Kaitlin Hawayek, Jean-Luc Baker signal ice dance arrival at Grand Prix Final

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By Jean-Christophe Berlot and Nick Zaccardi

When U.S. ice dancer Jean-Luc Baker returned from his first Grand Prix win with partner Kaitlin Hawayek last month, he had something to say to French training partner Guillaume Cizeron, one half of the world’s best couple.

“We missed you,” Baker told Cizeron, who withdrew before the event, NHK Trophy in Japan, with a minor back injury. “But … thank you.”

Baker was of course joking with Cizeron, who with Gabriella Papadakis won a third world title last March, but a full-strength French couple would have won NHK. Instead, Hawayek and Baker, whose best U.S. Championships finish is fourth, became the seventh U.S. couple to win a Grand Prix.

The Americans still earned their place in this week’s Grand Prix Final with enough cushion that Papadakis and Cizeron’s NHK absence didn’t matter. Even if Papadakis and Cizeron skated in Japan — and won — Hawayek and Baker would have qualified for the sport’s most exclusive competition as the sixth and last couple. They were fourth at their second Grand Prix in France, Hawayek skating with her leg stitched after a practice accident.

The duo seems to now have reached the very elite of world skating.

After missing the PyeongChang Olympics by one spot at a deep nationals, Hawayek and Baker won January’s Four Continents Championships and, after the season, joined Papadakis and Cizeron’s training group in Montreal.

The leave from the U.S. ice dance hotbed of Detroit came as one of their coaches, 1998 Olympic silver medalist Anjelika Krylova, moved home to Moscow.

Hawayek and Baker became the latest couple to cross the border. They followed Canadian Olympic champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue, the other U.S. couple in the Grand Prix Final and this week’s favorite with all of the Olympic medalists absent. Madison Chock and Evan Bates train in Montreal as well, but have yet to debut this season.

Hawayek said new coaches Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon immediately noted the flaws of a couple whose website displays Pro Football Hall of Fame coach George Allen‘s quote, “Winning is the science of being totally prepared.” They’re also working with a musical specialist on interpretation.

“It’s our fifth season together. We’re old now,” Hawayek joked. “With experience comes maturity.”

But they couldn’t practice on ice together for two months after Baker, the son of a British ice dancer and pairs’ skater, sustained his second concussion in three years in August. They tell that story through their free dance to music from The Irrepressibles, a Baroque British ensemble.

“Maybe it’s not too visible to an external eye, but for us, as we skate, it is completely,” Baker said. “It helps us emotionally.”

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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MORE: How to watch the Grand Prix Final

Hirscher leads by 0.56 seconds after first run in World Champs slalom

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Marcel Hirscher swept into the finish area and wagged his finger triumphantly in front of the camera.

The message was clear: The ski king is back.

The Austrian produced an emphatic response to relinquishing his giant slalom title two days earlier at the world championships by taking a 0.56-second lead after the first run of the slalom on Sunday.

Only Alexis Pinturault of France was within a second of Hirscher, who was on course to win a record-tying seventh career gold medal at the worlds.

Marco Schwarz of Austria was in third place, 1.22 seconds off the lead.

Hirscher, the seven-time overall World Cup champion, showed no ill-effects from the cold that has been affecting him this week. After the giant slalom on Friday, he said he would be going straight back to bed to rest up for the slalom.

He looked in good working order on Sunday.

As the third skier on the course, Hirscher took 1.70 seconds off No. 2 starter Henrik Kristoffersen, who beat Hirscher to GS gold on Friday, and more than two seconds off Clement Noel, who came to the worlds in form after wins in Wengen and Kitzbuehel.

Save for Hirscher crashing, only Pinturault looks capable to denying the Austrian a third slalom gold at the worlds — something only the great Ingemar Stenmark has achieved. Pinturault was only 0.06 seconds behind Hirscher at the third checkpoint but he went wide at the first turn on the final descent and lost half a second.

“I’m still in the fight,” Pinturault said, “and still have a chance in the second leg. That’s the essential (thing).”

Daniel Yule of Switzerland was 0.28 behind Hirscher at the last split before falling at the start to the final descent.

Hirscher also won the slalom at the 2013 and 2017 worlds. A seventh career gold at the worlds would tie the men’s record held by compatriot Toni Sailer from the late 1950s.

Austria, a storied Alpine skiing nation, needs Hirscher to deliver in the final event to avoid finishing the world championships without a gold medal for the first time since Crans Montana, Switzerland, in 1987. The women’s team has already finished with no medals and that hasn’t happened since Schladming, Austria, in 1982.

Watch an encore presentation of the first run on NBCSN at 7:00 a.m. ET. The second and deciding run can be seen live starting at 8:00 a.m. ET on NBCSN and NBC Sports Gold.

Mikaela Shiffrin proving she’s in league of her own

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There are ski racers, and then there is Mikaela Shiffrin.

NBC Sports essayist Tim Layden calls Shiffrin the “rarest creature,” a prodigy who continues to get better with age.

Shiffrin’s stardom took off with her heart-stopping slalom gold medal in the 2014 Olympics. It looked like she would ascend to an even higher level four years later in PyeongChang when she claimed a gold medal in the giant slalom, but then she lost a battle with her nerves and failed to win a medal in the slalom. She did capture a silver in the combined event.

That Olympic disappointment has fueled her historic World Cup season. She became the youngest skier to pass the 50 win mark. She broke the women’s career record for slalom victories, and she became the first skier ever to win four-straight world championship titles in a single event.

A true prodigy indeed.