Storylines to watch at the Grand Prix Final

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The Grand Prix Final is an exclusive figure skating event that caps the first part of the season before skaters move toward their national championships. The 2019 edition in particular is significant, marking the halfway point between the Olympic cycles.

Skaters score points at up to two Grand Prix events throughout the fall, and the top-scoring finishers are invited to the Grand Prix Final, Dec. 5-8 in Torino, Italy. (Streaming live and on-demand for NBC Sports Gold subscribers.)

With only six skaters/teams in each discipline, it is a small preview of March’s world championships; however, it brings a prestige all its own. Let’s examine the major storylines.

Grand Prix Series Standings: Men | Ladies | Pairs | Ice Dance | Qualifiers

Men
Two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan returns to the Grand Prix Final for the first time since 2016. Hanyu missed the previous two editions due to injury; however, Hanyu owns four straight Grand Prix Finals from 2013-16.

Two-time world champion Nathan Chen won the 2017 and 2018 Grand Prix Finals in Hanyu’s absence. They competed head-to-head at March’s world championships, where Chen won and Hanyu earned silver.

But this will be their first Grand Prix Final head-to-head since Chen began his winning streak, undefeated since placing fifth at the PyeongChang Olympics in 2018.

The men’s field:
1. Yuzuru Hanyu (JPN)
2. Nathan Chen (USA)
3. Alexander Samarin (RUS)
4. Dmitri Aliev (RUS)
5. Kevin Aymoz (FRA)
6. Jin Boyang (CHN)

MORE: Nathan Chen on his hip-hop “Rocketman” free skate

Women
The top three Russians to qualify for the Grand Prix Final — Alena Kostornaia (16), Alexandra Trusova (15), and Anna Shcherbakova (15) — were the same top qualifiers for last year’s Junior Grand Prix Final. Kostornaia won, followed by Trusova, and Shcherbakova was fifth.

All three are in their first senior season. They train together in Moscow under coach Eteri Tutberidze, alongside reigning Olympic and world champion Alina Zagitova (17).

While Zagitova has never landed a quadruple jump or triple Axel in competition, Kostornaia’s free skate includes two triple Axels; Trusova’s free skate includes up to four quads; and Shcherbakova’s free skate includes two quad Lutzes.

For her part, Japan’s Rika Kihira (17) is capable of two triple Axels in her free skate, as well.

American Bradie Tennell is the oldest in the field by four years at 21.

The women’s field:
1. Alena Kostornaia (RUS)
2. Alexandra Trusova (RUS)
3. Anna Shcherbakova (RUS)
4. Rika Kihira (JPN)
5. Alina Zagitova (RUS)
6. Bradie Tennell (USA)

MORE: Bradie Tennell’s personality shines through at Skate America

Pairs
China’s Sui Wenjing and Han Cong are the most decorated team in the Grand Prix Final with two world championships and an Olympic silver medal. Last year, they had an abbreviated season due to Sui’s stress fracture in her right foot but rallied for a Four Continents title and their second world title. They won both of their regular-season Grand Prix events: Cup of China and NHK Trophy.

Relative newcomers Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitriy Kozlovskiy of Russia also won both of their regular-season Grand Prix events, too: Skate Canada and Rostelecom Cup.

Notably, Russia’s Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov (two-time European champions who have taken three trips to the Grand Prix Final, even winning in 2016) were seventh in the overall standings and missed the cut.

The pairs’ field:
1. Sui Wenjing/Han Cong (CHN)
2. Aleksandra Boikova/Dmitriy Kozlovskiy (RUS)
3. Peng Cheng/Jin Yang (CHN)
4. Anastasia Mishina/Aleksandr Galliamov (RUS)
5. Kirsten Moore-Towers/Michael Marinaro (CAN)
6. Daria Pavliuchenko/Denis Khodykin (RUS)

Ice dance

Four-time world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France missed last year’s Grand Prix Final because they pulled out of one of their regular-series events and were unable to qualify. But in their most recent Final, in 2017, they won and defeated eventual PyeongChang Olympic gold medalists Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada.

In their stead, American training partners Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue, the two-time U.S. dance champions, took the 2018 Grand Prix Final. Another team they train with in Montreal, Americans Madison Chock and Evan Bates, also return to the Grand Prix Final after missing the Grand Prix regular season last year due to injury.

The ice dance field:

1. Gabriella Papadakis/Guillaume Cizeron (FRA)
2. Viktoria Sinitsina/Nikita Katsalapov (RUS)
3. Piper Gilles/Paul Poirier (CAN)
4. Madison Hubbell/Zach Donohue (USA)
5. Alexandra Stepanova/Ivan Bukin (RUS)
6. Madison Chock/Evan Bates (USA)

MORE: Gabriella Papadakis, Guillaume Cizeron on ‘Fame,’ chasing history

An American lens

Nathan Chen is making his fourth consecutive appearance in the Grand Prix Final, an event he’s won twice. The Yale sophomore will be the only American man in the field.

The American women have their first representative in the Grand Prix Final since 2015, when Gracie Gold and Ashley Wagner competed. This is Tennell’s first appearance in a Grand Prix Final.

The top two American ice dance teams are into the Final: Hubbell and Donohue, who won the event last year, and Chock and Bates. Prior to missing last year’s Final, Chock and Bates made four straight Finals and won two silver medals. This should offer a preview of what audiences can expect at the U.S. national championships in January from these two teams, who train together in Montreal.

There hasn’t been a U.S. pair team in a Grand Prix Final since 2015 (Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim). Before that, Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker skated in the 2007 Grand Prix Final, but withdrew after the short program due to injury.

MORE: Yuzuru Hanyu, Alina Zagitova make NHK Trophy podium and set Grand Prix Final fields

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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Ilia Malinin’s quadruple Axel sheds light on first figure skater to land triple Axel

Vern Taylor
Vern Taylor, the first figure skater to land a triple Axel in competition. (Getty Images)
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Vern Taylor arrived at the Riverside Skating Club in Windsor, Ontario, on Sept. 15 to do what he has done at that rink for the last three decades: coach figure skaters. But this day was different.

Taylor, who in 1978 became the first man to land a ratified triple Axel in competition, was told that 17-year-old American Ilia Malinin performed the first quadruple Axel the previous night.

“When we heard that he landed it, I said, ‘Oh my goodness, that’s terrific,'” Taylor said by phone.

He was then shown video of Malinin’s feat.

“Anything’s possible,” Taylor said. “43 years [later], that’s something. It’s knowing that you can perform the jump that makes it challenging.”

Malinin, the world junior champion, landed the most difficult jump in skating and checked off the only remaining quad yet to be performed.

At the 1978 World Championships in Ottawa, a 20-year-old Taylor broke through a similar barrier in hitting the last remaining unchecked triple jump. But while Malinin’s senior career seems to be just getting started, and many medals appear in his future, Taylor is largely a forgotten man outside of ardent figure skating followers.

He finished 12th at those 1978 World Championships. Taylor’s 1980 Olympic prospects were dimmed by the fact that Canada had just one men’s singles spot, and he had taken runner-up at nationals in 1978 and 1979 to Brian Pockar, who also outscored Taylor at those years’ world championships. So Taylor stopped competing a year before the Lake Placid Games.

“I didn’t have a reason,” he said. “I just decided to take a break.”

Taylor will always have that day at the world championships in Ottawa. He can still remember the nervousness, knowing that two other skaters also planned to attempt a triple Axel. They were unsuccessful, though Taylor didn’t know it.

“I didn’t see their jumps,” he said. “I didn’t want to know what was ahead of me.”

American David Jenkins landed a triple Axel in Movietone newsreel footage reported to be from 1957, but that was not in competition.

Taylor, skating to music from “Rocky,” put the triple Axel as the third jump of his program, according to reports at the time. The one YouTube video of it, published two years ago, has 32,000 views. It shows Taylor landing the three-and-a-half revolution jump on one foot and spinning out of it while managing to stay on that single skate blade amid a crowd roar.

“During that program, it was like a rock concert,” Taylor said. “I got the energy from the audience.”

The Montreal Gazette reported at the time that the jump was ratified three hours later. Italian Sonia Bianchetti, the men’s referee at the 1978 Worlds, said she met with the assistant referee, the ISU president and a technical delegate.

“During this short meeting it was recognized that Vern had completed the first triple Axel Paulsen jump [Norwegian Axel Paulsen was the skater who landed the first Axel jump in 1882, getting it named after him] in an officially recognized figure skating competition,” she wrote in an email last month. “The triple Axel was fully rotated and landed on one foot.”

One of the people inside the Ottawa Civic Centre that day was 16-year-old Canadian Brian Orser. Orser, inspired by Taylor, later became synonymous with the jump — labeled “Mr. Triple Axel” and landing it en route to silver medals at the Olympics in 1984 and 1988 and the 1987 World title.

Orser remembered Taylor visiting his skating club for an exhibition. Orser saw Taylor doing an Axel takeoff exercise off the ice, incorporated it into his own routine and began teaching it to his skaters after becoming a coach.

Yet another Canadian, Kurt Browning, was the first man to land a ratified quadruple jump of any kind in competition — a toe loop at the 1988 World Championships.

“For me, personally, it was huge,” he said, “because I was promised a car if I could land it.”

Through an agreement with an Edmonton car dealership, Browning was handed the keys to a Quattro — quad/Quattro — after hitting the toe loop. The skater was unaware that the dealer was merely leasing it to him. About six months later, Browning received a call asking to bring the car back.

Browning was inspired by American Brian Boitano, whom he previously saw land a quad outside of competition. Taylor motivated him, too.

“[Taylor] gave me permission, even at a young age, to start thinking bigger,” he said.

Browning also pointed to Jozef Sabovčík, a 1980s skater for then-Czechoslovakia who many believe was the first man to land a quad in competition, Browning included. Sabovčík was initially given credit for a quad toe loop at the 1986 European Championships, but weeks later it was invalidated because he touched down with his free foot, according to reports.

“I never want to come off as arrogant, but despite what ISU [International Skating Union] decided in the end, I do know that I landed the jump on that day,” Sabovčík, who said he performed a quad jump on his birthdays through age 44, wrote in an email. “The fact that most of the people in the skating world believe the same thing, it means everything to me that Kurt is one of them. It would have been nice to have my name in the Guinness Book of Records, but I am also not trying to change history.”

Sabovčík, now 58 and coaching in Salt Lake City, attended March’s world championships in Montpellier, France, where Malinin finished ninth. There, he spoke with Malinin’s parents, Russian-born Uzbek Olympic skaters Tatyana Malinina and Roman Skornyakov, whom he calls friends.

“They told me that he was already doing a quad Axel on a fishing pole harness [in practice], and that it was coming,” Sabovčík said.

Less than two months after that talk, the first video surfaced of Malinin landing a clean quad Axel — at a U.S. Figure Skating jump camp.

“I did not think [a quad Axel] was possible,” Sabovčík said. “It really has to be an athlete that can combine the technical ability with jumping ability with the speed of rotation. When Kurt and I jumped, we had a relatively speaking slow rotation, but we jumped really big compared to these kids. But Ilia, he has the vertical lift, but he [also] has an unbelievably fast rotation.”

The recent proliferation of quads in men’s and women’s skating can be attributed to several factors, including better boots, better ice conditions and improvements in technology that can aid coaching. Still, there are concerns about if and how the pounding of training quads can wear down a skater physically.

“It’s a lot of pain you don’t feel at first, but you know it comes later,” said Frenchwoman Surya Bonaly, who started training a quad in 1989 and attempting it through the mid-1990s. Bonaly had two hip surgeries after her competitive career.

Even Taylor faced those questions.

“People said, ‘Aren’t you worried about injuring yourself?'” he said. “I would say, ‘No, I want you to know it can be done.'”

Sabovčík never tried a quad Axel in his skating days, but Browning did for less than a week in the early 1990s after winning four consecutive world titles.

“Just playing with it,” said Browning, who never tried it in competition. “Ilia has that special ability to not only get up in the air, but then he has that beautiful rotation that doesn’t look hurried. It’s fast, it’s quick as lightning, but it doesn’t look hurried. It’s so easy. Like a good golfer swings easy, and the ball goes 400 yards.”

Browning recalled a conversation he had with two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu, who in recent years made the quad Axel his quest. Hanyu attempted it in competition last season but did not land it cleanly before retiring in July. He said upon retirement that he still hoped to master the jump for his non-competitive show career.

“I asked Yuzu one day, ‘When you do quad Axel, does it just feel like you’re up there forever?'” Browning said. “And he kind of looked at me funny, and he goes, ‘Yeah, like it never ends.'”

The skating world awaits the reserved Hanyu’s thoughts on Malinin’s quad.

“Knowing Yuzu, I would think he’d be very supportive,” said Orser, who coached Hanyu for nearly a decade. “He appreciates that kind of athleticism.”

Orser also noted what comes with being the first — and so far only — skater to land a rarefied jump. Malinin, who headlines Skate America in two weeks, will be asked about the quad Axel in just about every interview for the foreseeable future. For some skaters, they may feel a responsibility to land it all the time.

“But I don’t think [Malinin] thinks too much about it,” Orser said. “His technique is perfect, so he’ll be fine.”

The inevitable topic after that is the next progression in skating: the first quintuple jump. Orser said that Hanyu did five-rotation Salchows in practice with the aid of a harness.

“It’s just a little bit more rotation than the quadruple Axel, so it’s not that far off,” said Sabovčík, whose unratified quad toe loop came eight years after Taylor’s triple Axel. “Now that I’ve seen the quad Axel, I don’t think it’s impossible.”

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Aleksandra Trusova splits from coach Eteri Tutberidze, months after Olympic tears

Alexandra Trusova, Eteri Tutberidze
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Olympic figure skating silver medalist Aleksandra Trusova reportedly split from coach Eteri Tutberidze‘s group, eight months after a tearful scene after the Olympic free skate.

Trusova, 18, will now be coached by Svetlana Sokolovskaya, according to Russian media reports dating to Saturday. All Russian skaters are ineligible to compete internationally indefinitely due to the national ban over the war in Ukraine, but Russia is still holding domestic events.

At the Beijing Winter Games, Trusova became the first woman to land five quadruple jumps in a free skate. She had the highest score that day, but it wasn’t enough to make up the gap to fellow Tutberidze pupil Anna Shcherbakova from the short program.

Moments after the competition ended, Trusova was seen crying and yelling at Sergey Dudakov, a member of Tutberidze’s coaching team.

“Everyone has a gold medal! Everyone has! Only I don’t! I hate figure skating! I hate! I will never step on the ice again! Never!” she said in Russian.

Shcherbakova had the individual gold, and the other Russian women’s singles skater at the Games, Kamila Valiyeva, skated both programs of the team event. The Russians placed first in the team event, but medals will not be awarded until Valiyeva’s doping case is adjudicated. It’s possible that Valiyeva gets retroactively disqualified, the Russian team gets disqualified and the other nations all move up with the U.S. going from silver to gold.

Trusova performed at the Russian test skates last month, withdrawing after her short program due to a back injury.

Trusova previously left Tutberidze in 2020 for two-time Olympic champion turned coach Yevgeny Plushenko‘s group, then moved back to Tutberidze’s group after the 2020-21 season.

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