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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MORE: Figure skating season TV schedule on NBC Sports

Three questions with Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea before the U.S. Championships

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2016 U.S. national champions Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea changed coaches to kick off the new season. Now under Dalilah Sappenfield in Colorado Springs, the oft-injured team said they’re healthier than ever heading into the U.S. Championships this weekend in Detroit.

The 2018 Four Continents Champions got off to a “slow start” this year, with a seventh place finish a silver medal on the Challenger Series. On the Grand Prix series, though, they had a fifth place finish in Japan and a silver medal-performance in France. It was their first-ever Grand Prix medal. They told reporters on a media teleconference ahead of nationals that both of their Grand Prix performances “showed growth.” Since then, they’ve spent time drilling on their programs.

Here’s what we learned from their teleconference:

1. They’ve made huge strides from where they are today compared to where they were this time before nationals a year ago.

Tarah Kayne: “There’s a huge difference for me specifically mentally and physically. Last year I was coming off of a right knee surgery where I had my patella tendon reconstructed. For nationals, we were just getting started back into competitive shape. We had maybe a handful of free skate run-throughs under our belts going into nationals. I was just starting to get comfortable doing throws again. We were purposefully trying to make our throws smaller to cut back the impact on my right knee, and to make it as safe as possible.”

“Now this season, I am feeling so much healthier and stronger. We’re making our throws bigger again! Which is a great feeling for me to feel comfortable and to be in that place physically. And also mentally to feel safe doing that. A huge part of that has been being at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs and training under Dalilah who I find to be very empowering.”

Danny O’Shea: “We’re healthy. That’s been the goal for a very long time. We have been elusive for a lot of our career so far. Feeling healthy going into nationals is a very comforting place to be in. Not having to scramble, rely purely on mental toughness to overcome what may be a lack of physical training is a very nice place to be in.

2. They feel like they got a fresh start under their new coach.

TK: “With Dalilah, we started from scratch. We just came to her and let her mold us. Whatever she wanted us to do, we did. We didn’t question things. We didn’t say, ‘that’s not how we do things, how we’re used to.’ We just let her change whatever she wanted to change because we didn’t want to get the same results we have always gotten. We wanted to improve. We wanted to be bigger; we wanted to be better; we wanted to be faster.”

DO: “When you’re with a coach for seven years as a team, things are second-nature. There’s been definite differences in what we’ve been doing throughout the year. Some took some getting used to. Some were very comfortable right off the bat. Overall, it’s been a positive for us and that we’re in a very good place physically right now, which is helping us be able to train hard and keep pushing throughout the year.”

3. Kayne and O’Shea don’t want anyone else to miss out on the Olympics (like they did, as 2018 Olympic alternates) or the world championships. And with only one U.S. pair spot at Worlds this year, they know what’s at stake.

DO: “It’s on our minds.”

TK: “It’s a hard job. It’s a hard position to be in. I wish I wasn’t in this position. I would love to be walking into this with three spots and have a little bit of wiggle room… it’s a job. I have to go and do my job at nationals to get to Worlds. And then I have to do my job at Worlds to make sure no one else is in this position again… We’re capable at this place and time to accomplish that goal for ourselves and for the United States.”

DO: “We have always gone into nationals trying to skate our best, but this year we know we have to go and do that and we have to win. You wanna go into every competition to try and be your best, but with the way things are, we’re going in to win nationals and make that world team again, and go to Worlds and start turning this around. We don’t want to have one spot for Worlds or one spot for the Olympics any longer.”

MORE: Three questions with Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim

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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U.S. junior champions crowned in ladies’ and men’s events

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Gabriella Izzo is the newest junior ladies’ national champion, crowned this week at the U.S. Championships in Detroit. Junior ladies’ national champions of the past include eventual Olympians Mirai Nagasu, Gracie Gold, Polina Edmunds and Bradie Tennell.

Izzo had a commanding lead after the short program, with 60.97 points, where she pulled off her first-ever triple Lutz, triple loop combination in competition. (However, it was deemed under-rotated.) Regardless, her 111.45 points in the free skate combined for 172.42 points and the gold medal.

Audrey Shin, who actually won the free skate by just over a point, earned the silver medal with 165.61 points. Emilia Murdock took home the bronze with 154.48 points.

On the junior men’s side, Ryan Dunk rebounded from second after the short program to win the event. His 132.85-point free skate was enough to crack the 200-point overall score, the only man in the field to do so, and win the gold.

Men’s junior champions include eventual world champion Nathan Chen (twice) as well as Olympians Vincent Zhou and Jason Brown.

Dinh Tran finished second with 196.03 points after a fourth-place short program. Joonsoo Kim, who lead after the short program on Tuesday, ended up with the bronze medal with 187.95 points.

NBC Sports Gold’s “Figure Skating Pass” will live stream each junior competition and replays will also be available on-demand. Check out the full schedule and live streaming information here.

The junior rhythm dance took place earlier Wednesday. Siblings Caroline and Gordon Green lead the field with 70.82 points, while Avonley Nguyen and Vadym Kolesnik are second with 65.92 points. The brother-sister team of Oona and Gage Brown are in third with 63.34 heading into Friday’s junior free dance.

Also Wednesday, Laiken Lockley and Keenan Prochnow took the lead in the junior pairs’ short program. The junior pairs’ free skate is Thursday. Kate Finster and Balazs Nagy are second, followed by Isabelle Martins and Ryan Bedard in third.

MORE: Full streaming schedule

As a reminder, you can watch the junior and senior 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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