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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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Tommy Ford ends U.S. men’s World Cup drought at Beaver Creek

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Tommy Ford earned his first World Cup win at age 30 and ended the U.S. men’s longest victory and podium droughts in two decades.

Ford won the giant slalom in Beaver Creek, Colo., on Sunday, the last North American race on tour this season. He prevailed by eight tenths of a second combining times over two runs.

“It doesn’t beat doing it here. I’ve been working hard,” Ford, in his 86th World Cup start dating to 2009, said on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA. “No secret, just kept it simple and really trusted what I was doing.”

Norwegians Henrik Kristoffersen and Leif Kristian Nestvold-Haugen were second and third. American Ted Ligety, fourth after the opening run, finished 11th.

Full results are here.

Ford became the first U.S. man to win a World Cup since Travis Ganong took a downhill on Jan. 27, 2017. He also became the first U.S. male podium finisher since Ligety in January 2018. Both were the longest droughts for the program since the late 1990s.

Ford, a 2010 and 2018 Olympian who missed the 2014 Olympics due to a broken femur, had been working toward this moment.

He finished a World Cup career-high fourth at the season-opening giant slalom in Soelden, Austria, on Oct. 27. Last season, the Oregon native and former Dartmouth student had a pair of fifths.

The men’s World Cup moves to Val d’Isere, France, next weekend for a giant slalom and slalom.

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Katie Ledecky wins race by 30 seconds, takes back No. 1 ranking

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In her last race of the year, Katie Ledecky ensured she would finish 2019 as the world’s fastest 1500m freestyler.

Ledecky clocked 15:35.98 at the U.S. Open in Atlanta, winning the longest event on the Olympic pool program by 29.97 seconds. Typical for Ledecky, who owns the nine fastest times in history. This one came in at No. 8. Full meet results are here.

Ledecky scratched the 1500m free final at the summer world championships due to illness. Italian Simona Quadarella went on to win that title in 15:40.89, which was the world’s fastest time this year until Saturday night.

“I didn’t have time on my mind at all today. I just wanted to have a consistent swim,” Ledecky, undefeated in 1500m free finals for nine years, said on NBCSN. “That’s probably the best mile that I’ve had in a while.”

The women’s 1500m freestyle debuts at the Olympics in Tokyo. Ledecky is expected to add that to her Rio Olympic individual lineup of 200m, 400m and 800m frees, assuming she is top two in each event at the June Olympic trials.

In other events Saturday, Erika Brown handed Simone Manuel a rare defeat in the 100m freestyle. Brown, a University of Tennessee senior, clocked 53.42 and lowered her personal best by .71 between prelims and the final. Brown moved from sixth to fourth in the U.S. rankings this year, upping her stock as a contender to make the Olympic 4x100m free relay pool via a top-six finish at trials.

Brown previously lowered her personal best in the 50m free on Thursday. She ranks third in the U.S. this year in that event.

Emily Escobedo dealt Lilly King a rare domestic defeat in the 200m breaststroke. Escobedo lowered her personal best by .87 and clocked 2:22.00, moving to seventh fastest in the world this year and remaining fourth among Americans.

In the men’s 200m breast, Olympic champion Dmitriy Balandin of Kazakhstan was beaten by Cody Miller, the Olympic 100m breast silver medalist. Both were slower than their best times this year.

The next significant swim meet is a Tyr Pro Series stop in Knoxville, Tenn., from Jan. 16-19.

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