Shibutanis top U.S. Champs short dance, followed by shake-up

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The top three U.S. ice dance couples are as expected, but in an order we’ve never seen.

Siblings Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani topped the short dance at the U.S. Championships on Friday in San Jose, Calif.

The three-time world medalists, seeking a national title three-peat, scored 82.33 points.

“We’re skating better than we ever have before,” Maia said on NBCSN.

“We’re working to be the best team in the world,” Alex added.

Usually, Madison Chock and Evan Bates are their primary competition. Not this year.

Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, who finished third or fourth at each of the last six nationals, are in second going into Sunday’s free dance.

They tallied 79.10 points.

“We’ve made it our time,” Donohue said on NBCSN. “This is our year to upset it.”

The free dance is Sunday, live on NBC and streaming on NBCOlympics.com at 3 p.m. ET.

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Chock and Bates are in third with 77.61, which is 2.35 points fewer than they scored in last year’s short dance.

Chock and Bates were the top U.S. dance team after Meryl Davis and Charlie White stepped away from competition after their Sochi Olympic title, but they were passed by the Shibutanis in 2016 and now could be fading to third in the deepest ice dance nation.

These three couples — among the top six in the world — are the overwhelming favorites to make up the U.S. Olympic team named Sunday evening.

They finished within one point of each other at December’s Grand Prix Final, the biggest international event this season before the Olympics.

In a sense, it doesn’t matter if these couples finish first or third on Sunday when it comes to clinching a PyeongChang spot.

But in ice dance, where reputation matters more than any other discipline, the U.S. champion will arguably be the Olympic bronze-medal favorite.

“To go into the Olympic Games as the No. 1 team from the United States is a big statement,” Davis said Friday.

The gold- and silver-medal favorites are the last two world champions — Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France and Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada.

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World champion wins doping case citing bodily fluids from boyfriend

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LAUSANNE, Switzerland (AP) — A world champion canoeist won a doping case Monday after persuading a tribunal that her positive test was caused by bodily fluid contamination from her boyfriend.

The International Canoe Federation (ICF) ended its investigation into 11-time world champion Laurence Vincent Lapointe, who tested positive for a steroid-like substance in July. She faced a four-year ban and could have missed her event’s Olympic debut at the Tokyo Games.

The Canadian canoe sprint racer and her lawyer detailed in a news program that laboratory analysis of hair from her then-boyfriend showed he was likely responsible for a tiny presence of ligandrol in her doping sample.

“The ICF has accepted Ms. Vincent Lapointe’s evidence which supports that she was the victim of third-party contamination,” the governing body said in a statement, clearing her to return to competition.

The legal debate is similar to tennis player Richard Gasquet’s 2009 acquittal in the “cocaine kiss” case. The Court of Arbitration for Sport accepted Gasquet’s defense that kissing a woman who had taken cocaine in a Miami nightclub, after he had withdrawn injured from a tournament, caused his positive test.

The 27-year-old Vincent Lapointe was provisionally suspended for almost six months and missed the 2019 World Championships, which was a key qualifying event for the Tokyo Olympics. American 17-year-old Nevin Harrison won the 200m world title in her absence.

She can still qualify for the Olympic debut of women’s canoe sprint events with victory at a World Cup event in May in Germany.

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U.S. women’s soccer team begins Olympic qualifying, which should rest on one match

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The U.S. women’s soccer team has never been in danger in Olympic qualifying, but that doesn’t change this fact: It must win on Feb. 7 to reach the Tokyo Games.

The CONCACAF tournament begins Tuesday in Houston, where the world champion Americans face world No. 72 Haiti. The last two group games are against No. 68 Panama on Friday and No. 37 Costa Rica on Feb. 3. The top two nations from the group advance to Feb. 7 semifinals.

The U.S. roster, with 18 of its 20 players coming from the 2019 World Cup team, is here.

Since CONCACAF qualifies two nations to the Olympics, the semifinals are the deciding games.

Should the U.S. win its group, it would face the runner-up from the other group in a winner-goes-to-Tokyo match. The other group (world ranking):

Canada (8)
Mexico (37)
Jamaica (53)
St. Kitts and Nevis (127)

Chaos could result in the unlikely event that either the U.S. or Canada finishes second in its group, and the two North American powers play a semifinal.

The U.S. is undefeated in Olympic qualifying history, since the tournament format began in 2004 — 15-0 with a goal differential of 88-1 (not counting matches played once they’ve already clinched qualification). The lone goal allowed came in a group-stage match in 2008, when the U.S. was already assured a spot in the semifinals.

Still, the U.S. knows the feeling of one poor outing in an important match. In 2010, it lost to Mexico in a winner-to-the-World Cup match. The U.S. was forced to win a last-chance, home-and-home playoff against a UEFA team — Italy — for the last spot in the World Cup.

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