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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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Collin Morikawa jumps into projected Olympic golf field

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Collin Morikawa would not have qualified outright for the Tokyo Olympics had they been held this summer. Now, after winning the PGA Championship, he is third overall in global qualifying for the Tokyo Games in 2021.

Morikawa, a 23-year-old who took the same number of PGA Tour starts to win his maiden major as Tiger Woods (29), went from an alternate for the expected four-man U.S. Olympic team to No. 2 among Americans in the early qualifying standings, according to golf rankings guru @VC606 on Twitter.

Justin Thomas, Bryson DeChambeau and Patrick Reed are the other Americans in qualifying position, according to @VC606.

Morikawa, whose father is of Japanese descent, turned professional in June 2019 and made his first 22 cuts, a feat bettered only by Woods.

The 23-year-old could become the youngest U.S. Olympic male golfer since 1904 (important note: golf was not part of the Olympic program from 1908 through 2012). Come next summer, he will still be younger than all but seven men from the Rio Olympic golf field of 60, according to Olympedia.org.

Olympic golf qualifying standings will fluctuate significantly. There are five major championships left in the qualifying window, starting with the U.S. Open in September and finishing with next summer’s U.S. Open, both airing on NBC Sports.

How tough will it be to make the U.S. Olympic team? Consider that the three Americans to win majors in 2019 — Woods, Brooks Koepka and Gary Woodland — are currently not in Olympic qualifying position.

The U.S. has seven of the top nine in the Official World Golf Ranking, which is calculated differently than Olympic qualifying.

MORE: Nosferatu is golf’s Olympic rankings guru. Who is he?

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He controversially beat Roy Jones Jr. for Olympic gold. He wishes he had silver.

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The last South Korean boxer to win an Olympic gold medal has spent the past 32 years wishing it was a silver.

Entering the men’s light-middleweight final against an American teenager named Roy Jones Jr. on the last day of the 1988 Games in Seoul, Park Si-Hun fantasized about etching his name in the pantheon of South Korean sports legends in front of a delirious home crowd.

He did get his gold three rounds later, but not the way he envisioned.

Park’s win by a 3-2 decision remains as one of the most controversial moments in boxing history, as Jones had seemed to dominate the fight from start to finish.

The outcome drew instant criticism and disdain, even from South Koreans, who heckled Park at the podium and bombarded local TV stations with phone calls protesting that the country’s home advantage had gone too far.

Jones went on to have a phenomenal professional career, retiring in 2018 with a 66-9 record that cemented him as one of the sport’s all-time greats. He is now a boxing commentator and is planning to fight Mike Tyson in an exhibition of retired greats later this year.

Deeply shaken and scarred, Park quietly retired at the end of the Seoul Games and spent the next 13 years as a middle- and high-school teacher in a rural seaside town before making a return to competitive boxing as a coach.

In a recent interview with The Associated Press, Park said his dream was to see one of his boxers pull off a convincing gold-winning performance in a future Olympics, which he said would possibly give him some sense of redemption and closure.

After three decades, it still stings that his gold is seen as a smudge on the image of the Games his country still glorifies as its coming-out party to the world.

“There’s hardened resentment built up in me that I will probably carry for the rest of my life,” said Park, 54, who now coaches the small municipal boxing team of Seogwipo City in the island province of Jeju.

“I didn’t want my hand to be raised (after the fight with Jones), but it did go up, and my life became gloomy because of that.”

Park still grimaces when talking about his match with Jones.

Desperate for Olympic glory, Park had gutted out the tournament with a broken right hand he suffered during training. He said it didn’t really matter until he met Jones, the one opponent in Seoul who was quicker than him.

With the injury taking away his right-hand, Park simply had no chance at slowing Jones, who was coming at him with “excellent speed, power and technique.”

“I was pretty quick for a middleweight, but Jones was at a different level,” Park recalled. “A boxer just knows whether he had won or lost a match. I thought I lost because I didn’t put up a fight deserving of a win.”

Park said he felt “confused” when the referee raised his hand. Wearing a stunned look on his face, Park awkwardly embraced and held up an expressionless Jones into the air.

He said he couldn’t wait to get off the podium, where he smiled weakly and slowly waved a bouquet of flowers toward the stands as fans let out hesitant cheers and scattered boos.

An even more humiliating moment came when a South Korean national broadcaster invited all of the country’s 12 gold medalists to a live TV celebration shortly after the Games. The host treated Park like he wasn’t there while interviewing each of the other 11.

There was an outpouring of media criticism and what Park described as “unspeakable” insults, which included derisive public calls for him to forfeit his medal.

The emotional distress “was like being hit with a hammer on the back of your head, again and again.”

“I keep thinking how my life would have been happier had I finished second,” Park said. “A gold medal is important, but isn’t any Olympic medal satisfying and glorious?”

Park said the sense of defeat and depression sometimes led to suicidal urges. He credits his wife for helping him navigate out of his darkest moods. The couple contemplated moving to a different country before deciding to stay after they had children.

Their youngest child, Rei, now a 20-year-old college student in Louisiana, has his own athletic ambitions, training as a javelin thrower with dreams of competing in the 2024 Olympics.

Park said he keeps his Olympic gold framed on a wall at his home in mainland South Korea, along with other awards he won in amateur competition. He doesn’t recall ever bringing it out of the house.

While Park doesn’t have many regrets about never going pro, saying he probably wouldn’t have gone far with an evasive style built for efficiency and avoiding hits but not for initiating pain, he still watched Jones’ post-Olympic triumphs with envy.

He wondered whether the public would ever forget the fiasco surrounding his gold medal, which the South Korean media brought up after almost every Jones fight or whenever there was controversy in any Olympic sport. He would try to laugh it off whenever students asked about his gold at school.

After overlooking him for years, South Korea’s boxing association reached back to Park in 2001, asking him to coach the national team following years of disappointing performances in international events, which reflected a dearth of talent in the sport.

During his on-and-off coaching stints with the national team since then, Park trained several boxers who performed decently in various events, but they never came close to an Olympic gold.

Park had the highest hopes for Lee Ok-Song, who won the men’s 51kg division in the 2005 World Championships. But Lee failed to reach the quarterfinals of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and retired after the Games.

Park said he had occasionally kept in touch with Jones, including a brief telephone conversation with him in 2004 while visiting Atlanta for an international event.

The International Olympic Committee in 1997 concluded it had found no evidence to support bribery allegations against the judges who voted in favor of Park in the Seoul Games.

The U.S. Olympic Committee had called for an investigation in 1996 after documents belonging to East Germany’s Stasi secret police revealed reports of judges being paid to vote for South Korean boxers.

While Park left South Korea’s national team after the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, he hasn’t given up on his goal of winning an Olympic gold as a coach.

Among the four boxers he trains in Seogwipo, Park is most impressed with Kang Hyeon-Bin, who competes in the men’s 64kg division, and Cho Hye-Bin, a woman in the 51kg category.

“I am constantly looking for a raw stone I could polish into a jewel,” he said. “I want to sculpt a true Olympic gold medalist with my own hands and see that fighter take the highest spot on the podium. That would restore my honor and allow me to leave the boxing ring for good.”

MORE: Top U.S. Olympic boxing hopeful cleared of doping violations caused by sex

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