Elizaveta Tuktamysheva
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Older, wiser Tuktamysheva comfortable taking on new skating style and social media trolls

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Just over a minute into her Lombardia Trophy free skate, Elizaveta Tuktamysheva glides to center ice. The 2015 World champion has landed two planned triple Lutzes after stepping out of an ambitious triple Axel attempt. She emerges from a level four layback spin and sets her expressive eyes on the judges.

Tuktamysheva, 21, is leading after the short program of her first competition of the season. A strong result will help her stand out in a field of Russian ladies so deep that the 2013 National champion is yet to qualify for an Olympic team.

With three triple jumps to go, the Glazov native hasn’t simply begun her step sequence as the music changes to The Hot Sardines’ “Petite Fleur.” She’s lip-syncing for her life.

“I sing along to my free skate!” Tuktamysheva admitted in her first-ever English interview. “When I first heard this music, I fell in love. I wanted to start skating right away.”

Coached by famed technician Alexei Mishin – noted for working with Olympic champions Alexei Yagudin and Yevgeny Plushenko – the Russian’s free skate, a Roaring Twenties mash-up of selections by Caro Emerald and Parov Stelar, is a distinct departure from the more dramatic endeavors she chose in seasons past.

Since landing the triple Axel to win her world title in Shanghai, she often donned dark costumes as the likes of Carmina Burana and Peer Gynt blared in the background. All the while, teenaged rivals Yevgenia Medvedeva and Alina Zagitova won world and Olympic golds by striking more major chords, musically speaking.

“This year is more me. I really like my [Assassin’s Tango] short, because it’s passionate. I like the style of the free, as well. I don’t know why I haven’t done this more often because it is so me, so light. I want to be able to do my programs cleanly, more beautifully, with more stability.”

Aiming to add a once-reliable triple Lutz-triple toe combination back into her technical arsenal, Tukstamysheva’s artistic shift was well-received by the judges. She won gold at Lombardia Tophy, earning her highest Program Component Score since the 2015 European Championships and the third-best free skating total on the senior level this season.

“I’m starting to enjoy skating again,” she said after regaining a consistent triple Axel at the end of last season. “I’m not worried about what people think of me, and I’m skating more freely. I’m full of love for my programs, and that’s a key to good skating. If you love something, you’ll do the best you can.”

She keeps that love alive by sharing it with fans, hosting a meet-and-greet party à la Taylor Swift at a St. Petersburg coffee shop last week, and makes a more global connection with a fast-growing Twitter account.

“Twitter is more comfortable for Americans like you and fans living in North America and Asia.”

Displaying a fluid command of English slang, Tuktamysheva collaborates with friend Valeriy Kharitonov to craft a confident voice, one that only an athlete who hurls herself in the air for up to three-and-a-half rotations could have.

“She appreciates her fans, but if there is a mean person, she’ll destroy him for sure,” notes Kharitonov, who occasionally translated questions during our 15-minute exchange.

“I don’t care!” Tuktamysheva adds. “I feel comfortable when anyone hates me.”

The only 20-something in an otherwise all-teen Top 15 at last year’s Russian Nationals, Tuktamysheva next heads to Finlandia Trophy, where she may continue channeling that more mature mindset and unflappable attitude – on and off the ice – towards more success.

“I don’t remember how I felt when I was 18. I just feel like I’m older, and maybe that I should think more about my future!” she joked. “Maybe I have more wisdom. I’ve realized some small things that I didn’t notice in the past. Those things definitely matter more now.”

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Simone Biles, her name sparkling, extends 6-year win streak

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Simone Biles has long stood out for her gymnastics, but on Saturday she competed with her last name sparkling in silver beads on her World Champions Centre leotard for the first time. The gym’s other athletes had “WCC” on the back.

Biles lived up to the billing, extending her six-year win streak to 19 straight all-arounds, capturing the U.S. Classic, a tune-up for next month’s U.S. Championships.

Biles, the four-time Rio Olympic champion, scored 60 points in Louisville at the meet where she made her comeback last year after nearly two years off from competition. She prevailed by a comfortable 2.1 points over Riley McCusker, her largest margin of victory of her four U.S. Classic titles.

“I’m very satisfied,” she said on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA. “I’m a little sad that I went out of bounds on floor [exercise], but overall I feel like there are improvements to be made.”

Full results are here.

Biles is prepping for nationals in Kansas City in three weeks, when she eyes a sixth U.S. all-around title to tie Clara Schroth Lomady‘s record from the AAU era in the 1940s and ’50s.

Then come the world championships in October in Stuttgart, Germany. Biles could win a fifth all-around to move one shy of Kohei Uchimura‘s record.

The world’s other top gymnasts may be her countrywomen.

Biles was outscored on balance beam on Saturday by 2018 World teammates Kara Eaker and McCusker and beaten on uneven bars by 2017 World all-around champion Morgan HurdSunisa Lee, Grace McCallum and McCusker. Biles swept all the gold medals at last year’s nationals.

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Geraint Thomas struggles; Julian Alaphilippe ups Tour de France lead

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LA MONGIE, France (AP) — When the team of Geraint Thomas was in its pomp at the Tour de France, a time trial followed by a big mountain stage would have been playgrounds for Sky — now in new colors as Ineos — to take cycling’s greatest race by the scruff of the neck and leave everyone else fighting for second place.

Not this year.

Thomas, the defending champion, cracked on Saturday on the Tour’s first encounter with a climb to above 2,000 meters (6,500 feet), exposing unprecedented weaknesses in his team that has won six Tours in the past seven years.

The time trial on Friday and the climb up to the legendary Tourmalet pass on Saturday seemed primed for Thomas to reel in Julian Alaphilippe, the yellow jersey-holder from France who is setting the Tour alight with his punchy riding and determination to keep the race lead, filling French fans’ heads with dreams of a first homegrown winner since 1985.

TOUR DE FRANCE: TV Schedule | Full Standings

But instead, Thomas has seen Alaphilippe only get further and further away. In two days, the Frenchman has put 50 seconds of extra daylight between him and the Welshman. His lead — up to 2 minutes, 2 seconds — is becoming large enough to start realistically envisioning Alaphilippe in yellow in Paris next weekend as the first French winner since Bernard Hinault.

Fueling the ecstasy of delirious crowds that lined Saturday’s steep uphill finish, French rider Thibaut Pinot won Stage 14, putting him back in the picture to fight for the podium after he lost mountains of time on Stage 10.

Thomas rightly pointed out that the Tour is far from done, with six more ascents to above 2,000 meters still to come.

But his inability to stay with Pinot, Alaphilippe and other title contenders at the top of the Tourmalet — he was eighth, 36 seconds behind Pinot — was a mini-earthquake for the Tour dominated by his British team since 2012 — with champions Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome and, in 2018, Thomas.

“Not the best day. I just didn’t feel quite on it from the start. I was quite weak,” Thomas said.

“At the end I knew I just had to pace it. I didn’t really attempt to follow when they kicked. I just thought I should ride my own pace rather than follow them and blow up on the steepest bit at the end. It’s disappointing. I just tried to limit the damage.”

Having taken cycling to a new level since 2012 with its vast budget and attention to the minutest of details, the team run by David Brailsford has been hit both by misfortune and by the inevitability that, eventually, other teams would start to close the gap.

A horror crash in training for four-time winner Froome, now recovering from career-threatening broken bones, robbed the team of its ace. Thomas’ own preparations were hampered by a crash at the Tour of Switzerland last month.

And Egan Bernal, being groomed by Brailsford to succeed Froome and Thomas, looks increasingly unable to compete for the title this year. Bernal was fifth on the Tourmalet and is fourth overall, 3 minutes behind Alaphilippe.

Pinot, now sixth overall and 3:12 behind Alaphilippe, is showing remarkable grit in bouncing back from his Stage 10 misfortune, when he was part of a group that got separated from other title contenders in crosswinds.

“I have this rage inside me, because in my opinion it was an injustice,” said Pinot, a podium finisher in 2014.

“Since the start of the Tour I had this stage in the back of my mind. The Tourmalet, it’s mythical,” said Pinot, who has three career stage wins at the Tour.

French President Emmanuel Macron, on hand at the top of the Tourmalet to see Pinot win and Alaphilippe extend his lead, gushed about the “two fantastic riders.”

“They attack and they have heart,” Macron said.

Watch world-class cycling events throughout the year with the NBC Sports Gold Cycling Pass, including all 21 stages of the Tour de France live & commercial-free, plus access to renowned races like La Vuelta, Paris-Roubaix, the UCI World Championships and many more.

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