Bradie Tennell leads Skate America field after Russians falter

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Bradie Tennell‘s bronze medal at 2017 Skate America propelled her to a national title and a place on the PyeongChang Olympic team in 2018.

At Skate America on Friday evening in Las Vegas, Tennell outpaced the ladies’ field by 1.85 points, scoring 75.10 points — her best-ever short program score. Tennell opened her program with a triple Lutz, triple toe combination, followed by a double Axel and a triple flip. What could a win at her first Grand Prix event of the season set up for the 2019-20 year? Time will tell.

“I went out there with the mindset of doing what I do everyday in practice and not trying to make anything any better or certainly any worse,” Tennell said through U.S. Figure Skating. “I wanted to enjoy myself, be relaxed and perform. The ice is my safe space. It’s where I feel most at home… It’s almost like an onion. You have to peel back the layers, and that’s almost what I’m doing with my skating now. To show this program is a challenge for me but one that I welcome.”

MORE: Tennell’s personality shines through at Skate America

Her closest competitor, Kaori Sakamoto from Japan, tallied 73.25 points after skating to Alice Merton’s “No Roots.” Sakamoto has won the silver medal at Skate America for the past two seasons.

Japan’s Wakaba Higuchi skated to another pop song, Sia’s “Bird Set Free,” and scored 71.76 points. She’s in third place heading into Saturday’s free skate.

Skate America results are here.

The standings are a surprising twist, as many pinned Russian skaters Anna Shcherbakova and Yelizaveta Tuktamysheva to be inside the top three after the short program.

In her senior Grand Prix debut, Shcherbakova slipped and fell in her step sequence and accrued a mandatory one-point deduction. She still tallied 67.60 points, good enough for fourth place on Friday evening.

Expect to see quadruple jumps from Shcherbakova in Saturday’s free skate. She trains under Moscow-based coach Eteri Tutberidze alongside a host of burgeoning Russian skaters, including reigning world and Olympic champion Alina Zagitova.

Meanwhile, Tuktamysheva, the 2015 world champion, sits in fifth place behind Shcherbakova by a slim 0.32 points. While her triple Axel was awarded positive Grades of Execution, her triple Lutz was called under-rotated.

2017 national champion Karen Chen returned to major international competition after being away for more than a year due to injury. The Cornell freshman finished her short program in sixth place with 66.03 points.

“There were definitely nerves,” Chen said of her return to competition. “This year is my comeback year, and so I wanted to make it count, but at the same time I know that I’m throwing a lot of things out there, like I’m skating and I’m also going to school. It’s been tough balancing, but I do really enjoy it and I think it’s the right decision.”

The third American in the field, Amber Glenn, is seventh with 64.71 points.

MORE: How to watch Skate America

In ice dance Friday night, Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue have high hopes of keeping the U.S.’ winning streak alive at Skate America. After Saturday’s free dance, the Montreal-trained team could extend U.S. ice dancers’ win streak to 11. They won this event last year, too.

Hubbell and Donohue skated to a Marilyn Monroe medley — including “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” which Hubbell admitted to wanting to skate to since the 2014 season — to score 84.97 points.*

“I feel like we have so much progress to make on the program, but it was a really great performance for today,” Hubbell said through U.S. Figure Skating. “It was really exciting for me to debut the Marilyn Monroe character. It’s something I have dreamed about skating to for many years, so it was great to actualize that here in Las Vegas.”

Aleksandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin of Russia sit close behind with 81.91 points, after a rhythm dance set to “Sparkling Diamonds” and “Your Song” from Moulin Rouge. The Russian duo were fourth behind Hubbell and Donohue at the 2019 World Championships, and Stepanova recently returned from a back injury. Canada’s Laurence Fournier Beaudry and Nikolaj Sorensen performed their rhythm dance to selections from “Bonnie & Clyde” and placed third with 79.17 points.

Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko landed in sixth place after the rhythm dance with 70.41 points. The third American dance team in the field, Caroline Green and Michael Parsons, were eighth with 67.97 points after the rhythm dance in their Grand Prix debut. They’re a brand new team this season; Green formerly danced with her brother and Parsons was previously partnered with his sister.

“I feel that so far we have adapted really well to the new partnership,” Green said. “I think that we have a good trust with each other. Maybe it is not quite as natural as it was with our siblings, but I definitely think we are in a good place and this has the potential to be even a little higher.”

“I had a long career with my sister and it does feel strange to be at a competition like this without her, but I think I’m really lucky in the fact that I can use all the experiences I had with her to learn from, to teach Caroline and to build on this new partnership,” Parsons added.

*Editor’s Note: Due to a calculation error on the element “Pattern Dance Type Step Sequence” (PSt), the Rhythm Dance (RD) scores at the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating event Skate America had to be re-calculated for all skaters. The revised results and details are published with the corrected scores. The overall RD standing did not change. They are correct in this article as of 10 a.m. Saturday. 

Friday afternoon, Nathan Chen was the only men’s skater to break the 100-point barrier. More on the men’s and pairs’ short program here.

MORE: Hubbell, Donohue already thinking about worlds in Montreal

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Check out a free trial of the Figure Skating Pass during Skate America from Oct. 18-20. 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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