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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.”

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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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Lindsey Vonn makes first trip to Kitzbuehel, still feeling some sadness of retirement

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Lindsey Vonn is back on the Alpine skiing World Cup tour this weekend, but not as a racer.

Vonn, who retired last year, is a spectator (and course inspector) at the famed Hahnenkamm in Kitzbuehel, Austria, home to the biggest annual men’s race in the sport (full TV, live stream schedule here).

It’s her first time watching competition in person since a career’s worth of injuries forced her to retire last winter, four wins shy of Ingemar Stenmark‘s World Cup record total of 86.

“I feel like skiing is like a bad break-up, so I need to keep some distance and some space,” she said, according to sponsor Red Bull. “And I’m slowly getting back into watching it. It’s hard, because every time I watch it, it reminds me of what I’m missing. I find it easier to watch the men’s races obviously than the women’s, but of course I’m always cheering for my teammates and watching girls coming back from injury who’ve had a hard time.

“I kind of need some space still. But, as time goes on, I’ll be able to be more involved and it will be less painful for me, and I can kind of start to build a new relationship with ski racing.”

Vonn was a special guest at the podium presentation of Friday’s super-G won by Norwegian Kjetil Jansrud, who like Vonn came back from major knee injuries to return to an Olympic podium.

Vonn long harbored ambitions of racing against men, but it never came to fruition, at least in part due to the International Ski Federation never signing off. In 2012, she was quoted saying she wanted to race at Kitzbuehel, the most challenging track on the men’s circuit.

“Before I was injured, I really wish I would have at least got a chance to ski down it,” she said this week. “I wouldn’t even mind if I had raced, but it would have been cool for me to one time go down it with a race suit on and see what it’s like. Being here as a spectator, I’m so jealous of the men.”

While Vonn keeps busy in retirement, including wedding planning with fiance P.K. Subban, emotional pain remains from being off the ski circuit.

“It’s not really about letting go as much as just not being able to do what I love anymore,” she said. “That’s like a bad break-up where I just miss it, and wish I could still do it, but physically I wasn’t able to, and it’s a hard reality to accept. No matter how many business deals I make or companies I start, it’s never going to replace the adrenaline and the speed and the thrill of ski racing.

“It’s something I have to learn to live with ,and I just thought it would be a little easier than it was, but when you wake up and your world’s totally different and the reality sinks in, it just makes you sad sometimes.”

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Bradie Tennell delivers her punch, seizes figure skating nationals lead

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GREENSBORO, N.C. – Bradie Tennell punched the air when she finished her winning short program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships Thursday night.

For most athletes, that is a common reaction to a strong performance.

For Tennell, whose default mood is self-containment, it was an unusual outpouring of emotion.

And maybe it showed just how well she understood the way her choreographer, Frenchman Benoit Richaud, wanted her to perform a program in which her confident, sometimes sassy skating complimented the staccato, robotic music.

After all, she would be skating it in a look-at-me bright red dress.

When they first began working on the program, Richaud felt Tennell was characteristically trying to disappear into the woodwork by turning what were meant to be bold physical statements into understated movements.

“You need to make a splash,” he told her. “You need to feel like you’re the center of everyone’s attention.”

That is the last thing Tennell normally wants to be.

“It’s weird,” Tennell said. “I guess when I’m on the ice, that’s what I’m aiming for, but when I’m off the ice, I’m more introverted, so it’s not something I’m used to.”

Tennell, the 2018 U.S. champion, commanded the judges’ attention with a flawless performance begun with a strong triple Lutz-triple toe loop combination and ended with consecutive eye-catching spins. They gave her 78.96 points, leaving her 3.56 ahead of Alysa Liu, 14, who last year became the youngest senior champion in U.S. history.

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That is almost exactly the same situation as last year, when Tennell had a 2.71-point lead over Liu going into the free skate. Mistakes by Tennell and Liu’s higher-valued jump content reversed the order in the final standings.

Tennell was battling not only her reserved persona but nervousness over a lingering arm problem.

She had hit her elbow on a wall after a bad spill a few months ago, leading to swelling that went up and down intermittently since then. “For some reason, this week it got really swollen and really painful,” she said.

When she woke up Wednesday, she could not bend her arm. She went to the event medical staff for help. They told her she had an infected hematoma and gave her antibiotics. Her mother, an emergency room nurse for 25 years, added her expertise to the treatment.

That did not calm her nerves, though. It took the first jumping pass to do that.

“As soon as I landed the Lutz-toe, I was like, ‘I can get through this,’’’ she said.

Tennell has spent all season getting beaten by young Russians with more formidable jump arsenals. She insists being at such a disadvantage is not frustrating.

“I don’t think about it that way,” she said. “Luckily, I don’t have to compete against them here, so it’s not really on my mind this week.”

Yet a glance at the short program scores shows just how much an impact Liu’s more difficult jumps can have.

Liu started with a technical base value 5.18 points higher than Tennell’s. Despite Liu’s weaker spins and a wonky landing on a triple Axel, which resulted in a loss of 1.94 points on grade of execution, her overall technical score was only .16 behind Tennell’s.

“I did make a few mistakes,” Liu noted.

Liu’s base advantage increases in Friday free skate, where she plans to do two triple Axels and a quadruple lutz. Those three jumps are worth 10.4 points more than Tennell’s three highest-value jumps.

Of course, Liu has to execute those things, and ice is slippery, as Mariah Bell showed in falling on footwork at the end of her strong short program.

Bell (73.22) was third, 2.18 behind Liu. Amber Glenn was a close fourth (73.16) after giving the most captivating performance of the evening, flush with speed, power and emotion.

Karen Chen, the 2017 champion returning to nationals after a 2019 season lost to injury, was a solid fifth (70.41).

Two-time champion Gracie Gold, whose comeback from depression and an eating disorder has been widely celebrated, struggled to 13th. She botched the landing of a triple lutz and got no points after singling a planned triple loop.

The top three finished in the same order as a year ago. Once again, it was Tennell’s night. It isn’t so bad being the center of attention.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

MORE: Gracie Gold rebuilds herself to return to nationals

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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