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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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Penny Oleksiak edges Simone Manuel, Regan Smith sizzles again in Knoxville

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Penny Oleksiak and Simone Manuel nearly duplicated their Olympic gold-medal tie. The Canadian Oleksiak edged Manuel by .03 in the 100m freestyle at a Tyr Pro Series stop in Knoxville, Tenn., on Sunday night.

Oleksiak clocked 53.41 seconds, coming back from .37 behind Manuel at the 50-meter mark. The two tied for the Rio Olympic title in an Olympic record 52.70 seconds four years ago. Oleksiak was the surprise, a 16-year-old who came into the Games ranked eighth in the world for the year.

Since, Manuel swept the 2017 and 2019 World titles. Oleksiak was sixth at 2017 Worlds and withdrew before the 100m free at 2019 Worlds. She ranked 21st in the world last year. Oleksiak’s time Sunday was her fastest since 2017.

Full Knoxville meet results are here. The Pro Series’ next stop is Des Moines from March 4-7.

In other events Sunday, world-record holder Regan Smith won the 200m backstroke in 2:05.94, the fastest time ever outside of a national championships or major international meet. Smith, 17, achieved the same feat on Saturday in the 100m back, where she also broke the world record at last summer’s worlds.

Madisyn Cox won a matchup of the three fastest U.S. women in the 200m individual medley in 2019. She clocked 2:09.88, beating Alex Walsh by a half-second and Melanie Margalis by .54.

It was Cox’s fastest time since she took bronze at the 2017 World Championships. She missed the 2019 Worlds after failing a 2018 drug test over what she said was a contaminated multivitamin.

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Mikaela Shiffrin among favorites eliminated early in parallel giant slalom

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Mikaela Shiffrin was upset in the round of 16 of the first World Cup parallel giant slalom by unheralded Frenchwoman Clara Direz, who went on to earn her first win on Sunday.

Shiffrin had the fastest qualifying time but was bounced in the second round of head-to-head racing in Sestriere by Direz. Direz, 24, came into the day with a best career finish of seventh.

Direz was 16th-fastest in qualifying, 1.02 seconds behind Shiffrin combining times from two runs. Direz edged Shiffrin by .13 in their head-to-head run. Shiffrin appeared to be at a disadvantage being put on the red course, which produced just three winners among 20 one-run matchups.

“It is fun; I think I like the parallel GS actually more than the parallel slalom, but it’s a little bit difficult,” Shiffrin said. “I think there’s still a lot of work we have to do, and FIS [the International Ski Federation] has to do to really make the race as even as it can be because for sure you can see, there’s always a faster course. But today it’s like they’re not even the same course at all. Especially in the last four, five gates on the blue course, you can even see just looking up the hill that it’s straighter than the red course.

“Today I would say it’s a day where the luck [of which course you draw randomly] really plays a role.”

Direz eventually beat Austrian Elisa Moerzinger in the final. Direz was on the blue course for three of her four one-run rounds. Full results are here.

Higher-ranked racers used to be have their choice of courses in the parallel format.

“Maybe that wasn’t fair, either, but I think there must be a way to make it something that is more even, but at the same time, yeah, I don’t really have the answers on how to do that, either,” Shiffrin said. “It’s still in its infancy, this event.”

Shiffrin has a track record of success in parallel slaloms and similar city events, winning five of her last six starts. But the parallel GS proved problematic for the world’s best in slalom.

Swiss Wendy Holdener and Slovakian Petra Vlhova were also eliminated before the quarterfinals after being second- and third-fastest in qualifying. Holdener was also on the red course. Vlhova lost in the round of 32, when skiers were taking runs on both the blue and red courses.

Sestriere marked the last weekend of technical races (slaloms/giant slaloms) until mid-February. The next three weekends feature downhills and super-Gs. Shiffrin is expected to travel to Bansko, Bulgaria, for the first set on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

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