Alina Zagitova, Rika Kihira
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Alina Zagitova faces unfamiliar test at Grand Prix Final — a younger rival

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Alina Zagitova made history merely by showing up this fall. No other Olympic women’s singles champion competed the following autumn in the Grand Prix era.

To the 16-year-old Russian’s credit, she rebounded from a fifth-place stumble at March’s season-ending world championships to sweep her three starts this season, posting the world’s highest score in her September debut.

She is the favorite at this week’s Grand Prix Final but, technically, does not have the highest ceiling. And that’s going to be the story for at least Zagitova’s near future.

“In the Grand Prix [season], she hasn’t been her absolute best; she’s leaving the door slightly open,” NBC Sports analyst Tara Lipinski said. “It’s the most vulnerable she’s been.”

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Another 16-year-old, first-year senior Rika Kihira of Japan, had the highest score of the Grand Prix season (but hasn’t faced Zagitova). She has an inconsistent triple Axel, landing it clean and fully rotated two out of five tries between two Grand Prix starts.

Zagitova, who benefited last season from performing all of her jumps in the second half of programs for bonuses (a rule now limits this), does not have a triple Axel, and she should get familiar to facing skaters with more difficult jumps.

Not only has Kihira arrived, but also two 14-year-old Russians in the Grand Prix Final’s junior competition this week can land quadruple jumps.

NBC Sports analyst Johnny Weir said the senior event conjures the 2005 Grand Prix Final, when a 15-year-old Mao Asada landed a triple Axel and beat reigning world champion Irina Slutskaya, despite not being age-eligible for the Olympics two months later.

“Rika is probably the one athlete that I would say I’m most excited about seeing in this Final,” Lipinski said.

There are other contenders in the six-woman field at the second-biggest annual international competition. Satoko Miyahara had the highest combined score between two Grand Prix starts. Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, the 2015 World champion, had a resurgent fall, landing a triple Axel with a positive grade of execution for the first time in nearly three years.

If everyone skates to their ability, Kihira is the class of the challengers to Zagitova’s repeat bid in Vancouver. That’s not to say Zagitova has stopped progressing.

“There’s a confidence and a bit more maturity,” Weir said.

Especially in relation to the Japanese phenom. Zagitova outscored Kihira by 21 points in program components (artistic marks) combining each woman’s four Grand Prix skates this fall.

“Rika Kihira looks inexperienced in comparison to Zagitova, just when they take the ice,” Weir said. “Rika skates to her opening position, and Alina skates to her opening position, there’s a whole different level of confidence there.”

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 HERE 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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Chloe Kim makes it five straight wins with Dew Tour title

Chloe Kim
Dew Tour
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Chloe Kim capped one of the greatest years in snowboarding history by repeating as Dew Tour champion in Breckenridge, Colo., on Sunday.

The 18-year-old PyeongChang gold medalist won a modified halfpipe contest with a 94.67-point first run on a course that combines slopestyle features with a halfpipe. She beat a field that included Olympic silver and bronze medalists Liu Jiayu and Arielle Gold.

Kim has won five straight contests — the X Games in January, the Olympics in February, the U.S. Open in March and, to open this season, victories the last two weekends. No other rider won the X Games, Olympics and U.S. Open in one year.

Kim decided to compete this season rather than enroll in college. She tweeted in March that she was accepted to Princeton.

She is expected to go for a fourth X Games Aspen title in five years next month, which would tie her for second all-time among women behind Kelly Clark, who has six halfpipe crowns.

The retired Gretchen Bleiler also won four X Games golds. Clark, a 35-year-old, five-time Olympian, said last month that she was undecided if she will compete again.

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Brittany Bowe grabs 20th World Cup win, ascends U.S. all-time list

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Olympic bronze medalist Brittany Bowe grabbed her third World Cup win this season and the 20th of her career, moving into solo fifth place on the U.S. all-time list on Sunday.

Bowe, whose PyeongChang medal came in the team pursuit, won a 1000m in Heerenveen, Netherlands, in 1:13.24, beating a field including Olympic silver and bronze medalists Nao Kodaira and Miho Takagi of Japan. She broke her own track record by .66 at the sport’s hallowed Thialf.

“That was one of the most perfect races I’ve skated this far, and I couldn’t be happier to do it here in Thialf,” Bowe said, according to the International Skating Union. “Every stroke was right, no missteps. This was definitely one of the best races in my career.”

Bowe earned a medal of every color in two days of racing in Heerenveen, adding to her 500m bronze and 1500m silver on Saturday. Bowe leads the season standings in the 1000m and is third in the 500m and 1500m.

There are two stops left this season — Hamar, Norway, in February and Salt Lake City in March, with the world championships in between.

“The real show is in February [at words],” Bowe said.

Bowe is returning from a July 2016 concussion that affected her for the entire 2016-17 season, including blood-pressure issues and fainting spells.

She returned in full for the 2017-18 Olympic season but did not make an individual podium between the World Cups and the Olympics, missing a 1000m medal in PyeongChang by .38 and in the 1500m by .28.

Before the concussion, Bowe in 2015 earned world titles and broke world records in the 1000m and 1500m.

On Sunday, the former Florida Atlantic basketball player passed three-time Olympic medalist Chris Witty for fifth on the U.S. World Cup wins list behind Bonnie Blair (69), Shani Davis (58), Dan Jansen (46) and Heather Bergsma (34), according to schaatsstatistieken.nl.

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