In figure skating’s long, strange trip of a season, Nathan Chen showed the way

ISU World Team Trophy - Day Two
Getty Images
0 Comments

What a long, strange trip it has been for figure skating over the past 13 months.

From the cancellation of the 2020 World Championships in Montreal when the first wave of the pandemic hit full force last March through dealing with two more COVID waves since then, the International Skating Union had to:

*Cancel six of the 10 events (and indefinitely postpone two more) in the second-tier Challenger Series of international events.

*Remake the top tier, six-event Grand Prix Series as domestic-only, with no Final and both France and Canada cancelling their GP events. (Canada also cancelled its national championships.)

*Cancel its two regional championships, the European Championships and Four Continents Championships.

For all that, the season came to a satisfying end. The ISU pulled off both the 2021 World Championships last month in a Stockholm, Sweden, bubble with no spectators other than skaters and officials and the 2021 World Team Trophy last week in an Osaka, Japan, bubble with limited spectators – while Osaka prefecture was in a state of emergency due to a surge in COVID cases.

While the ISU reported three positive COVID tests in Sweden (only one after an athlete had been accredited), all leading to some form of quarantine, there have so far been no reports of cases linked to having participated in the world meet.

The unprecedented nature of this pre-Olympic season, in which both the United States and Canada created virtual events to give their athletes other chances to compete, makes it tricky to draw prognosticative conclusions from it with the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics now less than a year away.

Nevertheless, here are some among the takeaways from the 2020-21 season:

1. Nathan Chen of the United States is now the odds-on favorite for the 2022 men’s singles gold medal.

Chen finished the season by winning his third straight world title and winning both programs at the World Team Trophy, where there is no overall individual winner. He has not lost in 13 live individual domestic and international events (plus a virtual event) since getting fifth at the 2018 Olympics, and he has won all 13 free skates and 11 of the 13 short programs in those events.

Among those wins were three over two-time (and reigning) Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan, whose comments after losing both programs to Chen at the World Team Trophy made it seem Hanyu is less committed to competing in Beijing than he is to an apparently quixotic quest to land the first quadruple axel in competition.

2. Some also had projected Chen as 2018 Olympic champion, which was wishful thinking based on the injury that sidelined Hanyu for much of two months before the PyeongChang Games and the inconsistency of 2015 and 2016 world champion Javier Fernandez of Spain.

Having rebounded from a sloppy sixth-place performance at his senior worlds debut in 2017 with a victory at the 2017 Grand Prix Final (in Hanyu’s absence), Chen did seem to have a legitimate shot at Olympic bronze before he came undone in the short program.

Chen has since admitted being too focused on a medal instead of what he needed to do to win one. That is a mistake he is unlikely to make again.

3. Chen’s free skate program to Philip Glass’ music, with choreography by Shae-Lynn Bourne, drew the attention of the celebrated, multi-genre composer, a three-time Academy Award nominee and Golden Globe winner for his film scores (Chen used a section of the score from “The Truman Show.”) In an Instagram post, Glass congratulated Chen and noted he has “dominated men’s figure skating this season.”

Chen showed a physical as well as an intellectual understanding of Glass, having studied his music at Yale and having learned how to play part of it on the piano. The skater’s interpretation got more nuanced each time he performed it.

4. Anna Shcherbakova, the 2021 world champion, looks like the only sure bet to make the Russian Olympic team in women’s singles, so deep and talented is the field in the Motherland.

Both Kamila Valiyeva and Daria Usachyeva, first-year seniors internationally next season, are in a mix that also includes: the two women, Yelizaveta Tuktamysheva and Aleksandra Trusova, who joined Shcherbakova in sweeping the worlds podium; and Aliona Kostornaya, the 2019 Grand Prix Final champion who got on a coaching change merry-go-round and contracted COVID this season.

Lest we forget: Alina Zagitova was a first-year senior when she won the 2018 Olympic title.

5. In barely a decade since its nadir at the 2010 Olympics, when it did not win a gold medal for the first time since its Winter Olympic figure skating debut in 1960, Russia has become preeminent again in the sport.

It won three world titles (women’s, pairs, dance), the first time that has happened since 2005. Yes, the result might have been different had ice dancers Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France not taken the season off after contracting COVID and facing COVID-related logistical issues, but they were beaten in their last competition (2020 European Championships) by 2021 world champions Viktoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov of Russia.

Even without an almost certain gold medal in the 2022 team event, Russia has a good chance at three more. Since ice dance became an Olympic event in 1976, Russian skaters have won three individual medals in four Olympics.

6. Thanks to a little-publicized and poorly-explained rule change, the United States must send a man and women to a qualifying event to earn the third Olympic singles spot in each discipline. (Under the rule in place until this year, the finishes of the top two U.S. men and the two U.S. women at worlds would have earned the maximum three sports with no further foofaraw.)

The challenge is seemingly not formidable, with the woman needing a top-six finish and the man a top-seven (among those seeking Olympic qualifying spots) at the Nebelhorn Trophy Challenger Series event Sept. 22-25 in Germany.

The hard part is deciding whom to send, since neither of the top two men (Nathan Chen and Jason Brown) or the women (Karen Chen and Bradie Tennell) are eligible, and there will be considerable pressure on whoever gets the assignment.

U.S. Figure Skating’s international committee will have to establish some selection parameters, which could include having the contenders do the same summer competition and/or having a judged competition at the annual Champs Camp, which will take place before the Sept. 15 entry deadline for Nebelhorn.

Does USFS send Vincent Zhou, the 2019 world bronze medalist and 2018 Olympic sixth-placer whose 25th in the short program at this year’s worlds created the qualification predicament? Or go for a skater with no significant senior international achievement (but no karmic weight on his shoulders), like Maxim Naumov, Camden Pulkinen, Tomoki Hiwatashi or, should he get U.S. citizenship in time, Yaroslav Paniot, who was fourth at the 2021 U.S. Championships?

The women’s contenders figure to be an ascendant Amber Glenn, second at nationals but with minimal international experience; highly experienced Mariah Bell, a disappointing fifth at nationals; and two-time (2019 and 2020) U.S. champion Alysa Liu, the former junior phenom who will be a first-year senior.

Liu had a season of struggles in which a growth spurt threw her jumping out of kilter, and COVID travel restrictions put the kibosh on her plans to spend some of the time training in Canada with Lee Barkell and Lori Nichol following her decision last spring to leave longtime coach Laura Lipetsky.

With Liu’s coaching situation in the San Francisco Bay Area fleshed out and stabilized late last fall by having four-time U.S. singles champion Jeremy Abbott join Italian Olympic ice dancer Massimo Scali as her mentors, she wound up missing the top three at nationals by less than two points.

7. Nebelhorn is among 10 events on an ISU 2021 Challenger Series schedule released last week. The Beijing event, scheduled Oct. 13-17, will be the Olympic test event. That test event was supposed to be last season’s Grand Prix Final.

8. Yuma Kagiyama, 17, was the revelation of the pre-Olympic season. After a third at the Japanese Championships, the effervescent Kagiyama was second at his debut worlds, landing both his quads cleanly in the short program and all three cleanly in the free skate. He was second in each program.

9. The expected return of Papadakis and Cizeron and the good vibes Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier got from judges at worlds (second in the free skate, third overall) mean Team USA faces a serious challenge to win an Olympic ice dance medal for the fifth straight time.

10. Like fine wine: Coach Aleksei Mishin turned 80 two weeks before worlds, where he had the women’s singles silver medalist (Tuktamysheva) and the men’s fifth and eighth placers (Mikhail Kolyada and Yevgeny Semenenko).

Mishin’s one-time pairs’ partner, Tamara Moskvina, turns 80 in June. The pairs’ teams she coaches won gold and bronze at worlds.

Molodyets!

11. For U.S. pairs’ teams, who have struggled to be competitive most of the 21st century, there was statistically significant improvement at worlds: two teams in the top 10 for the first time since 2012. First-year team Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier, the 2021 U.S. champions, were seventh; Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, the 2019 U.S. champions, were ninth. No U.S. pair had finished higher than seventh at worlds since a sixth in 2011. Given how much COVID restrictions curtailed the time Knierim and Frazier had to get used to each other, their performances at nationals and worlds created optimism about their future.

12. As frustrating as it was to cover the U.S. Championships and World Championships remotely, big props to the communications staff at USFS and the ISU for making it possible. The virtual mixed zones and press conferences at both events provided good athlete availability to the media.

A special thanks to Michael Terry of USFS for arranging needed extra interview time with both Nathan and Karen Chen at the World Championships.

13. And props to the athletes by being respectfully thankful for what they had in in terms of competitions and training while noting, but not lamenting or harping on, the many dislocations to their athletic lives.

14. No one expressed such thanks more frequently or sincerely than Nathan Chen. In becoming a champion for all time, the first U.S. man to win three world titles since 1984 and first to win five straight national titles since 1950, Chen was, best of all, a champion for these times.

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

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

World Athletics Athletes of the Year: Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone, Mondo Duplantis

Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
0 Comments

Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone and Mondo Duplantis were named World Athletics Athletes of the Year after world record-breaking performances in 2022.

McLaughlin-Levrone, who lowered her 400m hurdles world record twice this year, won the award for the first time. She became the first American to win Athlete of the Year since fellow 400m hurdler Dalilah Muhammad in 2019.

“I would describe 2022 for myself by just saying incredible,” McLaughlin-Levrone said. “Everything that we aimed to do we were able to accomplish.”

The other finalists were Nigeria’s Tobi Amusan, who broke the 100m hurdles world record en route to the world title; Jamaica’s Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, who won her fifth world 100m title; Peru’s Kimberly Garcia, who swept the 20km and 35km race walk world titles, and Venezuela’s Yulimar Rojas, who broke her own triple jump world record and swept the indoor and outdoor world titles.

McLaughlin-Levrone has said she wants to add the flat 400m to her program in the coming years. She has never run that event at a senior championship meet, but showed her flat potential in the 4x400m relay at worlds in July. Her split — 47.91 seconds — made her the seventh-fastest relay performer in history and second-fastest in the last 33 years behind Allyson Felix.

At next summer’s world championships, the women’s 400m hurdles first round heats start 2 hours and 20 minutes before the women’s 400m semifinals. Top-level pros rarely race multiple times in one session in a distance longer than 200 meters at any meet.

Duplantis, the Louisiana-raised Swede, won the men’s award for the second time in three years. He upped his pole vault world record three times in 2022 and swept the world indoor and outdoor and Diamond League titles in the event.

“It’s probably been by far the best year that I’ve ever had,” Duplantis said.

The other men’s finalists were Moroccan steeplechaser Soufiane El Bakkali, who went undefeated in 2022; Norwegian runner Jakob Ingebrigtsen, the world outdoor 5000m champion who ran the world’s fastest mile in 21 years; Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge, who broke his own marathon world record by 30 seconds, and American Noah Lyles, who broke Michael Johnson‘s 26-year-old national record in the 200m.

Duplantis will likely try to continue upping his world record one centimeter at a time like Ukraine legend Sergey Bubka did on an almost annual basis from 1984 through 1994. Duplantis’ current record is 6.21 meters. The next significant milestone is 6.25 meters, or 20 feet, 6 inches.

“We’ll so how high, but I want to push it higher than people think is even possible,” he said.

Erriyon Knighton became the first athlete to twice win the Rising Star award, given to the top U20 track and field athlete.

Knighton, 18, took 200m bronze at the world championships on July 21 in Eugene, Oregon, becoming the youngest individual sprint medalist in championships history. He was part of a U.S. medals sweep with Lyles and Kenny Bednarek.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

A wild Grand Prix Final has a quadruple Axel, the Brits and a figure skating tale for the ages

Ilia Malinin
Getty
0 Comments

The world’s best figure skaters gather for the first time this season at this week’s Grand Prix Final in Turin, Italy. The Who’s Who is a very different group than from February’s Olympics, as expected, with the fall Grand Prix Series also producing some unpredictable stories.

Of the 18 skaters who won Olympic medals outside of the team event, just two of them competed internationally this fall. As was known before the season, all Russians are banned indefinitely due to the war in Ukraine. China’s top skaters didn’t enter the Grand Prix Series. Nathan Chen and the French ice dance couple of Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron are on indefinite, possibly permanent breaks after winning long-awaited golds.

It is time for new stars to emerge. That happened. American Ilia Malinin, last year’s world junior champion at age 17, became the first skater to land a quadruple Axel in competition in September. Then he did it again in October, and again in November.

It is time for new stories to emerge. The Grand Prix Final is the most exclusive event in figure skating — taking the top six per discipline from the Grand Prix Series — since it was introduced in 1996. This year, Belgium and Great Britain qualified skaters for the first time in more than a decade. Japanese men who were seventh and eighth at their national championships last season are in the field. As is a 39-year-old pairs’ skater from Canada who competed against Michelle Kwan in the 6.0 scoring era.

GRAND PRIX FINAL: Broadcast Schedule

The U.S. qualified skaters into the Final in every discipline for the first time in 15 years. The team is led statistically by Malinin, the world No. 1 bidding to be the second-youngest man to win a Final after Russian Yevgeny Plushenko.

Malinin, whose mom won the 1999 Grand Prix Final, is one half of the most anticipated head-to-head showdown this week. He takes on Japan’s Shoma Uno for the first time since the world championships in March, when Uno won and Malinin placed ninth in his debut on that stage. This season, Malinin and Uno each won their two separate Grand Prix starts, with Malinin having the best total score by a scant 61 hundredths of a point.

NBC Sports analyst Johnny Weir called Malinin the favorite for the Final and for March’s worlds (which could include Olympic silver medalist Yuma Kagiyama of Japan, who has been sidelined this fall due to leg and ankle injuries). But Weir also said that if Malinin and Uno skate clean this week, the 24-year-old Uno has the advantage.

“He’s had the longevity. He’s had the time in front of these top judges. And artistically, he’s so excellent,” Weir said.

The world’s highest-scoring women’s singles skater this season will compete at the Final, but in the junior division. Japan’s Mao Shimada won both of her junior Grand Prix starts. She is 14 years old, and with the age limit being raised in coming seasons will not be old enough for the next Olympics in 2026 (reminiscent of countrywoman Mao Asada, who was too young the last time Italy hosted the Winter Games in 2006).

Without Shimada, and without the Russians who dominated recent seasons, the women’s field is the most closely bunched at the Final. Mai Mihara, who missed the Olympics after placing fourth at Japan’s Nationals last December, was the lone woman to win both of her Grand Prix starts this fall. Kaori Sakamoto, last season’s world champion in the Russians’ absence, has the top score this season among senior women (and a shout out from Janet Jackson). But the six skaters at the Final are separated by just 4.47 points in best scores this fall.

American Isabeau Levito, the 15-year-old world junior champion, is the youngest woman in the field by four years. NBC Sports analyst Tara Lipinski said that Levito has a total package of jumps, artistry and competitive fire not seen in U.S. skating in many years. Levito, who has made short films, including “The Pickle Murder,” is reminiscent of Sasha Cohen, the last U.S. women’s singles skater to win an Olympic medal in 2006.

“There’s never a hand, finger, hair out of place when it comes to Isabeau’s skating,” Lipinski said. “Looking back at my first year as a senior, I was terrified. I looked like a junior coming up to the senior ranks. Isabeau, she’s gone past that phase.”

Pairs’ skating saw the highest turnover. The top five teams at the Olympics were Russian and Chinese, and none have competed internationally since. Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier took advantage at March’s worlds, becoming the first U.S. pair to win a world title since 1979.

Knierim and Frazier won both of their Grand Prix starts this fall, but were flawed. Japan’s Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara, who took silver at worlds, averaged 10 more points in their separate Grand Prix victories.

“Comparing people based on the scores that they accrue in different competitions is a nice way to see how people are faring in front of international panels, but it’s not a direct comparison between the two at all,” Weir said. “They’re very evenly matched.”

But the coolest story in pairs, and arguably in all of figure skating, is 39-year-old Canadian Deanna Stellato-Dudek. With partner Maxime Deschamps, she became the oldest Grand Prix podium finisher in October and the oldest champion in November. Stellato-Dudek, the 2000 World junior silver medalist in singles from Chicagoland, retired from figure skating in 2001 due to injuries, then came back in 2016 in pairs and switched nationality.

Weir recently came across photos of him with Stellato-Dudek when they competed at the same junior Grand Prix event in Norway in 1999.

“I’m pretty sure she was skating when I was skating, so that is a crazy feat in itself,” said Lipinski, whose last competition was winning the 1998 Olympics.

Ice dance, usually the most predictable of the four disciplines, sprung surprises this fall. Three-time world medalists Madison Chock and Evan Bates were the top returning couple based on results from last season’s Olympics and worlds, but the Americans rank outside the top three this fall by results and best total score.

Still, 2006 Olympic silver medalist Ben Agosto said they’re looking better than ever, having improved from their first Grand Prix to their second Grand Prix.

“The challenge for them is they’ve been so good for so long that they don’t want to get stale,” Agosto said of a couple that’s in their 12th season together. “They don’t want people to start to think, well, you know, two seasons ago was better than this, or five seasons ago was better than this. They want to always be reinventing, but then also capitalizing on their biggest strengths.”

Canadian veterans Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier, ranked third among returning couples going into the fall, won both of their Grand Prix starts with the world’s top two scores across all events. Agosto believes that the field is closer than the point totals suggest and that some couples have been underscored, including Americans Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, who qualified into the Final in the sixth and last spot.

Agosto said that Lilah Fear and Lewis Gibson, Great Britain’s first Grand Prix Final qualifiers since 2009, can “blow the roof off” with their Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez rhythm dance and Lady Gaga free dance.

“You can just feel the the intensity that everyone is bringing after their Olympic experience and coming back and feeling rejuvenated and maybe feeling the adrenaline effect of having a little bit more of an opportunity because Papadakis and Cizeron are not there, because the Russians are not there,” Agosto said. “I’ve really seen across the board this group stepping up from last season, so I don’t think that it would just be a clear OK, well, if those other teams were in the game this year, they would, by default, be on top.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!