Brilliance at nationals unsurprisingly not enough to earn Ilia Malinin an Olympic spot

2022 U.S. Figure Skating Championships - Day 4
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Nathan Chen won his sixth straight national figure skating championship Sunday, a feat unmatched since Dick Button won his sixth of seven straight in 1951.

Ilia Malinin finished second, but he upstaged Chen and everyone else in the competition, both in the short program and the free skate.

That Malinin’s two stunning performances still did not earn the 17-year-old a place on the U.S. team for next month’s Winter Olympics in Beijing was not really surprising, given selection criteria that broadly favored results in senior level events the past two seasons.

In a decision complicated by the free skate performances in Nashville, the U.S. Figure Skating selection committee gave the three men’s singles spots to Chen, Vincent Zhou and Jason Brown.

“I think all three of us have really shown over the past two years why we deserve this spot,” Chen said.

Chen, 22, and Zhou, 21, finished fifth and sixth, respectively, at the 2018 Olympics. Brown, 27, was ninth in 2014 but did not make the team in 2018. They were 1-2-3 at last year’s nationals, and each has been on senior international podiums this season.

Malinin competed as a junior internationally early this season, had a mediocre performance at his only senior international event and missed last season’s U.S. Championships with an injury.

Because the selection process includes a group of numerical criteria but also a large amount of subjectivity, controversy was guaranteed after Sunday’s competitive denouement no matter what the committee decided.

That debate can rage in the background (and it undoubtedly will, probably for years).

The future – and Sunday’s foreground – should still belong to Malinin, who was making his senior national debut. He had needed to compete at a minor event in Austria two months ago just to achieve (and not by much) the technical minimum to qualify for the Olympics if he had made the team. No wonder Malinin expressed surprise over how well he skated.

“It’s amazing to see how he has progressed,” Chen said.

Malinin became the men’s first alternate for the Olympics, a position that gains significance given the chance Covid could sideline one of the other three. He was given a spot on the U.S. team at the World Championships in March – along with Chen and Zhou – pending his getting the technical minimum for worlds, which is higher than that for the Olympics.

“I’ve been in the sport for 20 years, and I’ve been through what seems like every possible scenario,” Brown said. “I’ve been the young kid that makes it, the person left off the team.

“I so feel for him (Malinin). To watch him grow and just shine – he was unbelievable tonight. There’s nothing I can say that can encompass how he might be feeling at this moment. What I can say is he is beyond out of this world, and U.S. figure skating is so lucky to have such a bright future with Ilia.”

Zhou was so impressed with Malinin during a practice session that he asked to get a picture with him.

“I asked his dad, `Can I get a photo of the future men’s U.S. champion?’” Zhou said. “Ilia was, indeed, nothing short of spectacular.”

Malinin was the only one of the 13 men who completed the free skate to perform two clean programs, taking third in the short with two quadruple jumps and second in the free with four more quads. They included a quad toe-half loop-triple salchow combination in the free skate bonus period.

In his excitement soon after finishing, Malinin told NBC’s Andrea Joyce, “I definitely think I should deserve to go” to Beijing. In the media mixed zone a few minutes later, he was less definitive.

“I wasn’t expecting to skate this good and especially to place second,” Malinin said. “I was surprised at how easily everything went together. I think it gave me a better chance for them to send me to the Olympics, but it’s ultimately down to the committee.”

Malinin’s skating recalled Chen’s breakthrough performance at age 16 in the 2016 nationals, when he became the first U.S. man to land four clean quads in a free and first to land two fully credited quads (one clean) in a short.

Chen demurred.

“Ilia is miles ahead of where I was in 2016 based on quality and consistency,” Chen said. “He definitely has an amazing future ahead of him.”

Chen has been light-years ahead of the competition at nationals since 2017. That was the case Sunday even with two falls, one on a quad flip and one – a near face plant – while doing footwork late in a program to the Elton John medley program he had used two seasons ago and returned to in November.

“A couple silly mistakes,” Chen said.

With 328.01 points to Malinin’s 302.48, Chen’s winning margin was the smallest of his six titles. The three-time world champion landed four clean quads but the two falls contributed to making Chen’s performance scores low by his recent standards at nationals.

He would not commit to using the same free skate again at the Olympics, where Chen and two-time reigning champion Yuzuru Hanyu are the top two gold medal contenders.

Zhou totaled 290.16, a whisker ahead of Brown (289.78), whose coach, Tracy Wilson, tested positive for Covid Sunday morning. Brown, who tested negative, found out what had happened to Wilson just before his morning warmup.

Zhou’s free skate was a hot mess, with a fall and four botched jumping passes. He has had two poor free skates since ending Chen’s three-season winning streak at Skate America in October.

“I was so nervous my body just froze up on me,” Zhou said.

Brown overcame a fall on his opening jump, a quad salchow, and went on to maximize grade of execution points on everything but a wobbly final spin. He wound up in tears on the ice, exhausted and overcome by the four years of work he had done since the disappointment of failing to make the 2018 Olympic team.

Because he never has been able to land a clean quad, Brown has played with a short deck over the past seven seasons, hoping to overcome his ever-growing deficit in technical points with his command of skating’s fine points – gliding, expressiveness, performance skills.

“It has been a really tough go to get here, and I don’t mean just the past 72 hours,” Brown said before the team decision came down Sunday, referring to a travel odyssey from Toronto that lasted 33 hours and two days and then having to skate without Wilson nearby.

“There are aspects of skating I wish I had mastered earlier in my career. I think I gave it my all. I have no regrets, and I’m really proud of that.”

And, a couple hours later, proud to be an Olympian again.

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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Katie Ledecky talks swimming legacy and life in Gainesville

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OlympicTalk recently caught up with Katie Ledecky to discuss life since moving from Stanford to Florida 15 months ago, her meticulous mindset, and the legacy she continues to build.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can also catch an encore presentation of Ledecky’s performance at the 2022 U.S. Open this Saturday at 4:30 pm ET on NBC.

What does a typical day look like for you Gainesville? Walk me through a full day starting from the minute your alarm clock goes off.

Ledecky: A typical day would be waking up at 5 o’clock in the morning and swimming from 6 to 8. Then I have weights from 8 to 9:15. I get breakfast, have lunch and then take a nap. Then I have practice again at 2 or 3 in the afternoon for another two hours.

Wow, that sounds incredibly busy! Have you had a chance to find any new favorite places to eat in Gainesville?

Ledecky: I’m still kind of finding my spots. There is a breakfast spot pretty close to campus that a lot of the swimmers like, so I go there quite a bit, but I’m still looking. I haven’t gone to very many places more than once.

What are you doing in your free time? Are you coaching?

Ledecky: Yes, I’m volunteering with the [University of Florida] team, but I think of myself more as a teammate. I have a lot of other things going on with sponsorships, but aside from that, I enjoy spending time with my family and friends. I have a piano and enjoy playing that!

How often do you get to see your family?

Ledecky: My parents, David and Mary, still live in the D.C. area, and then my brother, Michael, lives in New York, so I’m a lot closer to home [than at Stanford]. I see them around the holidays, and they come to a lot of my swim meets.

I know how much you love to stay academically engaged. Are you taking any classes at the University of Florida?

Ledecky: I’m not taking any classes right now. I’m taking a break, but I’m still trying to learn as much as I can just in other areas, reading a lot and watching the news, following different things that I’m interested in. I think at some point, I’ll probably go to grad school, but I’m still figuring out what area that would be in right now.

There’s a quote, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” I feel like that only scratches the surface of describing your work ethic and mindset. You demand excellence in every area of your life, not just from yourself, but from others around you. Can you talk about where that mindset comes from?

Ledecky: I’ve always had that kind of a mindset. I’m very driven, and I’m always setting new goals for myself no matter what I’ve achieved in the past. I’m always looking forward, I don’t take very many breaks, and so it’s always on to the next goal and making sure I’m doing the little things right and doing the things I need to do to reach my goals.

To be able to perform at the level that you do every single day takes a lot of mental toughness. What do Katie Ledecky’s inner thoughts look like? What do you tell yourself? Any affirmations? 

Ledecky: I try to stay positive no matter how well or how poorly a practice or a race is going. When I’m swimming, I give myself positive mental pep talks along the way throughout a race. I’ll say “keep it up,” “hold pace” or “hit this turn.”

I just want to read you a few tweets… 

You idolized Michael Phelps when you were younger, and now you’re that person for a lot of people. You’re the GOAT. You’re Katie Ledecky. Someone’s idol. What does that feel like?

Ledecky: It’s an honor to have young swimmers look up to me, and I don’t take that lightly. I try to be a good role model and reach out to young kids and sign autographs and take photos if people approach me at swim meets. I hope that there are some young swimmers out there that will grow up to be champions or maybe they’ll just continue to love the sport or find other things that they’re passionate about, but it’s an honor.

Have you had any memorable interactions with young swimmers?

Ledecky:  Yeah, actually the World Cup in Indianapolis [in November]. We were given those giant checks at the end of the meet that you really can’t travel with, so I was able to sign it and give it to one of the basket carriers at the meet. They were thrilled, and it was fun to be able to put a smile on their face.

Give me just one word to describe each of these milestones in your life, starting with the 2012 Olympics.

Ledecky: The first. It was my first international competition and my first gold medal, so that’s the one that’ll probably be the most special for me forever.

OLY-2012-SWIM

2016 Rio Olympics.

Ledecky: Consistency. I was swimming in multiple events at the Olympics for the first time and I just got into a really good rhythm and felt so comfortable in the pool deck. So confident. That was just a very unique feeling.

Tokyo Games.

Ledecky: Tokyo was different with all the COVID protocols. Nobody in the stands. No family there. But it was a lot of fun still, so a lot of great memories with my teammates there.

What kind of legacy do you want to leave behind at the end of your career? What do you want to be remembered for?

Ledecky: I’d like to be remembered as somebody that worked really hard and gave my best effort every time I got up on the blocks and represented Team USA. Hopefully, I can continue to inspire young kids to work hard in whatever it is that they are passionate about, whether that’s something academic, athletic, or something else. If you find something that you really love, you should go all in on it and try to be the best you can be at it.

You’ve achieved so much in life already personally and professionally, I just want to ask: Are you genuinely happy? Are you satisfied in this season of life right now?

Ledecky: Oh yeah, I’m very happy. I love the sport more and more every year. I get a little sad thinking about the day I will eventually retire–which isn’t anytime soon. I love the sport. I’m trying to just enjoy every day of training and racing and trying to be the best that I can be.

I say this all the time, I never imagined I would even make it to one Olympics and so to be training now to try to qualify for a fourth Olympics is it’s all just icing on the cake at this point and something that I truly enjoy. I enjoy doing it with my teammates, striving for similar goals, and getting to do it with really great people.

Knowing all that you know now, what advice would you give to your younger self — the little Palisades Porpoise?

Ledecky: I don’t have very many regrets or anything in my career, so I think I would just continue to tell myself to have fun and enjoy every moment. Maybe, write down a little bit more early on. I’ve done a better job of journaling and writing down different things so that I can remember them down the road, but I didn’t do as good of a job in 2012 and 2013.

Rapid-fire questions. Race day hype song? 

Ledecky: “Badlands” by Bruce Springsteen.

Finish this sentence: I’m not ready for a meet without … 

Ledecky: My suit, cap and goggles.

Did you have AIM back in the day? What was your embarrassing screen name?

Ledecky: I didn’t. I didn’t even have a cell phone until before the London Olympics. I think I actually borrowed my brother’s phone for that, and then we went out and bought an iPad so that I could FaceTime my family from London. I didn’t have an email account either until high school.

Your life is on the line. You need to sing one karaoke song to save it. What are you picking?

Ledecky: Well, USA Swimming did carpool karaoke in 2016 before the Olympics. My car did “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen, which is a great karaoke song because it’s like 10 minutes long so maybe I would choose that just as a fun memory. We also did “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen in 2012. Those are two fun songs with some fond memories.

Post-workout meal?

Ledecky: After morning practice, eggs and toast or veggies and eggs. I love breakfast. I could eat breakfast food for all three meals and I’d be satisfied.

Cheat meal? 

Ledecky: Either pizza or a burger.

If you had to choose another Olympic sport to compete in what would it be and why? 

Ledecky: Probably hockey. I’m not good on skates, but it’s my favorite sport to watch.

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Marie-Philip Poulin is first female hockey player to win Canada Athlete of the Year

Marie-Philip Poulin
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Marie-Philip Poulin became the first female hockey player to win Canada’s Athlete of the Year after captaining the national team at the Winter Olympics and winning her third gold medal.

Poulin, 31, scored twice and assisted once in Canada’s 3-2 win over the U.S. in the Olympic final on Feb. 17. She has scored seven of Canada’s 10 goals over the last four Olympic finals dating to the 2010 Vancouver Games — all against the U.S.

Nine different male hockey players won Canada Athlete of the Year — now called the Northern Star Award — since its inception in 1936, led by Wayne Gretzky‘s four titles. Sidney Crosby won it in 2007 and 2009, and Carey Price was the most recent in 2015.

Poulin is the fifth consecutive Olympic champion to win the award in an Olympic year after bobsledder Kaillie Humphries in 2014, swimmer Penny Oleksiak in 2016, moguls skier Mikaël Kingsbury in 2018 and decathlete Damian Warner in 2021.

Canada’s other gold medalists at February’s Olympics were snowboarder Max Parrot in slopestyle, plus teams in speed skating’s women’s team pursuit and short track’s men’s 5000m relay.

In men’s hockey, Cale Makar won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP in leading the Colorado Avalanche to the Stanley Cup and the Norris Trophy as the season’s best defenseman.

The Northern Star Award is annually decided by Canadian sports journalists.

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