Alina Zagitova, Rika Kihira
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World Championships ladies’ preview: Japanese, Russian skaters face off for top prize

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In all of her international competitions this season, phenom Rika Kihira of Japan has gone undefeated. Her only loss was at Japan’s national championships, won by Kaori Sakamoto. Four-time Japanese national champion Satoko Miyahara claimed the bronze.

All three will compete at the World Championships in Saitama, Japan from March 18-24 – home ice for the skaters in a country that loves skating like no other.

Their biggest challenges will come from the Russian ladies, though the best that country has to offer may be among the juniors. The strongest of Russia’s three ladies this year seems to be newly-crowned European champion Sofia Samodurova, who will be joined at worlds by two former training partners, Olympic gold and silver medalists Alina Zagitova and Yevgenia Medvedeva.

They will likely make up the top six in the field if they skate well. Here is a closer look:

Rika Kihira, Japan

Credentials: Grand Prix Final winner, Four Continents gold medalist

Kihira won both of her Grand Prix assignments in the fall to qualify and win at the Grand Prix Final in December, her first head-to-head with reigning Olympic gold medalist Zagitova. Worlds is a second chance to see how the 16-year-olds stack up against each other.

She has the highest short program score of the season as well as the second-highest free skate score this year.

Worth noting: Kihira will likely attempt triple Axels in both her short program and her free skate, as she’s done throughout the season.

Kaori Sakamoto, Japan

Credentials: Fourth at Four Continents, fourth at the Grand Prix Final, sixth place finish in PyeongChang, Japanese national champion

Sakamoto won Four Continents in 2018 before competing in PyeongChang and finishing sixth. The momentum continued through the fall, where she picked up a silver and bronze on the Grand Prix circuit. She clinched a spot in the Final and finished fourth before claiming her first Japanese national title. Most recently, she finished fourth at Four Continents in February.

Satoko Miyahara, Japan

Credentials: Two-time world medalist (silver, 2015; bronze, 2018), four-time Four Continents medalist, two-time Grand Prix Final silver medalist, fourth in PyeongChang

Miyahara has recorded some of the highest scores of the season. The four-time Japanese national champion is known for her delicate, artistic skating and sometimes being penalized for under-rotated jumps. Skating at home should only help in both of those realms.

Sofia Samodurova, Russia

Credentials: 2019 European champion, two-time Grand Prix series medalist (silver, bronze)

This is Samodurova’s first season as a senior skater, and she’s certainly stepped out with a bang. She qualified for the Grand Prix Final in December, finishing fifth, and then surpassed Alina Zagitova for the European crown in January.

Worth noting: With inconsistencies in both of her teammates’ results, Samodurova could be the highest-finishing Russian lady at Worlds.

Alina Zagitova, Russia

Credentials: Olympic gold medalist (2018), Olympic silver medalist (team event) European silver medalist (2019), Grand Prix Final champion (2017)

Zagitova won gold in PyeongChang when she was just 15 years old – one of her only recent clean free skates. This season, despite winning both of her Grand Prix assignments, it hasn’t been the same. She won a senior B early in the season, earned silver at the Grand Prix Final, but finished fifth at Russian nationals and went bust in the free skate at Europeans – yet still was able to manage a silver medal there. She figures to be in the mix as she hasn’t competed since, and should be well-rested.

Worth noting: Zagitova is beloved in Japan, which might ease her nerves. The country bestowed a dog on the Olympic champion, Masaru, who is equally popular. Masaru means “victory” in Japanese.

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Yevgenia Medvedeva, Russia

Credentials: Two-time world champion (2016, 2017), Two-time Olympic silver medalist (team, individual), two-time Grand Prix Final champion

It would be wrong to discount Medvedeva, the two-time world champion who was undefeated in competition for nearly a two-year stretch. She moved to Toronto during the offseason to train under Brian Orser and had a disappointing showing at most of her competitions. Yet she was spot-on when it counted, at the Russian competition widely considered to be the world championship selection meet, beating out 2015 world champion Yelizaveta Tuktamysheva for the third spot behind Zagitova and Samodurova.

Worth noting: Medvedeva is competing with a different short program than earlier this season. She had been using Natalie Cole’s “Orange Colored Sky,” but swapped it for “Tosca” by Giacomo Puccini. She’s also immensely popular in Japan.

The U.S. ladies:

Bradie Tennell and Mariah Bell will represent the U.S. in Saitama, where one of their biggest challenges will be to secure a third spot for next year’s world championships. To do so, their combined finishes need to add up to less than 13; for example, if Tennell finished sixth and Bell finished seventh.

Tennell has been building momentum all season. She won her senior B season opener, followed by a fourth place and a bronze medal on the Grand Prix circuit, and a victory at another senior B competition. Then, she claimed silver at nationals in January and placed fifth at Four Continents in February. She told NBCSports.com/figure-skating she thinks she’s making artistic progress this season, too.

Bell, the two-time U.S. bronze medalist, has finished 12th at the world championships the past two years. She most recently finished sixth at Four Continents. She’s on the precipice of putting it all together, as she told NBCSports.com/figure-skating in January.

Alysa Liu, the 13-year-old who won U.S. nationals, is too young to compete at the World Championships or World Junior Championships, which took place two weeks ago.

Honorable mention: Kazakhstan’s Yelizabet Tursynbaeva, who trains alongside Zagitova in Moscow, will likely attempt a quadruple Salchow in the free skate. She was credited for a fully rotated attempt during her free skate at Four Continents in February, but fell. A clean quad has never been landed at a senior ladies’ international competition.

Canada’s Gabrielle Daleman won a gold medal in the team event at the PyeongChang Olympics, but has struggled on and off the ice this season. The 2017 World bronze medalist was sixth to open her season at a senior B competition, withdrew from the Grand Prix to focus on mental health, and then led after the short program at Canadian nationals but finished fifth overall. Due to a slip on the ice early in the season, she has suffered from concussion symptoms, on top of depression and anxiety, according to an interview her mother gave Canadian media. She has also opened up about having ADHD, a learning disability, and an eating disorder.

South Korea’s Lim Eun-soo, who trains with Bell under Rafael Arutunian in California, is another skater to watch. So is Belgium’s Loena Hendrickx.

MORE: Nathan Chen, student and skater, tries to have two parts in harmony again at world championships

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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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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