Anna Shcherbakova, 17, chases youth at Grand Prix France; TV, live stream schedule

Anna Shcherbakova
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Anna Shcherbakova, a 17-year-old from Moscow, toted the two most prestigious titles in figure skating into this Olympic season: world champion and Russian national champion. But the sport’s top label — Olympic favorite — has been swiped by her 15-year-old training partner Kamila Valiyeva.

It is so far playing out like a sequel of the last Olympic season in 2018. Then, reigning world champion Yevgenia Medvedeva was usurped by her 15-year-old training partner, Alina Zagitova. All four skaters were coached by Eteri Tutberidze.

“Competing as a Russian woman right now is almost like running from an avalanche,” NBC Sports analyst Johnny Weir said during Shcherbakova’s short program at a Grand Prix in Italy two weeks ago. “You can always be taken over if you look over your shoulder, even for a second.”

Shcherbakova, a knitter, has time, and several competitions, to change the script. Such as this week at Internationaux de France, the fifth of six stops on the annual Grand Prix Series leading up to December’s Grand Prix Final, the sport’s most exclusive event taking the top six in the world per discipline.

Shcherbakova is the showcase skater this week in Grenoble, live on Peacock. The field includes another accomplished Russian, Alena Kostornaya, the world’s top skater when the pandemic hit. Plus U.S. Olympic hopefuls Karen Chen and Mariah Bell.

In the big picture, Shcherbakova’s primary competition is not a person but a score: Valiyeva set the standard with a whopping 265.08-point outing at Skate Canada three weeks ago, landing two triple Axels and three quadruple jumps between two programs. Shcherbakova is the only skater within 30 points of her this season — a distant 28.3 points behind.

Valiyeva is not in Grenoble, but Shcherbakova could have up to three head-to-heads with her between now and the Olympics — the Grand Prix Final and Russian Championships in December, plus the European Championships in January.

Shcherbakova doesn’t yet have a triple Axel, and without it will likely be playing catch-up to Valiyeva in any competition, given quads are not allowed in short programs.

“Out of the top contenders for Olympic gold, Anna, to me, feels a bit in the shadows,” NBC Sports analyst Tara Lipinski said two weeks ago as Shcherbakova began her Grand Prix Italy free skate. Shcherbakova went on to hit a personal-best program with one quad and all positively graded jumps. Her score was 15.84 points shy of Valiyeva’s free the previous week.

At Skate Canada, Lipinski and Weir were at times left speechless and wondering if Valiyeva was of planet Earth for her total package of jumps (putting both arms over her head to show the ease of her quads), spins and artistry. Valiyeva was touted as a junior skater a year ago by Weir, who said then that she had “the biggest opportunity for Olympic glory.”

“If anybody can put it all together and be better than Kamila Valiyeva was today in less than 100 days at the Olympic Games, I will be shocked,” Weir said on the Skate Canada broadcast. “She makes everyone happy on either side, the technical purists or the artistic purists. She has it all, and that is ultimately who is supposed to win these competitions.”

In the men’s field this week, world silver medalist Yuma Kagiyama of Japan is the favorite. Jason Brown, after a silver at Skate Canada, has a chance to join countrymen Nathan Chen and Vincent Zhou in the Grand Prix Final. He qualified for the Final once before in 2017.

Four-time world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron head an ice dance field that also includes world bronze medalists Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier of Canada. The French won all eight of their Grand Prix starts in this Olympic cycle and again rank No. 1 in the world this season.

Pairs features world bronze medalists Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitriy Kozlovskiy of Russia and U.S. champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier.

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2021 Internationaux de France Broadcast Schedule

Day Time (ET) Event Network
Friday 7 a.m. Women’s Short Peacock | STREAM LINK
9 a.m. Rhythm Dance Peacock | STREAM LINK
10:45 p.m. Men’s Short Peacock | STREAM LINK
12:45 p.m. Pairs’ Short Peacock | STREAM LINK
Saturday 7 a.m. Women’s Free Peacock | STREAM LINK
9:10 a.m. Free Dance Peacock | STREAM LINK
11 a.m. Men’s Free Peacock | STREAM LINK
1:10 p.m. Pairs’ Free Peacock | STREAM LINK
Sunday 4 p.m. Highlights NBC | STREAM LINK

Chicago Marathon features Emily Sisson’s return, Conner Mantz’s debut, live on Peacock

Emily Sisson
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At Sunday’s Chicago Marathon, Emily Sisson makes her return, nearly three years after Olympic Trials disappointment. Conner Mantz makes one of the most anticipated U.S. men’s debuts in 26.2-mile racing.

It is not the norm, but an American will be one of the spotlight runners in both the men’s and women’s elite races at a major marathon. Peacock airs live coverage at 8 a.m. ET.

Sisson, 30, starts her first mass marathon since dropping out of the Olympic Trials on Feb. 29, 2020, her legs “destroyed” on the hilly Atlanta course where she started as arguably the favorite. She ran the virtual New York City Marathon later in 2020, but that was solo (and not in New York City). Her 2:38:00 isn’t recorded in her official results on her World Athletics bio.

Since, Sisson won the Olympic Trials 10,000m on the track and was the top American in Tokyo in 10th place. She moved back to the roads, winning national titles at 15km and the half marathon and breaking the American record in the latter.

Sisson vaulted into the elite group of U.S. female marathoners in 2019, when she clocked the second-fastest debut marathon in American history, a 2:23:08 on a windy day in London, where the early pace was slow.

At the time, it was the 12th-best U.S. performance all-time. In the last two years, Keira D’Amato, 37, and Sara Hall, 39, combined to run seven faster marathons. At Chicago, a flat course that produced a world record three years ago, Sisson can answer them and perhaps get close to D’Amato’s American record 2:19:12.

“I’m hoping sub-2:20,” coach Ray Treacy said, according to LetsRun.com. “With the [super] shoes and the training behind her, I would think that’s [worth] at least three minutes.”

It is less likely that Sisson can challenge for the win on Sunday given the presence of Kenyan Ruth Chepngetich, the 2019 World champion and defending champion in the Windy City. The 28-year-old mom is the fifth-fastest woman in history with a personal best of 2:17:08. And Ethiopian Ruti Aga, a podium finisher in Berlin, New York City and Tokyo with a best time of 2:18:34, though she has one marathon finish since the pandemic (a seventh place).

Like Sisson, Mantz has shown strong recent road racing form. The American men’s debut marathon record of 2:07:56 (Leonard Korir) is in play. If he can break that, Mantz will be among the five fastest U.S. marathoners in history.

Rarely has a U.S. male distance runner as accomplished as Mantz moved up to the marathon at such a young age (25). At BYU, he won NCAA cross-country titles in 2020 and 2021 and placed fifth in the Olympic Trials 10,000m, then turned pro and won the U.S. Half Marathon Championships last December.

“If everything goes as planned, I think sub-2:08 is realistic,” Mantz said in a Citius Mag video interview last month. “If everything goes perfect on the day, I think a sub-2:07, that’s a big stretch goal.”

The men’s field doesn’t have the singular star power of Chepngetich, but a large group of East Africans with personal bests around 2:05. The most notable: defending champion Seifu Tura of Ethiopia and 2021 Boston Marathon winner Benson Kipruto of Kenya.

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Alpine skiing to test new format for combined race

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Alpine skiing officials will test a new format for the combined event, a race that is under review to remain on the Olympic program.

French newspaper L’Equipe reported that the International Ski Federation (FIS) will test a new team format for the combined, which has been an individual event on the Olympic program since 1988. L’Equipe reported that a nation can use a different skier for the downhill and slalom in the new setup, quoting FIS secretary general Michel Vion.

For example, the U.S. could use Breezy Johnson in the downhill run and sub her out for Mikaela Shiffrin in the slalom run, should the format be adopted into senior competition.

The format will be tested at the world junior championships in January in St. Anton, Austria, according to the report.

In response to the report, a FIS spokesperson said, “Regarding the new format of the combined is correct, and our directors are working on the rules so for the moment the only thing we can confirm is that there will be this new format for the Alpine combined that has been proposed by the athletes’ commission.”

Some version of the combined event has been provisionally included on the 2026 Olympic program, with a final IOC decision on its place coming by April.

This will be the third consecutive World Cup season with no combined events. Instead, FIS has included more parallel races in recent years. The individual combined remains on the biennial world championships program.

L’Equipe also reported that the mixed team parallel event, which is being dropped from the Olympics, will also be dropped from the biennial world championships after this season.

“There is nothing definitive about that yet, but it is a project in the making,” a FIS spokesperson said in commenting on the report.

Vion said the mixed team event, which debuted at the Olympics in 2018, was not a hit at the Beijing Games and did not draw a strong audience, according to L’Equipe.

The World Cup season starts in two weeks with the traditional opening giant slaloms in Soelden, Austria.

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