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Cain and LeDuc target world top 5, starting at Skate America

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LAS VEGAS — Don’t tell Ashley Cain-Gribble, even gingerly, that there’s been a lull in U.S. pairs’ international results the past few years. She isn’t buying it.

“I would not say there’s a lull,” Cain-Gribble said after Thursday’s practice at Skate America in Las Vegas. “If you look at the last two years, there are a lot of international medals coming from pairs.”

True, to an extent. Cain-Gribble and partner Timothy LeDuc took home a bronze medal at Skate America last season, and last month they won the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic in Salt Lake City, defeating out-of-form Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov, three-time World medalists from Russia. Their U.S. teammates Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim also opened the 2019-2020 campaign strong, with a silver medal at Nebelhorn Trophy.

Still, a U.S. pair hasn’t stood on a world championships podium since 2002, and no U.S. pair has ever won a medal at the Grand Prix Final.

“I think it’s all coming down to doing it at the right moment and I think we’re all going to be doing that,” Cain-Gribble said. “We’re technically strong, all of us.”

The skater’s coach and father, Peter Cain, thinks “nervy” errors have cost U.S. pairs big on the international stage.

“We all want U.S. teams to be successful again,” Cain said. “Pushing Ashley and Tim to be good pushes all of the teams to be good. I’ve been watching practices; all of the teams can put it together at the right moment, but we often see teams getting a little nervy and making mistakes. At this level you can’t do that.”

Cain-Gribble and LeDuc have set an ambitious goal: Finish in the world’s top five. Last season, their bronze medal at Skate America helped pave the way for the Texas-based duo’s first U.S. title and a top-10 finish at the 2019 World Figure Skating Championships; this week, they’re shooting for another medal, maybe silver or gold.

“This is one step, nationals another, and Worlds is the final step,” LeDuc said.

MORE: How to watch Skate America

They’re doing all they can to get there. About three years ago, U.S. Figure Skating enlisted Nina Mozer, coach of Russian World and European medalists including Olympic champions Tatiana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov, to visit U.S. pairs’ training sites and offer expertise at pairs’ camps and seminars, including this summer’s Champs Camp.

Mozer works with several top U.S. pairs, but has formed an especially close partnership with Cain-Gribble and LeDuc. She’s coaching them here in Vegas, alongside Peter Cain.

“I’m learning a lot, too, about better planning, better ways to train. She’s really good at that, and that’s why her teams are on top,” Cain said. “I kind of stand aside and let her run the show a lot when she’s with us, and part of it for me is to learn how she handles teams in competition….That makes me a better coach in the long run for all of my students, because her mannerisms are rubbing off (on me).”

Mozer thinks Cain-Gribble and LeDuc’s goals are within reach – if they can reign in their competitive juices and skate within themselves.

“It is not possible to get to the podium immediately but step-by-step they can reach the goal,” she said through an interpreter.

“During this season they are making all of the elements well, the key thing is do not rush. I’m worried that the audience is expecting a lot, and they have to forget about that and do their work. When expectations are so high, sometimes it’s hard to concentrate and very easy to be nervous.”

Cain-Gribble and LeDuc, who teamed up in May 2016, are both strong single skaters. They use their long lines – Cain-Gribble is 5-foot-6, while LeDuc is 6’1” – to their advantage, and each season have targeted areas for improvement.

During their 2018/2019 campaign, they upgraded their triple twist, making it a high-scoring (Level 4) element.

“When U.S. Figure Skating spoke to me, one of the first things (they did) was asking me to work on the twist lift,” Mozer said. “They came up to me and said, ‘Please do something.’”

This summer, the skaters attended Mozer’s camp in Italy, where the focus was overall packaging.

“It’s a really intense camp up in the Alps,” LeDuc said at Champs Camp in August. “For the most part, we really focus on our overall packaging, and speed and power through everything. With our goal top five at the World’s this year, we’re trying to do everything we can to make that happen.”

The skaters also targeted another element: their lifts. To add difficulty (and points), LeDuc is lifting and holding aloft his partner with one arm, while Cain-Gribble’s arms remain free.

“That’s the biggest difference you’ll see this year, I think,” Cain-Gribble said at Champs Camp. “Pretty much all of our lifts are one point of contact, so I’m not holding on (to LeDuc) at all.”

“I think that when we teamed up, it was one of the things people saw as our weakness,” she added. “The thought was with my height, we wouldn’t be able to do all these intricate positions, or do the one point of contact, but we’ve made our bodies strong enough to be able to do that.”

Mozer acknowledges helping the pair with their lifts, but refuses to share too many particulars.

“It’s the secrets of the coaching staff,” she said, laughing. “We knew the problems of the (lifts) and we understood what to do, and now they have no problems. They changed some things. Timothy did a lot of work to make this element better and better.”

Skating isn’t all that’s been on the agenda. Ashley married Dalton Gribble on June 1, balancing much of her off-season with wedding and honeymoon plans.

“The way we got through it, was we scheduled everything in advance,” Cain-Gribble said. “We (choreographed) our short program in the two weeks we were in Japan between Worlds and World Team Trophy, and that made up for time we would have lost. It came down to scheduling.”

The bride doesn’t think she sacrificed anything.

“I was able to take in every emotion for this big life event,” she said. “I got married and the team around me let me relax a little bit and take it all in, instead of stressing about training and run-throughs.”

Opportunity may be knocking here in Vegas. Natalia Zabiyako and Alexander Enbert of Russia, the reigning world bronze medalists, withdrew from the event due to injury. China’s Peng Cheng and Jin Yang, who won silver at last season’s Grand Prix Final, are the top-ranked pair at Skate America; Cain and LeDuc defeated them in Salt Lake City.

Mozer, who also coaches Zabiiako and Enbert, would like nothing more than to see her U.S. students atop the podium.

“When I started to work with international pairs, it was interesting for me to help raise the level of pairs skating,” she said. “We were hearing pairs’ skating is weak, it’s not interesting anymore. I want (pairs) to be as strong as singles and ice dance. We will reach that result if everyone is stronger.”

MORE: Nathan Chen calls 3 quads at Skate America ‘a given’

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Check out a free trial of the Figure Skating Pass during Skate America from Oct. 18-20. 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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U.S. Olympic 3×3 basketball qualifying teams named with former NBA player, WNBA stars

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Former NBA player Robbie Hummel and WNBA stars lead U.S. Olympic qualifying teams in the new Olympic event of 3×3 basketball.

The four-man and four-woman teams will compete in a global qualifier in India in March, each favored to grab one of three available Olympic berths per gender for the U.S.

Hummel, who unretired to become world champion in 3×3, is joined on the U.S. Olympic men’s qualifying team by Team Princeton teammates Canyon Barry and Kareem Maddox, plus Dominique Jones, who has played with Team Harlem. Team Princeton is guided by an investment firm CEO who once beat Michael Jordan one-on-one.

Last year, Hummel, Maddox and Barry (one of Rick Barry‘s sons) were part of a team that won the world title.

The U.S. women’s 3×3 qualifying roster is made up of WNBA stars Napheesa Collier, Stefanie DolsonAllisha Gray and Kelsey Plum. The U.S.’ top-ranked 3×3 player, as of last month, is Oregon star Sabrina Ionescu, who can’t play internationally this spring as she is in the thick of the NCAA season.

Olympic teams will not necessarily be made up of players from the qualifying tournament.

If the U.S. qualifies for Tokyo, it will then choose its roster(s) in a similar fashion to its traditional basketball teams — via selection committee. It’s unlikely active NBA players will be eligible.

Like with the qualifying tournament, two of the four Olympic players must be ranked in the top 10 among Americans in FIBA 3×3 rankings (as of a May 22 cutoff).

In 3×3, games last 10 minutes, or until one team reaches 21 points. Games are played on a half-court with a 12-second shot clock, and offense immediately turns to defense after a team scores.

MORE: Kobe Bryant embraced the Olympics, on and off the court

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First U.S. sailors qualify for Olympics; gold medalist misses on tiebreak

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The first five members of the U.S. Olympic sailing team were finalized this past weekend. The last American sailor to win an Olympic title missed on a tiebreaker.

Stephanie Roble and Maggie Shea (49er FX), Anna Weis and Riley Gibbs (Nacra 17) and Charlie Buckingham (Laser) qualified after world championships competition concluded in Australia. The U.S. Olympic roster across all sports is now at 43 qualified athletes.

The closest race for a U.S. Olympic spot came in 49er FX. Roble and Shea edged Paris Henken and 2008 Olympic champion Anna Tobias on a tiebreak. Roble and Shea, both first-time Olympic qualifiers, won Saturday’s medal race and earned an overall bronze medal.

That put the two U.S. duos in a tie in Olympic qualifying — combining placements from the 2019 and 2020 Championships, according to TeamUSA.org. The tiebreak went to Roble and Shea for having the better finish at this year’s worlds.

Tobias, a 37-year-old who won the individual 2008 Olympic Laser Radial as Anna Tunnicliffe, came out of retirement in a bid for a third Olympics. She left competitive sailing in 2014, took up CrossFit competitions and returned to crew for Henken more than two years ago.

“We are very sad and upset,” was posted on Tobias’ Instagram, “but we wish them [Roble and Shea] the best of luck.”

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