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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.

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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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Chloe Kim makes it five straight wins with Dew Tour title

Chloe Kim
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Chloe Kim capped one of the greatest years in snowboarding history by repeating as Dew Tour champion in Breckenridge, Colo., on Sunday.

The 18-year-old PyeongChang gold medalist won a modified halfpipe contest with a 94.67-point first run on a course that combines slopestyle features with a halfpipe. She beat a field that included Olympic silver and bronze medalists Liu Jiayu and Arielle Gold.

Kim has won five straight contests — the X Games in January, the Olympics in February, the U.S. Open in March and, to open this season, victories the last two weekends. No other rider won the X Games, Olympics and U.S. Open in one year.

Kim decided to compete this season rather than enroll in college. She tweeted in March that she was accepted to Princeton.

She is expected to go for a fourth X Games Aspen title in five years next month, which would tie her for second all-time among women behind Kelly Clark, who has six halfpipe crowns.

The retired Gretchen Bleiler also won four X Games golds. Clark, a 35-year-old, five-time Olympian, said last month that she was undecided if she will compete again.

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Brittany Bowe grabs 20th World Cup win, ascends U.S. all-time list

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Olympic bronze medalist Brittany Bowe grabbed her third World Cup win this season and the 20th of her career, moving into solo fifth place on the U.S. all-time list on Sunday.

Bowe, whose PyeongChang medal came in the team pursuit, won a 1000m in Heerenveen, Netherlands, in 1:13.24, beating a field including Olympic silver and bronze medalists Nao Kodaira and Miho Takagi of Japan. She broke her own track record by .66 at the sport’s hallowed Thialf.

“That was one of the most perfect races I’ve skated this far, and I couldn’t be happier to do it here in Thialf,” Bowe said, according to the International Skating Union. “Every stroke was right, no missteps. This was definitely one of the best races in my career.”

Bowe earned a medal of every color in two days of racing in Heerenveen, adding to her 500m bronze and 1500m silver on Saturday. Bowe leads the season standings in the 1000m and is third in the 500m and 1500m.

There are two stops left this season — Hamar, Norway, in February and Salt Lake City in March, with the world championships in between.

“The real show is in February [at words],” Bowe said.

Bowe is returning from a July 2016 concussion that affected her for the entire 2016-17 season, including blood-pressure issues and fainting spells.

She returned in full for the 2017-18 Olympic season but did not make an individual podium between the World Cups and the Olympics, missing a 1000m medal in PyeongChang by .38 and in the 1500m by .28.

Before the concussion, Bowe in 2015 earned world titles and broke world records in the 1000m and 1500m.

On Sunday, the former Florida Atlantic basketball player passed three-time Olympic medalist Chris Witty for fifth on the U.S. World Cup wins list behind Bonnie Blair (69), Shani Davis (58), Dan Jansen (46) and Heather Bergsma (34), according to schaatsstatistieken.nl.

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