AP

Takeaways from Four Continents Championships

Leave a comment

Shoma Uno performs a record-setting free skate. Sui Wenjing and Han Cong return to competition. Rika Kihira continues her climb. Madison Chock and Evan Bates win their first title at an ISU Championships. 

Now that the 2019 Four Continents Figure Skating Championships, held in Anaheim, Calif. is in the books, here are some of the big takeaways:

Nathan Chen will need his A+ game to repeat as World champion. Japan’s Shoma Uno won his first Four Continents title and with the highest free score of the season, 197.36 points. (It’s also the highest free skate score ever, but various judging changes this season make it unfair to compare it to past seasons’ scores.)

Uno, who has struggled with multiple sprained ankles since the Japanese Championships in late December, landed three quads and two triple Axels in his “Moonlight Sonata” program in Anaheim. He could round into even better form for the 2019 World Figure Skating Championships in Saitama, Japan a month from now. Yuzuru Hanyu, troubled by an ankle ligament injury, was not in Anaheim. Japan’s two-time Olympic champion hasn’t competed since Rostelecom Cup in mid-November, but vows to compete in Saitama and try for a third world title.

Rika, Rika, Rika. Japan’s Rika Kihira confirmed her status as the odds-on favorite to win the ladies’ title at Worlds – not only because of her triple Axel and rapidly improving skating skills, but because of her strong mental game. The 16-year-old arrived in Anaheim with a new boot on her left foot, an old (and too soft) boot on her right foot, and mismatched blades: one was silver, one was gold. A fall on a triple Lutz in practice injured her left ring finger, causing considerable pain. Yet after popping her triple Axel into a single and placing fifth in the short program, she performed a clutch free skate to win the title. Kihira is undefeated in international competition this season, including wins at both of her Grand Prix events and the Grand Prix Final.

U.S. can earn two pairs’ spots for the 2020 World Championships. Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc performed two solid programs at Four Continents, and can increase their scores if they tweak a few elements to get higher levels. They have a good chance to crack the top 10 in Saitama, which would qualify the U.S. to enter two pairs the following season.

“Overall it’s going to take two really strong performances from us, to get those spots,” Cain said. “We can’t make any big mistakes. We want to hit the 200-point mark. I think if we just get our levels, we’ll be right there.”

Pair’s title in Saitama still looks wide open. China’s Sui Wenjing and Han Cong won Four Continents by just .06 points over Canadians Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro; the Canadians won the short program, but a costly error on a lift in their free skate cost them the title.

The Olympic silver medalists were impressive but did not look unbeatable: Sui, who missed the first half of the season with a right foot stress fracture, fell on triple jumps in both the short program and free skate. Strong performances by Russia’s Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov or France’s Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres could win the day. If James and Cipres do win, it will be the first time a French pair has won worlds since 1932. Of course, Sui and Han still have a month to improve.

No guarantees in ice dance. The shocking fourth-place finish of Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue in Anaheim showed their margin for error is thin. It is unlikely the U.S. champions will repeat the lift error that cost them more than four points, but even a smaller mistake – especially on step sequences in the rhythm dance – could cost them a world medal.

As their training partner, Jean-Luc Baker, explained in Anaheim: “The intricacy of the tango (rhythm dance) is significantly harder than what we had last year with the rhumba. The image the technical panel wants to see and what they are asking for, is so minuscule that one small thing like that angle of your skate can cost you three points.”

Three-time world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France have separated themselves from the rest. While Hubbell and Donohue are still the favorites for silver, one slip opens the door for teams including Chock and Bates; Canadians Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, and Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier; and Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin of Russia.

Tomoki Hiwatashi marked himself a favorite for the World junior podium. Hiwatashi, fourth at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships last month, skated his best programs ever in Anaheim to place eighth. His coach, Christy Krall, thinks he has made a breakthrough.

“Nationals really changed his persona,” she said. “He’s been very inspired. I think he understands that he has a great chance and the ability to be a very keen competitor, which he has always wanted to be.”

The 19-year-old won a world junior bronze in 2016 and in this, his final year of eligibility, could win another medal. The favorite for the event, held in Zagreb, Croatia Mar. 4-10, is Canada’s Stephen Gogolov, this season’s Junior Grand Prix Final champion.

Four Continents reporter’s notebook: Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 | Day 5

As a reminder, you can watch 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.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Mark Spitz takes on Katie Ledecky’s challenge

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Swimmers around the world took on Katie Ledecky‘s milk-glass challenge since it became a social media sensation, including one of the few Americans with more Olympic gold medals.

Mark Spitz, who won seven golds at the 1972 Munich Games, took 10 strokes in an at-home pool while perfectly balancing a glass of what appeared to be water on his head.

“Would’ve been faster with the ‘stache, @markspitzusa, but I still give this 7 out of 7 gold medals,” Ledecky tweeted.

Spitz joined fellow Olympic champions Susie O’Neill of Australia and American Matt Grevers in posting similar videos to what Ledecky first shared Monday.

In Tokyo next year, Ledecky can pass Spitz’s career gold-medal count of nine if she wins all of her expected events — 200m, 400m, 800m and 1500m freestyles and the 4x200m free relay.

Then she would trail one athlete from any country in any sport — Michael Phelps, the 23-time gold medalist who has yet to post video of swimming while balancing a glass on his head.

MORE: Spitz puts Michael Phelps’ career in perspective

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Serena Williams, reclusive amid pandemic, returns to tennis eyeing Grand Slam record

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Serena Williams travels with “like 50 masks” and has been a little bit of a recluse since early March and the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I don’t have full lung capacity, so I’m not sure what would happen to me,” Williams said Saturday, two days before the start of the WTA’s Top Seed Open in Lexington, Ky., her first tournament since playing Fed Cup in early February. “I’m sure I’ll be OK, but I don’t want to find out.”

Williams, 38, has a history of blood clots and pulmonary embolisms. She faced life-threatening complications following her Sept. 1, 2017, childbirth that confined her to a bed for six weeks. She said her daily routine was surgery and that she lost count after the first four.

More recently, Williams enjoyed “every part” of the last six months at home in Florida, her longest time grounded since her teens.

“I’ve been a little neurotic, to an extent,” on health and safety, she said. “Everyone in the Serena bubble is really protected.”

Williams is entered to play next week in Lexington and at consecutive tournaments in New York City later this month — the Western & Southern Open and U.S. Open, the latter starting Aug. 31.

Williams is the highest-ranked player in the Lexington field at No. 9. Others include 2017 U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens, older sister Venus Williams and 16-year-old Coco Gauff.

She has been bidding ever since having daughter Olympia to tie Margaret Court‘s record 24 Grand Slam singles titles, albeit many of Court’s crowns came before the Open Era and, notably at the Australian Open, against small fields lacking the world’s best players. Williams reached the last two Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals, losing all of them.

She showed her seriousness in committing early to this year’s U.S. Open by installing a court at home with the same surface. Three of the top 10 female singles players already said they will skip the U.S. Open due to travel and/or virus concerns, including No. 1 Ash Barty.

“Tennis is naturally a socially distanced sport, so it was kind of easy to go back and just walk on my side of the court and have my hitter walk on his side of the court,” Williams said.

The French Open starts two weeks after the U.S. Open ends. Williams was asked if she will fly to Europe for tournaments this autumn.

“I see myself doing it all, if it happens,” she said.

The Tokyo Olympics are too far away to make plans.

“We’ll have to kind of wait to see what happens in the fall,” she said. “One thing I have learned with this pandemic is don’t plan.”

MORE: Past U.S. Open champions get wild cards

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!