Ashley Cain, Timothy LeDuc ready to take on Worlds pressure

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Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc had a plan for the 2018-19 season: skate well through the fall, become national champions, get named as the only U.S. pair team at the 2019 World Championships, and then win back more pair spots for the U.S. by finishing in the top 10.

So far, they’ve checked off those boxes, with one major hurdle in December. During a competition in Croatia, Cain fell on her head during a lift and had to spend the time leading up to the U.S. Championships recovering from a concussion.

Despite all that, they won their first national title together and will compete at the world championships in Saitama, Japan from March 18-24.

Cain and LeDuc opened up to NBCSports.com/figure-skating in Detroit after nationals about their preparations, the pressure they don’t feel, their coaching team, and how their fans rallied around them during their recovery.

Here we are a day after winning the national title. Has it sunk in?

Cain: At this point I think our brains are a little fried.

LeDuc: I can’t help but feeling overwhelmingly grateful.

Cain: Me too.

LeDuc: I’ve been having all these flashbacks to different points along my journey that I just remember what someone did to help me through something, how they helped me overcome something. This does not just belong to me. it belongs to so many people.

Cain: I found myself yesterday thanking everyone. It was our team around us, yes, and it was each other. It was the U.S. Figure Skating staff, but also it was the fans. They stuck with us through all of it. They were defending us at times when people were being critical. Through this whole week through every practice and through the performances. They were cheering so loud. They were on that journey with us as well. I think that we just feel an overwhelming gratefulness. We just want to keep thanking everybody because that truly is what created that performance out there.

Have you had time to do those thank yous yet?

Cain: A few here and there. Obviously, our coaches, we’ve just been “thankyouthankyouthankyou.” You could see in the Kiss and Cry, they felt every emotion with us because they saw us every day. No matter what was gonna happen in that long program, they were gonna stick by us and build us back up. To have it happen like that was almost a storybook ending to what could’ve happened. It’s crazy to think of what could’ve happened. It’s crazy because it could’ve gone either way.

LeDuc: I’ve felt defeated and down so many times so to be on the other side of that is like… I’m not sure what.

Cain: I’ve also been able to watch these moments happen over and over with other people. I’ve wanted it so bad and to finally have it I’m like, ‘Oh this is what it feels like!’ I still feel like the same person. Nothing changed, you know? I’m still the athlete I was yesterday, but at the same time our goals happened. Everything that we wanted.

LeDuc: We have a few more.

And what are they?

LeDuc: Get the spots at worlds.

Cain: This [a national title] was one of the biggest goals of my skating career.

LeDuc: Same

Cain: And we accomplished it. It’s almost like when people ask, you went to the Olympics, you accomplished all your goals, why are you still skating? Because there’s always more. Yes, you accomplished that goal and it’s a big deal but you always want more. That’s like heading into Worlds, we want to get the spots back for the U.S. teams. We want there to be more teams at Worlds.

[Note: To earn two quota spots for the U.S. at the 2020 World Championships, Cain and LeDuc need to finish 10th or better at Worlds. To earn three spots, they need to win gold or silver.]

You mentioned fan support. It seemed like there was a lot of support, shock, and outrage all at once after Croatia. Was that surprising to see, or did you know they’d always have your back?

Cain: It wasn’t surprising to see.

LeDuc: I think everyone just felt badly for you, and wanted you to be better and happy to see you here. I don’t think anyone would’ve betrayed you for any reason. I understand why people dragged me through the mud a little bit.

Cain: That wasn’t right.

LeDuc: I understand the controversy surrounding maybe the officials side of things.

Cain: I would say to anybody that spoke negatively about the whole ordeal is that I finished. I got up and I finished the program. At that point, I know that my health comes first. But I kept going. You never know how things are gonna work out. Luckily, it worked out in a positive way for us. We finished the program in Croatia strong, nothing happened. I was able to get the right treatment back home.

It was definitely tough… for me, I knew I had the injury and I was gonna get through it, and it was gonna be okay. I was more concerned about Tim, because just some of the comments that were being thrown around. It’s really tough because at the same time, he wants to be there for me and all that. I needed to be there for him in that moment because that was so tough for him to go through as well. I think some people didn’t realize how hard it was for him to have to deal with. That was our first fall, too. For him having to come to terms with that—that was our first lift fall. Ever. And it was in competition, it happened like that.

LeDuc: And it went viral.

Cain: It kept getting spread. Yes, people wanted to weigh in and give their opinions. At the same time, it was tough to go through that. We actually shut down social media for a bit while we were going through all of it.

Concussion is such a buzzword. Do you think that was part of why it got bigger and bigger?

Cain: Yes. It just kept spreading. The video kept getting shared everywhere. That’s okay, now it’s a… a pivotal moment in our careers.

LeDuc: It is. Thankfully, through this – not defining, but in a full circle story – concerning concussions, we followed every plan that the U.S. Figure Skating team gave to us and that’s why we were able to be here strong. We stuck together every plan, every doctor visit.

Cain: All the exercises. The rest.

LeDuc: The treatment, just following the plan and sticking to it. We’re really grateful to have a really good group of people to help us.

One of the things I noticed in the way you guys talk about your coaches is that it’s ‘coaches’ and not ‘mom and dad.’ Is that a mental thing?

Cain: It is. I feel like it’s a business as well. They are our coaches when they’re in the rink and when we’re at things like this, yes, they’re also my parents and they’re excited to feel all the feelings as my parents and see me go through this journey. But at the same time, they look at it as a business as well.

We have a really good relationship and I think it’s worked because we keep it that way. We keep a lot of other emotions out of it.

Did that come from any trial and error or did you set it out to be that way?

Cain: I think we set out for it to be like that at the start when I was a little kid. We always set it up to be like that. We didn’t want to get to my teenage years and start butting heads or anything like that. That never happened. It’s been a really good relationship.

And in your own partnership, it seems like you always speak very highly and thoughtfully of each other.

LeDuc: This is only our third season together but we’ve really… I think that’s why we’ve come together and progressed so quickly is because we have that synergy right from the start. You can’t really force that. It just worked. It was like chemistry really aligned. When you put mutual respect at the center of your partnership, it allows you to deal with things that come toward you. We’ve had a lot of obstacles –

Cain: Oh my god, so many!

LeDuc: – and challenges come at us. We’ve learned how to come together through those so we can overcome them better. That’s really made us strong. I think that’s how we were able to deal with this last six weeks, overcoming the injuries. Because we came together to deal with it and to build each other up. Otherwise separately, I don’t know what we would’ve done.

Hard to do as half and half instead of a whole team, it sounds like.

Cain: We think of each other as equal units as well, equal energies. That’s what we try to bring to our programs and to every performance. I think yesterday [during the free skate at the U.S. Championships], that’s what carried us through that performance. That we counted on each other to bring the equal amount of energy. I remember thinking at the beginning of our program, ‘Our energies are going to come together at this program.’ That’s how we like to think about ourselves.

LeDuc: I knew whatever energy I would give, she would give back. It’s like a positive feedback.

That’s pretty zen.

LeDuc: It was pretty zen yesterday.

Cain: It was really zen!

LeDuc: we were so dialed in and focused.

I have also heard you use the phrase “pillars of strength” to describe your free skate. Tell me more about that concept.

LeDuc: Equality is really important to us. Not necessarily conforming to traditional gender roles and also not the traditional romantic storyline that a lot of pairs and dance teams have. It’s not just because I’m gay. It’s not just because she’s engaged to somebody else. You can still have a great storyline in your partnership that isn’t about being in love.

MORE: Madison Chock and Evan Bates look to peak at Worlds and return to podium

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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World Athletics Athletes of the Year: Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone, Mondo Duplantis

Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone
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Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone and Mondo Duplantis were named World Athletics Athletes of the Year after world record-breaking performances in 2022.

McLaughlin-Levrone, who lowered her 400m hurdles world record twice this year, won the award for the first time. She became the first American to win Athlete of the Year since fellow 400m hurdler Dalilah Muhammad in 2019.

“I would describe 2022 for myself by just saying incredible,” McLaughlin-Levrone said. “Everything that we aimed to do we were able to accomplish.”

The other finalists were Nigeria’s Tobi Amusan, who broke the 100m hurdles world record en route to the world title; Jamaica’s Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, who won her fifth world 100m title; Peru’s Kimberly Garcia, who swept the 20km and 35km race walk world titles, and Venezuela’s Yulimar Rojas, who broke her own triple jump world record and swept the indoor and outdoor world titles.

McLaughlin-Levrone has said she wants to add the flat 400m to her program in the coming years. She has never run that event at a senior championship meet, but showed her flat potential in the 4x400m relay at worlds in July. Her split — 47.91 seconds — made her the seventh-fastest relay performer in history and second-fastest in the last 33 years behind Allyson Felix.

At next summer’s world championships, the women’s 400m hurdles first round heats start 2 hours and 20 minutes before the women’s 400m semifinals. Top-level pros rarely race multiple times in one session in a distance longer than 200 meters at any meet.

Duplantis, the Louisiana-raised Swede, won the men’s award for the second time in three years. He upped his pole vault world record three times in 2022 and swept the world indoor and outdoor and Diamond League titles in the event.

“It’s probably been by far the best year that I’ve ever had,” Duplantis said.

The other men’s finalists were Moroccan steeplechaser Soufiane El Bakkali, who went undefeated in 2022; Norwegian runner Jakob Ingebrigtsen, the world outdoor 5000m champion who ran the world’s fastest mile in 21 years; Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge, who broke his own marathon world record by 30 seconds, and American Noah Lyles, who broke Michael Johnson‘s 26-year-old national record in the 200m.

Duplantis will likely try to continue upping his world record one centimeter at a time like Ukraine legend Sergey Bubka did on an almost annual basis from 1984 through 1994. Duplantis’ current record is 6.21 meters. The next significant milestone is 6.25 meters, or 20 feet, 6 inches.

“We’ll so how high, but I want to push it higher than people think is even possible,” he said.

Erriyon Knighton became the first athlete to twice win the Rising Star award, given to the top U20 track and field athlete.

Knighton, 18, took 200m bronze at the world championships on July 21 in Eugene, Oregon, becoming the youngest individual sprint medalist in championships history. He was part of a U.S. medals sweep with Lyles and Kenny Bednarek.

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A wild Grand Prix Final has a quadruple Axel, the Brits and a figure skating tale for the ages

Ilia Malinin
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The world’s best figure skaters gather for the first time this season at this week’s Grand Prix Final in Turin, Italy. The Who’s Who is a very different group than from February’s Olympics, as expected, with the fall Grand Prix Series also producing some unpredictable stories.

Of the 18 skaters who won Olympic medals outside of the team event, just two of them competed internationally this fall. As was known before the season, all Russians are banned indefinitely due to the war in Ukraine. China’s top skaters didn’t enter the Grand Prix Series. Nathan Chen and the French ice dance couple of Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron are on indefinite, possibly permanent breaks after winning long-awaited golds.

It is time for new stars to emerge. That happened. American Ilia Malinin, last year’s world junior champion at age 17, became the first skater to land a quadruple Axel in competition in September. Then he did it again in October, and again in November.

It is time for new stories to emerge. The Grand Prix Final is the most exclusive event in figure skating — taking the top six per discipline from the Grand Prix Series — since it was introduced in 1996. This year, Belgium and Great Britain qualified skaters for the first time in more than a decade. Japanese men who were seventh and eighth at their national championships last season are in the field. As is a 39-year-old pairs’ skater from Canada who competed against Michelle Kwan in the 6.0 scoring era.

GRAND PRIX FINAL: Broadcast Schedule

The U.S. qualified skaters into the Final in every discipline for the first time in 15 years. The team is led statistically by Malinin, the world No. 1 bidding to be the second-youngest man to win a Final after Russian Yevgeny Plushenko.

Malinin, whose mom won the 1999 Grand Prix Final, is one half of the most anticipated head-to-head showdown this week. He takes on Japan’s Shoma Uno for the first time since the world championships in March, when Uno won and Malinin placed ninth in his debut on that stage. This season, Malinin and Uno each won their two separate Grand Prix starts, with Malinin having the best total score by a scant 61 hundredths of a point.

NBC Sports analyst Johnny Weir called Malinin the favorite for the Final and for March’s worlds (which could include Olympic silver medalist Yuma Kagiyama of Japan, who has been sidelined this fall due to leg and ankle injuries). But Weir also said that if Malinin and Uno skate clean this week, the 24-year-old Uno has the advantage.

“He’s had the longevity. He’s had the time in front of these top judges. And artistically, he’s so excellent,” Weir said.

The world’s highest-scoring women’s singles skater this season will compete at the Final, but in the junior division. Japan’s Mao Shimada won both of her junior Grand Prix starts. She is 14 years old, and with the age limit being raised in coming seasons will not be old enough for the next Olympics in 2026 (reminiscent of countrywoman Mao Asada, who was too young the last time Italy hosted the Winter Games in 2006).

Without Shimada, and without the Russians who dominated recent seasons, the women’s field is the most closely bunched at the Final. Mai Mihara, who missed the Olympics after placing fourth at Japan’s Nationals last December, was the lone woman to win both of her Grand Prix starts this fall. Kaori Sakamoto, last season’s world champion in the Russians’ absence, has the top score this season among senior women (and a shout out from Janet Jackson). But the six skaters at the Final are separated by just 4.47 points in best scores this fall.

American Isabeau Levito, the 15-year-old world junior champion, is the youngest woman in the field by four years. NBC Sports analyst Tara Lipinski said that Levito has a total package of jumps, artistry and competitive fire not seen in U.S. skating in many years. Levito, who has made short films, including “The Pickle Murder,” is reminiscent of Sasha Cohen, the last U.S. women’s singles skater to win an Olympic medal in 2006.

“There’s never a hand, finger, hair out of place when it comes to Isabeau’s skating,” Lipinski said. “Looking back at my first year as a senior, I was terrified. I looked like a junior coming up to the senior ranks. Isabeau, she’s gone past that phase.”

Pairs’ skating saw the highest turnover. The top five teams at the Olympics were Russian and Chinese, and none have competed internationally since. Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier took advantage at March’s worlds, becoming the first U.S. pair to win a world title since 1979.

Knierim and Frazier won both of their Grand Prix starts this fall, but were flawed. Japan’s Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara, who took silver at worlds, averaged 10 more points in their separate Grand Prix victories.

“Comparing people based on the scores that they accrue in different competitions is a nice way to see how people are faring in front of international panels, but it’s not a direct comparison between the two at all,” Weir said. “They’re very evenly matched.”

But the coolest story in pairs, and arguably in all of figure skating, is 39-year-old Canadian Deanna Stellato-Dudek. With partner Maxime Deschamps, she became the oldest Grand Prix podium finisher in October and the oldest champion in November. Stellato-Dudek, the 2000 World junior silver medalist in singles from Chicagoland, retired from figure skating in 2001 due to injuries, then came back in 2016 in pairs and switched nationality.

Weir recently came across photos of him with Stellato-Dudek when they competed at the same junior Grand Prix event in Norway in 1999.

“I’m pretty sure she was skating when I was skating, so that is a crazy feat in itself,” said Lipinski, whose last competition was winning the 1998 Olympics.

Ice dance, usually the most predictable of the four disciplines, sprung surprises this fall. Three-time world medalists Madison Chock and Evan Bates were the top returning couple based on results from last season’s Olympics and worlds, but the Americans rank outside the top three this fall by results and best total score.

Still, 2006 Olympic silver medalist Ben Agosto said they’re looking better than ever, having improved from their first Grand Prix to their second Grand Prix.

“The challenge for them is they’ve been so good for so long that they don’t want to get stale,” Agosto said of a couple that’s in their 12th season together. “They don’t want people to start to think, well, you know, two seasons ago was better than this, or five seasons ago was better than this. They want to always be reinventing, but then also capitalizing on their biggest strengths.”

Canadian veterans Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier, ranked third among returning couples going into the fall, won both of their Grand Prix starts with the world’s top two scores across all events. Agosto believes that the field is closer than the point totals suggest and that some couples have been underscored, including Americans Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, who qualified into the Final in the sixth and last spot.

Agosto said that Lilah Fear and Lewis Gibson, Great Britain’s first Grand Prix Final qualifiers since 2009, can “blow the roof off” with their Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez rhythm dance and Lady Gaga free dance.

“You can just feel the the intensity that everyone is bringing after their Olympic experience and coming back and feeling rejuvenated and maybe feeling the adrenaline effect of having a little bit more of an opportunity because Papadakis and Cizeron are not there, because the Russians are not there,” Agosto said. “I’ve really seen across the board this group stepping up from last season, so I don’t think that it would just be a clear OK, well, if those other teams were in the game this year, they would, by default, be on top.”

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