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Vanessa James, Morgan Cipres can conquer Russians at Grand Prix Final

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The post-Olympic Grand Prix season can be lackadaisical, as Johnny Weir says, but if any skaters are defying that, it’s French pair Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres.

“James are Cipres are skating in such a dynamic and interesting way that they really are, in my opinion, the stars of the Grand Prix,” Weir said. “They’ve exceeded what they’ve already done in the past and are giving us something new.”

With all of the Olympic medalists sitting out the autumn, James and Cipres ascended from fifth at the Olympics to the top of the world rankings going into this week’s Grand Prix Final. Russia’s top two teams could challenge, but the French are the favorites in Vancouver.

“If I had to put my money on anyone, I really do think I would go with the French,” NBC Sports analyst Tara Lipinski said. “Their programs are unique. I feel like they’re finally really coming into their own.”

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James, who was born in Canada, grew up in Virginia and Bermuda, won a British national title in singles and became a French citizen in 2009, teamed with Cipres in December 2010. That came after she finished 14th at the Vancouver Olympics with a different partner as the first black pairs team in Winter Games history. Cipres, whose last name is Spanish (and thus the “S” is not silent), was coming off a 13th-place finish at the junior world championships in singles.

James and Cipres didn’t become a global medal contender until moving from Paris to Florida in June 2016 to work with 2002 U.S. Olympian John Zimmerman. They jumped from 17th in the world rankings to fourth that season and started making regular podiums on the Grand Prix.

They would have been pegged as the No. 2 pairs’ team this season behind Olympic fourth-placers Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov but averaged about a point more than the Russians per Grand Prix start this fall. James and Cipres were outscored by Tarasova and Morozov at each of the last four world championships and European Championships and haven’t beaten them in direct competition in three years.

James and Cipres, who considered making the Olympic season their last, skated programs the last two months that would have challenged for the silver medal in PyeongChang, Weir said. What sets them apart? Start with their choices for choreographers: Olympic and world ice dance champions Charlie White and Guillaume Cizeron.

“Every detail of their programs is so interesting. It isn’t a cookie-cutter pairs’ team,” Weir said. “They bring details to the elements that none of the other pairs’ teams are doing.”

Of the 69 Grand Prix Final pairs’ medals awarded, 68 have gone to Canadians, Chinese, Germans or Russians. James and Cipres, in their first Final, should become the first pair to shake things up since the 1999-2000 season.

But Tarasova and Morozov and fellow Russians Natalya Zabiyiako and Alexander Enbert also have been undefeated this fall.

No U.S. teams made the six-pair Final for the 10th time in 11 years. Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea, who likely would have gone to PyeongChang if the U.S. qualified more than one pair for the Olympics, finished eighth in the Grand Prix standings. Olympians Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim were 11th.

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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Justin Morneau nixes Olympic baseball qualifying return

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Justin Morneau, the 2006 AL MVP with the Minnesota Twins, was taken off Canada’s Olympic baseball qualifying roster before he would have played his first competitive game in more than two years.

Morneau, 38, experienced an unspecified setback in training and was replaced on Canada’s roster for next month’s Premier12. The global tournament marks the first opportunity for many world baseball powers to qualify for the sport’s return to the Olympics.

Morneau never played in the Olympics before baseball was cut from the Games after 2008; active MLB players have never competed in the Games. But he was on Canada’s roster at all four World Baseball Classics from 2006 through 2017.

At November’s Premier12, the top nation from North and South America will qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. Japan and Israel are already qualified. Those that do not qualify will get another chance next year.

Morneau could become the second Major League Baseball MVP to play Olympic baseball as a medal sport. The other was Jason Giambi, who made the U.S. team in 1992, the same summer he was drafted in the second round by the Oakland Athletics.

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Kolohe Andino is first U.S. Olympic surfing qualifier; Kelly Slater faces last chance

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Kolohe Andino is the first American to qualify for surfing’s Olympic debut, which leaves one spot left for 47-year-old Kelly Slater to chase at the final contest of the season.

Andino, a 25-year-old Californian whose first name means “rascal” in Hawaiian, clinched his place in Tokyo on Friday at the penultimate stop on the World Surf League Championship Tour in Portugal. He is ranked fifth in the world, trailing a trio of Brazilians.

One more American man will join Andino on the Olympic team. It will be one of Slater, the 11-time world champion, John John Florence, the 2016 and 2017 World champion, and rising 22-year-old Hawaiian Seth Moniz.

Slater was handed a golden opportunity to qualify when Florence announced in early July that he tore an ACL for the second time in 13 months. Florence had won two of the first five events this season.

Slater has been chasing the sidelined Florence in the standings ever since. But it has not been easy.

Slater hasn’t made the quarterfinals in any of his last seven contests going into December’s finale — the prestigious Billabong Pipeline Masters on the North Shore of Oahu.

“Ninth place, to me, used to be a pretty awful result. I’m used to at least a quarterfinal on for most of my career,” he said in July, noting a back injury. “I’m not horrified by my results, but I’m also not surprised. Maybe other people are because everyone focuses on my age and that kind of thing. It’s not like I’m going to all of a sudden forget how to do this thing, you know?”

Slater, who won the Pipe Masters seven times between 1992 and 2013, must reach the quarterfinals at this year’s event to have any chance of passing Florence to qualify for the Olympics.

Complicating matters: Florence said in August it was his “goal to get better for Pipeline in case I have to come back and compete and gain points,” according to ESPN.com. If Florence does return for the December contest, and makes the quarterfinals, Slater could only pass him with a victory.

Moniz goes into the finale ranked one spot behind Slater, meaning he, too, can grab that second and final Olympic spot with a win or a runner-up.

Slater, who turns 48 on Feb. 11, would be the oldest U.S. Summer Olympic rookie competitor in a sport other than equestrian, sailing or shooting (or art competitions!) in the last 100 years, supplanting Martina Navratilova, according to the OlyMADMen.

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