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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.

MORE: Rika Kihira more than a new Miss Triple Axel

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Bradie Tennell’s personality shines through at Skate America

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LAS VEGAS — At Skate America on Friday night, fans got a glimpse of the “real” Bradie Tennell — strong, smart, funny; a little salty, but a little sweet.

Performing a short program set to a fast-paced medley of Kirrill Richter’s staccato piano compositions, Tennell practically gave off sparks while unleashing a solid triple Lutz, triple toe loop combination, liquid spins and her best steps ever.

The Las Vegas crowd gave her a standing ovation and so did the judges, who awarded the 2019 U.S. national silver medalist a personal best 75.10 points.

For the first time ever, Tennell leads a Grand Prix event, taking a 1.85-point advantage into Saturday’s free skate.

“I went out with the mindset to do it like I do every day in practice, no better but certainly no worse,” she said.

The 21-year-old skater, who grabbed attention with a surprising bronze medal at 2017 Skate America and went on to win the 2018 U.S. title, hasn’t always revealed as much of herself in interviews as some of her peers. She’s mostly been content with doing her job on the ice, and last season placed a solid seventh at the world championships.

“I think (this program) just allows me to show the side of myself that I am off the ice with my family, a little bit more sarcastic, a little bit funny,” Tennell said. “It’s almost like an onion when you peel back the layers. To show this program is a challenge for me but it’s a challenge I welcome.”

Longtime coach Denise Myers, who trains Tennell in the Chicago area, likes the new lens the program creates.

“Brady is a fun-loving personality that maybe now the world is getting to see a little better,” Myers said. “No surprise to me.”

The electricity Tennell ignited on Friday proves that when a skater loves her material, magic can happen. This isn’t the program Tennell and choreographer Benoit Richaud intended to use. An earlier routine, choreographed in May, failed to inspire the skater. When she saw Richaud at a training camp in Courchevel, France in June, she asked him to try again.

“So then he puts up this music and I’m like, ‘What is this, this is so cool, this is my music, let’s start now,’” Tennell recalled. “I was so excited to find this piece of music and use it…. Yeah, I love this program.”

Skate America is Tennell’s first competition of the season; a fractured bone in her right foot forced her to withdraw from a Challenger Series’ event in Canada last month. The injury kept her off of the ice for much of the summer, and when she attended U.S. Figure Skating’s Champ Camp in late August, she was wearing a protective boot.

“Before my injury, I can’t remember the last time I didn’t have pain on the ice with my feet,” Tennell said. “It felt really bad at the beginning of July, and then it started to get progressively worse really quickly. So I went to the doctor and got some scans done, and they said, ‘Yeah, you’ve got a break in the bone there.’”

About a month ago, Tennell returned to full training, resolving to make up for lost time.

“That’s just her determination,” Myers said. “You have to listen to what your body is saying. She’s just very determined to have a successful season.”

MORE: How to watch Skate America

Tennell’s free skate, also choreographed by Richaud, is set to music from the romantic 1988 film Cinema Paradiso.

“It’s a totally different feel, that’s what’s so exciting about this year,” Myers said. “The short is a little sassier, a little more mature, and the other program is so soft and feminine.”

It will take every ounce of Tennell’s mettle to stay on the Skate America podium. Japanese skaters Kaori Sakamoto and Wakaba Higuchi, both powerhouse jumpers, are close behind in second and third place. Russian teen Anna Shcherbakova sits fourth with 67.60 points and can make up the deficit if she lands the quadruple Lutz she showed at a Challenger event in Italy last month. In practices in Las Vegas, Shcherbakova has included two quad lutzes in her run-throughs. More on the results of the ladies’ short program from Friday evening in Las Vegas here.

MORE: Nathan Chen hopes to hip hop his way to Skate America crown

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. Check out a free trial of the Figure Skating Pass during Skate America from Oct. 18-20. 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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Bradie Tennell leads Skate America field after Russians falter

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Bradie Tennell‘s bronze medal at 2017 Skate America propelled her to a national title and a place on the PyeongChang Olympic team in 2018.

At Skate America on Friday evening in Las Vegas, Tennell outpaced the ladies’ field by 1.85 points, scoring 75.10 points — her best-ever short program score. Tennell opened her program with a triple Lutz, triple toe combination, followed by a double Axel and a triple flip. What could a win at her first Grand Prix event of the season set up for the 2019-20 year? Time will tell.

“I went out there with the mindset of doing what I do everyday in practice and not trying to make anything any better or certainly any worse,” Tennell said through U.S. Figure Skating. “I wanted to enjoy myself, be relaxed and perform. The ice is my safe space. It’s where I feel most at home… It’s almost like an onion. You have to peel back the layers, and that’s almost what I’m doing with my skating now. To show this program is a challenge for me but one that I welcome.”

MORE: Tennell’s personality shines through at Skate America

Her closest competitor, Kaori Sakamoto from Japan, tallied 73.25 points after skating to Alice Merton’s “No Roots.” Sakamoto has won the silver medal at Skate America for the past two seasons.

Japan’s Wakaba Higuchi skated to another pop song, Sia’s “Bird Set Free,” and scored 71.76 points. She’s in third place heading into Saturday’s free skate.

Skate America results are here.

The standings are a surprising twist, as many pinned Russian skaters Anna Shcherbakova and Yelizaveta Tuktamysheva to be inside the top three after the short program.

In her senior Grand Prix debut, Shcherbakova slipped and fell in her step sequence and accrued a mandatory one-point deduction. She still tallied 67.60 points, good enough for fourth place on Friday evening.

Expect to see quadruple jumps from Shcherbakova in Saturday’s free skate. She trains under Moscow-based coach Eteri Tutberidze alongside a host of burgeoning Russian skaters, including reigning world and Olympic champion Alina Zagitova.

Meanwhile, Tuktamysheva, the 2015 world champion, sits in fifth place behind Shcherbakova by a slim 0.32 points. While her triple Axel was awarded positive Grades of Execution, her triple Lutz was called under-rotated.

2017 national champion Karen Chen returned to major international competition after being away for more than a year due to injury. The Cornell freshman finished her short program in sixth place with 66.03 points.

“There were definitely nerves,” Chen said of her return to competition. “This year is my comeback year, and so I wanted to make it count, but at the same time I know that I’m throwing a lot of things out there, like I’m skating and I’m also going to school. It’s been tough balancing, but I do really enjoy it and I think it’s the right decision.”

The third American in the field, Amber Glenn, is seventh with 64.71 points.

MORE: How to watch Skate America

In ice dance Friday night, Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue have high hopes of keeping the U.S.’ winning streak alive at Skate America. After Saturday’s free dance, the Montreal-trained team could extend U.S. ice dancers’ win streak to 11. They won this event last year, too.

Hubbell and Donohue skated to a Marilyn Monroe medley — including “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” which Hubbell admitted to wanting to skate to since the 2014 season — to score 84.97 points.*

“I feel like we have so much progress to make on the program, but it was a really great performance for today,” Hubbell said through U.S. Figure Skating. “It was really exciting for me to debut the Marilyn Monroe character. It’s something I have dreamed about skating to for many years, so it was great to actualize that here in Las Vegas.”

Aleksandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin of Russia sit close behind with 81.91 points, after a rhythm dance set to “Sparkling Diamonds” and “Your Song” from Moulin Rouge. The Russian duo were fourth behind Hubbell and Donohue at the 2019 World Championships, and Stepanova recently returned from a back injury. Canada’s Laurence Fournier Beaudry and Nikolaj Sorensen performed their rhythm dance to selections from “Bonnie & Clyde” and placed third with 79.17 points.

Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko landed in sixth place after the rhythm dance with 70.41 points. The third American dance team in the field, Caroline Green and Michael Parsons, were eighth with 67.97 points after the rhythm dance in their Grand Prix debut. They’re a brand new team this season; Green formerly danced with her brother and Parsons was previously partnered with his sister.

“I feel that so far we have adapted really well to the new partnership,” Green said. “I think that we have a good trust with each other. Maybe it is not quite as natural as it was with our siblings, but I definitely think we are in a good place and this has the potential to be even a little higher.”

“I had a long career with my sister and it does feel strange to be at a competition like this without her, but I think I’m really lucky in the fact that I can use all the experiences I had with her to learn from, to teach Caroline and to build on this new partnership,” Parsons added.

*Editor’s Note: Due to a calculation error on the element “Pattern Dance Type Step Sequence” (PSt), the Rhythm Dance (RD) scores at the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating event Skate America had to be re-calculated for all skaters. The revised results and details are published with the corrected scores. The overall RD standing did not change. They are correct in this article as of 10 a.m. Saturday. 

Friday afternoon, Nathan Chen was the only men’s skater to break the 100-point barrier. More on the men’s and pairs’ short program here.

MORE: Hubbell, Donohue already thinking about worlds in Montreal

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. Check out a free trial of the Figure Skating Pass during Skate America from Oct. 18-20. 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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