Johnny Weir, Tara Lipinski

Tara Lipinski, Johnny Weir analyze Grand Prix season at halfway point

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The first half of the Grand Prix figure skating season bounced from storyline to storyline — from lyrics to Russian and Japanese dominance to Olympic champions’ injuries.

NBC Sports figure skating analysts Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir provided thoughts as the series shifts to the fourth of six events, the Rostelecom Cup this weekend, before the Grand Prix Final.

The Grand Prix season began with skepticism about a new rule allowing skaters to perform to music with vocal lyrics. Many adopted the change, including U.S. champion Gracie Gold, who was initially against it.

Weir said before the season he was “terrified” of what the programs might look like. Now that he’s seen it, the two-time Olympian said it’s “a little bit mind-blowing” listening to lyrics, especially in the instances it’s for an entire program.

“It can work for and against a skater,” Weir said. “So far, it’s been more against skaters than it is for them.”

The 2013 U.S. champion Max Aaron‘s short program is set to Kenny Loggins‘ “Footloose,” a performance that placed him fifth at Skate Canada (he moved up to third after the free skate, in which he mostly performed without spoken words).

Four-time U.S. champion Jeremy Abbott took second in the Skate America short program, accompanied by Sam Smith‘s “Lay Me Down.” He struggled in his lyric-less free skate, dropping to fifth overall.

Another trend surfaced as the Grand Prix series shifted to Skate Canada and Cup of China the last two weeks. Russian women and Japanese men have won five of the six individual competitions so far. In the only outlier, Japanese Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu finished second at Cup of China despite falling five times in his free skate with a head injury.

What was so impressive about three different Russian women sweeping the first three events was not only that it was unprecedented but also that Olympic champions Adelina Sotnikova and Yulia Lipnitskaya were not among the trio.

Sotnikova is out with an ankle ligament tear. Lipnitskaya finished second in her Grand Prix season debut at Cup of China, calling her free skate the worst of her life and pouring her stressed soul out in an interview.

“Yulia was thrown onto the cereal box, per se, for such a huge country that has such a long history in figure skating,” Weir said. “She didn’t look as prepared as she has in the past for competition [at Cup of China], but she’s very mentally tough, and she has ice in her veins in some ways.”

Next month’s Russian Championships will arguably be the deepest women’s competition in the world this season. Russia can send only three women to the World Championships in Shanghai in March.

“It’s been predicted for a few years now, the Russian ladies’ dominance,” Weir said. “We’re not just watching a renaissance in skating in Russia. We’re also watching these ladies jostle for position in their country.”

None of the three U.S. women’s Olympians have overly impressed Lipinski.

“I haven’t seen someone that’s jumped to the forefront,” Lipinski said. “At the same time, I’ve seen progress from the skaters.”

Like Polina Edmunds, the youngest U.S. Olympic skater since Lipinski. Edmunds fell on the first jump in her first-ever Grand Prix skate at Cup of China and finished seventh in the short program.

But Edmunds placed second in the free skate, landing seven triple jumps. Edmunds can build on that in two weeks at NHK Trophy in Japan, which is wide open with Sotnikova’s absence.

Gold was third at Skate America, messing up a simple spin, and has yet to win a senior international competition. Ashley Wagner took second at Skate Canada, the best result of any non-Russian this season. Still, Wagner could do better, Lipinski said.

“I haven’t seen [Wagner] really exploring, pushing her own technical merit up to a higher level yet,” she said.

Weir sees a similar complacency in Wagner’s countrymen.

“The American men, for the most part, are sitting a little bit in their comfort zone,” he said. “Yes, they’ve won medals in all three Grand Prixs so far, but they haven’t put up performances that are capable of competing with the likes of Yuzuru Hanyu, [Russian] Maksim Kovtun and [Spaniard] Javier Fernandez, who are kind of leaders of the sport at the moment.”

In particular, Jason Brown hasn’t progressed as much as Lipinski expected.

The ponytailed skater who thrilled with his “Riverdance” free skate last season looked shaky technically at Skate America. Brown finished second, nearly 35 points behind winner Tatsuki Machida, who is another of the elite class of men’s skaters.

Brown, who hasn’t added a quadruple jump to his competition programs yet, fell on a triple Axel and stepped out of a triple-triple combination in his free skate.

“It would have been great after the Olympic year to reset the tone and have the judges look at him as a serious threat every single time,” Lipinski said. “I don’t think that’s happened.”

Brown leads the U.S. singles entries at Rostelecom Cup this week. NBC will air coverage Sunday from 4-6 p.m. ET.

Lipinski, Weir talk collisions in figure skating

Genzebe Dibaba, 1500m world record holder, to miss world championships

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Genzebe Dibaba, the 1500m world record holder, will miss the world track and field championships that start next week due to a right foot injury, according to her agency.

The Ethiopian Dibaba lowered the 1500m world record to 3:50.07 in 2015, then won the world title a month later. Kenyan Faith Kipyegon relegated her to silver at the Rio Olympics. Dibaba was last in the 12-woman final at the 2017 Worlds, then withdrew from the 5000m at that meet, citing illness.

Dibaba’s absence further opens the door for Americans Shelby Houlihan (second-fastest in the world last year) and Jenny Simpson, the Olympic bronze medalist and 2017 World silver medalist.

Ethiopian-born Dutchwoman Sifan Hassan is fastest in the world this year and broke the mile world record on July 12. Hassan has range from 800m through 10,000m, and it’s not guaranteed she will contest the 1500m in Doha starting with the first round Oct. 2.

The event is already lacking Caster Semenya, the two-time Olympic 800m champion who took bronze in her world 1500m debut in 2017. Semenya is excluded from races from 400m through the mile under the IAAF’s new rule capping testosterone in those events.

MORE: U.S. roster for track and field worlds

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How to watch, stream U.S. International Classic on NBC Sports Gold

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The U.S. International Figure Skating Classic gets underway in Salt Lake City, Utah this weekend and NBC Sports Gold’s “Figure Skating Pass” will be live streaming all of the action.

The event is the third stop of the ISU’s Challenger Series and often serves as a warm-up for Grand Prix events for skaters, which start in October.

The men’s field is headlined by world bronze medalist and 2018 Olympian Vincent Zhou, joined by the 2019 world junior bronze medalist in the ladies’ event, Ting Cui. Reigning U.S. pairs champions Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc will make their season debut in Salt Lake. And in ice dance, Four Continents gold medalists Madison Chock and Evan Bates are slated to compete.

Check out the schedule below (all times Eastern):

Friday, Sept. 19

8:30 p.m.: Pairs’ short program (LINK)

10 p.m.: Men’s short program (LINK)

Saturday, Sept. 20

4:30 p.m.: Rhythm dance (LINK)

6:15 p.m.: Ladies’ short program (LINK)

8:35 p.m.: Pairs’ short program (LINK)

10:30 p.m.: Men’s free skate (LINK)

Sunday, Sept. 21

6:25 p.m.: Free dance (LINK)

8:15 p.m.: Ladies’ free skate (LINK)

MORE: Vincent Zhou to attend Brown University, details new skating situation

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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