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Four Continents Reporter’s Notebook: Can a single HD camera provide accurate replays?

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Vincent Zhou will work as hard as it takes to ensure all of his jumps are consistent and fully rotated – “Every session, every day, every minute” – if necessary, he said on Thursday.

And he made headway here at the 2019 Four Continents Figure Skating Championships in Anaheim, Calif.: the U.S. silver medalist led after a clean short program, including a quadruple Lutz combination and quad Salchow.

But under-rotations crept back into Zhou’s free skate on Saturday. Three jumps, including the quad Salchow and toe loop, were saddled with a “<” on the scorecard, meaning that the technical panel saw them as at least a quarter-turn short of the required four rotations in the air and sliced some 30 percent of their base value. Another six jumps, including quad Lutz – the most difficult – and two triple Axels, were deemed fully rotated.

Zhou’s program to the “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” soundtrack was well-delivered, and he gained good scores on his spins and steps. His season’s best 172.04 points ranked him fifth in the free and he won the bronze medal with 272.22 points.

“The more I show consistency, I guess, the less scrutiny I’ll get,” the 18-year-old said. “But that’ll take a lot of hard work on my side and not blaming others for giving me bad calls.”

Japan’s Shoma Uno won his first Four Continents title with 289.12 points after a spectacular free skate that earned 197.36 points, the highest ISU free skate score ever recorded under the +5/-5 GOE system. Defending champion Jin Boyang of China was second with 273.51 points. U.S. bronze medalist Jason Brown was fourth in the free skate and fifth overall with 258.89 points.

Zhou wasn’t the only competitor to be saddled with under rotation calls on Saturday. South Korea’s Junhwan Cha, second in the short program, had five under rotation calls to place eighth in the free skate and drop to sixth place overall.

Christy Krall, one of Zhou’s coaches in Colorado Springs, Colo., agrees Zhou must continue to work hard for consistency. Still, she thinks many skaters –  not just Zhou – have fallen victim to bad calls from technical panels.

“If you can’t really see the truth, how can you call the truth?” Krall said. “If you are going to measure it, measure it with the best piece of equipment you can.”

Krall, a 1964 Olympian and former coach of three-time world champion Patrick Chan, believes the ISU must invest in better equipment to ensure technical panels have the high-quality replay footage they need to review skaters’ jumps.

“They are not using the proper equipment to measure these drastic calls that can make or break your career,” Krall said. “They need to find the tool that is accurate and not some mystery, because skaters’ lives depends on this.”

The ISU employs Swiss Timing personnel to operate a single HD video camera on the right side of the judging panels’ front-row seats. When technical panel members need replays, they are provided video taken by this camera. Since this replay footage is not available to broadcasters, fans watching via live stream or television are seeing footage filmed by different cameras, from multiple angles.

George Rossano, an aerospace scientist by trade who is also a U.S. judge and technical panel data replay operator, agrees with Krall: the current equipment is too outdated to help technical panels accurately call jumps.

“If a panel isn’t sure, they say, ‘Well, we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt,’” Rossano, who operates the figure skating website iceskatingintnl.com, said. “But if you give that skater points they don’t deserve, you punish everybody else, especially if they are going to call quads.”

Why doesn’t the ISU invest in higher resolution cameras? Could be the cost. Purchasing cutting-edge equipment with higher time and spatial resolution for use at ISU Championships, Grand Prix events and ISU Challenger events could run hundreds of thousands of dollars.

There are counter arguments. Every skater’s jumps, including those who are rarely called under rotated, are filmed by the same HD cameras. And coaches should be careful what they wish for: higher-speed equipment could, in certain cases, expose additional weaknesses in jumps, including rarely called pre-rotations.

Krall, though, says accuracy is paramount.

“If they’re going to measure the sport, they better get the equipment that they can measure it with,” she reasoned. “From the time you can see the toe touch (the ice) to the time it turns around, if you don’t have the right equipment, you’re not going to make the right call. Higher-speed cameras, period, end of conversation. They’ve got the cameras out there to measure things properly.”

Four Continents reporter’s notebook: Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3

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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2021 Burton U.S. Open snowboarding event canceled

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The Burton U.S. Open, snowboarding’s most storied event, canceled its 2021 competition due to uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.

“The truth is, we just can’t be sure it will be safe from a public health standpoint for us to host the event in 2021,” a statement read.

The U.S. Open, held since 1982, is usually around the first weekend in March, making it the season-ending event for many riders. Halfpipe champions include Shaun WhiteChloe KimKelly Clark and Ross Powers, who also earned Olympic gold medals.

Other 2020-21 winter sports events affected by the coronavirus pandemic include figure skating’s Junior Grand Prix. The first two stops of that eight-event series, scheduled for late August and early September in Canada and Slovakia, have been canceled.

The Italian Winter Sports Federation, which is due to put on the February 2021 World Alpine Skiing Championships in Cortina d’Ampezzo, made a formal request on Monday to postpone the event until March 2022, one month after the next Winter Olympics in Beijing. The International Ski Federation (FIS) council will decide July 1.

MORE: Takeaways from abbreviated 2019-20 winter sports season

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Kara Eaker eschews fear, back on balance beam to resume Olympic quest

Kara Eaker
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Kara Eaker hasn’t qualified for an Olympics yet, but she is already part of a historic club of U.S. gymnasts. The list goes, most recently, Eaker, Simone BilesKyla RossAly RaismanNastia LiukinShawn JohnsonShannon Miller and Dominique Dawes.

Those are the women who qualified for back-to-back balance beam finals at the sport’s highest level: Olympics or world championships. For Eaker (pronounced like acre), they came in her first two years as a senior gymnast in 2018 and 2019 (Biles and Johnson are the only other U.S. women to do that in the last 25 years.)

This was supposed to be Eaker’s Olympic year, but the coronavirus pandemic postponed the Games to 2021, after her Missouri high school graduation. It also kept her out of the gym for nearly two months until the GAGE Center reopened last week in Blue Springs, near Kansas City.

It was the longest Eaker had been off a regulation beam (and out of the gym) since she could remember. She began competing at age 5.

Eaker’s mom, Katherine, said her daughter never feared the four-inch-wide beam, but Eaker said the thought of returning last week “was definitely kind of scary at first.” That is, until one of her coaches eased her back with basics and work on a floor beam, one that’s not raised as high as the four feet you see in competition.

“By the time we were ready, and she was comfortable putting us back up there, it wasn’t scary,” Eaker said. “It felt normal.”

Eaker, adopted from a Chinese orphanage around age 1 in 2003 (her parents’ travel then delayed by SARS), excels on the senior elite stage with a level of normalcy.

Which is not entirely normal in this sport. She lives with her family, 10 minutes from her world-class gym. She still attends regular high school. She’s committed to continue gymnastics at the University of Utah after the Tokyo Olympics.

“I started out in dance, actually,” said Eaker, whose hobbies include robotics and calligraphy. “A little, little girl with the stuffed animal, twirling around in the dance room. And then we had our little recital and I just wasn’t … I couldn’t do the standing in front of an audience kind of thing.”

Her mom believes it was around Christmas. Eaker was 3 or 4.

“She just froze like a deer in the headlights, and all the other girls froze, too, because they were used to following her,” Katherine said. “Then she tried gymnastics. We had to drag her out [of the gym]. From then on, it was always, she’s first one in, last one out. Still is.”

The family, including Eaker’s father, Mark, retired Navy and a flight engineer, and younger sister, Sara, moved three times within Missouri in part to get Kara closer to GAGE to pursue what would eventually become an Olympic dream.

Gymnastics meets were appointment TV before Eaker entered kindergarten. She watched the Beijing Olympics, or perhaps an even earlier meet, while dancing around the living room in a leotard. Sometimes she mimicked the gold medalists by doing back bends. She continued to watch Beijing highlights, with Liukin and Johnson, on replay on YouTube.

Back at the gym, Eaker developed with the help of her coaches, plus future University of Nebraska gymnast Catelyn Orel, her “gym mom” under the GAGE program to pair older and younger athletes. Orel was a state champion on beam. Eaker proved a natural, too.

“A lot of the girls would get up there and have trouble balancing, but she just always seemed to do it just like she was on the floor,” her mom said. “She’s never really had a fear. Some girls get up there and are nervous. She just never seemed to be that way.”

In 2018, Eaker was 15, old enough to start competing on the senior level with the likes of Biles. Exactly 10 years after she would have watched Johnson win the Beijing Olympic beam title, Eaker finished second on beam at nationals behind Biles. She was invited to the world championships team selection camp, where she had the top beam score and placed sixth in the all-around. Six gymnasts would be chosen by a committee to travel to the world championships.

Eaker didn’t expect to make the team. In a large meeting with coaches and staff, the roster was announced. Eaker made it as the youngest member.

“It was a goal, but there were so many other girls and it was my first year as a senior,” she said. “I was very happy and surprised to make that team.”

Eaker again won beam at the 2019 World Championships selection camp. If Eaker endured adversity those first two years, it came at worlds.

In 2018, she fell on her mount in the beam final. The rest of her routine was medal-worthy gymnastics. She waited an eternal three minutes for her score, which placed her sixth. Eaker’s routine from the team final earlier that week would have earned silver.

In 2019, Eaker again qualified for the eight-woman beam final. The U.S. federation submitted an inquiry on her qualifying score, contesting a lower start value given to her. That backfired. Judges lowered Eaker’s score even more upon review, which took her out of the final. However, another gymnast who had qualified later withdrew due to injury. Eaker was back in the final, where she placed fourth.

She was asked afterward what she would take away from the meet.

“Just the experience of it all,” she said, composed. “How it makes me feel. How to use that [in the future].”

In 2021, Eaker will have to prove to a selection committee that she can be reliable on all four apparatuses. The Olympic team event size is four — with three gymnasts going per apparatus in the Olympic final — down from five in 2016, putting a greater emphasis on the all-around. Eaker could also be a candidate for one separate spot in individual events only.

“I definitely want to be seen as a great beam worker, but I also need to be a great all-arounder because they’re going to be looking at not just your one event,” said Eaker, who was third in the all-around at the 2019 Worlds selection camp. “You have to be able to benefit the team with your other events, even if they aren’t as strong as your [best] one.”

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