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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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Richard Callaghan, figure skating coach, banned for life

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Richard Callaghan, a figure skating coach best known for helping Tara Lipinski earn 1998 Olympic gold, was ruled permanently ineligible for violations including sexual misconduct involving a minor.

Callaghan can still appeal the sexual misconduct violation, according to the U.S. Center for SafeSport, a watchdog for U.S. Olympic sports organizations that updated Callaghan’s status Wednesday.

He was first suspended in March 2018 pending an investigation into allegations first made against him more than 20 years ago.

Earlier this month, another former skater, Adam Schmidt, said in a lawsuit that he was sexually molested as a teenager by Callaghan starting in 1999.

Callaghan was previously accused of sexual misconduct in April 1999 by Craig Maurizi, one of his former students and later an assistant to him in San Diego and Detroit.

Maurizi told The New York Times that Callaghan had engaged in inappropriate sexual contact with him beginning when he was 15 years old. The alleged misconduct had begun nearly 20 years earlier. Callaghan denied the allegations.

In March 2018, Callaghan told ABC News: “That’s 19 or 20 years ago. I have nothing to say.”

Maurizi’s previous grievance against Callaghan with the U.S. Figure Skating Association, the precursor to U.S. Figure Skating, was dismissed on procedural grounds.

He was Callaghan’s assistant at the Detroit Skating Club until they split after Lipinski turned pro, left Callaghan and decided to train with Maurizi.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Pita Taufatofua, Tonga flag bearer, finishes last in kayak debut

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Pita Taufatofua, the Tonga Olympic flag bearer who went viral in Rio and PyeongChang, began his quest to make a third straight Olympics in a third different sport with a last-place finish in his opening-round heat at the world sprint kayak championships in Hungary on Wednesday.

The start of the heat appeared delayed as Taufatofua struggled to get his kayak into position in the water. He was left at the start as the other six kayakers raced out and finished between 33 and 40 seconds. Taufatofua took 58.19 seconds, the slowest of 53 finishers among seven total heats.

“Well that was slightly better than the first time I competed in Taekwondo or skiing,” was tweeted from Taufatofua’s account. “Would have liked to start facing the right way but that’s life.”

Taufatofua, 35, was the oldest athlete in the heat by nearly a decade. He is also entered in doubles races with Tonga canoe federation president Malakai Ahokava with heats Thursday and Friday.

Taufatofua hopes to compete at the Tokyo Olympics in taekwondo, where he competed in Rio, and in sprint kayak.

But he hasn’t competed in taekwondo in three years and just started training kayak this spring. At worlds, Taufatofua told the BBC he is still having trouble staying afloat in the water.

Taufatofua said in announcing the new sport in April that it would be “largely impossible” to qualify for Tokyo. He could be the first athlete to compete in a different sport in three straight Olympics (Summer and Winter) since the Winter Games began in 1924, according to the OlyMADMen.

“It’s certainly going to be the greatest challenge that I’ve ever had to embark on,” he said then.

Taufatofua’s results at worlds this week has little bearing on his Olympic qualifying prospects. Rather, he just needed to compete in Hungary to stay eligible for the Olympics.

The key will be an Oceania qualifying event early next year, where one Olympic bid is available. He will likely have to beat the best kayakers from Australia and New Zealand to grab it. Australian Stephen Bird placed eighth at the Rio Olympics and 11th at the 2018 World Championships.

If Taufatofua fails, he could receive a special tripartite invitation sometimes offered to smaller nations like Tonga.

Taufatofua became a social-media celebrity by marching into the Rio Olympic Opening Ceremony shirtless and oiled up. He then lost in the first round via mercy rule in his taekwondo tournament.

He made a quixotic bid for the PyeongChang Winter Games in cross-country skiing — and accomplished the feat, barely, in a sport that has lenient qualifying requirements for nations with a lack of Winter Games depth.

Taufatofua finished 114th out of 116 in his 15km Olympic cross-country skiing race, nearly 23 minutes behind the winner.

If Taufatofua is able to carry the Tongan flag at a third Opening Ceremony, he will definitely be shirtless again, in a similar outfit to what he wore in Rio and PyeongChang, he said last year.

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