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‘Trouble in paradise’ between Yuzuru Hanyu and Brian Orser? Coach says no

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It looked strange, to say the least.

There was Yuzuru Hanyu, the world’s most acclaimed active figure skater, waiting by himself in the Kiss and Cry to get his scores after a disappointing short program performance at last week’s Grand Prix Final in Turin, Italy. At that moment in a competition, a coach is almost always at the skater’s side.

Once one of Hanyu’s coaches at his Toronto Cricket Club training base, Ghislain Briand, eventually showed up two days late, there would be a simple explanation for why Hanyu had been alone.

And yet even that would not explain why Hanyu’s primary coach, Brian Orser, had not gone to Italy for the second most important competition of the Japanese superstar’s season.

Was there a rift between the skater and the man who had coached him to two Olympic gold medals, two world titles and four Grand Prix Final titles in the seven seasons since Hanyu came to train under Orser?

“I know it looks like there is trouble in paradise, but there isn’t,” Orser said Tuesday via telephone.

“We have bumps in the relationship like any people who have worked closely with each other for a long time, but I feel pretty confident everything is fine. We were working great together this season, and he was skating very well – over 300 points at both his (regular season) Grand Prix events.”

Orser expected to talk with Hanyu about the situation Wednesday, when the skater was to return to practice at the Cricket Club after finishing a distant second Saturday to Nathan Chen of the United States in the Grand Prix Final. Hanyu had 291.43 points to Chen’s 335.50.

Much to Orser’s dismay and disappointment, the reaction to his absence was, like many things in the social media era, blown far out of proportion by some in Hanyu’s adoring and occasionally verbally belligerent fan base.

“So many fans were very angry at me,” Orser said. “They were blaming me and the Cricket Club for the bad start. By my not being there, it looked like I didn’t care. I wanted to go and was ready to go, but my hands were completely tied.”

MORE: Hanyu’s worldwide fan base will follow him anywhere – literally

Each skater at the Grand Prix Final was allowed to have just one accredited coach on hand unless the coach, like Russia’s Eteri Tutberidze, had more than one skater in the event.

According to Orser, the Japanese Federation submitted Briand’s name for accreditation sometime after Hanyu won the NHK Trophy in Sapporo Nov. 23. (The deadline was Nov. 28.) Orser said he did not learn that until several days after NHK and did not know why that choice was made.

The official International Skating Union announcement of rules applying to the 2019 Grand Prix Final does not mention replacement of coaches. An ISU spokesperson said that any request for a change in a coach’s accreditation would have had to come from the national federation of the skater.

“I was put in an awkward position,” Orser said.

An email seeking comment from the Japan Skating Federation was not immediately answered.

Both Orser and Briand had been with Hanyu at NHK. Briand is considered a jump maestro, and Hanyu wanted to increase the difficulty of his jump content for the Final.

Even Orser’s absence from Turin might have been less noticeable if a missing passport had not forced Briand to return to Canada after landing in Germany for his connecting flight to Turin. (Briand told the Olympic Channel the passport had been stolen.) He got to Turin Friday.

That meant no one was with Hanyu when official practices began Wednesday and for the short program Thursday. By failing to do a combination in the short program, Hanyu fell nearly 13 points behind, an insurmountable margin unless Chen made one or two big mistakes in the free skate.

Not only did Chen do a brilliant and clean free skate, but Hanyu also made two more costly mistakes.

“Even though I wasn’t there, I was communicating with him,” Orser said. “But I’m sure Yuzu having to put himself on the ice for practices and the short program took something from his energy, both physically and mentally. It created a little extra drama.”

Hanyu said after the free skate that he had focused much of his energy on the two quadruple jumps that opened the program, a loop and Lutz, both of which he executed extremely well. It was the first time in two years – and just the second ever – he had done a quad Lutz in competition. Practicing that jump in 2017 had led to an injury that seriously compromised his preparation for the 2018 Olympics, which he won nevertheless.

“He was taking a little more technically-oriented approach to the Grand Prix Final,” Orser said of Hanyu. “He is very competitive, and he sees what Nathan is doing.”

Both did five quadruple jumps in the free skate. Hanyu had not previously attempted more than four.

Orser said he was aware of Hanyu’s intention to include the quad Lutz but was surprised to see video from Turin of Hanyu practicing a quad Axel, a jump no one has landed in competition. Hanyu fell on two Friday practice attempts of the quad Axel, and one of the falls was hard.

“I wouldn’t have suggested he try the Axel,” Orser said, “But he is on a mission with that jump.”

Orser said he expected to be with Hanyu at the Japanese Championships beginning Dec. 18.

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

MORE: Alysa Liu, attempting unprecedented jump list, takes silver at Junior Grand Prix Final

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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MORE: Hanyu’s worldwide fan base will follow him anywhere — literally

Carreira, Ponomarenko understand the depth of U.S. ice dance at nationals

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GREENSBORO, N.C. Heading into the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Greensboro this week, up-and-coming ice dancers Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko focused on their “quads” not four-revolution jumps, but still pretty tough to execute.

“(Our coaches) have us doing double run-through weeks, triple run-throughs, even quadruple run-throughs, to make sure we’re fully ready,” Carreira said. “We’re drilling a lot more, so at nationals we go in 100 percent confident.”

Pasquale Camerlengo, who trains the team along with primary coach Igor Shpilband, agreed that the run-up to Greensboro has been grueling for the skaters from Novi, Mich.

“We always plan a week we call the quads, performing (programs) four times,” Camerlengo said. “We’re trying to make them ready physically and work their stamina, to handle their programs in competition, which is a little bit different than in practice. Physically, they’re ready for it.”

Tough practices are just one component of what’s been a challenging but productive sophomore senior season for the two-time world junior medalists, fifth in the U.S. in 2019.

Thus far, they’ve competed at six international competitions, stretching from Lake Placid, N.Y., in August to NHK Trophy in Sapporo, Japan, in late November. Six is a lot, considering other top teams they’ll compete against in Greensboro have competed three to five times so far this season.

“Igor wants to get more experience at the senior level, and also more world points,” Carreira, 19, said. “For that we have to compete. We get out there and compete as much as we can, so our programs feel more trained.”

Those programs – a rhythm dance to Cole Porter’s “It’s Too Darn Hot” and flamenco free dance to “Farrucas” – stretch their abilities far more than last season’s routines. Competing every two weeks or so left little time to make adjustments, so the past six weeks were the key to their preparation for Greensboro.

“We pushed a lot of changes we needed to make until after NHK, to smooth out the programs and really train them,” Ponomarenko, 18, said.

He added that the grueling first half of 2019-20 was a necessary ice dance rite of passage.

“It’s very different from our first season. We really didn’t know what to expect. Now we kind of know where we’re at and how we can improve. We definitely feel the sophomore slump this year, but we just want to compete and keep putting our good performances.”

On paper, Carreira and Ponomarenko’s 2018 Grand Prix results – which included a bronze medal at Rostelecom Cup – look more impressive than the sixth-place finishes they earned at Skate America and NHK this season. But the skaters don’t think the placements tell the full story.

“Last season, results-wise, it might have looked better, because a lot of (top) teams took the Grand Prix season off last season,” Carreira said. “This season, I feel our programs are more difficult and we’re skating better. We want to improve our consistency so that we can compete with the top teams.”

It doesn’t take much to lose points in an ice dance routine, especially on step sequences and “twizzles,” a series of fast rotations moving across the ice. A few slips here – including a small mistake on their twizzles in the rhythm dance at Skate America – can easily drop teams out of the top group.

“They always have the feeling they could do more,” Camerlengo said. “But the season is a progression. They’re getting better and better. That’s the goal, to have them (be) more reliable.”

“They need to do what they’re capable of,” he added. “They just have to do what they’ve learned, with no fear, and just go for it.”

In Greensboro, Carreira and Ponomarenko will have to throw caution to the wind to grab one of the three U.S. ice dance spots at the 2020 World Figure Skating Championships in Montreal this March.

With Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue, and Madison Chock and Evan Bates, very likely battling for gold, the Michigan skaters have their sights set on bronze. It’s a herculean task, considering the reigning U.S. bronze medalists, Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, qualified for the Grand Prix Final last season and notched career-best scores at Skate Canada this fall.

All three of those teams train together in Montreal. 

But Carreira and Ponomarenko think their programs, strengthened by adjustments and all of those quadruple run-throughs, give them a fighting chance.

“(A bronze medal) is more realistic now than last season,” Carreira said.

“I believe we’ve really grown as skaters,” Ponomarenko said. “Our programs are much more difficult, which has really helped us improve. I believe the podium at nationals is very reasonable. It could be achieved with some good skating.”

Other teams could be in the mix. Last season, Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter placed a strong fourth, but injuries forced them to withdraw from one of their Grand Prix events this fall. A new pairing, Caroline Green and Michael Parsons, has gelled quickly, winning two medals at Challenger Series international events.

“The level of U.S. ice dance level is high, the depth in the U.S. is really the top worldwide,” Camerlengo said. “But the podium, it is reasonable for Christina and Anthony. They have been working hard and they have a very good level to fight for the medal. We’ll see how they will perform here. They’re ready for it.”

Not all of the team’s challenges are on the ice. The Montreal-born Carreira – who has lived and trained in Novi since she was 13 – faces hurdles gaining her U.S. citizenship, without which the couple cannot compete at the Olympics. Last May, she petitioned U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to be deemed an “alien with extraordinary ability” under the immigration code, which would help smooth the way for legal permanent residency status. She was denied and filed suit against the USCIS, later dropping the action.

Carreira is still working to achieve a pathway to U.S. citizenship and prefers not to discuss the issue.

“I can’t really say anything,” she said. “We’re working on it, we’re hoping for the best.”

Citizenship issues never entered the skaters’ minds when they teamed up in the spring of 2014. Ponomarenko and his parents, 1988 Olympic ice dance champions Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko, had long admired Carreira’s skating. When he and his former partner Sarah Feng split after the 2014 U.S. Championships, he tried out with Carreira in Novi.

“We really worked well together from the beginning,” Ponomarenko said. “I had wanted to skate with Christina for a really long time even before getting together, so it was no-brainer. The bump in the road (citizenship) can be worked through.”

“There were so many good factors it would be, I think, stupid to let something that can be fixed get in the way of (our partnership),” Carreira said. “We didn’t even think about it.”

The ice dance competition in Greensboro kicks off with the rhythm dance on Friday afternoon, with medalists decided with the free dance on Saturday night.

MORE: 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships TV, live stream schedule

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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Coronavirus forces Olympic soccer and boxing qualifiers to move

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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Olympic qualifying events in two sports were moved from the Chinese city of Wuhan on Wednesday because of an outbreak of a deadly viral illness.

A four-nation Asian qualifying group for the women’s soccer tournament was switched from the city at the center of the health scare to Nanjing.

The Asia-Oceania boxing qualifying tournament scheduled for Feb. 3-14 in Wuhan was cancelled. No new plans were announced.

The decisions followed Chinese health authorities telling people in Wuhan to avoid crowds and public gatherings.

The Asian Football Confederation said the round-robin group — featuring host China, Australia, Taiwan and Thailand — will be played on Feb. 3-9, retaining the same dates, in Nanjing.

More than 500 people have been infected and at least 17 killed since the outbreak emerged last month. The illness comes from a newly identified type of coronavirus.

Cases have also been reported in the United States, Japan, South Korea and Thailand. All involve people from Wuhan or who recently traveled there.

In the soccer qualifiers in China, two teams advance to a four-nation playoff round in March. That will decide which two teams from Asia join host Japan at the Tokyo Olympics.

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