Four Continents Reporter’s Notebook Day 3: Analyzing the ladies’ standings flip-flop

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That hoary old saying – “You can’t win a competition with a good short program, but you can lose it with a bad one” – proved only half-true on Friday night at the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships in Anaheim, Calif.

None of the four leaders after the short wound up on the podium. Rika Kihira, fifth in the short after popping her triple Axel, leapfrogged over Eunsoo Lim, Mariah Bell, Kaori Sakamoto and Bradie Tennell to win her first Four Continents title. Elizabet Tursynbaeva climbed from sixth place to win silver. Mai Mihara, eighth after the short, claimed bronze.

Then there’s the way the results flipped.

For Kihira, it included a lot of improvisation: she arrived in Anaheim wearing a new boot on her left foot, and an old boot on her right foot.

“I felt my old boots were too soft so I tried a lot of things,” the Japanese skater said through an interpreter.  “I tried changing both boots, and then I decided to just change the left boot. Three days after I did this I was quite comfortable.”

The popped Axel cost her at least eight points in the short on Thursday, just as it did earlier this season at Grand Prix France. So in Friday’s free skate, she improvised again: After hitting a stellar opening triple Axel, she changed a planned second triple Axel to a double Axel-triple toe combination.

Four Continents reporter’s notebook: Day 1 | Day 2

“During the short, I was not comfortable with my triple Axel on this rink,” Kihira said, echoing the concerns several skaters here voiced about the NHL-size surface. “I decided in the warm-up whether I would do one or two (triple Axels). I had not enough practice at the main rink, and I decided to play it safe in the program and did only one triple Axel.”

Kihira’s 153.14 point free skate, which gave her the win with 221.99 total points, wasn’t surprising; she has scored higher than that this season. Tursynbaeva’s 139.37 point free skate in Anaheim, though, far eclipsed her efforts in her two Grand Prix events.

The Kazakh skater chose Friday night to try her first-ever quadruple Salchow in competition. No lady has ever landed a quad in an international senior event.

Tursynbaeva landed the quad in practices here and in the six-minute warm-up, but fell on a fully-rotated attempt in her program. Despite a long-standing hip injury, she didn’t let it rattle her, going on to land seven triples including a triple Salchow-triple toe loop combination.

“I started working on quad Salchow a long time ago, and then I stopped because of the (hip) injury,” she said. “Now I was feeling physically ready and my coach [Eteri Tutberidze] helped me to start working on the jump. A few weeks ago I was able to land it and try to put the jump in the program. I think that’s a great start. It was my coaches’ idea. They believe that I can do it.”

Mihara arrived in Anaheim with something to prove. A fourth-place finish at the Japanese Figure Skating Championships in late December left her off of her country’s world team.

A sleepless night after her eighth-place short helped snap her out of a funk created by her subpar short, and she was relaxed and confident during her near-perfect free skate, which was second only to Kihira’s. She ended with 207.12 points, edging out Sakamoto – who defeated her at the Japanese Championships, thus winning a place at worlds – by less than half a point.

“I switched to a positive mindset after the practice (on Friday),” Mihara said. “Last season, there were a lot of cases when I made mistakes in short, but I got better in free. This is my weakness. That made me nervous. I should improve my weakness.”

And then there’s the flip side of the equation.

Four under rotation calls cost Tennell big in her free skate, as did popping her opening triple Lutz-triple loop combination into a triple-single. The U.S. silver medalist was clearly irked by her performance in the mixed zone.

“It seems I only mess up my Lutz-loop during competition,” Tennell said. “I’m really frustrated about that. I have no words, because it’s so frustrating. So just go back home, work things out, work harder to train for worlds.”

Tennell removed the triple Lutz-triple loop combination from her short earlier this season, replacing it with Lutz-toe. She has kept it as the opening jump element of her free skate.

When asked whether the combination should be removed, Tennell replied, “I would love to keep it in there for Worlds, because I know I can do it. I do it every day.”

As to the under-rotation calls, Tennell admitted she “felt shaky” during the program.

“I have to agree with the judges calls, go home, work harder and train smarter,” she said.

The moment Bell stepped off of the ice after her free skate, which included a rare fall on a triple loop and reducing a planned triple Lutz to a double, her coach Rafael Arutunian expressed dissatisfaction.

“There was not enough speed,” Arutunian said about her entrance to the Lutz. “You understand, you have to go (into it) from steps.”

Bell told reporters she planned to rest for a few days, then return to her Southern California rink to train hard with Arutunian for the upcoming world championships.

“There were silly mistakes today. My mind kind of got away from me,” Bell said. “I was surprised by the fall on the (triple) loop and then I kind of had a hard time re-focusing after that. You live and learn and Worlds will be better.”

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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Ilia Malinin’s quadruple Axel sheds light on first figure skater to land triple Axel

Vern Taylor
Vern Taylor, the first figure skater to land a triple Axel in competition. (Getty Images)
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Vern Taylor arrived at the Riverside Skating Club in Windsor, Ontario, on Sept. 15 to do what he has done at that rink for the last three decades: coach figure skaters. But this day was different.

Taylor, who in 1978 became the first man to land a ratified triple Axel in competition, was told that 17-year-old American Ilia Malinin performed the first quadruple Axel the previous night.

“When we heard that he landed it, I said, ‘Oh my goodness, that’s terrific,'” Taylor said by phone.

He was then shown video of Malinin’s feat.

“Anything’s possible,” Taylor said. “43 years [later], that’s something. It’s knowing that you can perform the jump that makes it challenging.”

Malinin, the world junior champion, landed the most difficult jump in skating and checked off the only remaining quad yet to be performed.

At the 1978 World Championships in Ottawa, a 20-year-old Taylor broke through a similar barrier in hitting the last remaining unchecked triple jump. But while Malinin’s senior career seems to be just getting started, and many medals appear in his future, Taylor is largely a forgotten man outside of ardent figure skating followers.

He finished 12th at those 1978 World Championships. Taylor’s 1980 Olympic prospects were dimmed by the fact that Canada had just one men’s singles spot, and he had taken runner-up at nationals in 1978 and 1979 to Brian Pockar, who also outscored Taylor at those years’ world championships. So Taylor stopped competing a year before the Lake Placid Games.

“I didn’t have a reason,” he said. “I just decided to take a break.”

Taylor will always have that day at the world championships in Ottawa. He can still remember the nervousness, knowing that two other skaters also planned to attempt a triple Axel. They were unsuccessful, though Taylor didn’t know it.

“I didn’t see their jumps,” he said. “I didn’t want to know what was ahead of me.”

American David Jenkins landed a triple Axel in Movietone newsreel footage reported to be from 1957, but that was not in competition.

Taylor, skating to music from “Rocky,” put the triple Axel as the third jump of his program, according to reports at the time. The one YouTube video of it, published two years ago, has 32,000 views. It shows Taylor landing the three-and-a-half revolution jump on one foot and spinning out of it while managing to stay on that single skate blade amid a crowd roar.

“During that program, it was like a rock concert,” Taylor said. “I got the energy from the audience.”

The Montreal Gazette reported at the time that the jump was ratified three hours later. Italian Sonia Bianchetti, the men’s referee at the 1978 Worlds, said she met with the assistant referee, the ISU president and a technical delegate.

“During this short meeting it was recognized that Vern had completed the first triple Axel Paulsen jump [Norwegian Axel Paulsen was the skater who landed the first Axel jump in 1882, getting it named after him] in an officially recognized figure skating competition,” she wrote in an email last month. “The triple Axel was fully rotated and landed on one foot.”

One of the people inside the Ottawa Civic Centre that day was 16-year-old Canadian Brian Orser. Orser, inspired by Taylor, later became synonymous with the jump — labeled “Mr. Triple Axel” and landing it en route to silver medals at the Olympics in 1984 and 1988 and the 1987 World title.

Orser remembered Taylor visiting his skating club for an exhibition. Orser saw Taylor doing an Axel takeoff exercise off the ice, incorporated it into his own routine and began teaching it to his skaters after becoming a coach.

Yet another Canadian, Kurt Browning, was the first man to land a ratified quadruple jump of any kind in competition — a toe loop at the 1988 World Championships.

“For me, personally, it was huge,” he said, “because I was promised a car if I could land it.”

Through an agreement with an Edmonton car dealership, Browning was handed the keys to a Quattro — quad/Quattro — after hitting the toe loop. The skater was unaware that the dealer was merely leasing it to him. About six months later, Browning received a call asking to bring the car back.

Browning was inspired by American Brian Boitano, whom he previously saw land a quad outside of competition. Taylor motivated him, too.

“[Taylor] gave me permission, even at a young age, to start thinking bigger,” he said.

Browning also pointed to Jozef Sabovčík, a 1980s skater for then-Czechoslovakia who many believe was the first man to land a quad in competition, Browning included. Sabovčík was initially given credit for a quad toe loop at the 1986 European Championships, but weeks later it was invalidated because he touched down with his free foot, according to reports.

“I never want to come off as arrogant, but despite what ISU [International Skating Union] decided in the end, I do know that I landed the jump on that day,” Sabovčík, who said he performed a quad jump on his birthdays through age 44, wrote in an email. “The fact that most of the people in the skating world believe the same thing, it means everything to me that Kurt is one of them. It would have been nice to have my name in the Guinness Book of Records, but I am also not trying to change history.”

Sabovčík, now 58 and coaching in Salt Lake City, attended March’s world championships in Montpellier, France, where Malinin finished ninth. There, he spoke with Malinin’s parents, Russian-born Uzbek Olympic skaters Tatyana Malinina and Roman Skornyakov, whom he calls friends.

“They told me that he was already doing a quad Axel on a fishing pole harness [in practice], and that it was coming,” Sabovčík said.

Less than two months after that talk, the first video surfaced of Malinin landing a clean quad Axel — at a U.S. Figure Skating jump camp.

“I did not think [a quad Axel] was possible,” Sabovčík said. “It really has to be an athlete that can combine the technical ability with jumping ability with the speed of rotation. When Kurt and I jumped, we had a relatively speaking slow rotation, but we jumped really big compared to these kids. But Ilia, he has the vertical lift, but he [also] has an unbelievably fast rotation.”

The recent proliferation of quads in men’s and women’s skating can be attributed to several factors, including better boots, better ice conditions and improvements in technology that can aid coaching. Still, there are concerns about if and how the pounding of training quads can wear down a skater physically.

“It’s a lot of pain you don’t feel at first, but you know it comes later,” said Frenchwoman Surya Bonaly, who started training a quad in 1989 and attempting it through the mid-1990s. Bonaly had two hip surgeries after her competitive career.

Even Taylor faced those questions.

“People said, ‘Aren’t you worried about injuring yourself?'” he said. “I would say, ‘No, I want you to know it can be done.'”

Sabovčík never tried a quad Axel in his skating days, but Browning did for less than a week in the early 1990s after winning four consecutive world titles.

“Just playing with it,” said Browning, who never tried it in competition. “Ilia has that special ability to not only get up in the air, but then he has that beautiful rotation that doesn’t look hurried. It’s fast, it’s quick as lightning, but it doesn’t look hurried. It’s so easy. Like a good golfer swings easy, and the ball goes 400 yards.”

Browning recalled a conversation he had with two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu, who in recent years made the quad Axel his quest. Hanyu attempted it in competition last season but did not land it cleanly before retiring in July. He said upon retirement that he still hoped to master the jump for his non-competitive show career.

“I asked Yuzu one day, ‘When you do quad Axel, does it just feel like you’re up there forever?'” Browning said. “And he kind of looked at me funny, and he goes, ‘Yeah, like it never ends.'”

The skating world awaits the reserved Hanyu’s thoughts on Malinin’s quad.

“Knowing Yuzu, I would think he’d be very supportive,” said Orser, who coached Hanyu for nearly a decade. “He appreciates that kind of athleticism.”

Orser also noted what comes with being the first — and so far only — skater to land a rarefied jump. Malinin, who headlines Skate America in two weeks, will be asked about the quad Axel in just about every interview for the foreseeable future. For some skaters, they may feel a responsibility to land it all the time.

“But I don’t think [Malinin] thinks too much about it,” Orser said. “His technique is perfect, so he’ll be fine.”

The inevitable topic after that is the next progression in skating: the first quintuple jump. Orser said that Hanyu did five-rotation Salchows in practice with the aid of a harness.

“It’s just a little bit more rotation than the quadruple Axel, so it’s not that far off,” said Sabovčík, whose unratified quad toe loop came eight years after Taylor’s triple Axel. “Now that I’ve seen the quad Axel, I don’t think it’s impossible.”

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Aleksandra Trusova splits from coach Eteri Tutberidze, months after Olympic tears

Alexandra Trusova, Eteri Tutberidze
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Olympic figure skating silver medalist Aleksandra Trusova reportedly split from coach Eteri Tutberidze‘s group, eight months after a tearful scene after the Olympic free skate.

Trusova, 18, will now be coached by Svetlana Sokolovskaya, according to Russian media reports dating to Saturday. All Russian skaters are ineligible to compete internationally indefinitely due to the national ban over the war in Ukraine, but Russia is still holding domestic events.

At the Beijing Winter Games, Trusova became the first woman to land five quadruple jumps in a free skate. She had the highest score that day, but it wasn’t enough to make up the gap to fellow Tutberidze pupil Anna Shcherbakova from the short program.

Moments after the competition ended, Trusova was seen crying and yelling at Sergey Dudakov, a member of Tutberidze’s coaching team.

“Everyone has a gold medal! Everyone has! Only I don’t! I hate figure skating! I hate! I will never step on the ice again! Never!” she said in Russian.

Shcherbakova had the individual gold, and the other Russian women’s singles skater at the Games, Kamila Valiyeva, skated both programs of the team event. The Russians placed first in the team event, but medals will not be awarded until Valiyeva’s doping case is adjudicated. It’s possible that Valiyeva gets retroactively disqualified, the Russian team gets disqualified and the other nations all move up with the U.S. going from silver to gold.

Trusova performed at the Russian test skates last month, withdrawing after her short program due to a back injury.

Trusova previously left Tutberidze in 2020 for two-time Olympic champion turned coach Yevgeny Plushenko‘s group, then moved back to Tutberidze’s group after the 2020-21 season.

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