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

Ski jumping World Cup season kicks off in Poland

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The World Cup ski jump season opens Friday with men’s team and individual events in Wisla, Poland.

The host country had three of the top five jumpers in the overall standings last year. Defending champion Kamil Stoch placed third, Piotr Zyla was close behind in fourth, and Dawid Kubacki was fifth.

Japan’s Ryoyu Kobayashi dominated last year’s competition, finishing with 2,085 points to 1,349 for runner-up Stefan Kraft of Austria, the 2017 World Cup champion.

Kobayashi’s performance was a dramatic improvement over his previous season, when he finished no higher than sixth in any individual competition and was 24th overall. Last year, he had 15 wins and 23 podium finishes in 30 World Cup events, though he only managed fourth and 14th in the two world championship events.

The top American last season, Kevin Bickner, finished 51st overall, a drop from 39th the year before. He was 18th and 20th in the 2018 Olympic jumps.

Women’s World Cup action begins Dec. 6-8 in Lillehammer, Norway.

NBC Sports Gold will broadcast World Cup action throughout the season. This weekend, the qualifying jumps will air at noon ET Friday, the team event starts at 11:30 a.m. ET Saturday, and the individual competition is at 6 a.m. Sunday.

MORE: Full ski jumping broadcast schedule

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Snowboarding pioneer Jake Burton Carpenter dies at 65

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Jake Burton Carpenter, the pioneer who brought snowboarding to the masses and helped turn the sport into a billion-dollar business and Olympic showpiece, has died at 65.

He died Wednesday night in Burlington, Vermont, according to an email sent to the staff of the company he founded. Carpenter had emailed his staff this month saying, “You will not believe this, but my cancer has come back.” He had been diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2011 but after several months of therapy had been given a clean bill of health.

Carpenter quit his job in New York in 1977 to form the company now known simply as Burton. His goal was to advance the rudimentary snowboard, then called a “Snurfer,” which had been invented by Sherman Poppen a dozen years earlier.

It worked, and more than four decades later, snowboarding is a major fixture at the Winter Games and snowboards are as common as skis at resorts across the globe.

“He was our founder, the soul of snowboarding, the one who gave us the sport we all love so much,” Burton co-CEO John Lacy said in his email to the staff.

It is virtually impossible to avoid the name “Burton” once the snow starts falling at any given mountain around the world these days. The name is plastered on the bottoms of snowboards, embroidered on jackets, stenciled into bindings.

At a bar in Pyeongchang, South Korea, not far from where snowboarding celebrated its 20th anniversary at the Olympics last year, there was a wall filled with Burton pictures and memorabilia — as sure a sign as any of the global reach of a company founded in his garage in Londonderry, Vermont.

The company sponsored pretty much every top rider at one time or another — from Shaun White to Kelly Clark to Chloe Kim.

Carpenter watched all his champions win their Olympic golds from near the finish line, never afraid to grind away in the mosh pit of snowboarders and snowboarding fans that he helped create.

In an interview in 2010, he said he was happy with how far his sport had come, and comfortable with where it was going.

“I had a vision there was a sport there, that it was more than just a sledding thing, which is all it was then,” Burton said. “We’re doing something that’s going to last here. It’s not like just hitting the lottery one day.”

Lacy said details about the celebration of Burton’s life would be coming soon but, for now, “I’d encourage everyone to do what Jake would be doing tomorrow, and that’s riding. It’s opening day at Stowe, so consider taking some turns together, in celebration of Jake.”

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