Johnny Weir, Tara Lipinski discuss collisions in figure skating

Yuzuru Hanyu, Han Yan
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Two-time Olympian Johnny Weir used to collide “all the time” with other figure skaters in practice for junior competitions. The 1998 Olympic champion Tara Lipinski remembered a competitor’s skate scraping her thigh during a warm-up session.

What happened at the Cup of China on Saturday shocked both NBC Sports figure skating analysts not so much because two skaters ran into each other, but because of the severity of the collision.

Olympic and World champion Yuzuru Hanyu warmed up for his free skate at the Grand Prix series event, a six-minute session where all skaters in the group (usually five or six) set to perform prepare on the ice at the same time.

Hanyu skated with his back to the majority of the ice when he turned and saw Chinese skater Han Yan in his path. Hanyu had little time to react, barely pulling his arms up to brace for impact (video here).

Hanyu and Han fell to the ice and grabbed their faces. Han managed to stand up and get off the ice. Hanyu lay on the ice for a minute, blood streaming down his chin and neck, before two people in medical outfits reached him.

“It’s very traumatic,” Weir said in a phone interview Tuesday. “My initial response was just of shock that this happened. And worrying about the boys.”

They both appeared to receive medical attention once they got off the ice. Han while laying on the floor next to the boards; Hanyu while sitting down farther away.

Neither withdrew from the competition, which caused scrutiny given heads collided. Hanyu was reportedly cleared by a doctor to compete, with his coach, two-time Olympic silver medalist Brian Orser, saying the skater showed no physical signs of a concussion.

Orser said Hanyu was determined to compete, though the coach cautioned the 19-year-old, “This is not the time to be a hero. You have to take care of yourself,” according to The Associated Press.

“If there was any head trauma or anything that he was at risk for in that area, he definitely shouldn’t have skated,” Lipinski said. “But if they gave him the go-ahead, I give him so much credit. I would consider myself back in the day a tough competitor, but I don’t think I could have done that. I would have been so frazzled and dealing with the physical symptoms.”

Han performed his free skate 45 minutes after the collision, falling on a quadruple jump attempt and erring on several other jumps. Hanyu performed shortly after that and fell five times, while wearing a head wrap. Hanyu needed to be held up by Orser when he got off the ice following his program.

“You’ve got to keep breathing, OK?” Orser told him. “Hang onto the boards.”

“I know that tomorrow he’s going to feel like he was hit by a car,” Orser said later, according to The Associated Press.

source: Getty Images
Yuzuru Hanyu returned from Cup of China in a wheelchair one day after his collision.

Hanyu, who needed jaw stitches and head staples, was wheeled through a Japanese airport the following day. On Monday, Japan’s figure skating federation said he would be out two to three weeks.

Han told Weir after the competition that he was feeling much better.

Collisions in figure skating are common in practice and warm-ups, with skaters twisting and jumping at high speeds in proximity.

Perhaps the most famous came in practice at the Lillehammer Olympics, when Ukraine’s Oksana Baiul and Germany’s Tanja Szewczenko hit each other while preparing for jumps (video here) before the women’s free skate. Baiul suffered a cut on her right shin that required three stitches. Szewczenko suffered a bruised right hip and abdomen, according to The New York Times.

There was immediate concern Baiul might not be able to compete. Both skaters managed to, with Baiul surpassing Nancy Kerrigan for gold. Szewczenko finished sixth.

Weir said collisions were frequent at his home rink as he grew into an international-caliber skater and shared ice time with less experienced athletes.

There is a right-of-way system when skaters are on the ice at the same time for practice, dictated by which skater’s music is playing or which skater is preparing for a bigger competition.

But neither of those deciders can be used in six-minute group warm-ups for international events such as Cup of China. The skaters are the fastest and strongest in the world, too.

“Everyone is so driven and so focused and in their own little zone,” Lipinski said. “[When you collide] you’re shaken up emotionally and taken out of your normal schedule and normal zone.

“For all that to go out the window so suddenly, to get that back on track is nearly impossible.”

Weir said group warm-ups are like “six bulls on the ice all fighting and jostling for space” and likened navigating the rink to driving through traffic.

“You misread somebody, or they misread you or you cut a turn too tight,” he said. “Skaters are skin and bones. You hit another person with skin and bones, and it’s all bones going into you.”

Weir said he would like to see the International Skating Union increase warm-up time from six minutes to 10 minutes, but not necessarily to split the six skaters into groups of three for five minutes each. Rather, he emphasized that six minutes is a short period for a skater to warm-up an arsenal of program elements.

A brief history of figure skating collisions:

In 1994, U.S. ice dancer Renee Roca broke a wrist after skating backward into another couple at U.S. Championships practice, one month before the Lillehammer Olympics. Roca and her partner, the defending U.S. champions, withdrew from the competition. They weren’t eligible for the Olympics because Roca’s partner hadn’t secured citizenship fast enough after defecting from the Soviet Union.

In 2011, U.S. ice dancers Lynn Kriengkrairut and Logan Gjulietti-Schmitt and Japan’s Cathy and Chris Reed crashed in warm-up at the NHK Trophy Grand Prix series event in Japan (video here). They did not withdraw. Earlier that morning, two other ice dance couples collided in a practice, with one couple withdrawing due to the female skater suffering a cut to her thigh.

In 2012, Russian pairs Yuko Kavaguti and Aleksander Smirnov and Vera Bazarova and Yuri Larionov collided in training at the World Championships but reportedly did not require medical attention.

In singles figure skating, collisions are less common but still prevalent. There was Baiul in 1994, but also these accidents:

Jill Trenary sliced her calf  and severed an artery in a warm-up collision as a junior skater in 1985. She recovered from that to win the World Championship five years later.

In 1991, Japan’s Midori Ito was reportedly in tears after colliding with a French skater in a short program warm-up (video here). She missed minutes of warm-up time and, in her short program, actually fell out of the rink entirely (video here). Ito ultimately finished fourth. Kristi Yamaguchi won gold. A year later, Ito won Olympic silver behind Yamaguchi.

In 2010, American Adam Rippon and Canada’s Patrick Chan collided in a Skate Canada practice (video here). Rippon had “a red welt the size of a quarter on his cheek,” according to The Associated Press. Chan went on to win the competition. Rippon was third.

World Athletics Athletes of the Year: Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone, Mondo Duplantis

Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
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Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone and Mondo Duplantis were named World Athletics Athletes of the Year after world record-breaking performances in 2022.

McLaughlin-Levrone, who lowered her 400m hurdles world record twice this year, won the award for the first time. She became the first American to win Athlete of the Year since fellow 400m hurdler Dalilah Muhammad in 2019.

The other finalists were Nigeria’s Tobi Amusan, who broke the 100m hurdles world record en route to the world title; Jamaica’s Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, who won her fifth world 100m title; Peru’s Kimberly Garcia, who swept the 20km and 35km race walk world titles, and Venezuela’s Yulimar Rojas, who broke her own triple jump world record and swept the indoor and outdoor world titles.

Duplantis, the Louisiana-raised Swede, won the men’s award for the second time in three years. He upped his pole vault world record three times in 2022 and swept the world indoor and outdoor and Diamond League titles in the event.

The other men’s finalists were Moroccan steeplechaser Soufiane El Bakkali, who went undefeated in 2022; Norwegian runner Jakob Ingebrigtsen, the world outdoor 5000m champion who ran the world’s fastest mile in 21 years; Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge, who broke his own marathon world record by 30 seconds, and American Noah Lyles, who broke Michael Johnson‘s 26-year-old national record in the 200m.

Erriyon Knighton became the first athlete to twice win the Rising Star award, given to the top U20 track and field athlete.

Knighton, 18, took 200m bronze at the world championships on July 21 in Eugene, Oregon, becoming the youngest individual sprint medalist in championships history. He was part of a U.S. medals sweep with Lyles and Kenny Bednarek.

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A wild Grand Prix Final has a quadruple Axel, the Brits and a figure skating tale for the ages

Ilia Malinin
Getty
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The world’s best figure skaters gather for the first time this season at this week’s Grand Prix Final in Turin, Italy. The Who’s Who is a very different group than from February’s Olympics, as expected, with the fall Grand Prix Series also producing some unpredictable stories.

Of the 18 skaters who won Olympic medals outside of the team event, just two of them competed internationally this fall. As was known before the season, all Russians are banned indefinitely due to the war in Ukraine. China’s top skaters didn’t enter the Grand Prix Series. Nathan Chen and the French ice dance couple of Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron are on indefinite, possibly permanent breaks after winning long-awaited golds.

It is time for new stars to emerge. That happened. American Ilia Malinin, last year’s world junior champion at age 17, became the first skater to land a quadruple Axel in competition in September. Then he did it again in October, and again in November.

It is time for new stories to emerge. The Grand Prix Final is the most exclusive event in figure skating — taking the top six per discipline from the Grand Prix Series — since it was introduced in 1996. This year, Belgium and Great Britain qualified skaters for the first time in more than a decade. Japanese men who were seventh and eighth at their national championships last season are in the field. As is a 39-year-old pairs’ skater from Canada who competed against Michelle Kwan in the 6.0 scoring era.

GRAND PRIX FINAL: Broadcast Schedule

The U.S. qualified skaters into the Final in every discipline for the first time in 15 years. The team is led statistically by Malinin, the world No. 1 bidding to be the second-youngest man to win a Final after Russian Yevgeny Plushenko.

Malinin, whose mom won the 1999 Grand Prix Final, is one half of the most anticipated head-to-head showdown this week. He takes on Japan’s Shoma Uno for the first time since the world championships in March, when Uno won and Malinin placed ninth in his debut on that stage. This season, Malinin and Uno each won their two separate Grand Prix starts, with Malinin having the best total score by a scant 61 hundredths of a point.

NBC Sports analyst Johnny Weir called Malinin the favorite for the Final and for March’s worlds (which could include Olympic silver medalist Yuma Kagiyama of Japan, who has been sidelined this fall due to leg and ankle injuries). But Weir also said that if Malinin and Uno skate clean this week, the 24-year-old Uno has the advantage.

“He’s had the longevity. He’s had the time in front of these top judges. And artistically, he’s so excellent,” Weir said.

The world’s highest-scoring women’s singles skater this season will compete at the Final, but in the junior division. Japan’s Mao Shimada won both of her junior Grand Prix starts. She is 14 years old, and with the age limit being raised in coming seasons will not be old enough for the next Olympics in 2026 (reminiscent of countrywoman Mao Asada, who was too young the last time Italy hosted the Winter Games in 2006).

Without Shimada, and without the Russians who dominated recent seasons, the women’s field is the most closely bunched at the Final. Mai Mihara, who missed the Olympics after placing fourth at Japan’s Nationals last December, was the lone woman to win both of her Grand Prix starts this fall. Kaori Sakamoto, last season’s world champion in the Russians’ absence, has the top score this season among senior women (and a shout out from Janet Jackson). But the six skaters at the Final are separated by just 4.47 points in best scores this fall.

American Isabeau Levito, the 15-year-old world junior champion, is the youngest woman in the field by four years. NBC Sports analyst Tara Lipinski said that Levito has a total package of jumps, artistry and competitive fire not seen in U.S. skating in many years. Levito, who has made short films, including “The Pickle Murder,” is reminiscent of Sasha Cohen, the last U.S. women’s singles skater to win an Olympic medal in 2006.

“There’s never a hand, finger, hair out of place when it comes to Isabeau’s skating,” Lipinski said. “Looking back at my first year as a senior, I was terrified. I looked like a junior coming up to the senior ranks. Isabeau, she’s gone past that phase.”

Pairs’ skating saw the highest turnover. The top five teams at the Olympics were Russian and Chinese, and none have competed internationally since. Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier took advantage at March’s worlds, becoming the first U.S. pair to win a world title since 1979.

Knierim and Frazier won both of their Grand Prix starts this fall, but were flawed. Japan’s Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara, who took silver at worlds, averaged 10 more points in their separate Grand Prix victories.

“Comparing people based on the scores that they accrue in different competitions is a nice way to see how people are faring in front of international panels, but it’s not a direct comparison between the two at all,” Weir said. “They’re very evenly matched.”

But the coolest story in pairs, and arguably in all of figure skating, is 39-year-old Canadian Deanna Stellato-Dudek. With partner Maxime Deschamps, she became the oldest Grand Prix podium finisher in October and the oldest champion in November. Stellato-Dudek, the 2000 World junior silver medalist in singles from Chicagoland, retired from figure skating in 2001 due to injuries, then came back in 2016 in pairs and switched nationality.

Weir recently came across photos of him with Stellato-Dudek when they competed at the same junior Grand Prix event in Norway in 1999.

“I’m pretty sure she was skating when I was skating, so that is a crazy feat in itself,” said Lipinski, whose last competition was winning the 1998 Olympics.

Ice dance, usually the most predictable of the four disciplines, sprung surprises this fall. Three-time world medalists Madison Chock and Evan Bates were the top returning couple based on results from last season’s Olympics and worlds, but the Americans rank outside the top three this fall by results and best total score.

Still, 2006 Olympic silver medalist Ben Agosto said they’re looking better than ever, having improved from their first Grand Prix to their second Grand Prix.

“The challenge for them is they’ve been so good for so long that they don’t want to get stale,” Agosto said of a couple that’s in their 12th season together. “They don’t want people to start to think, well, you know, two seasons ago was better than this, or five seasons ago was better than this. They want to always be reinventing, but then also capitalizing on their biggest strengths.”

Canadian veterans Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier, ranked third among returning couples going into the fall, won both of their Grand Prix starts with the world’s top two scores across all events. Agosto believes that the field is closer than the point totals suggest and that some couples have been underscored, including Americans Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, who qualified into the Final in the sixth and last spot.

Agosto said that Lilah Fear and Lewis Gibson, Great Britain’s first Grand Prix Final qualifiers since 2009, can “blow the roof off” with their Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez rhythm dance and Lady Gaga free dance.

“You can just feel the the intensity that everyone is bringing after their Olympic experience and coming back and feeling rejuvenated and maybe feeling the adrenaline effect of having a little bit more of an opportunity because Papadakis and Cizeron are not there, because the Russians are not there,” Agosto said. “I’ve really seen across the board this group stepping up from last season, so I don’t think that it would just be a clear OK, well, if those other teams were in the game this year, they would, by default, be on top.”

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