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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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Amy Cragg to withdraw from U.S. Olympic marathon trials

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Defending champion Amy Cragg will miss the Feb. 29 U.S. Olympic marathon trials with an illness, according to her social media.

“The Trials are the reason I have shown up every day for the last four years, so this has been an extremely difficult decision,” was posted on her social media. Cragg later said she had Epstein-Barr virus, according to multiple reports.

Cragg, 36, was among the favorites to grab three Olympic spots at trials in Atlanta, despite not having competed over 26.2 miles since the February 2018 Tokyo Marathon.

She withdrew from the 2018 Chicago Marathon with a hamstring injury and also scratched a month before the 2019 Chicago Marathon, citing signs pointing to needing more time after the previous year’s injury.

Cragg, fourth at the 2012 Olympic trials, relegated Des Linden and Shalane Flanagan to second and third at the 2016 trials. Linden and Flanagan went on to win the Boston and New York City Marathons, respectively, ending long U.S. women’s victory droughts.

Cragg went on to finish ninth in Rio and earn a 2017 World bronze medal, the first world championships marathon podium finish for an American woman since the first worlds in 1983.

Cragg could still make the Tokyo Olympic team in the 10,000m if she races at track trials in June. She won the 2012 Olympic trials 10,000m but hasn’t raced the distance on the track since May 2017.

“Right now my only goal is to get healthy so that I can train at the level needed to be competitive,” Cragg said in an emailed message from her agent. “That being said, the reason I am still in this sport is because of the Olympic Trials and Olympics. It is what excites me more than anything, so it is something I would still love to do.”

With Cragg absent and Flanagan retired, Linden is the only woman in next week’s field with Olympic marathon experience.

Other favorites include Olympic 10,000m runner Molly Huddle, world championships 10,000m runner Emily Sisson and Jordan Hasay, the second-fastest U.S. female marathoner in history.

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Galen Rupp, after tumult, finds familiarity before Olympic marathon trials

Galen Rupp
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As Galen Rupp bids for a fourth Olympics, and perhaps become the first man or woman to win the Olympic marathon trials twice outright, he found some rare familiarity these days on the roads Feb. 8.

“Feeling like my old self again,” Rupp said Wednesday of winning a low-key half marathon in Mesa, Ariz., his first completed race in 16 months and since parting from now-banned, career-long coach Alberto Salazar. “It’s obviously been a long year and a half.”

Rupp clocked 61 minutes, 19 seconds on a downhill course. It’s faster than any half marathon by an American recorded by World Athletics since the start of 2019. Granted the downhill, but Rupp also said he was instructed by new coach Mike Smith to make it a controlled effort.

“He didn’t want me to run all-out, didn’t want me to really push and put myself in a big hole,” Rupp said, noting he was still in heavy training. “You don’t want to break that [training] up and put yourself in a deficit by having a massive effort.”

Mesa answered questions about Rupp’s readiness for the Olympic trials in Atlanta on Feb. 29 (NBC, 12-3 p.m. ET). Even to the two-time Olympic medalist himself. Rupp said he started the half marathon with a little bit of doubt — given recent left ankle and calf injuries — but felt early on that everything would be fine.

“It really put my mind at ease,” he said. “I’m going to be good for the marathon.”

His last two marathons did not go well.

At the 2018 Chicago Marathon, Rupp dropped from the leaders around mile 19 and finished fifth in a title defense. An Achilles injury flared up near the end. He underwent surgery later that month for two tears. Doctors said the ankle had been “a ticking time bomb.”

“They said I was really lucky to have as good of health as I had and manage it as I did,” Rupp said.

He went a full year before racing again, at the Chicago Marathon on Oct. 13, 12 days after Salazar’s ban was announced. Even that was a rushed comeback, Rupp said after dropping out around mile 23 with a calf injury.

“I’m not going to say it was a wake-up call,” Rupp said, “but I think I was a little bit stubborn before Chicago.”

Rupp said he ran through pain in training to get to the start line four months ago. He had trouble walking for several days after the abbreviated race and focused on physical therapy for about two months. He resumed normal, pain-free training in December.

By early January, Runner’s World reported that Oregon-based Rupp found a new Flagstaff-based coach in Smith, who leads a Northern Arizona University program that won the last three NCAA men’s cross-country titles.

“The biggest thing to me was Mike’s philosophy in coaching was very similar to the program that I was under for so many years,” said Rupp, who was for more than a decade part of the Nike Oregon Project, which was shut down last fall after Salazar’s ban for doping violations (which he appealed). Rupp wasn’t implicated by USADA and has a clean drug-testing record. “What I love most about it was Mike’s honesty and how forthright he was about everything. You could tell he wasn’t just saying what I wanted to hear or say, ‘We’re just going to do whatever you’ve been doing and try and replicate that.’ You’ve got to keep evolving and trying new things.”

Smith declined an interview request through NAU until after trials. He agreed to coach Rupp after about a month of communication and hard questions, according to Runner’s World.

“Because of its timing and the headlines I was reading like everyone else at the time, this was not a road I wanted to go down,” Smith said, according to the report. “To be honest, it was just easiest to turn it down. I’m actually — as crazy as this sounds — really proud I did not.

“What I found out by getting to know Galen was that there was much more going on than the picture portrayed of him, and I wish the world knew that. I have never seen someone more all-in in my life.”

Rupp, asked his toughest moment of the last two years, said he moves forward.

“Throughout any hardships and setbacks, I felt a lot of gratitude that I had as good of a run as I did with my health and everything going well for as long as I did,” he said. “It can be easy to get angry and get down, like why me, but I do believe that things always work out. There’s a reason behind all this stuff.”

Which brings Rupp to Atlanta next week for the first time in his life, aside from airport layovers. The race is unlike any other he has contested. The course is unusually hilly. The format — Americans only, top three make the Olympic team — makes for different tactics than the World Marathon Majors that Rupp is used to.

In 2016, Rupp entered as a favorite but without any marathon experience. He won convincingly, pulling away from now-retired Meb Keflezighi by 68 seconds.

The field is deeper this year. Seven Americans broke 2:11 in 2019. Only one did in 2015. But Rupp, at his best, is in his own class.

His personal best 2:06:07, from his last healthy marathon in 2018, is 1:49 faster than the second-fastest in the trials field in this Olympic cycle (Leonard Korir). The next-fastest, Scott Fauble, is more than three minutes behind by personal bests.

“I can confidently go in and say that I’ve put in the work for this, just like I know that I put in the work in 2016,” Rupp said. “Of course, you want to go in and have good races, feeling confident and being on a roll like I was several years ago. But I think that’s why that race in Mesa was so important to show, more to myself, that hey, you’re ready to go. You can still run well. You haven’t lost everything. Surgery didn’t wipe you out.”

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