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

Anna Shcherbakova
Getty Images

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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Teri McKeever fired by Cal as women’s swimming coach after investigation

Teri McKeever

Teri McKeever, the first woman to serve as a U.S. Olympic swimming head coach, was fired by the University of California at Berkeley after an investigation into alleged verbal and emotional abuse of swimmers that she denied.

McKeever was put on paid administrative leave from her job as head women’s swimming coach in May after an Orange County Register report that 20 current or former Cal swimmers said McKeever verbally and emotionally bullied her swimmers.

Cal athletics director Jim Knowlton wrote in a letter to the Cal team and staff that a resulting independent law firm report detailed “verbally abusive conduct that is antithetical to our most important values.”

“I strongly believe this is in the best interests of our student-athletes, our swimming program and Cal Athletics as a whole,” Knowlton said of McKeever’s firing in a press release. “The report details numerous violations of university policies that prohibit race, national origin and disability discrimination.”

The Orange County Register first published what it says is the full independent report here with redactions.

“I deny and unequivocally refute all conclusions that I abused or bullied any athlete and deny any suggestion I discriminated against any athlete on the basis of race, disability or sexual orientation,” McKeever said in a statement Tuesday confirming her firing and expressing disappointment in how the investigation was conducted. “While I am disappointed in the way my CAL Career will conclude, I wish to thank and celebrate the many student-athletes and staff that made my time in Berkeley a true blessing and gift.”

McKeever’s lawyer wrote that McKeever “will be filing suit to expose the manner in which gender has affected not only the evaluation of her coaching but harmed and continues to harm both female and male athletes.”

McKeever led Cal women’s swimming and diving for nearly 30 years, winning four NCAA team titles and coaching Olympic champions including Missy FranklinNatalie Coughlin and Dana Vollmer.

In 2004, she became the first woman to be on a U.S. Olympic swim team coaching staff, as an assistant. In 2012, she became the first woman to be head coach of a U.S. Olympic swim team. She was an assistant again for the Tokyo Games.

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Diana Taurasi returns to U.S. national basketball team

Diana Taurasi

Diana Taurasi is set to return to the U.S. national basketball team next week for the first time since the Tokyo Olympics, signaling a possible bid for a record-breaking sixth Olympic appearance in 2024 at age 42.

Taurasi is on the 15-player roster for next week’s training camp in Minnesota announced Tuesday.

Brittney Griner is not on the list but is expected to return to competitive basketball later this year with her WNBA team, the Phoenix Mercury (also Taurasi’s longtime team, though she is currently a free agent), after being detained in Russia for 10 months in 2022.

Taurasi said as far back as the 2016 Rio Games that her Olympic career was likely over, but returned to the national team after Dawn Staley succeeded Geno Auriemma as head coach in 2017.

In Tokyo, Taurasi and longtime backcourt partner Sue Bird became the first basketball players to win five Olympic gold medals. Bird has since retired.

After beating Japan in the final, Taurasi said “see you in Paris,” smiling, as she left an NBC interview. That’s now looking less like a joke and more like a prediction.

Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve succeeded Staley as head coach last year. In early fall, she guided the U.S. to arguably the best FIBA World Cup performance ever, despite not having stalwarts Bird, Griner, Tina Charles and Sylvia Fowles.

Taurasi was not in contention for the team after suffering a WNBA season-ending quad injury in the summer. Taurasi, who is 38-0 in Olympic games and started every game at the last four Olympics, wasn’t on a U.S. team for an Olympics or worlds for the first time since 2002.

Next year, Taurasi can become the oldest Olympic basketball player in history and the first to play in six Games, according to Olympedia.org. Spain’s Rudy Fernandez could also play in a sixth Olympics in 2024.

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