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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.”

GP FINAL PREVIEWS: Men | Women | Pairs | Ice DanceTV Schedule

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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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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