Nathan Chen and Jason Brown
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Takeaways from the abbreviated 2019-20 figure skating season

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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.

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Bianca Andreescu to miss U.S. Open

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Bianca Andreescu withdrew from the U.S. Open, citing “unforeseen challenges, including the Covid pandemic” compromising her ability to prepare to defend her Grand Slam title.

“I have taken this step in order to focus on my match fitness and ensure that I return ready to play at my highest level,” Andreescu, a 20-year-old Canadian, posted on social media. “The US Open victory last year has been the high point of my career thus far and I will miss not being there. However, I realize that the unforeseen challenges, including the Covid pandemic, have compromised my ability to prepare and compete to the degree necessary to play at my highest level.”

Andreescu’s absence means the U.S. Open, the first Grand Slam tournament since tennis resumed amid the coronavirus pandemic, will be without both 2019 male and female singles champions.

Rafael Nadal previously announced he would not defend his title, saying he would rather not travel given the global situation. Roger Federer is also out after knee surgery. Women’s No. 1 Ash Barty didn’t enter, either, citing travel concerns.

Last year, Andreescu made her U.S. Open title run as the 15th seed, sweeping Serena Williams in the final. Ranked 208th a year earlier, she became the first player born in the 2000s to win a Slam and the first teen Slam winner since Maria Sharapova at the 2006 U.S. Open.

Andreescu then missed the Australian Open in January due to rehab from a knee injury that forced her to retire during a match at the WTA Finals on Oct. 30. She also missed the French Open and Wimbledon in 2019 following a rotator cuff tear.

MORE: Serena Williams, reclusive amid pandemic, returns to tennis competition

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Noah, Josephus Lyles, after years of supporting each other, meet on track’s highest level

Noah Lyles, Josephus Lyles
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When Noah and Josephus Lyles first talked about turning professional out of high school — Josephus brought it up before their junior year — the goal was, of course, to sprint on the sport’s highest international level — together.

They will do that in Monaco on Friday (2 p.m. ET, Olympic Channel and NBC Sports Gold).

The Lyles brothers will compete in the same Diamond League meet for the first time, and in the same race to boot. Though Noah has long focused on the 200m and Josephus the 400m, they will both contest the shorter distance at Stade Louis II.

“This is going to be really special,” Noah said.

“It makes me more comfortable, just knowing me and my brother are in the same race,” said Josephus, at his first Diamond League meet since 2018.

Noah, when asked the significance of the race that’s coming more than four years after they turned pro, suggested a reporter ask their mom.

“She’s probably over the moon right now,” he said.

Josephus remembered their mom, Keisha Caine Bishop, screaming in excitement upon learning last week that he earned a lane in Monaco. Noah, the reigning world 200m champion, was already in the field.

“It is definitely harder to watch,” when they’re in the same race, Bishop said, “but not because you’re worried about who’s going to win and who’s going to lose, because I don’t look at track like that.

“My nervousness more comes from I just want them both to do their best, so that we can all celebrate as a family. Because if one has a great race and the other one doesn’t have a great race, then it’s kind of hard for everybody to celebrate. You have to compartmentalize your emotions a little more.”

Bishop, an NCAA 4x400m champion at Seton Hall in the 1990s, is familiar with the balance. Even though her two sons born one year and four days apart last raced against each other in January 2017 at their first professional meet.

“The only reason I run track is because of Noah, honestly,” Josephus, who is younger, said while sitting next to Noah in 2017, days before their pro debut. “When I first started track, I quit because I didn’t like it.”

Josephus, a 400m/800m runner before giving it up, returned to the sport in eighth grade. He had planned to try out for the basketball team. Noah, originally a high jumper, was still doing track and field at the time, so Josephus went out for it, too. This time, he focused on races one lap and shorter.

“Turns out I was really good,” Josephus said. (The Lyles’ sister, Abby, ran one track race around age 6 and didn’t care for it, later finding her passion in biochemistry.)

Throughout high school, the brothers tore up tracks while attending T.C. Williams in Alexandria, Va., best known for the film “Remember the Titans.”

Bishop recalled the times one brother supported the other through adversity. Such as when Noah prayed for Josephus’ success in 2014, when Josephus was on crutches with a twisted ankle. Josephus came back that season to win the 400m at the New Balance Nationals, where Lyles took second in the 200m.

“When they race, they are more concerned about the other person than they are themselves,” Bishop said.

Or in 2016. Josephus suffered a season-ending torn right hip flexor two months before the Olympic Trials. A year before, as a high school junior, Josephus ran a 400m time that would have made the Olympic Trials final, where the top six of eight men would qualify for the Olympics.

Josephus still watched his brother race at trials, in the 200m, from the Hayward Field stands.

“He was trying to be strong,” Bishop said, “but I knew, as a mom, that it was very painful.”

Josephus excitedly detailed the experience on camera after Noah broke the national high school record and nearly pulled off the incredible, coming .09 shy of the Olympic 200m team of three men.

“Sometimes it can get a little hard. If one of us is doing well and the other one is not doing well, it can be rough,” Josephus said. “On the other hand, it can be really good because it’s a lot of support. It’s almost like an accountabili-buddy.”

The brothers achieved their goal by signing with Adidas shortly after trials.

Then in 2017, Noah strained his right hamstring and withdrew from the USATF Outdoor Championships before the 200m final. The family gathered before leaving the stadium in Sacramento.

“I said, ‘OK guys, we have to walk out of this warm-up area, and we have to do it as a team,'” Bishop said. “‘At the end of the day, the only people left will be the three of us. And it’s not just the end of today. It’s going to be the end of your careers. When all the newspapers are gone, television cameras, nobody’s writing about us, we are still a family, and that is all that matters.”

Josephus continued to battle the hip injury, yet lowered his 400m personal best in 2017 (making his Diamond League debut during Noah’s absence) and 2018. At the 2018 USATF Outdoors, Noah won the 100m and Josephus placed sixth in the 400m.

If it had been an Olympic or world championships year, both would have made the U.S. team. Instead, they looked to qualify for their first biennial world outdoor championships in 2019.

That spring, Josephus began throwing up every time he ate. He left a European swing after just one race. He saw several doctors leading into nationals, where he was eliminated in the semifinals. He got an endoscopy and learned his diaphragm was restricted, affecting his eating and breathing. It was fixed after the meet.

“A rough year,” Josephus said.

Noah won the U.S. 200m title two days after Josephus’ 400m semifinal. Noah took gold at the world championships in Doha, after which his most meaningful interaction came by phone with his brother, who was back home in the States after dealing with those chest problems.

Support flowed from both ends of the line — congratulations from an inspired Josephus and excitement from Noah, amped for the upcoming Olympic year and the prospect of a Lyles in every flat sprint and men’s relay in Tokyo.

“I never try to forget that I can be in that same position of being injured, and he could be the one doing well,” Noah said last fall. “So I want to always be able to bring good support to him.”

Noah and Josephus live together in a house near their training base in Clermont, Fla.

The pandemic relegated them to grass fields when tracks were closed for nearly two months. When they returned to more normal training, their coach, Lance Brauman, started putting Josephus in groups with 100m and 200m sprinters, including his brother, regularly for the first time.

Josephus, who beat Noah and world 110m hurdles champion Grant Holloway for a Virginia high school indoor 55m title in 2016, raced a pair of 200m in July. He lowered a five-year-old personal best from 20.74 to 20.41 and then 20.24, which helped book the spot in Monaco.

“When I run 19 [seconds], that’ll be that next level,” said Josephus, while noting the 400m remains his primary event. “I still have a little bit ways to go. Hopefully, this weekend will be a game-changer.”

Here they are, the week after what would have been their first Olympics this summer. Noah and Josephus Lyles are in the same race at the most anticipated track meet of the year.

The Olympic cycle has been bittersweet, said Bishop, reminded of what she stressed to her sons through the ups and downs.

“Life comes in seasons, and your season might not come when you wanted it to come,” she said. “The lesson might not be the lesson you thought it would be, but your season will come.”

MORE: Four years later, life changes for runners who shared Olympic moment

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