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Behind the scenes at Grand Prix France: Day 3

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Jean-Christophe Berlot is on the ground in Grenoble to cover Internationaux de France, the sixth and final Grand Prix event in the series before the Grand Prix Final. This is his behind-the-scenes look at the competition on the second day of competition.

 

Hairy rotations

Discovering Jason Brown’s new look makes one wonder: was he asked to cut it off to increase his rotational speed and enhance his quad abilities, as any mechanical engineer would suggest? “Not at all!” Brian Orser, his coach, answered in a big laugh.

The reason is purely aesthetics. When you make as big a change as he made, you need to make a statement: in your program, in your image, in your look. Then… Snap! But it was tough for him, because it was really his thing.” So far the change was worthwhile!

Jason’s France

Brown’s outings in France have always been big successes for him. The first time he came, back in 2013, he became an overnight sensation in Paris after an exhilarating free skate to “Riverdance,” which was to conquer the United States at the subsequent Nationals. This time he won the short program, some 5.55 points ahead of Alexander Samarin, and 9.47 points ahead of third place Nathan Chen.

“I want to compete and I’m so determined on quads. But it’s nice to be rewarded for what you’re doing,” Brown commented afterwards. “I admire these guys for pushing the sport the way they do, but I won’t give up the artistic side, and I’ll keep pushing them on that side as well.” Brown’s French revolution is on its way!

What is love?

Team USA’s Jason Brown, who brilliantly won the short program Friday afternoon in Grenoble, kindly explained why he elected to skate to “Love is a Bitch” this season.

“The story of this program started when I was taking time off after my season was over, last year. My sister sent it to me, like: ‘I just listened to this!’ It was like a joke, in fact, because there was ‘love’ in the title, and the two pieces of music I had used last season had ‘love’ in their title as well [‘The Scent of Love’ and ‘Inner Love’]. It ignited a kind of a fire within me. I thought it was a different variation of love, and a different way of connecting to a different side of me. It was … I wouldn’t say a revenge, as I am not chasing anyone for revenge, but it was like I’m hungry for more. I’m not over yet! And this program pushes me a little different.”

Japanese corner

Japanese fans are known for their generosity toward the skaters. It seems you could even measure the density of Japanese people in a crowd by the number of flowers and plush toys they send to one of their skaters (or someone they love, like Nathan Chen or Deniss Vasiljevs, their two heavy favorites in Grenoble).

Quite visibly, the short side of the rink, where the kiss and cry has been set, is a Japanese corner. When Marin Honda, Rika Kihira and Mai Mihara skated, the short side of the rink with was like a blooming tulip field in the Netherlands in spring time! With several colored plush toys among them. Well done, ladies, only Yevgenia Medvedeva managed to avoid a Japanese sweep of the intermediate podium!

Is this censorship?

Everybody knows how strong Guillaume Cizeron is on the ice. Friday’s post-event press conference proved he was also strong behind a microphone. While he was holding it, making again a strong comment about their performance, the articulated the arm of the microphone collapsed on the table. Ask Mai Mihara, Alexandra Boikova and Dmitrii Kozlovskii, who also won their event and used the same microphone: they had to hold it to talk. Who wants the winners to fight with their microphone?

Skating pairs and pairs on skates

Russia’s Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitrii Kozlozkii had a different perspective over their first-place finish after the pairs’ short program Friday night.

“I feel myself not in my place, sitting with such great skaters at this table,” Kozlovskii offered at the post-event press conference, as his team was sitting between North Korea’s Tae Ok Ryom and Ju Sik Kim, to their right, and France’s Vanessa James and Morgan Ciprès, to their left.

It’s completely our place, I think!” Boikova added right after her partner’s comment… And the duo kept arguing together for a few seconds before they recomposed. A pair has to be a pair – and your partner will always be a mystery anyway…

For your (blue) eyes only

Boikova and Kozlovskii gave an interesting rendering of their short program, set to “Dark Eyes.”

“This program was set by Natalia Bestemianova and Igor Bobrin,” Boikova explained [Bestemianova won the Olympic gold medal with Andrei Bukin in 1988 and Igor Bobrin is the 1981 European gold medalist].

“Tamara (Moskvina, who coaches the team in St. Petersburg) asked them to come working with us. They made our last two short programs,” Kozlovskii added. “And guess what? Both Dmitrii and I have blue eyes, not dark ones!” Boikova said in a smile.

Make him quiet!

Russia’s Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov won the second place in their rhythm dance Friday night, after the brilliant silver medal they won at Skate Canada. Katsalapov, who won an Olympic bronze medal with Elena Ilinykh back in 2014, had to significantly change his style of skating after he joined forces with Sinitsina, some four years ago. This season the duo seems to have found its balance.

“Everything, every business takes time,” Katsalapov explained. “Time is the main thing. All coaches I’ve had have wanted me to be calmer, just like I skated tonight. But the truth is … I can be like a street dog. The one who calms me is Vika [Sinitsina’s nickname]. She is passionate, yet peaceful. That saves me lots of energy, which I give to her. I trust her, and I’m relaxed when I feel her with the music.”

Find your partner’s inner energy, align yours with it, and you’ll reach the top of the world!

Last official practice

Is there anything more thrilling than arriving in the early morning and hearing some skating music coming out of the rink? The men started early Saturday morning, followed by ice dancers and ladies. The last group of the ladies event was particularly impressive, with Russia’s Yevgenia Medvedeva, Japan’s Mai Mihira and Rika Kihira, and Team USA’s Bradie Tennell on the same ice sheet.

“Today I was not able to visualize the triple Axel well,” a disappointed Kihira had stated Friday night, after she missed her trademark jump in the short program. “So tomorrow at practice I’ll focus more and double-check on my triple Axel,” she promised. The audience in attendance was not disappointed, as she nailed her triple Axel – alone and in combination with a triple toe, even in her run-through!

As a reminder, you can watch the ISU Grand Prix Series 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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MORE: Nathan Chen rallies, wins GP France, sets possible Yuzuru Hanyu matchup

Brian Orser reveals Hanyu’s, Medvedeva’s, and Brown’s Grand Prix plans

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Over the past decade, the Toronto club where Brian Orser coached South Korea’s Yuna Kim to the 2010 Olympic title has become such an attraction for top figure skaters from around the globe that it could add a word to a name that already is a mouthful.

You could call it the Toronto International Cricket Skating and Curling Club.

But its reach now is limited by the deadly virus pandemic that has effectively frozen out the elite athletes from Japan, Russia, South Korea and Poland who train at the Cricket Club.

That situation won’t change quickly, even with the International Skating Union having announced Monday its plans to proceed with a live format for the international Grand Prix Series. This fall, it will become a series of six essentially domestic competitions scheduled to begin with Skate America Oct. 23-25 in Las Vegas.

If they take place.

“As soon as the skaters can come back, it will be full steam ahead… to where, we don’t know,” Orser said via telephone Wednesday.

Two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu remains in Japan. Two-time world champion Yevgenia Medvedeva is in Russia, four-time national champion Cha Jun-Hwan in South Korea, and two-time national champion Yekaterina Kurakova in Poland.

“We would like for them all to come back, but with the Canadian travel restrictions in place until at least Aug. 21, we can’t guarantee approval to get them in, and they would have a 14-day quarantine here if they do get in,” Tracy Wilson, who coaches with Orser, said via telephone Wednesday. “Right now, they are all training at home, and that’s OK.

“The situation is different for each one. The Japanese federation may need Yuzu to do the Grand Prix in Japan, and at this point he would face quarantine entering Canada and returning to Japan.

“For Yevgenia, as soon as she does the Russian test skates (scheduled for early September), we will re-evaluate her situation.”

Orser said he has been doing three video coaching sessions a week with Medvedeva, with whom he is in his third season as coach. Medvedeva, who left Russia for Canada after winning a silver medal at the 2018 Olympics, also is currently getting help from coach Elena Buyanova at the CSKA rink in Moscow.

“She (Medvedeva) looks way ahead of where she was at this point last year,” Orser said.

MORE: Looking back at Yuna Kim’s 10-year gold medal anniversary

Orser also has been having live remote sessions with Cha and Kurakova, and they are also sending videos to him. The only skater he has not seen is Hanyu.

“That’s normal when he is back in Japan,” Orser said. “I wasn’t expecting anything.”

How long Hanyu stays in Japan may depend on travel restrictions being loosened in both his homeland and Canada.

“I would like to get them all back, and they need to come back,” Orser said. “But facing a double quarantine is not in anyone’s best interest.”

Only two of the Cricket Club’s international skaters, 2014 Olympian Jason Brown of suburban Chicago and Yi Zhu of Los Angeles (who represents China), have come back to Toronto after leaving in late winter.

It took Brown two tries to get back across the border because of issues with the paperwork necessary for Canada to consider it essential he be allowed to enter. Orser and Wilson want to be sure any skaters coming from Asia and Europe are admitted on the first try.

From April to July, until skaters could get back on the ice in their various homelands, Brown led Thursday off-ice fitness classes via Zoom, with Medvedeva, Cha and Kurakova taking part.

“It was such a fun way to stay connected and still ‘train’ together while we were oceans apart,” Brown said in a Wednesday text message.

Orser and Wilson will recommend that all the foreign skaters training at the Cricket Club try to compete at Skate Canada, scheduled the last weekend of October at a 9,500-seat arena in Ottawa. Wilson thought if the event cannot have spectators, it might be moved to a smaller facility, possibly in a different city.

“All plans are in the early stages,” Skate Canada spokesperson Emma Bowie said in an email.

Grand Prix assignments have not yet been made.

Whether Brown picks Skate Canada over Skate America – if he gets a choice – could depend on when (and if) the Canadian government shortens quarantine periods for travelers from the United States.

“I know that we are in such unprecedented and uncertain times, so I love seeing the ISU being creative and trying to find a way to hold skating events this year,” Brown wrote. “While a lot can happen before October, if it’s safe to do so, I’ll be ready and eager to take part in any events that I can.”

The ISU said it wants to have the Grand Prix Final in Beijing, whether it takes place on its original dates (Dec. 10-13) or early in 2021. The competition is to be used as a test event of the skating venue for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

There are no details yet on qualification for the final, which usually is determined by points for placements at the six “regular season” events of the series, held in the U.S., Canada, China, France, Russia and Japan. The top six in each of the sport’s four disciplines make the Final.

In the past, the highest-ranked skaters could compete in up to two Grand Prix events, but ISU Vice-President Alexander Lakernik of Russia said in a Tuesday email that everyone would be limited to one event this year.

Because the Final presumably would have much more of an international field than the six other events, staging it is infinitely more problematic because of travel involved.

“We want what’s best for the sport,” Wilson said. “We have to get these kids out there doing programs, to get them on TV. [Note: An NBC spokesman said the network would, as planned, provide coverage of the Grand Prix, with details forthcoming.] In terms of competition, we’re up for anything.

“For me, though, with all the restrictions, there is no way they will be able to run a fair qualification for the Grand Prix Final. You’ve got to reinvent yourself and make it something else – if you are able to have it at all.”

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

MORE: Nathan Chen is surprised, grateful and posing questions about figure skating’s restart

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Steven Nyman, top U.S. downhiller, faces another obstacle

Steven Nyman
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Steven Nyman, the active U.S. leader in World Cup downhill wins, tore his right Achilles in a training crash and had surgery earlier this week in Mt. Hood, Ore.

“I am moving forward,” was posted on Nyman’s social media. “I’ve been through this before and have full intention to comeback [sic] and compete through the next Olympics.”

Nyman raced in three Olympics and owns three World Cup downhill victories.

He turns 40 during the next Winter Games in Beijing in 2022, when he will be three and a half years older than any previous U.S. Olympic Alpine skier.

Nyman missed the PyeongChang Olympics after a pair of major injuries: blowing out his left knee in a January 2017 downhill race crash and tearing his right ACL in downhill training in January 2018. He also tore his left Achilles in 2011.

He raced the last two seasons with a best World Cup finish of fifth in Val Gardena, Italy, site of all of his World Cup wins in 2006, 2012 and 2014.

The U.S. men’s program is in the midst of its longest World Cup downhill victory and podium droughts this millennium — none since Travis Ganong‘s win in Garmish-Partenkirchen, Germany, on Jan. 27, 2017.

MORE: Alpine skiing World Cup plans earlier season start with fewer fans

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