U.S. Championships reporters’ notebook: Ladies’ free skate on Day 2

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Our figure skating team is on the ground in Detroit to cover the U.S. Championships. This is our behind-the-scenes look at the competition on the second day.

Wessenberg just gets better with age

Don’t tell Megan Wessenberg what to do.

She will cover half the rink with a few strokes and glide into her jumps at breakneck speed, if she wants to. At age 20, she can admit there is more to her life than skating, including coaching and studying biology at Northeastern University.

If it takes her a few extra seasons to get her triple Lutz, so be it. She will still make the 2018-19 season her best ever, with a solid Grand Prix debut at Skate America and a career-high sixth-place finish at the U.S. Championships here in Detroit.

“I’ve always been a late bloomer,” Wessenberg said. “If you love what you do, age doesn’t matter.”

That’s practically heresy in the youth-obsessed ranks of elite singles’ skaters, where it sometimes seems you need to make it by the time you’re 18, or move on. Newly-crowned U.S. champion Alysa Liu is just 13, some seven years Wessenberg’s junior.

But Wessenberg moves to her own beat. For the past two seasons, she’s used Breanna Whitaker’s version of the late Leslie Gore’s pop hit “You Don’t Own Me,” a 1962 ode to female independence and strength that some cultural historians think helped spark the early feminist movement. Its lyrics – “You don’t own me, don’t try to change me in any way… You don’t own me, don’t tie me down ’cause I’d never stay” – still resonate with young women today.

“My coach [Mark Mitchell] was the one who found it,” Wessenberg said. “I have very powerful skating, that’s probably my biggest attribute. I needed a piece that would stand up to my skating.”

“When I looked at Megan, I thought, ‘What is she really good at?” Mitchell, who trains his skaters with longtime partner Peter Johansson, said. “She’s really strong. She’s powerful. She’s tough.”

Wessenberg’s icon, Sasha Cohen, was fiery and charismatic, but known more for her balletic positions and flexibility than the height of her jumps. The Boston-based skater is cut from different cloth.

“I’m definitely more of an athletic skater,” she said. “My skating is exciting, because I move very fast and I have big jumps and flow. That’s the look I’m going for, and I like to play to my strengths.”

She counts her balanced lifestyle as another plus. Every morning, she skates; afternoons, she either attends Northeastern or assists Mitchell and Johansson with some of their younger students.

“She tried online school for a while, and it didn’t work,” Mitchell said. “She doesn’t like having all of her eggs in one basket.”

“It’s good to bring outside experience into your skating, because then it’s more real, and that comes across to the audience,” Wessenberg said. “I definitely think independence is a great quality to have, and I want to express that through my skating.”

Her determination is an inspiration to her fellow skaters.

“She worked on double Axel for years,” Mitchell said. “She worked, worked and worked, until she got it. And shortly after that, she got the triple Salchow. And the next year, she got triple toe, and then triple loop. She kept plugging away until she got them all. We’ve used that example a lot with kids.”

“I don’t think, necessarily, you have to get all of your triples in one year, or you won’t get them,” Wessenberg said. “People progress at different rates. It took me years and years to get all of my jumps. And now I have them.”

MORE: Mirai Nagasu makes commentary debut

Ice sweepers do the ‘Cupid Shuffle’

This season NFL players have staged end zone celebrations ranging from simulated MMA fights to the “Fusion Dance” from Dragon Ball Z. But running backs and receivers ain’t got nothing on the flower sweepers here in Detroit.

All week, some 54 young skaters aged 8 to 12 from nearby skating clubs are doing the important work of clearing the ice of the wrapped flowers and stuffed animals that hit the ice between performances. On Thursday, the evening shift of “sweepers” just itched to make it on to the big-screen arena monitor.

“I told them, I bet if you stood up and started to dance to the music, you would get to be on the camera,” Rachel Bauld-Lee, a Detroit Skating Club (DSC) resident coach and director of DSC’s Learn to Skate program, said.

Gabe Woodruff, another DSC resident coach, sprang into action when the arena deejay played the “Cupid Shuffle,” doing the timeless line dance so favored at your favorite cousins’ weddings.

“And then the girls did it for a few runs, and then suddenly they were on the camera,” Bauld-Lee said. “And once they saw that, they just continued to do it.”

It wasn’t hard for the sweepers to follow Woodruff, because not only is the dance pretty easy, the song is often played during rink warmups.

“I didn’t expect (sweeping) to be this much fun, but I had a great time, especially when we did the shuffle dance and I saw myself dancing on the big screen,” Sierra San Agustin, a 10-year-old from Onyx Skating Academy, said.

It wasn’t all fun and games.

“Seeing all the skaters tonight inspired me to be a better skater,” San Augustin said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I am so proud to be a part of it.”

Many area youngsters from DSC and other clubs are taking part in this U.S. Championships. Some 80 higher-level skaters are performing a salute to Detroit’s sports teams in the opening ceremony, and 92 children from Learn-to-Skate programs are featured in the closing.

Stories compiled by Lynn Rutherford.

MORE: Nathan Chen’s imminent three-peat quest begins Saturday

As a reminder, you can watch the U.S. Championships 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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Teri McKeever fired by Cal as women’s swimming coach after investigation

Teri McKeever
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Teri McKeever, the first woman to serve as a U.S. Olympic swimming head coach, was fired by the University of California at Berkeley after an investigation into alleged verbal and emotional abuse of swimmers that she denied.

McKeever was put on paid administrative leave from her job as head women’s swimming coach in May after an Orange County Register report that 20 current or former Cal swimmers said McKeever verbally and emotionally bullied her swimmers.

Cal athletics director Jim Knowlton wrote in a letter to the Cal team and staff that a resulting independent law firm report detailed “verbally abusive conduct that is antithetical to our most important values.”

“I strongly believe this is in the best interests of our student-athletes, our swimming program and Cal Athletics as a whole,” Knowlton said of McKeever’s firing in a press release. “The report details numerous violations of university policies that prohibit race, national origin and disability discrimination.”

The Orange County Register first published what it says is the full independent report here.

“I deny and unequivocally refute all conclusions that I abused or bullied any athlete and deny any suggestion I discriminated against any athlete on the basis of race, disability or sexual orientation,” McKeever said in a statement Tuesday confirming her firing and expressing disappointment in how the investigation was conducted. “While I am disappointed in the way my CAL Career will conclude, I wish to thank and celebrate the many student-athletes and staff that made my time in Berkeley a true blessing and gift.”

McKeever’s lawyer wrote that McKeever “will be filing suit to expose the manner in which gender has affected not only the evaluation of her coaching but harmed and continues to harm both female and male athletes.”

McKeever led Cal women’s swimming and diving for nearly 30 years, winning four NCAA team titles and coaching Olympic champions including Missy FranklinNatalie Coughlin and Dana Vollmer.

In 2004, she became the first woman to be on a U.S. Olympic swim team coaching staff, as an assistant. In 2012, she became the first woman to be head coach of a U.S. Olympic swim team. She was an assistant again for the Tokyo Games.

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Diana Taurasi returns to U.S. national basketball team

Diana Taurasi
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Diana Taurasi is set to return to the U.S. national basketball team next week for the first time since the Tokyo Olympics, signaling a possible bid for a record-breaking sixth Olympic appearance in 2024 at age 42.

Taurasi is on the 15-player roster for next week’s training camp in Minnesota announced Tuesday.

Brittney Griner is not on the list but is expected to return to competitive basketball later this year with her WNBA team, the Phoenix Mercury (also Taurasi’s longtime team, though she is currently a free agent), after being detained in Russia for 10 months in 2022.

Taurasi said as far back as the 2016 Rio Games that her Olympic career was likely over, but returned to the national team after Dawn Staley succeeded Geno Auriemma as head coach in 2017.

In Tokyo, Taurasi and longtime backcourt partner Sue Bird became the first basketball players to win five Olympic gold medals. Bird has since retired.

After beating Japan in the final, Taurasi said “see you in Paris,” smiling, as she left an NBC interview. That’s now looking less like a joke and more like a prediction.

Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve succeeded Staley as head coach last year. In early fall, she guided the U.S. to arguably the best FIBA World Cup performance ever, despite not having stalwarts Bird, Griner, Tina Charles and Sylvia Fowles.

Taurasi was not in contention for the team after suffering a WNBA season-ending quad injury in the summer. Taurasi, who is 38-0 in Olympic games and started every game at the last four Olympics, wasn’t on a U.S. team for an Olympics or worlds for the first time since 2002.

Next year, Taurasi can become the oldest Olympic basketball player in history and the first to play in six Games, according to Olympedia.org. Spain’s Rudy Fernandez could also play in a sixth Olympics in 2024.

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