Evgeni Plushenko

Yevgeny Plushenko leads after Russian Nationals short program

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Three-time Olympic medalist Yevgeny Plushenko landed a quadruple-triple jump combination as part of a clean short program to take the early lead at the Russian National Championships on Tuesday.

Plushenko, 31, scored 98.41 points at Sochi’s Iceberg Skating Palace (video here), which will also host the Olympic figure skating events in February.

He opened with a quadruple toe loop-triple toe loop combination and added a triple Axel and a triple Lutz.

Plushenko performed in front of signs and posters that read, “Always The King,” “Tsar on Ice” and “We believe in a dream.” He held both index fingers in the air after finishing his skate.

“I’m happy with my skate today because I did everything that I had planned to,” Plushenko said, according to R-Sport. “I did a quad-triple combination, which was very important for me. I think the jumps were very good.”

“The only thing I need to work on is the spins. I need to add a little bit because they were very weak today.”

Plushenko is expected to be given Russia’s single men’s figure skating Olympic spot. His closest competition is Maksim Kovtun, 18, who finished second at two Grand Prix season events and fifth at the Grand Prix Final earlier this month.

Kovtun earned 93.08 points in the short program Tuesday (video here), second to Plushenko.

The free skate is on Christmas at 7:45 a.m. ET. Plushenko landed three quads in open training Monday.

Plushenko is coming off a left knee injury that forced him to withdraw from a Grand Prix event in Moscow in November. Before that, he won a minor event in Riga, Latvia.

That was his first competition since withdrawing after the short program of the last season’s European Championships in January with a back injury.

In February, Plushenko would try to become the second skater to win four Olympic singles figure skating medals, joining Swede Gillis Grafstrom, who won gold in 1920, 1924 and 1928 and silver in 1932.

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Lindsey Vonn makes first trip to Kitzbuehel, still feeling some sadness of retirement

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Lindsey Vonn is back on the Alpine skiing World Cup tour this weekend, but not as a racer.

Vonn, who retired last year, is a spectator (and course inspector) at the famed Hahnenkamm in Kitzbuehel, Austria, home to the biggest annual men’s race in the sport (full TV, live stream schedule here).

It’s her first time watching competition in person since a career’s worth of injuries forced her to retire last winter, four wins shy of Ingemar Stenmark‘s World Cup record total of 86.

“I feel like skiing is like a bad break-up, so I need to keep some distance and some space,” she said, according to sponsor Red Bull. “And I’m slowly getting back into watching it. It’s hard, because every time I watch it, it reminds me of what I’m missing. I find it easier to watch the men’s races obviously than the women’s, but of course I’m always cheering for my teammates and watching girls coming back from injury who’ve had a hard time.

“I kind of need some space still. But, as time goes on, I’ll be able to be more involved and it will be less painful for me, and I can kind of start to build a new relationship with ski racing.”

Vonn was a special guest at the podium presentation of Friday’s super-G won by Norwegian Kjetil Jansrud, who like Vonn came back from major knee injuries to return to an Olympic podium.

Vonn long harbored ambitions of racing against men, but it never came to fruition, at least in part due to the International Ski Federation never signing off. In 2012, she was quoted saying she wanted to race at Kitzbuehel, the most challenging track on the men’s circuit.

“Before I was injured, I really wish I would have at least got a chance to ski down it,” she said this week. “I wouldn’t even mind if I had raced, but it would have been cool for me to one time go down it with a race suit on and see what it’s like. Being here as a spectator, I’m so jealous of the men.”

While Vonn keeps busy in retirement, including wedding planning with fiance P.K. Subban, emotional pain remains from being off the ski circuit.

“It’s not really about letting go as much as just not being able to do what I love anymore,” she said. “That’s like a bad break-up where I just miss it, and wish I could still do it, but physically I wasn’t able to, and it’s a hard reality to accept. No matter how many business deals I make or companies I start, it’s never going to replace the adrenaline and the speed and the thrill of ski racing.

“It’s something I have to learn to live with ,and I just thought it would be a little easier than it was, but when you wake up and your world’s totally different and the reality sinks in, it just makes you sad sometimes.”

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Bradie Tennell delivers her punch, seizes figure skating nationals lead

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GREENSBORO, N.C. – Bradie Tennell punched the air when she finished her winning short program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships Thursday night.

For most athletes, that is a common reaction to a strong performance.

For Tennell, whose default mood is self-containment, it was an unusual outpouring of emotion.

And maybe it showed just how well she understood the way her choreographer, Frenchman Benoit Richaud, wanted her to perform a program in which her confident, sometimes sassy skating complimented the staccato, robotic music.

After all, she would be skating it in a look-at-me bright red dress.

When they first began working on the program, Richaud felt Tennell was characteristically trying to disappear into the woodwork by turning what were meant to be bold physical statements into understated movements.

“You need to make a splash,” he told her. “You need to feel like you’re the center of everyone’s attention.”

That is the last thing Tennell normally wants to be.

“It’s weird,” Tennell said. “I guess when I’m on the ice, that’s what I’m aiming for, but when I’m off the ice, I’m more introverted, so it’s not something I’m used to.”

Tennell, the 2018 U.S. champion, commanded the judges’ attention with a flawless performance begun with a strong triple Lutz-triple toe loop combination and ended with consecutive eye-catching spins. They gave her 78.96 points, leaving her 3.56 ahead of Alysa Liu, 14, who last year became the youngest senior champion in U.S. history.

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That is almost exactly the same situation as last year, when Tennell had a 2.71-point lead over Liu going into the free skate. Mistakes by Tennell and Liu’s higher-valued jump content reversed the order in the final standings.

Tennell was battling not only her reserved persona but nervousness over a lingering arm problem.

She had hit her elbow on a wall after a bad spill a few months ago, leading to swelling that went up and down intermittently since then. “For some reason, this week it got really swollen and really painful,” she said.

When she woke up Wednesday, she could not bend her arm. She went to the event medical staff for help. They told her she had an infected hematoma and gave her antibiotics. Her mother, an emergency room nurse for 25 years, added her expertise to the treatment.

That did not calm her nerves, though. It took the first jumping pass to do that.

“As soon as I landed the Lutz-toe, I was like, ‘I can get through this,’’’ she said.

Tennell has spent all season getting beaten by young Russians with more formidable jump arsenals. She insists being at such a disadvantage is not frustrating.

“I don’t think about it that way,” she said. “Luckily, I don’t have to compete against them here, so it’s not really on my mind this week.”

Yet a glance at the short program scores shows just how much an impact Liu’s more difficult jumps can have.

Liu started with a technical base value 5.18 points higher than Tennell’s. Despite Liu’s weaker spins and a wonky landing on a triple Axel, which resulted in a loss of 1.94 points on grade of execution, her overall technical score was only .16 behind Tennell’s.

“I did make a few mistakes,” Liu noted.

Liu’s base advantage increases in Friday free skate, where she plans to do two triple Axels and a quadruple lutz. Those three jumps are worth 10.4 points more than Tennell’s three highest-value jumps.

Of course, Liu has to execute those things, and ice is slippery, as Mariah Bell showed in falling on footwork at the end of her strong short program.

Bell (73.22) was third, 2.18 behind Liu. Amber Glenn was a close fourth (73.16) after giving the most captivating performance of the evening, flush with speed, power and emotion.

Karen Chen, the 2017 champion returning to nationals after a 2019 season lost to injury, was a solid fifth (70.41).

Two-time champion Gracie Gold, whose comeback from depression and an eating disorder has been widely celebrated, struggled to 13th. She botched the landing of a triple lutz and got no points after singling a planned triple loop.

The top three finished in the same order as a year ago. Once again, it was Tennell’s night. It isn’t so bad being the center of attention.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

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As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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