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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.

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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.

Ehsan Hadadi, Iran’s first Olympic track and field medalist, has coronavirus

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Ehsan Hadadi, Iran’s lone Olympic track and field medalist, tested positive for the coronavirus, according to World Athletics and an Iranian news agency.

“We’ve received word from several Asian journalists that Iranian discus thrower Ehsan Hadadi has tested positive for coronavirus,” according to World Athletics. “[Hadadi] trains part of the year in the US, but was home in Tehran when he contracted the virus.”

Hadadi, 35, became the first Iranian to earn an Olympic track and field medal when he took silver in the discus at the 2012 London Games. Hadadi led through four of six rounds before being overtaken by German Robert Harting, who edged the Iranian by three and a half inches.

He was eliminated in qualifying at the Rio Olympics and placed seventh at last fall’s world championships in Doha.

Jordan Larson preps for her last Olympics, one year later than expected

Jordan Larson
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Whether the Tokyo Olympics would have been this summer or in 2021, Jordan Larson knew this: It will mark her final tournament with the U.S. volleyball team, should she make the roster.

“I’m just not getting any younger,” said Larson, a 33-year-old outside hitter. “I’ve been playing consistently overseas for 12 years straight with no real offseason.

“I also have other endeavors in my life that I want to see. Getting married, having children, those kinds of things. The older I get, the more challenging those become.”

Larson, who debuted on the national team in 2009, has been a leader the last two Olympic cycles. She succeeded Christa Harmotto Dietzen as captain after the Rio Games. Larson started every match at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics.

As long as Larson was in the building, the U.S. never had to worry about the outside hitter position, said two-time Olympian and NBC Olympics volleyball analyst Kevin Barnett.

“She played as if she belonged from the start,” he said. “They will miss her all-around capability. They’ll miss her ability to make everyone around her better. She’s almost like having a libero who can hit.”

Karch Kiraly, the Olympic indoor and beach champion who took over as head coach after the 2012 Olympics, gushed about her court vision.

“It’s a little dated now, but somebody like Wayne Gretzky just saw things that other people didn’t see on the hockey rink,” Kiraly said in 2018. “And I remember reading about him one time, and the quote from an opposing goalie was, oh my god, here he comes, what does he see that I don’t see right now? She sees things sooner than most people.”

Larson grew up in Hooper, Neb., (population 830) and starred at the University of Nebraska. She was a three-time All-American who helped the team win a national title as a sophomore. She had the opportunity to leave Nebraska and try out for the Olympics in 2008 but chose to remain at school for her final season.

She earned the nickname “Governor” as a Cornhusker State sports icon.

Larson helped the U.S. win its first major international title at the 2014 World Championship. She was also part of the program’s two stingers — defeats in the 2012 Olympic final and 2016 Olympic semifinals, both matches where the U.S. won the first set (and convincingly in 2012).

“It just gives me chills thinking about it now,” Larson said of the Rio Olympic semifinals, where Serbia beat the U.S. 15-13 in the fifth. “That team, we put in so much. Not just on the court but off the court working on culture and working on how are we best for each other. How can we be the best team? How can we out-team people? Certain teams have a better one player that’s a standout that we maybe didn’t have or don’t have. So how can we out-team the other teams? We had just put in so much work that was just heartbreaking.”

Larson and the Americans rebounded to win the bronze-medal match two days later.

“I don’t know anybody that didn’t have their heart ripped out. It was just a soul-crusher of a match,” Kiraly said of the semifinal. “More meaningful was what a great response everybody, including Jordan, mounted to the disappointment of that loss.”

The U.S. took fifth at worlds in 2018 and is now ranked second in the world behind China.

Larson spent the past club season in Shanghai. The campaign ended in mid-January. She hadn’t heard anything about the coronavirus when she took her scheduled flight back to California, learning days later that LAX started screening for it. Now, she’s working out from her garage.

Larson is in line to become the fifth-oldest U.S. Olympic women’s volleyball player in history, according Olympedia and the OlyMADMen.

Her decade of experience could go a long way to help the next generation of outside hitters, led by three-time NCAA champion and Sullivan Award winner Kathryn Plummer.

“If you’re coming into the USA program as an outside hitter, in the next year or the quad or the quad after that,” Barnett said, “the measuring stick is going to be Jordan Larson.”

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