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

Aleksander Aamodt Kilde wins Beaver Creek downhill

Aleksander Aamodt Kilde
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BEAVER CREEK, Colo. — Norway’s Aleksander Aamodt Kilde won his second straight World Cup downhill race to start the season, despite feeling under the weather.

Although dealing with an illness all week in training, Kilde powered through the challenging Birds of Prey course Saturday in a time of 1 minute, 42.09 seconds. It was enough to hold off Marco Odermatt of Switzerland by 0.06 seconds. James Crawford of Canada was third to earn his second career World Cup podium finish.

Kilde also won the opening downhill last weekend in Lake Louise, Alberta.

“It’s been a tough week,” Kilde said after the race. “I caught the flu in Lake Louise after a very, very nice weekend. It really hit me hard. Then I got a couple of days to rest and take it easy. … I felt OK. Still feeling it a little bit in my system.”

The Beaver Creek crew members had the course in solid shape a day after a downhill race was canceled due to high wind and snowfall.

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Kilde reached speeds around 75 mph in picking up his eighth World Cup downhill victory. That tied him with Kjetil Jansrud for the third-most downhill wins in the World Cup discipline among Norwegian men. The total trails only Aksel Lund Svindal (14) and Lasse Kjus (10).

“I found a really, really good set-up with my equipment and also with my skiing,” Kilde explained. “I believe in myself. I trust in myself. I have a good game plan. When I stand on the start, I don’t dwell on anything. I know that this plan is what I do and when I do that it’s going to be fast.”

Odermatt has been on the podium in all four World Cup races this season as he tries to defend his overall World Cup title. The 25-year-old finished third in the opening downhill of the season last weekend. He’s also won a giant slalom race and a super-G.

Ryan Cochran-Siegle wound up in seventh place for the top American finish. He was ninth in the downhill in Lake Louise.

“It’s been solid,” Cochran-Siegle said of his strides in the discipline. “A couple of little things here and there that pushed me off that top three. You have to ski with a lot of intensity and ski without abandon, in a sense. Today was a good step.”

Switzerland’s Beat Feuz, who won the Olympic downhill gold medal at the Beijing Games last February, tied for ninth.

The Beaver Creek stop on the circuit comes to a close Sunday with a super-G race. Odermatt will be the favorite after holding off Kilde in the opening super-G last weekend.

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Summer McIntosh, Canadian teen swimmer, caps record year with another historic time

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Summer McIntosh swam the fourth-fastest 400m individual medley in history on Friday, capping a year that already included world titles, Commonwealth Games titles and a victory over Katie Ledecky.

McIntosh, a 16-year-old Canadian whose mom swam at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, won the 400m IM in 4 minutes, 28.61 seconds at the U.S. Open in Greensboro, N.C. She prevailed by a Ledecky-like 13.24 seconds, breaking her own national record that was previously the fourth-fastest time in history.

“It’s still pretty early in the season, so I didn’t really know what to expect going into it,” she said on Peacock.

The only two women who ever went faster in the event known as the decathlon of swimming are Olympic gold medalists: Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu (world record 4:26.36 and 4:28.58) and China’s Ye Shiwen (4:28.43).

McIntosh has come a long way in a short time. Three years ago, she put all her eggs in the 1500m freestyle basket, thinking it was her best shot to merely qualify for the Tokyo Games in 2020. The one-year Olympic postponement was a blessing.

The rapidly improving McIntosh swam three individual events in Tokyo with a top finish of fourth in the 400m free, just missing becoming the youngest swimming medalist since 1996. She then told her coach she wanted to become an IMer.

At this past June’s world championships, McIntosh won two of the most grueling events — 400m IM and 200m butterfly — to become the youngest individual world champion since 2011. She also took silver to Ledecky in the 400m free, an event in which she later beat Ledecky in a short-course meet (25-meter pool rather than the 50-meter pool used for the Olympics).

A month after worlds, McIntosh swept the IMs at the Commonwealth Games, where she broke more world junior records and again took second in the 400m free (this time to Olympic champ and world record holder Ariarne Titmus of Australia).

McIntosh, who turned professional last year, now trains full-time in Sarasota, Florida, where she rents a house with her mom, Jill Horstead, who was ninth in the 200m fly at the 1984 Olympics (McIntosh, whose passions include the Kardashians and plants from Target, has seen video of her mom winning the B final at those Games). They’re a three-hour drive down Interstate 75 from Ledecky’s base in Gainesville.

Also Friday, Erin Gemmell celebrated her 18th birthday by nearly becoming the first American to beat Ledecky in a 200m freestyle in nearly nine years. Ledecky won by 42 hundredths of a second in 1:56.74 and said she had an off-day while also praising Gemmell, the daughter of her former coach.

NBC airs U.S. Open highlights on Dec. 10 at 4:30 p.m. ET.

U.S. OPEN SWIMMING: Full Results

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