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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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FIFA rules on Olympic men’s soccer tournament age eligibility

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For the first time since 1988, some 24-year-olds will be eligible for the Olympic men’s soccer tournament without using an over-age exception.

FIFA announced Friday that it will use the same age eligibility criteria for the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 that it intended to use in 2020 — that players born on or after Jan. 1, 1997 are eligible, plus three over-age exceptions. FIFA chose not to move the birthdate deadline back a year after the Olympics were postponed by one year.

Olympic men’s soccer tournaments have been U-23 events — save those exceptions — since the 1992 Barcelona Games. In 1984 and 1988, restrictions kept European and South American players with World Cup experience ineligible. Before that, professionals weren’t allowed at all.

Fourteen of the 16 men’s soccer teams already qualified for the Games using players from under-23 national teams. The last two spots are to be filled by CONCACAF nations, potentially the U.S. qualifying a men’s team for the first time since 2008.

The U.S.’ biggest star, Christian Pulisic, and French superstar Kylian Mbappe were both born in 1998 and thus would have been under the age limit even if FIFA moved the deadline to Jan. 1, 1998.

Perhaps the most high-profile player affected by FIFA’s decision is Brazilian forward Gabriel Jesus. The Manchester City star was born April 3, 1997, and thus would have become an over-age exception if FIFA pushed the birthdate rule back a year.

Instead, Brazil could name him to the Olympic team and still keep all of its over-age exceptions.

However, players need permission from their professional club teams to play in the Olympics, often limiting the availability of stars.

MORE: Noah Lyles details training near woods, dog walkers

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Jenny Thompson’s new team is on the front line fighting coronavirus

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Two weeks ago, Jenny Thompson, the 12-time Olympic swimming medalist turned anesthesiologist, told close friends about the worrisome situation at her hospital in Charleston, S.C.

Thompson and her perioperative team of 40 or 50 were stressed that they would not have the most effective personal protective equipment (PPE) for when the coronavirus pandemic peaks there, projected to be later this month.

The messages caused fellow former Stanford swimmers and Olympic teammates Gabrielle Rose and Lea Maurer to act.

“She almost never asks for any sort of help or support,” Maurer said. “She’s Herculean in her ability to take on life and all its challenges.”

Rose and Maurer started a GoFundMe titled “Go Jenny Go” on March 22 for help to purchase PPE for the hospital. At the time, critical care doctors were “scrambling to piece together purchases on their own in anticipation of their high risk patients,” Maurer wrote.

Thompson said the PPE situation is better now. The GoFundMe was suspended Wednesday. Future support is directed to help those in New York City. Thompson specifically noted a GoFundMe for NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and the COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund.

More than $9,000 was raised in less than two weeks. Also, the hospital started receiving more PPE on its own. Thompson’s team now feels prepared for what’s to come.

“People were responding and donating from all chapters of my life,” Thompson said by phone Thursday. “People I didn’t even know. Family from USA Swimming and international swimming. It’s really touched me to know that so many people care and are able to donate, help share the message.”

Thompson woke at 4 a.m. several days this week with thoughts of her peers in New York City. Healthcare workers there have cited a lack of PPE in putting their own lives at risk while they fight to save others. Some have contracted the virus.

“We’ve been fortunate [in South Carolina]. I feel lucky,” Thompson said. “We’ll definitely be in a place where we’re taking care of a lot of Covid patients, but we’re not there yet.

“I’ve heard people say, people in healthcare knew what they were signing up for. I never signed up to get sick and potentially die from this job. I always assumed that I would have the protection or the supplies needed to help me do my job, and that’s been a real struggle nationwide.”

Thompson went to medical school in New York at Columbia University starting in 2001.

“I’d been there maybe a couple weeks at Columbia, when 9/11 happened,” she said. “I remember feeling very helpless as a first-year medical student. I wanted to help so badly, but there really wasn’t much I could do. All my classmates felt the same way. I’ve always had that as part of the making of me as a doctor, having to go through crisis, but I never imagined a pandemic. I guess some people prepare for this sort of thing their whole life, but I didn’t.”

The term “front lines” has been applied to healthcare workers around the globe. Thompson said it’s apt at her hospital.

“We definitely have Covid here, but we have not had a major outbreak like some other cities,” she said. “We consider every patient who we give general anesthesia and intubate to be a potential risk. As anesthesia providers and people who intubate the airway, we are on the front line. We are at a much higher risk of getting sick without the right PPE.”

Thompson’s team feels more ready for the peak with every passing day. They’re simulating, donning and doffing and scheduling to work longer shifts starting next week. The preparation extends home, where she has a husband and three children.

“I have, like, four different pairs of shoes,” Thompson said. “I spray my socks with fabric disinfectant. I take them off in the car, and then I put on flip-flops. Then when I get home, I shower and put my clothes in the wash immediately. It’s a strange place to be, but just consider everything I touch to be contaminated in an effort to protect myself.”

Both Rose and Maurer still see in Thompson that swimmer who awed them in college. As Thompson trained to become the most decorated female U.S. Olympian in history, she studied at Stanford and then Columbia to become a doctor.

“I knew I wanted to take care of critically ill patients,” she said.

As a swimmer, Thompson was known as the ultimate teammate. Eight Olympic gold medals in relays, often an anchor. Always there. Dependable.

“She knows that she’s going to make a difference,” Maurer said. “She knows that she’s going to achieve that goal. She knows that she’s going to help to make people better. And so she does it.”

Thompson believes the next few weeks will be unlike anything she’s ever faced.

“Everybody was sort of freaking out in the beginning and feeling very stressed, and I think that at some level has not gone away,” she said. “That’s going to stay with us, but we have a we-can-do-this-together fighting mentality that we are leaning on each other for. It’s really no different than being a part of any kind of team.”