The Year Ahead in Olympic Sports

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Sandwiched between two Olympic years, 2019 won’t host the Games, but will provide plenty of anticipated competition in Olympic sports. Below is a look at the year ahead and a few of the top storylines at the start of 2019.

Lindsey Vonn chases Ingemar Stenmark’s World Cup record

In what she has said will be her final full competitive season, Lindsey Vonn will try to complete one thing left on her career bucket list: topping the legendary Swedish skier’s all-time record of 86 World Cup wins. The start of Vonn’s season was delayed after she sustained a knee injury in November, but the 34-year-old announced earlier this month that she will begin competing in January. Vonn is currently four victories short of Stenmark’s record.

An Olympic preview at swimming Worlds in South Korea

After a World Championships hiatus in 2018, the new year will provide the best glance at what’s to come in Tokyo as the world’s top swimmers convene in Gwangju, South Korea, in July. Five-time Olympic gold medalist Katie Ledecky won three golds, a silver and a bronze at the 2018 Pan Pacific Championships, the largest international meet in a year without a Worlds or Olympics. After winning seven gold medals at the 2017 World Championships (tying a record set by Michael Phelps), Caeleb Dressel had a quieter year in 2018, winning one national title (in the 100m fly) and collecting one individual title at the Pan Pacific Championships in the same event. Several other Rio medalists continued to impress in 2018: three-time Olympic gold medalist Ryan Murphy had the world’s top time this year in the 100m backstroke, and won both backstroke events at Pan Pacs. Chase Kalisz posted the fastest times of 2018 in the individual medleys and also won both at Pan Pacs, and Kathleen Baker set the world record in the 100m back at nationals. Simone Manuel, who won four medals in Rio, claimed the 50m and 100m freestyle titles at nationals, and finished second to Australia’s Cate Campbell in both events at Pan Pacs. Eight-time Olympic medalist Allison Schmitt shrugged off retirement plans to finish second to Ledecky in the 200m free at Nationals, posting her fastest time (1:55.82) since setting an Olympic record at the London Games. Also to watch in 2019: Michael Andrew, who surprised at nationals with four titles and won the 50m free at Pan Pacs.

Several notable U.S. swimmers will not be at Worlds: 12-time Olympic medalist Ryan Lochte was suspended for 14 months earlier this year after receiving an intravenous infusion that exceeded the legal limit, though he has said he still plans to train for Tokyo. Lochte posted on social media last month with the announcement that he and his wife are expecting their second child, “Can’t wait to bring my fam of 4 to #tokyo2020.”

Dana Vollmer, a seven-time Olympic medalist, will miss the World Championships after skipping nationals last season (which served as a qualifier for Pan Pacs and Worlds). Vollmer, who won three medals at the Rio Games after giving birth to son Arlen in March 2015, welcomed a second son, Ryker, in July 2017. She returned to competition for the first time in almost a year in November, finishing fourth in her signature 100m butterfly at winter nationals, and has said she will aim for a fourth Olympics in Tokyo.

Five-time Olympic gold medalist Missy Franklin announced her retirement from swimming earlier this month. After a dominant performance at the London Games, where she collected four titles, Franklin dealt with chronic shoulder pain as well as anxiety and depression in the lead-up to Rio. She was part of the gold medal-winning U.S. team in the 4x200m free relay at her second Olympics, but swam only in the heats. The 23-year-old wrote in an essay published by ESPN, “This is by no means the end. Rather, I choose to look at this as a new beginning. Swimming has been, and always will be, a big part of my life and I absolutely plan to stay involved in what I believe is the best sport in the world, just in a different way.”

Biles still dominant at 2018 Worlds with a kidney stone; what could she do without one in 2019?

Despite a trip to the emergency room less than 24 hours before her first day of competition in Doha, Qatar, Simone Biles won the all-around by 1.693, the largest margin of her four such titles, despite a few uncharacteristic mistakes. Biles’ all-around win came just one day shy of a year of full-time training after a post-Rio hiatus. Her accolades in Doha proved how far ahead Biles is over the rest of the world – and what could come in 2019 at a kidney stone-free Worlds. She now has a medal in every event at the World Championships after winning her first on the uneven bars in 2018 (silver), which have typically been her weakest event. The U.S. should have dual all-around contenders in 2019: Morgan Hurd won her second straight world all-around medal in 2018, a bronze, after claiming the the world title in 2017. While the U.S. women have already qualified a team for the Tokyo Games by winning the team competition at 2018 Worlds (their fourth straight), the American men, who finished fourth in Doha, should qualify easily at Worlds in October, as long as they finish within the top nine teams (excluding those already qualified). They’ll likely be led by two-time Olympian Sam Mikulak, who won his first individual medal at a Worlds or Olympics in 2018, a bronze on high bar.

Americans aim for fourth Women’s World Cup title

Already the most decorated nation in tournament history, the U.S. will look for a second straight and fourth total Women’s World Cup title in 2019. The Americans coasted through a perfect qualifying campaign (5-0-0) and a team that will likely include U.S. veterans Alex Morgan and Carli Lloyd will be the favorite to win again in France. The U.S. was drawn into a group with Thailand, Chile, and Sweden, a team that defeated the Americans on penalties in the quarterfinals at the Rio Games, marking the first time the U.S. women missed a medal at the Olympics. The tournament runs from June 7 through July 7.

U.S. likely to hone a star-studded team at basketball World Cup

The U.S. qualified for the 2019 World Cup thanks to a roster compiled of mostly G-league players. But the makeup of the team will look quite different next year: Gregg Popovich, who will coach the U.S. men at that tournament and at the Olympics, is likely to bring a team of notable NBA names to China in an attempt to win a record third straight World Cup, which also serves as a qualifying opportunity for Tokyo. A squad led by Kyrie Irving, James Harden and Stephen Curry brought the U.S. victory at the 2014 World Cup, and this year’s preliminary pool of players includes all three, as well as Team USA veterans LeBron James and Kevin Durant (the actual roster won’t be announced until closer to the tournament, which runs from late August through mid-September).

Who will be crowned at this year’s World Figure Skating Championships?

The post-Olympic season offered a shake-up of sorts in the ladies’ field: reigning Olympic gold medalist Alina Zagitova finished fifth at Russian nationals (all three medalists are too young to compete at senior international events) and was topped by Japan’s Rika Kihira at the Grand Prix Final. Olympic silver medalist Yevgenia Medvedeva, once seemingly unbeatable during a two-year win streak, hasn’t won in over a year. And after missing both the 2014 and 2018 Olympic teams, 2015 world champion Yelizaveta Tuktamysheva has had a resurgent season, winning Skate Canada and placing third at the Grand Prix Final (Russia has not yet named a team for Worlds). The U.S. women have no frontrunners for Worlds, which will be held in Japan in March: Bradie Tennell was the only American with a podium finish on the Grand Prix circuit (third at Grand Prix France) and no U.S. women qualified for the Grand Prix Final.

Nathan Chen, now balancing skating with studies at Yale, won his second straight Grand Prix Final in 2018, topping PyeongChang silver medalist Shoma Uno of Japan. The event lacked two-time reigning Olympic gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu, who was out with an injury. Hanyu is expected to compete at the World Championships, where he’ll be on home soil in Japan, and it’s hard not to pick him as a favorite if he is healthy. Chen and Hanyu have not gone head-to-head since the Olympics, where Chen finished fifth.

Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue won the Grand Prix Final in December, though none of the PyeongChang medalists were competing. The field at Worlds is likely to be more challenging, since Olympic silver medalists Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron are expected to compete. The French duo, who train with Hubbell and Donohue in Montreal, won Grand Prix France earlier this season but skipped their first Grand Prix assignment due to a minor injury to Cizeron, making them ineligible for the Grand Prix Final. It looks unlikely if the French compete, but if Hubbell and Donohue can pull off a win at Worlds, they’d be the first Americans to do so in ice dance since Meryl Davis and Charlie White in 2013.

U.S. track prospects – strong in 2018 – will be tested at Worlds in Doha

Usain Bolt’s retirement in 2017 posed the question of who the next men’s sprinting star could be. U.S. men dominated that conversation in 2018, with Rio Olympian Christian Coleman posting the world’s fastest 100m in three years, a 9.79 at an August Diamond League event in Brussels. In fact, the four fastest men in the 100m in 2018 were all American: Coleman, Ronnie Baker, Noah Lyles and Mike Rodgers. All four faced off at a June Diamond League event in Morocco, with Coleman topping the field in a race that separated the top three (Baker and Lyles were second and third) by just .01.

On the distance side, Shelby Houlihan was among the most exciting revelations of the 2018 season. The 25-year-old won both the 1500m and 5000m at the U.S. Outdoor Championships in June, and set an American record in the 5000m in July. Houlihan, who missed the podium at the World Indoor Championships in March (she placed fourth in the 1500m and fifth in the 3000m), will aim for her first medal at a World Championships in 2019, when the event will be held in Doha, Qatar, from late September through the first week of October.

The past 14 months were also notable for American women in marathons: in November 2017, four-time Olympian Shalane Flanagan became the first U.S. woman in 40 years to win the New York City Marathon, and Desiree Linden ended a 33-year drought for U.S. women at the Boston Marathon in 2018. Flanagan has hinted at retirement and has not specified on whether she will try for a fifth Olympics in Tokyo, which would be a record for U.S. distance runners.

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Ilia Malinin’s quadruple Axel sheds light on first figure skater to land triple Axel

Vern Taylor
Vern Taylor, the first figure skater to land a triple Axel in competition. (Getty Images)
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Vern Taylor arrived at the Riverside Skating Club in Windsor, Ontario, on Sept. 15 to do what he has done at that rink for the last three decades: coach figure skaters. But this day was different.

Taylor, who in 1978 became the first man to land a ratified triple Axel in competition, was told that 17-year-old American Ilia Malinin performed the first quadruple Axel the previous night.

“When we heard that he landed it, I said, ‘Oh my goodness, that’s terrific,'” Taylor said by phone.

He was then shown video of Malinin’s feat.

“Anything’s possible,” Taylor said. “43 years [later], that’s something. It’s knowing that you can perform the jump that makes it challenging.”

Malinin, the world junior champion, landed the most difficult jump in skating and checked off the only remaining quad yet to be performed.

At the 1978 World Championships in Ottawa, a 20-year-old Taylor broke through a similar barrier in hitting the last remaining unchecked triple jump. But while Malinin’s senior career seems to be just getting started, and many medals appear in his future, Taylor is largely a forgotten man outside of ardent figure skating followers.

He finished 12th at those 1978 World Championships. Taylor’s 1980 Olympic prospects were dimmed by the fact that Canada had just one men’s singles spot, and he had taken runner-up at nationals in 1978 and 1979 to Brian Pockar, who also outscored Taylor at those years’ world championships. So Taylor stopped competing a year before the Lake Placid Games.

“I didn’t have a reason,” he said. “I just decided to take a break.”

Taylor will always have that day at the world championships in Ottawa. He can still remember the nervousness, knowing that two other skaters also planned to attempt a triple Axel. They were unsuccessful, though Taylor didn’t know it.

“I didn’t see their jumps,” he said. “I didn’t want to know what was ahead of me.”

American David Jenkins landed a triple Axel in Movietone newsreel footage reported to be from 1957, but that was not in competition.

Taylor, skating to music from “Rocky,” put the triple Axel as the third jump of his program, according to reports at the time. The one YouTube video of it, published two years ago, has 32,000 views. It shows Taylor landing the three-and-a-half revolution jump on one foot and spinning out of it while managing to stay on that single skate blade amid a crowd roar.

“During that program, it was like a rock concert,” Taylor said. “I got the energy from the audience.”

The Montreal Gazette reported at the time that the jump was ratified three hours later. Italian Sonia Bianchetti, the men’s referee at the 1978 Worlds, said she met with the assistant referee, the ISU president and a technical delegate.

“During this short meeting it was recognized that Vern had completed the first triple Axel Paulsen jump [Norwegian Axel Paulsen was the skater who landed the first Axel jump in 1882, getting it named after him] in an officially recognized figure skating competition,” she wrote in an email last month. “The triple Axel was fully rotated and landed on one foot.”

One of the people inside the Ottawa Civic Centre that day was 16-year-old Canadian Brian Orser. Orser, inspired by Taylor, later became synonymous with the jump — labeled “Mr. Triple Axel” and landing it en route to silver medals at the Olympics in 1984 and 1988 and the 1987 World title.

Orser remembered Taylor visiting his skating club for an exhibition. Orser saw Taylor doing an Axel takeoff exercise off the ice, incorporated it into his own routine and began teaching it to his skaters after becoming a coach.

Yet another Canadian, Kurt Browning, was the first man to land a ratified quadruple jump of any kind in competition — a toe loop at the 1988 World Championships.

“For me, personally, it was huge,” he said, “because I was promised a car if I could land it.”

Through an agreement with an Edmonton car dealership, Browning was handed the keys to a Quattro — quad/Quattro — after hitting the toe loop. The skater was unaware that the dealer was merely leasing it to him. About six months later, Browning received a call asking to bring the car back.

Browning was inspired by American Brian Boitano, whom he previously saw land a quad outside of competition. Taylor motivated him, too.

“[Taylor] gave me permission, even at a young age, to start thinking bigger,” he said.

Browning also pointed to Jozef Sabovčík, a 1980s skater for then-Czechoslovakia who many believe was the first man to land a quad in competition, Browning included. Sabovčík was initially given credit for a quad toe loop at the 1986 European Championships, but weeks later it was invalidated because he touched down with his free foot, according to reports.

“I never want to come off as arrogant, but despite what ISU [International Skating Union] decided in the end, I do know that I landed the jump on that day,” Sabovčík, who said he performed a quad jump on his birthdays through age 44, wrote in an email. “The fact that most of the people in the skating world believe the same thing, it means everything to me that Kurt is one of them. It would have been nice to have my name in the Guinness Book of Records, but I am also not trying to change history.”

Sabovčík, now 58 and coaching in Salt Lake City, attended March’s world championships in Montpellier, France, where Malinin finished ninth. There, he spoke with Malinin’s parents, Russian-born Uzbek Olympic skaters Tatyana Malinina and Roman Skornyakov, whom he calls friends.

“They told me that he was already doing a quad Axel on a fishing pole harness [in practice], and that it was coming,” Sabovčík said.

Less than two months after that talk, the first video surfaced of Malinin landing a clean quad Axel — at a U.S. Figure Skating jump camp.

“I did not think [a quad Axel] was possible,” Sabovčík said. “It really has to be an athlete that can combine the technical ability with jumping ability with the speed of rotation. When Kurt and I jumped, we had a relatively speaking slow rotation, but we jumped really big compared to these kids. But Ilia, he has the vertical lift, but he [also] has an unbelievably fast rotation.”

The recent proliferation of quads in men’s and women’s skating can be attributed to several factors, including better boots, better ice conditions and improvements in technology that can aid coaching. Still, there are concerns about if and how the pounding of training quads can wear down a skater physically.

“It’s a lot of pain you don’t feel at first, but you know it comes later,” said Frenchwoman Surya Bonaly, who started training a quad in 1989 and attempting it through the mid-1990s. Bonaly had two hip surgeries after her competitive career.

Even Taylor faced those questions.

“People said, ‘Aren’t you worried about injuring yourself?'” he said. “I would say, ‘No, I want you to know it can be done.'”

Sabovčík never tried a quad Axel in his skating days, but Browning did for less than a week in the early 1990s after winning four consecutive world titles.

“Just playing with it,” said Browning, who never tried it in competition. “Ilia has that special ability to not only get up in the air, but then he has that beautiful rotation that doesn’t look hurried. It’s fast, it’s quick as lightning, but it doesn’t look hurried. It’s so easy. Like a good golfer swings easy, and the ball goes 400 yards.”

Browning recalled a conversation he had with two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu, who in recent years made the quad Axel his quest. Hanyu attempted it in competition last season but did not land it cleanly before retiring in July. He said upon retirement that he still hoped to master the jump for his non-competitive show career.

“I asked Yuzu one day, ‘When you do quad Axel, does it just feel like you’re up there forever?'” Browning said. “And he kind of looked at me funny, and he goes, ‘Yeah, like it never ends.'”

The skating world awaits the reserved Hanyu’s thoughts on Malinin’s quad.

“Knowing Yuzu, I would think he’d be very supportive,” said Orser, who coached Hanyu for nearly a decade. “He appreciates that kind of athleticism.”

Orser also noted what comes with being the first — and so far only — skater to land a rarefied jump. Malinin, who headlines Skate America in two weeks, will be asked about the quad Axel in just about every interview for the foreseeable future. For some skaters, they may feel a responsibility to land it all the time.

“But I don’t think [Malinin] thinks too much about it,” Orser said. “His technique is perfect, so he’ll be fine.”

The inevitable topic after that is the next progression in skating: the first quintuple jump. Orser said that Hanyu did five-rotation Salchows in practice with the aid of a harness.

“It’s just a little bit more rotation than the quadruple Axel, so it’s not that far off,” said Sabovčík, whose unratified quad toe loop came eight years after Taylor’s triple Axel. “Now that I’ve seen the quad Axel, I don’t think it’s impossible.”

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Aleksandra Trusova splits from coach Eteri Tutberidze, months after Olympic tears

Alexandra Trusova, Eteri Tutberidze
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Olympic figure skating silver medalist Aleksandra Trusova reportedly split from coach Eteri Tutberidze‘s group, eight months after a tearful scene after the Olympic free skate.

Trusova, 18, will now be coached by Svetlana Sokolovskaya, according to Russian media reports dating to Saturday. All Russian skaters are ineligible to compete internationally indefinitely due to the national ban over the war in Ukraine, but Russia is still holding domestic events.

At the Beijing Winter Games, Trusova became the first woman to land five quadruple jumps in a free skate. She had the highest score that day, but it wasn’t enough to make up the gap to fellow Tutberidze pupil Anna Shcherbakova from the short program.

Moments after the competition ended, Trusova was seen crying and yelling at Sergey Dudakov, a member of Tutberidze’s coaching team.

“Everyone has a gold medal! Everyone has! Only I don’t! I hate figure skating! I hate! I will never step on the ice again! Never!” she said in Russian.

Shcherbakova had the individual gold, and the other Russian women’s singles skater at the Games, Kamila Valiyeva, skated both programs of the team event. The Russians placed first in the team event, but medals will not be awarded until Valiyeva’s doping case is adjudicated. It’s possible that Valiyeva gets retroactively disqualified, the Russian team gets disqualified and the other nations all move up with the U.S. going from silver to gold.

Trusova performed at the Russian test skates last month, withdrawing after her short program due to a back injury.

Trusova previously left Tutberidze in 2020 for two-time Olympic champion turned coach Yevgeny Plushenko‘s group, then moved back to Tutberidze’s group after the 2020-21 season.

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