Two months from COVID-19 fight, Joey Mantia hopes to see his stock rise at World Championships

ISU World Cup Speed Skating - Heerenveen
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As if Joey Mantia hasn’t faced enough unpredictability this season, the two-time Olympic speed skater decided to add even more volatility to his life.

Mantia has been learning how to trade stocks by watching YouTube videos while holed up in a hotel in Heerenveen, Netherlands. With athletes in the protective bubble having 10 days off between their two World Cups in January and the ISU World Single Distances Speed Skating Championships, Mantia decided to study the stock market “on a whim.”

In a couple of day trades to test the waters, he made “six or seven bucks” and has more in play. “I haven’t lost any money yet, so that’s good,” Mantia said.

He’s hoping for good returns on his speed skating investment when competition starts Thursday. But after a bout with COVID-19 in December, Mantia, who turned 35 on Sunday, has no idea how his body will respond.

As the week began, Mantia said he is “feeling great on the ice technically,” but his “body is still a little weird.”

“You never know what’s going to happen on race day,” he added, “so I’m very optimistic still.”

Despite the pandemic, Mantia came into the 2020-21 season with high hopes. Last February, he won his first world championships medal in a time trial event – the bronze in the 1500m – to go along with his two golds in the mass start in 2017 and 2019.

Early races at the Utah Olympic Oval outside Salt Lake City went well, and Mantia felt strong and capable. Then he came down with COVID.

“I’m a little bit sad that I didn’t get to see that through, but I can’t control that now,” he said. “I can only focus on what’s ahead.”

Yet Mantia is still dealing with the effects of the virus. In early December, he thought his body aches were the result of hard training. But Mantia had chills, too, then a headache and “slept like garbage.” After that, he said, “I felt like a million bucks. I’m sure my white blood cell count was through the roof.”

That was “a Superman effect,” his immune system reacting to the virus.

Knowing that one of his teammates had tested positive, Mantia took his weekly test. That afternoon, while on the phone with his former coach back home in Ocala, Florida, Mantia noticed that he couldn’t smell a fragrant candle. A few hours later, his trainer called to say he’d tested positive.

“I did two weeks of absolutely nothing, which is pretty detrimental to an athlete regardless of having any kind of virus or not,” Mantia said.

He barely got up from his couch, sleeping 13 hours a night. But Mantia did find time to research myocarditis, knowing he had to be careful when resuming training to avoid long-term damage to his heart.

Once he returned to the ice, Mantia eased in for the first week and a half, then had a week of tough workouts.

“I don’t know if there’s any correlation between COVID and the nervous system,” he said, “but I felt like I was starting to have a hard time controlling my motor functions after a hard effort.”

In race situations, Mantia couldn’t finish with any kind of intensity. “That was kind of an ‘uh-oh’ moment for me,” he said. “But at that point I was already committed to coming to the World Cups and the World Championships, so I was like, ‘Well, I’ll just figure it out as I go and hopefully every week gets a little bit better.’”

Arriving in Europe, Mantia felt unfit, a rarity for him. In the past, if he hadn’t done well in a race, it was because his technique was off. “It’s a really weird feeling to feel the exact opposite now where I feel like the skating is really, really good, but my body is just failing me,” he said.

In the first World Cup of this abbreviated season, Mantia was seventh in the 1500m and 15th in the mass start. On Instagram, Mantia wrote that he was “trying to keep the smile, even though it’s obnoxious trying to race when feeling like this.”

In the second World Cup, he dropped to 17th in the 1500m but moved up to fourth in the mass start.

Mantia said he was in a perfect position strategically in the 16-lap event. “I skated the race great, but I just had nothing left at the end of the race to make any kind of move,” he said. “That’s normally not like me at all.”

He’s also had to cope with feeling groggy, as if he had concussion-like symptoms, following racing or hard training. “It almost feels hypoglycemic, in a sense that I feel I need some sugar,” he said. “That may or may not be linked to the COVID thing.”

However, even sugar itself has proven bittersweet. When the World Championships organizing committee generously provided a birthday cake for Mantia’s small celebration with teammates, it was decorated with a photo of him with his former roommate’s dog.

“Made me smile, but also pretty sad,” Mantia said. “She was hit by a car and died a couple of days before I came here.”

Another unpredictable event. Luckily for Mantia, he found a refuge in YouTube University. “I think pretty much everything I’ve learned since high school I’ve learned from YouTube,” he said, “renovating my house by myself, learning the piano…”

Mantia has been playing the piano in the hotel lobby some nights, with a repertoire that includes “Piano Man” by Billy Joel and some John Lennon and Evanescence. An athlete or two might stop and listen, but he’s usually just playing for himself or the front desk clerk. “For the most part,” he said, “I’m just playing for my own sanity.”

Mantia had planned to peruse some cooking books in his spare time, then got caught up in the stock market frenzy.

“I’m a pretty big math nerd and I like probability,” he said, noting that he was hooked “once I started learning that you could have a pretty good strategy for making money over the long term if you manage your risk. I think I would probably be losing my mind a little bit if we were stuck in these rooms and all I had to do was think about skating and how unpredictable it is right now for me.”

At least one variable has been removed. Unlike previous world championships, the 1500m and the mass start will not be held on the same day.

“If I was a betting man, I would say the mass start is probably my only hope right now at even looking at the podium,” Mantia said. “I’ll know with about three laps to go if it’s going to be a good day or the bad day.”

He’s aware that the rest of the field knows he’s had COVID-19 and hasn’t been performing the way he normally does, “so they’re a little more aggressive in the race pace,” he said. “That could just be my perception.”

But he allowed that if the skate was on the other foot, “I would do the same thing.”

No matter how it goes at worlds, Mantia will move into preparations for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.

Because of COVID restrictions, he said the U.S. had not held any mass start training this season, which could also have played a role in his fitness issues. Mantia has resolved to find a way to train for the event next season even if restrictions are still in place “because that’s definitely my best shot at the gold medal at the Olympics,” he said, “followed by the 1500 and team pursuit.”

Mantia, whose top Olympic finish was fourth place in the 1000m in PyeongChang three years ago – his first major result in that event – said he thinks he’s better at mass start than time trials because he’s never really gotten comfortable with starting on the ice.

“I had one of the best starts on the planet when it came to inline skating,” said Mantia, who won 28 world titles on wheels before switching to speed skating, “but I have a very weak start on the ice.

“I feel like most athletes who grew up in the sport have their start kind of dialed in. That’s just never been me. On top of that, I’ve never been great at time trialing by itself. I’m a racer at heart, and the mass start is basically everything that I am.”

After Beijing, Mantia will continue racing mass start events if he’s in a position where he still can win, “which I don’t see a reason why I couldn’t be,” he said.

“I would continue because I do enjoy this life. I think it’s a good alternative to clocking in and having a 9-to 5 job, which is something I’ve never really desired. So if I can do a little day trading and be a speed skater for the rest of my life, I’m going to take that route.

“It’s not a bad one.”

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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)
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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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