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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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Punahou, Barack Obama’s school, produced Olympic talent in 4 sports

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Some high schools have a swimming tradition. Others produce great ice hockey or water polo players. The Punahou School in Honolulu, private and K-12, is best known for a student who also played basketball — its most famous graduate, Barack Obama.

Also this: Dating to Obama’s tenure in 1976, at least one Punahou student went on to make the last 11 U.S. Summer Olympic teams.

And with the addition of skateboarding and surfing to the Olympic program, there are former Punahou students among the best in the country in four different Olympic sports, plus another Paralympic sport.

“One of my favorite things about going to Punahou was that I felt like I was surrounded by a lot of excellence,” said Carissa Moore, the reigning world champion in surfing and a Punahou grad. “A lot of my friends are some of the smartest girls, women. … The whole school, everyone is doing something.”

Moore, 27, qualified for the U.S. Olympic team with her fourth world title last year. Heimana Reynolds is the reigning world champ in park skateboarding.

Brothers Taylor and Trevor Crabb are on different beach volleyball teams ranked among the top three in the country. Erik Shoji is a veteran libero and Micah Ma’a a promising setter and outside hitter for the U.S. indoor volleyball team.

Shelby Baron is a Rio Paralympic wheelchair tennis player who is now ranked third in the country.

It’s possible that they could all qualify for the Tokyo Games, which have been postponed to summer 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Punahou, whose name means “the New Spring,” referencing renewal and a spring at the center of the campus, bills itself as the largest single-campus independent school in the U.S. and reportedly the oldest west of the Mississippi.

It was founded in 1841 with a first class of 15 students who were children of congregational missionaries. Now, it has more than 3,700. Annual tuition is $26,000, though there are financial aid options.

“This used to be an elite school, you know. Mostly rich. Predominantly Caucasian,” said Eric Kusunoki, who was Obama’s homeroom teacher for four years as part of his four decades working at Punahou. “But then when I stepped foot here, I said, wow, you know, it’s so diverse. Hawaii’s golden people, you know.

“It’s [a] very cosmopolitan campus and very reflective of what Hawaii is like.”

The school has been compared to Stanford. Sports Illustrated ranked it the No. 1 high school athletic program in 2008, replete with an eight-page magazine spread, and again in 2009. The magazine deemed it a “76-acre citadel of academic and athletic excellence where Aristotle meets Duke Kahanamoku.”

Kahanamoku, the Olympic swimming champion and surfing pioneer, never attended Punahou.

But several famous athletes are among the alumni. Like Michelle Wie, Manti Te’o and Obama, who played one season of varsity basketball on the Buff n’ Blue’s 1979 state title team.

In fact, Obama wrote in his autobiography that the lure of Punahou helped keep him in the States with his grandparents rather than flying back to Indonesia with his mom.

Obama, needing a financial aid scholarship to attend, toured the campus with his grandfather before the fifth grade. “Gramps grabbed me by the arm. ‘Hell, Bar,’ he whispered, ‘this isn’t a school. This is heaven,’” Obama wrote.

“He wasn’t a big standout,” Kusunoki said of the student they called Barry. “But yet everybody knew him. He was well-liked, well-known, but he did it real subtly.”

Others followed Obama with athletic success. Reynolds was a skateboard prodigy, profiled by the local NBC affiliate as a 10-year-old before leaving Punahou after 10th grade. He switched to online classes to accommodate all his traveling for competition.

Skateboarding and surfing are not sanctioned high school sports in Hawaii. Moore still won a record 11 National Scholastic Surfing Association titles. In her spare time, she was such a convincing tour guide for prospective Punahou students that admissions officers called her “The Closer,” according to SI.

“I have heard this,” Moore said, smiling when told the nickname. “It wasn’t really ever a big thing for me, but yes, I would bring potential prospects that would come to the school and stuff and give them tours.

“It’s just a beautiful environment to learn. It’s a very comfortable, free environment. The best part of this community is they’re going to support you in chasing your dreams.”

Moore said she was classmates with Taylor Crabb, one half of the U.S.’ top-ranked men’s beach volleyball team. Taylor’s mom, Paula, a champion canoe racer, has been a Punahou P.E. teacher since Obama was there. Taylor and partner Jake Gibb have been competing against Taylor’s older brother, Trevor, and Tri Bourne for Olympic beach volleyball berths.

It’s possible both Crabb brothers, who grew up a five-minute walk from the Punahou campus, can make it to Tokyo.

“Whenever someone says, oh, I went to Punahou, the first thing someone says is, oh, it’s where Barack Obama went,” said Trevor, who won a state basketball title and goes back to campus about once a year to see the old gym.

Shoji’s father, Dave, was the University of Hawaii’s women’s volleyball coach for 42 years, capturing four national titles and retiring in 2017 as the winningest coach in NCAA history. Ma’a won four state titles in volleyball at Punahou and others in football and basketball. At 22 and fresh out of UCLA, he was the second-youngest U.S. player at the 2019 Volleyball Nations League.

Both Trevor Crabb and Moore said you wouldn’t know it by walking around campus that Obama once roamed the grounds. He contributed to just one of a reported 505 state championships in the school’s history, a record for any state.

“There’s nothing up there yet,” of the 44th U.S. President, Moore said, “but it’s definitely something the school is very proud of.”

MORE: Hockey field to hospital ward: Olympian’s life amid coronavirus pandemic

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IOC, sport federations in talks about Tokyo Olympic age rules

Gabriel Jesus
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The International Olympic Committee and Olympic sport federations hope to finalize any adjustments to age rules for the Tokyo Games within the next two weeks.

Two sports’ rules stand out in particular.

Since the 2000 Sydney Games, an age minimum in artistic gymnastics requires female Olympians to turn 16 years old or older in the Olympic year (men must turn 18, though the age rule is less of a factor for top male gymnasts). As such, Tokyo Olympic eligibility rules state all female artistic gymnasts must be born Dec. 31, 2004, or earlier.

The International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) can choose to keep the Dec. 31, 2004, deadline. Or it could keep the 16 or older mandate by moving that date to Dec. 31, 2005 for the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. The federation hasn’t announced its plan.

Its decision could impact U.S. Olympic women’s gymnastics team selection. At least one woman who turned 16 or younger in the Olympic year made the last 10 U.S. Olympic teams. That includes Kyla Ross, the 2011 U.S. junior all-around silver medalist who made the 2012 Olympic team. And Laurie Hernandez, the 2015 U.S. junior all-around champion who made the 2016 Olympic team.

The 2019 U.S. junior all-around champion, Kayla DiCello, turned 16 on Jan. 25. The 2019 U.S. junior all-around silver medalist, Konnor McClain, turns 16 on Feb. 1, 2021. Under the 2020 Olympic eligibility rules, McClain is 32 days too young for the Tokyo Games. If the birthdate deadline is moved one year forward, McClain would be eligible.

Another sport facing an age decision: men’s soccer. Olympic men’s soccer tournaments are limited to players who turn 23 or younger in the Olympic year with three over-age exceptions. Similar to the FIG, FIFA can keep its 2020 deadline of Jan. 1, 1997. Or it can keep its under-23 mandate and move the birthdate deadline to Jan. 1, 1998.

Fourteen of the 16 men’s soccer teams already qualified for the Games using players from under-23 national teams. The last two spots are to be filled by CONCACAF nations, potentially the U.S. qualifying a men’s team for the first time since 2008.

“You can imagine there’s a logic to looking at that, having the same athletes or teams that achieved the qualification place to be the ones taking part next year, but aiming to confirm that with the respective federations,” IOC sports director Kit McConnell said Thursday.

The U.S.’ biggest star, Christian Pulisic, was born Sept. 18, 1998, and thus will be unaffected. Same goes for French superstar Kylian Mbappe, born Dec. 20, 1998.

Brazilian forward Gabriel Jesus was born April 3, 1997, and would become an over-age exception if the birthdate rule is moved to Jan. 1, 1998.

However, players need permission from their professional club teams to play in the Olympics, often limiting the availability of stars.

MORE: Noah Lyles details training near woods, dog walkers

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