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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Brian Orser reveals Hanyu’s, Medvedeva’s, and Brown’s Grand Prix plans

Yuzuru Hanyu
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Over the past decade, the Toronto club where Brian Orser coached South Korea’s Yuna Kim to the 2010 Olympic title has become such an attraction for top figure skaters from around the globe that it could add a word to a name that already is a mouthful.

You could call it the Toronto International Cricket Skating and Curling Club.

But its reach now is limited by the deadly virus pandemic that has effectively frozen out the elite athletes from Japan, Russia, South Korea and Poland who train at the Cricket Club.

That situation won’t change quickly, even with the International Skating Union having announced Monday its plans to proceed with a live format for the international Grand Prix Series. This fall, it will become a series of six essentially domestic competitions scheduled to begin with Skate America Oct. 23-25 in Las Vegas.

If they take place.

“As soon as the skaters can come back, it will be full steam ahead… to where, we don’t know,” Orser said via telephone Wednesday.

Two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu remains in Japan. Two-time world champion Yevgenia Medvedeva is in Russia, four-time national champion Cha Jun-Hwan in South Korea, and two-time national champion Yekaterina Kurakova in Poland.

“We would like for them all to come back, but with the Canadian travel restrictions in place until at least Aug. 21, we can’t guarantee approval to get them in, and they would have a 14-day quarantine here if they do get in,” Tracy Wilson, who coaches with Orser, said via telephone Wednesday. “Right now, they are all training at home, and that’s OK.

“The situation is different for each one. The Japanese federation may need Yuzu to do the Grand Prix in Japan, and at this point he would face quarantine entering Canada and returning to Japan.

“For Yevgenia, as soon as she does the Russian test skates (scheduled for early September), we will re-evaluate her situation.”

Orser said he has been doing three video coaching sessions a week with Medvedeva, with whom he is in his third season as coach. Medvedeva, who left Russia for Canada after winning a silver medal at the 2018 Olympics, also is currently getting help from coach Elena Buyanova at the CSKA rink in Moscow.

“She (Medvedeva) looks way ahead of where she was at this point last year,” Orser said.

MORE: Looking back at Yuna Kim’s 10-year gold medal anniversary

Orser also has been having live remote sessions with Cha and Kurakova, and they are also sending videos to him. The only skater he has not seen is Hanyu.

“That’s normal when he is back in Japan,” Orser said. “I wasn’t expecting anything.”

How long Hanyu stays in Japan may depend on travel restrictions being loosened in both his homeland and Canada.

“I would like to get them all back, and they need to come back,” Orser said. “But facing a double quarantine is not in anyone’s best interest.”

Only two of the Cricket Club’s international skaters, 2014 Olympian Jason Brown of suburban Chicago and Yi Zhu of Los Angeles (who represents China), have come back to Toronto after leaving in late winter.

It took Brown two tries to get back across the border because of issues with the paperwork necessary for Canada to consider it essential he be allowed to enter. Orser and Wilson want to be sure any skaters coming from Asia and Europe are admitted on the first try.

From April to July, until skaters could get back on the ice in their various homelands, Brown led Thursday off-ice fitness classes via Zoom, with Medvedeva, Cha and Kurakova taking part.

“It was such a fun way to stay connected and still ‘train’ together while we were oceans apart,” Brown said in a Wednesday text message.

Orser and Wilson will recommend that all the foreign skaters training at the Cricket Club try to compete at Skate Canada, scheduled the last weekend of October at a 9,500-seat arena in Ottawa. Wilson thought if the event cannot have spectators, it might be moved to a smaller facility, possibly in a different city.

“All plans are in the early stages,” Skate Canada spokesperson Emma Bowie said in an email.

Grand Prix assignments have not yet been made.

Whether Brown picks Skate Canada over Skate America – if he gets a choice – could depend on when (and if) the Canadian government shortens quarantine periods for travelers from the United States.

“I know that we are in such unprecedented and uncertain times, so I love seeing the ISU being creative and trying to find a way to hold skating events this year,” Brown wrote. “While a lot can happen before October, if it’s safe to do so, I’ll be ready and eager to take part in any events that I can.”

The ISU said it wants to have the Grand Prix Final in Beijing, whether it takes place on its original dates (Dec. 10-13) or early in 2021. The competition is to be used as a test event of the skating venue for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

There are no details yet on qualification for the final, which usually is determined by points for placements at the six “regular season” events of the series, held in the U.S., Canada, China, France, Russia and Japan. The top six in each of the sport’s four disciplines make the Final.

In the past, the highest-ranked skaters could compete in up to two Grand Prix events, but ISU Vice-President Alexander Lakernik of Russia said in a Tuesday email that everyone would be limited to one event this year.

Because the Final presumably would have much more of an international field than the six other events, staging it is infinitely more problematic because of travel involved.

“We want what’s best for the sport,” Wilson said. “We have to get these kids out there doing programs, to get them on TV. [Note: An NBC spokesman said the network would, as planned, provide coverage of the Grand Prix, with details forthcoming.] In terms of competition, we’re up for anything.

“For me, though, with all the restrictions, there is no way they will be able to run a fair qualification for the Grand Prix Final. You’ve got to reinvent yourself and make it something else – if you are able to have it at all.”

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

MORE: Nathan Chen is surprised, grateful and posing questions about figure skating’s restart

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Steven Nyman, top U.S. downhiller, faces another obstacle

Steven Nyman
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Steven Nyman, the active U.S. leader in World Cup downhill wins, tore his right Achilles in a training crash and had surgery earlier this week in Mt. Hood, Ore.

“I am moving forward,” was posted on Nyman’s social media. “I’ve been through this before and have full intention to comeback [sic] and compete through the next Olympics.”

Nyman raced in three Olympics and owns three World Cup downhill victories.

He turns 40 during the next Winter Games in Beijing in 2022, when he will be three and a half years older than any previous U.S. Olympic Alpine skier.

Nyman missed the PyeongChang Olympics after a pair of major injuries: blowing out his left knee in a January 2017 downhill race crash and tearing his right ACL in downhill training in January 2018. He also tore his left Achilles in 2011.

He raced the last two seasons with a best World Cup finish of fifth in Val Gardena, Italy, site of all of his World Cup wins in 2006, 2012 and 2014.

The U.S. men’s program is in the midst of its longest World Cup downhill victory and podium droughts this millennium — none since Travis Ganong‘s win in Garmish-Partenkirchen, Germany, on Jan. 27, 2017.

MORE: Alpine skiing World Cup plans earlier season start with fewer fans

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