In world women’s short program to leave viewers gasping, Anna Shcherbakova’s breathtaking skating filled the rare air at the top

ISU World Figure Skating Championships - Stockholm: Day One
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Maybe it’s because we are all out of viewing shape from not having had a significant international figure skating competition in more than a year, since the coronavirus pandemic forced cancellation of the 2020 World Championships and everything else of consequence this season until this week.

Or maybe it’s because there was so much to wrap our heads around during the first part of the first event at the 2021 ISU World Figure Skating Championships.

Whichever you apply, it was easy to be left breathless after trying to process the multiple storylines emerging from Wednesday’s women’s short program in Stockholm, Sweden.

There were some breathtakingly beautiful skating moments, too.

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And, unsurprisingly, it took just a few hours in front of screens of various sizes for everyone to get fittingly exercised about the judging.

Gotta start somewhere, so…

Anna Shcherbakova of Russia (81.00 points), Rika Kihira of Japan (79.08) and Yelizaveta Tuktamysheva (78.86) of Russia were unquestionably the top three, even if there could be debate over the order of the top two.

Tuktamysheva not only was back at worlds for the first time since winning in 2015. The self-styled Empress was baaaaaaaaack, big time, with one of her best performances, including a strong triple axel and a substantial upgrade in difficulty of her jump combination since December’s Russian Championships, after which she also changed her short program music and choreography.

“I’m really glad with being world champion six years ago, [but] I think it’s harder just to be here than it was to win in 2015,” Tuktamysheva said, referring to the fierce competition to make the Russian women’s team. “Figure skating is much harder now.”

As was the case in her last world meet appearance four years ago, Karen Chen (74.40, fourth) was unexpectedly the leading U.S. skater, with a personal best by more than seven points and flawless execution of every element. She and Kihira were the only skaters in the top six to receive all Level 4s (the highest) on the footwork sequence and the three spins.

“A great confidence booster for me,” Chen said.

Reigning U.S. champion Bradie Tennell (69.87, seventh) was underwhelming, lacking speed and emotion and doing just a double on the second jump of her planned triple-triple combination. As she came off the ice, her coach, Tom Zakrajsek, said. “That was so not typical.”

“I haven’t been training that way, so it comes as a surprise to me too,” Tennell said. “I’m pretty disappointed with that skate. To go out there and miss a combo is very unnatural for me.”

The skater who followed Chen, two-time Olympian and six-time national champion Maé-Bérénice Méité of France, became a sad storyline in the exhausting tale when she tore the Achilles tendon in her left foot on the takeoff of a triple toe loop, her second element, and was forced to stop skating because of the pain and instability. The French newspaper L’Equipe quoted a French skating federation official saying the injury probably would need surgery.

Méité’s withdrawal means France will have to seek an Olympic women’s qualifying spot at the Nebelhorn Trophy next fall.

Chen and Tennell go into Friday’s free skate in position to give the United States women three spots for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, which requires final placements adding up to 13 or fewer.

“The (three spots) has been the hot topic,” Chen said. “I do feel the pressure.

“My goal for the free skate is to just deliver the free skate I know I am capable of. I have yet to show that [this season].”

Also unexpected (but welcome): Russian coaches Aleksei Mishin (Tuktamysheva) and Yevgeny Plushenko (Aleksandra Trusova) finally seemed to have mastered keeping the masks over their noses.

Plushenko may have wanted to pull the mask over his eyes during Trusova’s shockingly poor short program.

“I think I couldn’t handle my excitement,” said Trusova, 16.

In her senior worlds debut, the two-time world junior champion was 12th (64.82). Not even a handful of clean quadruple jumps in the free skate may be enough to get Trusova a medal after she failed to do a combination – having botched the landing of its first jump – and received an edge warning on another jump.

Despite all that and her generally uninspired skating, the judges saw fit to give Trusova the third-highest component score total. That was among several head-scratching scores in the short program.

Two presumably justified “q” calls, meaning the jump was a quarter-revolution short, cost Kihira enough grade of execution points to drop her behind Shcherbakova.

“I wasn’t very confident on my jumps,” said Kihira, who got one of the “q” notations on her triple axel.

Yet there seemed no justification for her losing 1.74 PCS points to Shcherbakova or for four of the nine judges to place her third overall, behind La Tuk. (Was it a coincidence that three of the four are from former Soviet Bloc countries?)

It was also worth noting that what looked like the two best executed jump elements of the day, a double axel by Kaori Sakamoto of Japan (sixth place) and a triple lutz-triple toe combination by Kim Yelim of South Korea (fifth), did not receive the highest GOEs. In both cases, Shcherbakova had higher GOE scores as she recorded a personal best total by nearly three points.

There is no disputing that Shcherbakova skated beautifully, interpreting Massenet’s elegiac “O sweet spring of yore” with an appropriately serious mien and understated elegance. Shcherbakova, who turns 17 Sunday, also landed the most difficult combination of the 37 competitors, a triple lutz-triple loop.

Shcherbakova, speaking fluent English, said the absence of spectators made her more nervous, although that was not evident in her performance. She once again proved herself to be in command at the biggest events, as evidenced by having won three straight national titles, the first two as an underdog.

Her free skate is to begin with consecutive quadruple lutzes, one in combination. If she does them as well as she did at the Russian Championships, no one need hold their breath over who will be the 2021 women’s world champion.

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

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Gaon Choi breaks Chloe Kim record, youngest X Games snowboard halfpipe champion

Gaon Choi
Jamie Schwaberow/X Games

South Korean Gaon Choi broke Chloe Kim‘s record as the youngest X Games snowboard halfpipe champion, winning at age 14 on Saturday in Aspen, Colorado.

Choi, the world junior champion, landed three different 900s in her third of four runs to overtake two-time U.S. Olympian Maddie Mastro. She then landed a frontside 1080 in her fourth run.

In a format introduced three years ago, athletes were ranked on overall impression of their best run over the course of a jam session rather than scoring individual runs.

Choi became the first Winter X Games medalist for South Korea, a nation with a best Olympic halfpipe finish of 14th. She is six months younger than Kim was when Kim won the first of her five X Games Aspen halfpipe titles in 2015.

“I began snowboarding because of Chloe Kim and now almost being near her level when she was 14, it feels weird that I can see a possibility that I would go beyond her some day,” Choi said through a translator, according to organizers. “I’m already starting to look forward to the next Olympics.”

Kim, the daughter of South Korean immigrants, posted that she has known Choi for almost a decade.

“I feel like a proud Mom,” she posted. “The future of snowboarding’s in good hands.”

Kim, the only woman to land back-to-back 1080s in a contest, is taking this season off after repeating as Olympic champion but plans to return ahead of the 2026 Milan-Cortina Winter Games.

Mastro, who was 12th and 13th at the last two Olympics, landed her patented double crippler (two back flips) on two of her runs, but it wasn’t enough. She was the last woman to beat Kim at the 2019 U.S. Open.

Earlier, American Colby Stevenson earned his second X Games ski slopestyle title, one year after taking silver in ski big air’s Olympic debut. Stevenson, who was one millimeter from brain damage in a 2016 car crash, capped his first two of four runs with 1620s, according to commentators, taking the lead for good after the latter.

American Alex Hall, the Olympic slopestyle champion, was seventh.

Later, Japan’s Reira Iwabuchi won women’s snowboard big air, highlighted by a triple underflip. The field lacked 2021 X Games champion Jamie Anderson (pregnant) and 2018 and 2022 Olympic champion Anna Gasser of Austria. Iwabuchi was fourth at the last two Olympics.

Gasser withdrew moments before the competition after placing seventh in Friday’s slopestyle, according to commentators.

Zoe Atkin became the first British female skier to win an X Games title, taking the halfpipe in the absence of Olympic champion Eileen Gu of China. Atkin had two 720s in her fourth and final run to overtake Olympic bronze medalist Rachael Karker of Canada.

Atkin, the 20-year-old and Stanford student and younger sister of 2018 Olympic slopestyle bronze medalist Izzy Atkin, was ninth at the Olympics and never previously won an X Games medal.

Gu withdrew on Friday with a knee injury from a training crash.

ON HER TURF: U.S. freeskier Maggie Voisin on grief, loss, finding motivation

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Madison Chock, Evan Bates win historic U.S. ice dance title for figure skaters in their 30s


Madison Chock and Evan Bates won their fourth national ice dance title at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships and made all sorts of longevity history.

Chock and Bates, fourth at the Olympics and third at last March’s world championships, totaled 229.75 points between the rhythm dance and free dance. They prevailed by 22.29 over Caroline Green and Michael Parsons, the largest margin of victory in a U.S. ice dance since it was shortened from three programs to two in 2011.

“This is probably the best we’ve ever skated in our careers,” Bates said on NBC. “I think that’s the statement that we wanted to make.”

Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko took bronze but are likely to be left off the three-couple team for March’s world championships in favor of Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, last year’s U.S. bronze medalists who planned to petition for a worlds spot after withdrawing before nationals citing mental health.

Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, the top U.S. couple at the 2022 Olympics (bronze) and 2022 Worlds (silver), retired after last season.

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Chock, 30, and Bates, 33, who are engaged, became the first dance couple in their 30s to win a U.S. title in the modern era (at least the last 50 years).

Chock and Bates made the nationals podium for an 11th consecutive year, one shy of the record for any discipline.

Bates, who last year became the oldest U.S. champion in any discipline in decades, has made 13 career senior nationals podiums with Chock and former partner Emily Samuelson. It is believed that breaks the U.S. record for a single discipline that he shared with Michelle KwanNathaniel Niles and Theresa Weld Blanchard.

Those records matter less to Chock and Bates than what they’re hoping is a career first in March: a world championships gold medal.

They earned silver or bronze a total of three times. All of the teams that beat them at last year’s Olympics and worlds aren’t competing this season, but Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier defeated Chock and Bates at December’s Grand Prix Final, which is a sort-of dress rehearsal for worlds.

“If we don’t win gold at worlds, we’ll be disappointed,” Bates, whose first senior nationals in 2008 came when new U.S. women’s singles champion Isabeau Levito was 10 months old, said earlier this month. “We’ve set the goal for ourselves in he past and haven’t met it yet.”

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