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Weaver, Poje take their chances with Thank You Canada tour

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The Thank You Canada figure skating tour kicks off in Abbotsford, British Columbia on Friday night, the first stop on a 27-city swing stretching across 11 Canadian provinces and more than 4,500 miles.

Most of the participants, including tour co-producers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir; Patrick Chan; Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford; and Kaetlyn Osmond, are members of Canada’s gold-medal winning team at the PyeongChang Olympics. They are joined by three-time world champion Elvis Stojko, winner of Olympic silver medals in 1994 and 1998, and Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, two-time Canadian ice dance champions and reigning world bronze medalists.

“We’re so lucky as Canadian athletes to have received such support over the years,” Virtue, who also won two individual Olympic ice dance gold medals with Moir, said on CTV’s Your Morning. “This has been on our radar for a long time, to do a tour to sort of give back and say thank you in our own way.”

“The timing feels right, now that we are not doing any amateur skating this season,” Moir added.

The timing is also right for the long-retired Stojko. Chan, and Duhamel and Radford, formally announced their respective retirements from eligible competition soon after the PyeongChang Games. Osmond, the reigning world champion, is not competing this season.

That leaves Weaver and Poje. The couple is skipping the ISU Grand Prix Series this fall, but plan to return to competition at the 2019 Canadian Figure Skating Championships, held in Saint John, New Brunswick, from January 13-20. There, they will likely face a fierce battle for the Canadian title with Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier, who bested them at the event last season (though Virtue and Moir won).

Forgoing the chance to compete their programs in front of judges and technical specialists could be a dicey strategy, given the ever-shifting International Judging System (IJS), which had intricate changes to required ice dance elements issued during the off-season. Having just won their first world medal since 2015, Weaver and Poje risk losing some of the momentum they fought so hard to build.

“That’s a very good point and the absolute first thing we thought of,” Weaver, 29, said. “However, momentum is kind of a funny concept, because it’s not really a tangible thing. We were given this opportunity to tour Canada in 2018 with the Olympic gold medal-winning team. This opportunity now is priceless. We are going to show our competitive programs on the tour, we’ll be out there many times across the country, so we see this as a definite asset.”

The couple opened their season with a win at the Autumn Classic International in Canada last month. Their programs, including a tango rhythm dance and a free dance to “S.O.S. d’un terrien en détresse” from the rock opera Starmaniaa tribute to their late friend, Denis Ten – were well-received, but as is typical early in the season some of their element levels needed improvement.

“We really wanted to push ourselves to come to (Autumn Classic) and get what we needed for feedback, and now we have three months before our next competition to really develop the programs,” Poje, 31, said. “But going out on tour and performing (the programs) every night is really a great asset for us. Instead of performing them only three times maybe in a (fall) season, we perform them many times.”

Weaver and Poje won the Grand Prix Final in 2015 and 2016, and then went on to place fifth and third, respectively, at the world championships. Last season, they failed to qualify for the Grand Prix Final after placing second and fourth at their Grand Prix events.

“We won the Grand Prix Final twice, we’ve not made it countless times, it really has no bearing on the rest of the season most times,” Weaver said. “You win some, you lose some. You still need to bring it when you need it.”

“We figured, if we have a great product, let’s get out early, let’s put our feet down and say, ‘We’re not going anywhere,’” she added. “We’re going to build our repertoire in a different way (on tour), as well as live in a different way and then come back to competition.”

Plenty of practice time, including regular consults with ice dance technical specialists, is part of the program.

“We will not be dilly-dallying, we are very, very organized,” Weaver said. “This presents a unique challenge for us, one we’ve never done before, I don’t know if anyone has ever done it before. We’ve scheduled our down time with (technical) callers, with our coaches. The producers of the show know we are competitors and that is our main goal, so it’s a give-and-take with the show. It’s a risk, but it’s one we are ready and excited for.”

As a reminder, you can watch the ISU Grand Prix Series live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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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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