Russians prove they are back as two pairs’ teams lead the way at Skate America

ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating - Skate America
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Brandon Frazier sounded like a lot of the leading U.S. pairs’ skaters who have come before him over the years.

“We’re trying to push ourselves to be more competitive with the top teams in the world,” said Frazier, reigning U.S. champion with partner Alexa Knierim.

For six decades, that goal for U.S. pairs has primarily meant trying to be competitive with teams from Russia and its predecessor, the Soviet Union.

And, despite some unexpected Russian dry spells in the past 15 years, that is what it means again.

It certainly was the case Friday night at Skate America in Las Vegas, when two of the current top three Russian teams led the short program standings in the opening Grand Prix event of the season.

Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov, Russian champions three of the past four seasons, led with 80.36, less than a point from their personal best.

Teammates Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitry Kozlovskiy, reigning world bronze medalists, were second at 75.43.

The Russians were the only teams in the eight-pair field who had positive grades of execution on all seven elements.

But the Japanese team of Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara, a fast-improving couple who have been an impressive surprise in the early part of this season, provoked a big positive crowd response with a performance to k.d. lang’s version of “Hallelujah” that had just one minor error.

Miura and Kihara’s 72.63 points topped the personal best they had tallied while winning the Autumn Classic Challenger Series event in Canada last month.

The U.S. teams, Jessica Calalang/Brian Johnson (68.87) and Knierim/Frazier (66.37), were fourth and fifth. Calalang and Johnson had just one small mistake in an electric skate, on their throw, but Frazier fell on his side-by-side jump.

After winning pairs’ gold in 12 straight Winter Olympics from 1964 through 2006 (plus silver in seven of those Games), Russian teams have faltered recently. They won no medals in both the 2010 and 2018 Olympics.

It has been clear since then the Russians are back – now and for the future. They have swept medals in the last three World Junior Championships, and the senior teams went 1-3-4 at last year’s World Championships and 2-3 in the previous one in 2019 (Covid forced cancellation of the 2020 senior worlds.)

Tarasova and Morozov, three-time world medalists frustrated by their fourths at the 2018 Olympics and the 2021 worlds, made a dramatic coaching change coming into this season.

They moved to the coaching team headed by Eteri Tutberidze, a former ice dancer known for her overwhelming success with the women’s singles skaters who now dominate that discipline.

“It has been very interesting working with Eteri and her team,” Morozov said. “Of course, she hadn’t worked before with pairs, but as an ice dancer she knows a lot about skating together.”

Tutberidze is focused on giving Tarasova and Morozov more jump consistency. She is getting pairs’ help from Maksim Trankov. He and skating partner (now wife) Tatyana Volosozhar were runaway Olympic champions in 2014.

That is the gap Russians usually had on their pairs’ rivals.

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

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Teri McKeever fired by Cal as women’s swimming coach after investigation

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Teri McKeever, the first woman to serve as a U.S. Olympic swimming head coach, was fired by the University of California at Berkeley after an investigation into alleged verbal and emotional abuse of swimmers that she denied.

McKeever was put on paid administrative leave from her job as head women’s swimming coach in May after an Orange County Register report that 20 current or former Cal swimmers said McKeever verbally and emotionally bullied her swimmers.

Cal athletics director Jim Knowlton wrote in a letter to the Cal team and staff that a resulting independent law firm report detailed “verbally abusive conduct that is antithetical to our most important values.”

“I strongly believe this is in the best interests of our student-athletes, our swimming program and Cal Athletics as a whole,” Knowlton said of McKeever’s firing in a press release. “The report details numerous violations of university policies that prohibit race, national origin and disability discrimination.”

The Orange County Register first published what it says is the full independent report here.

“I deny and unequivocally refute all conclusions that I abused or bullied any athlete and deny any suggestion I discriminated against any athlete on the basis of race, disability or sexual orientation,” McKeever said in a statement Tuesday confirming her firing and expressing disappointment in how the investigation was conducted. “While I am disappointed in the way my CAL Career will conclude, I wish to thank and celebrate the many student-athletes and staff that made my time in Berkeley a true blessing and gift.”

McKeever’s lawyer wrote that McKeever “will be filing suit to expose the manner in which gender has affected not only the evaluation of her coaching but harmed and continues to harm both female and male athletes.”

McKeever led Cal women’s swimming and diving for nearly 30 years, winning four NCAA team titles and coaching Olympic champions including Missy FranklinNatalie Coughlin and Dana Vollmer.

In 2004, she became the first woman to be on a U.S. Olympic swim team coaching staff, as an assistant. In 2012, she became the first woman to be head coach of a U.S. Olympic swim team. She was an assistant again for the Tokyo Games.

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Diana Taurasi returns to U.S. national basketball team

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Diana Taurasi is set to return to the U.S. national basketball team next week for the first time since the Tokyo Olympics, signaling a possible bid for a record-breaking sixth Olympic appearance in 2024 at age 42.

Taurasi is on the 15-player roster for next week’s training camp in Minnesota announced Tuesday.

Brittney Griner is not on the list but is expected to return to competitive basketball later this year with her WNBA team, the Phoenix Mercury (also Taurasi’s longtime team, though she is currently a free agent), after being detained in Russia for 10 months in 2022.

Taurasi said as far back as the 2016 Rio Games that her Olympic career was likely over, but returned to the national team after Dawn Staley succeeded Geno Auriemma as head coach in 2017.

In Tokyo, Taurasi and longtime backcourt partner Sue Bird became the first basketball players to win five Olympic gold medals. Bird has since retired.

After beating Japan in the final, Taurasi said “see you in Paris,” smiling, as she left an NBC interview. That’s now looking less like a joke and more like a prediction.

Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve succeeded Staley as head coach last year. In early fall, she guided the U.S. to arguably the best FIBA World Cup performance ever, despite not having stalwarts Bird, Griner, Tina Charles and Sylvia Fowles.

Taurasi was not in contention for the team after suffering a WNBA season-ending quad injury in the summer. Taurasi, who is 38-0 in Olympic games and started every game at the last four Olympics, wasn’t on a U.S. team for an Olympics or worlds for the first time since 2002.

Next year, Taurasi can become the oldest Olympic basketball player in history and the first to play in six Games, according to Olympedia.org. Spain’s Rudy Fernandez could also play in a sixth Olympics in 2024.

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