Winter Olympic sports season produced pain, farewells, stories to track for 2022

Mikaela Shiffrin
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With the Winter Olympic sports season ending prematurely, a sport-by-sport look at what we learned to take into the 2020-21 season, the last full season before the next Winter Games. Figure skating will be covered in a forthcoming piece …

Mikaela Shiffrin endured an athlete’s gamut
Shiffrin finished her most challenging season yet by achieving an otherwise simple goal: making a few good turns on her skis. That was three weeks ago in training in Are, Sweden, about 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle.

“It was probably the biggest, most successful day that I’ve had so far, maybe in my career,” Shiffrin said, according to The New York Times.

Shiffrin’s father, Jeff, died suddenly on Feb. 2. She took a month-plus break from the World Cup circuit. Shiffrin decided in early March to return for what would be the revised final races of the season in Sweden. After landing and practicing, those races were called off.

Shiffrin entered the season looking to become the second woman to win four straight World Cup overall titles, joining 1970s Austrian legend Annemarie Moser-Pröll. She was on track through January, scattering six race victories among struggles with confidence, choking up in at least one Austrian TV interview. During her break, she went from leading the standings by 370 points to trailing Italian Federica Brignone by 153 points.

Next season, Shiffrin will pass recently retired Austrian Marcel Hirscher for third on the all-time wins list with a pair of victories. If she continues her recent winning percentage, she will near Lindsey Vonn‘s female record of 82 around the 2022 Olympics. She will also be racing, for the first time next season and for the rest of her career, with the memory of her dad.

“It has been therapeutic to be on the mountain, maybe even healing,” she said earlier this month. “I’ve found training to be a place where I can feel closer to my dad, yet it provides enough of a distraction so that feeling of closeness can be separated from the pain.”

Men’s Alpine Skiing: Surprise successor to Hirscher
The first season post-Hirscher, who bagged the previous eight overall titles. The primary thoughts at the outset were 1) It’s time for France’s Alexis Pinturault, second the previous season, to ascend with his talent spanning slalom to super-G. 2) It’s time for Norway’s Henrik Kristoffersen, Hirscher’s fiercest rival in slalom and giant slalom, to benefit the most from Hirscher’s absence and win his first title. 3) It’s time for the renaissance of the downhill racer, perhaps Italian Dominik Paris, to take hold of the overall.

All three of those men showed early flashes. But Pinturault lacked consistency. Kristoffersen ceded points to emerging rivals in slalom. Paris suffered a season-ending ACL tear in a January training crash.

Enter Norwegian Aleksander Aamodt Kilde. Kilde, 27, came into the season with a previous best finish of seventh in the overall. He left it as the champion, passing Pinturault in what turned out to be the final race on March 7. Kilde, from a Norwegian village west of Oslo that world chess champion Magnus Carlsen once called home, claimed the overall despite recording just one race victory. But he also had five runners-up and finished in the top 10 of all but three of his starts from Dec. 1 through the end of the season.

Kilde’s results were inconsistent over the previous seasons. He has no Olympic or senior world championships medals. The next winter, with a world championships, will be key to pinning down his Olympic chances.

On the American front, giant slalom specialist Tommy Ford ended a near-three-year U.S. men’s victory drought, its longest in two decades. Another giant slalom star, 35-year-old, two-time Olympic champion Ted Ligety, has not publicly said if he will continue racing after he finished 12th in the GS standings with a top result of fifth in the season opener.

Biathlon: A legend retires; an American surprises
Frenchman Martin Fourcade was the biggest name to retire from winter sports this season. His surprise announcement came on the eve of the final race of the season. Fourcade, a 31-year-old with seven Olympic medals, was a force for nearly a decade: seven straight World Cup overall titles from 2012-18, 28 world championships medals, including 13 golds, and five gold medals between the last two Olympics.

His absence clears the way for Norwegian Johannes Thingnes Bø, who began emerging as a 20-year-old in 2013 and repeated as World Cup overall champion this year. At 26, he may be en route to a Fourcade-like career.

The top two female biathletes at the PyeongChang Olympics — German Laura Dahlmeier and Slovakian Anastasiya Kuzmina — retired before the start of the season. That helped open the door for American veteran Susan Dunklee to earn a second career surprise silver medal at the world championships. She is the only American woman to earn an individual world medal. The U.S. has never won an Olympic medal in biathlon for either gender. Dunklee, 34, was one of four biathletes in the field of 101 to shoot clean over 10 attempts on a windy day in Italy.

Overall, the new leading woman is Italian Dorothea Wierer, who has her own clothing line in addition to the last two World Cup overall crowns. The 29-year-old’s best individual Olympic finish between 2014 and 2018 was sixth. An female biathlete has never won an individual Olympic medal, though Karin Oberhofer is in line to be upgraded to bronze in a 2014 event due to a Russian’s doping.

Bobsled/Luge/Skeleton: A pregnancy, nationality switch and the U.S.’ one world title
Women’s bobsled brought the biggest U.S. news among the sliding sports. Two months before the season, triple Olympic medalist Elana Meyers Taylor announced her pregnancy.

Nine days later, Canada’s two-time Olympic champion Kaillie Humphries was released to start competing for the U.S. after a harassment complaint against a coach. Humphries, married to a former U.S. bobsledder, went on to capture her third world title in what ended up being the only world championship for any U.S. athlete in the abbreviated winter sports season. There are no skiing world championships in even years, and figure skating worlds were canceled due to the coronavirus.

Germany and Russia combined to win the rest of the bobsled, luge and skeleton world titles. Most notably, Francesco Friedrich won a sixth straight two-man bobsled world title. After two-time Olympic champion Natalie Geisenberger announced she would miss the season due to pregnancy, Germany failed to win an individual men’s or women’s event at luge worlds for the first time since 1993.

Freestyle Skiing: Gus Kenworthy’s switch; moguls perfection
Perhaps the biggest news of the season came off the mountain: Kenworthy, the two-time U.S. Olympian and silver medalist, announced a switch to his birth nation of Great Britain for a 2022 Olympic run. Kenworthy cited honoring his mom, who is British, and taking “a path of less resistance” to qualifying rather than enduring a series of U.S. qualifiers in slopestyle and halfpipe as he went through in 2014 and 2018. Kenworthy has noted a goal of winning his first X Games title. He should get another three chances in Aspen next January as big air is added to the Olympic program in 2022.

Elsewhere in freestyle skiing, nobody had a better season than French mogulist Perrine Laffont. Laffont, who in PyeongChang became the youngest Olympic freestyle skiing champion ever at 19, swept all six World Cups (excluding dual moguls) to nearly double her career total. She has a ways to go to match the excellence of Canadian moguls star Mikaël Kingsbury, who earned his ninth straight World Cup overall title.

Nordic Skiing: Therese Johaug dominates after missing Olympics over lip cream
The Norwegian Johaug notched 20 World Cup victories this season, 17 more than anybody else. Johaug, 31, was banned from the PyeongChang Olympics after testing positive for a steroid found in a cream given to her by a team doctor to treat sunburned lips. Johaug won two overall titles before the ban, and now she is dominating like never before and since the retirement of all-time Olympic medal leader and countrywoman Marit Bjørgen. Johaug is at 73 career World Cup wins, trailing only Bjørgen (114) on the career list for either gender.

Early in the season, Sadie Maubet Bjornsen became the first U.S. woman to wear the World Cup leader’s yellow bib, extending a recent run of milestones for the program that included its first Olympic title in the PyeongChang team sprint. Four different U.S. women made individual podiums, but none won for the first time since 2015.

Norway also scored big in ski jumping — Olympic champion Maren Lundby, 25, earned her third straight World Cup title — and Nordic combined — Jarl Magnus Riiber, 22, repeated as World Cup champion by extending his run to 23 wins in his last 27 World Cup starts in all events. Before Riiber, Norway, the all-time Winter Olympic medals leader, had not produced a Nordic combined World Cup champion in 20 years.

Snowboarding: U.S. shut out of X Games halfpipe medals in stars’ absence
Shaun White and Chloe Kim both took the season off. That made it less of a surprise when no U.S. man or woman earned a halfpipe medal at the X Games in Aspen, Colo., the first time that happened for either gender. Both White and Kim have said they plan to return — White, after ditching an Olympic skateboarding bid, at some point for a 2022 Olympic run and Kim, after freshman classes at Princeton, next season.

Two-time Olympic champion Jamie Anderson came back from a hard fall at the 2019 X Games to notch her sixth slopestyle title. Red Gerard, the surprise PyeongChang slopestyle champ, made his first X Games podium with a third-place finish.

Speed Skating: Big-name retirements, Dutch extend reign
The long-track speed skating season was bookended by retirements from decorated Americans Shani Davis and Heather Bergsma, neither of whom had competed since the PyeongChang Olympics. The U.S. hosted worlds at the 2002 Olympic oval in Utah, where Joey Mantia‘s 1500m bronze on the final day kept the U.S. streak alive of a medal at every worlds this millennium. The powerful Dutch were vulnerable to start the championships but finished with a flurry to top the standings again.

Short track worlds were canceled due to the coronavirus. In the World Cup season, Dutchwoman Suzanne Schulting and Korean Park Ji-Won topped the overall rankings. Schulting, 22, did so for a second straight year to back up her PyeongChang Olympic 1000m title. Park, 23, continued his ascension in the deep Korean program after ranking third overall behind two countrymen a year ago and not competing on the World Cup the two seasons before that.

MORE: U.S. athletes qualified for Tokyo Olympics

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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