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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Simone Biles returns to the gym, going from mental drain to physical pain

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For Simone Biles, this was supposed to be the stretch run of a legendary career.

Instead, she returned to her gym on May 18 with long-term thoughts of waiting 14 months until the Tokyo Olympics. And the immediate aches of a world-class gymnast who just missed nearly two months of regular training.

“After that amount of time off, it kind of sucks because your body hurts and then you get really sore,” Biles said in a pre-recorded ESPNW interview that aired Thursday. “So you just have to get back into the swing of things. But it felt nice to see my coaches, my teammates, and just to be back on the equipment and in the environment.”

In that same Texas gym three months ago, Biles had a far different outlook. One that would have put fear into any gymnast who still harbored ambition of ending her near-seven-year win streak.

“I never felt more ready this early in the season,” she said. “I was so ready for the Olympics to be this year.”

Biles repeated in interviews the last two months that the Olympic postponement to 2021 was devastating. Thoughts zig-zagged: How do I go on another year, at age 23, in a sport recently dominated by (but not limited to) teenagers?

“I’m getting pretty old,” she said in the interview published Thursday. “Will I be at the top of my game?”

Biles proved the last two years — after a year off — that she can win — and comfortably — while not at her best. She grabbed the 2018 World all-around title by a record margin — with two falls. Last year, she became the most decorated gymnast in world championships history. In Tokyo, she can become the first woman to repeat as Olympic all-around champion, and the only one older than 20, in more than 50 years.

This for a gymnast whose early goal was to earn a college scholarship. Biles did, to UCLA, but had to give it up by turning professional.

“So I’ve exceeded that,” Biles said. “And then I wanted to go to world championships and Olympics, and I’ve been to five worlds and one Olympic Games. So, I’d be more than happy [to walk away].”

After gymnastics, Biles has another goal — to be a voice for foster kids. She was in foster care multiple times before being adopted at age 6 by grandparents Ron and Nellie.

Those plans, along with so much else for Biles and so many others, have been pushed back a full year.

“I was already being mentally drained and almost, not done with the sport, but just going into the gym and feeling tired and being like, OK, I’m going to get my stuff [done], get out,” she said. “We have this one end goal, and now that it’s postponed another [year], it’s just like, how are we going to deal with that? We’re already being drained, and so it’s to keep the fire in the sport within yourself alive.”

MORE: Top U.S. gymnasts disagree with Tokyo Olympic age rule

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2022 Pan Pacific Championships canceled as swimming calendar shifts

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The Pan Pacific Swimming Championships, a quadrennial major international meet, will not be held in 2022 “out of respect for the recent changes to the international sporting calendar,” according to a press release.

The Pan Pacs’ charter nations — the U.S., Australia, Canada and Japan — agreed to the move. The 2026 event will be held in Canada, which was supposed to be the 2022 host.

The decision came after the 2021 World Championships were moved to May 2022, following the Tokyo Olympics moving from 2020 to 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic. The quadrennial multi-sport Commonwealth Games — which includes Australia and Canada, but not the U.S. or Japan — are scheduled for July 27-Aug. 7, 2022.

“Organizing a third major championships in that window presented several challenges,” according to the Pan Pacs release.

Pan Pacs mark the third-biggest major international meet for U.S. swimmers, held in non-Olympic, non-world championships years.

MORE: Caeleb Dressel co-hosts a podcast. It’s not about swimming.

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