Ashley Cain-Gribble, Timothy LeDuc take U.S. pairs’ title in head-to-head for Olympic spot

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Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc won their second U.S. Figure Skating Championships pairs’ title and likely earned their first Olympic berth with it.

In Saturday’s free skate, Cain-Gribble and LeDuc extended their lead from Thursday’s short program, totaling 225.23 points to prevail by 15.36 over Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson. It was seen as a duel for one Olympic spot between those two teams.

Cain-Gribble and LeDuc had just one significant error between two programs — Cain-Gribble doubling a planned side-by-side triple Salchow in the free. Everything else was spot on.

“A huge weight has been lifted,” Cain-Gribble said on USA Network.

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Broadcast Schedule | Full Results

The U.S. has two Olympic pairs’ spots, but 2021 national champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier look likely to take the other via petition. They withdrew the day before nationals after Frazier contracted the coronavirus.

The national championships are not an Olympic Trials. A selection committee meets later Saturday night to decide on the two U.S. pairs, taking into account results dating back to the 2021 U.S. Championships. The Olympic pairs’ teams are expected to be announced Sunday morning.

Cain-Gribble, 26, and LeDuc, 31, won the 2019 U.S. title, then dropped to fourth and third the last two seasons. They entered nationals ranked second among U.S. pairs this season, trailing Knierim and Frazier.

“We created a really strong body of work going into this competition,” LeDuc said. “We hoped that everything we did here was confirmation of that, and we even have more left in us.”

That despite Cain-Gribble fighting long-term affects from contracting the coronavirus in the summer. She was briefly in a hospital and later learned she developed asthma from the virus and began using an inhaler daily for training.

Cain-Gribble is set for her first Olympics, a decade after winning the U.S. junior silver medal in singles. She considered retiring in 2016, after placing 14th at senior nationals in singles for a second consecutive year. Instead, she gave one more shot at pairs, where she won a 2011 U.S. junior title before focusing on singles.

LeDuc, third at those 2011 junior nationals in pairs with a different partner, can now become the first publicly out non-binary athlete to compete at a Winter Olympics.

“We want to dedicate these performances and this title to all the people who were told that they didn’t belong,” Cain-Gribble said. “In 2016, I thought my Olympic dream would never come true.”

Calalang and Johnson took silver at nationals for a third consecutive year, after Calalang fell hard on a throw in warm-up minutes before their flawed free skate. Audrey Lu and Misha Mitrofanov earned bronze.

It has been 20 years since a U.S. pair finished in the top five at the Olympics, and 34 years since the last medal. Knierim and Frazier are the top Americans in world rankings, seventh this season among teams expected to be in Beijing.

Russian and Chinese pairs are expected to take up the Olympic medal stand.

ON HER TURF: Non-binary skater LeDuc wins national title

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IOC recommends how Russia, Belarus athletes can return as neutrals

Thomas Bach
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The IOC updated its recommendations to international sports federations regarding Russian and Belarusian athletes, advising that they can return to competitions outside of the Olympics as neutral athletes in individual events and only if they do not actively support the war in Ukraine. Now, it’s up to those federations to decide if and how they will reinstate the athletes as 2024 Olympic qualifying heats up.

The IOC has not made a decision on the participation of Russian or Belarusian athletes for the Paris Games and will do so “at the appropriate time,” IOC President Thomas Bach said Tuesday.

Most international sports federations for Olympic sports banned Russian and Belarusian athletes last year following IOC recommendations to do so after the invasion of Ukraine.

Bach was asked Tuesday what has changed in the last 13 months that led to the IOC updating its recommendations.

He reiterated previous comments that, after the invasion and before the initial February 2022 recommendations, some governments refused to issue visas for Russians and Belarusians to compete, and other governments threatened withdrawing funding from athletes who competed against Russians and Belarusians. He also said the safety of Russians and Belarusians at competitions was at risk at the time.

Bach said that Russians and Belarusians have been competing in sports including tennis, the NHL and soccer (while not representing their countries) and that “it’s already working.”

“The question, which has been discussed in many of these consultations, is why should what is possible in all these sports not be possible in swimming, table tennis, wrestling or any other sport?” Bach said.

Bach then read a section of remarks that a United Nations cultural rights appointee made last week.

“We have to start from agreeing that these states [Russia and Belarus] are going to be excluded,” Bach read, in part. “The issue is what happens with individuals. … The blanket prohibition of Russian and Belarusian athletes and artists cannot continue. It is a flagrant violation of human rights. The idea is not that we are going to recognize human rights to people who are like us and with whom we agree on their actions and on their behavior. The idea is that anyone has the right not to be discriminated on the basis of their passport.”

The IOC’s Tuesday recommendations included not allowing “teams of athletes” from Russia and Belarus to return.

If Russia continues to be excluded from team sports and team events, it could further impact 2024 Olympic qualification.

The international basketball federation (FIBA) recently set an April 28 deadline to decide whether to allow Russia to compete in an Olympic men’s qualifying tournament. For women’s basketball, the draw for a European Olympic qualifying tournament has already been made without Russia.

In gymnastics, the ban has already extended long enough that, under current rules, Russian gymnasts cannot qualify for men’s and women’s team events at the Paris Games, but can still qualify for individual events if the ban is lifted.

Gymnasts from Russia swept the men’s and women’s team titles in Tokyo, where Russians in all sports competed for the Russian Olympic Committee rather than for Russia due to punishment for the nation’s doping violations. There were no Russian flags or anthems, conditions that the IOC also recommends for any return from the current ban for the war in Ukraine.

Seb Coe, the president of World Athletics, said last week that Russian and Belarusian athletes remain banned from track and field for the “foreseeable future.”

World Aquatics, the international governing body for swimming, diving and water polo, said after the IOC’s updated recommendations that it will continue to “consider developments impacting the situation” of Russian and Belarusian athletes and that “further updates will be provided when appropriate.”

The IOC’s sanctions against Russia and Belarus and their governments remain in place, including disallowing international competitions to be held in those countries.

On Monday, Ukraine’s sports minister said in a statement that Ukraine “strongly urges” that Russian and Belarusian athletes remain banned.

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Summer McIntosh breaks 400m freestyle world record, passes Ledecky, Titmus

Summer McIntosh
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Summer McIntosh broke the women’s 400m freestyle world record at Canada’s swimming trials on Tuesday night, becoming at 16 the youngest swimmer to break a world record in an Olympic program event since Katie Ledecky a decade ago.

McIntosh clocked 3 minutes, 56.08 seconds in Toronto. Australian Ariarne Titmus held the previous record of 3:56.40, set last May. Before that, Ledecky held the record since 2014, going as low as 3:56.46.

“Going into tonight, I didn’t think the world record was a possibility, but you never know,” McIntosh, who had quotes from Ledecky on her childhood bedroom wall, said in a pool-deck interview moments after the race.

McIntosh’s previous best time was 3:59.32 from last summer’s Commonwealth Games. She went into Tuesday the fourth-fastest woman in history behind Titmus, Ledecky and Italian Federica Pellegrini.

She is also the third-fastest woman in history in the 400m individual medley and the 11th-fastest in the 200m butterfly, two events she won at last June’s world championships. She is the world junior record holder in those events, too.

MORE: McIntosh chose swimming and became Canada’s big splash

McIntosh, Titmus and Ledecky could go head-to-head-to-head in the 400m free at the world championships in July and at the 2024 Paris Olympics. Titmus is the reigning Olympic champion. Ledecky is the reigning world champion, beating McIntosh by 1.24 seconds last June while Titmus skipped the meet.

The last time the last three world record holders in an Olympic program event met in the final of a major international meet was the 2012 Olympic men’s 100m breaststroke (Brendan Hansen, Kosuke Kitajima, Brenton Rickard).

Ledecky, whose best events are the 800m and 1500m frees, broke her first world record in 2013 at 16 years and 4 months old.

McIntosh is 16 years and 7 months old and trains in Sarasota, Florida, which is 160 miles down Interstate 75 from Ledecky in Gainesville.

McIntosh, whose mom swam at the 1984 Olympics and whose sister competed at last week’s world figure skating championships, is the youngest individual world champion in swimming since 2011.

In 2021, at age 14, she became the youngest swimmer to race an individual Olympic final since 2008, according to Olympedia.org. She was fourth in the 400m free at the Tokyo Games.

NBC Olympic research contributed to this report.

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