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

April Ross, Alix Klineman back atop Olympic beach volleyball qualifying

April Ross, Alix Klineman
FIVB World Tour
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Two-time Olympic medalist April Ross and new partner Alix Klineman moved back on top of the U.S. Olympic beach volleyball qualifying standings by winning an event in Itapema, Brazil this week.

Ross, who split from Kerri Walsh Jennings in 2017, and Klineman beat Canadians Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes 25-23, 18-21, 15-10 in Sunday’s final for their third title in 11 FIVB World Tour tournaments together.

“Every victory is important, but this counts for more,” Klineman said, according to the FIVB. “We want to send a message and we want to be consistently the best.

Ross and Klineman supplanted Walsh Jennings and her new partner, Brooke Sweat, for the lead in the early U.S. Olympic qualifying rankings with still more than a year of events ahead.

1. Ross/Klineman – 3,240 (5 events played)
2. Walsh Jennings/Sweat – 3,100 (7 events)
3. Day/Flint – 2,180 (5 events)
4. Hughes/Ross — 2,000 (4 events)
5. Larsen/Stockman — 1,840 (5 events)
6. Sponcil/Claes — 1,600 (3 events)

Each team’s 12 best results from Sept. 1, 2018, to June 14, 2020, go into the Olympic qualifying rankings. That means Ross and Klineman are comfortably in front, having played two fewer events than Walsh Jennings and Sweat, who lost in the quarterfinals in Itapema.

The top two U.S. pairs come June 15, 2020, provided they’re ranked high enough internationally, will qualify for Tokyo. Most of the qualifying events, including the ones with the most points available, are still to come this summer.

Ross, 36, picked up Klineman, 29, after Walsh Jennings didn’t join her in signing a domestic AVP contract in 2017. The 6-foot-5 Klineman primarily played indoor the previous decade, including at Stanford from 2007-10 after being the Gatorade National Player of the Year coming out of high school.

MORE: Brazil volleyball star faints during courtside interview

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Katie Ledecky extends 5-year win streak

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Katie Ledecky extended a five-year domestic win streak by taking the 200m freestyle at the Tyr Pro Swim Series at Bloomington on Saturday.

In her last full meet before July’s world championships, Ledecky clocked 1:55.80 to beat training partner Simone Manuel by 1.44 seconds for her second win in as many days. Ledecky is also entered in Sunday’s 800m free on the last day of the meet.

Ledecky, who also cruised to a 400m free victory on Friday, ranks third in the world in the 200m free this year, behind Australian Ariarne Titmus and Swede Sarah Sjöström (the Olympic silver medalist who is not expected to race the 200m free at worlds).

Ledecky, a five-time Olympic champion, hasn’t lost a 200m, 400m, 800m or 1500m free final at a domestic meet since Allison Schmitt beat her in a 200m free on Jan. 18, 2014 when Ledecky was 16 years old.

BLOOMINGTON: Full Results

But Ledecky lost the two biggest 200m frees of this Olympic cycle so far, at the 2017 World Championships and the 2018 Pan Pacific Championships. Italian veteran Federica Pellegrini handed Ledecky her first individual final defeat at a major international meet at 2017 Worlds.

Ledecky dropped to third in the 200m free at Pan Pacs in Tokyo last year, beaten by younger swimmers Taylor Ruck of Canada and Rikako Ikee of Japan.

Ruck, who like Ledecky trains at Stanford, is in Bloomington, but she chose not to swim the 200m free on Saturday. She instead swam the 200m backstroke about 45 minutes after the 200m free and was upset by 17-year-old Regan Smith. Smith won in 2:06.47, moving to No. 3 in the world this year.

In other events Saturday, Ella Eastin captured the 400m individual medley in 4:37.18, taking 1.25 seconds off her personal best and moving to fifth in the world this year. Eastin is not on the world championships team after an untimely bout with mono before qualifying meets last summer.

Blake Pieroni won the men’s 200m free in 1:47.25. No American ranks in the top 20 in the world this year. World silver medalist Townley Haas did not enter Bloomington.

MORE: Olympic breaststroke champion faces ban for missed drug tests

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