At Skate America, what happened in Vegas won’t stay in Vegas

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LAS VEGAS — As always in Sin City, there were highs, along with a few lows. Final thoughts from Skate America …

Reign of the A’s: The start of the Grand Prix series marked the debut of the trio some fans call the “3As” — Alexandra Trusova, Anna Shcherbakova and Alena Kostornaia, the Russian teens who among them won seven Junior Grand Prix events last season. Trusova also captured the world junior crown. (There are other young Russian “As,” but we’ll stick with these three for now.)

What’s chilling for their competitors, and any coach not named Eteri Tutberidze, is that the three skaters have a chance of duplicating the feat this season in the senior ranks: win every Grand Prix plus the world crown, with a raft of Challenger Series events thrown in for good measure.

At Skate America, Shcherbakova, 15, brushed off a fourth-place short program by landing two quadruple Lutzes in her free skate, one in combination.

The 33.45 points earned for the jumps contributed mightily to her 92.2-point technical score, more than compensating for two under-rotation deductions later in the program. Despite holding a 7.5-point lead after the short, and earning higher program component scores for a nearly-clean free skate, silver medalist Bradie Tennell couldn’t begin to fend off the young Russian.

Tennell’s challenge continues: The 2018 U.S. champion faces Trusova at Skate Canada this weekend. Trusova broke the free-skate record (163.78 points) at a Challenger event in Slovakia last month, hitting three quads. Needless to say, she won.

In Vegas, Shcherbakova acknowledged internal competition at Tutberidze’s Moscow training rink.

“Of course, we practice together and see what (the) other girls are jumping,” she said. “Every day we want to improve more and more, because we see the other girls do more quads.”

Tennell took positives from Vegas, including a personal-best short program (75.10). But at the final press conference, she couldn’t hide a bit of frustration to this reporter’s admittedly leading question about how difficult it was to mute the quad talk.

“When you hear something over and over, it’s kind of like reprimanding a child. They just start tune it out,” Tennell said. “Everybody is so quad-crazy. … For me, it’s just better to tune out all of the buzz and focus on what I can do well.”

MORE: Tennell’s personality breaks through at Skate America

Skaters, check your protocols: Not only did the 21-year-old Tennell have quads to contend with, but a scoring error by the technical panel shaved several points off of her free skate. The error had no impact on the Skate America standings, but points earned during Grand Prix events are used to break ties to decide who competes at the Grand Prix Final.

Tennell opened her free skate with her most difficult element, a triple Lutz-triple toe loop combination. She executed the same combination in the second half of her program, but the panel identified it as a triple-double.

Per ISU rules, an appeal is not permitted except in the case of an incorrect mathematical calculation; wrong identification of an element does not qualify. The rules do allow for a correction to be made, however, when an element misidentification is brought to the referee’s attention prior to the award ceremony. A spokesman for U.S. Figure Skating said that the organization did go to the ISU prior to the award ceremony, and was only told that an appeal was not permitted. No correction was made and Tennell’s score stood.

An ISU technical specialist, who consented to be interviewed about procedures, explained.

“Technical specialists call (identify) elements, which data entry operators enter into the judging system,” the technical specialist said. “At the end of the program, the data entry operator reads the list of elements, and the technical controller and assistant technical controller review the list for accuracy. Somehow, the error escaped notice.”

“Things like this should not happen,” Denise Myers, Tennell’s coach, relayed via text. “This is only the second time in my career (an error like this) happened.”

“I will say, every time something unusual happens, the ISU reviews the procedure and asks, ‘How can we prevent it from happening again?’” the technical specialist said. “This time, it was caught too late. If it had been caught before the ceremony started, it could have been changed … but human beings are not machines.”

No rest for U.S. ice dancers: Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue defended their Skate America title, the 11th straight time a U.S. couple won the event. With Donohue suffering a severe bout of bronchitis, the couple showed a well-earned sight of relief.

Still, the world bronze medalists narrowly lost the free dance to Aleksandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin of Russia, fourth in the world last season.

“There were good things and not-so-good things,” Hubbell said after the free dance to country-rock music from “A Star Is Born,” later adding, “It felt like there was a lot of energy missing. … It wasn’t the kind of performance we know we can give in that program.”

Antibiotics are on the menu for Donohue; he and Hubbell compete at Skate Canada in Kelowna, B.C., this week.

There, they will not face a world top-five dance couple. But the free dance result at their home Grand Prix shows the tough competition among the handful ranked below Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France. The two-time U.S. champions will want to make a statement in Kelowna.

“I hope to have two healthy lungs for Skate Canada,” Donohue said.

MORE: Hubbell, Donohue give U.S. ice dance 11 straight Skate America titles

A high for Denney and Frazier: Still just 23 and 26, respectively, Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier have had a roller-coaster career, marked by coaching changes and Denney’s severe knee injury that forced them to sit out the entire 2015-16 season.

Judging by their free skate, the roller coaster is on the ascent. Spectacular lifts and clean triple Salchows gave the U.S. silver medalists the second-highest technical score of the day, and a career-high 125.36 points. Their bronze is their third Skate America medal.

“Man, I told Haven a week ago that sometimes there’s been more stress than there needs to be to compete,” an emotional Frazier said. “I just want to enjoy it again. … I haven’t felt like this in a long time. We know there is a lot of pressure on these jumps, we want to hit them more than anything, and this was the first baby step in rebuilding our foundation.”

“I like to think outside of the box, I come up with some crazy things sometimes,” the skaters’ coach, John Zimmerman, said of the lifts, including a thrilling variation of “fly high, say bye” at the end of the routine. “They both have a lot of courage.”

Chen hip-hops on: In his teleconference prior to Skate America, Nathan Chen told reporters “three quads are a given” in his free skate. He was as good as his word, hitting Salchow, flip and toe to “Rocket Man.”

He also performed a hip-hop sequence so entertaining that coach Rafael Arutunian said, “you cannot feel he has blades on. He manipulates his feet like he is in shoes.” He won by 44 points over Jason Brown, who debuted a stirring free to “Schindler’s List.”

Not much else to say, except that Chen’s top competition in Vegas – Jin Boyang of China – looked way out of sorts, falling twice in his free on usually reliable quads.

After a strong short, bronze medalist Dmitri Aliev of Russia was sloppy in his free, making jump mistakes and not performing his choreography up to his capabilities. Their inconsistency shows why Brown – always armed with well-trained choreography, ready to wring out every possible point in steps and spins – is able to use his skating skills and showmanship to stay near the top, despite not performing quads.

Correction: An earlier version of this article mischaracterized the scoring issue related to Tennell’s free skate. It wasn’t that U.S. Figure Skating did not file an appeal, it’s that one was not permitted under the circumstances. 

MORE: Jason Brown on concussions, delayed start to season

MORE: Karen Chen balances Skate America with Cornell

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. 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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