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Alina Zagitova pushes artistry while younger Russians focus on jumping prowess

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Russia’s Alina Zagitova, the 2018 Olympic gold medalist and 2019 world champion, has been under intense scrutiny since winning in PyeongChang some 21 months ago. No doubt she will be again when she skates at NHK Trophy (this weekend, live and on-demand for NBC Sports Gold subscribers).

Her last outing, at Grand Prix France, was no exception. Zagitova placed second, some 19.94 points behind 16-year-old Alena Kostornaia, her training partner at the Sambo-70 school in Moscow lead by coach Eteri Tutberidze.

Kostornaia is capable of two triple Axels in a free skate. Anna Shcherbakova is capable of two quad Lutzes in a free skate. Alexandra Trusova is capable of a quad Salchow, quad Lutz, and quad toe. She attempted four in her winning Rostelecom Cup free skate.

Talk has swirled on social media and in the press, as audiences wonder if Zagitova may experience the feeling of being pushed out by younger, more technically acute skaters. Zagitova won Olympic gold by defeating older training partner Yevgenia Medvedeva, then a nearly undefeated two-time world champion. But a year ago, Zagitova lost the European championship to another young Russian, Sofia Samodurova (coached by Alexei Mishin). Zagitova managed to bounce back to win the World title two months later.

Zagitova is not ready to admit that the wheel of fortune was turning too fast for her, however.

“I also was one of these junior skaters who did all their jumps with a hand above their heads,” she said after Grand Prix France. “I was one who did their jumps in the second half of their program, because it gave you more points. I was even the first one to land a triple Lutz, triple loop combination, also in the second half. Rules have changed since, what can I do?”

At the same time, she genuinely acknowledged her teammates’ prowess.

“I think that those girls who do quads are great,” she said enthusiastically, though Zagitova nonetheless had tears in her eyes when she understood that she had lost to Kostornaia.

The technical disruption that ladies’ skating has undergone these few last years caused this pattern, but it won’t last forever, according to Daniil Gleikhengauz. He choreographs for both Zagitova and Kostornaia at the school in Moscow.

“When Alina was younger, no one thought of quads for ladies,” he explained. “She learned the most difficult jumps of that time. Then, we pushed to have our pupils land them in the second half of their programs [because it was worth more points under the rules]. Then, we asked ourselves ‘what’s next?’ We thought that maybe quads would be coming up, and we taught quads to the newcomers. They learned harder jumps.

“Alina is very smart,” Gleikhengauz continued. “She understands that she is 17 years old, not 11 or 12. The current generation will learn quads and land them for several years. At this point in time, ladies’ skating is at the top of technique, so it’s a little bit tough to maintain yourself many years, as technique is going so fast. Tomorrow will be different. Quads will be there for 10 to 15 years. So those girls who are mastering quads [now] will have many more years.”

The technical route is not the only path to winning, however.

“There are two ways to succeed: either you skate like Carolina Kostner, who takes your heart and each move is perfect. The other way is to do what young girls are doing,” Kostornaia said after her win in Grenoble.

Zagitova understands that as well.

“Quads are too dangerous for me for the time being,” Zagitova acknowledged. “I will need to prepare for them physically and mentally. I will also need to lose some weight, something like three kilos, to decrease the risk of injuries.

“If it’s really necessary for me to land a quad, I may train for landing one. But it will be difficult. It won’t be a quad Salchow or a quad toe, though, as they wouldn’t be the easiest for me.”

Zagitova thought she may try to train a quad Lutz first, like another young teammate of hers is landing. Shcherbakova’s free skate this season includes two quad Lutzes, and she won both Skate America and Cup of China.

“Learning a quad is a question of mentality,” Gleikhengauz said. “When you are 11 or 13, you’re falling every day, as you are learning triple jumps. Then you master them. You start learning triple Axels and quads – and again you fall, fall, fall. And then you master them and you don’t fall anymore. What happens next is that you forget about falling and how to fall. When you have to learn triple Axel or quad later on, then you’re really scared about it and it may become dangerous for you.”

Zagitova, though, may be on the “Kostner route” for the time being.

“For now, I can’t skate like Carolina Kostner yet,” Zagitova said while laughing, “but I’m working at it.”

Kostner, the 2014 Sochi Olympic bronze medalist, won her first European title at age 20. She is known for her artistic qualities on the ice.

This season, Zagitova chose a Flamenco piece, Yasmin Levy’s “Me Voy,” for her short program. Her free skate is a medley of music she called “Cleopatra” which includes pieces from Peter Gabriel’s “The Feeling Begins,” Maurice Jarre’s “Lawrence of Arabia” soundtrack, and Khatir Hicham’s “Ramses.”

“We tried different kinds of choreography, but we felt this music was good for me,” Zagitova said. “I think it suits my style and my skating well, and I loved it right away. My short and my free programs are very different, with two different styles. Fans are telling me that I can do a lot more than ballet music. I’m glad I can show that on the ice.”

“Alina is a really beautiful skater,” Gleikhengauz said. “She is amazing. When we make a program, she always makes something bigger than a program. She always comes up with new ideas: ‘why don’t we do this?’ ‘why wouldn’t we try that?’ She is such an artist.”

Eventually, Zagitova wants to work her way through a list of various different styles.

“We work on them, thanks to the many specialists who come teach us,” she said. “We dance a lot on the floor. We have jazz dance or twist right now. That helps us develop our programs, and gives us huge possibilities to develop ourselves.”

No one knows how long Zagitova will take to master her most difficult jumps. But as for now, she still is the reigning Olympic and world champion, and she intends for that to last.

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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Alex ‘Chumpy’ Pullin, Olympian, world champion snowboarder, drowns in spearfishing accident

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Alex “Chumpy” Pullin, an Olympian and world champion snowboarder, drowned while spearfishing on Australia’s Gold Coast on Wednesday.

A police spokesperson said a 32-year-old man, later identified as Pullin, was unresponsive when taken from the water and died despite receiving CPR from lifeguards and emergency treatment from paramedics.

The accident happened at Palm Beach around 10:40 a.m. local time. Pullin had been diving on an artificial reef when he was found by a snorkeler.

“Another diver was out there and located him on the sea floor and raised the attention of nearby surfers who sought lifeguards to bring him in,” police said. “He didn’t have an oxygen mask. We understand he was free diving and spearfishing out on the reef.”

Pullin competed in Olympic snowboard cross in 2010, 2014 and 2018 with a best finish of sixth. He won back-to-back world titles in 2011 and 2013. He carried Australia’s flag at the Sochi Olympic Opening Ceremony in 2014.

“We are all in shock today as one of the most beloved members of our close snow sport community, Chumpy, has sadly lost his life in what appears to be a tragic accident,” Snow Australia CEO Michael Kennedy said in a statement. “He was a mentor to so many of our younger snowboarders, giving up his time to coach and provide advice to our future Olympians. His loss will be felt right across our community.

“We know it won’t just be here in Australia that Chumpy’s legacy will be remembered, but throughout the international snowboarding community. It wasn’t just his ability to deliver results that will be missed, but his leadership and the path that he laid for so many.”

His parents owned a ski and snowboard shop in the Australian Alps, where Pullin began riding at age 8. Older friends gave him the nickname “Chumpy,” and it stuck.

Pullin, who spent time as a frontman for the surf-reggae band love Charli, often brought a guitar with him while traveling for competitions.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Shaunae Miller-Uibo leans toward Olympic decision, schedule unchanged

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Shaunae Miller-Uibo said she likely will not defend her Olympic 400m title in Tokyo in favor of racing the 200m because the turnaround between the two events is too tight, according to a report.

“I would have to choose one event, and we’re leaning more toward the 200m seeing that we already have the 400m title,” Miller-Uibo said, according to the Nassau Guardian in her native Bahamas. Miller-Uibo’s agent later confirmed the sentiment.

Last summer, Miller-Uibo said she requested that World Athletics modify the Olympic track and field schedule to better accommodate a 200m-400m double. A World Athletics spokesperson confirmed Tuesday that it reviewed the request, could not change the schedule and that decision was final.

Olympic schedules have been changed in the past for 200m-400m double attempts, including for Michael Johnson and Allyson Felix. But the debut of the mixed-gender 4x400m relay to the Olympic program in Tokyo “added to the complexities of developing the timetable,” World Athletics said in a statement it said it first released last September.

The revised Olympic schedule for 2021 has not been announced, but a change in the lineup of track and field events would be a surprise, especially given World Athletics’ statement on Miller-Uibo’s request.

“While it may look simple to move one race to a time which would allow increased rest time between the 200m and 400m, there is a knock on effect with other events which are then impacted,” according to World Athletics. “Following the review of various scenarios, we concluded that the current timetable provides the best opportunity for a 200m/400m doubling opportunity without adversely affecting other events. The current timetable does allow the possibility to compete in both the 200m and 400m although we do acknowledge this requires racing twice in the same day on one occasion. Having taken that into consideration, we have tried to allow the maximum time in between the events which results in almost 12 hours on that particular day.”

The original 2020 Olympic schedule had the 400m first round and the 200m final on the same day (former in the morning, latter at night), with the 400m semifinals the following day.

“It’s still a little bit tricky,” Miller-Uibo said last August. “We’re just asking them to clear it up a little bit more for us, where we can focus on three [rounds in the 200m] and then focus on the other three [rounds in the 400m]. I think it’s always been so simple for the 100m/200m runners. The 200m/400m being a more complex double, I think we’re asking for a day, if they can at least do that for us.”

Miller-Uibo went undefeated at 200m and 400m for two years before taking silver at the 2019 World Championships in the 400m behind Bahrain’s Salwa Eid Naser. Naser was provisionally suspended last month for missing three drug tests in a 12-month span. Naser said the missed tests all came before worlds. It hasn’t been announced whether she could be stripped of the world title.

Miller-Uibo chose to race the 400m over the 200m at worlds, where the schedule made a double more difficult than the Olympic schedule. She remains the fastest woman in the world in this Olympic cycle in the 200m.

The world’s three fastest 400m runners in this Olympic cycle could be out of the 400m in Tokyo. Naser could be suspended through the Games. Miller-Uibo is second-fastest since Rio. The third-fastest, Niger’s Aminatou Seyni, said she can’t race the 400m due to the new testosterone cap for women’s events between the 400m and mile, according to multiple reports.

Next fastest: Jamaican Shericka Jackson and Americans Shakima Wimbley, Wadeline Jonathas and Phyllis Francis.

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