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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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Jordan Thompson, U.S. volleyball’s new weapon, took unique route to NCAA history

Jordan Thompson
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It was about this time last year that Jordan Thompson first appeared on the radar of U.S. women’s volleyball coach Karch Kiraly. Since, Thompson emerged as the youngest starter, and arguably a star, for the national team.

She goes into what could be her final weekend of college volleyball as one of the most dominant athletes in any sport. And one of the most unique stories in NCAA history.

Thompson plays not for a Big Ten or Pac-12 powerhouse, but for Cincinnati, a school that, before she arrived, never made it past the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

The unranked Bearcats upset second-ranked Pittsburgh in the second round last Saturday. They play Penn State, winner of six of the last 12 NCAA titles, in the Sweet 16 on Friday.

In 33 games this season, Thompson has registered a Division I-leading 768 kills, which is 143 more than the next most prolific attacker. That margin of 143 is the same number that separates No. 2 from No. 31.

Last season, she had 827 kills, which was 240 more than anybody else and a single-season record (by 112 kills) since NCAA match formats shifted from 30-point to 25-point sets in 2008.

She is a contender, if not a favorite, to be AVCA National Player of the Year. All of the previous winners dating to 1985 came from schools that reached at least one Final Four.

On Oct. 4, a UCF player’s face caught the wrong end of a Thompson attack. Cincinnati teammates watching from the bench dropped to the floor in astonishment.

Thompson tallied 50 kills in one match alone on Nov. 3, becoming the first D-I player to do so in 20 years.

That happened on Senior Day. Before that match, Thompson received a plaqued No. 23 jersey and flowers.

She posed for a photo standing with her husband, former Cincinnati offensive lineman Blake Yager, her mother, Mary, whose bribes helped Thompson develop into an attacker, and her father, 1990s Harlem Globetrotter Tyrone Doleman (and brother of Pro Football Hall of Famer Chris Doleman).

Mary has been most instrumental, raising Thompson as a single mom in Minnesota. Thompson, who is 6 feet, 4 inches now, was always tall for her age.

She played youth basketball against older girls and grew frustrated by the physical contact. Kneepads weren’t comfort enough. She decided to give volleyball a try in middle school.

“She was very timid,” Mary said of her daughter, who has since gotten 10 tattoos, including one of a hummingbird. “She would tell me she didn’t want to hurt anyone on the other side of the net. I told her I would give her a dollar for every time she would whack it. And I would give her $10 if she would actually hit someone on the other end of the court.”

It took a while, but Thompson was motivated by her love of horses. The payouts from her mom went toward a saddle and a bridal. A box with horse equipment remains in the family garage back home.

“She was trying to build up her supplies to be able to one day say to me, look, I’ve got a saddle, I’ve got all of my tack, I’ve got stuff to clean the hooves, can we get a horse now?” Mary said. 

After just two years of club volleyball, Thompson received her first Division-I scholarship offer. It came from Syracuse. Thompson was a high school sophomore.

“In the back of my head, I’m thinking, I’m never going to get another offer, so I better take this one,” she said.

Thompson was intent on Syracuse for a year before a coaching change led her to decommit. She wasn’t sure if many schools knew she had reopened her recruiting. A Minnesota club teammate had committed to Cincinnati and suggested Thompson take a visit.

The Bearcats went 3-29 the season before she committed.

“I said, Jordan, you can play D-I at Texas. You can go to Nebraska,” Mary said. “She was like, no, no, I want to play all four years. I actually want to get playing time, mom. She really struggled believing how good she could be.”

The biggest obstacle came junior year. In a preseason training session, Thompson collided with that Minnesota club teammate, Jade Tingelhoff, and tore the UCL in her dominant, right arm. She was in an armpit-to-wrist brace for two months post-Tommy John surgery, including three weeks with her arm locked in place.

She couldn’t brush her hair, had a hard time brushing her teeth and found it difficult showering and getting dressed.

She still went to every Bearcats game and traveled with the team. Cincinnati went from 22-10 her sophomore season to 13-19 that year without her on the court.

“It ended up being OK,” Tingelhoff said. “She came back that next season — I’m not kidding — 10 times as better than she was even the previous year.”

As a redshirt junior, Thompson and her 827 kills helped Cincinnati to a 26-8 record and its first NCAA Tournament win in seven years. She also caught the eye of Kiraly by the end of that 2018 season.

“She was one of the elite players in all of college volleyball,” he said. “Probably the only one who came from a conference other than the ones known for producing the most NCAA champions, like the Big Ten and the Pac-12.”

By last spring break, Thompson had become a favorite of U.S coaches at a camp to help select teams for summer international tournaments.

She had a one-on-one conversation with Kiraly, the only person to own Olympic indoor and beach gold medals. The legend told her she had potential to play at the Pan American Games. Later, he upped the praise to say she was ready for the top-level Nations League, a precursor to Olympic qualifying.

Thompson made her national team debut in May. By August, she came off the bench to help spur a comeback in a crucial Olympic qualifying match. The next day, she was in the starting lineup for the U.S.’ final Olympic qualifier, where the Americans clinched a Tokyo 2020 berth.

“I think a lot people don’t know she is still in college,” two-time U.S. Olympic outside hitter Jordan Larson said then. “She still has one more year left.”

Agents reached out, but Thompson had no intention of giving up her final year of NCAA eligibility. She wanted to make history at Cincinnati. That was secured with the Sweet 16 berth.

With the new year, she will trade the Cincinnati red and black for Team USA colors. She will keep in mind what the U.S. coaching staff told the team during Olympic qualifying and what she called a dream summer.

“My big goal in life was I just wanted to be in the USA gym,” said Thompson, who is working on her master’s in criminal justice. “To hear that we’re all working towards this goal of trying to make this roster, and we are being looked as potential players to make that roster, my jaw dropped. To know that it’s even a remote possibility is mind-blowing.”

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Tahiti chosen for Olympic surfing competition at 2024 Paris Games

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Paris 2024 Olympic organizers want the surfing competition to be held in Tahiti, an island in French Polynesia that is about 9,800 miles from Paris.

It would break the record for the farthest Olympic medal competition to be held outside the host. In 1956, equestrian events were moved out of Melbourne due to quarantine laws and held five months earlier in Stockholm, some 9,700 miles away.

The Paris 2024 executive board approved the site Thursday — specifically, the village of Teahupo’o — and will propose it to the IOC. It beat out other applicants Biarritz, Lacanau, Les Landes and La Torche, all part of mainland France.

“If, ever, we have two alternatives, and where one alternative gives the athletes of a particular sport more closeness to the heart of the Games and allows them to enjoy the magic and the spirit of the Games better, then in the interest of the athletes, we prefer this solution,” IOC President Thomas Bach said in June when asked about Tahiti’s interest in hosting surfing.

Surfing will debut at the 2020 Tokyo Games but is not on the permanent Olympic program. Surfing was among sports added to the Paris 2024 program in June and could be added for the 2028 Los Angeles Games.

MORE: U.S. athletes qualified for Tokyo Olympics

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