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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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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MORE: 2019-20 Alpine skiing season TV schedule