U.S. Championships ice dance preview: No doubt Hubbell, Donohue can defend title

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Olympic silver medalist Tanith White will be on the call for the ice dance segments at the 2019 U.S. Championships. The five-time national champion spoke with NBCSports.com/figure-skating to break down the likely podium contenders in Detroit this weekend.

While Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue are coming into the championships winning everything they competed in this season, they certainly appear to be capable of defending their title. Their training partners will challenge them, including Madison Chock and Evan Bates, who we haven’t seen much from this season due to injury, and Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, a team coming into their own after making the move to Montreal to train this season.

The rhythm dance is Friday and the free dance is Saturday. Check out the full schedule and live streaming information here.

Hubbell and Donohue should continue excellent season

Hubbell and Donohue swept their Grand Prix assignments this fall and won December’s prestigious Grand Prix Final. The 2018 Worlds silver medalists come to nationals to defend their title for the first time, which may put additional pressure on them. But as White said, no problem. White feels “very confident” they’ll be able to retain their championship title.

“There is certainly a clear leader in Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue. They ended the season last year with an incredible high at the world championships and they went into this year where they’ve just been setting goals and ticking them off, one by one. Which is an incredible confidence booster and just a really, really fantastic place for any team to reach.”

“Having said that, they’re coming in as defending champions for the first time, which is always a new and different experience. It brings both a sense of confidence and comfort but also its own pressure. Dealing with those expectations can challenging. But they have proven this season, more so than any season in the past, that they can handle the pressure on the biggest stages and really step up in those big moments. I expect the U.S. Championships to be a real celebration for them of what they’ve been able to accomplish this season both on paper and personally with the growth in their relationships and their skating and their partnership on and off the ice.”

MORE: 3 questions with Hubbell and Donohue 

Chock and Bates’ comeback

Chock and Bates made their season debut at a small event in Poland earlier in January. Before that, their last competition was the PyeongChang Olympics. Chock’s ankle injury kept them out of the fall season and in the meantime, the couple moved to Montreal to train.

Realistically, though, White said, “in the scheme of how long they’ve been on the scene and how long they’ve been at the top of the dance scene, they haven’t been away that long. It’s only been a couple of months.”

Can audiences expect big changes from Chock and Bates under new tutelage?

“Their style will be noticeably affected by their new coaching team. As is the case any time a couple leaves a longtime coach and choreographer and makes a big change. But obviously that’s something that they wanted, they needed a refresher in their careers at this point and I’m really excited to see how that plays out. Mostly, just to see them on the ice with renewed confidence in what they’re bringing to the table. Which is what it feels like when you’ve made a big change.”

“Madison and Evan year after year at the U.S. Championships, when they get on the ice for practice, blow me away. They have just a magnetism that is appreciable that much more in person and so even if anyone’s coming in with question marks or doubts about their readiness or their new material, I just have this feeling that they’re going to once again get onto practice and just start speeding around the rink and blow everyone away.”

MORE: 3 questions with Chock and Bates

Hawayek and Baker build on growth this season

Hawayek and Baker have never been higher than fourth at U.S. Nationals, though they were world junior champions in 2014. This season, they moved to Montreal to train – now, the top three U.S. dance teams are training together, and each know what the other brings to the table. By winning NHK Trophy in Japan and qualifying for the first Grand Prix Final, they made a statement in a big way.

“They are skating so well this season. They are so much more engaged and active with their skating. They have an enhanced connection with each other, with their movement, with the ice. Everything is more deliberate. I’m just so impressed with the improvements that they’ve been able to make in one off-season. That’s really fast to acclimate to a new coaching team and see the results come so quickly.”

“Jean-Luc was dealing with a concussion in the summer as well. They didn’t even have ideal training circumstances; nonetheless they have come out and flourished this season. They’ve made their mark internationally and I expect that to really make a big difference in where they land nationally as well. To me, there’s no question that they have a spot waiting for them on the podium at the U.S. Championships for the first time, for those two.”

MORE: 3 questions with Hawayek and Baker

Younger teams could play spoiler, too.

With selection spots on the line for the world championships and Four Continents teams, others in the dance field will also be looking to make their mark. Each of the teams won a medal on the Grand Prix series this fall, too. Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter finished fourth at Skate America plus won bronze at Grand Prix Helsinki. Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko were fifth in Helsinki and won bronze at Rostelecom Cup. And sibling duo Rachel and Michael Parsons won bronze at NHK Trophy before finishing fifth at Grand Prix France.

White pointed out that the top total scores this season internationally for each of these teams are all within a few tenths of each other.

  • Parsons/Parsons: 180.95 points (Nebelhorn Trophy)
  • NcNamara/Carpenter: 180.57 points (Skate America)
  • Carreira/Ponomarenko: 180.22 points (Tallinn Trophy)

White said she’ll keep these close scores in mind as these three teams step on the ice.

“Last season, as some of them made their first step up to the senior ranks at the U.S. Championships, it was a bit more of a let’s-feel-it-out, let’s-skate-our-best and just see where the cards fall. This season there should be a very clear intention how they handle themselves the second they step into the arena that they’re all going for a top-three spot. It’s not outside of their reached based on the scores they’ve had this season. They’re just the younger crop. They’re going to have to prove themselves.”

MORE: Knierims, Kayne/O’Shea highlight pairs’ preview at U.S. Championships

As a reminder, you can watch the U.S. Championships live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. 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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Teri McKeever fired by Cal as women’s swimming coach after investigation

Teri McKeever
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Teri McKeever, the first woman to serve as a U.S. Olympic swimming head coach, was fired by the University of California at Berkeley after an investigation into alleged verbal and emotional abuse of swimmers that she denied.

McKeever was put on paid administrative leave from her job as head women’s swimming coach in May after an Orange County Register report that 20 current or former Cal swimmers said McKeever verbally and emotionally bullied her swimmers.

Cal athletics director Jim Knowlton wrote in a letter to the Cal team and staff that a resulting independent law firm report detailed “verbally abusive conduct that is antithetical to our most important values.”

“I strongly believe this is in the best interests of our student-athletes, our swimming program and Cal Athletics as a whole,” Knowlton said of McKeever’s firing in a press release. “The report details numerous violations of university policies that prohibit race, national origin and disability discrimination.”

The Orange County Register first published what it says is the full independent report here.

“I deny and unequivocally refute all conclusions that I abused or bullied any athlete and deny any suggestion I discriminated against any athlete on the basis of race, disability or sexual orientation,” McKeever said in a statement Tuesday confirming her firing and expressing disappointment in how the investigation was conducted. “While I am disappointed in the way my CAL Career will conclude, I wish to thank and celebrate the many student-athletes and staff that made my time in Berkeley a true blessing and gift.”

McKeever’s lawyer wrote that McKeever “will be filing suit to expose the manner in which gender has affected not only the evaluation of her coaching but harmed and continues to harm both female and male athletes.”

McKeever led Cal women’s swimming and diving for nearly 30 years, winning four NCAA team titles and coaching Olympic champions including Missy FranklinNatalie Coughlin and Dana Vollmer.

In 2004, she became the first woman to be on a U.S. Olympic swim team coaching staff, as an assistant. In 2012, she became the first woman to be head coach of a U.S. Olympic swim team. She was an assistant again for the Tokyo Games.

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Diana Taurasi returns to U.S. national basketball team

Diana Taurasi
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Diana Taurasi is set to return to the U.S. national basketball team next week for the first time since the Tokyo Olympics, signaling a possible bid for a record-breaking sixth Olympic appearance in 2024 at age 42.

Taurasi is on the 15-player roster for next week’s training camp in Minnesota announced Tuesday.

Brittney Griner is not on the list but is expected to return to competitive basketball later this year with her WNBA team, the Phoenix Mercury (also Taurasi’s longtime team, though she is currently a free agent), after being detained in Russia for 10 months in 2022.

Taurasi said as far back as the 2016 Rio Games that her Olympic career was likely over, but returned to the national team after Dawn Staley succeeded Geno Auriemma as head coach in 2017.

In Tokyo, Taurasi and longtime backcourt partner Sue Bird became the first basketball players to win five Olympic gold medals. Bird has since retired.

After beating Japan in the final, Taurasi said “see you in Paris,” smiling, as she left an NBC interview. That’s now looking less like a joke and more like a prediction.

Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve succeeded Staley as head coach last year. In early fall, she guided the U.S. to arguably the best FIBA World Cup performance ever, despite not having stalwarts Bird, Griner, Tina Charles and Sylvia Fowles.

Taurasi was not in contention for the team after suffering a WNBA season-ending quad injury in the summer. Taurasi, who is 38-0 in Olympic games and started every game at the last four Olympics, wasn’t on a U.S. team for an Olympics or worlds for the first time since 2002.

Next year, Taurasi can become the oldest Olympic basketball player in history and the first to play in six Games, according to Olympedia.org. Spain’s Rudy Fernandez could also play in a sixth Olympics in 2024.

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