunian said of Chen.

5. Tomoki Hiwatashi’s continued improvement: two clean programs with three clean quads for the bronze medal. His showmanship, including Russian split jumps, are to die for. Last season, Hiwatashi finished a surprise fourth at nationals but had disappointing 10th and fifth places in his debut competitions on the senior Grand Prix debut. The 2019 world junior champion has put himself into the mix for a 2022 Olympic team spot — if he can improve his consistency. 

6. Except for that pesky quad, Jason Brown put it all together at nationals for the first time since 2014. If he can execute all the elements as brilliantly as he did in Greensboro, a clean quad might put him in bronze medal contention at the 2020 World Championships, given the consistent inconsistency of all the top men after Chen and Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu.

7. In the past month, Vincent Zhou turned his life inside out, taking a leave from Brown University to focus on skating after completing the first semester of his freshman year and switching coaches to Lee Barkell and Lori Nichol in Toronto. Despite that upheaval and little intense training, the reigning world bronze medalist and 2019 U.S. silver medalist had two solid performances to finish fourth, strategically limiting his quads to one in each program. Although Zhou had skipped the Grand Prix season, his choice as a world team member over Hiwatashi was totally justified under the selection criteria in use.

Ice dance

8. Madison Chock and Evan Bates made ice dance — and figure skating — history when they became the first U.S. skater, couple or pair team to go five years between national titles since the 1920s. They topped two duos they train with, Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue, and Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, to win their first title since 2015, also won in Greensboro. Their widely acclaimed slithering “Snake Charmer” free dance likely sets them up to glide to the world championship podium, but another showdown with Hubbell and Donohue awaits at Four Continents.

Pairs

9. Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson had a breakthrough moment in the pairs’ event with one of the most memorable free skates in the last 20 years. Calalang’s joyous disbelief was palpable when she and Johnson got their score (146.01, the highest ever at nationals) for a program that had the crowd out of its seats before it even ended

“In my head, I’m like, ‘We got 119 at Skate Canada. We got 120-something at Warsaw.’ So, I was like, ‘Okay, we did both jumps… maybe 130,” she said, recalling her mental play-by-play. “Then it’s 140. Ohmigod, I’ve never dreamed of getting this score. I didn’t think it was possible.” 

Added Johnson: “No one can take that moment away from us.” 

Especially poignant words as Calalang and Johnson were passed over in favor of Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc for the world championships teams. Calalang and Johnson are slated to participate at Four Continents, where they can continue to build a body of work that will impress U.S. Figure Skating’s International Selection Committee next time around.

10. Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim won their third U.S. pair title in Greensboro, joining such company as John Zimmerman and Kyoko Ina, Jenni Meno and Todd Sand, and Jill Watson and Peter Oppegard. The couple skated a clean and memorable short program to “At Last,” including side-by-side triple toe loops. In the free skate, though, Knierim fell on his triple toe and the skaters doubled their planned triple Salchows. Despite their superior triple twist and lifts, in order to crack the top five in the world, Scimeca Knierim and Knierim need to get consistent on their jumps, and the California-based skaters are working with Arutunian to do so.

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U.S. FIGURE SKATING CHAMPIONSHIPS: Full Results | Women’s | Ice dance | Pairs | Men’s | Worlds roster

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

China’s first Winter X Games postponed due to coronavirus

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A Winter X Games competition due to be held in Chongli, China, next month has been postponed due to the outbreak of the coronavirus in China.

“Due to the ongoing coronavirus concerns, the X Games Chongli 2020 event will be postponed until a later date,” organizers announced via Twitter. “The safety of our athletes, staff and spectators is our top priority, and we will continue to closely monitor the situation.”

The competition would have been the first Winter X Games held in China. Shanghai has hosted many X Games in the summer, including a event last June.

As with an Alpine skiing World Cup event that was canceled Wednesday, the X Games were due to take place at a 2022 Olympic venue, Chongli’s Secret Garden ski report. The venue hosted a World Cup snowboard event in December.

READ: First Alpine World Cup in China canceled

Several of the most decorated X Games and Olympic athletes, including two-time Olympic snowboard slopestyle champion Jamie Anderson, were scheduled to compete in China.

The coronavirus outbreak has also affected qualifiers for the 2020 Olympics, with boxing and women’s soccer tournaments moved from Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak. Asia-Oceania boxing qualifiers will be held March 3-11 in Amman, Jordan, with coverage on the Olympic Channel. The women’s soccer qualifiers, including traditional power China and a strong Australian team, were originally moved to Nanjing but then moved to Sydney, Australia.

China’s team has arrived in Australia but is under quarantine, putting the start of the qualifiers in doubt.

Aspen hosted the biggest X Games competition of the winter last week. Another X Games is scheduled for March 7-8 in Norway.

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