2018 World Championships gold and silver medalists/ AP

World Championships ice dance preview: France’s Papadakis, Cizeron vying for title No. 4

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The way the ice dance field breaks down at this weekend’s World Championships in Saitama, Japan, largely depends on how the teams that train in Montreal skate.

Two-time world silver medalists Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon (2006, 2007) have built a venerable dance school in Montreal. Teams, like two-time Olympic gold medalists Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, have flocked there since France’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron shot from 13th to first in a one-year span under their tutelage.

Papadakis and Cizeron have had an abbreviated season due to Cizeron’s concussion, but they are just as strong as they were last season. They missed their first Grand Prix assignment, meaning they couldn’t qualify for the Grand Prix Final, but still won Grand Prix France. Then in January, they won their fifth consecutive European title.

The couple, the 2018 Olympic silver medalists, are the heavy favorites in Japan, where they are contending for their fourth World title (2015, 2016, 2018). This season, the biggest change for the team is that they’re training with more of their direct competition than ever, including three American teams.

“Each one is quite friendly and has a lot of respect for the others. Each one works his or her best. Each one is fun to share the ice with,” Papadakis said in an interview with NBCsports.com/figure-skating.

As in the men’s discipline — where Nathan Chen, Jason Brown, and Vincent Zhou are first, second and fourth after Thursday’s short program — the American teams are looking particularly strong. Here’s a closer look at the U.S. teams, plus the other podium threats:

Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue, U.S.A.

Credentials: 2018 World silver medalists, 2018 Grand Prix Final champions, two-time U.S. champions, fourth in PyeongChang

Hubbell and Donohue won gold at the prestigious Grand Prix Final in December, the first U.S. dance team to do so since 2013. Then, they won their second consecutive U.S. national title in January. But at their next competition, Four Continents, they stumbled. They received only base credit on their opening stationary lift, which cost them around five points – that’s major in ice dance, especially in a field where podiums are often decided by just tenths or hundredths. The mistake dropped them from first all the way down to fourth place.

Worth noting: They skate their free dance to “Romeo & Juliet” and tell the story of the star-crossed lovers. Before the free dance at nationals, they watched the movie together, which helped them connect to the emotions behind the iconic performances in the film.

Madison Chock and Evan Bates, U.S.A.

Credentials: Two-time world medalists (silver, 2015; bronze, 2016), 2015 U.S. champions, 2019 Four Continents champions

Chock and Bates were sidelined by her ankle surgery and were away from competition for nearly 10 months following the 2018 World Championships. In the meantime, they moved to Montreal to train and reignite their passion for skating. They’ve rededicated themselves to the next Olympics – which would be the couple’s third together – and it shows in their skating. They were second at U.S. nationals in January and were lights-out at Four Continents to take the title.

Worth noting: They competed three times in five weeks in January and February, but utilized the lead-up time before worlds to recuperate. Their plan is still to peak in Japan, they told NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, U.S.A.

Credentials: 2019 U.S. bronze medalists, fifth at Four Continents, 10th at 2018 World Championships

Hawayek and Baker’s move to Montreal has brought marked improvement this season. They won their first Grand Prix gold medal in Japan, qualified for their first Grand Prix Final, notched their highest-ever finish at U.S. nationals and were named to the Four Continents and World Championship teams outright. Previously, they had competed at those events only after being called up from the alternate spot. They told NBCSports.com/figure-skating that put them in a tough spot.

“It’s really exciting for us to make that leap into this realm of skaters,” Hawayek said in that interview. “We’re really grateful that we train with the other two [teams] that are on the [U.S.] podium with us every day.”

Worth noting: Their move to Montreal came with its own setbacks, as Baker suffered a concussion early in the season. However, they did not miss any major competition and he has since said he’s back to normal and taking care of himself.

Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, Canada

Credentials: Three-time world medalists (silver, 2014; bronze, 2015, 2018), two-time Grand Prix Final gold medalists, three-time Canadian national champions, two-time Four Continents gold medalists

The skating world hasn’t seen much of Weaver and Poje in competition this season. They won the Grand Prix Final twice (2015, 2016) but skipped the circuit this season to perform in the Thank You, Canada tour with their fellow 2018 Olympians.

They returned to competitive ice in January for their third Canadian national title and in February, earned silver medals at Four Continents. The 2018 world bronze medalists could land on the podium again in Japan.

Worth noting: Their free dance music this season was also used by their friend Denis Ten, who was killed in his home city of Almaty, Kazakhstan in July.

“When the tragedy struck, we knew our mission in this program was to do it for Denis,” Weaver told NBCSports.com/figure-skating at their lone fall competition in September.

Honorable mention: Teams who qualified for the Grand Prix Final will also be in the mix: Russia’s Viktoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov (silver medalists), Italy’s Charlene Guignard and Marco Fabbri (bronze), plus fourth-place finishers Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin from Russia.

MORE: How to watch the World Figure Skating Championships | Sui Wenjing, Han Cong recapture world pair title | Alina Zagitova leads after ladies’ short program | Nathan Chen, Jason Brown in first and second after men’s short

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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2021 Burton U.S. Open snowboarding event canceled

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The Burton U.S. Open, snowboarding’s most storied event, canceled its 2021 competition due to uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.

“The truth is, we just can’t be sure it will be safe from a public health standpoint for us to host the event in 2021,” a statement read.

The U.S. Open, held since 1982, is usually around the first weekend in March, making it the season-ending event for many riders. Halfpipe champions include Shaun WhiteChloe KimKelly Clark and Ross Powers, who also earned Olympic gold medals.

Other 2020-21 winter sports events affected by the coronavirus pandemic include figure skating’s Junior Grand Prix. The first two stops of that eight-event series, scheduled for late August and early September in Canada and Slovakia, have been canceled.

The Italian Winter Sports Federation, which is due to put on the February 2021 World Alpine Skiing Championships in Cortina d’Ampezzo, made a formal request on Monday to postpone the event until March 2022, one month after the next Winter Olympics in Beijing. The International Ski Federation (FIS) council will decide July 1.

MORE: Takeaways from abbreviated 2019-20 winter sports season

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Kara Eaker eschews fear, back on balance beam to resume Olympic quest

Kara Eaker
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Kara Eaker hasn’t qualified for an Olympics yet, but she is already part of a historic club of U.S. gymnasts. The list goes, most recently, Eaker, Simone BilesKyla RossAly RaismanNastia LiukinShawn JohnsonShannon Miller and Dominique Dawes.

Those are the women who qualified for back-to-back balance beam finals at the sport’s highest level: Olympics or world championships. For Eaker (pronounced like acre), they came in her first two years as a senior gymnast in 2018 and 2019 (Biles and Johnson are the only other U.S. women to do that in the last 25 years.)

This was supposed to be Eaker’s Olympic year, but the coronavirus pandemic postponed the Games to 2021, after her Missouri high school graduation. It also kept her out of the gym for nearly two months until the GAGE Center reopened last week in Blue Springs, near Kansas City.

It was the longest Eaker had been off a regulation beam (and out of the gym) since she could remember. She began competing at age 5.

Eaker’s mom, Katherine, said her daughter never feared the four-inch-wide beam, but Eaker said the thought of returning last week “was definitely kind of scary at first.” That is, until one of her coaches eased her back with basics and work on a floor beam, one that’s not raised as high as the four feet you see in competition.

“By the time we were ready, and she was comfortable putting us back up there, it wasn’t scary,” Eaker said. “It felt normal.”

Eaker, adopted from a Chinese orphanage around age 1 in 2003 (her parents’ travel then delayed by SARS), excels on the senior elite stage with a level of normalcy.

Which is not entirely normal in this sport. She lives with her family, 10 minutes from her world-class gym. She still attends regular high school. She’s committed to continue gymnastics at the University of Utah after the Tokyo Olympics.

“I started out in dance, actually,” said Eaker, whose hobbies include robotics and calligraphy. “A little, little girl with the stuffed animal, twirling around in the dance room. And then we had our little recital and I just wasn’t … I couldn’t do the standing in front of an audience kind of thing.”

Her mom believes it was around Christmas. Eaker was 3 or 4.

“She just froze like a deer in the headlights, and all the other girls froze, too, because they were used to following her,” Katherine said. “Then she tried gymnastics. We had to drag her out [of the gym]. From then on, it was always, she’s first one in, last one out. Still is.”

The family, including Eaker’s father, Mark, retired Navy and a flight engineer, and younger sister, Sara, moved three times within Missouri in part to get Kara closer to GAGE to pursue what would eventually become an Olympic dream.

Gymnastics meets were appointment TV before Eaker entered kindergarten. She watched the Beijing Olympics, or perhaps an even earlier meet, while dancing around the living room in a leotard. Sometimes she mimicked the gold medalists by doing back bends. She continued to watch Beijing highlights, with Liukin and Johnson, on replay on YouTube.

Back at the gym, Eaker developed with the help of her coaches, plus future University of Nebraska gymnast Catelyn Orel, her “gym mom” under the GAGE program to pair older and younger athletes. Orel was a state champion on beam. Eaker proved a natural, too.

“A lot of the girls would get up there and have trouble balancing, but she just always seemed to do it just like she was on the floor,” her mom said. “She’s never really had a fear. Some girls get up there and are nervous. She just never seemed to be that way.”

In 2018, Eaker was 15, old enough to start competing on the senior level with the likes of Biles. Exactly 10 years after she would have watched Johnson win the Beijing Olympic beam title, Eaker finished second on beam at nationals behind Biles. She was invited to the world championships team selection camp, where she had the top beam score and placed sixth in the all-around. Six gymnasts would be chosen by a committee to travel to the world championships.

Eaker didn’t expect to make the team. In a large meeting with coaches and staff, the roster was announced. Eaker made it as the youngest member.

“It was a goal, but there were so many other girls and it was my first year as a senior,” she said. “I was very happy and surprised to make that team.”

Eaker again won beam at the 2019 World Championships selection camp. If Eaker endured adversity those first two years, it came at worlds.

In 2018, she fell on her mount in the beam final. The rest of her routine was medal-worthy gymnastics. She waited an eternal three minutes for her score, which placed her sixth. Eaker’s routine from the team final earlier that week would have earned silver.

In 2019, Eaker again qualified for the eight-woman beam final. The U.S. federation submitted an inquiry on her qualifying score, contesting a lower start value given to her. That backfired. Judges lowered Eaker’s score even more upon review, which took her out of the final. However, another gymnast who had qualified later withdrew due to injury. Eaker was back in the final, where she placed fourth.

She was asked afterward what she would take away from the meet.

“Just the experience of it all,” she said, composed. “How it makes me feel. How to use that [in the future].”

In 2021, Eaker will have to prove to a selection committee that she can be reliable on all four apparatuses. The Olympic team event size is four — with three gymnasts going per apparatus in the Olympic final — down from five in 2016, putting a greater emphasis on the all-around. Eaker could also be a candidate for one separate spot in individual events only.

“I definitely want to be seen as a great beam worker, but I also need to be a great all-arounder because they’re going to be looking at not just your one event,” said Eaker, who was third in the all-around at the 2019 Worlds selection camp. “You have to be able to benefit the team with your other events, even if they aren’t as strong as your [best] one.”

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