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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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Breanna Stewart to miss entire WNBA season with Achilles injury

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Breanna Stewart, the world’s top female basketball player and one of the most dominant athletes of 2018, is expected to miss the entire upcoming WNBA season after rupturing an Achilles playing in Europe on Sunday, according to the Seattle Storm.

“The situation is still a shock to me,” was posted on Stewart’s social media. “I’m feeling every emotion possible at this point but just know that the bounce back will be real and I’ll be back better than ever.”

Stewart, 24, skyrocketed in this Olympic cycle.

The Storm’s franchise player went from playing the second-fewest minutes on the 2016 Olympic team as its youngest player to leading the U.S. per game in points (16.3) and minutes (27) at the 2018 World Championship tournament.

Stewart earned MVP honors at worlds, matching her WNBA season and Finals honors. She became the first player to earn all three MVPs in one year.

Stewart is still expected to be in play for the 2020 Olympic team, given the Storm expect her to make a full recovery by the start of the following WNBA season next spring.

Tamika Catchings made the 2008 Olympic team after tearing her right Achilles in September 2007.

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Caster Semenya leads Olympians in Time 100; streak hits 16 years

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An Olympian has made the Time 100 Most Influential list every year since its annual inception in 2004. South African runner Caster Semenya, soccer players Alex Morgan and Mo Salah and LeBron James kept the streak going in 2019.

It’s the fourth appearance for James (2005, 2013, 2017), extending his record for an athlete, and the first for Semenya, Morgan and Salah. Semenya made it in the “icons” category, while the other three are “titans.”

Two-time Olympic 400m hurdles champion Edwin Moses penned an essay about the two-time Olympic 800m champion Semenya, who is fighting a legal battle with the IAAF over a potential rule change limiting women’s testosterone levels in her events. If the rule goes into effect, Semenya’s dominance (three years undefeated at 800m) is expected to vanish.

“Caster Semenya has taught us that sex isn’t always binary, and caused us to question the justness of distributing societal benefits according to “male” and “female” classifications,” Moses wrote. “Ultimately, this incredibly difficult issue is a political one for sport to resolve. But however it is addressed, Semenya will have already made a singular historical contribution to our understanding of biological sex.”

Here are Olympians and Paralympians on past Time 100 lists, counting only athletes who competed in the Games before being listed:

2018 — Kevin Durant, Roger Federer, Chloe Kim, Adam Rippon
2017 — Simone Biles, LeBron James, Neymar
2016 — Usain BoltCaitlyn JennerKatie LedeckySania MirzaRonda Rousey
2015 — Abby Wambach
2014 — Cristiano Ronaldo, Serena Williams
2013 — LeBron James, Li Na, Lindsey Vonn
2012 — Novak DjokovicLionel MessiOscar Pistorius
2011 — Lionel Messi
2010 — Yuna KimSerena Williams
2009 — Rafael Nadal
2008 — Andre Agassi, Lance Armstrong, Oscar Pistorius
2007 — Roger FedererChien Ming-Wang
2006 — Joey CheekSteve Nash
2005 — LeBron James
2004 — Lance Armstrong, Paula Radcliffe, Yao Ming
2000 (20th Century) — Muhammad Ali

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