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Hubbell, Donohue can restamp U.S. dance dominance at Grand Prix Final

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One thing the U.S. ice dance revolution lacked in the last Olympic cycle was a major global title. This week, Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue can open this four-year period by claiming the most prestigious gold medal for a U.S. couple in nearly five years.

Hubbell and Donohue, the U.S. champions and world silver medalists, are the favorites at the Grand Prix Final, the second-biggest annual international competition. Of the six couples in the field, they are the only ones who have experience at this event that takes the top performers from the fall Grand Prix Series.

In the PyeongChang Olympic cycle, at least one U.S. ice dance couple made the podium at all four world championships and all four Grand Prix Finals, plus Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani‘s bronze at the Winter Games in February.

But Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje and French Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron combined for all nine major titles. None of those couples are in the Final.

Virtue and Moir have likely competed for the last time, though haven’t announced retirement. Weaver and Poje skipped the Grand Prix Series in favor of a Canadian exhibition tour. Papadakis and Cizeron are the top-ranked couple this season (by a whopping 15.96 points) but are ineligible for the Final after missing their first Grand Prix due to Cizeron’s minor back injury.

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

So, yes, this week’s winner in Vancouver will carry an asterisk and likely still trail the French in the world rankings. But reigning Olympic and world champions are also absent in the other disciplines. Hubbell and Donohue are on the verge of the biggest international victory of their eight-year partnership.

They finished third or fourth at their first six U.S. Championships before breaking through for the title in January. They let medals slip away with free-dance falls at the 2017 World Championships and in PyeongChang before putting together two medal-worthy programs on the global stage for the first time at the post-Olympic worlds in March. A silver behind Papadakis and Cizeron.

Hubbell and Donohue opened this season with comfortable wins at Skate America and Skate Canada, the first two Grand Prix events, becoming the first skaters in any discipline to qualify for the Final and allowing themselves nearly a month and a half off from competing.

“I’m most excited to see the progress they’ve made over the last couple of weeks because they chose to take on a non-traditional schedule,” said NBC Sports analyst Tanith White, a 2006 Olympic silver medalist and three-time Grand Prix Final medalist. “Their whole intention of doing this was to allow themselves almost like a mini reset button in their season, to have time to come down to assess the changes that need to be made based on the feedback they received and then come back to the Grand Prix Final fresh.”

But in November, emerging Russians posted scores within a point of the Americans. Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin and Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov can bring Russia its biggest dance crown since 2009. Their stories are similar to Hubbell and Donohue. Each dancer has made the Russian Nationals podium at least three times, but never the top step.

White cautioned against comparing those October and November marks, though.

“The scores won’t necessarily be quite that tight when they’re all competing with one another in the same event,” she said. “Madi and Zach are coming in with great momentum.”

It wouldn’t be a major event without multiple impressive U.S. ice dance couples. Enter Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, who ascended in the absence of the Shibutanis (on an indefinite break) and Madison Chock and Evan Bates (her ankle surgery). They were fourth or fifth at each of the last four U.S. Championships but won NHK Trophy in Japan last month to signal their international arrival.

Hawayek and Baker are ranked fifth out of this week’s six couples by season’s best scores. That they made it to Vancouver at all is a testament to grit and adaptability. They couldn’t train on ice together for two months after Baker sustained his second concussion in three years in August. That came after they changed coaches and training locations in the offseason.

“They’ve made massive progress, there’s no question, and in a really short amount of time,” White said, adding on the IceTalk podcast, “The talent was always there. The elegance was there, but the power, the groundedness which they’ve talked about this season as a goal, is really apparent.”

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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Carreira, Ponomarenko understand the depth of U.S. ice dance at nationals

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GREENSBORO, N.C. Heading into the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Greensboro this week, up-and-coming ice dancers Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko focused on their “quads” not four-revolution jumps, but still pretty tough to execute.

“(Our coaches) have us doing double run-through weeks, triple run-throughs, even quadruple run-throughs, to make sure we’re fully ready,” Carreira said. “We’re drilling a lot more, so at nationals we go in 100 percent confident.”

Pasquale Camerlengo, who trains the team along with primary coach Igor Shpilband, agreed that the run-up to Greensboro has been grueling for the skaters from Novi, Mich.

“We always plan a week we call the quads, performing (programs) four times,” Camerlengo said. “We’re trying to make them ready physically and work their stamina, to handle their programs in competition, which is a little bit different than in practice. Physically, they’re ready for it.”

Tough practices are just one component of what’s been a challenging but productive sophomore senior season for the two-time world junior medalists, fifth in the U.S. in 2019.

Thus far, they’ve competed at six international competitions, stretching from Lake Placid, N.Y., in August to NHK Trophy in Sapporo, Japan, in late November. Six is a lot, considering other top teams they’ll compete against in Greensboro have competed three to five times so far this season.

“Igor wants to get more experience at the senior level, and also more world points,” Carreira, 19, said. “For that we have to compete. We get out there and compete as much as we can, so our programs feel more trained.”

Those programs – a rhythm dance to Cole Porter’s “It’s Too Darn Hot” and flamenco free dance to “Farrucas” – stretch their abilities far more than last season’s routines. Competing every two weeks or so left little time to make adjustments, so the past six weeks were the key to their preparation for Greensboro.

“We pushed a lot of changes we needed to make until after NHK, to smooth out the programs and really train them,” Ponomarenko, 18, said.

He added that the grueling first half of 2019-20 was a necessary ice dance rite of passage.

“It’s very different from our first season. We really didn’t know what to expect. Now we kind of know where we’re at and how we can improve. We definitely feel the sophomore slump this year, but we just want to compete and keep putting our good performances.”

On paper, Carreira and Ponomarenko’s 2018 Grand Prix results – which included a bronze medal at Rostelecom Cup – look more impressive than the sixth-place finishes they earned at Skate America and NHK this season. But the skaters don’t think the placements tell the full story.

“Last season, results-wise, it might have looked better, because a lot of (top) teams took the Grand Prix season off last season,” Carreira said. “This season, I feel our programs are more difficult and we’re skating better. We want to improve our consistency so that we can compete with the top teams.”

It doesn’t take much to lose points in an ice dance routine, especially on step sequences and “twizzles,” a series of fast rotations moving across the ice. A few slips here – including a small mistake on their twizzles in the rhythm dance at Skate America – can easily drop teams out of the top group.

“They always have the feeling they could do more,” Camerlengo said. “But the season is a progression. They’re getting better and better. That’s the goal, to have them (be) more reliable.”

“They need to do what they’re capable of,” he added. “They just have to do what they’ve learned, with no fear, and just go for it.”

In Greensboro, Carreira and Ponomarenko will have to throw caution to the wind to grab one of the three U.S. ice dance spots at the 2020 World Figure Skating Championships in Montreal this March.

With Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue, and Madison Chock and Evan Bates, very likely battling for gold, the Michigan skaters have their sights set on bronze. It’s a herculean task, considering the reigning U.S. bronze medalists, Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, qualified for the Grand Prix Final last season and notched career-best scores at Skate Canada this fall.

All three of those teams train together in Montreal. 

But Carreira and Ponomarenko think their programs, strengthened by adjustments and all of those quadruple run-throughs, give them a fighting chance.

“(A bronze medal) is more realistic now than last season,” Carreira said.

“I believe we’ve really grown as skaters,” Ponomarenko said. “Our programs are much more difficult, which has really helped us improve. I believe the podium at nationals is very reasonable. It could be achieved with some good skating.”

Other teams could be in the mix. Last season, Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter placed a strong fourth, but injuries forced them to withdraw from one of their Grand Prix events this fall. A new pairing, Caroline Green and Michael Parsons, has gelled quickly, winning two medals at Challenger Series international events.

“The level of U.S. ice dance level is high, the depth in the U.S. is really the top worldwide,” Camerlengo said. “But the podium, it is reasonable for Christina and Anthony. They have been working hard and they have a very good level to fight for the medal. We’ll see how they will perform here. They’re ready for it.”

Not all of the team’s challenges are on the ice. The Montreal-born Carreira – who has lived and trained in Novi since she was 13 – faces hurdles gaining her U.S. citizenship, without which the couple cannot compete at the Olympics. Last May, she petitioned U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to be deemed an “alien with extraordinary ability” under the immigration code, which would help smooth the way for legal permanent residency status. She was denied and filed suit against the USCIS, later dropping the action.

Carreira is still working to achieve a pathway to U.S. citizenship and prefers not to discuss the issue.

“I can’t really say anything,” she said. “We’re working on it, we’re hoping for the best.”

Citizenship issues never entered the skaters’ minds when they teamed up in the spring of 2014. Ponomarenko and his parents, 1988 Olympic ice dance champions Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko, had long admired Carreira’s skating. When he and his former partner Sarah Feng split after the 2014 U.S. Championships, he tried out with Carreira in Novi.

“We really worked well together from the beginning,” Ponomarenko said. “I had wanted to skate with Christina for a really long time even before getting together, so it was no-brainer. The bump in the road (citizenship) can be worked through.”

“There were so many good factors it would be, I think, stupid to let something that can be fixed get in the way of (our partnership),” Carreira said. “We didn’t even think about it.”

The ice dance competition in Greensboro kicks off with the rhythm dance on Friday afternoon, with medalists decided with the free dance on Saturday night.

MORE: 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships TV, live stream schedule

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season 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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Coronavirus forces Olympic soccer and boxing qualifiers to move

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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Olympic qualifying events in two sports were moved from the Chinese city of Wuhan on Wednesday because of an outbreak of a deadly viral illness.

A four-nation Asian qualifying group for the women’s soccer tournament was switched from the city at the center of the health scare to Nanjing.

The Asia-Oceania boxing qualifying tournament scheduled for Feb. 3-14 in Wuhan was cancelled. No new plans were announced.

The decisions followed Chinese health authorities telling people in Wuhan to avoid crowds and public gatherings.

The Asian Football Confederation said the round-robin group — featuring host China, Australia, Taiwan and Thailand — will be played on Feb. 3-9, retaining the same dates, in Nanjing.

More than 500 people have been infected and at least 17 killed since the outbreak emerged last month. The illness comes from a newly identified type of coronavirus.

Cases have also been reported in the United States, Japan, South Korea and Thailand. All involve people from Wuhan or who recently traveled there.

In the soccer qualifiers in China, two teams advance to a four-nation playoff round in March. That will decide which two teams from Asia join host Japan at the Tokyo Olympics.

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