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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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Cyclist in induced coma after Tour of Poland crash

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Dutch cyclist Fabio Jakobsen was put into an induced coma Wednesday after suffering injuries in a crash on the final stretch of the Tour of Poland, organizers said.

A massive crash at the finish of the first stage resulted in Dylan Groenewegen‘s disqualification from the race.

Leading a bunch sprint, Groenewegen veered toward the right barrier, pinching countryman Jakobsen, who barreled into the barrier meters from the finish line.

Jakobsen went head over heels, his bike went airborne and the barriers exploded onto the road, causing more cyclists to crash.

Jakobsen was airlifted to a hospital in serious condition and was put into an induced coma, the Tour de Pologne press office said.

Doctor Pawel Gruenpeter of the hospital in Sosnowiec said Jakobsen suffered injuries to the head and chest but that his condition was stable at the intensive care unit. Jakobsen will need surgery to his face and skull, Gruenpeter told state broadcaster TVP Sport.

Groenewegen crossed the finish line first but was disqualified, giving Jakobsen the stage win, according to the stage race website.

Groenewegen, a 27-year-old Jumbo-Visma rider, owns four Tour de France stage wins among the last three years.

The International Cycling Union (UCI) “strongly condemned” Groenewegen’s “dangerous” and “unacceptable” behavior. It referred Groenewegen’s actions to a disciplinary commission for possible sanctions.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Figure skating Grand Prix Series will be held as ‘domestic’ competitions

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Figure skating’s Grand Prix Series will go ahead as scheduled this fall, with modifications due to the coronavirus pandemic, the International Skating Union decided Monday.

Each of the series’ six tops around the globe will be “a domestic run event,” limited to skaters of the event’s host country, who regularly train in the host country and from a respective geographical area. The number of disciplines and skaters at each event are to be worked out.

The Grand Prix Series, held annually since 1995, is a six-event fall season, qualifying the top six skaters and teams per discipline to December’s Grand Prix Final. The annual stops are in the U.S., Canada, China, France, Russia and Japan, leading up to the Final, which is held at a different site each year.

The Final is the second-biggest annual competition after the world championships, which are typically in late March. The Final is still scheduled for Beijing, though whether or when it can be held will be discussed.

The series begins in late October with Skate America, which debuted in 1979 and has been held every year since 1988 as the biggest annual international competition in the U.S. Skate America’s site is Las Vegas, just as it was in 2019.

Skaters typically compete twice on the Grand Prix Series (three times if they qualify for the Final). ISU vice president Alexander Lakernik said skaters will be limited to one start in the six-event series before the Final, according to a Russian media quote confirmed by Phil Hersh.

The ISU has not confirmed or denied Lakernik’s assertion.

Most, if not all, top-level U.S. skaters train in the U.S. or Canada. That makes the first two Grand Prix stops — Skate America and Skate Canada — likely destinations. Grand Prix assignments have not been published.

“I appreciate the ISU is open to adapting competitive formats and is working to give athletes opportunities to compete,” Evan Bates, a U.S. ice dance champion with Madison Chock who trains in Montreal, wrote in a text message to Hersh. “This announcement gives reassurance that the ISU is doing their best to ensure a season will still take place. Of course, it’s hard to predict what will happen, and we’re not sure about what country we would compete in. It would probably depend on what the quarantine rules are at that time.”

The January 2021 U.S. Championships are scheduled for San Jose, Calif. The March 2021 World Championships are set for Stockholm.

In July, the ISU canceled the Junior Grand Prix Series for skaters mostly ages 13 to 18, including two-time U.S. champion Alysa Liu, who cannot enter the senior Grand Prix until 2021.

Other early season senior international competitions scheduled for September were also canceled or postponed.

U.S. Figure Skating said in a statement that it will have more details on the Grand Prix Series in the coming weeks after collaborating with an ISU-appointed group.

“This is a great example of the figure skating community coming together to ensure that the world’s premier figure skating series will continue during these challenging times,” the statement read. “Figure skaters want to compete and figure skating fans from all around the world want to see their favorite athletes skate, and this format will ensure just that.”

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