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Tara Lipinski, Johnny Weir preview Grand Prix Final women’s, ice dance events

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Every woman in the Grand Prix Final field has lost this season, and with the reigning World champion not even making the six-skater event, the competition is one of the most open in recent memory.

U.S. Olympians Gracie Gold and Ashley Wagner will look to break up recent Russian and Japanese dominance in Barcelona this week.

Mao Asada, the most decorated in the exclusive field, will try to become the first singles skater to win five Grand Prix Final titles, a full decade after her first crown.

Icenetwork.com will provide live coverage of all Grand Prix Final programs for subscribers. NBC will air coverage Dec. 20 from 4-6 p.m. ET.

Here’s the schedule:

Thursday
Pairs short program — 2:30 p.m. ET
Men’s short program — 3:55 p.m. ET

Friday
Short dance — 1:05 p.m. ET
Pairs free skate — 2:20 p.m. ET
Women’s short program — 3:55 p.m. ET

Saturday
Free dance — 11:25 p.m. ET
Women’s free skate — 1:45 p.m. ET
Men’s free skate — 3 p.m. ET

Here are women’s and ice dance previews with thoughts from NBC Olympics analysts Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir:

Women’s Field (Best Grand Prix qualifying total score)
Yelena Radionova (211.32) — World bronze medalist
Yevgenia Medvedeva (206.76) — World junior champion
Satoko Miyahara (203.11) — World silver medalist
Gracie Gold (202.80) — Olympics, Worlds fourth-place finisher
Ashley Wagner (202.52) — Grand Prix Final bronze medalist
Mao Asada (197.48) — Three-time World champion

Preview
Last season’s Grand Prix Final and World champion, Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, struggled this fall and failed to qualify. That coupled with the fact that no women won both of their Grand Prix series events for the first time since 2006 gives everyone in the field a shot at gold.

Medvedeva and Radionova, two Russians born in 1999 who combined to win the last three World junior titles, may be the most reliable.

Gold, the top qualifier into this event, has six times finished between fourth and sixth in individual standings at the Olympics, Worlds and Four Continents Championships. A medal in her first Grand Prix Final would be a breakthrough.

Wagner, who won Skate Canada in October but finished fourth at NHK Trophy two weeks ago, has already been there, finishing second or third at each of the last three Grand Prix Finals. Another top-three would break her consecutive-podiums tie with Michelle Kwan for the American record.

Then there’s Asada, who won her first Grand Prix Final title in 2005 at age 15. The Japanese icon is shaking off rust after taking the 2014-15 season off. She won the Cup of China in October and then took third at NHK Trophy.

Lipinski’s Take
“If [Asada] skates fairly clean, it’s a shoo-in for her, especially if she lands the triple Axel. Mentally, she’s so far ahead of where these other skaters are at just because she’s gone to two Olympics and been up against the best in the world, someone like Yuna Kim. I think she has the wisdom and this calmness on the ice and this feeling of comfort that she gives to the audience and to the judges that pretty much no other skater out there can do.”

“Yevgenia has been my favorite new surprise of the season. We are used to all these new Russians, new little teenagers popping up … you wonder if Yevgenia can sustain this type of skating the next few years before [the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympics], but it’s exciting to watch because she’s so tough. I can feel that when she takes the ice. She has this steely look in her eyes. … As much as I think Mao will have it in the bag if she skates clean, I think Yevgenia is possibly the person who can bring home the gold.”

“[Gold] has always technically been so good that there’s no doubt in my mind she can win any event that she enters, but this is the first year that I actually sense a new Gracie, a Gracie that’s much more comfortable in her skin, much more comfortable in a competition setting. … But she does struggle getting two great skates out there [in one competition]. At the final, there’s no room, especially in the short program, to bury yourself.”

“Ashley, obviously her last event didn’t go so well, but you can’t really base anything on track record when it comes to her just because she’s feisty. Yeah, she’ll have a bad competition, but she’ll come out the next one guns blazing and nail it. … Ashley really brings a performance value that a lot of the other girls don’t have. Yes, you have to hit the jumps, but when you sell a program like Ashley does, that makes a huge difference.”

Weir’s Take
“The ladies are super interesting. For all this talk about the Russian teenagers, they didn’t really fare that well in the Grand Prix [season]. My personal favorite is Yevgenia Medvedeva, the Skate America champion and a barely silver medalist at Grand Prix Russia. She is, to me, the brightest star that Russia has produced. I love [Yulia] Lipnitskaya, I love Radionova, I love the other Russian ballerinas, but for me, Yevgenia, she has the whole package. She can spin. I actually feel her when she’s skating. The jumps are impeccable. For me, she’s my favorite. But Gracie Gold and Ashley Wagner, both in the Final, very exciting for the U.S. Gracie has been skating wonderfully in the Grand Prix series. I definitely think it’s going to come down to Medvedeva, Gracie Gold and probably Yelena Radionova.”

MORE: Gracie Gold reflects on being in France during Paris attacks

Ice Dance Field
Kaitlyn Weaver/Andrew Poje — Canada
Madison Chock/Evan Bates — U.S.
Anna Cappellini/Luca Lanotte — Italy
Maia Shibutani/Alex Shibutani — U.S.
Madison Hubbell/Zachary Donohue — U.S.
Yekaterina Bobrova/Dmitry Soloviyev — Russia

Preview
The U.S. put three ice dance teams into a Grand Prix Final for the first time, an impressive feat bolstered by the fact that the first U.S. Olympic ice dance champions, Meryl Davis and Charlie White, are not competing this season.

All three qualified U.S. dance teams won one of the six Grand Prix series events this fall and made the podium in their other Grand Prix starts.

The most decorated of the trio are Chock and Bates, who took silver at last season’s Worlds and Grand Prix Final. The Shibutani siblings’ top international finish was a bronze medal at the 2011 Worlds. Hubbell and Donohue qualified for their first Grand Prix Final.

But any predictions must begin with Weaver and Poje, who have won five straight Grand Prix series titles, including last season’s Grand Prix Final. The Canadians were upset at last season’s World Championships by the French couple of Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, who sat out this Grand Prix season due to Papadakis’ concussion.

Lipinski’s Take
“I’m excited to see Kaitlyn and Andrew against Madison and Evan because their styles are so different. I flip-flop back and forth as to which one is going to perform better. … Kaitlyn just steals the show for me when she’s out there, and I feel like Andrew is the perfect frame for their picture, strong and solid. It just lets her emotionally bring it home. … The storytelling on Madison and Evan’s part is what grabs me. It’s not this chemistry-filled, powerful skating that you get from Kaitlyn and Andrew, but it’s this beautiful, classical style that’s very unique to them.”

Weir’s Take
“Three American teams is really impressive. My personal favorite, Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, I think they bring something so special to the ice. They’re really in tune with their emotions. Nothing seems forced or fake to me with them. That’s what I like to see in my dancers. But you’ve got Cappellini and Lanotte, who are another favorite of mine going back to their very Italian, rich, sophisticated style, and I like that, too. But of course you’ve got the [2014 Grand Prix Final] gold and silver medalists coming to the competition as well in Weaver/Poje and Chock/Bates. But my personal favorites are the Italians and Hubbell/Donohue.”

MORE: Ashley Wagner eyes history at Grand Prix Final after ‘disaster’ in Japan

Katie Ledecky swims fastest at U.S. Open from B final

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For what must have been the first time in seven years, Katie Ledecky failed to qualify for an A final in one of her primary events on Friday morning. No matter, she swam the fastest 200m freestyle at the U.S. Open from the B final at night.

Ledecky, owner of 20 combined Olympic and world titles, clocked 1:56.24 to win the B final by nearly three seconds in Atlanta. In the very next race, American record holder Allison Schmitt touched first in the A final in 1:56.47.

Full results are here. The final day of the meet airs live on Saturday at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app.

Ledecky has rarely lost domestically in freestyles from 200m through 1500m since she made her first Olympic team at age 15 in 2012.

She kept the streak intact, giving her a sweep of the 200m, 400m and 800m frees in the first three days of the U.S. Open, what could be the deepest domestic meet before the Olympic trials in June.

Internationally, Ledecky faced challengers in the 200m free in this Olympic cycle, unlike the last one. Italian veteran and world-record holder Federica Pellegrini won the last two world titles, with Ledecky missing the event this summer due to her mid-meet illness.

Ledecky ranks seventh in the world in the 200m free this year but likely would have been faster if she was able to race at her best at world champs.

Domestically, Simone Manuel has crept up, clocking 1:56.09 to lead off the 4x200m free relay at worlds to rank second among Americans in 2019. Manuel was the third-fastest American on Friday, recording 1:57.21, her fastest time ever outside of a major summer meet.

In other events Friday, Phoebe Bacon upset world-record holder Regan Smith in the 100m backstroke. Bacon, who like Smith is 17 years old, overtook Smith in the last 25 meters and prevailed by .05 in 58.63. Bacon, while shy of Smith’s world record 57.57, took .39 off her personal best to become the fifth-fastest in the world this year.

Olympic and world champion Lilly King dominated the 100m breaststroke, beating a strong field by .62 of a second in 1:05.65.

Chase Kalisz won a potential Olympic trials preview in the 400m individual medley in 4:13.07. Kalisz, the Rio silver medalist, held off 18-year-old Carson Foster by 1.69 seconds. Ryan Lochte, the 2012 Olympic champion in the event, was fifth, 6.65 seconds behind.

Rio Olympian Townley Haas won the men’s 200m free in 1:45.92, his fastest time since August 2018. Haas, the 2017 World silver medalist, improved to the second-fastest American in the event this year behind Andrew Seliskar.

Torri Huske won the 100m butterfly on the eve of her 17th birthday. Huske clocked 57.48, taking .23 off her personal best to move from sixth fastest to third fastest in the U.S. this year.

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Ester Ledecka stuns again, wins World Cup downhill from bib No. 26

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Consider 26 a lucky number for Ester Ledecka.

Ledecka, the snowboard champion who stunningly captured the PyeongChang Olympic super-G from bib No. 26, won her first World Cup ski race on Friday — also from bib No. 26.

Ledecka was fastest in a downhill at Lake Louise, Alberta.

She kept Swiss Corinne Suter from her first World Cup win by .35 of a second. Austrian Stephanie Venier was third. Mikaela Shiffrin was 10th in her weakest discipline. Full results are here.

“I am for sure more shocked than everybody here,” Ledecka said. “I was a little bit, not disappointed about the run, but I was not super satisfied. Then I was really surprised about the time.”

Ledecka, an Olympic and world champion in Alpine snowboarding from the Czech Republic, had a previous best Alpine skiing World Cup finish of seventh. The top-ranked racers all go in the top 20 of the start list.

Last season, Ledecka raced more World Cup skiing events than snowboarding events for the first time. She was forced to choose between world championships in skiing and in snowboarding due to schedules and picked the former with a top finish of 15th.

She’s undecided about her upcoming schedule. She could continue on the Alpine skiing tour with a super-G in Switzerland next weekend, or she could fly to Italy for a snowboarding event.

The women race another downhill and a super-G in Lake Louise the next two days. A full TV and live stream schedule for the weekend races is here.

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