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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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Caeleb Dressel, after 7 golds in 2017, is on record watch at swim worlds

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For Caeleb Dressel, the comparisons began in earnest two years ago when he matched Michael Phelps‘ record seven gold medals at a single world championships (albeit two were in mixed-gender relays that weren’t on the program when Phelps swam).

They will likely spread at this summer’s worlds, which begin Sunday in Gwangju, South Korea (TV schedule here). And they likely won’t dissipate through the next year and the Tokyo Olympics.

For as Dressel endured new obstacles in and out of the pool last summer, winning two of seven individual races at the two major 2018 meets, he came back this May and June with his fastest times since 2017 Worlds.

“I personally think he’s going to break three world records,” next week, NBC Sports analyst Rowdy Gaines said. “I think he’s going to break two for sure, 50m and 100m freestyle. The only one that’s doubtful, to me, would be the 100m fly.”

Dressel, the former prep prodigy who left the sport for five months before joining the University of Florida team in 2014, is expected to swim no less than the same program next week that he did in 2017.

That would mean eight races — the 50m and 100m freestyles and butterflies, the 4x100m free, 4x100m medley and two mixed-gender relays. Two years ago, Dressel won seven of eight, surprisingly taking fourth in the 50m fly (which is not on the Olympic program).

His coach in Gainesville, Gregg Troy, did not rule out adding a ninth event as part of the 4x200m free. However, that would likely give Dressel three swims in one session next Friday and next Saturday, something Phelps never did in his prime when contesting eight events at the Olympics and worlds.

The 2020 question is whether Dressel will try to swim a Phelpsian eight events in Toyko. With no 50m fly and only one mixed-gender relay on the Olympic program, he must add two events to get to eight, perhaps the 200m free and 4x200m free relay.

“I’m not too sure,” Dressel said. “I just want to stay focused on this year. I’ve got the biggest meet of my year coming up in less than a week. I’ll get through this meet, and then me and Troy, we’ll start looking forward next year and maybe add some new events. But I’m not too sure at the moment.”

Dressel turned pro last spring after an unprecedented NCAA career, where his routine included carrying a blue bandana in his mouth on the pool deck. The demands on his time were new, from choosing an agent to signing with a swimwear company.

Troy, who coached Ryan Lochte in his prime to overtake Phelps as the world’s best swimmer in 2011, said he may have overtrained Dressel before last summer’s nationals and Pan Pacific Championships.

After Pan Pacs, Dressel revealed that an earlier motorcycle incident where he was forced off the road by another motorist, but didn’t suffer serious injury, maybe interfered with training.

Now, Dressel chalks that summer to uncharacteristically poor swimming at the wrong time. “I can put as many excuses as I want on that, but that’s really just what it was,” he said. “I mean, it happens to athletes all over the world.

“I’m glad it happened when it did. It can mess with you. It can turn into a downward spiral of self-doubt if you don’t just pick and choose what you want to learn from bad experiences like that. I don’t take it as all too negative. I certainly wouldn’t want it to happen again. Just a bad meet. Move on from it.”

Troy went further, noting the scrutiny on Dressel. Phelps is retired, Lochte suspended (and, at age 34, staving off Father Time), creating an opening for a male U.S. swim star to pair with Katie Ledecky. In 2017, Dressel became that alpha.

“It’s one thing being the guy coming up. It’s another thing being the guy that’s hunted,” Troy said this week. “He’s a little more mature to handle all the outside factors that we had to deal with last summer.”

In 2017, Dressel’s winning times in the 50m and 100m freestyles and the 100m butterfly were a combined .56 shy of three world records. This year, he’s ranked Nos. 1, 3 and 5 in the world in those events.

His 2019 times are a combined .64 faster than his best pre-worlds times in 2017, which is why some believe he’s in for a special week in South Korea. But not everyone buys that logic.

“The meets leading up to it don’t really mean too much,” Dressel demurred.

Dressel didn’t have to peak this year for an NCAA Championships or a nationals (the world team was decided last summer) like in 2017. He had the luxury of putting all his focus the last several months on Gwangju.

“My gut feeling,” Gaines said, “I think he’s going to destroy ’em.”

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MORE: Katie Ledecky faces toughest tests yet at swim worlds

World’s fastest mom leads London Diamond League fields; stream schedule

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Jamaican sprinters headline this weekend’s Diamond League meet in London, while most American stars rest up for next week’s USATF Outdoor Championships.

Olympic champions Shelly-Ann Fraser-PryceElaine Thompson and Yohan Blake dot the two-day meet at the 2012 Olympic Stadium. NBC Sports Gold streams live coverage each morning at 8:15 and 8:50 ET.

Fraser-Pryce and Thompson, who combined to win the last three Olympic 100m and share the fastest time in the world this year of 10.73 seconds, are in separate events in London.

Fraser-Pryce goes in the 100m against the fastest women from Europe and Africa. Thompson faces a less daunting field in the 200m; she’s the only entrant who has run sub-22.3. They could both double up in the 100m and 200m at the world championships in Doha in two months.

As for Blake, he races after being called out by former training partner Usain Bolt for leaving their shared coach of several years, Glen Mills. Blake is the second-fastest man in history but hasn’t been within two tenths of his personal-best 9.69 in nearly seven years.

Here are the London entry lists. Here’s the schedule of events (all times Eastern):

Saturday
8:15 a.m. — Men’s Long Jump
9:04 — Women’s 400m
9:09 — Women’s Pole Vault
9:13 — Men’s 5000m
9:20 — Women’s Javelin
9:40 — Men’s Triple Jump
9:55 — Men’s 800m
10:06 — Women’s 200m
10:17 — Men’s 400m Hurdles
10:29 — Women’s 100m Hurdles
10:39 — Women’s 1500m
10:50 — Men’s 100m

Sunday
8:50 a.m. — Men’s Discus
9:04 — Men’s 400m
9:20 — Men’s High Jump
9:35 — Women’s 800m
9:40 — Women’s Long Jump
9:45 — Men’s Mile
9:56 — Women’s 5000m
10:19 — Men’s 200m
10:29 — Women’s 400m Hurdles
10:39 — Men’s 110m Hurdles
10:50 — Women’s 100m

Here are five events to watch:

Men’s 800m — Saturday, 9:55 a.m. ET
Perhaps the greatest race in history came on this track at the 2012 London Games — the men’s 800m final won by David Rudisha in a world record. Botswana’s Nijel Amos took silver that day at age 18 to become the fourth-fastest man ever. Amos has not earned a global championship medal since, but last Friday he clocked his fastest 800m since that evening in London. Here, he faces the next-fastest man in the world this year, Kenyan Ferguson Rotich, and the fastest man of 2017 and 2018, Kenyan Emmanuel Korir.

Men’s 100m — Saturday, 10:50 a.m. ET
Blake hasn’t raced a Diamond League this season and last won on this stage in 2017. Here, he gets an opportunity with the world’s fastest men — all Americans — sitting out. Andre De Grasse, who like Blake has been slowed by leg injuries, is the other marquee name, but he hasn’t broken 10 seconds in 13 tries since taking bronze in Rio, according to Tilastopaja.org.

Men’s Discus — Sunday, 8:50 a.m. ET
Perhaps the deepest field of the meet with the Olympic and world gold and silver medalists and the top three in the world this year. The favorite has to be Swede Daniel Ståhl, who takes up nine of the first 11 spots on the 2019 top list. Ståhl broke the Swedish record three weeks ago with the world’s top throw in 11 years.

Women’s 5000m — Sunday, 9:56 a.m. ET
Ethiopian-born Dutchwoman Sifan Hassan follows up her world record in the mile (4:12.33) from the last Diamond League stop in Monaco. Hassan was primarily a 1500m runner through the Rio Olympics (where she was fifth) but since added 5000m work. She faces the ultimate test here in world champion Hellen Obiri, the only woman who has been faster over the last two years.

Women’s 100m — Sunday, 10:50 a.m. ET
Fraser-Pryce owns fond memories at this track, though she missed the 2017 World Championships in London due to childbirth. She won her second Olympic 100m in London in 2012 and scored her first post-baby Diamond League win here last summer. Fraser-Pryce has a chance to become the third woman to break 10.75 three times in one year, joining Florence Griffith-Joyner (1988) and Marion Jones (1998). She could get the necessary push from Ivorian Marie-Josee Ta Lou and Brit Dina Asher-Smith, the fastest in the world in 2018.

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MORE: Olympic champions, world-record holder to miss USATF Outdoor Champs