Gabriella Papadakis, Guillaume Cizeron skip European Champs, cite COVID risk

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Olympic ice dance favorites Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France will skip the last significant competition before the Winter Games, withdrawing from next week’s European Championships to protect themselves against the coronavirus, according to the French Figure Skating Federation.

The move means that Papadakis and Cizeron, the 2018 Olympic silver medalists and four-time world champions, will go into the Olympics having not competed against their top rivals, Russians Viktoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov, since January 2020.

Sinitsina and Katsalapov handed Papadakis and Cizeron their only defeat of this Olympic cycle at the January 2020 European Championships. Papadakis and Cizeron then sat out the entire COVID-affected 2020-21 campaign, with the Russians winning last season’s world title.

This season, the two couples competed in different Grand Prix events with the French posting higher scores. They would have faced off at December’s Grand Prix Final, but that event was canceled due to the pandemic.

“Having that reminder of the masterful quality that they [the French] possess was just such an important standard to have returned to the world of ice dance,” Tanith White, a 2006 Olympic ice dance silver medalist and NBC Sports analyst, said last month. “It’s not as though they started the season off, and have just held what they had. They started the season off and continued to evolve and develop and grow. So I feel like their trajectory is looking great.”

The Russians withdrew from their national championships two weeks ago before the free dance, citing Katsalapov’s recurring back injury, but were still named to the team for Europeans and are expected to be named to the Olympic team, too.

“When I put those two teams head to head, at this point, the French have the clear advantage,” White said before Russian Nationals. “It’s not as though Sinitsina and Katsalapov haven’t been performing well, it’s just that they haven’t necessarily had perfect training conditions. So those performances aren’t yet entirely optimized.”

Americans Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue and Madison Chock and Evan Bates, who will battle for a national title this week, are also Olympic medal contenders.

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

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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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Lara Gut-Behrami wins Killington giant slalom, and the overall title race may be on

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Swiss Lara Gut-Behrami rallied from third place after the first run for her 35th career World Cup victory, taking a giant slalom in Killington, Vermont, on Saturday.

Gut-Behrami, 31, earned her fifth World Cup giant slalom win and first in six years. She prevailed by .07 of a second over Italian Marta Bassino combining times from two windy runs. Sweden’s Sara Hector, the Olympic champion and first-run leader, ended up third.

“Last two years I’ve been getting better in GS again,” said Gut-Behrami, who won the GS at the last world championships in 2021. “Last year I was struggling with my health. I was all the time sick.”

ALPINE SKIING: Full Results | Broadcast Schedule

Gut-Behrami’s best events are downhill and super-G, so a strong start to the season in GS could put her on a path to winning the World Cup overall title, the biggest annual prize in ski racing. She previously lifted that crystal globe in 2016.

Reigning World Cup overall champ Mikaela Shiffrin, who previously placed second, third, fourth and fifth in Killington giant slaloms, finished 13th after winning the season’s first two races, slaloms in Finland last week. It marked her lowest World Cup GS finish since December 2019.

“[Finland] was a spectacular weekend,” Shiffrin, who has not had much recent GS training, said after her 10th-place opening run Saturday. “Every race is a different story.”

Shiffrin won all five World Cup slaloms in Killington dating to 2016 and will go for her 50th career World Cup slalom victory across all venues on Sunday (12:30 p.m. ET, NBC and Peacock).

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