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Russian Troika of teenage figure skaters drives into Grand Prix Final

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Johnny Weir calls them the Troika.

Russians Alexandra TrusovaAlena Kostornaia and Anna Shcherbakova, none older than 16 and all in their first senior international seasons, were the story of figure skating’s fall Grand Prix Series.

Armed with quads (virtually nonexistent at the senior women’s level) and triple Axels (rare until recently), they combined to sweep the six biggest competitions of October and November.

They compete against each other for the first time this season at this week’s Grand Prix Final in Turin, where they are favored to pull off a medals sweep for one nation that hasn’t been done in any discipline in 21 years.

“It isn’t just that they’re winning Grand Prix, they’re winning them by miles over more seasoned veterans and Olympic and world champions,” said Weir, a two-time U.S. Olympian and NBC Sports analyst. “The only people they can lose to are each other, it seems at this point.”

The jumping beans, who all train under Russian Eteri Tutberidze, are distinguishable.

Trusova, the two-time world junior champion who is now ranked No. 1 among seniors, has the best technical content — four quadruple jumps in a free skate, matching the top men. World champion Nathan Chen marveled at her quads from just off the ice at an October exhibition event in Japan, posting an Instagram story of a TV screen showing slow-motion replays captioned, “mind BLOWN.”

“I want to see longevity of it,” Chen said. “I hope that they’re able to continue throwing the quads, continue developing the consistency with the quads. I know that being at that age, you’re really prone to injuries through growth. I hope that they’re able to stay healthy.”

GRAND PRIX FINAL PREVIEWS: Nathan Chen | Yuzuru Hanyu | Alysa Liu
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On the same day that Kostornaia won the most recent Grand Prix (with a score just 1.02 points shy of Trusova’s world lead), an Instagram video was posted on Tutberidze’s account of Trusova landing a triple Axel that, if she adds it to competition programs, could make her unbeatable. 

“I remember talking to her coaches recently at Skate America, and Eteri saying out of the three, Trusova is the most aggressive, is the most fearless,” NBC Sports analyst and 1998 Olympic champion Tara Lipinski said. “But artistically, she’s the weakest out of those three Russians, really struggles with connecting choreography between the jumps and difficult elements. Seamless transitions aren’t there and the skating quality isn’t there. She kind of just keeps her head down and skates from jump to jump. The jumps are really impressive, but I think her weakness is the component score.”

In separate interviews, Lipinski and Weir each dubbed Shcherbakova “the middle child.” Last season’s Russian senior national champion at age 14 has quads, but not as many as Trusova.

“She has great jumping ability, and, of course, she has a beautiful quad Lutz,” Weir said, “but I think, artistically, she is behind Kostornaia and, technically, of course she’s behind Alexandra Trusova.”

Kostornaia, who beat Trusova and Shcherbakova at last year’s Junior Grand Prix Final, is a favorite of Lipinski, Weir and traditional fans. She combines artistry and jumps like no other Russian. She doesn’t have a quad, but she does have a triple Axel that neither of her training partners has landed in competition.

“She can blend the two aspects of the sport together that makes her, I think, almost a hope for figure skating purists who are probably in this time of change quite worried about what will happen to ladies’ figure skating with all these quads,” Lipinski said. “She is the skater who is proving to everyone that you can technically advance the sport as she has with her triple Axels — and quads to come, I’m assuming — and also not forget about the balance of what figure skating’s all about and bringing the skating skills and skating quality and emotion to the ice.”

The title may be Trusova’s to lose because of her jumping prowess, but Weir said if women’s artistic judging was given the same weight as the men, it could be different. Men’s artistic scores are multiplied by one and two in the short and long programs, respectively. The women’s multipliers are .8 and 1.6.

“It could be an absolute runaway for Trusova until the [International Skating Union] changes the way that ladies’ skating is valued,” Weir said, “and I think it’s definitely time, just from an equality standpoint. Ladies are valued less on their skating skills and artistry than the men are.”

For now, it’s difficult for some of the world’s best skaters to keep up. That includes another Tutberidze pupil, reigning Olympic and world champion Alina Zagitova, who has not landed a quad or a triple Axel. Same goes for Bradie Tennell, who this year became the first U.S. woman to qualify for the Grand Prix Final since 2015.

“Right now, everyone is sort of waiting on [14-year-old U.S. champion] Alysa Liu [who is in this week’s junior field] to become [senior] age eligible by the next Olympics to carry the torch and be the face of American ladies’ skating, but Bradie Tennell and Mariah Bell [second alternate for the Final] both had very strong Grand Prix seasons,” Weir said. “In a different year with a different shakeup of results over the events, both of them could have possibly made the Grand Prix Final.

“The fact that there are two strong American ladies, viable ladies to be in the mix is really encouraging, but going up against the three young Russians is hard for anyone from anywhere.”

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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Dominik Paris, world champion skier, suffers season-ending injury

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Italian Dominik Paris, the reigning world champion in the super-G, suffered a season-ending ACL tear in a training crash Tuesday ahead of this weekend’s speed races in Kitzbuehel, Austria.

Paris crashed in super-G training not far from the hallowed World Cup venue, slipping into a curve and damaging his right knee. He also suffered a fibula microfracture, according to the Italian federation.

“My season ends here,” he said, according to the International Ski Federation (FIS). “Unfortunately while I was sliding, the inside ski caught too much and the ligament broke. There is not much to add. In the next few days we will evaluate, together with the medical staff, how to proceed.”

Paris won his third Hahnenkamm downhill title last year and was one of the favorites for Saturday’s downhill, the most prestigious annual race in the sport. NBC Sports Gold streams live coverage for “Snow Pass” subscribers at 5:30 a.m. ET.

Paris, 30, won a pair of downhills in Bormio in December among five total podiums this season.

In his absence, Swiss Beat Feuz and German Thomas Dressen lead the podium contenders.

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It’s Nathan Chen’s time at nationals for a feat 32 years in the making

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Nathan Chen can join Brian Boitano in U.S. figure skating history this week, a decade after holding Boitano in the palm of his hands with a program set to music from “Kung Fu Panda.”

Chen seeks a fourth straight national title in Greensboro, N.C. He would be the seventh man to do so since World War II. Five of the previous six won Olympic titles — Dick Button, Hayes Jenkins, David Jenkins, Scott Hamilton and, most recently, Brian Boitano from 1985-88.

Boitano remembered the first time he met Chen. He and Kristi Yamaguchi were compelled to leave their seats to find the teeny, tiny wunderkind who performed that program to the 2008 DreamWorks film.

“He was taking off his skates, and he probably came up to our waist,” Boitano said. “We knew when we saw him back then that he was going to be something special. He was really quiet. He’s still very quiet.”

In an interview last week, Chen focused on the present — coming back from a two-week cold or flu bug — rather than the perspective.

“I don’t like to typically think about that,” Chen said when asked about his streak. “It’s just different [from year to year]. It’s not really necessarily easier or harder.”

It is also different from previous eras. The last five men to win four in a row did it all in one Olympic cycle, then stepped away from competition after the Winter Games. That was back when turning professional meant the end of an Olympic career.

“It was kind of the norm back then,” Hamilton said. “After that it was kind of back and forth a lot [until Chen]. The business of skating changed so skaters could stay in a lot more, a lot longer. With all the money they brought in, they were able to prevent skaters from turning professional. So that brought in a different approach to nationals.”

NATIONALS PREVIEWS: Nathan Chen | Alysa Liu | Vincent Zhou | Pairs | TV Schedule

Both Hamilton and six-time (non-consecutive) U.S. champion Todd Eldredge could think of just one name to compare Chen’s dominance in the history of U.S. men’s skating: Button, who won the first seven national titles after World War II, plus two Olympic golds.

Button earned national and world titles as a Harvard student. Chen is on a two-season win streak while majoring in statistics and data science at Yale. Button was the first skater to land a double Axel and a triple jump of any kind. Chen was the first to land six quads in one free skate.

Eldredge coaches skaters at the same rink where Chen trains when Chen visits his Southern California-based coach Rafael Arutunian. He is awed by watching Chen working out. Though Eldredge owns more national titles, he never felt the massive favorite status that accompanies Chen.

Eldredge competed in the post-Hamilton/Boitano era, when national champions began competing over multiple Olympic cycles. Eldredge ebbed and flowed from his first national title in 1990, when compulsory figures were still around, to 2002, when he defeated Timothy Goebel, then known as the Quad King.

“Physically, the demands of the sport take their toll on your body,” Eldredge said. “It’s hard to maintain that same level for that length of period of time.

“[In] 12 years [since Chen’s first national title], when he’s 29 years old, is he going to be able to continue to sustain that?”

All of the recent top U.S. men competed in multiple Olympic cycles. The last multiple national champion was Jeremy Abbott, who earned two titles each in two different Olympic cycles. Abbott finished his career in a third Olympic cycle, placing fifth at the 2015 U.S. Championships. Abbott didn’t remember that Chen made his senior nationals debut that year, finishing eighth at age 15.

“For me, winning the third and the fourth [titles] were harder because I started thinking about winning,” Abbott said. “After the second one, I was heading into a new quad and I was two-time U.S. champion. Then my focus was, oh, I’m expected to win. So that was a harder mental game rather than just focusing on making an Olympic team. The expectation now that I’ve done this twice in a row, I’m expected to win again and again and again.”

Abbott and Chen came up in the era of the points-based judging system instituted in 2004.

“Now with the way the scoring system is very different [from the old 6.0], cumulative points, if you have a bad day as a national champion, that’s it. You can’t get the points,” Eldredge said. “[In previous eras], if a certain skater was, I’ll say politically supposed to be the champion, you got a higher score, and rightfully so in most cases.”

Chen has the benefit of going into competitions knowing the kind of advantage he has in base value points from his jumping arsenal. He won last year’s national title by 58 points. This international season, he is 80 points clear of the next-highest-ranked U.S. man, Jason Brown.

“I don’t think that the try-to-push technique is necessarily my goal here,” at nationals, Chen said. “Hopefully just to maintain my body, maintain my health and try to prepare myself for the second half of the season.”

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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.