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World Championships pairs’ preview: Can Vanessa James, Morgan Cipres cement their undefeated season with a win?

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Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres of France are coming to the 2019 World Championships with plenty of momentum. They won their first Grand Prix Final title in December and became the first French team since 1932 to win gold at the European Championships in January. 1932 was also the last time a French pair won the world title.

They’re the favorites at the World Championships in Saitama, Japan from March 18-24. But they’ll still have to battle 2017 World Champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong of China as well as two-time world medalists Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov of Russia if they want to stand atop the podium.

Here is a closer look at the field:

Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres, France

Credentials: Grand Prix Final champions, European champions, fifth in PyeongChang, 2018 world bronze medalists

James and Cipres own the highest three free skate scores of the season and the two highest total scores of the season. Their free skate point gap over the Russians, Tarasova and Morozov, is around 5 points. They are the overwhelming favorites outside of the 2017 World Champions, Sui and Han of China. But unlike the other podium threat teams, they’ve never vied for a world title before, and the pressure to deliver could be a factor for James and Cipres.

Worth noting: The pair told NBCSports.com/figure-skating they would have retired had they won an Olympic medal, but now they want to keep going and take things one season at a time.

Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, China

Credentials: Olympic silver medalists, 2017 world champions plus two-time worlds silver medalists

Sui and Han’s first full competition of the season was last month’s Four Continents. Despite winning, they were not clean in the short program or the free skate.

Worth noting: Reports have also surfaced that neither Sui nor Han is 100 percent. Sui hasn’t made a full recovery from her foot injury, and was injured again during an exhibition in North Korea in February.

Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov, Russia

Credentials: Two-time world medalists (bronze, 2017; silver, 2018), two-time European champions, fourth in PyeongChang plus won silver in the team event as Olympic Athletes from Russia

Two gold medals on the Grand Prix circuit, plus a bronze in the Grand Prix Final have set up Tarasova and Morozov well for the second half of the season. They had a messy free skate in the Final but improved by Russian nationals, which they won. They earned a silver at European championships after Tarasova downgraded her triple toes in both the short and the free.

Worth noting: They changed their short program after Russian nationals. The pair was previously skating to James Brown’s “I Got You” but now skate to music by Rachmaninov, the same program they used during Olympic season.

The American outlook:

Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc are the lone U.S. representatives in the field. Their main task in Saitama is to finish inside the top 10, which would guarantee two pairs quota spots for the U.S. at the 2020 World Championships. The newly-crowned national champions told NBCSports.com/figure-skating that this has been their goal all along this season, and they feel ready to do so, despite Cain’s December concussion.

Honorable mention: The other Chinese team in the field has done well this season. Peng Cheng and Jin Yang were the 2019 Four Continents bronze medalists and won the silver medal at the Grand Prix Final.

Canada’s Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro are also a team to watch, as they were silver medalists behind Sui and Han at Four Continents by just 0.06 points.

Two other teams in the field also competed at the Grand Prix Final: Italy’s Nicole Della Monica and Matteo Guarise and Russia’s Natalya Zabiyako and Aleksandr Enbert.

MORE: How to watch the World Figure Skating ChampionshipsLadies’ preview | Pairs’ preview | Men’s Preview

As a reminder, you can watch the world 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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Tokyo Paralympic triathlon test event cancels swim due to water bacteria

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TOKYO (AP) — High levels of bacteria forced the swimming portion of a triathlon test event for the Tokyo Paralympics to be canceled Saturday.

It’s the second setback in the triathlon for organizers of next year’s Olympics and Paralympics. An Olympic triathlon running event was shortened from 10km to 5km on Thursday because of what the International Triathlon Union (ITU) called “extreme levels” of heat.

Tokyo’s hot and humid summers are a major worry for Olympic organizers. The water issues are a reminder of the Rio Games, when high bacteria and virus levels were found in waters for sailing, rowing and open-water swimming.

In a statement, the ITU said E-coli levels were “more than two times over the ITU limits.” It said the water was at Level 4, the highest risk level.

E-coli bacteria, which normally live in the intestines of animals and people, can produce intestinal pain, diarrhea and a fever.

The venue in Tokyo Bay, called Odaiba, has been a concern for organizers, who have experimented with different measures to clean the water in the area, located in an urban part of central Tokyo.

The ITU is scheduled to hold it final test event on Sunday “depending on the latest water quality tests”, it said in a statement.

A few days ago the ITU described water quality conditions at the venue as “very good.” However, swimmers at a recent distance swimming event at the same venue complained of foul-smelling water.

The water temperature at the venue on Saturday was 84 degrees Fahrenheit, with the air temperature hovering above 90.

Tokyo spokesman Masa Takaya said “we are set to conduct a comprehensive review with the international federation.”

He said a triple-layer underwater screen will be installed for next year’s Olympics, replacing a single-layer.

“Based on the results of multiple research in the past, we believe that the multiple layer screen will assure the successful delivery of the competitions,” he said.

Filthy water plagued the Rio Olympics. The South American city lacks a functioning sanitation system for much of its population. Open water there tested high for bacteria and viruses, which confronted athletes in rowing, sailing and triathlon.

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MORE: Double DQ caps bizarre Tokyo Olympic triathlon test event

Women’s hurdlers take center stage as Diamond League hits crunch time; how to watch

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A showdown between world record holder Kendra Harrison (U.S.), reigning Olympic champion Brianna McNeal (U.S.) and 2019 world leader Danielle Williams (Jamaica) in the women’s 100-meter hurdles is the marquee event of the Diamond League meet Sunday in Birmingham, England.

With the track and field world championships not starting this year until Sept. 28, the Diamond League gets an uninterrupted run to its season finales Aug. 29 in Zurich and Sept. 6 in Brussels. The 32 Diamond League events are split between the two finales, with a $50,000 prize awaiting the winner of each final.

The last two meets before those finales — Sunday’s meet and the Aug. 24 meet in Paris — are all about qualifying for a shot at those final jackpots.

Birmingham will be the last chance to win points in the men’s 400m, women’s long jump, women’s 1,500m/mile, men’s javelin, women’s 100m hurdles, men’s 100m and women’s 200m. It’s the second-to-last chance in the women’s discus, women’s pole vault, men’s 400m hurdles, men’s high jump, women’s 3000m steeplechase and women’s 800m.

NBC Sports Gold streams live and commercial-free on Sunday, starting with field events at 7:15 a.m. Eastern and track events kicking off at 9 a.m. Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA airs coverage Monday at 4 p.m.

The women’s 100m hurdles also features two Americans who need points to reach the final — Nia Ali and Queen Claye.

Other American athletes aiming to improve solid chances of qualifying include Raevyn Rogers (women’s 800m), Jenn Suhr (women’s pole vault), Mike Rodgers (men’s 100m), Valarie Allman (women’s discus), Michael Cherry (men’s 400m), Kahmari Montgomery (men’s 400m), Vernon Norwood (men’s 400m), David Kendziera (men’s 400m hurdles), Jeron Robinson (men’s high jump) and Courtney Frerichs (women’s 3,000m steeplechase)

Americans who have already qualified in these events include Ajee Wilson (women’s 800m) and Brittney Reese (women’s long jump), both of whom will be competing in Birmingham,

U.S. qualifiers Jenna Prandini (women’s 200m), Emma Coburn (women’s 3,000m steeplechase) and Sandi Morris (women’s pole vault) will not be in Birmingham. Christian Coleman (100m) withdrew from the meet on Friday, spoiling a showdown with Canada’s Andre De Graase and leaving the potential qualification of Jamaica’s Yohan Blake as the most interesting question.

Americans who may qualify in absentia, pending other results, include Justin Gatlin (100m), Noah Lyles (100m), Jenny Simpson (1,500m), Rai Benjamin (400m hurdles), TJ Holmes (400m hurdles), Michael Norman (men’s 400m), Nathan Strother (men’s 400m) and Fred Kerley (men’s 400m).

In a non-Diamond League event, U.S. champion Craig Engels brings his famous mullet to Birmingham in the 1,500 meters.

Here are the Birmingham entry lists and the current Diamond League standings. The schedule (all times Eastern, x-event not counted toward Diamond League standings):

7:45 a.m. — Women’s Discus
8:02 a.m. — Women’s 100m Hurdles Heat A
8:07 a.m. — Women’s Pole Vault
8:14 a.m. — Women’s 100m Hurdles Heat B
8:26 a.m. — x-Men’s 110m Hurdles
8:46 a.m. — Men’s 100m Heat A
8:55 a.m. — Men’s 100m Heat B
9:03 a.m. — Men’s 400m
9:10 a.m. — Women’s Long Jump
9:13 a.m. — Men’s 400m Hurdles
9:19 a.m. — Men’s High Jump
9:23 a.m. — Women’s Mile
9:33 a.m. — x-Women’s 100m
9:38 a.m. — Men’s Javelin
9:43 a.m. — x-Men’s 1,500m
9:55 a.m. — Women’s 3,000m Steeplechase
10:12 a.m. — x-Men’s 800m
10:22 a.m. — Women’s 100m Hurdles Final
10:32 a.m. — Men’s 100m Final
10:41 a.m. — Women’s 800m
10:52 a.m. — Women’s 200m

Here are five events to watch:

Women’s Pole Vault — 8:07 a.m.
Suhr has no Diamond League points but has the world lead at 4.91 meters. Perennial contenders Katerina Stefanidi (Greece) and Yarisley Silva (Cuba) are also competing.

Men’s 400m — 9:03 a.m.
No one has clinched qualification yet, but Cherry is set to compete in Birmingham and should get through. Americans have the top four spots in the standings — Norman, Cherry, Strother and Kerley.

Women’s 3,000-meter steeplechase — 9:55 a.m.
World record holder Beatrice Chepkoech and three fellow Kenyans who have all qualified alongside Coburn will have their eyes on records.

Women’s 100m Hurdles — 10:22 a.m. final; 8:02 a.m. heats
Most of the top 12 on the world list this year and most of the hurdles who have clinched spots in the final will be here, including Williams and the American trio of Harrison, Sharika Nelvis and Christina Clemons. McNeal, who will run in the world championships with Harrison and Ali, will not qualify.

Women’s 200m — 10:52 a.m.
Dutch sprinter Dafne Schippers, who’s aiming for her third straight world championship, has qualified but will race in Birmingham against equally accomplished sprinters Shaunae Miller-Uibo (Bahamas), who has won the last two Diamond League titles at this distance and the 2016 Olympic 400-meter gold, and Jamaican Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, whose list of international honors is lengthy.

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