Alina Zagitova, Rika Kihira
AP

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.

MORE: Rika Kihira more than a new Miss Triple Axel

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Hirscher leads by 0.56 seconds after first run in World Champs slalom

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Marcel Hirscher swept into the finish area and wagged his finger triumphantly in front of the camera.

The message was clear: The ski king is back.

The Austrian produced an emphatic response to relinquishing his giant slalom title two days earlier at the world championships by taking a 0.56-second lead after the first run of the slalom on Sunday.

Only Alexis Pinturault of France was within a second of Hirscher, who was on course to win a record-tying seventh career gold medal at the worlds.

Marco Schwarz of Austria was in third place, 1.22 seconds off the lead.

Hirscher, the seven-time overall World Cup champion, showed no ill-effects from the cold that has been affecting him this week. After the giant slalom on Friday, he said he would be going straight back to bed to rest up for the slalom.

He looked in good working order on Sunday.

As the third skier on the course, Hirscher took 1.70 seconds off No. 2 starter Henrik Kristoffersen, who beat Hirscher to GS gold on Friday, and more than two seconds off Clement Noel, who came to the worlds in form after wins in Wengen and Kitzbuehel.

Save for Hirscher crashing, only Pinturault looks capable to denying the Austrian a third slalom gold at the worlds — something only the great Ingemar Stenmark has achieved. Pinturault was only 0.06 seconds behind Hirscher at the third checkpoint but he went wide at the first turn on the final descent and lost half a second.

“I’m still in the fight,” Pinturault said, “and still have a chance in the second leg. That’s the essential (thing).”

Daniel Yule of Switzerland was 0.28 behind Hirscher at the last split before falling at the start to the final descent.

Hirscher also won the slalom at the 2013 and 2017 worlds. A seventh career gold at the worlds would tie the men’s record held by compatriot Toni Sailer from the late 1950s.

Austria, a storied Alpine skiing nation, needs Hirscher to deliver in the final event to avoid finishing the world championships without a gold medal for the first time since Crans Montana, Switzerland, in 1987. The women’s team has already finished with no medals and that hasn’t happened since Schladming, Austria, in 1982.

Watch an encore presentation of the first run on NBCSN at 7:00 a.m. ET. The second and deciding run can be seen live starting at 8:00 a.m. ET on NBCSN and NBC Sports Gold.

Mikaela Shiffrin proving she’s in league of her own

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There are ski racers, and then there is Mikaela Shiffrin.

NBC Sports essayist Tim Layden calls Shiffrin the “rarest creature,” a prodigy who continues to get better with age.

Shiffrin’s stardom took off with her heart-stopping slalom gold medal in the 2014 Olympics. It looked like she would ascend to an even higher level four years later in PyeongChang when she claimed a gold medal in the giant slalom, but then she lost a battle with her nerves and failed to win a medal in the slalom. She did capture a silver in the combined event.

That Olympic disappointment has fueled her historic World Cup season. She became the youngest skier to pass the 50 win mark. She broke the women’s career record for slalom victories, and she became the first skier ever to win four-straight world championship titles in a single event.

A true prodigy indeed.