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Four Continents Reporter’s Notebook Day 2: Vincent Zhou’s under-rotation thoughts; catching up with Alysa Liu

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Under-rotation calls – the dreaded “<” from technical panels – give skaters and their coaches fits. They’ve certainly been on Vincent Zhou’s mind this season.

“Every session, every day, every minute,” a smiling Zhou said at the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships on Thursday, when asked if he’s been working to avoid them.

Quick primer: quadruple jumps have four rotations; triple Axels, three and a half. If the final rotation is a quarter-turn or more short, it is reduced to 70 percent of its base value and saddled with a < on the judging sheet. Almost every skater in the world has lost points by way under rotations this season.

Zhou’s fixation paid off: his clean program, with jumps including a quadruple lutz-triple toe loop combination, quad Salchow and triple Axel, leads the Anaheim, Calif. event with 100.18 points heading into Saturday’s free skate.

“I was happy with how I skated, not really much more to say,” Zhou said, before flipping back to self-critical mode.

“I just felt satisfied with my performance, my jumps, almost everything except for the flying camel and triple Axel,” he added. “Those could have been better.”

Under rotations cost the U.S. silver medalist some points at Skate America and NHK Trophy. They followed him to the Tallinn Trophy in Estonia in late November and he had a few at the 2019 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit, Mich. last month.

But as Zhou said before the U.S. Championships, “Honestly, I know that people now have an eagle eye on my jump landings, but that doesn’t really bother me too much.”

Philosophical and determined – and avoiding social media chatter on the topic – the 18-year-old just wants to fix things.

“There’s not really one thing I can specifically state helps,” Zhou said. “It’s just been focusing on improving it. I believe regardless of what it is, if you work on it over time, it will get better. There’s no magical correction, it’s thinking about ways to improve it.”

Zhou’s longtime coach, Tammy Gambill, gets a bit more specific.

“A lot of tightness, technique tweaks, pattern tweaks,” said Gambill, who trains Zhou in Colorado Springs alongside Tom Zakrajsek and Christy Krall. “Just trying to keep things tighter in the air. It’s a process, going back to singles, doubles, triples. We’re working on the basics of the landings, making them better than they have been.”

Zhou isn’t out of the woods (or <’s) yet. He’s less than three points ahead of South Korea’s Junhwan Cha. China’s Jin Boyang and Japan’s Shoma Uno, who sit third and fourth respectively, made mistakes in their short programs but have the ability to make up a lot of ground.

But those back-to-basics training sessions in Colorado Springs aren’t just producing higher jumps; they’re producing confidence.

“I’ve been I thinking, it’s just been the more I train like this, the more good muscle memory you have and the more confident you become,” Zhou said. “I started realizing I’m actually able to put out good performances. I knew I was able to do this.”

Waiting is not so hard for Liu

If Alysa Liu feels overwhelmed by all of the attention she’s receiving since winning the U.S. title in Detroit last month, she sure isn’t showing it.

“I never thought I would be on TODAY, or Jimmy Fallon’s show,” she said at Anaheim’s Honda Center on Thursday. “It’s really fun. They’re all really nice.”

The triple Axel-wielding 13-year-old’s biggest preoccupations at the moment include her new dog, a terrier mix; learning Mandarin Chinese; and visiting Disneyland next weekend, where she plans to ride the Guardians of Galaxy rollercoaster.

“I also spend time with my friends. I do still get to do what normal teens do,” Liu, a home-schooled ninth grader, said.

“I don’t get to go to normal school. I don’t get to eat junk a lot, maybe once in a while,” she added. “I also don’t get to have sleepovers every single day like some people do, but not too bad. Mainly it’s because I have to train and travel so much.”

Liu won’t be traveling to Japan for the upcoming world championships in March. Skaters must have turned 15 by July 1 of the preceding year to be eligible for senior ISU competitions. Born Aug. 8, 2005, Liu won’t be eligible to enter them until the 2021-22 season; she is too young, even, for the 2019 World Junior Figure Skating Championships. She will be eligible for Junior Worlds next season.

“Time goes by fast,” she shrugged.

The waiting doesn’t seem hard for Liu, who traveled from her home in the Bay area to Anaheim to learn and observe. She performed her competitive short program, set to “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” in the event’s opening ceremony and watched U.S. teammates Bradie Tennell and Mariah Bell place first and third, respectively, in the short program.

“It’s really fun to watch,” she said, adding, “(Tennell and Bell) skated so well. I’m so happy for them.”

With no big competitions in the offing until she debuts on the Junior Grand Prix next season, Liu has time practice new things on the ice. The primary goal, said both the skater and her coach, Laura Lipetsky, is to improve her skating skills. Learning quads, particularly Lutz and Salchow, is also on the menu.

“I wish to get some quads before I compete next season, but mainly I want to improve everything,” she said. “I haven’t worked on (quads) in a while because I was focusing on triple Axel.”

“I tried a quad (Lutz) at regionals, and I fell,” she added. “Not so great. It was under (rotated). I’m going to start working on it soon again.”

Another young teenager, Russia’s Alexandra Trusova, has landed quad Lutz and toe loop in competition. Trusova, along with teammates Alena Kanysheva and Alena Kostornaia, took all three medals at the Junior Grand Prix Final this season.

“(The Russians) are more my inspiration right now, I can’t compete against them so I’m really looking up to them,” Liu said. “Hopefully I get to compete against them at junior worlds (next season).”

There are no guarantees. Other recent prodigies, including Russia’s Julia Lipnitskaia, have made big splashes on the international scene only to retire from competition while still teenagers. It’s hard to predict whether young skaters will continue to maintain and grow skills as they move into adulthood.

For now, though, neither Liu nor Lipetsky is worried.

“We’re taking it one day at a time, trying to work hard and improve the technique,” Lipetsky said. “(She is) trying to become a better skater.”

MORE: How to watch Four Continents

As a reminder, you can watch Four Continents and the world 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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Tommy Ford ends U.S. men’s World Cup drought at Beaver Creek

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Tommy Ford earned his first World Cup win at age 30 and ended the U.S. men’s longest victory and podium droughts in two decades.

Ford won the giant slalom in Beaver Creek, Colo., on Sunday, the last North American race on tour this season. He prevailed by eight tenths of a second combining times over two runs.

Norwegians Henrik Kristoffersen and Leif Kristian Nestvold-Haugen were second and third. American Ted Ligety, fourth after the opening run, finished 11th.

Full results are here.

Ford became the first U.S. man to win a World Cup since Travis Ganong took a downhill on Jan. 27, 2017. He also became the first U.S. male podium finisher since Ligety in January 2018. Both were the longest droughts for the program since the late 1990s.

Ford, a 2010 and 2018 Olympian who missed the 2014 Olympics due to a broken femur, had been working toward this moment.

He finished a World Cup career-high fourth at the season-opening giant slalom in Soelden, Austria, on Oct. 27. Last season, the Oregon native and former Dartmouth student had a pair of fifths.

The men’s World Cup moves to Val d’Isere, France, next weekend for a giant slalom and slalom.

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Katie Ledecky wins race by 30 seconds, takes back No. 1 ranking

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In her last race of the year, Katie Ledecky ensured she would finish 2019 as the world’s fastest 1500m freestyler.

Ledecky clocked 15:35.98 at the U.S. Open in Atlanta, winning the longest event on the Olympic pool program by 29.97 seconds. Typical for Ledecky, who owns the nine fastest times in history. This one came in at No. 8. Full meet results are here.

Ledecky scratched the 1500m free final at the summer world championships due to illness. Italian Simona Quadarella went on to win that title in 15:40.89, which was the world’s fastest time this year until Saturday night.

“I didn’t have time on my mind at all today. I just wanted to have a consistent swim,” Ledecky, undefeated in 1500m free finals for nine years, said on NBCSN. “That’s probably the best mile that I’ve had in a while.”

The women’s 1500m freestyle debuts at the Olympics in Tokyo. Ledecky is expected to add that to her Rio Olympic individual lineup of 200m, 400m and 800m frees, assuming she is top two in each event at the June Olympic trials.

In other events Saturday, Erika Brown handed Simone Manuel a rare defeat in the 100m freestyle. Brown, a University of Tennessee senior, clocked 53.42 and lowered her personal best by .71 between prelims and the final. Brown moved from sixth to fourth in the U.S. rankings this year, upping her stock as a contender to make the Olympic 4x100m free relay pool via a top-six finish at trials.

Brown previously lowered her personal best in the 50m free on Thursday. She ranks third in the U.S. this year in that event.

Emily Escobedo dealt Lilly King a rare domestic defeat in the 200m breaststroke. Escobedo lowered her personal best by .87 and clocked 2:22.00, moving to seventh fastest in the world this year and remaining fourth among Americans.

In the men’s 200m breast, Olympic champion Dmitriy Balandin of Kazakhstan was beaten by Cody Miller, the Olympic 100m breast silver medalist. Both were slower than their best times this year.

The next significant swim meet is a Tyr Pro Series stop in Knoxville, Tenn., from Jan. 16-19.

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