Anna Shcherbakova leads figure skating worlds; Karen Chen in medal contention

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Russian national champion Anna Shcherbakova didn’t have a triple Axel, but she didn’t need one to take the lead at the world figure skating championships in Stockholm on Wednesday.

Shcherbakova skated clean, highlighted by a triple Lutz-triple loop combination, and tallied 81 points. She outscored two women who landed triple Axels — Japanese Rika Kihira (79.08) and Russian Yelizaveta Tuktamysheva (78.86).

Americans Karen Chen and Bradie Tennell are in fourth and seventh, respectively. Chen has a chance to become the second U.S. female singles skater to earn an Olympic or world medal in the last 15 years (Ashley Wagner, 2016 silver).

Chen and Tennell’s results after Friday’s free skate must add up to no more than 13 (sixth and seventh place, for example) for the U.S. to earn the maximum three women’s singles spots at the 2022 Olympics.

Another ballyhooed Russian, 16-year-old Aleksandra Trusova, is 12th after struggling on her trademark — jumps — including failing to do a combination.

Worlds continue later Wednesday with the pairs’ short program.

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Shcherbakova, a knitter who turns 17 on Sunday, looks to extend a reign. A Russian woman won skating’s biggest title every season dating to 2014.

“I miss full stands of people supporting you before the start and during the performance,” Shcherbakova said, according to the International Skating Union. “Maybe on this reason I was very nervous, but I understand why the restrictions are needed.”

Shcherbakova won the last three national titles and was among a trio to take the skating world by storm in the abbreviated 2019-20 season, combining to sweep the eight biggest international titles before the 2020 World Championships were canceled. Shcherbakova made headlines that autumn by winning after changing her costume mid-skate, then overcame pneumonia last autumn to continued success.

Shcherbakova, who is coached by Eteri Tutberidze, who guided 2018 Olympic champion Alina Zagitova, was pegged as the second- or third-best Russian last season. Aliona Kostornaya was the favorite, but, after contracting the coronavirus, did not make this season’s world team.

Trusova has a jumping arsenal — up to a handful of quadruple jumps, which are allowed in the free skate but not the short program — to outscore Shcherbakova. But her deficit — 16.18 points — may be too large to make up in the free skate.

Chen, a 2018 U.S. Olympian, is in fourth after a personal-best short that included a triple Lutz-triple toe loop combination. She scored 74.40 points skating to “Rise” by Katy Perry.

“That was the best I’ve ever seen Karen Chen skate,” NBC Sports analyst Johnny Weir said of Chen, who was third at January’s U.S. Championships but chosen for the world team over silver medalist Amber Glenn due to her recent body of work.

Chen, then 17, finished a surprising fourth at the 2017 Worlds to earn the U.S. three women’s spots at the 2018 Olympics, where she was 11th. Chen took the next season off after a stress fracture in her right foot and spent the 2019-20 campaign balancing skating with a pre-med track at Cornell. Now, she’s on a break from classes to focus on skating.

“[Cornell] also made me realize how much I love skating. I’m addicted to skating,” Chen said. “I know that as I get older, it’s definitely going to be more challenging. Now is the time to really pursue my skating goals.”

U.S. champion Tennell, the top American at the most recent Olympics and worlds, skated clean save doubling the back end of her planned triple-triple combination.

“I’m pretty disappointed,” Tennell said. “I’ve been skating clean programs every day since nationals [in January].”

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