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

Alina Zagitova, Rika Kihira
AP
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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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Svetlana Romashina, seven-time Olympic champion artistic swimmer, retires

Svetlana Romashina
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Russian Svetlana Romashina, the most decorated artistic swimmer in Olympic history with seven gold medals, announced her retirement at age 33.

Romashina entered seven Olympic artistic swimming events and won all of them, starting in 2008. She won four Olympic titles in the team event and three in the duet (two with Nataliya Ishchenko and one with Svetlana Kolesnichenko).

The Tokyo Games marked her last major competition.

Romashina is the only woman to go undefeated in her Olympic career while entering seven or more events. The only man to do so was American track and field athlete Ray Ewry, who won all eight of his Olympic starts from 1900-08, according to Olympedia.org.

Romashina also won 21 world championships medals — all gold, second in aquatics history behind Michael Phelps‘ 26.

She took nearly two years off after giving birth to daughter Alexandra in November 2017, then came back to win three golds at her last world championships in 2019 and two golds at her last Olympics in 2021.

Romashina is now an artistic swimming coach, according to Russian media.

Russian swimmers swept the Olympic duet and team titles at each of the last six Olympics.

Russians have been banned from international competition since March due to the war in Ukraine.

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Mikaela Shiffrin, three gates from gold, skis out of world championships combined

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Mikaela Shiffrin was three gates from a record-tying seventh world championships gold medal when she lost her balance and straddled a gate, skiing out of the first race of worlds on Monday.

Italian Federica Brignone won the women’s combined instead, prevailing by 1.62 seconds over Swiss Wendy Holdener, the largest Olympic or world championships men’s or women’s margin of victory in the event since it switched from three runs to two in 2007.

Austrian Ricarda Haaser took bronze in an event that is one run of super-G followed by one run of slalom.

At 32, Brignone, the 2020 World Cup overall champion, won her first global title and became the oldest female world champion in any event.

“What was missing in my career was a gold medal,” she said. “So I’m old. No, I’m just kidding.”

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Shiffrin was sixth fastest in the opening super-G run, 96 hundredths behind Brignone. She skied aggressively in the slalom in a bid to beat Brignone. Shiffrin cut the gap to eight hundredths by the last intermediate split with about 10 seconds left on the course in Meribel, France.

Shiffrin looked set to overtake Brignone until tripping up slightly with five gates left. It compounded, and Shiffrin couldn’t save the run, losing control, straddling the third-to-last gate and skiing out. The timing system still registered her finish — 34 hundredths faster than Brignone — but it was quickly corrected to the obvious disqualification.

Asked on French TV if she lost focus, Shiffrin said, “People are going to say that no matter what.”

“The surface changed a little bit on these last gates, so [on pre-race] inspection I saw it’s a bit more unstable on the snow,” she added. “I tried to be aware of that, but I knew that if I had a chance to make up nine tenths on Federica, or more than that, like one second, I had to push like crazy. So I did, and I had a very good run. I’m really happy with my skiing.”

It marked Shiffrin’s first time skiing out since she did so in three races at last February’s Olympics, where her best individual finish was ninth in five races. At the Olympics, she skied out within the first 13 seconds in each instance. On Monday, she was more than 40 seconds into her run.

“I was thinking, now I’m going to go through the mixed zone. and everyone’s going to ask, ‘Oh, is this Beijing again?'” Shiffrin said. “I didn’t really think about that for myself, but more for the people asking. But I also said before, coming into this world champs multiple times, I’m not afraid if it happens again. What if I don’t finish every run? What happened last year, and I survived. And then I’ve had some pretty amazing races this season. So I would take the season that I’ve had with no medals at the world championships. If it’s either/or, then I would take that. I’m happy with it. But I’m going to be pushing for medals, because that’s what you do at world champs. You wear your heart on your sleeve, and you go for it. I’m not afraid of the consequences, as long as I have that mentality, which I had today.”

NBC Sports analyst Steve Porino said what happened Monday was “completely different” from the Olympics, calling it “an error of aggression.”

“It certainly wasn’t nerves that sent her out,” Porino said on the Peacock broadcast. “This was Shiffrin knowing that she had to have a huge run to get the gold medal.

“The way she went out this time, I think she can brush that one off.”

Shiffrin was bidding to tie the modern-era records for individual world championships gold medals (seven) and total medals (12). Coming into Monday, she earned a medal in her last 10 world championships races dating to 2015.

Her next chance to match those records comes in Wednesday’s super-G, where she is a medal contender. Norway’s Ragnhild Mowinckel is the world’s top-ranked super-G skier through five races on the World Cup this season, though she was 71 hundredths behind Brignone in Monday’s super-G run.

Shiffrin has raced two super-Gs this season with a win and a seventh place.

She is expected to race three more times over the two-week worlds, which is separate from the World Cup circuit that she has torn up this season.

Shiffrin has a tour-leading 11 World Cup wins in 23 starts across all disciplines since November, moving her one shy of the career victories record of 86 accumulated by Swede Ingemar Stenmark in the 1970s and ’80s. Again, world championships races do not count toward the World Cup, which picks back up after worlds end in late February.

Worlds continue Tuesday with the men’s combined.

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