Kaitlin Hawayek, Jean-Luc Baker notch first Grand Prix win at NHK

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The U.S. has yet another Grand Prix title-winning ice dance couple.

Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker rallied to capture their first Grand Prix crown at NHK Trophy in Sunday’s free dance.

Hawayek and Baker, fourth at last season’s nationals, overcame Tiffany Zahorski and Jonathan Guerreiro‘s 4.78-point lead from Saturday’s rhythm dance to win by 1.58 over the Russians. U.S. siblings Rachel Parsons and Michael Parsons, fifth at last season’s nationals, took bronze.

Hawayek and Baker delayed their season debut until this week after Baker, whose mom was a 1988 British Olympic ice dancer, suffered a second concussion in three years in August. Last season, the former junior world champions won their first senior international title at the Four Continents Championships in January and placed 10th at the world championships in March.

They topped Sunday’s free dance but also received help as Guerreiro wobbled on twizzles, and the Russians’ rotational lift received a one-point deduction for being too long.

Hawayek and Baker became the seventh U.S. dance couple to win a Grand Prix in the series’ two-decade history, joining Elizabeth Punsalan and Jerod SwallowTanith White and Ben AgostoMeryl Davis and Charlie WhiteMadison Chock and Evan BatesMaia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani and Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue. Five of those six went on to earn Olympic and/or world medals.

Hawayek and Baker can clinch one of six spots in December’s Grand Prix Final with another strong finish at their second Grand Prix in France in two weeks. Hubbell and Donohue already clinched a spot in the Final, the second-biggest international event of the season behind worlds.

Olympic silver medalists and world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France withdrew before NHK due to Cizeron’s back injury, which keeps them out of the Grand Prix Final. The Olympic gold and bronze medalists — Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and the Shibutani siblings — are on indefinite breaks from competition.

Hawayek and Baker rank seventh in the world this season by total scores.

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 HERE 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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NHK TROPHY: Results | TV/Stream Schedule

Regan Smith swims another historic backstroke time at Pro Series meet

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Regan Smith, who last summer broke both backstroke world records, put up the fastest 100m back in history outside of a major international meet or trials competition on Saturday.

Smith, a 17-year-old Minnesota high school senior, clocked 58.26 seconds to win at a Pro Series meet in Knoxville, Tenn. It tied for the 12th-fastest time in history. None of the other fastest dozen came in January, six months out from when swimmers peak for the world’s biggest events like the Olympics.

Making it more impressive: Smith did it 27 minutes after finishing second in the 200m butterfly, which she’s also expected to contest at June’s Olympic trials in Omaha.

“It actually wasn’t as bad, as I was nervous it was going to be,” Smith, whose world record is 57.57, said of the double on NBCSN. Smith entered two events per day at the three-day Knoxville meet, in part to prepare for the trials, where she is slated to race six straight days in a bid to make the Olympic team in enough events to swim eight straight days in Tokyo.

On Saturday, Smith held off fellow 17-year-old Phoebe Bacon by six tenths. Bacon beat Smith at the U.S. Open in December, posting the second-fastest time among Americans in the event for 2019.

The teen emergence puts pressure on Kathleen Baker, the Rio Olympic silver medalist who had the world record before Smith took it at worlds.

Full Knoxville results are here. USASwimming.org live streams the last night of finals Sunday at 6:30 ET.

In other events Saturday, world silver medalist Hali Flickinger overcame Smith in the 200m fly, winning in 2:08.34. Smith, third-fastest among Americans last season, was .39 behind. The second-fastest American last year, Katie Drabot, was not in the field. The top two at trials make the Olympic team.

Erika Brown beat world champion Simone Manuel in a freestyle sprint for a second straight meet, taking the 50m free in 24.57 seconds.

Brown, a University of Tennessee senior, edged Manuel by .06 and took .01 off her personal best. Brown ranked third among Americans last year behind Manuel (24.05) and Abbey Weitzeil (24.47).

Brown also defeated Manuel in the 100m free at the U.S. Open in December, moving to fourth-fastest in the U.S. last year in that event. The top six in the 100m free at trials are in line to make the Olympic team, given relay spots.

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Mikaela Shiffrin nearly makes it three-way tie for World Cup win

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Mikaela Shiffrin came .01 shy of making it a three-way tie for a World Cup giant slalom win on Saturday, confirming GS has been the most up-for-grabs discipline for either gender in recent years.

Shiffrin, beaten in her last two slaloms, had the fastest second run to place third behind co-winners Italian Federica Brignone and Slovakian Petra Vlhova in Sestriere, Italy. The reigning Olympic and World Cup champion in the GS rallied from fourth place and .42 behind after the first run.

Shiffrin still leads the World Cup overall standings by 233 points over Vlhova. The American last won Dec. 29. Though she made the podium in three of her four races since, Shiffrin expressed a lack of confidence heading into this weekend’s races at the 2006 Olympic venue.

“The most exciting thing for me is that people have stopped asking me, like, are you unbeatable?” said Shiffrin, who won a record 17 World Cup races last season and has four victories nearly halfway through this season, tied with Vlhova for most on tour. “I feel really good in GS. It’s just been a long time since [the last GS on Dec. 28].”

Vlhova earned her third victory this month after beating Shiffrin those last two slaloms. Brignone leads the GS season standings by 61 points over Shiffrin, seeking to become the sixth different woman to win that discipline title in the last six years. There are four more GS races left this season.

It’s the second straight season with a World Cup GS tie. Last Feb. 1, Shiffrin and Vlhova tied in Maribor, Slovenia.

It’s the first time the top three finishers were separated by such a small margin since the last three-way tie for a win in 2006, when Lindsey VonnMichaela Dorfmeister and Nadia Styger had the same super-G time, and fourth-place Kelly VanderBeek was .01 behind.

“Last season, I had the lucky side of the hundredths many times, so sometimes I’m not going to be on the lucky side, too,” said Shiffrin, who had three victories by .16 or tighter last season.

World Cup racing continues with a parallel giant slalom on Sunday at 5:45 a.m. ET on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA and streaming on NBC Sports Gold.

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