Ukraine-born Yaroslav Paniot shakes up U.S. figure skating ranks

U.S. Figure Skating Championships
Getty Images

At the 2021 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Las Vegas last month, Elvis was definitely in the building.

In a hip-swiveling routine to a medley from the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Elvis Presley, Yaroslav Paniot landed three quadruple jumps to defeat bronze medalist Jason Brown in the free skate and come within 0.36 points of silver medalist Vincent Zhou’s score. Overall, he placed fourth, a leap up from tenth place last season.

“It felt very smooth,” Paniot said. “Every single element felt a lot easier than usual to me. Technically, everything felt great.”

“It was a bit of a surprise, but not a big one,” the skater’s coach, Todd Eldredge, said. “I see Yaro every day in training and I know what he is capable of doing. He has made a ton of improvement in the work we have done, and in the work he and Misha (Ge) have done to package him in the right way.”

According to Eldredge, a six-time U.S. champion and the 1996 world champion, “all the pieces of the puzzle” fell into place for his skater over the past few months.

“The equipment, the training, everything just worked,” he said. “Crazy kudos to him for getting out there. He is still new to the U.S. scene, so it’s hard to put out a program like that. Too bad there wasn’t an actual audience, he would have had them rocking there in Vegas.”

Things haven’t always gone so smoothly for Paniot. At times, he’s dwelt at the Heartbreak Hotel.

Born in Odessa, Ukraine, birthplace of 1992 Olympic champion Viktor Petrenko, Paniot took to the ice at age 5. As a youngster, he spent several years training in Moscow, where his coaches included 1972 Olympic silver medalist Sergei Chetverukhin.

An only child, he and his mother, Oksana, moved to California a decade or so ago, settling in Tustin, about 35 miles northwest of Los Angeles. Another Ukrainian, 1996 European champion Vyacheslav (“Zag”) Zagorodnyuk, took Paniot under his wing and coached him at Lake Forest Ice Palace.

“I was a boy, 13 or 14, when I moved here so it was not my decision, my life just went this way,” Paniot, now 23, said. “I was still in Ukrainian distance school, but there was nothing keeping me in Ukraine. This is my home. My mom remarried and my new family is here.”

In 2012, Paniot competed at the inaugural Winter Youth Olympic Games, placing ninth. Later that year he began competing on the Junior Grand Prix. He won his first Ukrainian title in late 2014. In early 2016, after placing second at the Ukrainian Championships, the president of the Ukrainian Federation suggested he change coaches to Nikolai Morozov, and for a time, Paniot moved to Hackensack, New Jersey. By early 2017, he was back in California, training with Tammy Gambill’s group in Riverside.

“From Zag, I learned all of my jumps, and he was a very important person in my life,” Paniot said. “Nikolai, I got from him a lot of skating skills. Tammy, she taught me how to work, how to be an athlete, how to push yourself forward. Todd Eldredge, he helped me put it all together, do all the jumps in one program. Plus, he has big experience in his figure skating career, [which is] is also helpful to me.”

Paniot earned an Olympic berth for Ukraine at 2017 Nebelhorn Trophy and reclaimed the Ukrainian title in December 2017, but at the 2018 European Figure Skating Championships, he fell twice in his short, placed 25th and did not qualify for the free skate. His short at the 2018 Winter Olympics was disastrous, with three falls and a 30th-place finish.

“He has never been one to do run-throughs and programs on a daily basis,” Eldredge said. “That’s been one of his consistency issues, and it’s one of the things I’ve been pushing with him: make sure he is doing his run-throughs, make sure he feels good physically, so that mentally he’s got it all together.”

After placing 12th at 2018 NHK Trophy, Paniot cut his ties with the Ukrainian Figure Skating Federation and decided to compete under the U.S. banner.

“It’s not a good story, between me and Ukraine Federation,” he said. “I thought they were not being responsible for what they are supposed to do.”

Last season, Paniot again trained with Zagorodnyuk. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced California’s rinks to close, he took more than six months off the ice before he resumed training with Eldredge in Irvine last July.

“He and his stepdad approached me and asked if I would be interested in taking him on, and I said, ‘Yeah, let’s see what we can do,’” Eldredge said.

By the time he came to Eldredge, Paniot said he had a full complement of quadruple jumps – “All except for the salchow; I don’t like that jump” – but he had trouble pulling them off in competition. That changed in Las Vegas, where he landed a quad flip, triple toe loop combination in his short program, as well as a quad flip and two quad toe loops in his Elvis free skate.

“I’ve shown him video of when he first came in July [and said], ‘Here is what your quad flip looked like when you came, here is what it looks like now,’” Eldredge said. “I attribute that obviously to his training and also to some of the tweaks we’ve made, timing and little things. He has also worked with the athletic trainers at the rink, trying to get the balance of his strength and a little bit more flexibility.”

Conditions at Great Park Ice & FivePoint Arena, home to Rafael Arutunian and his students Nathan Chen and Mariah Bell, have not been ideal. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has closed or limited ice time at other area rinks, and Great Park is a bit crowded.

“I skate there on open sessions; they don’t have elite sessions, and I’m not allowed to skate on the sessions with Rafael because I’m not his student, so I have to skate around little kids,” Paniot said. “It’s almost like public sessions. Thankfully, Jenni [Meno] and Todd [Sand], they will let me skate on their pair sessions. I appreciate that, it helps me a lot.”

Eldredge thinks the ice situation will be resolved by next season.

“Hopefully, after his performance and showing what he is capable of, we can go to the rink and say, ‘Hey guys, can we get a higher-level session a couple of times a day?” he said. “They have tried to help him out as much as possible. They have understandings with other people and hockey groups. Hopefully, it can improve as conditions for everybody improve, and we can really get the ball rolling on his training.”

Paniot has big goals. He and Eldredge want to include a second quad in his short program and add the quad lutz – Eldredge says Paniot can do it with both of his arms overhead – to his competitive repertoire.

“[Las Vegas] should really help his confidence,” Eldredge said. “He knows he’s capable, and now we build on it.”

Jumps aren’t everything; Paniot will have to improve his program component scores (PCS) and performance quality to compete with the top men. On the NBC broadcast, Johnny Weir called a portion of his free skate “purposeful and ponderous,” adding that if you’re going to do Elvis “a little lip curl never hurt.”

“Oh, I so agree with Johnny,” Paniot said. “I have to work more on this program, of course. I will come back better with it.”

“That’s been one of the things with Yaro I have really enjoyed,” Eldredge said. “He is very receptive to constructive criticism, taking that and being like, ‘Okay, yup, I need to get better at that.’ His previous programs have been, I don’t want to say bland, but pretty generic, and his personality isn’t that.”

The skater, who works with Ge, a former Uzbekistan competitor, on choreography, plans to keep his Elvis free skate next season, and create a new short program.

“Misha is like magic,” he said. “He is fun, sometimes, but most of the time he’s really focusing on details. He’s always learning – ballet, music – trying to improve himself in every way. He is very focused on what he is doing. He’s not casual, like some coaches, I won’t say who.”

Paniot and Eldredge also want to get the ball rolling for the skater to represent the U.S. in international competition this fall. For that, he needs a release from the Ukraine Federation.

“We talked to U.S. Figure Skating to see what was going on, because they (Paniot and his stepfather) weren’t getting anywhere with it,” Eldredge said. “We finally got an answer back. In May, he will get his release from the Ukraine. He has had his green card for five or six years now. His intention is to get his [U.S.] citizenship. After what happened last week, the ball is rolling quickly right now to at least be able to compete at the Olympics next year. That wasn’t really on our radar, we were looking at 2026, but the way things are happening it’s a little bit more realistic.”

“My goal is, I want to make Olympic team for the U.S.,” Paniot said. “I am not yet a citizen, but I will be soon – this year, I think. I’m not doing it casually. It is all serious.”

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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)

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

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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