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Shibutanis headline tight ice dance field at figure skating nationals

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It’s pretty clear which three ice dance couples the U.S. will send to PyeongChang. What’s to be decided at nationals this week is which will be its leading couple and only medal favorite.

Siblings Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani won the last two U.S. titles and haven’t been beaten by a U.S. couple in any event in more than two years.

But the gap is miniscule.

The results from the Grand Prix Final, an Olympic preview of sorts, show just how close the top three U.S. dance teams are:

  1. Gabriella Papadakis/Guillaume Cizeron (FRA) — 202.16 (world record)
  2. Tessa Virtue/Scott Moir (CAN) — 199.86
  3. Maia Shibutani/Alex Shibutani (USA) — 188.00
  4. Madison Hubbell/Zachary Donohue (USA) — 187.40
  5. Madison Chock/Evan Bates (USA) — 187.15

The French and Canadians are clear favorites for Olympic gold and silver. That leaves three U.S. couples — separated by .85 of a point at the Grand Prix Final — looking for bronze.

Whether the Shibutanis win another U.S. title in San Jose on Sunday or finish third won’t change whether they go to PyeongChang.

But reputation matters more in ice dance than any other discipline. At every Olympics since 1984, the U.S. ice dance couples finished in the same order as they did at nationals a month earlier.

Like in 2014, when Meryl Davis and Charlie White won their sixth straight national title en route to becoming the first U.S. Olympic ice dance champions. Chock and Bates were second at nationals and eighth at the Olympics; the Shibutanis were third and ninth.

Davis and White haven’t competed since.

In their absence, the U.S. should have its deepest top-to-bottom ice dance contingent in Olympic history.

The Shibutanis and Chock and Bates each bagged two world championships medals in the last three seasons. Hubbell and Donohue qualified for the last three Grand Prix Finals, a competition for the world’s top-six couples.

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A look at the three very likely U.S. Olympic ice dance couples:

Maia Shibutani/Alex Shibutani
Three world championships medals
2016, 2017 U.S. champions
2017-18 U.S. ranking: 1

Made the podium at seven straight nationals beginning when Maia was 16 years old in 2011, when they won a world bronze medal in their first senior season.

But the Shibutanis really came into their own the last three seasons, overtaking Chock and Bates as the top U.S. couple and claiming world silver in 2016 and bronze in 2017.

They were recently beaten by Chock and Bates and Hubbell and Donohue in programs, but not in a whole competition since the 2015 Grand Prix Final.

“If we’re looking at any other team for motivation, then that’s not really the right place that we should be looking,” Maia said.

The Shibutanis hope to become the first siblings to win Olympic figure skating medals together since 1992.

Madison Chock/Evan Bates
Two world championships medals
2015 U.S. champions
2017-18 U.S. ranking: 3

When Davis and White stepped away from competition, Chock and Bates ascended atop U.S. ice dancing, earning a world silver medal in 2015 in their fourth season together.

But that reign ended with the Shibutanis’ first national title two years ago. Chock and Bates have lost six straight head-to-heads between the two couples.

“There have been some trying moments in the last few seasons,” Bates said.

They leaned on each other. Chock and Bates began dating around Christmas 2016, eight years after they went on three dates that never materialized.

Madison Hubbell/Zachary Donohue
Four-time U.S. bronze medalists
Fourth at 2017 Grand Prix Final
2017-18 U.S. ranking: 2

They are sick of bronze, but third place in U.S. ice dance is enough to make it to the Olympics. Hubbell and Donohue are on the upswing.

“We’re making progress on the teams we would really like to overcome,” said Hubbell, who missed the three-couple 2014 Olympic team with Donohue by finishing fourth at those nationals.

At last season’s Grand Prix Final, they beat Chock and Bates for the first time since 2012. Then they did it again at this season’s Grand Prix Final, where they also outscored the Shibutanis in the free dance. Hubbell and Donohue have never defeated the Shibutanis for a full competition, though.

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World Cup Alpine season opener gets green light

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After checking the snow on the Rettenbach glacier in Soelden, Austria, FIS officials announced Thursday that the traditional World Cup season opener is set to go ahead as planned Oct. 26-27 with men’s and women’s giant slalom races.

Current conditions at Soelden show a solid 30 inches of snow at the summit. The race finishes at an altitude of 2,670 meters (8,760 feet), far above the currently snowless village.

The first races of the season are never guaranteed to have enough snow, though last year’s men’s race at Soelden had the opposite problem, being canceled when a storm blew through with heavy snowfall and high winds. 

France’s Tessa Worley won the women’s race last year ahead of Italy’s Frederica Brignone and U.S. skier Mikaela Shiffrin, who would go on to dominate the rest of the World Cup season.

The Soelden weekend is followed by three dormant weeks until the season resumes Nov. 23-24 in Levi, Finland. The World Cup circuits then switch to North America. The men will run speed events Nov. 30-Dec. 1 in Lake Louise, Alberta, then head to Beaver Creek, Colo., for more speed events and a giant slalom Dec. 6-8. The women run slalom and giant slalom Nov. 30-Dec. 1 in Killington, Vt., and head to Lake Louise the next weekend.

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Olympic marathon and race walk move from Tokyo to Sapporo draws some pushback

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In the wake of a dropout-plagued set of world championship endurance races in Qatar, moving the 2020 Olympic marathons and race walks from Tokyo to the cooler venue of Sapporo is a quick fix for one problem, pending the potential for untimely heat waves.

But the move has drawn some opposition for a variety of reasons.

First, many organizers and politicians appear to have been caught by surprise. Tokyo’s governor, Yuriko Koike, was “taken aback” and Sapporo’s mayor, Katsuhiro Akimoto, learned about the move from the media, Kyodo News reported. Koike even sarcastically suggested that the races could move all the way northward to islands disputed by Russia and Japan.

South African sports scientist Ross Tucker suggested that running in heat and humidity poses an interesting challenge for athletes, some of whom may be able to catch up with faster runners by preparing for the conditions.

British marathoner Mara Yamauchi made a similar point, saying the move was unfair to those who already were preparing for the heat, humidity and other conditions.

Belgian marathoner Koen Naert said he will make the best of the change but complained that some of his preparation and every runner’s logistical planning would no longer apply.

The angriest athlete may be Canadian walker Evan Dunfee, who placed fourth in the 2016 Olympic 50km race and nearly claimed bronze as a Canadian appeal was upheld but then rejected. He says runners and walkers can beat the conditions if they prepare, which many athletes did not do for the world championships in Qatar.

“So why do we cater to the ill prepared?” Dunfee asked on Twitter.

The move also takes athletes out of the main Olympic city and takes away the traditional, tough less frequent in modern years, finish in the Olympic stadium.

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