Lipnitskaya, 15, skates to the lead at Russian Grand Prix

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At the end of her short program, 15-year-old Yulia Lipnitskaya of Russia draws a heart on the ice, then scoops shavings off the rink, sprinkling them over her to finish.

The fragile finish is an emotional one, but Lipnitskaya was anything but fragile Friday at the Rostelecom Cup, where she captured the arena’s hearts and the short-program lead with a strong and assured skate against a more experienced field at the final Grand Prix of the figure skating season.

Competing in just her fourth senior Grand Prix, Lipnitskaya seeks a fourth medal – and second gold this season – leading 2012 World Champion Carolina Kostner, a veteran, and two-time U.S. medalist Agnes Zawadzki.

In the pairs competition in Moscow, no team had a completely clean skate, but four-time world champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany had a safe lead over Russians Vera Bazarova and Yuri Larionov.

Lipnitskaya’s 72.24 was the second-best short program score of the season, behind 2010 Olympic silver medalist Mao Asada. Only Asada and Lipnitskaya have broken the 70-point mark so far this season.

Zawadzki, who had a disappointing seventh-place finish at the Cup of China earlier this month, skated a clean and decisive program herself, hitting her triple-triple combination and later a double Axel. Kostner was safely in second with a 67.75 while Zawadzki registered a 60.45.

Zawadzki eyes Sochi with a special friend by her side

The American’s score was just 0.01 better than 2008 U.S. champion Mirai Nagasu, who had a solid performance herself, edging ahead of Russia’s Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, who finished with a 60.16. Only 0.29 points separates third and fifth place.

Savchenko/Szolkowy, the bronze medalists at the Vancouver Games, skated beautifully through most of their short program, “When Winter Comes,” a piece they complement with icicle-like white-and-blue costumes.

But on their final element, a difficult throw triple Axel, Savchenko came down hard, two-footing her landing and then hitting the ice on her right upper thigh and buttocks. In the Kiss and Cry, the 29-year-old was seen grimacing as the scores came in, then began crying, her head in her lap.

There is no official report yet of whether or not Savchenko sustained an injury on the fall.

It was a season’s best for Bazarova/Larionov, who scored a 69.72 to Savchenko/Szolkowy’s 73.25. Canadians Kirsten Moore-Towers and Dylan Moscovitch were in third after Moscovitch fell on his triple toe jump. Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim were the highest American team, finishing in fifth.

Zawadzki, 19, was ecstatic with her performance, a wide grin beaming across her face following the program. She fist pumped as she made her way towards coach Tom Zakrajsek, saying, “That felt great!”

The American has been third the last two seasons at the U.S. Championships, and will look to place at least that high as Team USA has three ladies spots for the Sochi Games.

Russia, meanwhile, has two, one of which Lipnitskaya hopes she occupies. So far this season, she, Adelina Sotnikova and Anna Pogorilaya have won Grand Prix medals. Tuktamysheva is the reigning Russian national champion, and was third at the European Championships earlier this year, behind Sotnikova’s second-place finish.

World Cup Alpine season opener gets green light

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After checking the snow on the Rettenbach glacier in Soelden, Austria, FIS officials announced Thursday that the traditional World Cup season opener is set to go ahead as planned Oct. 26-27 with men’s and women’s giant slalom races.

Current conditions at Soelden show a solid 30 inches of snow at the summit. The race finishes at an altitude of 2,670 meters (8,760 feet), far above the currently snowless village.

The first races of the season are never guaranteed to have enough snow, though last year’s men’s race at Soelden had the opposite problem, being canceled when a storm blew through with heavy snowfall and high winds. 

France’s Tessa Worley won the women’s race last year ahead of Italy’s Frederica Brignone and U.S. skier Mikaela Shiffrin, who would go on to dominate the rest of the World Cup season.

The Soelden weekend is followed by three dormant weeks until the season resumes Nov. 23-24 in Levi, Finland. The World Cup circuits then switch to North America. The men will run speed events Nov. 30-Dec. 1 in Lake Louise, Alberta, then head to Beaver Creek, Colo., for more speed events and a giant slalom Dec. 6-8. The women run slalom and giant slalom Nov. 30-Dec. 1 in Killington, Vt., and head to Lake Louise the next weekend.

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Olympic marathon and race walk move from Tokyo to Sapporo draws some pushback

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In the wake of a dropout-plagued set of world championship endurance races in Qatar, moving the 2020 Olympic marathons and race walks from Tokyo to the cooler venue of Sapporo is a quick fix for one problem, pending the potential for untimely heat waves.

But the move has drawn some opposition for a variety of reasons.

First, many organizers and politicians appear to have been caught by surprise. Tokyo’s governor, Yuriko Koike, was “taken aback” and Sapporo’s mayor, Katsuhiro Akimoto, learned about the move from the media, Kyodo News reported. Koike even sarcastically suggested that the races could move all the way northward to islands disputed by Russia and Japan.

South African sports scientist Ross Tucker suggested that running in heat and humidity poses an interesting challenge for athletes, some of whom may be able to catch up with faster runners by preparing for the conditions.

British marathoner Mara Yamauchi made a similar point, saying the move was unfair to those who already were preparing for the heat, humidity and other conditions.

Belgian marathoner Koen Naert said he will make the best of the change but complained that some of his preparation and every runner’s logistical planning would no longer apply.

The angriest athlete may be Canadian walker Evan Dunfee, who placed fourth in the 2016 Olympic 50km race and nearly claimed bronze as a Canadian appeal was upheld but then rejected. He says runners and walkers can beat the conditions if they prepare, which many athletes did not do for the world championships in Qatar.

“So why do we cater to the ill prepared?” Dunfee asked on Twitter.

The move also takes athletes out of the main Olympic city and takes away the traditional, tough less frequent in modern years, finish in the Olympic stadium.

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