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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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No medal for David Boudia as China extends perfect run at diving worlds

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David Boudia is very much a work in progress in his first year as a springboard diver. That much was evident in his dive list for Thursday’s final at the world championships, where Boudia had the lowest total degree of difficulty.

Boudia, a four-time Olympic platform medalist who earned individual platform silver at his last three world championships, took fifth in the springboard final in Gwangju, South Korea while performing easier dives than the other 11 men.

It marked Boudia’s first major international meet since Rio. He took 2017 off from diving to sell homes. In February 2018, he suffered a concussion on a badly missed dive in training off the 10-meter platform, sparking the switch to springboard, a common move for divers late in their careers.

Boudia will spend the next year — the next six months in particular — trying to close the gap on the medalists. China’s Xie Siyi and Cao Yuan went one-two.

Great Britain’s Jack Laugher was in position to become the first non-Chinese diver to take gold in 10 events this week before failing his last dive for 30.6 points, the lowest-scoring dive of the 72 in the final. Laugher scored at least 9.0s on his first five dives, including a 10, before recording between 2s and 3s from the seven judges in the last round and squandering a 31.1-point lead.

“It’s hard to get over,” Laugher said. “I don’t really have words for my last dive. ”

Laugher had 21.6 points in difficulty in Thursday’s final. Xie had 21.3 and Cao 21.2. Boudia had 19.9, arguably putting him out of the running for the podium before he stepped on the springboard.

Boudia, a 30-year-old father of three, accomplished his goal for worlds simply by making the final.

Boudia and Rio Olympian Michael Hixon reached the top 12 to ensure the U.S. gets two men’s springboard spots at Tokyo 2020, to be filled at June’s Olympic trials in Indianapolis. Hixon, who was 10th in Rio and 20th at the 2017 Worlds, finished seventh in Gwangju.

Diving worlds continue with the women’s springboard final, featuring Chinese Olympic champion Shi Tingmao but no Americans, on Friday. The men’s platform final is Saturday.

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MORE: Diving Worlds TV Schedule

Chris Froome wins 2011 Vuelta a Espana

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AIGLE, Switzerland (AP) — Chris Froome has become the 2011 Spanish Vuelta winner because of Juan Jose Cobo’s disqualification for blood doping.

The International Cycling Union says Cobo did not meet a deadline to challenge his three-year ban at the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

The UCI says Cobo’s suspension announced last month is confirmed, and he is stripped of results at the 2009 world championships and Vuelta, and the 2011 Vuelta which he won.

Froome was runner-up eight years ago and becomes the winner of his first Grand Tour title, and seventh overall.

Froome also becomes the first British winner of any of the major stage races — the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France, or Vuelta.

That honor was held by Bradley Wiggins, the 2012 Tour winner who rises from third to be runner-up at the 2011 Vuelta.

The 38-year-old Cobo is retired from racing. His doping ban was announced days after Froome suffered season-ending injuries crashing at the Dauphine race in France.

Watch world-class cycling events throughout the year with the NBC Sports Gold Cycling Pass, including all 21 stages of the Tour de France live & commercial-free, plus access to renowned races like La Vuelta, Paris-Roubaix, the UCI World Championships and many more.

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