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

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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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In a tie, Wendy Holdener puts to rest a remarkable stat in Alpine skiing

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Swiss Wendy Holdener ended one of the most remarkable victory droughts in sports by tying for the win with Swede Anna Swenn Larsson in a World Cup slalom in Killington, Vermont, on Sunday.

Holdener, after 15 second-place finishes and 15 third-place finishes in her career, stood on the top step of a World Cup slalom podium for the first time. She shared it with Swenn Larsson, who had six World Cup slalom podiums before Sunday and also earned her first win.

They beat Austrian Katharina Truppe by .22 of a second combining times from two runs.

ALPINE SKIING: Full Results | Broadcast Schedule

Holdener, 29, previously won three World Cups in other disciplines, plus two world championships in the combined and Olympic and world titles in the team event.

“To be tied first when I came into the finish was such a relief,” Holdener said while shoulder to shoulder with Swenn Larsson. “On the end, it’s perfect, because now we can share our first win together.”

Mikaela Shiffrin had the best first-run time but lost her lead midway through the second run and finished fifth. Shiffrin, who won the first two slaloms this season last weekend, was bidding for a 50th World Cup slalom victory and a sixth win in six slaloms in Killington.

“I fought. I think some spots I got a little bit off my timing, but I was pushing, and that’s slalom,” she said before turning her attention to Holdener and Swenn Larsson. “It’s a pretty special day, actually.”

The women’s Alpine skiing World Cup moves next weekend to Lake Louise, Alberta, with two downhills and a super-G.

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Injured Ilia Malinin wins Grand Prix Finland, qualifies for Grand Prix Final

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Ilia Malinin, competing “a little bit injured” this week, still won Grand Prix Finland and goes into the Grand Prix Final in two weeks as the world’s top-ranked male singles skater.

Malinin, who was second after Friday’s short program, landed four clean quadruple jumps in Saturday’s free skate to overtake Frenchman Kevin Aymoz.

Malinin, who landed a quad flip in competition for the first time, according to SkatingScores.com, also attempted a quad Axel to open his program, but spun out of the landing and put his hand down on the ice.

Malinin also won his previous two starts this season in come-from-behind fashion. The 17-year-old world junior champion became the first skater to land a clean, fully rotated quad Axel in September, then did it again in October at Skate America, where he posted the world’s top overall score this season.

Next, Malinin can become the second-youngest man to win the Grand Prix Final after Russian Yevgeny Plushenko. His biggest competition is likely to be world champion Shoma Uno of Japan, who like Malinin won both of his Grand Prix starts this fall. Malinin and Uno have not gone head-to-head this season.

Grand Prix Finland highlights air on NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app on Sunday at 3:30 p.m. ET.

FIGURE SKATING: Results | Broadcast Schedule

Earlier, Japan’s Mai Mihara overtook world silver medalist Loena Hendrickx of Belgium to become the only woman to win both of her Grand Prix starts this season. Mihara prevailed by .23 of a point. The top three women this season by best total score are Japanese, led by a junior skater, 14-year-old Mao Shimada, who isn’t Olympic age-eligible until 2030.

Mihara and Hendrickx qualified for the Grand Prix Final, joining world champion Kaori Sakamoto and Rinka Watanabe, both of Japan, South Korean Yelim Kim and American Isabeau Levito, the world junior champion.

Italians Rebecca Ghilardi and Filippo Ambrosini won both pairs’ programs and qualified for their first Grand Prix Final.

Japan’s Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara and Americans Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier headline the Final. Both pairs won each of their Grand Prix starts earlier this fall. The Japanese have the world’s two best scores this season. The Americans are reigning world champions.

At least one Russian or Chinese pair made every Grand Prix Final podium — usually pairs from both countries — but neither nation competed in pairs this Grand Prix season. All Russian skaters are banned due to the war in Ukraine. China’s lone entry on the Grand Prix across all disciplines was an ice dance couple.

Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier improved on their world-leading score for this season in winning the ice dance by 17.03 points over Americans Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker. Both couples qualified for the Grand Prix Final in the absence of all three Olympic medalists this fall.

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