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.”

MORE: Ashley Wagner, Gracie Gold chime in on U.S. medal drought

Hirscher leads by 0.56 seconds after first run in World Champs slalom

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Marcel Hirscher swept into the finish area and wagged his finger triumphantly in front of the camera.

The message was clear: The ski king is back.

The Austrian produced an emphatic response to relinquishing his giant slalom title two days earlier at the world championships by taking a 0.56-second lead after the first run of the slalom on Sunday.

Only Alexis Pinturault of France was within a second of Hirscher, who was on course to win a record-tying seventh career gold medal at the worlds.

Marco Schwarz of Austria was in third place, 1.22 seconds off the lead.

Hirscher, the seven-time overall World Cup champion, showed no ill-effects from the cold that has been affecting him this week. After the giant slalom on Friday, he said he would be going straight back to bed to rest up for the slalom.

He looked in good working order on Sunday.

As the third skier on the course, Hirscher took 1.70 seconds off No. 2 starter Henrik Kristoffersen, who beat Hirscher to GS gold on Friday, and more than two seconds off Clement Noel, who came to the worlds in form after wins in Wengen and Kitzbuehel.

Save for Hirscher crashing, only Pinturault looks capable to denying the Austrian a third slalom gold at the worlds — something only the great Ingemar Stenmark has achieved. Pinturault was only 0.06 seconds behind Hirscher at the third checkpoint but he went wide at the first turn on the final descent and lost half a second.

“I’m still in the fight,” Pinturault said, “and still have a chance in the second leg. That’s the essential (thing).”

Daniel Yule of Switzerland was 0.28 behind Hirscher at the last split before falling at the start to the final descent.

Hirscher also won the slalom at the 2013 and 2017 worlds. A seventh career gold at the worlds would tie the men’s record held by compatriot Toni Sailer from the late 1950s.

Austria, a storied Alpine skiing nation, needs Hirscher to deliver in the final event to avoid finishing the world championships without a gold medal for the first time since Crans Montana, Switzerland, in 1987. The women’s team has already finished with no medals and that hasn’t happened since Schladming, Austria, in 1982.

Watch an encore presentation of the first run on NBCSN at 7:00 a.m. ET. The second and deciding run can be seen live starting at 8:00 a.m. ET on NBCSN and NBC Sports Gold.

Mikaela Shiffrin proving she’s in league of her own

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There are ski racers, and then there is Mikaela Shiffrin.

NBC Sports essayist Tim Layden calls Shiffrin the “rarest creature,” a prodigy who continues to get better with age.

Shiffrin’s stardom took off with her heart-stopping slalom gold medal in the 2014 Olympics. It looked like she would ascend to an even higher level four years later in PyeongChang when she claimed a gold medal in the giant slalom, but then she lost a battle with her nerves and failed to win a medal in the slalom. She did capture a silver in the combined event.

That Olympic disappointment has fueled her historic World Cup season. She became the youngest skier to pass the 50 win mark. She broke the women’s career record for slalom victories, and she became the first skier ever to win four-straight world championship titles in a single event.

A true prodigy indeed.