Javier Fernandez

Grand Prix Final schedule, previews

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U.S. ice dancer Evan Bates calls it “the most important competition we’ve ever done,” speaking for himself and his partner.

It is the Grand Prix Final, the most elite figure skating competition. The Olympics and the World Championships earn more prestige, but the Grand Prix Final is more exclusive.

The top six skaters per discipline over the six-event Grand Prix series this fall were invited to this week’s event in Barcelona.

The constantly changing figure skating landscape will be apparent in Spain, a nation with no history of Olympic medalists in the sport.

Of the 12 Sochi Olympic (non-team event) medalists, only two made it to the Grand Prix Final — men’s champion Yuzuru Hanyu and pairs silver medalists Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov (plus ice dance bronze medalist Yelena Ilinykh with a different partner).

The two-time Olympian Bates, with partner Madison Chock, make up the U.S.’ biggest gold-medal hope with Olympic champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White not competing this season. That’s why Bates holds this weekend’s event in such high regard.

Here’s the schedule (all times ET):

Thursday
Pairs short program — 2:15 p.m.
Women’s short program — 3:30 p.m.

Friday
Ice dance short dance — 1:45 p.m.
Men’s short program — 3 p.m.

Saturday
Pairs free skate — 10 a.m.
Women’s free skate — 11:25 a.m.
Ice dance free dance — 1:25 p.m.
Men’s free skate — 2:45 p.m.

Icenetwork.com will stream all the sessions to subscribers live. NBC will air coverage Sunday (4-6 p.m.).

Here are event-by-event previews:

Men

The men’s competition will be the most anticipated because it includes Spain’s only entrant — Javier Fernandez.

Fernandez, 23, is the two-time reigning World Championships bronze medalist. He trains in Canada under two-time Olympic silver medalist Brian Orser but is very passionate about Spain.

In Sochi, Fernandez fell from third place after the short program to fourth overall and said he felt sad he couldn’t bring a medal home for his country. Spaniards have won two Winter Olympic medals, both in Alpine skiing, the last in 1992.

Fernandez grew up in Madrid, training on an ice rink that is now a restaurant. Fernandez believes there are nine rinks in all of Spain, with about half in Madrid.

“To fight against sports like soccer or tennis or cycling [in Spain], those kinds of sports have been there for a while,” Fernandez said. “It’s kind of more difficult to make people change their minds [about] other sports than they’re used to seeing, but we’re getting there.”

There is no clear favorite among the six men at the Grand Prix Final. Fernandez has been the most consistent over the calendar year and posted the second-best overall score in the Grand Prix season.

Japan’s Tatsuki Machida, the reigning World silver medalist, posted the highest score this season in winning Skate America in October. But Machida scored more than 30 fewer points at his more recent Grand Prix skate in November.

Russia’s Maksim Kovtun was the only man to win both of his Grand Prix series starts this season. Kovtun, who also raps, won last season’s Russian Championships but was passed over for Russia’s lone Olympic singles spot for 2006 Olympic champion Yevgeny Plushenko. He finished fourth at Worlds, just behind Machida and Fernandez.

Not to be forgotten is reigning Olympic, World and Grand Prix Final champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan. Hanyu snuck into the Grand Prix Final over American Jason Brown by .15 of a point at the last Grand Prix series event. Hanyu, also coached by Orser, is a wild card given a head injury sustained in warming up for the Cup of China free skate on Nov. 8.

Women

Just like last year, it’s four Russians, one Japanese and American Ashley Wagner.

Wagner, seventh at the Olympics and March’s World Championships, will be fortunate to repeat her bronze medal from last year’s Grand Prix Final, if the just-concluded Grand Prix series is any indication.

Three of the four Russians — Yelena RadionovaElizaveta Tuktamysheva and Anna Pogorilaya — scored higher than Wagner this season. The fourth, Yulia Lipnitskaya, was the star of the Sochi Olympic team event and won silver at the World Championships.

None of the other Olympic or World medalists competed this Grand Prix season, including Russian Olympic champion Adelina Sotnikova, out with a torn ankle ligament.

Wagner also lost Olympic teammate Gracie Gold, who qualified for Barcelona but pulled out last week with a small stress fracture in her foot.

Wagner, 23, is more than four years older than the other five women in Barcelona.

Of the Russians, Radionova and Tuktamysheva impressed the most in the Grand Prix series. Radionova, the Skate America and Trophee Bompard winner, was too young for the Sochi Olympics. Tuktamysheva, the Cup of China winner, was 10th at last season’s Russian Championships.

Ice Dance

Meryl Davis and Charlie White won the last five Grand Prix Finals. The U.S. streak could very well continue, even with the Olympic champions sitting out this season.

That’s because Madison Chock and Evan Bates were the top qualifiers for Barcelona, winning both of their Grand Prix series starts.

They prevailed in the absence of not only Davis and White but also the entire top five from Sochi this Grand Prix season.

“The throne is vacant,” Bates said. “We’re going to try to take it.”

Chock and Bates were eighth in Sochi and fifth at the World Championships in March. Canada’s Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, who were seventh in Sochi and second at Worlds, qualified second behind Chock and Bates into the Grand Prix Final.

The other U.S. Olympic ice dance couple, siblings Maia and Alex Shibutani, qualified fourth into Barcelona. It’s their first Grand Prix Final appearance in three years.

Pairs

Like ice dance, the pairs landscape looked different this season.

Olympic champions Tatyana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov are out due to Trankov’s shoulder injury.

World champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy are out due to Szolkowy’s retirement.

Russians Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov, who won silver behind those pairs at the Olympics and Worlds, qualified first into the Grand Prix Final. Right behind them were Canadians Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford, the World bronze medalists.

The comeback story is that of Russians Yuko Kavaguti and Aleksander Smirnov, who missed last season due to Smirnov’s knee injury. They were fourth at the 2010 Olympics.

There’s also 2006 Olympic silver medalist Zhang Hao, looking for his first Grand Prix Final medal in six years. Zhang, formerly partnered with Zhang Dan (no relation), was eighth in Sochi with new partner Peng Cheng.

Evan Lysacek finds challenges away from skating in new setting

Noah Lyles’ unbelievable time comes with an oops at Inspiration Games

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Noah Lyles may one day break Usain Bolt‘s world record, but Thursday wasn’t going to be that day. Even if, for about five minutes, Lyles was the first man to break 19 seconds over 200m.

Lyles registered 18.90 seconds, racing alone against competitors simultaneously sprinting on tracks in Europe. The time was unbelievable, given Bolt’s world record was 19.19 seconds. Turns out, it was too good to be true.

Minutes later on the broadcast, commentator Steve Cram said that Lyles only ran 185 meters, starting from an incorrect place on his Florida track.

“You can’t be playing with my emotions like this,” tweeted Lyles, who raced in Sonic the Hedgehog socks. “Got me in the wrong lane smh.”

Lyles, 22, has run 66 official 200m races dating to 2013, according to Tilastopaja.org. He is the reigning world champion and the fourth-fastest man in history with a personal best of 19.50 seconds.

But he had never experienced what came Thursday, with few spectators and nobody else in adjacent lanes for the Inspiration Games, a socially distanced meet with Olympians competing against each other on different continents.

Perhaps the setting played a role in the mistake.

“It actually felt pretty good besides getting that full gust of wind,” Lyles, who ran into a registered 3.7 meter/second headwind, said before he knew his time or that he was 15 meters short.

Christophe Lemaitre, the Olympic bronze medalist from France, got the win in 20.65 seconds.

Earlier Thursday, Allyson Felix had a succinct reaction to the strangest victory of her sterling career.

“That’s weird,” she said after running 150 meters alone, in front of few spectators on a track in Walnut, California.

Officially, Felix ran 16.81 seconds — impressive, especially if the reported 2.6 meter/second headwind reading was accurate — to defeat Olympic 400m champion Shaunae Miller-Uibo and world 200m bronze medalist Mujinga Kambundji.

Miller-Uibo raced alone in Florida. Kambundji was on her own in Zurich, the base of the Inspiration Games, a repurposed version of an annual Diamond League stop. The coronavirus pandemic is forcing meet organizers to get creative this summer.

Full meet results are here.

Felix, a 34-year-old mom with nine Olympic medals, called her event “very strange.”

“It feels sort of like practice, but not even because there’s really no teammates or anything,” she told 1996 Olympic decathlon champion Dan O’Brien at Mt. San Antonio College. “It’s hard to challenge yourself. I think that’s the big thing with running solo.”

Canadian Olympic medalist Andre De Grasse won a 100-yard race in 9.68 seconds, defeating French veteran Jimmy Vicaut (9.72) and Olympic 110m hurdles champion Omar McLeod of Jamaica (9.87). De Grasse, Vicaut and McLeod raced together, in every other lane at a Florida track.

The 100 yards is scantly contested in top-level meets. Nobody has broken nine seconds in a 100-yard (91.44-meter) race, according to World Athletics. But Usain Bolt‘s estimated 100-yard time en route to his 2009 world record in the 100m was 8.87 seconds.

The regular Diamond League calendar is scheduled to resume in August.

“This was fun,” Felix said. “I can’t wait until we can do it in person.”

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Jeff Gadley, Willie Davenport changed bobsled as Winter Olympic pioneers

Jeff Gadley
Photos courtesy Jeff Jordan
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Jeff Gadley‘s life changed when a stranger in a car tailed him on a decathlon training run in Plattsburgh, N.Y., in 1978.

The driver was Al Hachigian, a veteran U.S. bobsledder on the lookout for new talent.

Hachigian found the right man. Gadley had just won the first Empire State Games decathlon and set sights on the 1980 U.S. Summer Olympic Trials. Once Hachigian got his attention, he asked the 23-year-old Gadley if he ever considered pushing a bobsled.

“Of course,” Gadley said. “I grew up in Buffalo.”

Hachigian looked at Gadley — undersized for a bobsledder at 5 feet, 8 inches, and no more than 180 pounds — and decided he was worth extending an invitation to a trials event for the 1978-79 season.

“I think you could do well,” Hachigian told Gadley. “But there are no Black bobsledders, so you kind of have to be a little bit prepared for some things.”

No problem, Gadley said.

A year and a half later, Gadley and a later bobsled convert — Willie Davenport, the 1968 Olympic 110m hurdles champion — became the first Black men to compete on a U.S. Winter Olympic team in any sport.

“It was a huge story,” leading up to the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Games, Gadley said in a recent interview. “Since we were the first, people wanted to know how we felt. What you thought about the sport being traditionally white. My answer was always, look, I can’t attribute a particular color to playing out in the cold. To be the first African American ever to compete in the Winter Olympics, I think it’s nice. I think it broadens the thought process of people and maybe will bring, one day, stronger and faster athletes to the sport.”

Gadley and Davenport, push athletes in driver Bob Hickey‘s 12th-place sled at those Olympics, accelerated a line of accomplished athletes converting from track to bobsled. They were followed by, most famously, Edwin Moses, Renaldo NehemiahLauryn Williams and Lolo Jones. NFL players Willie Gault and Herschel Walker also pushed sleds.

“There is a myth in this country that says Blacks can’t make the American Winter Olympic team,” Davenport said, according to Jet magazine in 1980. “Jeff and I proved this to be wrong that you don’t have to be rich and white to make it.”

Back when Gadley joined the national team, it was all white and mostly men from around Lake Placid, home of the only Olympic-level bobsled track in the country.

“I’m sure a lot of these people had not been around African Americans before,” said Jeff Jordan, Gadley’s best friend from SUNY Plattsburgh who rounded out the four-man Olympic sled with Hickey, Gadley and Davenport.

Gadley excelled from the start, earning a spot at the 1979 World Championships. Not everyone on the team was excited about his quick rise. Gadley estimated that out of about 20 national team members, seven or eight didn’t like him because of his skin color. He knew about two definitively, witnessing a conversation at the worlds in Germany.

“The worst thing I heard is that someone didn’t want a Black guy on the back of their sled,” Gadley said. “The saddest part is knowing that, at the world championships, your own teammates don’t like you because of your color.

“I said, I’m not going to say anything. I’m not going to ride on the back of his sled anyway, even if I’m told to. I said, I don’t want to be on the back of your sled, either, and I just left it at that.”

Gadley competed in another sled at worlds, finishing 10th.

“It wasn’t all about skin color,” Gadley said. “Part of it was about you’re breaking up a culture.”

The next season, Hickey, a veteran driver from Upstate New York, was looking to fill his sled with push athletes. He chose the new group of Gadley, Jordan and Davenport. They won the Olympic Trials, despite Jordan and Davenport being rookies (Davenport reportedly pushed a bobsled for the first time a month or two before trials).

“They were the first real world-class athletes to hit bobsledding,” Jordan said of Gadley and Davenport. “We pretty much crushed them [the local bobsledders at Trials], and they did not like it. I don’t know if they would have liked it, period. It didn’t matter what nationality or color.

“The only thing they knew was they were getting their butts kicked. I can’t say we were mistreated other than they would rather have their buddies on the Olympic team.”

Davenport, at 36, was 12 years removed from his Summer Olympic title and the oldest U.S. bobsledder in Lake Placid. While his speed was an asset, his lack of experience was evident, his teammates said.

“Willie was on the other side of his career,” Jordan said. “He brought a lot of notoriety. We were in People magazine, on Good Morning America. None of that would have happened without Willie’s presence. He wasn’t there for the same reason Jeff [Gadley] was there.

“If Willie had just been another Jeff Gadley, would we have gotten that attention? Maybe, eventually, but there was quite a bit of attention early on.”

Gadley, Hickey and Jordan, in recent interviews, remembered the buzz at the Lake Placid Games. Curt Gowdy, the Hall of Fame sportscaster, called bobsled for ABC. President Jimmy Carter‘s 12-year-old daughter, Amy, showed up one day.

The Americans finished more than six seconds behind the winning East German quartet, but were slowed to an unknown degree by inferior equipment. Hickey said that the East German driver, 39-year-old Meinhard Nehmer, told Gowdy that the Americans would have won if they had his sled.

“They came and went quick,” Hickey said of the Olympics. “We weren’t prepared.”

It marked the end of the Olympic careers for Davenport and Gadley. Davenport died in 2002.

Gadley gave up the decathlon after the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Games was announced. He now lives in Texas with his wife.

Most of his Olympic mementos and photos were discarded or lost over the last 40 years. But Gadley was glad for the experience and feels fortunate for the opportunity, back when bobsled was a regional, if not local, sport.

“I would say pioneers would be a good word to use,” for Davenport and I, he said. “It was just a matter of exposure where I was and what I was doing [at the time]. It made an example to others that, hey, as a Black guy, if he’s doing it, I can do it, too.”

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Jeff Gadley