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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Arnie the Terminator: Aussie rival to Katie Ledecky an unlikely swim story

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In August 2016, a 15-year-old Australian swimmer named Ariarne Titmus followed the Rio Olympics as she prepared to fly to Maui for the Junior Pan Pacific Championships.

Titmus paid special attention to her best events, the 200m, 400m and 800m freestyles. Katie Ledecky swept them, breaking two of her own world records.

“I remember watching her races thinking, like, this chick is nuts,” Titmus told NBC Sports in Australia early this year. “She’s just doing stuff that no one’s gonna get near.”

Three years later, Titmus stunned Ledecky at the world championships, chasing down the American in the last 50 meters of the 400m freestyle. She became the first woman to beat Ledecky in a distance race in seven years and a bona fide rival one year from the Tokyo Games.

Ledecky at first attributed her late fade to tight and tired legs. Then she spent seven hours the next day in a South Korean emergency room with what she believed was a stomach virus.

“She was sick,” said Dean Boxall, Titmus’ South African-born coach, “and we happened to pounce.”

Titmus’ time — 3:58.76, a personal best by .59 — was slower than Ledecky’s wins at her previous three major international meets — Rio Olympics, 2017 Worlds and 2018 Pan Pacific Championships.

“It wasn’t a good swim by Arnie,” said Boxall, a vocal coach known to shout Ledecky’s name in practices. “And I know it wasn’t a good swim by Katie. Definitely not. But there was things that Arnie did in that race I was pleased with, and there was a lot of things that she did that I was not happy with at all.”

The Olympic postponement to 2021 gives Titmus and Boxall another year to work on those inefficiencies down in Brisbane. Another year to mature, to turn 20 years old before the Games.

“I try not to dwell on that [beating Ledecky] too much,” Titmus, sometimes called “the Terminator” by Australian press, said of the world championships, where she also out-split Ledecky in the 4x200m free relay and took bronze behind the American in the 800m free. “Next year’s the big one at the Olympics.”

Nowhere is swimming closer to a national sport than in Australia, but none of its Olympic champion Dolphins hail from Tasmania, an island 150 miles south of the mainland.

Notable Tasmanian sports persons include cricketer Ricky Ponting, retired NASCAR driver Marcos Ambrose and woodchopping world champion David Foster, but no listed swimmers.

Stephanie Rice, the last Australian female swimmer to win an individual Olympic title in 2008, visited “Tassie,” the state a little bigger than West Virginia, nearly a decade ago. She met a young Titmus, who still remembers what Rice scribbled: “Be the best you can be.”

“I say it’s my favorite quote,” Titmus said. “She wrote it on my shirt, so it has to be my favorite quote.”

Titmus was born a week before the Sydney Olympics — “She loved watching Thorpie,” her mom said — and grew up on 16 acres of country land. The family — parents Steve and Robyn and younger sister Mia — had horses, a trampoline and a swimming club just down the road in Launceston.

They also had an indoor pool (areas of Tasmania approach freezing in the winter). One evening more than 15 years ago, Robyn was chopping vegetables and peered to see her elder daughter, then a toddler without formal swim lessons, doing the breaststroke.

“We didn’t know anybody at the swimming club,” said Steve, a longtime TV journalist. “And we turned up and said, hi, we’re the Titmuses. We’ve got a daughter called Ariarne, and she wants to race. Tuesday nights they had club night, and she jumped in the water, and away she went.”

Titmus wasn’t the fastest at first, but by the time she won a third Australian junior title, she became too big for the Apple Isle.

“[My coach] said, look, you can’t really do anything else down here,” Titmus remembered. “There’s no one for you to train with. There’s no one for you to race. It’s all up in Queensland. And he said, if you really want a shot at this, you should really move.”

The family relocated to Brisbane when she was 14 or 15, following Titmus’ coach.

We packed up the car, got on the boat, sailed to Melbourne,” said Robyn, a former national-level track sprinter. “We even stopped at Albury on the way for a training session because the coach she had at the time was a hard task master.”

Right around that time, she first met Boxall while with the Australian junior national team.

“I originally thought this guy is nuts,” Titmus said. “He gave us this speech about the New Zealanders or something were trying to be better than us. His veins were popping. It was crazy. I was like, I’m never ever going to have a coach like him.”

Boxall became her coach about a year later.

“I’ve got great athletes here that hurt themselves, and they enjoy going through the pain,” he said, “but you want to try and get that little bit extra from someone. You have to actually go there with them a little bit.”

In a sitdown, on-camera interview, Boxall first told how he met Titmus, his first impression of her and a bit about their relationship. He first mentioned Ledecky, umprompted, when asked the fourth question, about Titmus’ progression.

Boxall noted that Titmus swam the 400m freestyle in 4:09.81 at the August 2016 Junior Pan Pacific Championships.

“Ledecky went 3:56:46,” Boxall said, correctly noting Ledecky’s Rio Olympic world record to the hundredth, “so we’re 13 seconds off [at] that stage.”

Titmus raced Ledecky for the first time at the 2017 Worlds and finished fourth in the 400m, closing the gap to six seconds. In 2018, she took second to Ledecky at Pan Pacs, 1.16 seconds behind, becoming the first Australian to break four minutes in the event.

At 2019 Worlds, Boxall needed to be alone during the 400m free final. He left the Australian team box and snuck into a VIP area. As Titmus reeled Ledecky in, Boxall stood up and ran.

“Like a shot of adrenaline,” he said. “I couldn’t contain myself, but I was calmer as I’d ever been as well.

“That’s the first race that Arnie has raced Katie and actually was in the race. … Prior to that, it was just Katie.”

Titmus swam 10 seconds faster than when Boxall first compared her to Ledecky in August 2016.

“She’s 2.4 seconds off [Ledecky’s] world record,” Boxall said. “We know what the benchmark is, and we’re still a long way off.”

Titmus recorded the eighth-fastest 400m freestyle in history. Ledecky owns the top seven times.

“The greatest thing apart from obviously winning, I think, [is] being able to actually race someone who has been on her own for so long,” Titmus said. “I find it so crazy that now I’m in this situation where she’s my main rival.”

Scroll down the list, and you’ll see that the top 27 times in history (aside from the now-banned suit era) are shared by Ledecky (23) and Titmus (four).

“She’s certainly special,” Boxall said of his pupil. “Special enough? We’ll see.”

MORE: Simone Manuel’s experiences shape her voice for change today

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Collin Morikawa jumps into projected Olympic golf field

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Collin Morikawa would not have qualified outright for the Tokyo Olympics had they been held this summer. Now, after winning the PGA Championship, he is third overall in global qualifying for the Tokyo Games in 2021.

Morikawa, a 23-year-old who took the same number of PGA Tour starts to win his maiden major as Tiger Woods (29), went from an alternate for the expected four-man U.S. Olympic team to No. 2 among Americans in the early qualifying standings, according to golf rankings guru @VC606 on Twitter.

Justin Thomas, Bryson DeChambeau and Patrick Reed are the other Americans in qualifying position, according to @VC606.

Morikawa, whose father is of Japanese descent, turned professional in June 2019 and made his first 22 cuts, a feat bettered only by Woods.

The 23-year-old could become the youngest U.S. Olympic male golfer since 1904 (important note: golf was not part of the Olympic program from 1908 through 2012). Come next summer, he will still be younger than all but seven men from the Rio Olympic golf field of 60, according to Olympedia.org.

Olympic golf qualifying standings will fluctuate significantly. There are five major championships left in the qualifying window, starting with the U.S. Open in September and finishing with next summer’s U.S. Open, both airing on NBC Sports.

How tough will it be to make the U.S. Olympic team? Consider that the three Americans to win majors in 2019 — Woods, Brooks Koepka and Gary Woodland — are currently not in Olympic qualifying position.

The U.S. has seven of the top nine in the Official World Golf Ranking, which is calculated differently than Olympic qualifying.

MORE: Nosferatu is golf’s Olympic rankings guru. Who is he?

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