In figure skating, Olympic medal prospects form in abbreviated fall season

ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating - Skate America
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With this week’s Grand Prix Final canceled, the focus of figure skating turns to national championships, Olympic team selections and medal prospecting. NBC Sports analysts Tara LipinskiJohnny Weir and Tanith White offered their thoughts across the four disciplines …

The most surprising result of the first half of the season came at the first significant event: Nathan Chen lost for the first time in three and a half years, taking third at Skate America with several jumping errors.

But Chen erased doubts by winning Skate Canada the following week — by nearly 50 points — with the world’s best score this season by 11.62 points.

“Having just one bad event in four years should really not make any impact or raise any alarms,” said Lipinski, adding that the loss may have been a positive for Chen so that he doesn’t go into the Olympics with the weight of an extended win streak. “He made sure at Skate Canada to let everyone know, you don’t need to worry about me.”

Chen’s primary competition for the Olympics was thought to be Yuzuru Hanyu, the gold medalist in 2014 and 2018. But Hanyu withdrew before both of his scheduled fall starts due to a right ankle injury. The Japanese Championships are in two weeks, but Hanyu could be named to the Olympic team even if he has to miss that event, too.

Meanwhile, another Japanese skater “breathed fresh life” into men’s skating in 2021, Weir said. That’s Yuma Kagiyama, the 18-year-old who took silver between Chen and Hanyu at last season’s world championships.

Kagiyama was the only man to go undefeated this autumn, although he never went head-to-head with Chen, and his best total score was more than 20 points shy of Chen’s.

“He has this star quality that can’t be taught,” Lipinski said. “I think he was born to become an Olympic champion.”

The U.S. Olympic team of three men will be named after next month’s national championships. The power rankings are clear: Chen, followed by Vincent Zhou (who won Skate America) and then Jason Brown. All three qualified for the six-skater Grand Prix Final. The next-best U.S. man is ranked 24th overall this season.

Kamila Valiyeva, the latest Russian 15-year-old phenom

It appears that, for a third consecutive Olympics, a 15-year-old Russian woman coached by Eteri Tutberidze will enter the Winter Games ranked No. 1.

Kamila Valiyeva has the world’s top three scores this season. Her highest mark is 35.93 points clear of the rest of the world.

Asked who Valiyeva reminded them of, neither Lipinski nor Weir could find a worthy comparison.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a skater in my whole life, as a skating fan and as an athlete, as gifted as Kamila Valiyeva,” Weir said.

Valiyeva performs jumps with such ease that she does them with both arms over her head. That’s similar to 2018 Olympic gold and silver medalists Alina Zagitova and Yevgenia Medvedeva (who haven’t competed in years), except that those two did it with triple jumps. Valiyeva does quads.

She grew up training ballet (like Chen), and it shows in her artistry. Mentally, “she’s tough as nails,” Lipinski said.

At age 13, she won the Russian junior title with a score that would have placed third in the senior competition, then won junior worlds by nearly 20 points. By 14, Valiyeva was Weir’s pick to have “the biggest opportunity for Olympic glory” in the women’s field.

The top five senior women in the world this season are all Russian. That makes their national championships in two weeks, after which the three-woman Olympic team will be named, “the biggest test they’ll have all season,” Weir said. No nation has ever swept the Olympic women’s figure skating medals.

In the U.S., the battle for Olympic spots in the women’s event carries the most intrigue of the four disciplines at next month’s nationals.

“I think Alysa Liu is a lock for the team at this point,” Lipinski said. “The other two spots are going to be up for grabs.”

Liu won her first national title in 2019 at age 13 and since navigated growth spurts, coaching changes and injury to post the highest scores for a U.S. woman this season, her first senior international campaign. She ranks fifth in the world this fall if subtracting the extra Russians who won’t be at the Olympics.

After Liu, several veterans are in the running with question marks.

Bradie Tennell, the top American at the 2018 Olympics, hasn’t competed all season due at least in part to a foot injury. Karen Chen, another 2018 Olympian who was fourth at last season’s worlds, was fifth and 10th in her Grand Prix starts. Mariah Bell won 2020 Skate America, then was fifth at nationals, then struggled early this fall until her most recent event, where she leaped from fifth to second in this season’s U.S. rankings. Amber Glenn, after a silver at last season’s nationals, was injured to begin this season and ranks fourth among Americans this fall.

French renaissance in ice dance

Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron have dominated ice dance before, but their season so far can be considered a resurgence.

The four-time world champions lost their last competition pre-pandemic, then sat out the entire COVID-affected 2020-21 campaign.

Where would they fit in upon returning in this Olympic season? Solidly at the top. Papadakis and Cizeron competed three times internationally this fall and won each of them, posting the world’s three highest total scores this season. They are favored to turn their Olympic silver from 2018 into gold.

“Having that reminder of the masterful quality that they possess was just such an important standard to have returned to the world of ice dance,” said White, a 2006 Olympic ice dance silver medalist. “It’s not as though they started the season off, and have just held what they had. They started the season off and continued to evolve and develop and grow. So I feel like their trajectory is looking great.”

The French ascension was bad news for the reigning world champions, Viktoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov of Russia. They were the couple to beat Papadakis and Cizeron before the pandemic at the January 2020 European Championships.

This season, they won both of their events with total scores that only the French have bettered across all competitions, despite Katsalapov’s back injury. The Grand Prix Final would have been their first head-to-head with the French in 23 months, but instead it must wait until the European Championships in January, or even the Olympics.

“When I put those two teams head to head, at this point, the French have the clear advantage,” White said. “It’s not as though Sinitsina and Katsalapov haven’t been performing well, it’s just that they haven’t necessarily had perfect training conditions. So those performances aren’t yet entirely optimized.”

At this point, the battle for silver seems closer than the battle for gold. White tiered several couples with the Russians, including Americans Madison Chock and Evan Bates and Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue.

The U.S. couples have traded national championships this Olympic cycle. Hubbell and Donohue won their head-to-head at Skate America in October, but Chock and Bates later posted the highest score by a American couple this season. It should be the closest title battle at the U.S. Championships.

The U.S. has three Olympic ice dance spots, so both couples are in great position to get to Beijing and potentially extend the U.S. streak to five consecutive Olympics with a dance medal. The other U.S. disciplines combined for two medals in that span.

Pairs: The closest battle for Olympic gold

The most important head-to-head at the Grand Prix Final would have been in pairs.

Russians Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov and Chinese Sui Wenjing and Han Cong are in what is currently the tightest battle for Olympic figure skating gold in Beijing. They will not compete against each other before the Games.

The Grand Prix Final winner likely would have entered the Olympics as the favorite, but now the only comparisons can be from their separate Grand Prix starts. Mishina and Galliamov had the edge there, by an average of 2.83 points per event. That’s not far off their winning margin over Sui and Han at last season’s worlds — a mere 1.88 points.

Sui and Han have had what Weir called “a wonderful and cherished and heartfelt” decade-long senior career. It has also been filled with injuries and the closest defeat in Olympic history under the current judging system — missing gold by .43 in PyeongChang.

Home ice in Beijing could put them over the top, should they handle the pressure. Pairs, normally first in the Olympic figure skating schedule, was moved to last this time around as China hopes to cap the competition with gold.

“Mishina and Galliamov have the edge technically,” Lipinski said. “Sui and Han have the edge in the component (artistic) score. Is it going to be whose technical abilities shine so much brighter? Or is it going to be in the moment in the arena in China in their hometown, this incredibly emotional performance that tips the odds in their favor?”

The top three U.S. pairs this season are closely bunched by best scores — Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier, Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc and Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson rank Nos. 9, 10 and 11 in the world and are separated by 5.55 points. The U.S. has two Olympic pairs’ spots.

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