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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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Mark Spitz takes on Katie Ledecky’s challenge

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Swimmers around the world took on Katie Ledecky‘s milk-glass challenge since it became a social media sensation, including one of the few Americans with more Olympic gold medals.

Mark Spitz, who won seven golds at the 1972 Munich Games, took 10 strokes in an at-home pool while perfectly balancing a glass of what appeared to be water on his head.

“Would’ve been faster with the ‘stache, @markspitzusa, but I still give this 7 out of 7 gold medals,” Ledecky tweeted.

Spitz joined fellow Olympic champions Susie O’Neill of Australia and American Matt Grevers in posting similar videos to what Ledecky first shared Monday.

In Tokyo next year, Ledecky can pass Spitz’s career gold-medal count of nine if she wins all of her expected events — 200m, 400m, 800m and 1500m freestyles and the 4x200m free relay.

Then she would trail one athlete from any country in any sport — Michael Phelps, the 23-time gold medalist who has yet to post video of swimming while balancing a glass on his head.

MORE: Spitz puts Michael Phelps’ career in perspective

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Serena Williams, reclusive amid pandemic, returns to tennis eyeing Grand Slam record

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Serena Williams travels with “like 50 masks” and has been a little bit of a recluse since early March and the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I don’t have full lung capacity, so I’m not sure what would happen to me,” Williams said Saturday, two days before the start of the WTA’s Top Seed Open in Lexington, Ky., her first tournament since playing Fed Cup in early February. “I’m sure I’ll be OK, but I don’t want to find out.”

Williams, 38, has a history of blood clots and pulmonary embolisms. She faced life-threatening complications following her Sept. 1, 2017, childbirth that confined her to a bed for six weeks. She said her daily routine was surgery and that she lost count after the first four.

More recently, Williams enjoyed “every part” of the last six months at home in Florida, her longest time grounded since her teens.

“I’ve been a little neurotic, to an extent,” on health and safety, she said. “Everyone in the Serena bubble is really protected.”

Williams is entered to play next week in Lexington and at consecutive tournaments in New York City later this month — the Western & Southern Open and U.S. Open, the latter starting Aug. 31.

Williams is the highest-ranked player in the Lexington field at No. 9. Others include 2017 U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens, older sister Venus Williams and 16-year-old Coco Gauff.

She has been bidding ever since having daughter Olympia to tie Margaret Court‘s record 24 Grand Slam singles titles, albeit many of Court’s crowns came before the Open Era and, notably at the Australian Open, against small fields lacking the world’s best players. Williams reached the last two Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals, losing all of them.

She showed her seriousness in committing early to this year’s U.S. Open by installing a court at home with the same surface. Three of the top 10 female singles players already said they will skip the U.S. Open due to travel and/or virus concerns, including No. 1 Ash Barty.

“Tennis is naturally a socially distanced sport, so it was kind of easy to go back and just walk on my side of the court and have my hitter walk on his side of the court,” Williams said.

The French Open starts two weeks after the U.S. Open ends. Williams was asked if she will fly to Europe for tournaments this autumn.

“I see myself doing it all, if it happens,” she said.

The Tokyo Olympics are too far away to make plans.

“We’ll have to kind of wait to see what happens in the fall,” she said. “One thing I have learned with this pandemic is don’t plan.”

MORE: Past U.S. Open champions get wild cards

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