Nathan Chen and Jason Brown
Getty Images

Takeaways from the abbreviated 2019-20 figure skating season

Leave a comment

Before the cancellation of the world figure skating championships due to coronavirus, audiences were anticipating a head-to-head battle between two-time and reigning world champion Nathan Chen against two-time Olympic gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu

Three Russian teenagers — and training partners — were likely to finish in some order atop the women’s podium. The hot spot of ice dance today, Montreal, was to play host to the championships, with four-time French world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France going for title number five. 

Sui Wenjing and Han Cong of China, just off a sixth Four Continents crown, were favorites to become three-time world champions, but young Russians Aleksandra Boikovi and Dmitrii Kozlovskii looked strong to challenge them. And what about the world championships debut of U.S. pair Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson, who arguably captured the top moment of the national championships in January? 

With or without the world championships, the 2019-20 season has come to a close. Here, the NBC Sports figure skating contributors reflect on the standout moments of the season. 

MORE: Nathan Chen, skating coaches react to cancellation of world figure skating championships

Men’s 

For the second season in a row, Chen successfully completed a double: full-time studies at Yale University, combined with a near-full slate of competitions. He remains undefeated since the 2018 Olympics, with wins at Skate America, Internationaux de France, the Grand Prix Final and the U.S. Championships. His only seeming concession to scheduling was skipping the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships, held in Seoul, Korea in early February.

“Competition after competition keeps me motivated, knowing I have to achieve a certain goal at each competition,” Chen said early this season. “That’s what drives me through practices.”

The shining moment of his 2019/2020 campaign came in December at the Grand Prix Final in Torino, Italy, where he landed five quadruple jumps — two in combination with triple jumps — in a spectacular free skate that earned 224.92 points, a world record. His total for the event, 335.30, is also a record, and he defeated two-time Olympic champion Hanyu by nearly 44 points. 

Artistically, the highlight of the Chen’s free skate to Elton John’s “Rocketman” is a 30-second hip-hop sequence at the end of the routine. 

“I’m thrilled with the score,” Chen said after his “Rocketman” free skate in Torino. “I’m thrilled with this program.”

Hampered early in the season by a concussion suffered in an August car accident, Jason Brown hit his high note at Four Continents, where he skated two career-best programs to win silver behind Hanyu. His free skate, choreographed by David Wilson to music from Schindler’s List, was breathtaking in Seoul.

“My background, obviously, is Jewish, and the story is so touching,” Brown said. “I grew up learning about the Holocaust and about Oskar Schindler and the stories. I always wanted to skate to it, but it has to be when I’m at the level, maturity-wise, that I’m really ready to skate to it.”

Balancing skating with full-time studies isn’t doable when there are no available ice surfaces within an easy drive. Vincent Zhou couldn’t find the ice time he needed at Brown University. He withdrew from the Grand Prix Series and all but stopped skating after a few weeks, returning to the sport in full force around Christmas, under new coaches Lori Nichol and Lee Barkell in Toronto. He rallied to perform two clean programs and place fourth at nationals — his lowest finish since his 2016 senior debut — but made the Worlds team as the reigning Worlds bronze medalist.

MORE: Nathan Chen, from flu-ridden on the floor, fights for 4th U.S. title

Women’s 

Russia’s “three A’s” — Alena Kostornaia, Anna Shcherbakova and Alexandra Trusova — combined to win every major international senior event on the 2019-20 calendar. Shcherbakova and Trusova both have quads, but Kostornaia, the Grand Prix Final and European champion, outshone her compatriots by combining elegance and musicality with a consistent triple Axel.

Alysa Liu of the United States, 14, made her long-awaited junior international debut, adding a quadruple Lutz to her programs and becoming the first woman to land a triple Axel and a quad in the same routine, doing it at the Lake Placid JGP in August. She won her second U.S. crown in January, and then capped her season with a bronze medal behind two Russians at the World Junior Figure Skating Championships early last month. 

“I don’t feel [outside] pressure to be the best in the world,” Liu told Phil Hersh of NBCSports.com/figure-skating in January. “I just take it step by step and work hard for myself.”

U.S. silver medalist Mariah Bell had a fine season, winning two bronze medals on the Grand Prix circuit and creating one of the signature moments of the U.S. Championships with a stirring, near-perfect free skate to “Hallelujah.”

“Looking back, this was by far the best season of my career, so I’m very proud,” Bell said on a teleconference the day worlds were cancelled. “I’m really looking forward to building on that next season.”

U.S. bronze medalist Bradie Tennell can also celebrate her best campaign. The 2018 U.S. champion qualified for the Grand Prix Final for the first time, and broke more new ground in Seoul last month where two career-high programs earned her a bronze medal at Four Continents, her first ISU Championships medal.

“I feel like I was able to relax and skate the way that I do every day,” Tennell said at a press conference in Seoul. “That’s kind of been my goal not only this year but also last year. I feel like I never quite achieved it last year. But this year throughout each competition I’ve been getting closer and closer, and at this competition I was able to really achieve that.”

Following a long road back to the sport that involved treatment for depression, anxiety and an eating disorder, Gracie Gold earned a standing ovation at the U.S. Championships. She ultimately finished 12th after an emotional free skate to “She Used to be Mine,” but told reporters she would continue training for next season.

“I think I’ve earned that,” Gold said.

MORE: Gold recounts literally and figuratively running out of gas

Ice dance 

2019-20 was truly Madison Chock and Evan Bates’ season. The couple, who moved to Montreal to train under Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon last season, created a mesmerizing “Egyptian Snake Dance” program, won a silver medal at the Grand Prix Final and defeated longtime rivals Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue to take their second U.S. title, some five years after they first won the crown. Two weeks later, they won a second straight Four Continents title, defeating Hubbell and Donohue and Canadian champions Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier.

With Papadakis and Cizeron showing some cracks in their armor — the French duo placed second at the European Championships, their first loss since the 2018 Olympics — a world title seemed to be within Chock and Bates’ grasp. 

“This has been the best season of our careers, no doubt about that, and a big part of that is our program [“Egyptian Snake Dance”] and the way we performed it,” Bates said. “Also just the improvements we made to our skating, generally, since moving to Montreal have started to be recognized and rewarded.”

The French, who train alongside Chock and Bates, Hubbell and Donohue and many other teams in Montreal, may be glad to bid the 2019-20 season farewell. Their programs, especially their free dance to a spoken word poem, were not nearly as praised as their past efforts. After Europeans, a stressed Papadakis spoke to reporters about her mental fatigue, and the couple took a two-week break from training. Now, they have a long off-season to recoup and plan new programs.

Hubbell and Donohue, too, had a few ups-and-downs. The skaters and their coaches, Lauzon, Dubreuil and Romain Haguenauer, re-worked music edits and sections of choreography in their Star is Born free dance, hoping for a peak performance in Montreal and a third consecutive world medal. Now, the two-time U.S. champions will have a long off-season to create new programs.

The season ended on a truly somber note, with the loss of Chris Reed, a three-time Olympic ice dancer for Japan who died of a sudden cardiac event at age 30 in March. Fellow skaters paid tribute over social media for the Michigan-born Reed, who won 10 Japanese titles over his career. 

Pairs 

Chris Knieirm, winner of an Olympic team bronze medal and three U.S. Championships with his wife, Alexa, announced his retirement shortly after the couple withdrew following the short program at Four Continents. 

The Knierims, the only U.S. pair to execute a quadruple twist in competition, capped their career in January, at the U.S. Championship in Greensboro. Their final complete competition was highlighted by a clean, emotional performance to the romantic ballad “At Last,” which gave them a seven-point lead over Calalang and Johnson, and, ultimately, their third U.S. title

“It was a dream that was attainable to skate the way we did today, but it always seems something gets in the way,” Scimeca-Knierim said at the time. “I’ve just been wanting for this moment to happen, because it’s been a little bit of time for Chris and I to have a skate that makes you feel, like, alive. I’m just so happy.”

Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier also announced a split, and Scimeca-Knierim and Frazier plan to for a new pair and compete next season

The shakeup will add to the likely shuffling of U.S. pair rankings next season. U.S. silver medalists Calalang and Johnson won the free skate at the U.S. Championships, and two weeks later placed a solid fourth at Four Continents. Lacking an international resume, they were controversially left off the world team in favor of 2019 U.S. champs Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, who placed fourth in Greensboro. They had placed ninth at the 2019 Worlds, earning a second quota spot for the U.S. in the discipline. 

These two pairs, along with 2016 U.S. champions Tarah Kayne and Daniel O’Shea, and perhaps, a few improving teams, will compete for supremacy. This, partnered with the new Scimeca-Knierim/Frazier partnership should lead to something to watch for in the upcoming season.

Other notable aspects of the season: 

By the middle of September, it already was clear the season would feature a jump revolution in women’s skating. Yet no one could have foreseen the speed at which it occurred and how far it went.

With statistics courtesy of skatingscores.com, this illustrates what happened:

Until 2018, just one junior or senior woman, Miki Ando of Japan, had been credited with landing a quadruple jump in a significant national or international competition (2002 Junior Grand Prix Final). From the 2017-18 season until the start of this season, there were 21 quad attempts by three skaters (Shcherbakova, Trusova, Yelizabet Tursynbaeva) in significant international competitions, with 13 getting full rotational credit and eight judged clean (positive or neutral grade of execution).

This season, seven women were listed for 42 quad attempts in significant international competitions, with four — Shcherbakova, Trusova, Kamila Valieva and Alysa Liu — getting credit for at least one clean quad and 25 of the 42 judged clean.

Trusova landed three clean quads in a single free skate and did three different types cleanly during the season — Lutz, flip and toe loop (plus a fourth, the Salchow, at the Japan Open, which Skating Scores does not list among its “major,” or significant, events because of its limited field). Shcherbakova did two clean quad Lutzes in a single free skate.

There was a similar great leap forward on triple Axels.

Until this season, only eight women had been credited with landing one in a significant international competition. Four of those eight had done it in the pre-IJS and pre-replay era.

This season, the triple Axel club got three new members: Liu*, Kostornaia and Young You. Two previous members, Yelizaveta Tuktamysheva and Rika Kihira, did more. The five had an aggregate 23 judged clean.

And all that was without the senior worlds.

(*Liu was credited with landing a triple Axel at the 2018 Asian Open, when she competed in the advance novice division.)

A bit of history

2020 also marked the 10-year anniversary of two notable Olympic moments from Vancouver 2010: Yuna Kim won South Korea’s first Olympic figure skating gold and Evan Lysacek won the first U.S. men’s Olympic gold since Brian Boitano in 1988.

MORE: In figure skating, a radical proposal to reshape the sport

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.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Grigory Rodchenkov, Russian doping whistleblower, still lives in fear

Getty Images
Leave a comment

His head covered in a black balaclava, adjusting dark goggles obscuring his eyes, Grigory Rodchenkov grows anxious if any part of his face can be seen.

Exposing Russia’s state-sponsorship doping scheme forced Rodchenkov into hiding in the United States five years ago. Revealing his current identity is still too risky for the chemist turned whistleblower, even in a video interview from an undisclosed location.

“It’s my security measures because I have physical threats to be assassinated,” Rodchenkov told The Associated Press. “And I want to live.”

Evidence from Rodchenkov that has already turned Vladimir Putin‘s Russia into international sporting outcasts continues to be used in cases against athletes along with data from his former laboratory in Moscow.

“Putin, he is quite logical. He separates opposition in two ways — enemies … betrayers,” Rodchenkov said. “I am falling in the betrayers’ category and all betrayers should be beheaded, cut, dead. So there is no doubt that he wants me to be dead.”

It has not deterred him from documenting his life story in “The Rodchenkov Affair: How I Brought Down Putin’s Secret Doping Empire,” revisiting how he conspired with his country to corrupt sports and then tries to show contrition by turning star witness.

Rodchenkov was the brains behind the Duchess cocktail of anabolic steroids and cover-up that turned Russia into a medal machine at the home Olympics in Sochi in 2014, topping the standings with 13 gold medals before disqualifications.

Russian spies ensured the Duchess would not be detected in doping tests as FSB agents used a hole in the wall of the Sochi laboratory to swap out the dirty samples with clean urine at night.

“For me, it was the end of doping control,” Rodchenkov said. “If we can do it, why others cannot?”

The doping cover-up extended beyond the Winter Olympics, into the Summer Games, Paralympics, world track and field championships and every major sport.

Some Russians were barred from competing at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Games and 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games as the International Olympic Committee remains opposed to blanket bans on countries.

So Russian athletes can still compete on the international stage if they can show they are clean, despite a four-year ban from major international sporting events being imposed on the nation last year for a fresh cover-up, including tampering with data gained from Rodchenkov’s former lab in Moscow.

“Sport is a part of Putin’s politics and showing to the West how good Russia is,” Rodchenkov said. “You cannot trust Russia. You cannot trust the certification authorities, and (anti-doping) laboratories cannot be allowed to be restored within the foreseeable future.”

Especially now, according to Rodchenkov, following constitutional changes allowing Putin to run for two more six-year terms, in 2024 and 2030,

“Until 2036,” Rodchenkov said, “no trust.”

But why now trust Rodchenkov as he presents a virtuous image at odds with his deep collusion with the state to cheat?

“When you are laboratory director and you have 50 employees and you are reporting to your high ups at the ministry, I could not even think about morals,” he said, dismissing concerns about any long-term damage to the health of athletes he allowed to be pumped with steroids.

“It’s extremely debatable and still ungrounded,” he said. “We see the generation who is now in the end of their lives of 70s and 80s, which are still … in a good physical condition after steroid programs.”

Go back four decades and Rodchenkov was starting out in a Soviet system learning how to manipulate doping controls.

“I had honestly, I’m sorry, but I had huge feelings of accomplishment,” he said. “Those athletes I helped to (win) were extremely talented and I could not understand, with the coach, how he or she may lose to others. The only explanation was doping. Then using some programs, we won gold medals. Honestly it was like leveling the field.

“Again, ‘morals’ is maybe vocabulary from American life but not from Soviet and Russian. In (the) Soviet (Union) it was the Soviet moral, in Russia there is no morals.”

It helps when the athletes are compliant.

“This is the huge problem of the militarization of Russia sport,” Rodchenkov said. “They follow orders, they are disciplined but they cannot tell the truth because they have given the oath to the Russian state and consider foreigners as potential enemies or even actual enemies. That’s why in Russia there are three ways – lying, cheating and denying.”

Rodchenkov has had to convince the world he has shed those ways and is coming clean. More of the cases he helped to cover-up could soon come to light after the World Anti-Doping Agency shared data – of samples tested up to 2015, and tampering that continued into 2019 – that was retrieved from the Moscow testing lab at the heart of the state-backed doping program.

“The problem is that the people from outside cannot understand what is going on inside sports,” he said. “Only whistleblowers could do that. But in corrupted countries you have to escape and we need to be preserved.”

For Rodchenkov that means living a life constantly in fear of being recognized as happened on a train in the US.

“It was a student,” he recalled. “I told him, `Forget you are meeting me, yes it’s me, don’t tell anyone.’ … I disappeared again.”

MORE: Russia track and field faces expulsion if it misses deadline

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Noah Lyles, more world champs race in Monaco; TV, live stream schedule

Noah Lyles
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Noah Lyles headlines a bevy of world champions slated for the first full-on Diamond League meet of the abbreviated track and field season, live on NBC Sports on Friday.

Monaco hosts the strongest fields of any meet since the world championships 10 months ago. Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA and NBC Sports Gold air coverage on Friday at 2 p.m. ET.

Reigning world champions include Lyles (200m), Grant Holloway (110m hurdles), Donavan Brazier (800m) and Sam Kendricks (pole vault), and those are just the Americans.

Swede Mondo Duplantis, who twice raised the pole vault world record in February, takes on Kendricks in Monaco. Distance stars Sifan Hassan, Hellen Obiri, Beatrice Chepkoech, Timothy Cheruiyot and Joshua Cheptegei dot the fields, too.

The Diamond League season was due to start in April, but the coronavirus pandemic halted large-gathering track meets until now. Repurposed versions of Diamond League meets in Oslo and Zurich were held the last two months with fewer events and athletes and some entrants racing from different countries.

After Monaco, more Diamond League meets are scheduled for Stockholm (Aug. 23), Lausanne (Sept. 2), Brussels (Sept. 4), Naples (Sept. 17), Doha (Sept. 25) and China (Oct. 17).

Here are the Monaco entry lists. Here’s the schedule of events (all times Eastern):

1:40 p.m. ET — Men’s Pole Vault
2:03 — Men’s 110m Hurdles
2:05 — Women’s High Jump
2:12 — Men’s 800m
2:17 — Women’s Triple Jump
2:19 — Women’s 5000m
2:42 — Men’s 400m Hurdles
2:50 — Women’s 100m
2:57 — Men’s 1500m
3:07 — Women’s 400m
3:13 — Men’s 5000m
3:32 — Men’s 200m
3:39 — Women’s 100m
3:47 — Men’s 3000m Steeplechase

Here are five events to watch (statistics via Tilastopaja.org):

Men’s Pole Vault — 1:40 p.m.
The top field event of the meet includes the reigning Olympic champion (Brazil’s Thiago Braz), reigning world champion (Kendricks) and the world-record holder (Duplantis, who must be the favorite here). Kendricks and Duplantis already went head-to-head this spring, competing virtually from respective home pole-vault setups. Kendricks took their first six head-to-heads, back when Duplantis was a teenager, but the Louisiana-born Swede won all four of their indoor duels in February. Duplantis is the clear Tokyo Olympic favorite until proven otherwise.

Men’s 800m — 2:12 p.m.
The top four from the 2019 World Championships are entered. Brazier, 23, caught fire the last year. He broke the American record to win the world title. He broke his own American indoor record in February. Then, last month, Brazier took 1.33 seconds off his 1500m personal best. Nobody in the Monaco field has beaten Brazier since the start of 2018.

Women’s 5000m — 2:19 p.m.
Ethiopian-born Dutchwoman Sifan Hassan in world champion at 1500m and 10,000m, but she’s lost four of five meetings with two-time world champion Hellen Obiri of Kenya at 5000m. Hassan appears to be gearing up to race the 5000m in Tokyo, though, saying last month her eye was on a 1500m-5000m Olympic double had the Games been held this year. The 1500m preliminary heats and the 5000m final are separated by about 12 hours at the Olympics next year. Also in this field: three-time Olympian and former American record holder Shannon Rowbury, set for her first Diamond League race in nearly three years and since the birth of daughter Sienna.

Men’s 1500m — 2:57 p.m.
Last we saw Kenyan Timothy Cheruiyot in a 1500m, he led wire-to-wire en route to a 2.12-second victory in the world championships final. Only one man has beaten Cheruiyot in three years, countryman Elijah Manangoi, who is provisionally suspended due to whereabouts failures. The Monaco field does include Norwegian Jakob Ingebrigtsen (second-fastest man of 2019), Ethiopian Yomif Kejelcha (indoor mile world-record holder), Pole Marcin Lewandowski (world bronze medalist) and Craig Engels (2019 U.S. champion who was 10th at worlds).

Men’s 200m — 3:32 p.m.
Lyles and younger brother Josephus Lyles go head-to-head for the first time since January 2017. Noah has lost just one outdoor 200m since placing fourth at the 2016 Olympic Trials coming out of high school. Josephus, primarily a 400m sprinter in his developmnt, last month took a half-second off a five-year-old 200m personal best. His new best time — 20.24 seconds — would have placed third at the 2019 USATF Outdoor Championships behind Noah (19.78) and Christian Coleman (20.02).

MORE: Trayvon Bromell’s return from destruction, death to sprinting

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!