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Tessa Virtue, Scott Moir return to top with Grand Prix Final win

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Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir stamped their comeback to the top of ice dance, nearly five years since their last major title, by winning their first Grand Prix Final in record fashion Saturday.

The 2010 Olympic champions, back this season after a two-year break from competition, knocked off the two-time reigning world champions from France, training partners Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, on French ice in Marseille.

“At the start of the season our goal was really to qualify for this event,” said Virtue, who with Moir earned four Grand Prix Final silver medals before this week’s breakthrough. “After competing at Grand Prix Final five times, it feels nice to finally get the win.”

Virtue and Moir tallied 197.22 points, the highest total ice dance score under a judging system implemented in 2005. The French were 4.11 points behind, followed by U.S. champions Maia and Alex Shibutani in third.

Virtue and Moir completed a perfect fall season in a sport, and a discipline, where a climb back to the top after ceding the throne can be arduous.

Virtue and Moir won the 2010 Olympic title in Vancouver, then swapped world titles with then-training partners Meryl Davis and Charlie White in 2011 and 2012 before being supplanted by the Americans on the Olympic stage in Sochi.

Moir kissed the ice after their final performance in Russia, just as he did in Vancouver, but it was not a kiss goodbye to competition. The couple announced their comeback last Feb. 20.

“We probably have one more shot at it [the Olympics], so we have to take advantage of it,” Moir said then, following up his reported May 2015 comments, “We’re not coming back unless it’s to become Olympic champions again.”

Davis and White have not skated since Sochi (yet haven’t retired), but a new power ascended in ice dance the last two seasons.

In 2015, Papadakis and Cizeron became the youngest world champions in 40 years. They repeated last season, impressively, after Papadakis suffered a concussion in a practice fall seven months earlier.

When Virtue and Moir came back, they joined Papadakis and Cizeron’s training base in Montreal.

“I think we have to earn that term to be associated as rivals to Gabriella and Guillaume,” Virtue reportedly said early this season. “We are not quite there yet for sure, but they have taken the ice dance world to an entirely different level in the last few years.”

Virtue and Moir beat Papadakis and Cizeron by nine points at NHK Trophy two weeks ago, with a world-record total, and scored even better in Marseille.

“We just wanted to be in the mix [this season],” Moir said. “The state of ice dance has come up quite a ways. And this is not something that we expected. Now we know that this doesn’t make it easy for us, it makes it a lot harder. … Now we have a huge target on our backs. … Our workload just multiplied by 10.”

Now, Virtue and Moir may be on their way to a rare feat in 2018 — to win an Olympics, see somebody else win an Olympics, and then regain the gold. Across all figure skating disciplines, only Russian pairs Yekaterina Gordeeva and Sergey Grinkov have done this.

After their win in Marseille, Moir was asked about returning to the Grand Prix Final for a seventh time next season.

“There are a couple of other goals we’re looking for other than the longevity award,” he said.

The Grand Prix Final concludes Saturday with the women’s and men’s free skates (schedule here). NBCSN will air coverage Sunday from 8:30-11 p.m. ET.

MORE: Javier Fernandez builds toward last Olympic chance

Ice Dance Results
GOLD: Tessa Virtue/Scott Moir (CAN) — 197.22
SILVER: Gabriella Papadakis/Guillaume Cizeron (FRA) — 192.81
BRONZE: Maia Shibutani/Alex Shibutani (USA) — 189.60
4. Yekaterina Bobrova/Dmitry Soloviyev (RUS) — 181.95
5. Madison Hubbell/Zachary Donohue (USA) — 179.59
6. Madison Chock/Evan Bates (USA) — 179.32

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.