Elizaveta Tuktamysheva (RUS) 2018©International Skating Union (ISU)

Elizaveta Tuktamysheva returns to the Grand Prix Final

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Elizaveta Tuktamysheva arrived in Vancouver late Tuesday night to compete in her first Grand Prix Final since she went all but undefeated en route to her 2015 World Championship crown. The self-styled “Empress” aims to add two more strong skates to what has been a comeback campaign, with two wins on the ISU Challenger Series and another in Skate Canada – her first on the Grand Prix level in almost four years.

“I hope that I’ll do two clean triple Axels at the Grand Prix Final, and improve my skating even more than Japan,” she said after a bronze medal at the NHK Trophy, finishing behind senior debutante Rika Kihira and Satoko Miyahara. “I’m really excited about what I did, landing the triple Lutz-triple toe and the triple Axel in both programs. I was so nervous but I’m still skating well.”

The ladies free skate in Hiroshima was bar-none the best of the season; though Tuktamysheva won the short program with a clean triple Axel, Kihira landed two of her own to rally for gold in the free skate.

“I said before the Grand Prix started that this event would be the hardest to win. I know these girls and how they can skate so well. I’m just happy that I scored the highest total of my figure skating career. I’m not so much sad about finishing in third place, because I know Satoko was really good in the free program, and there’s no words for what Rika did!

“It’s a different feeling to a jump a triple Axel than a Lutz or a toe-loop. For a while, I felt scared about this jump, the way a woman might feel when they’re pregnant! I was scared to fall on it. You have to jump differently, and I keep working to understand every moment before its take-off. I have so much training with this jump in particular, and I want to do it so much. I need to understand exactly what I need to do, and do it the same way every time.”

Undaunted by the competition, Tuktamysheva plans to match Kihira’s base value by adding the triple flip back into her repertoire – posting a triple flip-triple toe combination to her Instagram over Thanksgiving weekend – and analyzed Olympic champion Alina Zagitova as a commentator during Rostelecom Cup.

“I’ve really wanted to have this opportunity for the last two years, because it’s really interesting for me,” she began diplomatically, then added with a laugh, “Well, first of all, my boyfriend Andrei Lazukin is skating, and I hope he does well. If he makes mistakes, I might end up saying some bad words on TV!”

The MatchTV gig is the latest addition to her growing media empire, one on which the sun never sets with the help of her Twitter, Instagram, and, most recently, a YouTube Channel that features a pun-filled interview with reigning world champion Nathan Chen.

“I really feel the love because I’m starting to do much more on social media. I’m speaking more with the fans, and I think that’s important for the people who love figure skating. All skaters should be like this.”

Tuktamysheva has always been a trend-setter. Beyond the triple Axel, her influence can be seen in the proliferation of arm variations and back-loaded triple-triple combinations, both of which she did to win her world title. From jokes about footballers and politicians to her audacious exhibition to Britney Spears’ “Toxic” – spurring others to take on the online #TuktikChallenge, copying her strip-tease cantilever – the 21-year-old has reclaimed the zeitgeist of the sport. Close as she is transcending it entirely, the “Empress” hasn’t lost her sense of humor.

“I think I started approaching my career differently after Sochi, realizing that I just needed to enjoy myself to have good performances on the ice.

“This year isn’t the first time I’ve felt that way, and I do hope that this will work for a second season in a row, and not like last time where it took another three years.”

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

April Ross, Alix Klineman back atop Olympic beach volleyball qualifying

April Ross, Alix Klineman
FIVB World Tour
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Two-time Olympic medalist April Ross and new partner Alix Klineman moved back on top of the U.S. Olympic beach volleyball qualifying standings by winning an event in Itapema, Brazil this week.

Ross, who split from Kerri Walsh Jennings in 2017, and Klineman beat Canadians Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes 25-23, 18-21, 15-10 in Sunday’s final for their third title in 11 FIVB World Tour tournaments together.

“Every victory is important, but this counts for more,” Klineman said, according to the FIVB. “We want to send a message and we want to be consistently the best.

Ross and Klineman supplanted Walsh Jennings and her new partner, Brooke Sweat, for the lead in the early U.S. Olympic qualifying rankings with still more than a year of events ahead.

1. Ross/Klineman – 3,240 (5 events played)
2. Walsh Jennings/Sweat – 3,100 (7 events)
3. Day/Flint – 2,180 (5 events)
4. Hughes/Ross — 2,000 (4 events)
5. Larsen/Stockman — 1,840 (5 events)
6. Sponcil/Claes — 1,600 (3 events)

Each team’s 12 best results from Sept. 1, 2018, to June 14, 2020, go into the Olympic qualifying rankings. That means Ross and Klineman are comfortably in front, having played two fewer events than Walsh Jennings and Sweat, who lost in the quarterfinals in Itapema.

The top two U.S. pairs come June 15, 2020, provided they’re ranked high enough internationally, will qualify for Tokyo. Most of the qualifying events, including the ones with the most points available, are still to come this summer.

Ross, 36, picked up Klineman, 29, after Walsh Jennings didn’t join her in signing a domestic AVP contract in 2017. The 6-foot-5 Klineman primarily played indoor the previous decade, including at Stanford from 2007-10 after being the Gatorade National Player of the Year coming out of high school.

MORE: Brazil volleyball star faints during courtside interview

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Katie Ledecky extends 5-year win streak

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Katie Ledecky extended a five-year domestic win streak by taking the 200m freestyle at the Tyr Pro Swim Series at Bloomington on Saturday.

In her last full meet before July’s world championships, Ledecky clocked 1:55.80 to beat training partner Simone Manuel by 1.44 seconds for her second win in as many days. Ledecky is also entered in Sunday’s 800m free on the last day of the meet.

Ledecky, who also cruised to a 400m free victory on Friday, ranks third in the world in the 200m free this year, behind Australian Ariarne Titmus and Swede Sarah Sjöström (the Olympic silver medalist who is not expected to race the 200m free at worlds).

Ledecky, a five-time Olympic champion, hasn’t lost a 200m, 400m, 800m or 1500m free final at a domestic meet since Allison Schmitt beat her in a 200m free on Jan. 18, 2014 when Ledecky was 16 years old.

BLOOMINGTON: Full Results

But Ledecky lost the two biggest 200m frees of this Olympic cycle so far, at the 2017 World Championships and the 2018 Pan Pacific Championships. Italian veteran Federica Pellegrini handed Ledecky her first individual final defeat at a major international meet at 2017 Worlds.

Ledecky dropped to third in the 200m free at Pan Pacs in Tokyo last year, beaten by younger swimmers Taylor Ruck of Canada and Rikako Ikee of Japan.

Ruck, who like Ledecky trains at Stanford, is in Bloomington, but she chose not to swim the 200m free on Saturday. She instead swam the 200m backstroke about 45 minutes after the 200m free and was upset by 17-year-old Regan Smith. Smith won in 2:06.47, moving to No. 3 in the world this year.

In other events Saturday, Ella Eastin captured the 400m individual medley in 4:37.18, taking 1.25 seconds off her personal best and moving to fifth in the world this year. Eastin is not on the world championships team after an untimely bout with mono before qualifying meets last summer.

Blake Pieroni won the men’s 200m free in 1:47.25. No American ranks in the top 20 in the world this year. World silver medalist Townley Haas did not enter Bloomington.

MORE: Olympic breaststroke champion faces ban for missed drug tests

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