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Grand Prix figure skating: Five ice dance couples to watch

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Five ice dance couples to watch this fall as the Grand Prix season starts this week …

Tessa Virtue/Scott Moir
Canada
2017 World champions, 2010 Olympic champions
Grand Prix Starts: Canada, Japan

Hoping this season to become the second couple to win multiple Olympic titles. Virtue and Moir took two seasons off after taking silver behind Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White in Sochi (Davis and White won’t defend their Olympic title). They returned last year for one more Olympic run and went undefeated en route to a third world title.

Gabriella Papadakis/Guillaume Cizeron
France
Two-time world champions
Grand Prix Starts: China, France

Went from 13th at the 2014 Worlds to winning in 2015, becoming the youngest world champs in the event in 40 years. Repeated in 2016. Went head-to-head with Virtue and Moir three times last season and were beaten every time. Train with Virtue and Moir in Montreal.

Maia Shibutani/Alex Shibutani
U.S.
Two-time world medalists
Grand Prix Starts: Russia, U.S.

The siblings were the top U.S. couple the last two seasons — world silver in 2016 and bronze in 2017 — after placing ninth at their first Olympics in Sochi. But they have also been challenged — and outscored at times — by two domestic rivals detailed below. And they have never beaten Virtue and Moir. The Shibutanis don’t have to face any of the other four couples listed here in their two Grand Prix assignments.

Grand Prix Capsules: Men | Women | Pairs | Ice Dance | TV Schedule

Madison Chock/Evan Bates
U.S.
Two-time world medalists
Grand Prix Starts: China, France

Succeeded Davis and White as the top U.S. couple in 2015, grabbing world silver behind the French. But dropped to second behind the Shibutanis (former training partners) at the last two nationals and were seventh at last season’s worlds after Bates’ big mistake on twizzles in the free dance.

Madison Hubbell/Zachary Donohue
U.S.
Top U.S. couple in 2017 Worlds short dance
Grand Prix Starts: Canada, Japan

Generated buzz at worlds by placing third in the short dance behind the favored Canadians and French. They were in line to beat Chock and Bates for the first time in five years and the Shibutanis for the first time ever. But Donohue fell in the free dance (after Hubbell fell at nationals), and they plummeted to ninth. The U.S. has three Olympic ice dance spots available, and the couples listed above are heavy favorites to be the trio named after nationals in January.

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MORE: Figure skating season broadcast schedule

Justin Morneau nixes Olympic baseball qualifying return

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Justin Morneau, the 2006 AL MVP with the Minnesota Twins, was taken off Canada’s Olympic baseball qualifying roster before he would have played his first competitive game in more than two years.

Morneau, 38, experienced an unspecified setback in training and was replaced on Canada’s roster for next month’s Premier12. The global tournament marks the first opportunity for many world baseball powers to qualify for the sport’s return to the Olympics.

Morneau never played in the Olympics before baseball was cut from the Games after 2008; active MLB players have never competed in the Games. But he was on Canada’s roster at all four World Baseball Classics from 2006 through 2017.

At November’s Premier12, the top nation from North and South America will qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. Japan and Israel are already qualified. Those that do not qualify will get another chance next year.

Morneau could become the second Major League Baseball MVP to play Olympic baseball as a medal sport. The other was Jason Giambi, who made the U.S. team in 1992, the same summer he was drafted in the second round by the Oakland Athletics.

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MORE: Joe Girardi replaced as U.S. baseball manager by World Series champion

Kolohe Andino is first U.S. Olympic surfing qualifier; Kelly Slater faces last chance

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Kolohe Andino is the first American to qualify for surfing’s Olympic debut, which leaves one spot left for 47-year-old Kelly Slater to chase at the final contest of the season.

Andino, a 25-year-old Californian whose first name means “rascal” in Hawaiian, clinched his place in Tokyo on Friday at the penultimate stop on the World Surf League Championship Tour in Portugal. He is ranked fifth in the world, trailing a trio of Brazilians.

One more American man will join Andino on the Olympic team. It will be one of Slater, the 11-time world champion, John John Florence, the 2016 and 2017 World champion, and rising 22-year-old Hawaiian Seth Moniz.

Slater was handed a golden opportunity to qualify when Florence announced in early July that he tore an ACL for the second time in 13 months. Florence had won two of the first five events this season.

Slater has been chasing the sidelined Florence in the standings ever since. But it has not been easy.

Slater hasn’t made the quarterfinals in any of his last seven contests going into December’s finale — the prestigious Billabong Pipeline Masters on the North Shore of Oahu.

“Ninth place, to me, used to be a pretty awful result. I’m used to at least a quarterfinal on for most of my career,” he said in July, noting a back injury. “I’m not horrified by my results, but I’m also not surprised. Maybe other people are because everyone focuses on my age and that kind of thing. It’s not like I’m going to all of a sudden forget how to do this thing, you know?”

Slater, who won the Pipe Masters seven times between 1992 and 2013, must reach the quarterfinals at this year’s event to have any chance of passing Florence to qualify for the Olympics.

Complicating matters: Florence said in August it was his “goal to get better for Pipeline in case I have to come back and compete and gain points,” according to ESPN.com. If Florence does return for the December contest, and makes the quarterfinals, Slater could only pass him with a victory.

Moniz goes into the finale ranked one spot behind Slater, meaning he, too, can grab that second and final Olympic spot with a win or a runner-up.

Slater, who turns 48 on Feb. 11, would be the oldest U.S. Summer Olympic rookie competitor in a sport other than equestrian, sailing or shooting (or art competitions!) in the last 100 years, supplanting Martina Navratilova, according to the OlyMADMen.

MORE: Top U.S. surfer has links to Egg McMuffin, Guinness World Record holder

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