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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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USOC fires official as Larry Nassar report released

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The U.S. Olympic Committee fired chief of sport performance Alan Ashley in the wake of an independent report released Monday that said neither he nor former CEO Scott Blackmun elevated concerns about the Larry Nassar sexual abuse allegations when they were first reported to them.

The 233-page independent report detailed an overall lack of response when the USOC leaders first heard about the Nassar allegations from the then-president of USA Gymnastics, Steve Penny.

Blackmun resigned in February because of health concerns.

The report says the USOC took no action between first hearing of the allegations in July 2015 and September 2016, when the Indianapolis Star published an account of Nassar’s sex abuse. The report concludes that lack of action allowed Nassar to abuse dozens more girls over the 14 months of silence.

Nassar is serving decades in prison on charges of child pornography and for molesting young women and girls under the guise of medical treatment; many of his accusers testified in heart-wrenching detail at his sentencing hearing.

Though Ashley was the only one to get fired in the immediate aftermath of its release, the report paints a harsh picture of leadership of the entire U.S. Olympic movement, from the offices of the USOC to what it portrays as an essentially rogue, unchecked operation at the Karolyi Ranch in Texas — the training center run by Bela and Martha Karolyi where some of the abuse occurred.

The report concludes that one of Penny’s key objectives was to keep the allegations under wraps, to avoid “sending shockwaves through the community,” as he said in a conversation with an FBI agent.

Meanwhile, Penny is portrayed as repeatedly trying to get the FBI to investigate Nassar, but the report concludes “the investigation appears to have languished … for over seven months” in the FBI’s Detroit office. USAG took the allegations to the FBI’s Los Angeles office, but not until the newspaper report came out did that office take action.

The report says Penny notified Blackmun and Ashley that Nassar had retired in September 2015, but that both leaders had deleted the email, which referenced Nassar by name.

The report details the USOC’s relationships with the sports organizations it oversees as too deferential and not involved enough in policymaking to ensure athlete safety.

“In this governance model, the USOC exerted its broad statutory authority and monetary influence over individual sports primarily for the purpose of encouraging success at the Olympic Games, effectively outsourcing any decisions regarding on-the-ground child-protective practices to the NGBs,” the report states.

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U.S. figure skating rankings going into national championships

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A discipline-by-discipline look at U.S. figure skaters’ best season scores with no more top-level events until the U.S. Championships from Jan. 24-27 in Detroit …

Men
1. Nathan Chen — 282.42
2. Chen — 280.57
3. Chen — 271.58
4. Jason Brown — 263.42
5. Brown — 256.33
6. Brown — 234.97
7. Vincent Zhou — 234.25
8. Brown — 233.23
9. Zhou — 225.75
10. Camden Pulkinen — 223.95

Chen is on his way to a third straight national title, while Brown has been a pleasant surprise this fall after changing coaches in the offseason. The Sochi Olympian and 2015 U.S. champion even beat Chen in one program on the Grand Prix Series. Zhou, after placing sixth in PyeongChang, has struggled with under-rotations on jumps but is still in the driver’s seat for one of three world championships spots.

Women
1. Bradie Tennell — 206.41
2. Tennell — 202.41
3. Ting Cui — 199.79
4. Mariah Bell — 198.96
5. Tennell — 197.78
6. Bell — 196.60
7. Tennell — 192.89
8. Bell — 190.25
9. Bell — 188.97
10. Ashley Lin — 181.21

Two world team spots for the women. Tennell and Bell are the top returning veterans this season, but remember that 2017 U.S. champion Karen Chen has yet to compete with a foot injury. Then there are Ting, 16, and Alysa Liu, a 13-year-old who isn’t age eligible for junior or senior worlds but can compete in the senior division at nationals. Liu landed triple Axels in both programs at sectionals last month, scoring 212.97 points (though domestic scores are often inflated and not comparable with international scores).

Ice Dance
1. Madison Hubbell/Zachary Donohue — 205. 35
2. Hubbell/Donohue — 200.82
3. Hubbell/Donohue — 200.76
4. Hubbell/Donohue — 197.42
5. Kaitlin Hawayek/Jean-Luc Baker — 184.63
6. Hawayek/Baker — 184.04
7. Hawayek/Baker — 181.47
8. Rachel Parsons/Michael Parsons — 180.95
9. Lorraine McNamara/Quinn Carpenter — 180.57
10. Christina Carreira/Anthony Ponomarenko — 180.22

The only active U.S. couple to beat Hubbell and Donohue in direct competition is Madison Chock and Evan Bates, but the two-time world medalists missed the entire fall season due to Chock’s ankle surgery. With Olympic bronze medalists Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani sitting out this season and maybe done competing altogether, Hubbell and Donohue will be clear favorites to repeat as national champions.

Three U.S. couples will go to worlds. Hawayek and Baker, after qualifying for their first Grand Prix Final, are primed to go back after placing 10th last season. The status of Chock and Bates will largely determine who rounds out the world team.

Pairs
1. Tarah Kayne/Danny O’Shea — 191.43

2. Alexa Scimeca Knierim/Chris Knierim — 190.49
3. Knierim/Knierim — 182.84
4. Ashley Cain/Timothy LeDuc — 181.56
5. Kayne/O’Shea — 177.69
6. Knierim/Knierim — 177.22
7. Deanna Stellato/Nathan Bartholomay — 176.44
8. Cain/LeDuc — 175.06
9. Stellato/Bartholomay — 174.91
10. Stellato/Bartholomay — 174.78

Kayne and O’Shea, who likely would have made the Olympic team if the U.S. qualified more than one pair for PyeongChang, surprised by posting that 191 at the last event of the Grand Prix Series three weeks ago. The U.S. has just one pair at worlds this season for the first time since 1984 and last earned a medal in 2002. Kayne and O’Shea and the Knierims are ranked Nos. 9 and 10 in the world this season. Cain is recovering after falling head-first on the ice from a botched lift on Friday night.

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