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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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Soccer players union pledges support for Olympic protesters

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GENEVA (AP) — Soccer players who defy Olympic rules by making protest gestures at the 2020 Tokyo Games will be supported by their global union.

Freedom of speech on issues like anti-discrimination and gender equality needs to be protected from “a hypocritical rule,” FIFPro general secretary Jonas Baer-Hoffmann said Wednesday at a United Nations labor agency conference.

The International Olympic Committee revived the debate on athlete rights this month by publishing details of protests in venues and medal ceremonies that can lead to disciplinary action, including being sent home from Tokyo.

MORE: IOC publishes protest guidelines

Taking a knee, hand gestures with political meaning — such as raised fist salutes — and snubbing a fellow medalist on the podium are specific types of demonstrations long prohibited by Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter.

“We feel their freedom of expression overrides any other interest that may be in play here,” said Baer-Hoffmann, whose union represents 65,000 professional players.

He praised players who have fueled “these fundamental debates” in soccer by speaking out about racism and equal pay for women.

“They are trailblazers but, on the one hand, they are being welcomed by people to take this forward and make sport appear as a change agent in society,” Baer-Hoffmann said. “And, on the other, now we have a hypocritical rule that says if you do it in our venues, we think this is a sanctionable offense.”

“This is absolutely unacceptable,” the union official said on the sidelines of an International Labor Organization conference about athlete working conditions, also attended by Olympic officials.

The IOC says political neutrality is key to keeping the Olympics a place where athletes worldwide can compete together in peace.

Political opinions can be expressed in Olympic venue interviews and on social media accounts, according to the new guidelines drafted after consultation by the IOC athletes’ commission.

The Tokyo Games soccer tournaments are a 16-team event for men and 12 for women . They kick off on July 22, two days before the opening ceremony, and end on Aug. 8.

The United States will be the women’s favorite if the team advances from a regional qualifying tournament. The team’s co-captain in qualifying is Megan Rapinoe, who has taken a strong stand speaking out on social issues.

MORE: Rapinoe kneels during anthem before U.S. game in 2016

“If the IOC decides to discipline players on this occasion, we will certainly stand by them to defend them,” Baer-Hoffmann said.

Not all of the more than 10,000 athletes in Tokyo, competing in 33 sports, have the same collective protection as soccer players.

“There is a danger you will have two classes of athletes at the Olympics,” said Brendan Schwab, executive director of the World Players Association, citing those who either have or lack resources to defend themselves.

Schwab said the Sport and Rights Alliance, a coalition of trade unions and human rights groups, could offer help. Its members campaigned to release Bahraini soccer player Hakeem al-Araibi from detention in Thailand last year.

Those who took a stand at past Olympics — including American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, and Czech gymnast Vera Caslavska at the 1968 Mexico City Games — had “suffered terribly for their protest” before being championed decades later, Schwab said.

“We believe the Olympic movement is strong enough, and in fact it is stronger,” he said, “if it provides a safe space for political protest in the course of the Olympic Games.”

MORE: Smith, Carlos part of U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame class

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Naomi Osaka, Coco Gauff set Australian Open duel

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Plenty was going badly for Coco Gauff in the second round of the Australian Open.

The double-faults kept coming Wednesday, nine in all. The deficits, too: First, she dropped the opening set against 74th-ranked Sorana Cirstea.

Then, after forcing a third, Gauff fell behind by a break, ceding 14 of 16 points with a series of mistakes. Later, after getting even at 3-all, Gauff was a mere two points from a loss.

None of that mattered. As she keeps showing, over and over, Gauff is not a typical 15-year-old. Not a typical tennis player, either.

And by getting past Cirstea 4-6, 6-3, 7-5 in a little more than two hours thanks to a more aggressive approach in the late going, she now has set up yet another Grand Slam showdown against Naomi Osaka.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women

“I kind of felt the momentum changing,” Gauff said about turning things around against Cirstea. “I knew I had to keep pressing.”

Less than five months after their memorable meeting at the U.S. Open — Osaka won that one in straight sets, then consoled a crying Gauff on court and encouraged her to address the spectators — the two will face each other again. Like that time, Osaka is the major’s reigning champion and Gauff is making her debut at the tournament.

“I think I’ll be less nervous this time,” said Gauff, who eliminated seven-time Grand Slam champion Venus Williams in the first round Monday. “I think I’m more confident this time around.”

As for what sticks with her about the post-match comforting Osaka offered in New York, Gauff said: “If I had a child or something, that’s something I would want my child to see. It just shows what being a competitor really is. You might hate the person on the court, but off the court you love them — not really, like, ‘hate,’ but you want to win. Sometimes when we’re on the court, we say things we don’t mean because we have that mentality. When it’s all said and done, we still look at each other with respect.”

Other winners included Serena Williams — 6-2, 6-3 against Tamara Zidansek in a match that finished with the Rod Laver Arena retractable roof closed because of rain — No. 1 Ash Barty, 2018 Australian Open champion Caroline Wozniacki and two-time major champion Petra Kvitova, the runner-up to Osaka in Australia a year ago.

In the last featured match of the night, No. 10 Madison Keys defeated Arantxa Rus 7-6 (7-3), 6-2.

Defending men’s champion Novak Djokovic required all of 95 minutes to breeze past Japanese wild-card entry Tatsuma Ito 6-1, 6-4, 6-2, while Roger Federer swept Filip Krajinovic 6-1, 6-4, 6-1.

Gauff was not at her very best on a windy afternoon against Cirstea but managed to figure her way out of trouble repeatedly. Gauff demonstrated plenty of grit, yes, and also enthusiasm, pumping herself up by shaking a fist and yelling, “Come on!” after most of her successful points down the stretch.

All the while, Gauff was supported by a Melbourne Arena crowd that chanted, “Let’s go, Coco! Let’s go!”

Her father, Corey, was animated in the stands, too, except when he was squeezing his eyes shut at critical moments.

There were several of those for his precocious daughter, who was ranked only 313th last year when she became the youngest player in history to qualify for Wimbledon, then wound up beating Williams there en route to the fourth round.

It is a measure of her came-so-soon stardom that Gauff was playing at Melbourne Park’s third-largest stadium Wednesday, even though this was a matchup between a pair of players ranked outside the top 60 and with one career Grand Slam quarterfinal between them, more than a decade ago (Cirstea made it that far at the 2009 French Open).

Indeed, every Grand Slam singles match — “every” being a relative term, of course, because this was No. 9 — of the 67th-ranked Gauff’s nascent career has been placed on a show court.

This was the first main draw match at a major for Gauff in which she held a better ranking than her opponent.

Didn’t seem that way at the outset: Gauff dropped the first set. After forcing things to a third, she trailed 3-0. After making it 3-3, Gauff needed to get through one more gut-check: Twice, she was two points from departing.

But the American teenager broke in the next-to-last game, then held to win.

How did Gauff get through this test?

“Just my will to win,” she said. “My parents, they always told me I can come back, no matter what the score is.”

Osaka worked through some frustrations Wednesday by grabbing her racket with both hands and chucking it to the ground, tossing away a tennis ball and kicking the racket along the court, to boot.

Then she plopped herself down on her sideline seat and draped a towel over her head. Soon, she was gathering herself and defeating Zheng Saisai 6-2, 6-4.

“I mean, my racket just magically flew out of my hand. I couldn’t control it,” Osaka said with a mischievous smile. “I think that’s how I dealt with my frustration. It was a bit childish. I just want to play one match without throwing my racket or kicking it. That’s all I want.”

Perhaps because her news conference took place while Gauff and Cirstea were still playing, Osaka deflected a question seeking some sort of lookahead to the third round, saying simply she would go watch the end of that match.

MORE: Another top U.S. tennis player cools on Olympics

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