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

ISU World Team Trophy - Day Two
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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.


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

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Mikaela Shiffrin finishes World Cup with one more win, two more records and a revelation


Mikaela Shiffrin finished a season defined by records with two more.

Shiffrin won the World Cup Finals giant slalom on the final day of the campaign, breaking her ties for the most career women’s giant slalom wins and most career podiums across all women’s World Cup races.

Shiffrin earned her record-extending 88th career World Cup victory, prevailing by six hundredths over Thea Louise Stjernesund of Norway combining times from two runs in Andorra on Sunday.

An encore of Shiffrin’s record-breaking 87th World Cup win airs on NBC next Sunday from 12-1 p.m. ET.


She won her 21st career GS, breaking her tie for the most all-time on the women’s World Cup with Vreni Schneider, a Swiss star of the 1980s and ’90s.

She made her 138th career World Cup podium across all events, breaking her tie for the most all-time on the women’s World Cup with Lindsey Vonn. Shiffrin earned her 138th podium in her 249th start, meaning she has finished in the top three in 55 percent of her World Cup races dating to her debut at age 15 in 2011.

Earlier this season, Shiffrin passed Vonn and then Ingemar Stenmark, a Swede of the 1970s and ’80s, for the most career Alpine skiing World Cup victories. She won 14 times from November through March, her second-best season after her record 17-win campaign of 2018-19.

In those years in between, Shiffrin endured the most difficult times of her life, was supplanted as the world’s top slalom skier and questioned her skiing like never before.

On Saturday afternoon, Shiffrin was asked what made the difference this fall and winter. There were multiple factors. She detailed one important one.

“I had a lot of problems with my memory,” she said in a press conference. “Not this season, so much, but last season and the season before that. I couldn’t remember courses. And when I was kind of going through this, I couldn’t keep mental energy for the second runs.”

Pre-race course inspection and the ability to retain that knowledge for a minute-long run over an hour later is integral to success in ski racing. Shiffrin is so meticulous and methodical in her training, historically prioritizing it over racing in her junior days, that inspection would seem to fit into her all-world preparation.

She didn’t understand how she lost that ability until she began working with a new sports psychologist last summer.

“That was a little bit like less focus on sports psychology and more focus on, like, psychology psychology and a little bit more grief counseling style,” she said. “Explaining what was actually going on in my brain, like chemical changes in the brain because of trauma. Not just grief, but actually the traumatic experience itself of knowing what happened to my dad, seeing him in the hospital, touching him after he was dead. Those are things that you can’t get out of your head. It had an impact. Clearly, it still does.”

Shiffrin had a “weird a-ha moment” after her first course inspection this season in November in Finland.

“I didn’t take that long to inspect, and I remembered the whole course,” she said. “Oh my gosh, I was like coming out of a cloud that I had been in for over two years.”

What followed was a win, of course, and a season that approached Shiffrin’s unrivaled 2018-19. Fourteen wins in 31 World Cup starts, her busiest season ever, and bagging the season titles in the overall, slalom and GS in runaways.

“After last season, I didn’t feel like I could get to a level with my skiing again where it was actually contending for the slalom globe,” she said. “And GS, I actually had a little bit more hope for, but then at the beginning of the season, I kind of counted myself out.

“I feel like my highest level of skiing has been higher than the previous couple of seasons, maybe higher than my whole career. My average level of skiing has been also higher than previous seasons, and my lowest level of skiing has also been higher.”

There are other reasons for the revival of dominance, though Shiffrin was also the world’s best skier last season (Olympics aside). She went out of her way on Saturday afternoon to credit her head coach of seven years, Mike Day, who left the team during the world championships after he was told he would not be retained for next season.

“He is as much a part of the success this entire season as he’s ever been,” said Shiffrin, who parted with Day to bring aboard Karin Harjo, the first woman to be her head coach as a pro.

Shiffrin’s greatest success this season began around the time she watched a a mid-December chairlift interview between retired Liechtenstein skier Tina Weirather and Italian Sofia Goggia, the world’s top downhiller. Goggia spoke about her disdain for mediocrity.

“Ever since then, pretty much every time I put on my skis, I’m like, ‘OK, don’t be mediocre today,’” Shiffrin said in January.

During the highest highs of this season, Shiffrin felt like she did in 2018-19.

“It is mind-boggling to me to be in a position again where I got to feel that kind of momentum through a season because after that [2018-19] season, I was like, this is never going to happen again, and my best days of my career are really behind me, which it was kind of sad to feel that at this point four years ago,” said Shiffrin, who turned 28 years old last week. “This season, if anything, it just proved that, take 17 wins [from 2018-19] aside or the records or all those things, it’s still possible to feel that kind of momentum.”

After one last victory Sunday, Shiffrin sat in the winner’s chair with another crystal globe and took questions from an interviewer. It was her boyfriend, Norwegian Alpine skier Aleksander Aamodt Kilde.

“Excited to come back and do it again next year,” she replied to one question.

“Yeah,” he wittily replied. “You will.”

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Russia ban runs through Olympic gymnastics team qualifying deadline

Russia Gymnastics

Russia’s ban from international sport extended long enough that, as rules stand, its gymnasts cannot qualify to defend Olympic men’s and women’s team titles at the 2024 Paris Games, even if they are reinstated to compete elsewhere before the Games start.

Should the ban be lifted in time, they can still qualify for the Paris Games to compete in individual events.

Gymnasts from Russia, and other European nations not already qualified, need to compete at next month’s European Championships to stay on the path toward Olympic qualification in the men’s and women’s team events.

Earlier this month, the European Gymnastics Federation was asked by what date must bans on Russian athletes be lifted for them to be eligible to compete at the European Championships.

“According to our rules, changes can be made until the draw,” the federation’s head of media wrote in a March 8 email.

The draw for the European Championships was held Tuesday. Russian gymnasts, who are still banned from international competition for the war in Ukraine, were not included in the draw.

The 2024 Olympic team event fields will be filled by the top finishers at this fall’s world championships, plus the medalists from last year’s worlds. Teams can only qualify for worlds via continental championships, such as the European Championships, or the previous year’s world championships.

The International Gymnastics Federation, whose Olympic qualifying rules were published by the IOC last April, was asked if there is any other way that gymnasts from Russia could qualify for the Olympic team events. It responded by forwarding a March 3 press release that stated that Russia and Belarus gymnasts remain banned “until further notice.”

Russia’s gymnastics federation has not responded to a Monday morning request for comment.

Last December, the IOC said it planned to explore a possibility that Russian and Belarusian athletes could enter Asian competitions if and when they are reinstated. There have been no further updates on that front. The Asian Gymnastics Championships are in June.

In Tokyo, Russian women, competing as the Russian Olympic Committee rather than Russia due to the nation’s doping violations, won the team title over the heavily favored U.S. after Simone Biles withdrew after her opening vault with the twisties. It marked the first Olympic women’s team title for Russian gymnasts since the Soviet Union broke up.

At last year’s worlds, the U.S. won the women’s team title in the absence of the banned Russians.

Russian men won the Tokyo Olympic team title by 103 thousandths of a point over Japan, their first gold in the event since the 1996 Atlanta Games.

China won last year’s world men’s team title over Japan and Great Britain.

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