U.S. Figure Skating Championships ice dance preview: rivals’ last dance-off

ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating - Skate America
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This week’s U.S. Figure Skating Championships marks the last competition to determine the U.S. Olympic team. Three ice dance couples will be chosen by a committee to compete in Beijing. A look at the contenders (listed in order of best single total score this season) …

One last time, Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue and Madison Chock and Evan Bates will duel for the U.S. ice dance title.

Hubbell and Donohue, winners of three of the last four national titles, plan to retire from competition after this season. But not after they bid to win the Olympic medal that slipped away in 2018 after free dance errors dropped them to fourth place.

Hubbell and Donohue and Chock and Bates (who made the last nine nationals podiums) are expected to lead the U.S. Olympic ice dance team. The third and final couple will be Olympic rookies as 2018 bronze medalists Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani stepped away from competition after PyeongChang.

Madison Chock/Evan Bates
2015, 2020 U.S. champions
Two-time world championships medalists

Overtook Hubbell and Donohue with the best score for a U.S. couple this season at their most recent competition in November, but only by 1.24 points. Chock and Bates and Hubbell and Donohue, who train together in Montreal, have finished within five points of each other at each of the last four nationals. Bates, who went to the 2010 Olympics with Emily Samuelson, is bidding to become the first U.S. figure skater to compete in four Olympics.

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS PREVIEWS: Men | Women | Pairs | Ice Dance | Broadcast Schedule

Madison Hubbell/Zachary Donohue
Three-time U.S. champions
Three-time world championships medalists

Announced last year that this would be their final Olympic push. After finishing third or fourth at every nationals from 2012-17, broke through for gold in 2018 and have been the top U.S. couple for most of this Olympic cycle. Hubbell and Donohue and Chock and Bates each competed three times so far this season, and those total scores are the six best among U.S. couples, with a near 20-point drop to the third Americans. Beat Chock and Bates in their lone head-to-head so far this season, by 1.31 points at Skate America.

Kaitlin Hawayek/Jean-Luc Baker
Three-time U.S. bronze medalists

Won the 2014 World junior title and were ticketed to be the next great U.S. dance couple. But they’ve had to wait their turn and overcome significant obstacles, including a concussion for each skater (Hawayek’s this past July). They finished third at every nationals in this Olympic cycle, and another bronze should be enough to get to the Olympics. Train with Chock and Bates and Hubbell and Donohue in Montreal.

Caroline Green/Michael Parsons
2021 U.S. Championships, fourth place

Each won a junior national title with a sibling before partnering in spring 2019. The third-ranked U.S. couple this season until Hawayek and Baker posted a higher score by 2.89 points at a December event. At last year’s nationals, Hawayek and Baker distanced Green and Parsons for bronze by 20.16 points.

Christina Carreira/Anthony Ponomarenko
2020 U.S. Championships, fourth place

The 2018 U.S. junior champions have been within range of Hawayek and Baker for the coveted third spot in this Olympic cycle, but the Canadian-born Carreira is still in what has been a years-long process to gain U.S. citizenship and thus not Olympic eligible at the moment. Focus is on 2026 Olympics. Seven points behind Hawayek and Baker at nationals in 2019 and 2020, then missed last season’s nationals due a direct contact with a COVID-positive person. They haven’t gotten the momentum back this season, trailing Hawayek and Baker’s top score by 13.05 points. Ponomarenko is the son of the 1992 Olympic ice dance champions from Russia.

NBC Olympic research contributed to this report.

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In a tie, Wendy Holdener puts to rest a remarkable stat in Alpine skiing

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Swiss Wendy Holdener ended one of the most remarkable victory droughts in sports by tying for the win with Swede Anna Swenn Larsson in a World Cup slalom in Killington, Vermont, on Sunday.

Holdener, after 15 second-place finishes and 15 third-place finishes in her career, stood on the top step of a World Cup slalom podium for the first time. She shared it with Swenn Larsson, who had six World Cup slalom podiums before Sunday and also earned her first win.

They beat Austrian Katharina Truppe by .22 of a second combining times from two runs.

ALPINE SKIING: Full Results | Broadcast Schedule

Holdener, 29, previously won three World Cups in other disciplines, plus two world championships in the combined and Olympic and world titles in the team event.

“To be tied first when I came into the finish was such a relief,” Holdener said while shoulder to shoulder with Swenn Larsson. “On the end, it’s perfect, because now we can share our first win together.”

Mikaela Shiffrin had the best first-run time but lost her lead midway through the second run and finished fifth. Shiffrin, who won the first two slaloms this season last weekend, was bidding for a 50th World Cup slalom victory and a sixth win in six slaloms in Killington.

“I fought. I think some spots I got a little bit off my timing, but I was pushing, and that’s slalom,” she said before turning her attention to Holdener and Swenn Larsson. “It’s a pretty special day, actually.”

The women’s Alpine skiing World Cup moves next weekend to Lake Louise, Alberta, with two downhills and a super-G.

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Injured Ilia Malinin wins Grand Prix Finland, qualifies for Grand Prix Final

Ilia Malinin
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Ilia Malinin, competing “a little bit injured” this week, still won Grand Prix Finland and goes into the Grand Prix Final in two weeks as the world’s top-ranked male singles skater.

Malinin, who was second after Friday’s short program, landed four clean quadruple jumps in Saturday’s free skate to overtake Frenchman Kevin Aymoz.

Malinin, who landed a quad flip in competition for the first time, according to SkatingScores.com, also attempted a quad Axel to open his program, but spun out of the landing and put his hand down on the ice.

Malinin also won his previous two starts this season in come-from-behind fashion. The 17-year-old world junior champion became the first skater to land a clean, fully rotated quad Axel in September, then did it again in October at Skate America, where he posted the world’s top overall score this season.

Next, Malinin can become the second-youngest man to win the Grand Prix Final after Russian Yevgeny Plushenko. His biggest competition is likely to be world champion Shoma Uno of Japan, who like Malinin won both of his Grand Prix starts this fall. Malinin and Uno have not gone head-to-head this season.

Grand Prix Finland highlights air on NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app on Sunday at 3:30 p.m. ET.

FIGURE SKATING: Results | Broadcast Schedule

Earlier, Japan’s Mai Mihara overtook world silver medalist Loena Hendrickx of Belgium to become the only woman to win both of her Grand Prix starts this season. Mihara prevailed by .23 of a point. The top three women this season by best total score are Japanese, led by a junior skater, 14-year-old Mao Shimada, who isn’t Olympic age-eligible until 2030.

Mihara and Hendrickx qualified for the Grand Prix Final, joining world champion Kaori Sakamoto and Rinka Watanabe, both of Japan, South Korean Yelim Kim and American Isabeau Levito, the world junior champion.

Italians Rebecca Ghilardi and Filippo Ambrosini won both pairs’ programs and qualified for their first Grand Prix Final.

Japan’s Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara and Americans Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier headline the Final. Both pairs won each of their Grand Prix starts earlier this fall. The Japanese have the world’s two best scores this season. The Americans are reigning world champions.

At least one Russian or Chinese pair made every Grand Prix Final podium — usually pairs from both countries — but neither nation competed in pairs this Grand Prix season. All Russian skaters are banned due to the war in Ukraine. China’s lone entry on the Grand Prix across all disciplines was an ice dance couple.

Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier improved on their world-leading score for this season in winning the ice dance by 17.03 points over Americans Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker. Both couples qualified for the Grand Prix Final in the absence of all three Olympic medalists this fall.

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