Worlds preview: Ice dance teams look to fill void left by Davis/White, Virtue/Moir

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Ice dancing will crown new world champions this coming weekend at the World Figure Skating Championships in Saitama, Japan, for the first time since 2011.

The discipline that has been dominated by two teams since before the Vancouver Games will be without both of those duos, Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White as well as Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir sitting out the competition to assess their respective futures.

So who will step up? That remains to be seen.

Yelena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov were the breakthrough ice dancing stars at the Sochi Games last month, the Russians winning their first medal on the world stage with a bronze at the Olympics.

More: Full Worlds schedule and streaming times | Entry list

They headline a field that includes a mix of veterans and up-and-comers.

The U.S., without the experienced team of Davis/White, will look to Madison Chock and Evan Bates (eighth in Sochi) and Maia and Alex Shibutani (ninth) for solid results. A third team, Alexa Aldridge and Daniel Eaton, will also compete.

“Our Olympic experience both on the ice and off the ice was a culmination of a ten-year chapter in our lives,” Alex Shibutani said in a phone interview with NBCSports.com last week. “It was difficult to come back and corral that energy at first, but we felt that our skating at the Olympics was really strong. We’ve been training really, really well the last few weeks.”

To maintain the three spots at the World Championships in 2015, Chock/Bates and the Shibutanis will need to combine for 13th overall. (Aldridge/Eaton are not considered to factor into that equation.)

“We never really go into a competition seeking placement or put too much emphasis on where we want to be,” Alex noted. “We just want to skate the best we have all year.”

The field is wide open without the top two teams. French veterans Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat will look to recapture their bronze medal from Worlds in 2012. Pechalat/Bourzat were fourth in Sochi and have said this will be their final competition.

The field also includes Yekaterina Bobrova and Dimitry Soloviyev of Russia (fifth in Sochi), Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte (sixth) and Canadians Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje.

Other than Pechalat/Bourzat, Bobrova/Soloviyev and the Shibutanis are the only teams to have won a medal at Worlds in the past, the Russians taking bronze last year and the Americans doing so in 2011.

“We’re in such a good place going into this Worlds,” Maia said. “We feel like we’ve reached a whole other level since Sochi, which is really exciting for us.”

More: World Figure Skating Championships men’s preview | Pairs preview

The Shibutanis train at the same rink as Davis/White and Virtue/Moir under the tutelage of coach Marina Zoueva. The Shibutanis said Zoueva’s focus has been solely on them since returning from Russia, a welcomed change in their routine. Davis/White are participating in “Dancing With the Stars” this season.

But what will Worlds be like without their team leaders and the Olympic champions?

“We’ve traveled with Meryl and Charlie more than any other team, so we have a very close relationship with them,” said the Michigan-based Alex. “There was always a great dynamic for us training with the top two teams in the world over the past six years because the skating level was so high.”

Without the home crowd to boost them, it could be a race to gold for the Russian teams of Ilinykh/Katsalapov and Bobrova/Soloviyev, with Pechalat/Bourzat and Cappellini/Lanotte nipping at their skates. Cappellini/Lanotte won the European Championships in January.

Yet a “favorite” stamp should go to Ilinykh/Katsalapov, whose dark interpretation of “Swan Lake” brought the house down in Sochi and could bring them gold in Saitama.

Icenetwork.com will provide live coverage for subscribers. The short dance is set for Thursday night (9:50 p.m. ET) and the free dance will take place Friday (11:30 p.m. ET). NBC will air a World Championships recap show April 13 from 3-6 p.m. ET.

More: Davis/White appear on ‘Ellen’ to talk ‘DWTS,’ 2018

Cyclist in induced coma after Tour of Poland crash

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Dutch cyclist Fabio Jakobsen was put into an induced coma Wednesday after suffering injuries in a crash on the final stretch of the Tour of Poland, organizers said.

A massive crash at the finish of the first stage resulted in Dylan Groenewegen‘s disqualification from the race.

Leading a bunch sprint, Groenewegen veered toward the right barrier, pinching countryman Jakobsen, who barreled into the barrier meters from the finish line.

Jakobsen went head over heels, his bike went airborne and the barriers exploded onto the road, causing more cyclists to crash.

Jakobsen was airlifted to a hospital in serious condition and was put into an induced coma, the Tour de Pologne press office said.

Groenewegen crossed the finish line first but was disqualified, giving Jakobsen the stage win, according to the stage race website.

Groenewegen, a 27-year-old Jumbo-Visma rider, owns four Tour de France stage wins among the last three years.

The International Cycling Union (UCI) “strongly condemned” Groenewegen’s “dangerous” and “unacceptable” behavior. It referred Groenewegen’s actions to a disciplinary commission for possible sanctions.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Figure skating Grand Prix Series will be held as ‘domestic’ competitions

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Figure skating’s Grand Prix Series will go ahead as scheduled this fall, with modifications due to the coronavirus pandemic, the International Skating Union decided Monday.

Each of the series’ six tops around the globe will be “a domestic run event,” limited to skaters of the event’s host country, who regularly train in the host country and from a respective geographical area. The number of disciplines and skaters at each event are to be worked out.

The Grand Prix Series, held annually since 1995, is a six-event fall season, qualifying the top six skaters and teams per discipline to December’s Grand Prix Final. The annual stops are in the U.S., Canada, China, France, Russia and Japan, leading up to the Final, which is held at a different site each year.

The Final is the second-biggest annual competition after the world championships, which are typically in late March. The Final is still scheduled for Beijing, though whether or when it can be held will be discussed.

The series begins in late October with Skate America, which debuted in 1979 and has been held every year since 1988 as the biggest annual international competition in the U.S. Skate America’s site is Las Vegas, just as it was in 2019.

Skaters typically compete twice on the Grand Prix Series (three times if they qualify for the Final). ISU vice president Alexander Lakernik said skaters will be limited to one start in the six-event series before the Final, according to a Russian media quote confirmed by Phil Hersh.

The ISU has not confirmed or denied Lakernik’s assertion.

Most, if not all, top-level U.S. skaters train in the U.S. or Canada. That makes the first two Grand Prix stops — Skate America and Skate Canada — likely destinations. Grand Prix assignments have not been published.

“I appreciate the ISU is open to adapting competitive formats and is working to give athletes opportunities to compete,” Evan Bates, a U.S. ice dance champion with Madison Chock who trains in Montreal, wrote in a text message to Hersh. “This announcement gives reassurance that the ISU is doing their best to ensure a season will still take place. Of course, it’s hard to predict what will happen, and we’re not sure about what country we would compete in. It would probably depend on what the quarantine rules are at that time.”

The January 2021 U.S. Championships are scheduled for San Jose, Calif. The March 2021 World Championships are set for Stockholm.

In July, the ISU canceled the Junior Grand Prix Series for skaters mostly ages 13 to 18, including two-time U.S. champion Alysa Liu, who cannot enter the senior Grand Prix until 2021.

Other early season senior international competitions scheduled for September were also canceled or postponed.

U.S. Figure Skating said in a statement that it will have more details on the Grand Prix Series in the coming weeks after collaborating with an ISU-appointed group.

“This is a great example of the figure skating community coming together to ensure that the world’s premier figure skating series will continue during these challenging times,” the statement read. “Figure skaters want to compete and figure skating fans from all around the world want to see their favorite athletes skate, and this format will ensure just that.”

MORE: World’s top skater leaves famed coach

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