U.S. Figure Skating Championships men’s preview

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The U.S. Figure Skating Championships include zero men’s singles Olympians for the first time since 1968, providing opportunity for breakthroughs this weekend.

The field is without these skaters:

Jeremy Abbott, two-time Olympian and four-time U.S. champion (taking the season off)
Jason Brown, Sochi Olympian and 2015 U.S. champion (back injury)
Joshua Farris, 2015 U.S. bronze medalist (concussion)

“Hope is bubbling up,” 1998 Olympic champion and NBC Sports analyst Tara Lipinski said. “Every skater is thinking, I have a shot now. … This is going to be the most wide-open men’s event that I’ve seen in a long time.”

Icenetwork.com will stream the short program from St. Paul, Minn., on Friday at 8:30 p.m. ET. NBC and NBC Sports Live Extra will air the free skate during coverage Sunday from 4-6 p.m. ET.

The winner Sunday will earn a place in the World Championships in Boston in two months.

The other two Worlds team spots could go to the silver and bronze medalists, but a U.S. Figure Skating committee will make the final decision. Brown could also petition for a spot on the team, complicating the selection process.

Here’s the full competition and broadcast schedule.

Here’s a look at men’s skaters to watch:

Max Aaron
Age: 23
Hometown: Colorado Springs, Colo.
Credentials: 2013 U.S. champion; 2015 Skate America champion

Aaron is the favorite not only because he is the only past national champion in the field, but also because he won Skate America in October, becoming the first U.S. man since 2011 to take a Grand Prix title. However, Aaron was seventh in the short program in his last Grand Prix skate on Nov. 13, at Trophée Bompard in France before the free skate was canceled due to the Paris attacks.

Lipinski’s Take: “He’s the most prepared we’ve ever seen him. He’s always been athletic. He’s always had the quads, but he’s focusing so much on the artistic side, adding in that grace, which he needed … Skate America blew me away. He’s changed people’s minds with that performance.”

Adam Rippon
Age: 26
Hometown: Los Angeles
Credentials: 2012, ’15 U.S. silver medalist

Rippon, like friend and training partner Ashley Wagner, has questioned his place and future in the sport during ups and downs the last few years. The 2008 and 2009 World junior champion was eighth at the 2014 U.S. Championships but returned to the podium last year, which he described as a “scenic reborn.” He placed fourth in his two Grand Prix skates this season, with a best score 10.32 points shy of Aaron’s total at Skate America.

“When I was younger, I kind of felt the weight of the world,” Rippon said last week. “I came up in a time when it was [2010 Olympians] Johnny [Weir] and Evan [Lysacek] and Jeremy [Abbott]. I felt like the fourth or sometimes fifth wheel. … When Johnny and Evan retired, I kind of felt like it was my chance to push through. I put so much pressure on myself. … When it came down to it, and I was trying to get that Olympic spot, I put all those pressures on myself again.”

Lipinski’s Take: “Adam you can never count out. He has a quad Lutz in his repertoire. Who does a quad Lutz? If he skates clean, Max better watch out.”

Nathan Chen
Age: 16
Hometown: Irvine, Calif.
Credentials: 2014 U.S. junior champion; 2015 Junior Grand Prix Final champion

Chen came to the 2015 U.S. Championships as arguably the most intriguing skater, looking to become the youngest men’s medalist since 1973. He finished eighth but was dealing with back and heel injuries, according to International Figure Skating magazine.

Chen looks healthier this season after winning the Junior Grand Prix Final in December, attempting three quads in his free skate (falling on one and crashing on a triple Axel). Three men in this year’s field finished higher than Chen at last year’s Nationals.

Lipinski’s Take: “He’s still my dark horse. Undefeated all season. He may add four quads into his free skate.”

Ross Miner
Age: 24
Hometown: Boston
Credentials: Three-time U.S. medalist (2011-13)

Miner has finished in the top three at the U.S. Championships more than any other man in the field, but was seventh in 2014 and sixth last year. This season, Miner placed seventh at Skate America but rebounded for bronze at Rostelecom Cup with the second-best total score by a U.S. man this season (trailing only Aaron).

Grant Hochstein
Age: 25
Hometown: Artesia, Calif.
Credentials: Fourth at 2015 NHK Trophy and 2015 Cup of China

Hochstein, like Miner, brings confidence from the Grand Prix series. Before this season, he had one Grand Prix start, a 10th place at 2010 Skate Canada. His best Nationals finish was seventh in 2010, but his fall fourth-place results coupled with the depleted field could set Hochstein up for something special.

Vincent Zhou
Age: 15
Hometown: Palo Alto, Calif.
Credentials: 2013 U.S. junior champion; fourth at 2015 Junior Grand Prix Final

Zhou won national titles at the intermediate, novice and junior levels in 2011, 2012 and 2013 (youngest U.S. men’s junior champion ever) and then missed the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons due partly to injuries. He attempted quad Salchows throughout the Junior Grand Prix season.

MORE FIGURE SKATING: Wagner vs. Gold: Women’s preview

Ilia Malinin’s quadruple Axel sheds light on first figure skater to land triple Axel

Vern Taylor
Vern Taylor, the first figure skater to land a triple Axel in competition. (Getty Images)
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Vern Taylor arrived at the Riverside Skating Club in Windsor, Ontario, on Sept. 15 to do what he has done at that rink for the last three decades: coach figure skaters. But this day was different.

Taylor, who in 1978 became the first man to land a ratified triple Axel in competition, was told that 17-year-old American Ilia Malinin performed the first quadruple Axel the previous night.

“When we heard that he landed it, I said, ‘Oh my goodness, that’s terrific,'” Taylor said by phone.

He was then shown video of Malinin’s feat.

“Anything’s possible,” Taylor said. “43 years [later], that’s something. It’s knowing that you can perform the jump that makes it challenging.”

Malinin, the world junior champion, landed the most difficult jump in skating and checked off the only remaining quad yet to be performed.

At the 1978 World Championships in Ottawa, a 20-year-old Taylor broke through a similar barrier in hitting the last remaining unchecked triple jump. But while Malinin’s senior career seems to be just getting started, and many medals appear in his future, Taylor is largely a forgotten man outside of ardent figure skating followers.

He finished 12th at those 1978 World Championships. Taylor’s 1980 Olympic prospects were dimmed by the fact that Canada had just one men’s singles spot, and he had taken runner-up at nationals in 1978 and 1979 to Brian Pockar, who also outscored Taylor at those years’ world championships. So Taylor stopped competing a year before the Lake Placid Games.

“I didn’t have a reason,” he said. “I just decided to take a break.”

Taylor will always have that day at the world championships in Ottawa. He can still remember the nervousness, knowing that two other skaters also planned to attempt a triple Axel. They were unsuccessful, though Taylor didn’t know it.

“I didn’t see their jumps,” he said. “I didn’t want to know what was ahead of me.”

American David Jenkins landed a triple Axel in Movietone newsreel footage reported to be from 1957, but that was not in competition.

Taylor, skating to music from “Rocky,” put the triple Axel as the third jump of his program, according to reports at the time. The one YouTube video of it, published two years ago, has 32,000 views. It shows Taylor landing the three-and-a-half revolution jump on one foot and spinning out of it while managing to stay on that single skate blade amid a crowd roar.

“During that program, it was like a rock concert,” Taylor said. “I got the energy from the audience.”

The Montreal Gazette reported at the time that the jump was ratified three hours later. Italian Sonia Bianchetti, the men’s referee at the 1978 Worlds, said she met with the assistant referee, the ISU president and a technical delegate.

“During this short meeting it was recognized that Vern had completed the first triple Axel Paulsen jump [Norwegian Axel Paulsen was the skater who landed the first Axel jump in 1882, getting it named after him] in an officially recognized figure skating competition,” she wrote in an email last month. “The triple Axel was fully rotated and landed on one foot.”

One of the people inside the Ottawa Civic Centre that day was 16-year-old Canadian Brian Orser. Orser, inspired by Taylor, later became synonymous with the jump — labeled “Mr. Triple Axel” and landing it en route to silver medals at the Olympics in 1984 and 1988 and the 1987 World title.

Orser remembered Taylor visiting his skating club for an exhibition. Orser saw Taylor doing an Axel takeoff exercise off the ice, incorporated it into his own routine and began teaching it to his skaters after becoming a coach.

Yet another Canadian, Kurt Browning, was the first man to land a ratified quadruple jump of any kind in competition — a toe loop at the 1988 World Championships.

“For me, personally, it was huge,” he said, “because I was promised a car if I could land it.”

Through an agreement with an Edmonton car dealership, Browning was handed the keys to a Quattro — quad/Quattro — after hitting the toe loop. The skater was unaware that the dealer was merely leasing it to him. About six months later, Browning received a call asking to bring the car back.

Browning was inspired by American Brian Boitano, whom he previously saw land a quad outside of competition. Taylor motivated him, too.

“[Taylor] gave me permission, even at a young age, to start thinking bigger,” he said.

Browning also pointed to Jozef Sabovčík, a 1980s skater for then-Czechoslovakia who many believe was the first man to land a quad in competition, Browning included. Sabovčík was initially given credit for a quad toe loop at the 1986 European Championships, but weeks later it was invalidated because he touched down with his free foot, according to reports.

“I never want to come off as arrogant, but despite what ISU [International Skating Union] decided in the end, I do know that I landed the jump on that day,” Sabovčík, who said he performed a quad jump on his birthdays through age 44, wrote in an email. “The fact that most of the people in the skating world believe the same thing, it means everything to me that Kurt is one of them. It would have been nice to have my name in the Guinness Book of Records, but I am also not trying to change history.”

Sabovčík, now 58 and coaching in Salt Lake City, attended March’s world championships in Montpellier, France, where Malinin finished ninth. There, he spoke with Malinin’s parents, Russian-born Uzbek Olympic skaters Tatyana Malinina and Roman Skornyakov, whom he calls friends.

“They told me that he was already doing a quad Axel on a fishing pole harness [in practice], and that it was coming,” Sabovčík said.

Less than two months after that talk, the first video surfaced of Malinin landing a clean quad Axel — at a U.S. Figure Skating jump camp.

“I did not think [a quad Axel] was possible,” Sabovčík said. “It really has to be an athlete that can combine the technical ability with jumping ability with the speed of rotation. When Kurt and I jumped, we had a relatively speaking slow rotation, but we jumped really big compared to these kids. But Ilia, he has the vertical lift, but he [also] has an unbelievably fast rotation.”

The recent proliferation of quads in men’s and women’s skating can be attributed to several factors, including better boots, better ice conditions and improvements in technology that can aid coaching. Still, there are concerns about if and how the pounding of training quads can wear down a skater physically.

“It’s a lot of pain you don’t feel at first, but you know it comes later,” said Frenchwoman Surya Bonaly, who started training a quad in 1989 and attempting it through the mid-1990s. Bonaly had two hip surgeries after her competitive career.

Even Taylor faced those questions.

“People said, ‘Aren’t you worried about injuring yourself?'” he said. “I would say, ‘No, I want you to know it can be done.'”

Sabovčík never tried a quad Axel in his skating days, but Browning did for less than a week in the early 1990s after winning four consecutive world titles.

“Just playing with it,” said Browning, who never tried it in competition. “Ilia has that special ability to not only get up in the air, but then he has that beautiful rotation that doesn’t look hurried. It’s fast, it’s quick as lightning, but it doesn’t look hurried. It’s so easy. Like a good golfer swings easy, and the ball goes 400 yards.”

Browning recalled a conversation he had with two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu, who in recent years made the quad Axel his quest. Hanyu attempted it in competition last season but did not land it cleanly before retiring in July. He said upon retirement that he still hoped to master the jump for his non-competitive show career.

“I asked Yuzu one day, ‘When you do quad Axel, does it just feel like you’re up there forever?'” Browning said. “And he kind of looked at me funny, and he goes, ‘Yeah, like it never ends.'”

The skating world awaits the reserved Hanyu’s thoughts on Malinin’s quad.

“Knowing Yuzu, I would think he’d be very supportive,” said Orser, who coached Hanyu for nearly a decade. “He appreciates that kind of athleticism.”

Orser also noted what comes with being the first — and so far only — skater to land a rarefied jump. Malinin, who headlines Skate America in two weeks, will be asked about the quad Axel in just about every interview for the foreseeable future. For some skaters, they may feel a responsibility to land it all the time.

“But I don’t think [Malinin] thinks too much about it,” Orser said. “His technique is perfect, so he’ll be fine.”

The inevitable topic after that is the next progression in skating: the first quintuple jump. Orser said that Hanyu did five-rotation Salchows in practice with the aid of a harness.

“It’s just a little bit more rotation than the quadruple Axel, so it’s not that far off,” said Sabovčík, whose unratified quad toe loop came eight years after Taylor’s triple Axel. “Now that I’ve seen the quad Axel, I don’t think it’s impossible.”

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Aleksandra Trusova splits from coach Eteri Tutberidze, months after Olympic tears

Alexandra Trusova, Eteri Tutberidze
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Olympic figure skating silver medalist Aleksandra Trusova reportedly split from coach Eteri Tutberidze‘s group, eight months after a tearful scene after the Olympic free skate.

Trusova, 18, will now be coached by Svetlana Sokolovskaya, according to Russian media reports dating to Saturday. All Russian skaters are ineligible to compete internationally indefinitely due to the national ban over the war in Ukraine, but Russia is still holding domestic events.

At the Beijing Winter Games, Trusova became the first woman to land five quadruple jumps in a free skate. She had the highest score that day, but it wasn’t enough to make up the gap to fellow Tutberidze pupil Anna Shcherbakova from the short program.

Moments after the competition ended, Trusova was seen crying and yelling at Sergey Dudakov, a member of Tutberidze’s coaching team.

“Everyone has a gold medal! Everyone has! Only I don’t! I hate figure skating! I hate! I will never step on the ice again! Never!” she said in Russian.

Shcherbakova had the individual gold, and the other Russian women’s singles skater at the Games, Kamila Valiyeva, skated both programs of the team event. The Russians placed first in the team event, but medals will not be awarded until Valiyeva’s doping case is adjudicated. It’s possible that Valiyeva gets retroactively disqualified, the Russian team gets disqualified and the other nations all move up with the U.S. going from silver to gold.

Trusova performed at the Russian test skates last month, withdrawing after her short program due to a back injury.

Trusova previously left Tutberidze in 2020 for two-time Olympic champion turned coach Yevgeny Plushenko‘s group, then moved back to Tutberidze’s group after the 2020-21 season.

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