10 things we’ve learned halfway through the Grand Prix figure skating season

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With the senior Grand Prix series at its halfway point and skaters heading for Chonqing, China for the fourth of six “regular season” events, here are 10 things we’ve learned from the series so far:

WOMEN

1. The kiddie corps of Russian women has been even better than expected – and expectations were very high.

Anna Shcherbakova, 15, Alexandra Trusova, 15, and Alena Kostornaia, 16, each has easily won gold in the first three events. Shcherbakova took Skate America by 10-plus points; Trusova won Skate Canada by 10-plus points over reigning Grand Prix Final champion Rika Kihira of Japan; and Kostornaia took Grand Prix France by nearly 20 points over reigning world and Olympic champion Alina Zagitova of Russia.

It is likely that only Kihira, at the season-ending NHK Trophy in Japan, can prevent Russian women from sweeping gold in the six events. That has happened in only one of the four Grand Prix disciplines; Russian men swept in 1998-99 and 1999-00, an era when some skaters did three events instead of the current two.

The three young Russian women have posted the three highest free skate scores in the two seasons of the revised scoring system.

2. The jump revolution in women’s skating, with quads and triple Axels, has had a bigger and faster impact than expected – even though women cannot do quads in the short program.

Trusova’s four quad attempts (three clean) helped her wipe out Kihira’s 7.95-point edge after the short program at Skate Canada. Shcherbakova’s two clean quad Lutzes carried her from fourth after the short (7.5 points from first) to the title at Skate America. Kostornaia’s three triple Axels (even the one under-rotated in the short) were difference-makers in France.

And these stats, courtesy of skatingscores.com: Four women – Trusova, Shcherbakova and juniors Kamila Valieva of Russia and Alysa Liu of the United States, the latter two winners of two Junior Grand Prix events each this season – have done 19 jumps credited as quads in international events (including the free skate-only Japan Open) this season. There had been only 22 other jumps called quads in the previous history of the sport.

The success rate for women’s quads is the big change: Last season, just five of the 16 jumps called quads got a positive Grade of Execution (another got a neutral 0.0). This season, 16 of the 19 jumps have positive GOEs – 12 of them at 2.30 or higher.

3. Mariah Bell’s two strong skates in France produced the second Grand Prix medal of her career, a bronze (after her silver at Skate America in 2016).

More striking: Bell never lost her focus and made no significant mistakes, as she frequently had in the past, and she beat Zagitova in the free skate. Yet it still seems unlikely (but not impossible) that either Bell or Bradie Tennell, second and fourth at her two events, will be the first U.S. woman to qualify for the Grand Prix Final since Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold in 2015. Bell’s second event is Rostelecom Cup in mid-November.

MEN

4. Two-time men’s Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan, the sport’s superstar, may be heading for an even higher level of brilliance if his performance at Skate Canada is any indication.

Hanyu’s skating was his finest ever in his Grand Prix season debut. Clean in a two-quad short program, one minor mistake in a four-quad free skate, full of passion and competitive fire, this was a Hanyu asking “Can you top this?” to rival Nathan Chen, winner of the last two world titles.

5. The answer? Chen could not top it – so far.

In finishing first in all four programs at his two Grand Prix events, taking gold in both by a mile, Chen extended his Grand Prix winning streak to eight (including two wins at the Final) and became the first man to qualify for this season’s Final. But just one of his four performances (the short at Skate America) was clean.

Of course, Chen had an even messier Grand Prix record last season, but he improved in each event before lights-out, landmark performances at the U.S. and world championships.

6. All skating fans should keep their fingers crossed for a Hanyu-Chen meeting at the Grand Prix Final, since Hanyu missed the last two with foot injuries. Hanyu’s second event is the series finale (NHK in Sapporo) three weekends from now.

7. Hanyu and Chen are now light years ahead of the rest of the men in the world.

Reigning Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno of Japan is struggling, reigning world bronze medalist Vincent Zhou of the U.S. is sitting out the Grand Prix to concentrate on his first semester of college, and eye-catching Kevin Aymoz of France is a year or two from international title contention.

PAIRS

8. Few would have foreseen heading into the season that three young Russian couples, Daria Pavliuchenko and Denis Khodykin (ages 16 and 20), Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitri Kozlovski (17 and 19) and Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov (18 and 20) would take command of the pair scene so far.

Call it making hay while the sun shines (and the veteran teams haven’t – yet). Reigning world champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong (24 and 27) of China make their season debut this week at Cup of China. Reigning Grand Prix Final and European champions Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres (32 and 28) are taking the long view at contending for a 2022 Olympic medal by skipping this season’s Grand Prix for a mental and physical break. Reigning world silver medalists Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov (24 and 27) slogged to third at their first competition.

And a veteran U.S. couple, Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier (24 and 26), have stepped into the open space with two second-place free skates to get bronze medals and, if results are jumbled enough the next three weeks, have a shot at a spot in the Final. Only one U.S. pair has made it in the past 11 seasons (Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim in 2015.)

ICE DANCE

9. It is no surprise that there is the team Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France, first at the Grand Prix of France, and then there is everyone else. Their “Fame” rhythm dance is disco delight, goofy costumes included, even if it is better in execution than conception. The spoken passages in their free dance are more distraction than enhancement. But the skating – oh, the skating. The attention to detail, the synchronicity, flow, edge work. They are prohibitive favorites to win Olympic gold in 2022.

10. What a battle there should be at 2020 Worlds in Montreal for the silver and bronze medals in dance. Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier of Canada threw themselves into the mix with a Skate Canada upset of Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue of the U.S. (Hubbell and Donohue are reigning Grand Prix Final champions and world bronze medalists who have won medals in 13 straight series events.)

Madison Chock and Evan Bates of the U.S., looking for their first worlds medal since 2016 after 11 straight medals on the Grand Prix, were a solid second behind Papadakis and Cizeron in France. Reigning world silver medalists Viktoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov of Russia make their Grand Prix season debut this week. Charlene Guignard and Marco Fabbri of Italy are contenders, as are Aleksandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin of Russia. Musical chairs dance, anyone?

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

MORE: Will Nathan Chen return to six quad jumps in his free skate?

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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Carreira, Ponomarenko understand the depth of U.S. ice dance at nationals

Carreira and Ponomarenko
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GREENSBORO, N.C. Heading into the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Greensboro this week, up-and-coming ice dancers Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko focused on their “quads” not four-revolution jumps, but still pretty tough to execute.

“(Our coaches) have us doing double run-through weeks, triple run-throughs, even quadruple run-throughs, to make sure we’re fully ready,” Carreira said. “We’re drilling a lot more, so at nationals we go in 100 percent confident.”

Pasquale Camerlengo, who trains the team along with primary coach Igor Shpilband, agreed that the run-up to Greensboro has been grueling for the skaters from Novi, Mich.

“We always plan a week we call the quads, performing (programs) four times,” Camerlengo said. “We’re trying to make them ready physically and work their stamina, to handle their programs in competition, which is a little bit different than in practice. Physically, they’re ready for it.”

Tough practices are just one component of what’s been a challenging but productive sophomore senior season for the two-time world junior medalists, fifth in the U.S. in 2019.

Thus far, they’ve competed at six international competitions, stretching from Lake Placid, N.Y., in August to NHK Trophy in Sapporo, Japan, in late November. Six is a lot, considering other top teams they’ll compete against in Greensboro have competed three to five times so far this season.

“Igor wants to get more experience at the senior level, and also more world points,” Carreira, 19, said. “For that we have to compete. We get out there and compete as much as we can, so our programs feel more trained.”

Those programs – a rhythm dance to Cole Porter’s “It’s Too Darn Hot” and flamenco free dance to “Farrucas” – stretch their abilities far more than last season’s routines. Competing every two weeks or so left little time to make adjustments, so the past six weeks were the key to their preparation for Greensboro.

“We pushed a lot of changes we needed to make until after NHK, to smooth out the programs and really train them,” Ponomarenko, 19, said.

He added that the grueling first half of 2019-20 was a necessary ice dance rite of passage.

“It’s very different from our first season. We really didn’t know what to expect. Now we kind of know where we’re at and how we can improve. We definitely feel the sophomore slump this year, but we just want to compete and keep putting our good performances.”

On paper, Carreira and Ponomarenko’s 2018 Grand Prix results – which included a bronze medal at Rostelecom Cup – look more impressive than the sixth-place finishes they earned at Skate America and NHK this season. But the skaters don’t think the placements tell the full story.

“Last season, results-wise, it might have looked better, because a lot of (top) teams took the Grand Prix season off last season,” Carreira said. “This season, I feel our programs are more difficult and we’re skating better. We want to improve our consistency so that we can compete with the top teams.”

It doesn’t take much to lose points in an ice dance routine, especially on step sequences and “twizzles,” a series of fast rotations moving across the ice. A few slips here – including a small mistake on their twizzles in the rhythm dance at Skate America – can easily drop teams out of the top group.

“They always have the feeling they could do more,” Camerlengo said. “But the season is a progression. They’re getting better and better. That’s the goal, to have them (be) more reliable.”

“They need to do what they’re capable of,” he added. “They just have to do what they’ve learned, with no fear, and just go for it.”

In Greensboro, Carreira and Ponomarenko will have to throw caution to the wind to grab one of the three U.S. ice dance spots at the 2020 World Figure Skating Championships in Montreal this March.

With Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue, and Madison Chock and Evan Bates, very likely battling for gold, the Michigan skaters have their sights set on bronze. It’s a herculean task, considering the reigning U.S. bronze medalists, Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, qualified for the Grand Prix Final last season and notched career-best scores at Skate Canada this fall.

All three of those teams train together in Montreal. 

But Carreira and Ponomarenko think their programs, strengthened by adjustments and all of those quadruple run-throughs, give them a fighting chance.

“(A bronze medal) is more realistic now than last season,” Carreira said.

“I believe we’ve really grown as skaters,” Ponomarenko said. “Our programs are much more difficult, which has really helped us improve. I believe the podium at nationals is very reasonable. It could be achieved with some good skating.”

Other teams could be in the mix. Last season, Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter placed a strong fourth, but injuries forced them to withdraw from one of their Grand Prix events this fall. A new pairing, Caroline Green and Michael Parsons, has gelled quickly, winning two medals at Challenger Series international events.

“The level of U.S. ice dance level is high, the depth in the U.S. is really the top worldwide,” Camerlengo said. “But the podium, it is reasonable for Christina and Anthony. They have been working hard and they have a very good level to fight for the medal. We’ll see how they will perform here. They’re ready for it.”

Not all of the team’s challenges are on the ice. The Montreal-born Carreira – who has lived and trained in Novi since she was 13 – faces hurdles gaining her U.S. citizenship, without which the couple cannot compete at the Olympics. Last May, she petitioned U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to be deemed an “alien with extraordinary ability” under the immigration code, which would help smooth the way for legal permanent residency status. She was denied and filed suit against the USCIS, later dropping the action.

Carreira is still working to achieve a pathway to U.S. citizenship and prefers not to discuss the issue.

“I can’t really say anything,” she said. “We’re working on it, we’re hoping for the best.”

Citizenship issues never entered the skaters’ minds when they teamed up in the spring of 2014. Ponomarenko and his parents, 1988 Olympic ice dance champions Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko, had long admired Carreira’s skating. When he and his former partner Sarah Feng split after the 2014 U.S. Championships, he tried out with Carreira in Novi.

“We really worked well together from the beginning,” Ponomarenko said. “I had wanted to skate with Christina for a really long time even before getting together, so it was no-brainer. The bump in the road (citizenship) can be worked through.”

“There were so many good factors it would be, I think, stupid to let something that can be fixed get in the way of (our partnership),” Carreira said. “We didn’t even think about it.”

The ice dance competition in Greensboro kicks off with the rhythm dance on Friday afternoon, with medalists decided with the free dance on Saturday night.

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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Coronavirus forces Olympic soccer and boxing qualifiers to move

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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Olympic qualifying events in two sports were moved from the Chinese city of Wuhan on Wednesday because of an outbreak of a deadly viral illness.

A four-nation Asian qualifying group for the women’s soccer tournament was switched from the city at the center of the health scare to Nanjing.

The Asia-Oceania boxing qualifying tournament scheduled for Feb. 3-14 in Wuhan was cancelled. No new plans were announced.

The decisions followed Chinese health authorities telling people in Wuhan to avoid crowds and public gatherings.

The Asian Football Confederation said the round-robin group — featuring host China, Australia, Taiwan and Thailand — will be played on Feb. 3-9, retaining the same dates, in Nanjing.

More than 500 people have been infected and at least 17 killed since the outbreak emerged last month. The illness comes from a newly identified type of coronavirus.

Cases have also been reported in the United States, Japan, South Korea and Thailand. All involve people from Wuhan or who recently traveled there.

In the soccer qualifiers in China, two teams advance to a four-nation playoff round in March. That will decide which two teams from Asia join host Japan at the Tokyo Olympics.

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