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Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, armed with triple Axel, fights to compete with Russian teens

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Figure skating is moving fast, and 2015 World champion Elizaveta Tuktamysheva is banking on an extra half-rotation to compete with a technical revolution led by quad-jumping countrywomen.

“I want to be on top,” Tuktamysheva told NBCSports.com/figure-skating in a phone interview following a bronze medal at Skate America. “If I want to do that, I have to work and keep improving in everything. Otherwise, I should stop skating.”

Five times a champion on the Grand Prix circuit – including at the 2014 Grand Prix Final – Tuktamysheva rallied from a solid short program but disappointing score of 67.28 (nearly six points below her season average) to land on the podium behind Russian national champion Anna Shcherbakova and 2018 U.S. champion Bradie Tennell.

“I was even happier to be third place here than I was when I was first place in Skate Canada last year, because I was thinking I could have been fifth because of the short program,” Tuktamysheva said. “I’m happy my free program was much better.”

Though the 22-year-old cleanly landed three of her signature triple Axels last weekend – including one in combination with a double toe loop in the free skate – she was nonetheless technically outgunned by Shcherbakova who, in her senior Grand Prix debut, became the first woman to land two quadruple Lutzes in international competition.

“Right now, it’s really hard to be on top in Russia, but you should keep trying so long as you feel like there’s a chance to win,” Tuktamysheva said. “I believe that I can compete. If there’s a girl who doesn’t believe, I don’t know why they would even try.”

Most fighting for one of three spots on the Russian team have a reasonable shot at earning medals – if not winning – at March’s world championships in Montréal, making December’s Russian Nationals a must-watch.

Besides Shcherbakova, Tuktamysheva must contend with Olympic champion Alina Zagitova, two-time world champion and Olympic silver medalist Yevgenia Medvedeva, reigning European champion and fellow Alexei Mishin pupil Sofia Samodurova, junior Grand Prix Final champion Alena Kostornaia – who attempted two triple Axels (landing one fully rotated) to win the Finlandia Trophy, and two-time world junior champion Alexandra Trusova, who landed four quadruple jumps at the free skate-only Japan Open on Oct. 5.

At an age where many skaters scale back their technical arsenals, Tuktamysheva continues to innovate, experimenting with a triple flip-triple toe loop short program combination while committing to three triple Axels at every competition.

Since beginning her season at the Russian Senior Test Skates – a veritable mini-Olympics featuring all eight women set to compete on the Grand Prix series – she has cleanly landed an impressive 12 of 14 triple Axels in competition.

“My technical conditioning is really good,” Tuktamysheva said. “This season, I hope to improve my components, programs, and also do the jumps. It’s so hard to be in your prime all season. It doesn’t work for me and, after all, I should be taking care of my health. I hope I’m going to do even better, but at the same time, I’m aware that I’m in my best-ever shape at the moment.”

Skate America saw more tinkering from Tuktamysheva, who unveiled a new transition into her “Drumming Song” short program’s triple Axel and changed the final edit of her Yiddish Jazz-themed free skate from “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen” to a reprise of the opening “Caravan.”

“We had one day after between Finlandia and Skate America, but in one day we made so many changes,” she said. “When I did the free program in Finlandia, I felt that the music at the end might not be as powerful, so we took the time to change. I heard the new version and thought it was 100 percent better. This is the final part to the program, and this time, I feel much more power and happiness as I finish it.”

Her current free skate layout allows for seven triple jumps – one away from the maximum eight she was competing at the end of last season to win the World Team Trophy over triple Axel rival Rika Kihira. Tuktamysheva plans to retain that content ahead of her next competition at Cup of China, while re-introducing the flip-toe combination back into the short program.

MORE: Quad revolution within women’s skating

“I don’t want to make big changes now,” she said. “I just want to skate clean, with power. I want my programs to feel like films, with no empty places.”

Her two programs are an intriguing contrast, and an artistic evolution from last year’s “Assassin’s Tango” and “You Don’t Love Me/Petit Fleur/Catgroove” outings.

She called “Drumming Song” – an earthy and primal Florence and The Machine song – her favorite short program of her career. A mash-up of “Caravan” and “Utt Da Zay” in the free skate shows the powerful Russian at her most fun and flirty – a refreshing departure from some of the more dramatic numbers attempted by her younger competitors.

“I’m a different feel in figure skating,” she said. “It just comes from inside. I listen to the music and the choreographer, and try to do my best to feel. When I feel and understand, it all comes together and looks really nice.”

A near-lock for last year’s world team, a bout of pneumonia felled Tuktamysheva days after taking bronze at the Grand Prix Final, forcing her out of the national championships. A narrow defeat to Medvedeva at February’s Russian Cup Final handed the last spot to her compatriot, who went on to earn a bronze medal at the world championships in Japan.

Where last season was a return to form, this season forecasts the former world champion, one of the most decorated athletes to never make an Olympic Games, at her athletic and artistic peak. With the Winter Games in Beijing just over two years away, the otherwise amiable Tuktamysheva still has something to say on the ice and plans to use the next three months of competitions to make her point.

“I will skate until I no longer feel I can compete with the other girls,” she said. “Right now, I want, and I will, and I will fight.”

MORE: Final Skate America takeaways

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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Lin Dan, badminton legend, retires: ‘It is very difficult to say goodbye’

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Lin Dan, arguably the greatest badminton player in history, announced retirement Saturday, citing “pain and injuries” in bowing out a year before the postponed Tokyo Olympics.

“I have been with the national team from 2000 to 2020, and it is very difficult to say goodbye,” 36-year-old Lin wrote to his four million Weibo fans, according to Badminton World Federation (BWF) translation. “Pain and injuries no longer allow me to fight with my teammates. I have gratitude, a heavy heart and unwillingness.”

Lin, nicknamed “Super Dan,” won Olympic singles titles in 2008 and 2012, plus five individual world titles. It’s the greatest resume for any badminton player from China, which owns twice as many medals as any other nation in the sport that debuted at the 1992 Barcelona Games.

He competed at the last four Olympics, won the sport’s Super Grand Slam (nine major titles) and had his own wax figure at Madame Tussauds in Shanghai.

Lin’s outbursts on and off the court led to some calling him the John McEnroe of badminton, but he is revered. In 2015, he was the second athlete on Forbes China‘s most popular celebrities list behind tennis player Li Na.

Lin’s pursuit of a fifth Olympics in Tokyo was looking out of reach. He dropped to No. 26 in the Olympic qualifying rankings, trailing four countrymen, including No. 5 Chen Long (Rio Olympic champion) and No. 11 Shi Yuqi (2018 World silver medalist). A nation can qualify a maximum of two individual players per gender for the Games.

“From where came his mastery? In short, his prowess was essentially due to the completeness of his game – in skill, physical ability and mental strength,” the BWF wrote in a press release. “Such was his craft that even well into his 30s, normally considered an advanced age for men’s singles, he could outplay younger and fitter opponents.”

NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.

MORE: Who is China’s greatest Olympian?

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MyKayla Skinner’s motivation for Tokyo: her Rio Olympic experience

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MyKayla Skinner remembers the little room at the SAP Center in San Jose. She remembers the wait, somewhere between 10 and 20 minutes.

After the 2016 U.S. Olympic Women’s Gymnastics Trials, the competitors (14 total performed) assembled while a selection committee convened in another space.

The committee finalized the five-woman Olympic team (plus three alternates), marched into the athletes’ room and delivered the verdict.

“They say the first four names, and then there’s that one spot left,” Skinner recalled. “I’m like, is it going to be me? You’re so tense just waiting there. All of us holding each other’s hands in the room. We’re all sitting there. It’s just, like, frozen dead silent. Then they say that fifth spot.”

Skinner doesn’t remember who was the fifth name. Just that it wasn’t her.

“I just broke down crying,” she said in a recent interview. “All that hard work I put in still wasn’t good enough. Even though it was. It’s just who they needed for the team.”

Skinner placed fourth in the all-around at those Olympic Trials, the highest finisher who was not named to the Olympic team. She was one of three alternates. If the Olympic team was chosen by all-around standings, a selection committee would not be necessary. Instead, gymnasts are puzzle pieces, chosen as who best fits the Olympic format: three gymnasts per apparatus in the team final and up to two per nation per individual final.

Skinner’s mind raced while she waited for the committee’s decision. She eventually settled on a gut feeling, that she would not make the team.

“I thought that it should be enough, but at the same I didn’t think that it would be,” said Lisa Spini, Skinner’s coach at Desert Lights Gymnastics in Chandler, Arizona. “I thought the team was already decided before the Olympic Trials.”

Spini said it was her toughest night as a gymnastics coach.

“Being an alternate is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in gymnastics,” said Skinner, who traveled to Brazil and, with fellow alternates Ashton Locklear and Ragan Smith, trained separately from the Olympic team. “The whole time I was in Rio, I probably cried every single night

“The Olympics should be something so special, but I feel like it was definitely miserable at times. It was really hard to enjoy being an alternate. With this comeback, that has pushed me so hard just because I was so close.”

You may have read about Skinner back in the spring, after the Tokyo Olympics were postponed to 2021.

It’s a devastating delay for a female gymnast, whose peak often lasts for one Olympic cycle (sometimes even shorter). Skinner is an exception, excelling for the better part of a decade on different levels.

She made her first world championships team in 2014. After Rio, she matriculated at the University of Utah, where she was twice an NCAA all-around runner-up and hit an NCAA record 161 straight routines without a fall. In 2019, she decided to come back to international competition — for an Olympic run — with one year left of NCAA gymnastics.

She is 23, the oldest of the 16-woman U.S. national team. She is trying to become the oldest woman to make a U.S. Olympic gymnastics team since 2004. And the first with NCAA experience to do so since Alicia Sacramone in 2008.

“The reason why a lot of college gymnasts couldn’t come back and do it is they’ve been so injured over the years,” Spini said. “Their body wouldn’t hold up. She’s been really lucky that way.”

Skinner could have easily followed the path of so many other stars who signaled the end of an elite career by going to college, where training and routines are less demanding.

She questioned herself often after the Tokyo postponement whether it was worth it to return to elite training. The Olympic team event roster size has been cut from five to four. Simone Biles is an overwhelming favorite to earn one spot. In the face of those odds, Skinner can’t shake a memory from Rio.

“I just go back to the moment of when I was sitting in the stands,” watching the Final Five earn gold, Skinner said. “I was so close to making the team. This has been my dream ever since I went to Desert Lights when I was 12.”

Skinner’s comeback is already a success. Last year, on three months of elite training, she placed eighth at the U.S. Championships. She was convinced to accept an invitation to the world championships selection camp, where six women would make the traveling team (one later named an alternate).

Like in 2016, Skinner placed fourth in the all-around competition before the roster was chosen.

Again, the gymnasts gathered for the announcement. This time, Skinner made the cut as the sixth woman named. Biles, the other 20-something at the camp and a friend, jumped in excitement.

The team traveled to Germany in late September. After training, one woman had to be designated the alternate. High performance team coordinator Tom Forster took Skinner aside one day on the way to lunch. She knew what was coming and broke down in tears, flashing back to 2016.

“Simone was like, hey, let’s go to the bathroom. She helped talk me through it and helped me calm down and definitely made me a feel a lot better,” said Skinner, who supported Biles and the U.S. team that competed in Stuttgart. She then wed Jonas Harmer in November and decided what must be done to make the Olympic team.

“We’re going to try to add in some big skills, which will put her difficulty level, probably, second only to Simone,” Spini said.

Skinner is documenting her last year-plus in elite gymnastics on a YouTube channel with 29,000 subscribers. She has been fortunate during the coronavirus pandemic to train at her gym if no more than 10 people were present. Many other gymnasts — and athletes across Olympic sports — spent weeks or months out of their facilities.

“I definitely don’t think I would have been able to have that much time off,” she said. “That’s really hard with gymnastics because you feel like, you take two days off, and it’s like you had a year off.”

One day this spring, Skinner’s mom called, in tears, fearing for her life with an illness that turned out to be the coronavirus. Both of her parents, in their 60s, had it and briefly lost their senses of taste. Her mom had breathing problems, but they recovered.

One night last month, Skinner had a dream about next year’s Olympic Trials. The Final Five all came back to compete, and Skinner was again named an alternate. She woke up. Skinner doesn’t know how she would handle that kind of disappointment in real life, again.

“So it’s kind of scary,” she said. Then Skinner thinks back to Rio, and that burning she felt while watching the Final Five win gold medals.

“This is what I’m supposed to do. This is what I’m meant to do is elite gymnastics,” said Skinner, who was born via life-threatening, early-labor C-section, needing to be revived by doctors. “I think it’s cool that I can have this opportunity to go and push myself one last time so I can reach that end goal.”

MORE: Gymnast Grace McCallum won a coin flip to become world champion

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