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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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Katie Ledecky swims fastest at U.S. Open from B final

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For what must have been the first time in seven years, Katie Ledecky failed to qualify for an A final in one of her primary events on Friday morning. No matter, she swam the fastest 200m freestyle at the U.S. Open from the B final at night.

Ledecky, owner of 20 combined Olympic and world titles, clocked 1:56.24 to win the B final by nearly three seconds in Atlanta. In the very next race, American record holder Allison Schmitt touched first in the A final in 1:56.47.

Full results are here. The final day of the meet airs live on Saturday at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app.

Ledecky has rarely lost domestically in freestyles from 200m through 1500m since she made her first Olympic team at age 15 in 2012.

She kept the streak intact, giving her a sweep of the 200m, 400m and 800m frees in the first three days of the U.S. Open, what could be the deepest domestic meet before the Olympic trials in June.

Internationally, Ledecky faced challengers in the 200m free in this Olympic cycle, unlike the last one. Italian veteran and world-record holder Federica Pellegrini won the last two world titles, with Ledecky missing the event this summer due to her mid-meet illness.

Ledecky ranks seventh in the world in the 200m free this year but likely would have been faster if she was able to race at her best at world champs.

Domestically, Simone Manuel has crept up, clocking 1:56.09 to lead off the 4x200m free relay at worlds to rank second among Americans in 2019. Manuel was the third-fastest American on Friday, recording 1:57.21, her fastest time ever outside of a major summer meet.

In other events Friday, Phoebe Bacon upset world-record holder Regan Smith in the 100m backstroke. Bacon, who like Smith is 17 years old, overtook Smith in the last 25 meters and prevailed by .05 in 58.63. Bacon, while shy of Smith’s world record 57.57, took .39 off her personal best to become the fifth-fastest in the world this year.

Olympic and world champion Lilly King dominated the 100m breaststroke, beating a strong field by .62 of a second in 1:05.65.

Chase Kalisz won a potential Olympic trials preview in the 400m individual medley in 4:13.07. Kalisz, the Rio silver medalist, held off 18-year-old Carson Foster by 1.69 seconds. Ryan Lochte, the 2012 Olympic champion in the event, was fifth, 6.65 seconds behind.

Rio Olympian Townley Haas won the men’s 200m free in 1:45.92, his fastest time since August 2018. Haas, the 2017 World silver medalist, improved to the second-fastest American in the event this year behind Andrew Seliskar.

Torri Huske won the 100m butterfly on the eve of her 17th birthday. Huske clocked 57.48, taking .23 off her personal best to move from sixth fastest to third fastest in the U.S. this year.

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Ester Ledecka stuns again, wins World Cup downhill from bib No. 26

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Consider 26 a lucky number for Ester Ledecka.

Ledecka, the snowboard champion who stunningly captured the PyeongChang Olympic super-G from bib No. 26, won her first World Cup ski race on Friday — also from bib No. 26.

Ledecka was fastest in a downhill at Lake Louise, Alberta.

She kept Swiss Corinne Suter from her first World Cup win by .35 of a second. Austrian Stephanie Venier was third. Mikaela Shiffrin was 10th in her weakest discipline. Full results are here.

“I am for sure more shocked than everybody here,” Ledecka said. “I was a little bit, not disappointed about the run, but I was not super satisfied. Then I was really surprised about the time.”

Ledecka, an Olympic and world champion in Alpine snowboarding from the Czech Republic, had a previous best Alpine skiing World Cup finish of seventh. The top-ranked racers all go in the top 20 of the start list.

Last season, Ledecka raced more World Cup skiing events than snowboarding events for the first time. She was forced to choose between world championships in skiing and in snowboarding due to schedules and picked the former with a top finish of 15th.

She’s undecided about her upcoming schedule. She could continue on the Alpine skiing tour with a super-G in Switzerland next weekend, or she could fly to Italy for a snowboarding event.

The women race another downhill and a super-G in Lake Louise the next two days. A full TV and live stream schedule for the weekend races is here.

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