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Takeaways and top moments from the World Figure Skating Championships

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The 2019 World Figure Skating Championships are in the books with all of their highs and lows, triumphs and heartbreaks. The Japan-hosted event was lauded as well-organized by the skaters and was said to have featured sold-out crowds.

For the Americans, these championships seem to be a net positive, while other countries, like Japan, may still be reeling from their results on home ice.

Let’s take a look at the takeaways from the World Championships and the top moments.

Nathan Chen’s incredible title defense over home favorite Yuzuru Hanyu

NBCSports.com/figure-skating contributor Phil Hersh described Chen’s performance in Saitama, Japan during the student-athlete’s spring break from Yale University as transcendent, unblemished, and artistically compelling.

We’re running out of adjectives.

Chen stepped on the ice to warm up as the sweepers cleared a shower of Winnie the Pooh stuffed animals off the ice, thrown for hometown favorite, two-time Olympic champion and two-time world champion Yuzuru Hanyu. The pressure could not have been higher for Chen, nor the environment more tense.

His floaty quad Lutz to open his free skate set the tone for the rest of the program, which was unparalleled in its marriage of artistic and technical content. Combined with his lead from the short program, Chen defeated Hanyu in their first head-to-head since the PyeongChang Olympics by more than 20 points to win his second straight world title.

Neither Hanyu (who has a lingering ankle injury but didn’t skate like it on Saturday) nor his teammate in the crowded field, reigning Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno, got the results they were hoping for. Uno finished fourth.

“I lost, that is about it. To tell the truth, it is like death to me,” Hanyu told media after the free skate. “I really want to win. I think I did my best, but the problem is that in figure skating, competition consists of two days, and I am losing in both. It means that I simply do not have enough strength to win.”

“If I recall, there are more competitions that I got disappointed over joyful ones in this season,” Uno said after his performance. “I really admire Yuzuru Hanyu who always seeks high scores and good results, which made me realize I am still immature. Overall, I am still disappointed in myself. I need to become much stronger mentally. I want to skate better next year so that when I look back this Worlds in the future, this would be a good lesson for my skating career.”

Another top moment: Chen’s American teammate Vincent Zhou rose from fourth after the short program to claim the bronze – his second major international medal in as many months. It marks the first time the U.S. put two men on a World podium since 1996, when Todd Eldredge (gold) and Rudy Galindo (bronze) stood on the podium in Edmonton, Alberta.

What does this mean for U.S. men?

Chen, Zhou and Jason Brown show no signs of slowing down. They’re solidly the triumvirate of the U.S. field, though newly-crowned junior world champion Tomoki Hiwatashi was hot on their heels in fourth at the national championships in January.

MORE: Who else is on their way up behind Chen, Zhou and Brown? More names to know as U.S. men’s skating is on the upswell.

Redemption for the Russians; Americans miss the mark

Olympic champion Alina Zagitova floundered this season looking to find her footing. A bad skate in a weak field helped her earn a silver medal at Europeans in January behind Sofia Samodurova, who also joined her in Saitama. She won her first world title in the country that gave her a dog named Masaru (“Victory”) after her Olympic win.

Redemption of a different sort came for the third Russian in the field, Olympic silver medalist Yevgenia Medvedeva. While it might not track that the top two ladies from the Olympics even needed to redeem themselves this year, Medvedeva struggled in her own way this season. She split from her longtime Moscow-based coach, Eteri Tutberidze, where she trained with Zagitova, and moved to around the world to Toronto to train with Brian Orser. She ditched her short program halfway through the season, wasn’t named to the European team, and was in danger of missing the World team, too. At one point, Orser said they were on “stand-by” for the spot.

But the two-time world champion has an impressive resume for a reason. She skated lights-out at Worlds, sitting fourth after the short and winning what – believe it or not – is the first major international bronze medal of her career.

MORE: A deep dive into Yevgenia Medvedeva’s move to Toronto

Moment to learn from: Japanese women placed fourth, fifth and six at a home World Championships. Grand Prix Final medalist Rika Kihira, largely seen as a favorite coming in, was a long shot for a medal after she sat seventh in the short program due to a popped triple Axel attempt. She typically is able to make up some ground in the free skate by the virtue of her two triple Axel attempts, but when she missed one on Friday, her medal hopes were dashed.

Kaori Sakamoto, sixth in PyeongChang and the reigning Japanese national champion, skated well but it wasn’t enough.

And Satoko Miyahara owns two World medals but was dinged by under-rotation calls in 2019, which seem to follow her from competition to competition.

MORE: Rika Kihira wants to be more than Miss New Triple Axel

Bradie Tennell and Mariah Bell were the two ladies in the field for the U.S., looking to earn back a third quota spot for the 2020 World Championships. It would have taken a combined finish of 13th or lower, such as sixth and seventh place finishes.

In Saitama, Tennell finished seventh and Bell finished ninth. Tennell notched new best short program and total scores, while Bell improved on two consecutive years of 12th-place finishes at Worlds.

While this has no bearing (yet) on the spots at the 2022 Winter Olympics, their inability to get the job done this year puts the U.S. ladies’ growth on the world stage in a holding pattern. That’s probably frustrating, especially for active skaters other than Tennell and Bell who want the experience of a major international championship. For example, Hanna Harrell (fourth at nationals in January, then seventh at Junior Worlds) and Ting Cui (fifth at Nationals, then 11th at Four Continents and bronze medalist at World Juniors). Plus, there’s U.S. champion Alysa Liu to consider; she won’t be age-eligible for a senior World Championships until 2022 – after the next Olympic Winter Games.

MORE: How consistent is Bradie Tennell, really?

One more moment: Yelizabet Tursynbayeva of Kazakhstan landed the first-ever clean quadruple jump in senior ladies’ international competition, a Salchow. She moved from Toronto to Moscow this season (going from Orser to Tutberidze) and had never finished better than ninth at Worlds. In 2019, she earned silver. (Creating the opposite of the U.S. problem – Kazakhstan now has three ladies’ spots for next year’s worlds and, as of right now, not enough skaters to fill them.)

Sui and Han take back the title in shortened season

China’s 2017 world champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong had an abbreviated season this year due to Sui’s longstanding ankle and foot injuries. The 2018 Olympic silver medalists came into the World Championships as question marks; they won February’s Four Continents Championships but were not clean in either the short or the free there.

But at Worlds, they were at their best, rising from second after the short to top the Russians, Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov, by 6.37 points for their second World gold. Of course, Sui and Han are eyeing a home Olympics in Beijing in 2022.

The Russians now have three World medals but have never stood on the top spot. Pairs from Russia or the Soviet Union have won 33 World titles since 1965, but only one in the last 14 years.

Heartbreak for James and Cipres: Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres of France came to Worlds undefeated and first-time European and Grand Prix Final champions this season. They were widely expected to vie for the title, possibly even take it, but they buckled under what must’ve been enormous and unfamiliar pressure. A seventh-place finish in the short program combined with a just-not-enough free skate left them in fifth overall.

“I already knew during the short program that getting a medal was almost impossible, but I think we did our job today and we are never giving up,” Cipres said. “We won’t give up until we get the world title.”

American pair’s success: Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc had said all season it would be the job of the U.S. pair named to the World Championships team to win back two pair quota spots for the U.S. for the following year, requiring a top-10 finish. They wanted to be the team to do it.

Then, in December, the team’s plans were nearly derailed as Cain and LeDuc had a bad fall at a small competition in Croatia in December, resulting in a concussion for Cain. But they rallied stronger than ever to win their first national title in January, finished fourth at Four Continents in February and placed ninth at the World Championships. The U.S. will have two pair spots to fill at the 2020 World Championships.

MORE: Cain, LeDuc discuss foundation of their partnership and pressure on them for Worlds

Not just the status quo in ice dance

Sure, the French couple of Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron won their fourth world title.

But Russians Viktoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov won the country’s first medal since 2013, a silver. A second Russian team, Aleksandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin, were fourth. Russia missed the ice dance medals in PyeongChang – it was the first time in Olympic history that a team from Russia or the Soviet Union did not stand on the podium.

American dance still strong: An American team got on the podium for the 13th time in the past 15 years: Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue won bronze. The two-time and reigning U.S. champions won their second world medal in as many years after finishing fourth in PyeongChang.

Two U.S. teams moved to Montreal to train at the same school as Hubbell and Donohue ahead of this season, Madison Chock and Evan Bates, and Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker.

Chock and Bates, the 2015 U.S. champions and two-time world medalists, finished sixth in Saitama and have said repeatedly they’re refreshed and re-invigorated headed into their third Olympic cycle as a team. It shows in their programs this season. The couple also just won their first-ever major international gold medals at February’s Four Continents Championships.

Hawayek and Baker also had their best season ever. They won their first-ever Grand Prix series gold medal and qualified for the Grand Prix Final for the first time. They reached a new high at nationals, claiming bronze. They placed fifth at Four Continents and went onto finish ninth at Worlds, improving from 10th in 2018.

They’re especially looking forward to next season, when the required rhythm dance will be Broadway/operettas for teams. They shine in character-driven programs, and Baker told NBCSports.com/figure-skating he sees the team being able to flourish in that style while training in Montreal.

Oh, Canada: Canadian ice dance may forever be synonymous with Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the most decorated figure skaters in Olympic history, but the country’s other teams are impressive, too. Two-time Olympians Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje have finished inside the top five at Worlds each year for the past nine years, including fifth place this year and three World medals. Fan favorites Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier have finished a handful of times at sixth and eighth place at Worlds, and were seventh in Saitama.

Canada has three spots in dance at their home World Championships in Montreal in 2020, though only one men’s spot (Keegan Messing finished 15th in Saitama and teammate Nam Nguyen finished 16th), two ladies’ spots (Gabrielle Daleman finished 11th, while Alaine Chartrand finished 23rd and Aurora Cotop didn’t qualify for the free skate), and two pair spots (Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marino finished seventh).

U.S. spots for Worlds in 2020

The U.S. will be able to send two ladies, three men, two pairs and three ice dance teams to the 2020 World Championships in Montreal, Canada. The 2019 team will grow from 13 to 15 athletes with the addition of the pair spot.

MORE: World medalists Nathan Chen, Vincent Zhou, Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue headed back to Japan for World Team Trophy

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2018-19 figure skating season 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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Deajah Stevens, Olympic sprinter, suspended through Tokyo Games

Deajah Stevens
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Deajah Stevens, a U.S. Olympic 200m sprinter, was suspended through Aug. 15, 2021, for missing drug tests, ruling her out of the Tokyo Games unless she successfully appeals.

Stevens, who placed seventh in Rio, missed three drug tests in 2019, grounds for a suspension between one and two years.

The exact length depends on an athlete’s degree of fault and, with the timing in this case, determined whether she would be banned through the Olympics.

Full details of her case are here.

The 18-month ban was backdated to Feb. 17, the date that Stevens requested her case be expedited. Her last of three missed tests was Nov. 25.

Stevens’ lawyer requested the suspension be backdated to the third missed test, which would have kept her eligible for the Olympics, or the date of Stevens’ request for an expedited hearing on Feb. 17, which could have kept her Olympic eligible if the ban was closer to one year.

For Stevens’ second missed test, she did not hear door knocks from a back bedroom. The drug tester called her five times but never received an answer. Stevens said her phone was out of battery power.

For her last missed test, the drug tester again tried to call Stevens. But Stevens changed her phone number six weeks earlier, after somebody was harassing her and threatening her fiance’s life. She had not yet notified drug-testing authorities that she changed her number.

“Despite our sympathy for the athlete, we have not been satisfied on a balance of probability that her behavior was not negligent and did not cause or contribute to her failure to be available for testing,” a disciplinary tribunal found. “She already had missed two doping tests in the last six months. She should have been on red alert and conscious that she could not miss the next one.”

Stevens’ initial provisional suspension was announced May 1 ahead of a June 25 disciplinary tribunal hearing.

Stevens, 25, was disqualified from the 2019 U.S. Outdoor Championships 200m semifinals in her only outdoor meet of the year, according to World Athletics.

She ranked No. 3 in the U.S. in the 200m in 2017 (and placed fifth at the world championships), No. 31 in 2018 and No. 59 in 2019.

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MORE: Seb Coe: Track and field athletes need 6-7 weeks of specific training to return

Virtual figure skating competition offers glimpse of sport’s possible future

Karen Chen
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It was early April. The 2020 World Figure Skating Championships had been canceled by Covid-19, abruptly ending last season. Rinks were closing down for health reasons. Some entire countries were on lockdown.

Anyone who has been around figure skating as long as Gale Tanger could see even then how difficult it would be to have any competitions the rest of 2020 if they required travel by athletes or officials, whether the events were international, national, regional or local.

Tanger, an international judge for 32 years, began looking for an alternative to give elite U.S. skaters left unmoored by the pandemic’s impact at least something that could feel like a competition, something to anchor a goal in the early part of the 2020-21 season.

So the Peggy Fleming Trophy became the first virtual event in the sport’s history.

“It worked!!!!!!!” an excited Tanger said in an email late Tuesday, after the judging of the competition was completed. “What an incredible leap for our sport. Obstacles have been removed, and a new highway has been paved.”

A 90-minute streamed video of the event will be available to the public beginning Friday at 7 p.m. EDT on the U.S. Figure Skating Fan Zone video center. The question now is whether this concept can be expanded during the pandemic to make more competitions possible.

“Any time you experiment with something new, you always are paying attention to how it can be applied to other things – and for normal times, as well,” U.S. Figure Skating spokesman Michael Terry said. “The virtual concept has not yet been discussed for any other specific events, including the qualifying season (for the 2021 U.S. Championships).”

Tanger figured the Peggy Fleming Trophy was a good place to experiment. The event, which she and 1968 Olympic champion Fleming had created in 2018, already was an alternative to the usual competition format.

It has just one program, a three-and-a-half-minute freestyle in which there is heavy emphasis on artistry and musicality and significantly reduced weight on jumps. It allows men to compete against women and is easier to judge than an event using the International Judging System and ISU rules.

The third Peggy Fleming Trophy was supposed to take place July 1 at the Broadmoor World Arena in Colorado Springs, its home in 2018 and 2019. When it was clear by late April that doing it live would likely be impossible for public safety reasons, Tanger enlisted the help of U.S. Figure Skating and immediately began working through the logistics of doing it virtually.

After all, Tanger and her husband, Tom, who live in Wauwatosa, Wis., had been using Zoom to help with the virtual schooling of their grandchildren in Sydney, Australia, and she was using Facebook Live to judge off-ice competitions in Latin America. She thought there had to be a way to use such technology for a judged competition in which both athletes and judges could take part from their own rink or, in the case of the judges, their home or office.

Once the various parties were sufficiently convinced it could be done to post an online entry announcement, the 18-person field filled overnight.

Gale Tanger
Gale Tanger at the 2019 Peggy Fleming Trophy at the Broadmoor World Arena. (Courtesy Gale Tanger)

“I thought we may have found the Holy Grail,” Tanger said, referring to the way skaters responded to a solution to save at least this event.

“It’s so great that everyone associated with the event is trying to test the waters and see what is possible,” said 2018 Olympian Karen Chen, third in last year’s Peggy Fleming Trophy and a virtual contestant in the 2020 event.

This was the basic premise: each skater would perform a program at his or her convenience between July 8 and 10. He or she would submit video of the program, to be shot from a high center-ice position. Multiple attempts were permitted, but the video chosen had to be of a single complete attempt, with no editing.

The seven judges and technical specialist David Santee, all qualified to work international events, watched the videos from eight different places via Zoom at the same time Tuesday, as if they were in an arena. They scored on iPads, using the IJS software they have at live events, and they have taken a vow of secrecy about the results until the event is streamed.

Could it be more than a one-off? Probably not for more significant events like the Grand Prix series. The International Skating Union council will again discuss its fate for 2020 in early August. A decision is supposed to be made by Aug. 1 on Skate America, the series opener, scheduled Oct. 23-25 in Las Vegas.

To the question of whether the ISU is looking at a virtual format as a possibility for some events this season, ISU vice-president Alexander Lakernik said in an email: “No… At least at the moment.”

Added Fabio Bianchetti of Italy, chair of the ISU singles and pairs technical committee: “I didn’t know about the idea of having it (the Peggy Fleming Trophy) online this year, and I think it is a wonderful possibility to do it in this way in such a difficult moment. As to the possibility of using this format for other events this season, I have no answer. The matter has never been discussed so far.”

Chen, who has been training at the World Arena since late May, chose an expanded version of a short program to Katy Perry’s version of “Rise” that Drew Meekins had choreographed for her to use this season. She did three “takes,” with about 30 minutes between each, for an iPhone recording done by her boyfriend, Camden Pulkinen, the 2018 U.S. junior champion, who also competed. Another competitor, Andrew Torgashev, shot iPhone video of Chen as a backup.

(Defending champion Jason Brown heads the field, which includes 12 athletes who train at the World Arena. For a complete list of the competitors, now 10 women and seven men after Amber Glenn withdrew, click here.)

“I was quite happy with my first attempt, but I got nit-picky and ran two more,” Chen said. “I finally decided to use the third because it didn’t make sense to go with the first after all that effort.”

The limitations of iPhone video, where close-ups can lead to a blur from pixelization, meant about half the rink was visible on nearly all of Chen’s video. That obviously reduced the size of her image.

“For the most part, all the skaters’ videos were clear,” Tanger said.

Pulkinen, who competed in the first two editions of the Peggy Fleming Trophy (finishing second in 2018), also did three takes, using the third, as videographed by Torgashev. His performance, to “In This Shirt” by The Irrepressibles, enlarged on the new short program choreographed for him by Josh Farris.

“I tried to treat it as if each run-through was my only shot, the way it would be in a normal competition, instead of falling back on the mindset that if one was bad, I have multiple attempts,” Pulkinen said. “I felt the same sense of relief one would typically feel at the end of a competition.”

Pulkinen did not think it was impossible for a variation on this format to be used for more important events, perhaps with each competitor using a live feed and taking the ice one after another for a single attempt. It might require choreographic changes for skaters knowing they are not being judged on the view from several sets of eyes but on the view from a single camera angle.

“I’m keeping an open mind and taking this as, ‘Okay, this is a trial run for how video competitions may be, and maybe I learn how to choreograph something differently to appeal more to that specific camera more,’” Pulkinen said.

Such “virtually live” competitions would eventually depend on the ability of the ISU or USFS to ensure a high-quality, very reliable stream created with professional video equipment by a professional camera operator at the many rinks where skaters would perform. Given the money saved if there are no live Grand Prix or Junior Grand Prix events, arranging for such equipment might be money well spent to preserve some of the season.

“I think it would be very mentally challenging to do live feed competitions,” Chen said. “Part of competition is its whole environment: being with other skaters, feeling the pressure, having the adrenaline kick in when you get on the ice with people cheering.

“Letting go of that side of competition and embracing this new side will be quite challenging for people. I think it could work, but there will need to be a lot of experimentation.”

Over the weekend, Tanger judged a “live” off-line competition run by Argentina that had skaters from four countries. The marks were simple, on a scale of 1-to-10, but so was the execution of a concept that would have seemed like science fiction a few years ago.

Now the Peggy Fleming Trophy has paved a few miles of a way for figure skating to travel the information highway.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

MORE: Jason Brown remains optimistic facing uncertain skating season

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