Maia, Alex Shibutani
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Maia, Alex Shibutani can bring ice dance title back to U.S.; Worlds preview

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BOSTON — The best U.S. hope for a World Figure Skating Championships medal this week comes in ice dance, and Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir believe it could be gold.

Madison Chock and Evan Bates have been the strongest U.S. figure skaters across all disciplines internationally the last two seasons, with Olympic champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White sitting out competition since Sochi.

Chock and Bates improved from eighth at the Sochi Olympics to fifth at the March 2014 World Championships to earn silver at the 2015 Worlds. They also earned silver medals at the last two Grand Prix Finals, the most prestigious annual competition outside of Worlds.

But another U.S. couple has been better the last two months — siblings Maia and Alex Shibutani. The Shibutanis upset Chock and Bates for their first U.S. title in January and then did so again at the Four Continents Championships in February.

“Since then, everything in our skating has just gotten better,” Maia said last week. “We’re stronger than we’ve ever been before.”

Before this year, the Shibutanis hadn’t outscored Chock and Bates since the 2012 U.S. Championships.

“Last season there was a big stretch of land between the two [couples],” said Weir, an NBC Olympics analyst and two-time Olympian. “It’s pretty unpredictable.”

That said, Weir believes the Shibutanis could be the biggest beneficiary of home-ice advantage in Boston, where their parents met as Harvard musicians and the older Alex was born during Larry Bird‘s final season with the Celtics.

“Ice dancing really is somewhat of a different beast than the rest of the disciplines in skating,” Weir said. “A lot of it has to do with opinion because so many of the top teams are so evenly matched on the technical side.”

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The Shibutanis’ free dance is set to Coldplay, which will be familiar music to many at TD Garden. The group’s tour manager saw the siblings’ performance from the U.S. Championships and invited Maia and Alex to a July 30 tour stop in Foxborough, Mass.

The Shibutanis earned Worlds bronze in their first senior season in 2011, when Maia was 16, but haven’t been better than fifth since and were ninth at the Sochi Olympics.

Now in their 12th season together, the 24-year-old Alex attributed the revival to entering the “the adult phase” of their careers.

“This is the perfect storm for the Shibs,” Lipinski said. “They have a connection to Boston. They’re skating to this magical Coldplay free dance, which is getting raves, which will only heighten the anticipation in the arena. With an audience backing you, there’s no greater setup for you to sweep in and win the gold medal.”

Weir agreed.

“And I think also that the politics of figure skating, a lot of people are going to want to see an American World champion at an American World Championships,” he said.

The Shibutanis hope to become the first siblings to win a World title in pairs or ice dance in 25 years.

“Simply being a brother and sister and skating together really limits the things they’re able to do successfully artistically, but I think that their programs this year are so strong,” Weir said.

But reputation means plenty in figure skating, especially in ice dance. The 2014 World champions from Italy, 2015 World champions from France and the 2014 and 2015 Grand Prix Final champions from Canada are all coming to Boston.

France’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron stunned Chock and Bates in the free dance last year, overtaking the U.S. short-program leaders to become the youngest World champions in ice dance in 40 years.

“It was really the first time in recent history that I saw that the judging of ice dance really did reward the best performance,” Weir said. “It wasn’t necessarily who had the best track record or who had the best coaches or if you’re coming from the right country.”

Papadakis suffered a concussion in an August practice fall, but they returned to win the French Nationals in December and the European Championships in January, again coming from behind in the free dance at Europeans.

“My gut is saying the French will still come out on top,” Lipinski said, “but I feel like this is the Shibs’ year.”

Here are Lipinski and Weir’s medal predictions from last week:

Lipinski
Gold: Papadakis/Cizeron (FRA)
Silver: Shibutani/Shibutani (USA)
Bronze: Chock/Bates (USA) or Weaver/Poje (CAN)

Weir
Gold: Shibutani/Shibutani (USA)*
Silver: Papadakis/Cizeron (FRA)
Bronze: Chock/Bates (USA)

*”Handicap-wise, it’s probably Papadakis/Cizeron, but it’s figure skating and anything can change in the moment when the scores come up. I think that [the Shibutanis] are capable of creating that moment.”

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A 1983 world champion will become the oldest Olympic table tennis player ever

Ni Xia Lian
European Table Tennis Union
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Ni Xia Lian, a 55-year-old, Chinese-born table tennis player for Luxembourg, is set to become the oldest Olympian ever in her sport.

Ni earned Luxembourg a quota spot at the 2020 Tokyo Games by bagging bronze at the European Championships on Wednesday. Ni will fill that spot and compete at her fifth Games next summer, according to Luxembourg’s table tennis federation.

Ni’s first senior medal at a global competition came with China at the world team championships in 1983.

Ni moved to Luxembourg in the 1990s, running a hotel with her husband. She kept competing, with a five-year break between 2002 and 2007, and set a record in 2017 for the longest table-tennis match at 1 hour 33 minutes.

She would already be the oldest Olympic table tennis player if not for He Zhiwen, who was born in China and competed for Spain with the nickname Juanito at the 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016 Olympics. He retired after Rio at age 54, according to the International Table Tennis Federation.

Ni will be 57 next summer, older than any previous female Olympians outside of archery, equestrian, shooting and art competitions, according to the OlyMADMen. Her best Olympic finish was ninth in Sydney in 2000.

Chinese-born players represent many countries in table tennis, including European Games gold and silver medalists, Fu Yu of Portugal and Han Ying of Germany.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Phil Dalhausser, tempted by retirement, partner switch, forges to final Olympics

Phil Dalhausser, Nick Lucena
AVP
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At one point last summer, Nick Lucena made an unusual move for an Olympic beach volleyball player. He suggested to his partner, 2008 Olympic gold medalist Phil Dalhausser, the best American for the last decade, that Dalhausser might be happier playing with somebody else.

“I thought, man, Phil’s not enjoying this, he wants to retire,” said Lucena, who at the time was sidelined by a minor injury. “The last thing I want to do is slow you down. I was like, if he’s going out, it’s not going to be on my account.”

Lucena even offered a replacement: the up-and-coming Taylor Crabb, who at 27 is 12 years younger than both Lucena and Dalhausser, Floridians who paired at the Rio Olympics (lost in the quarterfinals), for the last four years and to start their careers from 2003-05.

“Taylor is a special player,” Lucena said. “Them together, I thought they’d be a special team.”

Dalhausser agreed to an extent. Crabb is the best defender in the world, he said. But Dalhausser, the bald, 6-foot-9 blocker known as the “Thin Beast,” waved off Lucena’s humility.

“If I were to rate a defender one through 10, Taylor being a 10, say Nick is a nine,” Dalhausser said earlier this month. “But we’re buddies. We get along. We’ve been friends for 20 years. That just adds a point value to him, so now he’s a 10.”

Crabb, based in California, sensed from afar that Dalhausser might be interested in a change last year. So, he called him.

“I’d be crazy not to ask Phil or for us to talk,” said Crabb, in his third season with three-time Olympian Jake Gibb. “We had talked a little bit, but at the end of the day … “

Crabb cut his answer short in a Midtown Manhattan hotel breakfast booth as Lucena walked by.

Even though they didn’t split, Lucena worried that Dalhausser’s heart was not in the sport anymore. Dalhausser isn’t one to show emotion on the sand, but it was clear that 15 years traveling the world took its toll. He’s married now with 4- and 6-year-olds, but he spends more time every summer with Lucena, a fellow 39-year-old father of two.

“I just wasn’t happy, and I wasn’t going to become happy with making a change in volleyball or whatever,” Dalhausser said. “It had to come from inside.”

An epiphany came last offseason. Dalhausser dived into self-help books: Jack Canfield‘s “The Success Principles,” Eckhart Tolle, Tony Robbins.

“One day, I was walking around the kitchen, thinking aloud, what the hell is my purpose?” he said. “I said, I guess it’s volleyball. My wife [former beach volleyball pro Jennifer Corral] was sitting right there and said, you’re an effing idiot if you don’t think it’s volleyball.

“Since then, I was like, all right, I guess I’m going to make a run.”

An Olympic run. Dalhausser and Lucena are about to start a crucial stretch of international tournaments in Tokyo 2020 qualifying. It begins this weekend at the world championships in Hamburg, Germany.

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A maximum of two U.S. pairs can qualify for the Games. Dalhausser and Lucena are outside the world top 25, but, more importantly, third among Americans about halfway through qualifying. They’ve only played four events; most have played at least six. Each team’s 12 best finishes in the two-year qualifying window count when the Olympic field is determined next summer.

“Results wise haven’t been great up to this point,” said Dalhausser, who won at least one international event each of the previous 13 seasons, but none since Olympic qualifying began last June. “I feel like we’re going to hit our stride here, the more we play consistently and get into a rhythm. I think we’ll be fine. I’m not really worried about it.”

Come next summer, Dalhausser and Lucena will both be older than all but one previous Olympic beach volleyball player. Dalhausser said this is his last Olympic cycle and that he will not play internationally after the 2020 season, but could continue on the domestic AVP tour.

“You see these grays here?” Dalhausser said, pointing to his chin stubble. “Obviously, when I was 28 in Beijing [the 2008 Olympics with Todd Rogers], that was probably my peak as far as vertical goes. But I’m not so sure I’m that far under it.”

Still, injuries are creeping up. They withdrew from a recent event in Poland, citing Dalhausser’s ab injury that has limited his jump serving.

While Dalhausser and Lucena were arguably medal favorites going into Rio, there is no debate about the new No. 1 going into worlds.

“Hands down,” Dalhausser said. “Norway.”

Anders Mol, 21, and Christian Sørum, 23, have won eight of their last 11 international events together. Norway has never put a men’s or women’s team into an Olympic beach volleyball quarterfinal. But the Beachvolley Vikings, who honed their skills at a Hogwarts-like academy called Top Volley Norge in a village named Sand, are unlike any team Dalhausser has ever seen.

“They just don’t have any holes in their game,” Dalhausser said.

It was about this time five years ago when Dalhausser was part of the world’s hottest team. He and Sean Rosenthal won three Grand Slams in a four-event stretch in the summer of 2014. But Dalhausser suffered an oblique injury at about this time in the last Olympic cycle, and they plateaued. Lucena emailed Dalhausser about his availability, and they reunited a year before the Rio Games.

Dalhausser actually wanted to retire after he and Lucena lost to eventual gold medalists Alison and Bruno in the Olympic quarterfinals. He spoke with his alma mater, the University of Central Florida. Had the school started a beach volleyball program, he would have left for a job there.

Even up until this past January, Lucena said he was trying to talk Dalhausser into playing this summer’s world championships. Finally, Dalhausser was asked by his agent and USA Volleyball for a 2019 season schedule. He submitted one with 15 events, mostly international ones, and shared it with Lucena.

“It kind of told me, oh damn, we’re going to try to make a run, which I was not ready for, but I was kind of excited,” Lucena said. “I still felt like I had a lot left in the tank. Maybe not a lot, but enough to make a push.”

Lucena said he’s seen a change in Dalhausser’s demeanor. They won for the first time in seven events together this season at the AVP New York City Open earlier this month, rallying past Crabb and Gibb in a three-set semifinal. Lucena, known more for his defense, earned the AVP’s Hammer Award, given to the top offensive player of the tournament.

“A wise man once said,” Dalhausser deadpanned, sitting next to Lucena at the event, “a blind squirrel finds a nut every once in a while.”

Lucena and Dalhausser came up together in the early 2000s, playing for a few hundred dollars a tournament and holding part-time jobs, including as substitute teachers. When Dalhausser left to pair with Rogers, Lucena spent nearly a decade with the motivation to become a strong enough player to get Dalhausser back as a partner.

It didn’t surprise NBC Sports analyst Kevin Wong that Lucena would willingly let Dalhausser leave for another partner in the middle of their last Olympic cycle.

“Those guys are lifelong friends,” Wong said. “Nick’s that guy who can see the bigger picture, life outside of volleyball. The crazy thing was last year on tour, Phil never told me this, but there were two or three different people saying, hey, we think Phil’s going to retire after this year. His motivation, his energy were pretty low and so the question was, is this like a little lull, recharging the battery before one last Olympic push? Or is this the swan song?”

Now Dalhausser seems firm in pushing ahead for one more year.

“It was tempting [to switch partners], but, again, at the end of the day, family then volleyball,” Dalhausser said, noting that sticking with the Tallahassee-based Lucena allows him to spend more time at home in the Orlando area. Most elite beach volleyball players live in California, including Crabb.

“I guess I can be like, hey, Taylor, you want to make a run? It’s not too late,” Dalhausser said. “But my gut’s not telling me that’s the right thing.”

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