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Assessing the Grand Prix figure skating season at the halfway point

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The Grand Prix figure skating season — whose results are the best indicators of favorites for national and world championships — is at its midpoint.

Skate America, Skate Canada and Rostelecom Cup are behind us. Trophée de France, Cup of China and NHK Trophy are ahead, followed by the Grand Prix Final (six skaters per discipline) in December.

The U.S. Championships are in January, followed by the world championships in Helsinki in late March and early April.

With the Olympics a 15 months away, jockeying for position this season is more important than the previous two. Here is where things stand for each discipline:

MEN
Top Grand Prix Scores
1. Javier Fernandez (ESP) — 292.98 (Rostelecom Cup)
2. Shoma Uno (JPN) — 285.07 (Rostelecom Cup)
3. Shoma Uno (JPN) — 279.34 (Skate America)
4. Jason Brown (USA) — 268.38 (Skate America)
5. Patrick Chan (CAN) — 266.95 (Skate Canada)
6. Yuzuru Hanyu (JPN) — 263.06 (Skate Canada)
7. Adam Rippon (USA) — 261.43 (Skate America)

Top U.S. Grand Prix Scores
1. Jason Brown — 268.38 (Skate America)
2. Adam Rippon— 261.43 (Skate America)
3. Max Aaron — 235.58 (Rostelecom Cup)
4. Timothy Dolensky — 226.53 (Rostelecom Cup)
5. Grant Hochstein — 204.69 (Skate Canada)

What’s remarkable here is the progression in scores in the last three seasons. Two years ago, the top men’s score after the third Grand Prix was 269.09. Last year, it was 271.14.

Uno was the best skater in September and October, winning all three of his events, but Fernandez looked more like a world champion in his debut last weekend. The Olympic champion Hanyu is a notoriously slow starter. His Skate Canada score was actually higher than his Grand Prix debuts in 2014 and 2015.

We’ll have a better sense of the American picture after Nathan Chen makes his Grand Prix season debut in France this week. Chen, 17 and the youngest man to finish top three at the U.S. Championships since 1973, beat Patrick Chan at a lower-level event in October.

WOMEN
Top Grand Prix Scores
1. Yevgenia Medvedeva (RUS) — 220.65 (Skate Canada)
2. Anna Pogorilaya (RUS) — 215.21 (Rostelecom Cup)
3. Kaetlyn Osmond (CAN) — 206.45 (Skate Canada)
4. Ashley Wagner (USA) — 196.44 (Skate America)
5. Yelena Radionova (RUS) — 195.60 (Rostelecom Cup)
6. Satoko Miyahara (JPN) — 192.08 (Skate Canada)
7. Mariah Bell (USA) — 191.49 (Skate America)

Top U.S. Grand Prix Scores
1. Ashley Wagner — 196.44 (Skate America)
2. Mariah Bell — 191.49 (Skate America)
3. Gracie Gold — 184.22 (Skate America)
4. Courtney Hicks — 182.98 (Rostelecom Cup)
5. Mirai Nagasu — 151.42 (Skate Canada)

Medvedeva hasn’t lost in one year and seems unlikely to follow the trend of recent Russian stars who flamed out after one strong season (2015 World champion Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, 2014 Olympic champions Yulia Lipnitskaya and Adelina Sotnikova). She picked up at Skate Canada right where she left off at the world championships last season.

Wagner and Pogorilaya, who joined Medvedeva on the worlds podium last April, won the other two Grand Prix events in the first half. The surprise has been Osmond, who tacked 30 points onto her personal-best total score in this her fourth season of international competition.

Wagner is still the class of the U.S. group, in part because Gold is off to a slow start (fifth at Skate America) after taking much of the summer off from training. U.S. silver medalist Polina Edmunds isn’t competing in the Grand Prix season due to a foot injury. If Gold or Edmunds is not back and in top form at the U.S. Championships in January, Bell is looking like the most promising riser in several years.

Pairs
Top Grand Prix Scores
1. Meagan Duhamel/Eric Radford (CAN) — 218.30 (Skate Canada)
2. Aliona Savchenko/Bruno Massot (GER) — 207.89 (Rostelecom Cup)
3. Yu Xiaoyu/Zhang Hao (CHN) — 202.08 (Skate Canada)
4. Natalya Zabiyako/Alexander Enbert (RUS) — 197.77 (Rostelecom Cup)
5. Julianne Séguin/Charlie Bilodeau (CAN) — 197.31 (Skate America)
6. Haven Denney/Brandon Frazier (USA) — 192.65 (Skate America)
7. Lubov Ilyushechkina/Dylan Moscovitch (CAN) — 190.22 (Skate Canada)

Top U.S. Scores
1. Haven Denney/Brandon Frazier — 192.65 (Skate America)
2. Haven Denney/Brandon Frazier — 188.23 (Skate Canada)
3. Tarah Kayne/Danny O’Shea — 173.50 (Skate America)
4. Marissa Castelli/Mervin Tran — 171.95 (Skate America)

Duhamel and Radford may well be en route to a third straight world title (not done in pairs since 1978). Not only did they win Skate Canada for a third straight year, but the two pairs who joined them on the 2016 World Championships podium aren’t competing in the Grand Prix season. Neither are Olympic champions Tatyana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov due to pregnancy.

However, Savchenko and Massot raised eyebrows by attempting a throw quadruple Salchow at the end of their Rostelecom Cup free skate. If they can control it — Savchenko fell in Moscow — the gap to the Canadians closes considerably.

The U.S. is once again lacking pairs consistency. The top Americans from the last two worlds, Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim, are out due to Scimeca’s health problems. The surprise 2016 U.S. champions, Kayne and O’Shea, were beaten at Skate America by Denney and Frazier, who sat out last season after Denney blew out her right knee.

Ice Dance
Top Grand Prix Scores
1. Tessa Virtue/Scott Moir (CAN) — 189.06 (Skate Canada)
2. Madison Chock/Evan Bates (USA) — 188.24 (Skate Canada)
3. Yekaterina Bobrova/Dmitry Soloviyev (RUS) — 186.68 (Rostelecom Cup)
4. Maia Shibutani/Alex Shibutani (USA) — 185.75 (Skate America)
5. Piper Gilles/Paul Poirier (CAN) — 182.57 (Skate Canada)
6. Madison Chock/Evan Bates (USA) — 182.13 (Rostelecom Cup)
7. Anna Cappellini/Luca Lanotte (ITA) — 180.35 (Skate Canada)

Top U.S. Scores
1. Madison Chock/Evan Bates — 188.24 (Skate Canada)
2. Maia Shibutani/Alex Shibutani — 185.75 (Skate America)
3. Madison Chock/Evan Bates — 182.13 (Rostelecom Cup)
4. Madison Hubbell/Zachary Donohue — 175.77 (Skate America)
5. Kaitlin Hawayek/Jean-Luc Baker — 162.19 (Skate Canada)

The two-time reigning world champions, France’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, make their Grand Prix season debut this week. In their absence, the dance results have gone pretty much to form. Virtue and Moir, the 2010 Olympic champions who sat out the previous two seasons, impressed by beating two-time world medalists Chock and Bates on home ice at Skate Canada.

In the U.S., Chock and Bates and the Shibutani siblings remain in close contention in the early national title handicapping. Hubbell and Donohue finished right behind them at the last four U.S. Championships. That doesn’t figure to change in January. As the U.S. should get three couples at the 2018 Olympics, Hubbell and Donohue will be very interested if Meryl Davis and Charlie White decide to return next season.

MORE: Figure skating season broadcast schedule

Lin Dan, badminton legend, retires: ‘It is very difficult to say goodbye’

Lin Dan
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Lin Dan, arguably the greatest badminton player in history, announced retirement Saturday, citing “pain and injuries” in bowing out a year before the postponed Tokyo Olympics.

“I have been with the national team from 2000 to 2020, and it is very difficult to say goodbye,” 36-year-old Lin wrote to his four million Weibo fans, according to Badminton World Federation (BWF) translation. “Pain and injuries no longer allow me to fight with my teammates. I have gratitude, a heavy heart and unwillingness.”

Lin, nicknamed “Super Dan,” won Olympic singles titles in 2008 and 2012, plus five individual world titles. It’s the greatest resume for any badminton player from China, which owns twice as many medals as any other nation in the sport that debuted at the 1992 Barcelona Games.

He competed at the last four Olympics, won the sport’s Super Grand Slam (nine major titles) and had his own wax figure at Madame Tussauds in Shanghai.

Lin’s outbursts on and off the court led to some calling him the John McEnroe of badminton, but he is revered. In 2015, he was the second athlete on Forbes China‘s most popular celebrities list behind tennis player Li Na.

Lin’s pursuit of a fifth Olympics in Tokyo was looking out of reach. He dropped to No. 26 in the Olympic qualifying rankings, trailing four countrymen, including No. 5 Chen Long (Rio Olympic champion) and No. 11 Shi Yuqi (2018 World silver medalist). A nation can qualify a maximum of two individual players per gender for the Games.

“From where came his mastery? In short, his prowess was essentially due to the completeness of his game – in skill, physical ability and mental strength,” the BWF wrote in a press release. “Such was his craft that even well into his 30s, normally considered an advanced age for men’s singles, he could outplay younger and fitter opponents.”

NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.

MORE: Who is China’s greatest Olympian?

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MyKayla Skinner’s motivation for Tokyo: her Rio Olympic experience

MyKayla Skinner
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MyKayla Skinner remembers the little room at the SAP Center in San Jose. She remembers the wait, somewhere between 10 and 20 minutes.

After the 2016 U.S. Olympic Women’s Gymnastics Trials, the competitors (14 total performed) assembled while a selection committee convened in another space.

The committee finalized the five-woman Olympic team (plus three alternates), marched into the athletes’ room and delivered the verdict.

“They say the first four names, and then there’s that one spot left,” Skinner recalled. “I’m like, is it going to be me? You’re so tense just waiting there. All of us holding each other’s hands in the room. We’re all sitting there. It’s just, like, frozen dead silent. Then they say that fifth spot.”

Skinner doesn’t remember who was the fifth name. Just that it wasn’t her.

“I just broke down crying,” she said in a recent interview. “All that hard work I put in still wasn’t good enough. Even though it was. It’s just who they needed for the team.”

Skinner placed fourth in the all-around at those Olympic Trials, the highest finisher who was not named to the Olympic team. She was one of three alternates. If the Olympic team was chosen by all-around standings, a selection committee would not be necessary. Instead, gymnasts are puzzle pieces, chosen as who best fits the Olympic format: three gymnasts per apparatus in the team final and up to two per nation per individual final.

Skinner’s mind raced while she waited for the committee’s decision. She eventually settled on a gut feeling, that she would not make the team.

“I thought that it should be enough, but at the same I didn’t think that it would be,” said Lisa Spini, Skinner’s coach at Desert Lights Gymnastics in Chandler, Arizona. “I thought the team was already decided before the Olympic Trials.”

Spini said it was her toughest night as a gymnastics coach.

“Being an alternate is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in gymnastics,” said Skinner, who traveled to Brazil and, with fellow alternates Ashton Locklear and Ragan Smith, trained separately from the Olympic team. “The whole time I was in Rio, I probably cried every single night

“The Olympics should be something so special, but I feel like it was definitely miserable at times. It was really hard to enjoy being an alternate. With this comeback, that has pushed me so hard just because I was so close.”

You may have read about Skinner back in the spring, after the Tokyo Olympics were postponed to 2021.

It’s a devastating delay for a female gymnast, whose peak often lasts for one Olympic cycle (sometimes even shorter). Skinner is an exception, excelling for the better part of a decade on different levels.

She made her first world championships team in 2014. After Rio, she matriculated at the University of Utah, where she was twice an NCAA all-around runner-up and hit an NCAA record 161 straight routines without a fall. In 2019, she decided to come back to international competition — for an Olympic run — with one year left of NCAA gymnastics.

She is 23, the oldest of the 16-woman U.S. national team. She is trying to become the oldest woman to make a U.S. Olympic gymnastics team since 2004. And the first with NCAA experience to do so since Alicia Sacramone in 2008.

“The reason why a lot of college gymnasts couldn’t come back and do it is they’ve been so injured over the years,” Spini said. “Their body wouldn’t hold up. She’s been really lucky that way.”

Skinner could have easily followed the path of so many other stars who signaled the end of an elite career by going to college, where training and routines are less demanding.

She questioned herself often after the Tokyo postponement whether it was worth it to return to elite training. The Olympic team event roster size has been cut from five to four. Simone Biles is an overwhelming favorite to earn one spot. In the face of those odds, Skinner can’t shake a memory from Rio.

“I just go back to the moment of when I was sitting in the stands,” watching the Final Five earn gold, Skinner said. “I was so close to making the team. This has been my dream ever since I went to Desert Lights when I was 12.”

Skinner’s comeback is already a success. Last year, on three months of elite training, she placed eighth at the U.S. Championships. She was convinced to accept an invitation to the world championships selection camp, where six women would make the traveling team (one later named an alternate).

Like in 2016, Skinner placed fourth in the all-around competition before the roster was chosen.

Again, the gymnasts gathered for the announcement. This time, Skinner made the cut as the sixth woman named. Biles, the other 20-something at the camp and a friend, jumped in excitement.

The team traveled to Germany in late September. After training, one woman had to be designated the alternate. High performance team coordinator Tom Forster took Skinner aside one day on the way to lunch. She knew what was coming and broke down in tears, flashing back to 2016.

“Simone was like, hey, let’s go to the bathroom. She helped talk me through it and helped me calm down and definitely made me a feel a lot better,” said Skinner, who supported Biles and the U.S. team that competed in Stuttgart. She then wed Jonas Harmer in November and decided what must be done to make the Olympic team.

“We’re going to try to add in some big skills, which will put her difficulty level, probably, second only to Simone,” Spini said.

Skinner is documenting her last year-plus in elite gymnastics on a YouTube channel with 29,000 subscribers. She has been fortunate during the coronavirus pandemic to train at her gym if no more than 10 people were present. Many other gymnasts — and athletes across Olympic sports — spent weeks or months out of their facilities.

“I definitely don’t think I would have been able to have that much time off,” she said. “That’s really hard with gymnastics because you feel like, you take two days off, and it’s like you had a year off.”

One day this spring, Skinner’s mom called, in tears, fearing for her life with an illness that turned out to be the coronavirus. Both of her parents, in their 60s, had it and briefly lost their senses of taste. Her mom had breathing problems, but they recovered.

One night last month, Skinner had a dream about next year’s Olympic Trials. The Final Five all came back to compete, and Skinner was again named an alternate. She woke up. Skinner doesn’t know how she would handle that kind of disappointment in real life, again.

“So it’s kind of scary,” she said. Then Skinner thinks back to Rio, and that burning she felt while watching the Final Five win gold medals.

“This is what I’m supposed to do. This is what I’m meant to do is elite gymnastics,” said Skinner, who was born via life-threatening, early-labor C-section, needing to be revived by doctors. “I think it’s cool that I can have this opportunity to go and push myself one last time so I can reach that end goal.”

MORE: Gymnast Grace McCallum won a coin flip to become world champion

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