At Great Park Ice, it takes a village to build a pairs’ team

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When Jenni Meno and Todd Sand skated their way to three U.S. titles, three world medals and two Olympics, they could answer in two short words who was on their coaching team.

“Oh, it was Mr. Nicks,” Sand said with a slight chuckle. “It wasn’t a team. No, no.”

The venerable John Nicks, now 91, coached many of U.S. figure skating’s top pairs, including Meno and Sand, JoJo Starbuck and Ken Shelley, and Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner, the only U.S pair to ever win a world title, a feat they accomplished in 1979.

“It was a different day,” Sand said. “When we skated, a lot of coaches still did almost the whole thing, and then maybe there was a choreographer. Now, I think, the landscape has changed.”

“You need a village,” Meno said. “The whole judging system has changed (from 6.0), that has a big effect, and you need a team approach. Yes, of course, someone’s in charge, but I think it benefits us to go outside – I mean, Rafael [Arutunian] and his group are here, why wouldn’t we ask them to help with the jumping?”

Meno and Sand, who retired from competition after winning the silver medal at the 1998 World Figure Skating Championships, have built their village at Great Park Ice & FivePoint Arena in Irvine, California. That is also where Arutunian trains his skaters, including Nathan Chen and Mariah Bell.

Great Park is only about 10 miles away from Aliso Viejo, where Nicks coached, but worlds away in coaching practice and philosophy.

“We came to Great Park two years ago, and (management) has provided us with the tools and the opportunity and the ice time to do what we need to do to train our skaters,” Sand said. “And then just being able to collaborate with Raf and his group, and the support we feel for each other, it’s pretty cool. And obviously we have some good skaters to work with, and it’s jelling very, very well.”

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Two of Meno and Sands’ pairs, Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier, and Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson, sit first and second, respectively, after the pairs’ short program at the 2021 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Las Vegas. A third Great Park pair, Katie McBeath and Nathan Bartholomay, are seventh.

Pair skaters, with risky lifts, triple twists, throw triple jumps and other complicated elements to master, aren’t always as consistent as they need to be with their triple jumps. Knierim works regularly with Arutunian and his assistants – Arutunian has a team, too – and it’s paying off: she and Frazier won Skate America in October with clean programs including two different triples, toe and Salchow. They also won Thursday’s short program in Las Vegas with a clean outing.

After U.S. silver medalists Calalang and Johnson placed second to Knierim and Frazier at Skate America, Calalang reached out for help with her jumps.

“What is great about Great Park is we are on one rink, and Raf’s team is on the rink right next to us,” she said. “I started working with one of his assistants, Hov Mkrtchian, and he is able to jump off rink two and hop on to rink one to give me a singles lesson. That’s what we have going on at Great Park.”

“It’s a great collaboration,” Meno said. “It’s really good for these skaters. Raf has a lot of exercises, and it’s great that they are willing to help us and to help our pairs.”

The teamwork extends within the pair coaching group. Meno and Sand have worked for many years with Christine Binder, who includes stroking classes and choreographer among her specialties. Sand worked as an ISU technical specialist for years. Meno, the group’s organizer and sometime disciplinarian, lends not only technical expertise but a pair woman’s eye and experience. After their pairs won gold and silver at the 2020 U.S. Championships, the trio was awarded the Professional Skaters Association (PSA) Coach of the Year Award.

Chris Knierim, Alexa’s husband and former skating partner, joined the coaching group this spring. He works with younger pairs at Great Park and has also been key to helping his wife and Frazier master several elements, including the triple twist.

And, for the past two years, the Great Park village has stretched all the way to Eastern Europe. Nina Mozer, the Ukrainian coach of Russian Olympic, world and European champions, joins the Meno, Sand and Binder camp for zoom conference calls twice a week.

Mozer, who also consults with other U.S. pairs’ coaches, devises fitness and practice plans for the pairs leading up to big competitions, including the U.S. Championships.

“We want to go in extremely prepared and have plans for the day, for the week, for the month, and we want to have a plan through the Olympics next February,” Meno said. “The skaters will come up and they’ll say, ‘Okay Jenni, what’s the plan?’ And then I’ll tell them, ‘We’re going to do this, this, this, then we’re going to do this, this, this.’”

“We have to tip the hats to our skaters,” Sand said. “Once in a while there are some adjustments, but they’ve been very receptive and bought into what we’re doing.”

Flashback to the 1970s through 1990s, the heyday of Nicks and his pairs, and the decades when the Soviet Union built its pairs dynasty. Back then, it would have been unthinkable for Nicks to collaborate with a Russian coach. But after a 40-plus year world pairs’ title drought, maybe even he would have built a village.

“We’re trying to create the best pair teams in the country, but also we’re trying to get U.S. pairs back to competing for medals at the world championships and at the Olympics,” Meno said. “And in order to do that, we have to look at every single detail of what they’re doing. They have to land two triple jumps in unison close together. They have to get the levels on the death spirals, steps, lifts and the spins. So it takes more than just one coach to do all of that.”

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IOC looks for ways Russian athletes ‘who do not support war’ could compete as neutrals

Thomas Bach
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GENEVA (AP) — Russian athletes who do not endorse their country’s war in Ukraine could be accepted back into international sports, competing under a neutral flag, IOC president Thomas Bach said in an interview published Friday.

“It’s about having athletes with a Russian passport who do not support the war back in competition,” Bach told Italian daily Corriere della Sera, adding, “We have to think about the future.”

Most sports followed IOC advice in February and banned Russian teams and athletes from their events within days of the country’s military invasion of Ukraine.

With Russians starting to miss events that feed into qualifying for the 2024 Paris Olympics, an exile extending into next year could effectively become a wider ban from those Games.

In an interview in Rome, Bach hinted at IOC thinking after recent rounds of calls with Olympic stakeholders asked for views on Russia’s pathway back from pariah status.

“To be clear, it is not about necessarily having Russia back,” he said. “On the other hand — and here comes our dilemma — this war has not been started by the Russian athletes.”

Bach did not suggest how athletes could express opposition to the war when dissent and criticism of the Russian military risks jail sentences of several years.

Some Russian athletes publicly supported the war in March and are serving bans imposed by their sport’s governing body.

Olympic gold medalist swimmer Yevgeny Rylov appeared at a pro-war rally attended by Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Gymnast Ivan Kuliak displayed a pro-military “Z” symbol on his uniform at an international event.

Russian former international athletes are being called up for military service in the current mobilization, according to media reports. They include former heavyweight boxing champion Nikolai Valuev and soccer player Diniyar Bilyaletdinov.

Russians have continued to compete during the war as individuals in tennis and cycling, without national symbols such as flags and anthems, even when teams have been banned.

Bach told Corriere della Sera it was the IOC’s mission to be politically neutral and “to have the Olympic Games, and to have sport in general, as something that still unifies people and humanity.”

“For all these reasons, we are in a real dilemma at this moment with regard to the Russian invasion in Ukraine,” he suggested. “We also have to see, and to study, to monitor, how and when we can come back to accomplish our mission to have everybody back again, under which format whatsoever.”

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How did U.S. women’s basketball replace its legends? It starts with Alyssa Thomas.

Alyssa Thomas
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If this FIBA World Cup marks the beginning of a new era of U.S. women’s basketball, it is notable, if not remarkable, that no player has been more visible than Alyssa Thomas.

Thomas is making her global championship debut in Sydney. She is the only woman on the team in her 30s. Rarely, if ever, has a player who waited this long to put on a U.S. uniform made such an impact out of the gate. Certainly not since the last major tournament in Australia, when 30-year-old Yolanda Griffith starred at the 2000 Olympics.

Over the last week, Thomas leads the U.S. in minutes played and is one of two players to start all seven games along with Breanna Stewart, the Tokyo Olympic MVP. She ranks fourth on the team in scoring (10.6 points per game), is tied for second in rebounding (6.7), second in assists (4.6) and first in steals (2.7).

The Americans, with their new breakthrough power forward, face China in Saturday’s final, seeking a fourth consecutive world title and 60th consecutive victory between Olympic and world championship play dating to 2006.

“She takes a lot of pressure off of us,” two-time WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson said after Thomas had 13 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists in a quarterfinal win over Serbia. “I think she’s the glue of this team, the X-factor of this team, because that’s her game and that’s her style.”

Thomas earned the nickname “Baby Bron Bron” at the University of Maryland for her LeBron James-like play. USA Basketball took notice in 2013, when she was one of six collegians named to a 33-player national team training camp.

But that participation was the last of Thomas’ bullet points on her USA Basketball bio for another nine years, until she was named to the FIBA World Cup qualifying team last February.

Thomas had to wait her turn.

The U.S. was loaded in the frontcourt in the 2010s with more established players — Candace ParkerTina CharlesSylvia FowlesBrittney GrinerElena Delle Donne — and then Stewart and Wilson came along, becoming arguably the two most valuable Americans in the last Olympic cycle.

Thomas produced, to that point, the best WNBA season of her career in 2020, but tore an Achilles playing overseas in January 2021, ruling out any chance of making the Tokyo Olympic team. (Thomas was not in the 36-player national team pool at the time of her injury.)

The combination of players’ absences this year — Charles, after three Olympic golds, ceded to younger players, Fowles retired and Griner is being detained in Russia — and Cheryl Reeve becoming head coach created an opportunity.

Thomas seized it, leading the Connecticut Sun to the WNBA Finals, where she recorded triple-doubles in the last two games of a series loss to the Las Vegas Aces. Then she boarded a plane to Sydney for her first major international experience and has similarly flourished.

Jennifer Rizzotti, part of the USA Basketball selection committee, said the 6-foot-2 Thomas combines the movement of Lindsay Whalen, the passing of Parker and the physicality of Rebekkah Brunson. She plays with labrum tears in each shoulder. There’s no single player like her.

“There’s definitely some post players that have that point forward mentality, but not quite with the guard skills that Alyssa has,” Rizzotti said. “I don’t see anybody, including guards, that can do what she does in the open court. Then you talk about how disruptive she is defensively and her ability to guard one through five. A’ja can guard one through five, Stewie can guard one through five, but nobody’s as disruptive as Alyssa is. On the perimeter and off the ball.”

Thomas also fit what Reeve, who succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach, was looking for in retooling the roster following the retirement of Sue Bird and possible end of Diana Taurasi‘s national team career at age 40.

“[Reeve] made it clear that she was hoping with the guard turnover that we would be able to play faster, more athletically, more possessions in the game,” Rizzotti said. “And therefore, she wanted to have post players that could push tempo, that could facilitate and kind of fit in with a ball-handling, passing mentality from the trail spot.”

Still, Thomas did not expect to be putting on a USA jersey this year. “Shocked” is the word USA Basketball chose to describe her reaction to making this team.

“It was kind of a surprise,” she said, according to USA Basketball. “I had just really taken my name out of it.”

Rizzotti said Thomas is an example — a very successful one, it turns out — of an asset in the eyes of the selection committee: patience.

“I think a lot of players feel like if they don’t make the USA national team right away, it’s never going to happen,” she said. “You get the comments like, oh, it’s political, or they keep inviting the same guys back. And it’s not true.”

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