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Figure skating preview: Yuna Kim, Yulia Lipnitskaya, Mao Asada lead the way

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SOCHI, Russia – Once again the Olympics comes down to the ladies’ figure skating event in the closing days, and once again the ladies won’t disappoint in a dramatic flurry of sequins, Salchows and on-ice storylines that are brought to life – this year, in particular – with plenty of drama.

Defending Olympic gold medalist and reigning world champion Yuna Kim is the favorite in many books, but also a largely unknown entity after having not competed in the Grand Prix season in the lead-up to Sochi, instead only skating at a small event in Croatia in December, and then the South Korean National Championships last month.

The runner-up to Kim four years ago, Mao Asada factors into the medal conversation should she bring her patented (and unmatched) triple Axel to the table, while a 15-year-old Russian named Yulia Lipnitskaya has already captured the imagination of the host country, winning the ladies’ portion of the inaugural figure skating team event.

And Americans Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold – fifth and sixth, respectively – at the World Championships a year ago, are outside hopes for the podium.

Below, a full rundown of the ladies’ event, set to begin Wednesday night at the Iceberg Skating Palace and concluding Thursday.

American trio
It’s highly unlikely that there will be a gold for Gold – or for Wagner – though the American women, along with 15-year-old Polina Edmunds, bring a strong presence for Team USA onto Olympic ice in Sochi.

Gold has improved significantly since placing sixth at the World Championships last March, joining forces with legendary coach Frank Carroll in September and then winning the U.S. Championships in January, registering the event’s highest-ever overall score.

“The women’s field is so packed this year with veterans and young Russians,” Gold, 18, told reporters leading up to the Olympics. “I definitely think that I have a chance at winning a medal. It’s about who’s going to focus and leave everything out on the ice.”

The same goes for 22-year-old Wagner, who has long been a top-five contender in the world ranks but was fourth at the U.S. Championships, a performance that brought about doubts of her ability to perform under Olympic pressure in Sochi. She was clean yet tentative in the team competition short program, where Gold was a bit stronger in the free skate for the U.S.

“I feel like technically Gracie has a really good shot at the podium,” said Tara Lipinski, the 1998 Olympic champion and a NBC Sports commentator. “When there’s pressure involved, it changes a lot of performances. Ashley is coming back as a little bit of an underdog. It might set her up nicely, actually.”

Edmunds was the surprise at Nationals, where she skated in her first senior event and vaulted herself to second place. The San Jose-based skater has the triple-triple combination like Gold and Wagner, and will be skating in her first-ever senior international in Sochi.

“The fact that this is her first senior international doesn’t really change anything,” said Edmunds’ coach, David Glynn. “Even though this is the Olympics, what she has to do on the ice is the same.”

Podium posturing
Can Yuna Kim do the same as she did in 2010 and make figure skating history? She leads an internationally eclectic list of names that could top the podium, and if she wins a second straight Olympic gold she’ll be just the third woman in history to do so, and the first since Katarina Witt did so in 1984 and 1988.

“Yuna is just so secure with who she is on the ice because she’s been through everything in her career, and that makes her exude confidence,” Lipinski said. “It’s what sets her apart from all the others.”

Asada, the Japanese 23-year-old who was second to Kim four years ago, will look to swap places with the South Korean here. Asada won three gold medals on the international circuit this fall, utilizing her rare triple Axel (no other top woman even tries the jump) as her biggest weapon. Asada re-tuned her skating after the Vancouver Games, re-building her jumps from the ice up and suffering through two seasons of poor finishes as a result.

There have been no poor results for 15-year-old Lipnitskaya, who won two Grand Prix events this fall and the Russian National Championships in December. The lithe, ballet-like skating of the uber-flexible Lipnitskaya is what helped her win the ladies’ portion of the new team event, though no other medal contender skated both programs. (Yuna Kim didn’t participate at all.)

“Lipnitskaya is just so well organized and thoughtful out on the ice,” said Lipinski, who won her Olympic gold at 15 in Nagano. “If you look at the peak process for an athlete in a season, it’s working out perfectly for Yulia. Winning the team event portion sets her up really nicely for singles.”

Fringe fighters
Four years ago as the Sochi Olympics were being promoted across Russia, Adelina Sotnikova was the face of the Games for figure skating. Now 17, the teen is playing second fiddle to Lipnitskaya, but still brings a strong resume to the ice and – if she skates lights out – can be in the medal conversation.

The same goes for 27-year-old veteran Carolina Kostner. The Italian veteran has a flowing style that few others can match in their programs, though the 2012 world champion hasn’t been able to rise to the occasion at the Olympics, placing ninth in 2006 and then crashing to 16th in Vancouver.

Also keep an eye on: Akiko Suzuki and Kanako Murakami of Japan; Valentina Marchei of Italy and Canada’s Kaetlyn Osmond.

What to watch for
The aforementioned triple-triple is big for every lady on the ice, usually performed at the beginning of both the short program and free skate. It’s especially important for Wagner, who struggled on the combination at the U.S. Championships last month.

The crowd will play a major part in the competition, as it has roared for Russian skaters throughout the Games. Lipnitskaya and Sotnikova both skate in the final group Tuesday night, and will be looking for an extra boost inside the boisterous Iceberg Skating Palace.

How will Yuna Kim fair? That will be on everyone’s mind as the 2010 Olympic champion takes to the ice. She said it herself on Tuesday after practice: “I’m not as good as I was four years ago.” But will she be good enough to win gold?

Mark McMorris, after horrible injury, ups risk for 2 gold medals in PyeongChang

SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 08: Mark McMorris of Canada waits for his score after his second run during the Snowboard Men's Slopestyle Final during day 1 of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park on February 8, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
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Mark McMorris remembers the day in July 2011 when he found out he could one day be an Olympian.

The Saskatchewan native was at a Canadian steakhouse watching TSN. A report said slopestyle snowboarding had been added to the Olympics for the next Winter Games in Sochi in three years.

Holy s***,” McMorris, in a phone interview last week, remembered thinking to himself. “I have a really good chance at going because I won this event so many times.”

McMorris was only 17 years old then, but he had already won a World Cup slopestyle contest in January 2010, a month after turning 16. Plus, he took silver at his Aspen Winter X Games debut in January 2011.

McMorris won the X Games in 2012 and 2013, then broke a rib at the 2014 X Games, 12 days before his Olympic debut. He still made it to Sochi, but the overwhelming favorite tag was gone. McMorris took bronze behind surprise American Sage Kotsenburg.

Since then, two days greatly impacted McMorris’ snowboarding. He will never forget one of them. He doesn’t remember the other.

On June 8, 2015, the International Olympic Committee added snowboard big air for the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games. McMorris, who had won big air at X Games five months earlier, instantly became a favorite for two medals in South Korea. Perhaps two gold medals.

Unlike slopestyle, McMorris doesn’t remember how he heard about big air’s Olympic inclusion. He believes his medal chances in PyeongChang are equal in both events.

“Some people might say slope, because I win more slope contests,” said McMorris, who starred in a reality TV show with big brother Craig, “McMorris & McMorris,” and has his own video game. “But I also win the big air contests when I land. Usually, I go all in rather than get second or third. I try my harder stuff.”

McMorris swept big air and slopestyle at the 2015 X Games and nearly did it again in 2016, edged by countryman Max Parrot in big air by two points. Parrot also beat McMorris in slopestyle at the Laax Open in Switzerland last week. He is clearly the biggest rival heading to PyeongChang.

McMorris plans to compete in both big air and slopestyle at Aspen this week, and could win both. This is remarkable given what happened Feb. 21, 2016.

McMorris broke his right femur in an Air and Style big air run in Los Angeles (video here). His rehab has been extensively documented by Canadian media.

McMorris returned to competition in November and quickly returned to winning. He captured a big air test event at the PyeongChang Olympic venue.

“For sure, I was nervous and stressed, but I put so much time into my rehabilitation and made sure I was super strong,” McMorris said of trying high-risk tricks again, like the frontside triple cork 1440 he attempted at Air and Style. “You can work as hard as you can to feel like you were at one point. I did that, and it ended up working out super well.”

McMorris said he falls every day in training, testing his surgically repaired right leg with a titanium rod the length of his femur.

“Not concern, but for sure I feel my leg somedays,” he said. “Big impact [fall], I’ll feel it in my groin. I’ll get some metallic feeling in the back of my knee, sort of where the femur meets the knee. I deal with my leg most days when I wake up. It just takes me a little bit longer to warm up. It still works pretty good.”

McMorris is credited as the first rider to land a backside triple cork 1440 in 2011. He’s working on more difficult tricks.

“Trying to perfect the switch backside triple cork 1620, which is kind of a new one in our industry,” he said. “I’ve never been able to do it in a slopestyle run. I’ve done it one time in a big air event at X Games last year. I’d love to do that in slopestyle, trying to link three triple corks together, which would set me up to be in a pretty good place.”

At this time four years ago, a McMorris-Shaun White rivalry was being hyped for the first Olympic slopestyle event. White had won his last X Games slopestyle start in 2009 and started training the event again for a Sochi slopestyle-halfpipe double.

McMorris dominated the 2013 Winter X Games with the two highest scores, while White was fifth. White ended up dropping out of slopestyle on the eve of the Winter Olympics, drawing criticism from Canadian riders, but notably not McMorris.

The McMorris-White relationship took a twist last February when McMorris suffered his broken femur at White’s Air and Style event. McMorris said he got hurt because of an uneven landing area, according to CBC.

In July, a video of White and McMorris skateboarding together in New York City was published on White’s social media accounts. McMorris said last week he might compete in Air and Style next month, though he didn’t want to answer White-related questions.

White said earlier this month he has dropped slopestyle altogether. It’s unknown if or when Kotsenburg will return to competition. He wasn’t invited to X Games.

McMorris can’t speak to the Americans, but he can say he’s feeling more confident going into the Olympic year than four years ago.

“Because I’ve been through the ringer once of the Olympics,” he said. “I know what’s coming. I know what I need to do, and I understand what it takes to perform under pressure. Hopefully, this time, I don’t have a broken rib. I’m pretty aware what the level’s going to be like in a year’s time. But you never know, it’s a judged sport as well.”

VIDEO: NBC’s lookahead to PyeongChang

European Figure Skating Championships broadcast schedule

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NBC Sports will air live coverage of the European Figure Skating Championships in Ostrava, Czech Republic, this week.

The competition includes reigning world champions Javier Fernandez of Spain, Yevgenia Medvedeva of Russia and ice dancers Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France.

NBCSN will provide live coverage that will also be streamed on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app.

Andrea Joyce and 2011 U.S. champion Ryan Bradley will call the action on NBCSN, while 2006 Olympic ice dance silver medalist Ben Agosto will join the team for ice dance coverage.

Skaters are preparing for the world championships in Helsinki in two months.

MORE: U.S. figure skating could have its best world team since 2006

Day Time (ET) Event Network
Wednesday Noon Women’s Short NBCSN
Wednesday 2 p.m. Pairs Short (LIVE) NBCSN
Thursday Noon Short Dance NBCSN
Thursday 2 p.m. Pairs Free (LIVE) NBCSN
Friday Noon Men’s Short NBCSN
Friday 2 p.m. Women’s Free (LIVE) NBCSN
Saturday 9 a.m. Free Dance (LIVE) NBCSN
Saturday 6 p.m. Men’s Free NBCSN
Saturday, Feb. 4 3 p.m. Women’s/Men’s Free NBC