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Tennell upsets Medvedeva at Autumn Classic; Hanyu leads men

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A cool and confident Bradie Tennell scored a big upset at the Autumn Classic International in Oakville, Ontario on Friday night, defeating two-time world champion and Olympic silver medalist Yevgenia Medvedeva of Russia by 1.72 points to win her first-ever senior international title.

“I had a bit of a rough warm-up, so I’m really glad I was able to come back out there and do what I normally do,” Tennell said. “Obviously, there are some improvements that can be made, but overall I’m really happy with it, because it’s just the first one of the season.”

The U.S. champion, sixth in the world last season, has set an ambitious goal: “I want to be a whole new skater, unrecognizable from last season,” she said at U.S. Figure Skating’s Champs Camp last month. Performing her free skate to Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, choreographed by Benoit Richaud, she was more expressive and elegant, with angular movements and staccato footwork.

Famed for her consistent jumps, Tennell landed seven mostly solid triples including two triple-triple combinations, although two jumps were judged short of rotation. The program scored 137.16 points, bringing her total to 206.41.

“I’ve always loved (Romeo and Juliet) and I think it’s a very mature piece,” Tennell said. “There is so much feeling behind it. It’s obviously a very tragic story. There was a lot to do there as far as interpretation and choreography.”

“There are some things that need to be tweaked, but I love the program,” Denise Myers, who coaches Tennell in Buffalo Grove, Illinois, said. “It showed a more mature, different side to Bradie, which is what we are striving for this year. We will definitely return to Benoit to fix a few things. But this being the first big competition, just getting the program out was the goal.”

Medvedeva, who held a slim lead after the short program, also had a solid outing, landing six triple jumps in her free to a tango medley. But she fell on a triple loop and fumbled one of her three spins.

If she was disappointed, she certainly did not show it, running up to embrace and congratulate Tennell before warmly greeting reporters in the mixed zone.

“To be honest, I feel just amazing,” Medvedeva said. “This competition was really an incredible experience. First competition with my new team, new coaches, new everything.”

Heavily favored to win gold at the PyeongChang Games, Medvedeva was edged by her younger training partner Alina Zagitova.  She left Eteri Tutberidze’s group in Moscow this spring and seems to be thriving under Brian Orser and Tracy Wilson at Toronto’s Cricket Skating and Curling Club.

MORE: Olympic gold medalist Alina Zagitova delays season opener by one week

“There (were) a lot of mistakes and a lot of places where we can do better, but for my free program, it was really good,” Medvedeva said. “I feel I can do it better, perfectly clean. I have a little bit more than a month to make everything better (before Skate Canada). I can’t wait to go back to Cricket to work and make it better, better and better.”

Mae Berenice Meite of France had a strong free skate to place third with 178.89 points. Kailani Craine of Australia was fourth. In another surprise, Japan’s world silver medalist Wakaba Higuchi fell on a triple flip and had trouble with other jumps, and placed fifth.

The men’s short program, also held on Friday, proved that even two-time Olympic champions get a bit nervous at the start of the competitive season.

Yuzuru Hanyu leads the field by more than seven points, but Japan’s superstar didn’t skate his new short to Raul di Blasio’s “Otonal” the way he had hoped, with a slightly scratchy landing on a quadruple toe-triple toe combination and a major error on a sit spin combination that resulted in zero points for the element. Still, he landed a solid quadruple salchow and takes 97.74 points into Saturday’s free skate.

“This is the first competition and it’s always nerve-wracking,” Hanyu said through an interpreter. “The flow was not so good. I had a little glitch in my spin and quad, because I was so nervous. I am glad I was able to complete the program without major mistakes.”

Hanyu, who fought through a right ankle injury last season, told reporters he was fully fit for the season.

“I am not even thinking about my ankle,” he said. “I am just disappointed I did not show my step (sequence) better today.”

Junhwan Cha of South Korea, who trains alongside Hanyu at the Cricket Club, had no such worries. Skating to a medley of classic waltzes, the 16-year-old had the finest short of his career. Moving with speed and assurance, he landed strong jumps, including a quad salchow, and sits second with 90.56 points.

“The big thing is I don’t have any injuries, and I don’t have boot problems,” Cha said. “I am just training very, very hard.”

Jason Brown, third with 88.90 points, had a superb debut of his short to Two Feet’s “Love is a B—-,” showing a striking step sequence with lots of sliding moves as well as a strong triple axel. The 2015 U.S. champion lost ground when his triple lutz-triple toe combination was saddled with an under rotation.

“I got a little winded before the Lutz-toe combo but fought through that,” Brown said. “It’s the focus, and where to put that focus, in the program that I’m still learning.”

Like Medvedeva, Brown moved to the Cricket Club this spring to train under Orser and Wilson. The team has been re-working his jump technique, including the quad toe loop, a jump Brown hopes to land in competition this season.

“I work on it every day and it’s getting stronger,” he said. “(Orser and Wilson) have really been patient with me, working with me methodically. Each day I’m learning something new. We are really looking at it as a four-year program.”

And earlier Friday, Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres of France, reigning world bronze medalists, notched a total 210.21 points to win the pairs’ title by nearly 25 points. The only major error in their sensuous and edgy free skate to the Chris Isaak-penned “Wicked Game,” choreographed by Charlie White, was James’ fall on a throw triple salchow.

“I have only done double salchows and quads for the last three years, so muscle-memory wise, it was too high and opened up too late,” James said. “I only had five days to relearn a triple salchow….It was too easy for us and there was (lack of) concentration.”

The skaters, who train in Florida, abandoned their throw quad after new judging guidelines lessened its value.

“When we first did it, we needed it because we were stronger technically, than artistically,” James said. “We needed something (to differentiate) us from everyone else. It was worth 11 points when I landed it and when I fell it was (worth) 8 points. Now it is 6.8 points or so with a fall, and it’s not worth the energy and the risk.”

Instead, James and Cipres are focusing on their lifts, as well as seamless transitions in and out of the elements.

“We want to skate almost like dancers, and do elements like pairs,” Cipres said. “We are pretty happy about our program here and we think we are going in the right direction.”

Other pairs had rough free skates. Canadians Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro, second overall with 176.32 points, had falls on their throw triple loop and side-by-side triple toe loops. 2017 U.S. champions Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier had three falls in their program and placed third with 164.43 points.

Like James and Cipres, Denney and Frazier train in Florida under three-time U.S. pair champion John Zimmerman and his wife, former Italian champion Silvia Fontana.

“I think they felt the stress of wanting to prove something,” Fontana said. “They have worked really, really hard, not only on elements but everything in between, unison and skating skills …. The biggest challenge it to keep them confident. We know they are progressing really well, but they need to believe it themselves.”

A new U.S. pair, California-based Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson, had a solid free skate and placed fourth.

MORE: Adam Rippon donates PyeongChang costume to Smithsonian

This year’s rhythm dance is all about the Tango Romantica, a pattern dance that takes up nearly a minute of the 2 minute, 50 second program. It hasn’t been competed since the 2009/2010 season, so the most experienced teams – like Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, Canada’s world bronze medalists — may have an advantage.

Performing to a medley including “Libertango,” choreographed by Igor Shpilband, Weaver and Poje performed an elegant, compelling program that earned 76.53 points. They lead the field by more than 9 points.

“It’s a romantic tango. We wanted to take away the aggression and the over the top drama, we’ve done that (before),” Weaver said. “We want to do something understated and beautiful and romantic.”

“The feeling we’re trying to create is: you’re going to a ball and halfway into the night, the slow song comes on, you see each other and you connect immediately,” Poje said.

The skaters, who split their time between Hackensack, New Jersey and Novi, Michigan, train under a trifecta of prominent ice dance coaches including Nikolai Morozov in Hackensack, and Shpilband and Pasquale Camerlengo in Novi.

“(Shpilband and Camerlengo) are very seamless,” Weaver said. “Pasquale is an artist, Igor is also an artist as well as a great technician. The great thing is everyone is under one plan. Nikolai communicates with Igor on a daily basis and Pasquale is always involved as well… We have three of the most legendary coaches ever, but it never feels like a competition. Everyone is united to help us reach our goals.”

“Nikolai is our head coach, and everyone realizes that,” Poje said. “The great thing is, Igor understands that. He and Pasquale are supplementing what we have.”

Olivia Smart and Adria Diaz performed a classic Argentine tango and sit second with 67.35 points. Carolane Soucisse and Shane Firus of Canada’s “hip-hop” tango placed third, earning 65.38 points.

The Autumn Classic concludes Saturday with the free dance and the men’s free skate. The event will stream live on Skate Canada’s Dailymotion page.

Nathan Chen prepared to capture third national title

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Nathan Chen called into his media teleconference from the rink last week, still on his winter break between his freshman semesters at Yale University.

The signal wasn’t great inside, he said, and it momentarily spared him from answering a direct question about his GPA his first semester as a college student.

Back on the call, the reigning world champion admitted, “I’m not gonna say the exact number, but there are some A’s and B’s sprinkled in.

“Really no complaints. I got pretty good grades. I’m pretty happy with that.”

His skating report card from the fall reads equally as impressively. Chen won the title at Skate America to open the season, followed by a come-from-behind win at Grand Prix France. To cap it all off, he won a second-consecutive Grand Prix Final title.

All this while the 2018 Olympic team event bronze medalist is across the country from his longtime coach Rafael Arutunian and trying out telecoaching for the first time.

Back in California between semesters, Chen said Raf has asked him to stay full-time.

“Since the past two weeks that I’ve been here, literally every day he’s been like, ‘you gotta come back! You gotta come back! There’s so much that you can learn at the rink. I respect what your decision is at Yale but it’s been so great having you here.’ He really wishes that I could stay here full time but at the same time, I already started this path and I don’t really want to pull out just yet.”

As for his second semester in college, Chen is signed up for about 10 courses and will have about two weeks at the beginning of term to add and drop courses. He’ll be in classes – he’s not exactly sure which, though – for a week before attempting to notch his third-straight U.S. national title.

“I selected a bunch of courses, probably selected like 10 different courses. I’ll go in and the first week I will see which courses I like, which courses I don’t like.”

Competing during the spring semester might be harder. February’s Four Continents Championships, this year to be held in Anaheim, Calif., aren’t during a scheduled academic break. Conveniently, world championships are scheduled during Yale’s spring break.

“I’m not sure yet [if he’ll compete there if named to the team],” he said. “That’s still TBD. I would love to since it’s in California, and it’s a great event. We’ll see.”

But for now, competing well in Detroit is the next step.

“I have to skate as well as I can and regardless of the external things,” he said when asked if coming in as the reigning world champion or as the favorite affects him. “Just focus on all the things that I can do right now in training to make sure that I do the best I can in competition.”

The men’s short program is Jan. 26 followed by the free skate on Jan. 27.

MORE: Adam Rippon’s new year’s resolutions

As a reminder, you can watch the U.S. Championships 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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Mikaela Shiffrin wins Kronplatz giant slalom for her 10th win of the season

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Mikaela Shiffrin won the women’s giant slalom at the World Cup stop in Kronplatz, Italy, on Tuesday, marking her 10th victory of the 2018-19 season and 53rd World Cup win of her career. Shiffrin, the 2018 Olympic giant slalom gold medalist, led France’s Tessa Worley by 1.39 seconds after the first run. Although Worley outpaced Shiffrin in the second run, Shiffrin’s massive first-run margin allowed her to win the two-run event by 1.21 seconds. Italy’s Marta Bassino placed third. Full results are here. 

Shiffrin entered Kronplatz ranked third in the World Cup giant slalom standings, but moves into first place with the win. The 23-year-old also leads the overall World Cup leader board, as well as the slalom and super-G discipline standings. Shiffrin has won seven World Cup globes in her career (two overall, five slalom).

Shiffrin has already broken multiple records this season, including becoming the youngest skier to win 50 World Cup races, and there are still more records within striking distance. Shiffrin could break the record for most World Cup wins in a single seasons; the current record (14) was set by Switzerland’s Vreni Schneider in 1988-89.

The next stop for the women’s World Cup is this weekend in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, with two downhills scheduled for Friday and Saturday, and a super-G slated for Sunday. Shiffrin plans to skip the downhills, but enter the super-G. Lindsey Vonn, who missed the start of the season with a knee injury, is expected to make her return to competition in Friday’s downhill.