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Grand Prix Final pairs’ preview: Russian revival or China’s run to Beijing?

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It’s been six years since mighty Russia last won a world title in pairs’ figure skating, five years since its last Olympic crown and three since Russians topped a Grand Prix Final podium. And last season, Russia failed to win the European title for the first time in eight years.

“They were kind of left with no one,” after 2014 Olympic champions Tatyana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov stepped away, and subsequent teams failed to consistently win at the highest level, said Johnny Weir, NBC Sports analyst and noted aficionado of all things Russia.

That can change leading into the 2022 Beijing Winter Games, perhaps beginning at this week’s Grand Prix Final in Turin, Italy. It’s the most exclusive event in skating featuring the world’s top six teams. It’s near the midpoint of the Olympic cycle, prime time for new blood to circulate.

Enter Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitriy Kozlovskiy. They are 17 and 19 years old, respectively, and own the world’s highest score this season after sweeping their Grand Prix Series starts. Russia qualified three pairs into the Final, all with an average age in the teens.

They represent what Russia hopes is a new era. Olympics and world championships came and went with Germans, Canadians and Chinese relegating the likes of Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov and Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov to silver or bronze medals.

“So [Russia] were left with these junior teams who aren’t always reliable,” Weir said. “When you’re a junior skater, you’re still finding your legs and learning how to compete at a high level. You aren’t always as reliable as a seasoned veteran. What I think is so exciting about the young teams coming up is that they’ve all shown they can carry the torch for Russia. It’s an exciting place for Russia to be, especially not far away from the next Olympic Games.”

GRAND PRIX FINAL PREVIEWS: Nathan Chen | Yuzuru Hanyu | Alysa Liu
Women | Pairs | TV/Stream Schedule | Entrants

Boikova and Kozlovskiy could become the youngest pairs’ champions in Grand Prix Final history, and the youngest at any global competition of this caliber since the legendary Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergey Grinkov at the 1987 World Championships.

Weir likes Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov, who went undefeated on the junior circuit last season and won their senior Grand Prix debut in November.

“They have a nice, powerful way of performing, very St. Petersburg, if I can put it that way and people will understand,” he said. “There’s a very big difference, artistically, between Moscow school of skating and St. Petersburg school of skating. That power and that presence is definitely evident.”

Standing in their way are Chinese Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, undefeated since taking silver at the PyeongChang Olympics despite missing the 2018 Grand Prix season due to Sui’s stress fracture in her right foot.

Sui and Han also swept their Grand Prix starts with a higher average score than Boikova and Kozlovskiy. Weir and fellow NBC Sports analyst Tara Lipinski said they are the favorites this week.

“Sui and Han are in a class of their own,” Lipinski said. “They set themselves apart in their consistency and their maturity. Going up against these youngsters, I think it’s clear that the chemistry they’ve developed over the years together and that the confidence they have in their skating is superior to anyone else in the field. Obviously, people can be competitive with them at the final, but they would have to have major errors.

“Clearly, they have one goal, and that’s to win Beijing [2022 Olympics], which I think they’re on the road to.”

But the sheer depth of Russian pairs’ could win out by the Winter Games. Russia qualified the top four pairs into each of the last two Junior Grand Prix Finals, plus earned every medal at the last two junior worlds.

“Russia could technically be looking at [2022 Olympic] sweeps in ladies and, possibly, pairs, should these junior teams that have just come up continue to develop,” Weir said.

The U.S. failed to qualify a pair for the Final for the 11th time in the last 12 years, though Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier became the first Americans to earn medals in both of their Grand Prix starts since 2015.

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. 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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WATCH LIVE: Nathan Chen in U.S. Figure Skating Championships free skate

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Nathan Chen tries to become the first man to win four straight U.S. figure skating titles since 1988, live on NBC Sports on Sunday.

NBC Sports Gold streams live coverage of the men’s free skate for subscribers starting at 2:30 p.m. ET in Greensboro, N.C. NBC joins with TV coverage at 3.

LIVE STREAM: Men’s Free Skate — Gold | NBC | Skate Order

Chen, a 20-year-old Yale sophomore, is undefeated since placing fifth at the PyeongChang Olympics. He can become the seventh man since World War II to win four straight national titles.

Five of the previous six went on to earn Olympic gold, including Dick ButtonScott Hamilton and, most recently, Brian Boitano in 1988.

Chen carries a substantial 13.14-point lead from Saturday’s short program, where he landed two quadruple jumps on one week of full training following a flu bout.

The anticipated drama Sunday comes in the battle for silver and bronze medals and the last two world championships team spots.

Jason BrownAndrew TorgashevVincent Zhou and Tomoki Hiwatashi are separated by 8.78 points. Brown, the 2015 U.S. champion, and Zhou, the 2019 World bronze medalist, are the only men in the field other than Chen with world team experience.

Key Skate Times
5:01 p.m. (ET) — Vincent Zhou
5:18 — Tomoki Hiwatashi
5:26 — Andrew Torgashev
5:35 — Nathan Chen
5:43 — Jason Brown

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NATIONALS: TV Schedule | Full Results

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. 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.

Mikaela Shiffrin, with 66th World Cup win, moves one shy of career dream

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Mikaela Shiffrin has said one of her career dreams is to win in every discipline in one season. She is now one victory shy of realizing it.

Shiffrin earned her 66th World Cup victory — and her second in three days — at a super-G in Bansko, Bulgaria, on Sunday.

She prevailed by .29 of a second over Italian Marta Bassino and .70 over Swiss Lara Gut-Behrami. Gut-Behrami, the last skier other than Shiffrin to win a World Cup overall title back in 2016, earned her first podium in exactly one year.

Full results are here.

“Perfect weekend for me,” said Shiffrin, who moved one shy of recently retired Austrian Marcel Hirscher for third place on the World Cup career wins list. “The whole team is excited about the whole weekend, but especially today.”

She is en route to a fourth straight World Cup overall title. And she is a combined victory away from wins in all five disciplines in one season. Only Marc GirardelliPetra KronbergerJanica Kostelic and Tina Maze have done it.

“The thing that I’m most proud of right now is that I know how to win in slalom, [giant slalom], super-G and downhill, which I never expected that would really happen,” she said.

Shiffrin struggled with confidence during a winless stretch in early January, trying not to compare herself to last season, when she won a record 17 times. She still leads the men’s and women’s tours with six victories this season, a little more than halfway through.

“Every race is such a big fight, and I haven’t been the one on top of this fight every time,” she said. “Certainly I’ve been like sometimes the expectations that I have or that other people might have, I’m not quite living up to that. Sometimes it’s hard not to feel like I’m failing sometimes, even though this is still just an incredible season.”

There are two combined races left this season for Shiffrin to achieve the dream — Feb. 23 in Switzerland and March 1 in Italy. While combined — mixing a speed run and a technical run — might seem perfect for Shiffrin, she has one victory in four starts in the discipline between the World Cup and Olympics.

And Shiffrin is careful about her race schedule. She is undecided on entering a downhill and super-G next weekend at the 2014 Olympic venue in Russia.

“After this weekend my brain is a little bit dead,” she joked.

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