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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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MORE: Virtue, Moir pushed ice dance boundaries throughout exemplary career

Bryan brothers to retire at 2020 U.S. Open, don’t plan on Olympics

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Bob and Mike Bryan said they will retire after the 2020 U.S. Open, ending a tennis career that’s included a men’s record 16 Grand Slam doubles titles together.

They also don’t plan to play at the Tokyo Olympics, their manager later said in an email.

The twins are 41 years old, having spent more than half their lives as professionals.

“A part of us, feels like, is dying,” Bob Bryan said on Tennis Channel. “But we’re really clear about this decision. It’s going to be great to have a finish line.”

Mike said that in 2020 they will play all the events they “really love,” including all four Grand Slams and American tournaments. The Olympics weren’t mentioned.

Rather, they will see how they’re feeling midway through the year, they said on the Tennis.com podcast.

The Bryans earned doubles gold at the 2012 London Games but withdrew from the Rio Olympics six days before the Opening Ceremony. They cited making their family’s health a “top priority” and later said Zika virus concerns were “a very small part of” the decision.

The Bryans own 118 titles overall but nearly ended their partnership after Bob underwent hip surgery a year ago. He rejoined Mike this season, reaching the Australian Open quarterfinals and winning two ATP doubles titles.

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A century later, Naomi Osaka, Kei Nishikori can bring Japan Olympic tennis to forefront

Naomi Osaka, Kei Nishikori
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When Naomi Osaka and Kei Nishikori take the courts at the Tokyo Olympics, perhaps together, they will be doing so 100 years after tennis players won Japan’s first Olympic medals in any sport.

Tennis is not usually one of the handful of marquee competitions at the Games, in part because it is one of the sports whose biggest event is not the Games themselves.

“We have been playing for these Grand Slams, and I think that’s why we train for,” Nishikori said at the U.S. Open in August, when asked to compare the meaning of winning one of tennis’ four annual majors to earning a medal at a home Olympics. “That’s going to be the biggest goal to winning Grand Slams.”

Yet the term “Grand Slam” had not been conceived — for golf or tennis — at the time of the 1920 Antwerp Games. There, Ichiya Kumagae earned silvers in singles and doubles with Seiichiro Kashio to become the first Japanese Olympic medalists.

Kumagae was Japan’s first notable international tennis player, reaching the 1918 U.S. Open semifinals (then called the U.S. National Championships) and beating Bill Tilden in the final of the 1919 Great Lakes Championships.

Kumagae, born in 1890, had not seen a tennis racket or ball until his 20s, according to Roger W. Ohnsorg‘s “The First Forty Years of American Tennis.”

“He came here to America in 1916, the possessor of a wonderful forehand drive and nothing else,” Tilden wrote in “The Art of Lawn Tennis.” Kumagae was listed by Ohnsorg as 5 feet, 3 inches, 134 pounds and requiring glasses at all times. Later in 1922, Kumagae’s engagement to the daughter of a wealthy politician was published as a news brief in The New York Times.

Nearly a century later, Nishikori and Osaka brought more Japanese tennis breakthroughs. Nishikori became the first Asian man to reach a Grand Slam singles final at the 2014 U.S. Open. Last year, Osaka became the first Japanese singles player to win a Grand Slam, also at the U.S. Open.

This past June, Japan’s annual Central Research sports survey (1,227 people, age 20+) put Nishikori and Osaka as its respondents’ fourth- and sixth-favorite athletes, past or present. Baseball players Ichiro (retired), Shohei Ohtani and Shigeo Nagashima (long retired) and figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu rounded out the top five.

Osaka’s U.S. Open title was voted the top sports moment of Emperor Akihito’s reign from 1989 to April 30, beating Ichiro’s retirement and Hanyu’s repeat Olympic crown in PyeongChang. Perhaps there was some recency bias.

Akatsuki Uchida, a tennis journalist from Japan, said that Nishikori’s U.S. Open final was a bigger moment for Japanese tennis than Osaka’s win over Serena Williams, though.

“Tennis at that time [in 2014] was not broadcast in Japan,” she said at the U.S. Open. “Media coverage of tennis was decreasing before Kei made that final. For most of Japanese, not tennis fans, but ordinary people, it came from out of nowhere. … He became like an overnight sensation. Since then, the situation of tennis in Japan changed dramatically.

“If [Osaka] wins the title before Kei won the title here, it could have been way bigger, but since Kei made the final before Naomi, it made Naomi’s achievement, still a big deal, less surprising.”

Another key difference: Nishikori spent the majority of his childhood in Japan, while Osaka’s family, with a Haitian father and Japanese mother, moved to the U.S. when she was 3 years old.

Osaka has dual citizenship, but Japanese law requires one to be chosen over the other by the 22nd birthday. Osaka turned 22 last month, before which she confirmed what most had assumed, that she picked Japan.

Uchida was unsure whether Osaka and Nishikori could propel tennis at the Tokyo Games into a greater spotlight among 33 total sports.

“But if Kei and Naomi played mixed doubles, that would be a big thing,” she said.

Nishikori has already reportedly said he plans to enter singles and doubles in Tokyo, the latter with Ben McLachlan, Japan’s top doubles player. McLachlan was born in New Zealand and in 2017 switched representation to Japan, his mother’s birth nation.

But Nishikori did not rule out adding mixed doubles.

“Very hot, very humid, playing singles and two doubles, I don’t know if I can,” he said before the U.S. Open. “I haven’t think too much yet, honestly. I don’t know. I will talk to Naomi later.”

Nishikori smiled as he brought up Osaka’s name at the end of his answer to a question that didn’t mention her. Later in the tournament, Osaka was told Nishikori’s thoughts.

“I would definitely play with him,” said Osaka, who in 2016 was the highest-ranked eligible player not to make the Rio Olympic field. “I just — I would actually need to practice doubles for the first time in my life. Because you cannot play mixed doubles with Kei Nishikori and lose in the first round of the Olympics in Tokyo. That would be the biggest — like, I would cry. I would actually cry for losing a doubles match. Yeah, definitely I think that that would be so, like, historic in a way. And I would love to do it, but I need to practice my doubles.”

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