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Grand Prix Final ice dance preview: A return to French supremacy or can U.S. hang on to podium?

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Two former Grand Prix Final ice dance champions are in this year’s exclusive, six-couple field.

Last year’s champions, Americans Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue, train alongside 2018 champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France. They also train with Americans Madison Chock and Evan Bates, two-time Grand Prix Final silver medalists themselves, at the powerhouse Montreal school.

Having two Russian teams sets up a story-within-a-story at the Grand Prix Final as well, said NBC Sports analyst Tanith White. They’ll fight to see who can be the top ice dance team in their country as the 2022 Beijing Winter Games approach.

In an interview with NBCSports.com/figure-skating, White commented on what she expects to see from each team.

Gabriella Papadakis/Guillaume Cizeron (FRA)
Papadakis and Cizeron have three Grand Prix Final medals in three appearances, including gold in 2018. The four-time world champions were unable to qualify for the Grand Prix Final last year due to only competing once in the Grand Prix Series, but returned to their usual, dominant selves this fall. They own the highest rhythm dance, free dance and total scores this season.

Their “Fame” rhythm dance garnered attention for campy costumes. White said the French duo “do a great job with steeping the program in a level of fun and humor that I think it had in the movie.”

While other teams have used spoken words for their performances before, White said the PyeongChang Olympic silver medalists upped the ante in their free dance.

“What the French are doing, apart from everyone else, is they’re actually using the cadence of the speaking to interpret how they choreograph their movement,” she said. “Every word has a different arm movement or feeling. I feel like they integrated the spoken word component in a more a thoughtful way.”

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Viktoria Sinitsina/Nikita Katsalapov (RUS)
In their debut at the Grand Prix Final last year, Sinitsina and Katsalapov took silver. Later in the season, the Russians were runners-up again at the world championships. However, as highly emotional skaters, White noted there were “a lot of mistakes flying in between these beautiful moments.” But for this season, she said the team seems to have a more stable foundation. They are able to focus on what they need to do, and that’s stay clean through a performance.

“I think they had a few growing pains with their rhythm dance in particular as they moved through the Grand Prix,” White said. “They have a chance to really show a wow moment in the rhythm dance I think to set themselves up well for the free dance. It hasn’t been perfect yet, and maybe this is their chance to show that first perfect outing of that program.”

Piper Gilles/Paul Poirier (CAN)
The Canadians made their only previous appearance in the Grand Prix Final in 2014, when they finished fifth. They placed between sixth and eighth at the world championships every year since.

“They have expressed the frustration of being seemingly locked into that level for a little while,” White said. “Feeling like, ‘What else do you want from us? What else can we do?’ They are ever the innovators. Their work ethic is always evident.”

This year, after navigating personal and professional hardships, they return to the Grand Prix Final ready to tap into these emotions.

“I think sometimes when they stretch themselves to be innovative and to choose original themes, it sometimes isn’t as easy to grab onto emotionally for a viewer,” White said. “This year, I feel like they took their experiences from their real life, their honest emotions, and the trust that they have with one another and put it in a program where you just feel like this is them skating from a very honest place.”

Madison Hubbell/Zach Donohue (USA)
The two-time and reigning U.S. champions have four total appearances in the Grand Prix Final. Last year, they became the first U.S. couple to win the Grand Prix Final since Meryl Davis and Charlie White in 2013. Hubbell doesn’t see any reason they can’t do it again.

“We are going into the Grand Prix Final as defending champions this season, and last year we entered having never medaled,” she told NBC Sports. “The difference in our approach this season has mostly been in the way that we trained in preparation for the event… a focus on quality, detail, and consistency.”

White agreed, adding their ability to tweak a program greatly within a season will serve them well. Hubbell and Donohue competed in the first two Grand Prix events this fall and have had relatively longer to work out any kinks in time for the Final.

“They can really give a completely new impression of a program once they’ve found what makes them tick within it,” White said. Plus, in the rhythm dance, “from the second [Hubbell] steps out onto the ice with that dress, and that hair, and her attitude, and presence, it feels like ‘Of course. Of course, she should be Marilyn Monroe.”

MORE: Hubbell, Donohue continue U.S. ice dance legacy

Alexandra Stepanova/Ivan Bukin (RUS)

Last year was Stepanova and Bukin’s debut at the Grand Prix Final, where they finished in fourth place. The competition-within-the-competition is an important story line here, White said, as the Russian teams duke it out to see how will be the country’s top dance team headed to the 2022 Olympics.

“I think that they are trying to refine their skating, especially with their free dance this season,” she said. “Show that they can be elegant because they are a very acrobatic team – to great effect. It’s very exciting to watch what they can do. But this season they’re trying I think to show a little more elegance, a little more maturity with their free dance… if they can hone in on the ultimate sophistication of what they bring to the ice, it will serve them very well.”

Madison Chock/Evan Bates (USA)
Chock and Bates made four straight appearances at the Grand Prix Final from 2014-17, claiming two silver medals. They sat out the circuit last year, but White was excited to see how well they were being received this season – especially after changing training locations to Montreal in the midst of Chock’s recovery from ankle surgery.

“This year we are definitely in a good frame of mind after a strong start to the season,” Bates told NBC Sports. “Our absence last year made us realize how much we missed it and only strengthened our desire to get back to this point. Now we are focused on improving on our Grand Prix performances and challenging for a spot on top of the podium.”

A spot on the podium at the Grand Prix Final, and even challenging for the top spot at U.S. Championships in January, White expected.

“The free dance is their standout program this season,” White said. “Best of all, you watch a Final warm up group with them in it – that program is going to set itself apart and break up and potential monotony between lyrical programs, or everyone in black costumes. They are gonna come out and just deliver these fully characters of the snake and the snake charmer and it was a wise choice.”

MORE: Chock, Bates return to Grand Prix circuit with ‘new power’

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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Simone Biles returns to the gym, going from mental drain to physical pain

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For Simone Biles, this was supposed to be the stretch run of a legendary career.

Instead, she returned to her gym on May 18 with long-term thoughts of waiting 14 months until the Tokyo Olympics. And the immediate aches of a world-class gymnast who just missed nearly two months of regular training.

“After that amount of time off, it kind of sucks because your body hurts and then you get really sore,” Biles said in a pre-recorded ESPNW interview that aired Thursday. “So you just have to get back into the swing of things. But it felt nice to see my coaches, my teammates, and just to be back on the equipment and in the environment.”

In that same Texas gym three months ago, Biles had a far different outlook. One that would have put fear into any gymnast who still harbored ambition of ending her near-seven-year win streak.

“I never felt more ready this early in the season,” she said. “I was so ready for the Olympics to be this year.”

Biles repeated in interviews the last two months that the Olympic postponement to 2021 was devastating. Thoughts zig-zagged: How do I go on another year, at age 23, in a sport recently dominated by (but not limited to) teenagers?

“I’m getting pretty old,” she said in the interview published Thursday. “Will I be at the top of my game?”

Biles proved the last two years — after a year off — that she can win — and comfortably — while not at her best. She grabbed the 2018 World all-around title by a record margin — with two falls. Last year, she became the most decorated gymnast in world championships history. In Tokyo, she can become the first woman to repeat as Olympic all-around champion, and the only one older than 20, in more than 50 years.

This for a gymnast whose early goal was to earn a college scholarship. Biles did, to UCLA, but had to give it up by turning professional.

“So I’ve exceeded that,” Biles said. “And then I wanted to go to world championships and Olympics, and I’ve been to five worlds and one Olympic Games. So, I’d be more than happy [to walk away].”

After gymnastics, Biles has another goal — to be a voice for foster kids. She was in foster care multiple times before being adopted at age 6 by grandparents Ron and Nellie.

Those plans, along with so much else for Biles and so many others, have been pushed back a full year.

“I was already being mentally drained and almost, not done with the sport, but just going into the gym and feeling tired and being like, OK, I’m going to get my stuff [done], get out,” she said. “We have this one end goal, and now that it’s postponed another [year], it’s just like, how are we going to deal with that? We’re already being drained, and so it’s to keep the fire in the sport within yourself alive.”

MORE: Top U.S. gymnasts disagree with Tokyo Olympic age rule

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2022 Pan Pacific Championships canceled as swimming calendar shifts

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The Pan Pacific Swimming Championships, a quadrennial major international meet, will not be held in 2022 “out of respect for the recent changes to the international sporting calendar,” according to a press release.

The Pan Pacs’ charter nations — the U.S., Australia, Canada and Japan — agreed to the move. The 2026 event will be held in Canada, which was supposed to be the 2022 host.

The decision came after the 2021 World Championships were moved to May 2022, following the Tokyo Olympics moving from 2020 to 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic. The quadrennial multi-sport Commonwealth Games — which includes Australia and Canada, but not the U.S. or Japan — are scheduled for July 27-Aug. 7, 2022.

“Organizing a third major championships in that window presented several challenges,” according to the Pan Pacs release.

Pan Pacs mark the third-biggest major international meet for U.S. swimmers, held in non-Olympic, non-world championships years.

MORE: Caeleb Dressel co-hosts a podcast. It’s not about swimming.

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