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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Chicago Marathon features Emily Sisson’s return, Conner Mantz’s debut, live on Peacock

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At Sunday’s Chicago Marathon, Emily Sisson makes her return, nearly three years after Olympic Trials disappointment. Conner Mantz makes one of the most anticipated U.S. men’s debuts in 26.2-mile racing.

It is not the norm, but an American will be one of the spotlight runners in both the men’s and women’s elite races at a major marathon. Peacock airs live coverage at 8 a.m. ET.

Sisson, 30, starts her first mass marathon since dropping out of the Olympic Trials on Feb. 29, 2020, her legs “destroyed” on the hilly Atlanta course where she started as arguably the favorite. She ran the virtual New York City Marathon later in 2020, but that was solo (and not in New York City). Her 2:38:00 isn’t recorded in her official results on her World Athletics bio.

Since, Sisson won the Olympic Trials 10,000m on the track and was the top American in Tokyo in 10th place. She moved back to the roads, winning national titles at 15km and the half marathon and breaking the American record in the latter.

Sisson vaulted into the elite group of U.S. female marathoners in 2019, when she clocked the second-fastest debut marathon in American history, a 2:23:08 on a windy day in London, where the early pace was slow.

At the time, it was the 12th-best U.S. performance all-time. In the last two years, Keira D’Amato, 37, and Sara Hall, 39, combined to run seven faster marathons. At Chicago, a flat course that produced a world record three years ago, Sisson can answer them and perhaps get close to D’Amato’s American record 2:19:12.

“I’m hoping sub-2:20,” coach Ray Treacy said, according to LetsRun.com. “With the [super] shoes and the training behind her, I would think that’s [worth] at least three minutes.”

It is less likely that Sisson can challenge for the win on Sunday given the presence of Kenyan Ruth Chepngetich, the 2019 World champion and defending champion in the Windy City. The 28-year-old mom is the fifth-fastest woman in history with a personal best of 2:17:08. And Ethiopian Ruti Aga, a podium finisher in Berlin, New York City and Tokyo with a best time of 2:18:34, though she has one marathon finish since the pandemic (a seventh place).

Like Sisson, Mantz has shown strong recent road racing form. The American men’s debut marathon record of 2:07:56 (Leonard Korir) is in play. If he can break that, Mantz will be among the five fastest U.S. marathoners in history.

Rarely has a U.S. male distance runner as accomplished as Mantz moved up to the marathon at such a young age (25). At BYU, he won NCAA cross-country titles in 2020 and 2021 and placed fifth in the Olympic Trials 10,000m, then turned pro and won the U.S. Half Marathon Championships last December.

“If everything goes as planned, I think sub-2:08 is realistic,” Mantz said in a Citius Mag video interview last month. “If everything goes perfect on the day, I think a sub-2:07, that’s a big stretch goal.”

The men’s field doesn’t have the singular star power of Chepngetich, but a large group of East Africans with personal bests around 2:05. The most notable: defending champion Seifu Tura of Ethiopia and 2021 Boston Marathon winner Benson Kipruto of Kenya.

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Alpine skiing to test new format for combined race

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Alpine skiing officials will test a new format for the combined event, a race that is under review to remain on the Olympic program.

French newspaper L’Equipe reported that the International Ski Federation (FIS) will test a new team format for the combined, which has been an individual event on the Olympic program since 1988. L’Equipe reported that a nation can use a different skier for the downhill and slalom in the new setup, quoting FIS secretary general Michel Vion.

For example, the U.S. could use Breezy Johnson in the downhill run and sub her out for Mikaela Shiffrin in the slalom run, should the format be adopted into senior competition.

The format will be tested at the world junior championships in January in St. Anton, Austria, according to the report.

In response to the report, a FIS spokesperson said, “Regarding the new format of the combined is correct, and our directors are working on the rules so for the moment the only thing we can confirm is that there will be this new format for the Alpine combined that has been proposed by the athletes’ commission.”

Some version of the combined event has been provisionally included on the 2026 Olympic program, with a final IOC decision on its place coming by April.

This will be the third consecutive World Cup season with no combined events. Instead, FIS has included more parallel races in recent years. The individual combined remains on the biennial world championships program.

L’Equipe also reported that the mixed team parallel event, which is being dropped from the Olympics, will also be dropped from the biennial world championships after this season.

“There is nothing definitive about that yet, but it is a project in the making,” a FIS spokesperson said in commenting on the report.

Vion said the mixed team event, which debuted at the Olympics in 2018, was not a hit at the Beijing Games and did not draw a strong audience, according to L’Equipe.

The World Cup season starts in two weeks with the traditional opening giant slaloms in Soelden, Austria.

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