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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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MORE: How to watch U.S. Figure Skating Championships

Maria Sharapova wraps up tennis career after nearly two decades, career Slam

Maria Sharapova
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Maria Sharapova has announced her retirement after a professional tennis career that includes five Grand Slam wins, 36 singles titles and an Olympic silver medal.

Sharapova was only 17 when she won her first major in 2004 at Wimbledon. She won the U.S. Open in 2006 and the Australian Open in 2008 before completing her career Grand Slam in the 2012 French Open. She won the French Open again in 2014.

After moving from Russia to Florida at age 9 to train at the Bollettieri Academy, she made her professional debut just after her 14th birthday in 2001. She graduated to top-level events and majors within two years and reached the round of 16 at Wimbledon in 2003.

In 2004, she upset Lindsay Davenport and Serena Williams at Wimbledon and beat Williams again at the Tour Championships.

By 2005, the 6-foot-2 player had claimed the top spot in the world rankings. She remained in the top five for most of the next four years before suffering an injury to her right shoulder that limited her tournament schedule in 2008 and 2009. By 2011, she had reclaimed her status as a top-five player and remained there until 2016.

Her career declined after a positive drug test at the 2016 Australian Open. The substance in question, meldonium, had been given by Russian doctors to many athletes.

An initial suspension of two years was reduced to 15 months, but she wasn’t able to get back to her previous form. She won one more tournament in 2017 and reached the quarterfinals of the 2018 French Open, but she fared poorly in sporadic appearances in 2019. Her last match was a loss to Donna Vekic in the first round of the Australian Open in January.

SEE: Sharapova discusses reduced ban on TODAY

Her meldonium suspension also cost her commercial sponsorships and her role as a UN Development Program ambassador, which she earned with her work to help survivors of the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl.

She was involved in the Olympics as a silver medalist in 2012, losing to Williams in the final, and as one of the final torch bearers in the relay to the 2014 Olympics opening ceremony in her home country.

She’s also third on the all-time WTA earnings list behind Serena and Venus Williams, taking in more than $38m in her career on top of lucrative endorsement deals.

Federica Brignone hopes World Cup rival Mikaela Shiffrin will return soon

Shiffrin and Brignone
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Mikaela Shiffrin‘s prolonged absence from the World Cup Alpine skiing circuit has opened the door for Italy’s Federica Brignone to break the American’s grip on the season title, but Brignone hopes her friend and rival will be back in competition soon.

“I really do hope that she will return soon for herself so she can do again what she loves most,” Brignone said.

Brignone took the season lead from Shiffrin, who has won the last three World Cup overall titles, on Sunday and has a 73-point advantage with 11 of the season’s 40 races remaining. She also leads Shiffrin by 74 points in the giant slalom standings.

READ: Brignone moves into World Cup lead

No Italian woman has won the overall World Cup. Brignone was fifth in 2017 and won the Alpine combined discipline title last season.

Brignone will have a chance to clinch another Alpine combined discipline title and extend her overall lead in her home country this weekend. While some other sports events in Italy have been canceled or otherwise affected by the coronavirus outbreak, the host resort of La Thuile has so far been spared from the virus’ spread.

Slovakia’s Petra Vlhova, the only other skier with a realistic chance of winning the overall trophy, is dealing with a knee injury and might not be able to race this weekend. Vhlova leads Shiffrin by 20 points in the slalom standings.

Shiffrin has not competed since the death of her father Feb. 2, and she has not announced plans to return. She was not on pace to match her astounding 17-win 2018-19 season but still had six wins and had reached the podium in 13 of 19 races.

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