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As top stars step away, Canada asks ‘who next?’ in figure skating

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KELOWNA, Canada – Following a sparkling decade on the ice for Canadian figure skating that started with hosting the Vancouver Winter Games and reached a crescendo with team gold in PyeongChang last year, the Great White North suddenly finds itself asking, “So, what next?”

Or – more precisely – who next?

“We had this team of skaters that had pushed through three Olympic Games, ending in PyeongChang,” Mike Slipchuk, high performance director for Skate Canada, told NBCSports.com this past weekend during Skate Canada International, the ISU Grand Prix event. “If you would have told me that in 2010, after Vancouver, I wouldn’t have thought so. They were still at the top of their game.”

“We’re now in a rebuild and we knew it was coming.”

Thumb through the list of Canadian skaters at Skate Canada over the weekend in this lakeside British Columbia city of just over 100,000, and you would be forgiven for asking, “Where’s Patrick?” “What happened to Tessa and Scott?” “Kaetlyn?” “How are Meagan and Eric?”

Since those uber-successful PyeongChang Games just last February, many of the household skating names in this country have retired or stepped away temporarily from the sport, including the aforementioned Patrick Chan, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, Kaetlyn Osmond and Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford, all part of that gold-medal winning squad that captured the team event in South Korea.

But there is no panic with Slipchuk. Or, rather, he prefers to look at things differently: This is a country that has a long history of successes in this sport, and they’re already building towards and eyeing 2022 and 2026 for what’s to come next.

Even if that takes a couple of years.

“After every Olympic Games, you’re never sure what athletes are going to retire or move on,” said Slipchuk. “We’re always looking for that next wave of youngsters. We’re trying to build depth.”

That doesn’t mean Canada doesn’t have a wide spread of talent already on the senior international scene. Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier are still one of the top ice dance teams in the world, and won their first Grand Prix gold together in Kelowna. And Gabrielle Daleman is rebuilding her singles career after taking time away from the ice last season.

Top men’s skater Nam Nguyen, a junior world champion in 2014, won silver this weekend, his first Grand Prix medal in five years.

“There’s gonna be a change… there’s gonna be a switch in generation,” said Gilles, who has skated alongside Poirier internationally for eight seasons.

“It takes time to build a gold-medal team. Patrick wasn’t Patrick from the beginning. (Fans) need to understand that… patience, time. We have solid skaters (in Canada), but they just need to get that feel on how it is to skate on the biggest stages.”

“Patrick,” of course, is Patrick Chan, the triple world champion from 2011-13 who was almost assured the gold medal in the lead-up to the Sochi Olympics before a teenager named Yuzuru Hanyu came along and changed men’s skating forever.

After earning silver in Sochi and taking a season off, Chan returned to the sport – like Virtue and Moir – but wasn’t able to keep up with a new generation of multi-quad-hurling global skaters. He finished ninth in PyeongChang.

In the last year, Chan, Virtue and Moir, Osmond, Duhamel and Radford and 2014 Olympian Kevin Reynolds have all announced their official retirements. Ice dance duo Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje are taking a break from the sport, and currently competing in a Dancing With the Stars-meeting-figure-skating show, Battle of the Blades, on Canadian TV.

Earlier this year at the world championships in Japan, no Canadian skater won a medal for the first time in 15 years, since 2004. On the contrary, Canada has won medals in 10 straight Winter Olympics, dating back to 1984.

Along with Gilles/Poirier, Daleman and Nguyen, top established international skaters include men’s skater Keegan Messing, pair team Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro, ice dance team Laurence Beaudry-Fourier and Nikolaj Sorensen.

“We’re in that phase right now where we have that talent coming up,” said Reynolds, 29, who is now a coach in the Vancouver area. “They need that experience… and a breakthrough performance to make them a household name.”

Slipchuk points to such breakthroughs as important in the modern figure skating landscape internationally. Canada’s Marjorie Lajoie and Zachary Lagha are the junior world ice dance champions, and Friday made their senior Grand Prix debut at Skate Canada.

Their reputation as world champs will help bolster their early senior career, but the transition into senior ranks rarely comes as easily as taking center ice. Especially in ice dance.

Other junior names to watch representing the Maple Leaf: Stephen Gogolev and Aleksa Rakic in men’s singles, as well as a trio of ice dance teams that medaled on the junior Grand Prix this fall season.

“It’s also a question of timing,” added Elladj Balde, a former junior national champion in Canada who retired last year, as well. “This (coming) generation is a little different. Everyone left as these (skaters) are still growing. They’re going to become Canada’s future. There was no ‘boom!’ They’re going to get there. People just have to see it and trust it.”

That’s where Slipchuk comes in. As a governing body, Skate Canada works with independent and private coaches around the country to try and help foster and grow their most promising skaters.

“What coaches feel, we fully support,” Slipchuk explained. “If it’s important to keep a team in juniors for an extra year, like we did with Lajoie and Lagha, then let’s do it. It’s a discussion. We don’t want the athletes to be a fish out of water. It’s a group effort. We’re open to provide opportunities for athletes individually.”

Because it isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, Slipchuk sees himself as a manager of sorts, making sure he provides resources for coaches and athletes to excel as best they can at the senior level, from on-ice performance to sports science and beyond.

“Our goal is 2022 and Beijing,” he said. “PyeongChang was an incredible group. For all of them, it was their time to move on… those were more years than I thought we would get out of them. It’s time for a new generation. We’re building ourselves back up.”

The pairs team of Moore-Towers/Marinaro were seventh at worlds earlier this year and Friday night they received roaring applause from home fans as they took to the ice for the short program in Kelowna. But after going from Canada’s No. 4 or 3 team for the past several years in pairs to being No. 1 last year, that wasn’t an easy switch, either.

“Last year I struggled… I put too much pressure on our shoulders,” Moore-Towers said in a conference call before Skate Canada. “It didn’t get us the results we wanted. … It’s less about carrying a torch and more about looking within ourselves to recognize our skills. We have to work with the other Canadian teams to (get better).”

Following a shaky free skate, Moore-Towers/Marinaro won silver at Skate Canada, when many expected them to win gold.

For the two of them, as well as Gilles/Poirier, Daleman, Nguyen and a select few others, it’s also about leadership: How do they help their younger teammates navigate what can be a scary, intimidating and pressure-packed international skating scene?

“This is a community,” Gilles said of Canadian skating. “We have to create that energy that they want to be in… we need to support one another. That’s our job.”

“Right now, it takes that extra step… and that’s rewarding for us,” Poirier said, echoing his partner. “We’re seeing (these younger skaters) blossom, and that’s exciting for us to see, too.”

While Russia continues to crank out top ladies’ from the junior ranks, the U.S. is strong in dance and Japan has stars like Hanyu and triple Axel-jumping Rika Kihira, Canada isn’t panicking about its place as a perennial figure skating powerhouse.

They’ve always seemed to figure it out. And Reynolds thinks he knows exactly why.

“There are great skaters coming up right now, but what makes me comfortable with Canadian skating in the future is that we have great skating schools across the country,” he said. “It’s that solid base of learning to skate and working their way up the ranks.”

“Exactly,” agreed Balde. “It’s there. It’s just going to be a bit of a process this time around.”

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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With four former champions in the mix, who can claim U.S. Championships pairs’ title?

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There have been four different U.S. pairs’ champions in the past four years. All four of those teams are in the field at this week’s U.S. Championships in Greensboro, North Carolina. With that in mind, who could get the nod to compete at the world championships in March?

The U.S. has two spots to fill, thanks to the efforts of Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, who finished ninth at last year’s worlds.

Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier had the best fall of any U.S. pair, winning two bronze medals on the Grand Prix Series. Denney and Frazier finished with silver medals at last year’s national championships, too. The team has previous experience at the world championships (2015: 12th; 2017: 20th).

Cain-Gribble and LeDuc won the national title last year after a season that was nearly sidelined by Cain-Gribble’s concussion in December 2018. As the solo U.S. representatives at the world championships, they succeeded in earning back two world berths for 2020.

This season, they won two B-level competitions and finished fourth and fifth at their Grand Prix assignments. LeDuc said last week that despite their win at Golden Spin in December, “there was a little bit of room for improvement, which is exactly what we want from a competition going into nationals.”

“We feel like we’ve improved a lot as far as what we’re able to take on mentally because we know that this is going to be an intense week,” Cain-Gribble said. “We’re prepared for that. We’ve never had to do this before, where we’re coming in and we’re already the reigning champions. We’ve never come in with that title before. We’ve had the opportunity to talk to a lot of people about it and what that feeling is, but overall their main thing was, ‘Be prepared. Prepare yourself beyond what you can even imagine. When you get there, just go on autopilot and do your thing.’”

PyeongChang Olympic team event bronze medalists Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim haven’t been in top form since the Games. Later in 2018, they split from short-lived coach Aljona Savchenko in Germany and moved to California.

They finished an all-time low of seventh at last year’s nationals and were not assigned to any events later in the season. In their off-season, Chris underwent wrist surgery. The couple also added Rafael Arutunian to their coaching team to address their jumping abilities. Their season consisted of a silver medal at a B-level competition, followed by two Grand Prix assignments where they finished fourth and seventh.

“We feel that many people probably have kind of written us off, because we’re an old married couple and we’re kind of labeled ‘can’t get it together,’” Scimeca Knierim said after finishing fourth at Skate Canada this fall. “That’s almost an advantage, because I feel like for so long, we were considered the front-runners. I still believe we are. We’re trying to show we can get it together.”

The last time the Knierims competed at a nationals in Greensboro, in 2015, they won the first of their two titles. That year, they notched their highest placement (seventh) across five total trips to the world championships.

Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea won their national title in 2016 and were also sent on their only trip to the world championships where they finished 13th. In 2017, Kayne underwent knee surgery, but they returned to the national podium in 2018 and won silver. Last year, they finished fourth after a disastrous free skate.

This season, they collected a silver medals and a fourth place finish at two B-level competitions as well as a pair of sixth-place finishes on the Grand Prix.

MORE: 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships TV, live stream schedule

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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Maddie Bowman, first Olympic ski halfpipe champion, ends competitive career

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Maddie Bowman knows she has been very fortunate. She just turned 26 years old and has already accomplished everything she wanted in her sport, halfpipe skiing.

Bowman, who won the event’s Olympic debut in Sochi in 2014, recently decided to retire from competition.

“I’ve really given the sport everything I could that was positive, and I knew the sport would be in great hands when I walked away,” she said. “So I decided it was my time to be done.

“I just felt like I couldn’t give anything else to the sport because I was a little bit afraid [of injury], but also it’s mentally exhausting. It drained my mental health for sure, but I loved doing it, and I still love skiing. Competition just isn’t for me anymore.”

The decision weighed on the South Lake Tahoe native last season. She competed at the Winter X Games for the last time, taking fifth place. She earned medals each of the previous seven years, including five golds, despite undergoing two major knee surgeries in that span.

“I was thinking [last year] that this is really hard, and I don’t know if I want to keep doing this,” she said. “It was really hard for me to get into the right mental state again. It’s painful. My knees hurt, but I was torn. I was torn between wanting to walk away and the love I had for the people I was around, people I competed against and just the lifestyle. I worked really hard on opening up other doors for myself besides skiing, which is making my transition a lot smoother.”

Those opportunities include activism, spreading awareness around climate change for Protect Our Winters. Bowman wants to finish her college degree and teach high school biology and health. She aims to continue public speaking regarding motivational talks and mental health.

Bowman struggled with depression between the Sochi and PyeongChang Olympics. She is equally proud of her second Olympic performance — finishing 11th in South Korea — as her landmark gold medal in Russia. While in PyeongChang, she believed it would likely be her last Olympics.

“I had doubts if I would even make it to PyeongChang, and making it there was one of my huge accomplishments,” Bowman said. “It was such a special event. Even though I only got 11th, I skied my freakin’ heart out. I gave it everything I had.”

Bowman, the daughter of two former professional skiers, took gold in Sochi as the youngest finalist. She landed back-to-back 900s for the first time in her career (by accident after having to improvise her opening run). She did so in front of family that included 78-year-old Lorna Perpall, who wore a T-shirt that read “badass grandma.”

Afterward, Bowman spoke about friend Sarah Burke, the Canadian ski halfpipe pioneer who died after a training accident in 2012.

“It means so much for us to be able to show the world what our sport is,” Bowman said that night in Russia. “She’s here with us.

“I sure hope I, and everyone else, made her proud because we would not be here without her.”

Bowman has her own place in history. No matter how long ski halfpipe is in the Olympics, she will always be the first woman to earn gold.

“I know as our sport gets more solidified into the Olympic Games, it can become pretty national, cutthroat and competitive,” she said. “I would love to see it stay this free-spirited work of art, something beautiful like that.”

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