Kaitlin Hawayek, Jean-Luc Baker on progress this season, what Montreal means to them

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Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker won bronze medals at the U.S. Championships in January, their highest finish ever at the event. In doing so, they were named to the Four Continents team and the world championship team.

The ice dance duo finished fifth at Four Continents in Anaheim in February, and their next stop is the world championships in Saitama, Japan from March 18-24.

NBCSports.com/figure-skating spoke to Hawayek and Baker in Detroit after nationals and discussed their biggest win on the national stage, how they chose to train in Montreal, and what inspires them most about the city.

But was it hard to skate last at Nationals? What’s that like?

Baker: No. We’ve skated last a multitude of times. It’s our first time skating last at U.S. Championships, but we are seasoned competitors. In a way it’s nice to skate, like, third just because you’re warm from the warm up. It’s not any different than any day of training for us realistically. We heard Madi [Hubbell] and Zach [Donohue]’s music, and then [Madison] Chock and [Evan] Bates’ music. [Note: the top three U.S. dance teams train together in Montreal.]

Hawayek: We’re like, ‘Oh, this is like home!’

Baker: For us, it wasn’t any different. We love to be in the last group and skating in the last flight of three is always a pleasure. You’re in the top three! For us, it didn’t really change anything. The number is the number and we have a job to do.

This is a breakthrough for you, first medal at nationals.

Hawayek: Yea, it’s been a season of a lot of milestones that we’ve accomplished. We won our first Grand Prix gold medal [in Japan]. Then we made our first Grand Prix Final. Now we’re earned our first official senior medal. We’ve been fourth in the past [Note: U.S. Championships gives out pewter medals for the fourth-place finishers], which is an incredible accomplishment. It’s a medal. But in terms of what a usual competition would be like, the third place is more of a true medal, I guess.

We’re really excited to have that. To qualify for Worlds and Four Continents… last year we were fortunate enough to get the call to go to Worlds after being alternates. It’s nice to not have to wonder if we’re going, and know right off the bat that we’ll be going this year. It’s been an exciting season.

In that situation, do you train anyway, even though you’re left wondering?

Hawayek: It’s tough. We’ve been in that position. It helps you grow as athletes just because it’s a bump in the road in a way that you’re trying to get over. It’s really exciting for us to make that leap into this realm of skaters. We’re really grateful that we train with the other two that are on the podium with us every day.

This free feels pretty personal compared to characters that you may have played in the past. Do you feel differently performing it because you’re so close to it?

Hawayek: I think so. It’s something very relatable to us. The story line that we’re telling because of the injury that Jean-Luc had earlier in the season. But on a larger scale, we want that to be relatable to the audience as a whole. Everyone goes through something in their life and I think it’s emotional and powerful to have somebody else with you going through that and overcoming obstacles. That’s what we’re hoping to portray. Because it is something that hits so close to home for us, I think it’s really easy to make the emotions really authentic and natural.

I want to rewind and ask how you selected Montreal. Was Montreal the only place you considered? Were there other options on the table?

Baker: We looked around, obviously, but we wanted to find something that we thought fit not just our style but more so the environment we were looking for. We really were striving towards a family-friendly environment in a way that you end up loving what you do. It has the competitive rivalries but it’s almost second nature to what is our friendship that has built around us. We really see and saw over the years, the camaraderie of their camp. We have friends there, before we even moved. They just told us how amazing it was.

For us it was quite an easy decision, or a very obvious one for us to try and make the move. We had heard a lot of teams had asked to go and we were put on a waiting list as well, because they had to figure out their options to talk to their teams. Like Madi Hubbell said, they have that strong bond because they respect the teams so much. It was a pretty easy go-ahead for us.

Jean-Luc, in the past you had said to me that you preferred more of the theatrical motifs in ice dance compared to what they were doing in Montreal. But you came to Montreal anyway. I’m wondering how you came to terms with that or if your mindset changed.

Baker: I think that realistically, it’s the place that we wanna be in terms of… it’s what we need for our training environment. If I think that we are given an opportunity like next year, for instance, with rhythm dance being Broadway and/or opera, I believe… I think that it’s a great opportunity for us to explore that theatrical side of things which I think Kaitlin and I would be very, very good at.

Like we had mentioned, we really moved to Montreal for the environment. Not necessarily the material they create. They do create phenomenal material but it seems as though they’re focusing now with the teams that we’re training with, I’m starting to see a lot more diversity in terms of growing each skaters’ strength, as opposed to guiding each skater in the same direction.

There are lot of skaters who say Montreal itself is so inspiring. What it is about the city? The language? The culture? The things to do?

Hawayek: I think that has a big part of it. I think it’s really neat to be in a city with such a unique culture. There is both the Western and the European influence that they carry throughout the city. There’s the downtown, which is very familiar to us. It feels very American. And then you head into Old Port and it feels very much like Europe. There’s a lot of diversity that we can be inspired from.

I think it’s just an inspiring place to be in general because it’s very active and healthy city. There’s people walking outside all the time. They bike, they run, they boat on the canal. It’s a very active environment. When you’re a happier person and you feel like a more well-rounded person off the ice, it’s really easy to feel inspired to improve and to grow on the ice as well. I think that’s something for both of us that we felt moving to Montreal, not only has our skating grown, but I feel like us as people have grown. We just feel more inspired throughout life in general.

MORE: Bradie Tennell on her improved artistry this season

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.

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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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