A Russian ball at figure skating worlds? Women’s medal sweep possible, not probable

Anna Shcherbakova
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A year ago, three Russian women seemed ready to have a ball at the world figure skating championships.

A debutante ball.

Not only was Russia’s “A” team (each first name began with that letter) composed of first-year international seniors, there was a good chance they would sweep the medals, joining a 1991 U.S. trio as the only women to have done that at worlds.

After all, Aliona Kostornaya, Anna Shcherbakova and Aleksandra Trusova had finished first in all six 2019-20 Grand Prix events, each winning two, and they swept both the Grand Prix Final and European Championships podiums in that order.

Not only that, all three had the same coaching team, headed by Eteri Tutberidze in Moscow.

And then …

*The coronavirus pandemic forced cancellation of the 2020 Worlds in Montreal.

*A soap operatic summer of coaching musical chairs sent Trusova and Kostornaya across Moscow to train with the “Angels of Plushenko,” a team headed by 2006 men’s Olympic champion Yevgeny Plushenko.

*Kostornaya, 17, contracted the virus and was forced to drop out of December’s Russian Championships. After later switching both her short and free programs, she was an underwhelming sixth at the decisive final stage of the Russian Cup in February, missing out on a 2021 World team spot to the self-styled Empress, veteran Yelizaveta Tuktamysheva, 24, who was fourth at that event.

Soon after, Kostornaya announced a return to Team Tutberidze for next season.

Which leads us to the question of whether Shcherbakova, Trusova and Tuktamysheva can pull off that podium sweep at worlds in Stockholm, which begin with the short program Wednesday (full TV, live stream schedule here).

And this is how that shapes up (given the underlying caveat that ice is slippery):

The Medalists

Shcherbakova, Trusova and Japan’s Rika Kihira.

Kihira, 18, who has a solid triple Axel, needs a very strong short program to have a decent shot at gold. The Russians’ big-points quadruple jumps, which aren’t allowed in the short program, give them a substantial base value advantage in the free skate, even though the Japanese champion broke through by cleanly landing a lower-value quad (Salchow) at her nationals in December.

Despite competing with what was said to be pneumonia rather than Covid-19, Shcherbakova, who turns 17 Sunday, won a third consecutive Russian title with two clean quads (Lutz, flip). Trusova, 16, who was third at nationals (a junior took second), also landed two clean quads (both Lutzes.)

Shcherbakova’s record of coming up big in big events gives her the edge for the title.

Other Podium Possibilities (if any of the top three significantly falter):

Tuktamysheva; Kaori Sakamoto and Satoko Miyahara of Japan; Bradie Tennell of the U.S.

As a woman of a certain age in a sport dominated by teenyboppers, the personable Tuktamysheva, coached by the venerable Aleksey Mishin (he just turned 80) in St. Petersburg, is something of a sentimental favorite (with a triple Axel.) It took the 2015 World champion six years to get back to worlds.

Tuktamysheva’s 10th-place free skate at the Russian Championships (seventh overall) can be mostly explained by her having missed training and lost fitness after contracting Covid-19 a few weeks earlier. But consistency has been problematic for her since the 2014-15 season, when she utterly dominated.

Sakamoto, 20, was fifth at the 2019 Worlds. Miyahara, who turns 23 Friday, was a world medalist in 2015 and 2018, but she lacks the jump firepower to compete with the current top Russians. Tennell, 23, who won her second U.S. title in January, has the highest total score of any non-Russian or Kihira.

And what about the reigning world champion from 2019?

That’s Alina Zagitova of Russia, also the reigning Olympic champion. Zagitova, still just 18, left competitive skating after her last-place finish at the 2019 Grand Prix Final, when it became apparent her efforts to keep up with the young Russian quad squad had become Sisyphean.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Olympic Winter Games, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

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South Korea’s first gold medalist of 2018 PyeongChang Olympics to compete for China

Lim Hyo-Jun
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Lim Hyo-Jun, a short track speed skater who won South Korea’s first gold medal of the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, has been cleared to skate for China and was reportedly named to the national team Monday.

Lim, who won the 1500m on the first day of medal competition at the PyeongChang Games, began the process of switching to China after a June 2019 incident where he pulled down a teammate’s trousers, leaving him standing, exposed, in front of female teammates.

Lim, the 2019 World overall champion, was banned from the team for a year and later found guilty of sexual harassment before the verdict was overturned on appeal.

It was reported in March 2021 that Lim was in the process of trying to gain Chinese nationality to compete at the Beijing Winter Olympics, but Lim was not cleared to switch by the International Skating Union until this July. His Chinese name is Lin Xiaojun.

Another star South Korean skater, triple 2006 Olympic gold medalist Ahn Hyun-Soo, switched to Russia after not making the 2010 Olympic team. He then won three golds for the host nation as Viktor Ahn at the 2014 Sochi Games.

China’s national team for the upcoming season reportedly does not include veterans Wu Dajing, the nation’s lone gold medalist across all sports at the 2018 Olympics, and Fan Kexin, a three-time Olympic medalist.

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Brigid Kosgei, world record holder, to miss London Marathon

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World record holder Brigid Kosgei withdrew before Sunday’s London Marathon due to a right hamstring injury that has bothered her for the last month.

“My training has been up and down and not the way I would like to prepare to be in top condition,” was posted on Kosgei’s social media. “We’ve decided it’s best I withdraw from this year’s race and get further treatment on my injuries in order to enter 2023 stronger than ever.”

Kosgei, a 28-year-old Kenyan mother of twins, shattered the world record by 81 seconds at the 2019 Chicago Marathon. She clocked 2:14:04 to smash Brit Paula Radcliffe‘s record from 2003.

Since, Kosgei won the 2020 London Marathon, took silver at the Tokyo Olympics, placed fourth at the 2021 London Marathon and won this past March’s Tokyo Marathon in what was then the third-fastest time in history (2:16:02).

Ethiopian Tigist Assefa moved into the top three by winning the Berlin Marathon last Sunday in 2:15:37.

The London Marathon women’s field includes Kenyan Joyciline Jepkosgei, a winner in New York City (2019) and London (2021), and Yalemzerf Yehualaw, who was the Ethiopian record holder until Assefa won in Berlin.

The men’s field is headlined by Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele, the second-fastest male marathoner in history, and Brit Mo Farah, a four-time Olympic champion on the track.

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