Mikaela Shiffrin can finish a season of challenges as the world’s best Alpine skier

Mikaela Shiffrin

Mikaela Shiffrin reached the last stop of a challenging season — physically, emotionally and not just on the Olympic stage — with a chance to finish it by lifting a 20-pound crystal globe trophy that goes to the world’s best overall ski racer.

“The energy is for sure low now,” Shiffrin said in Are, Sweden, last weekend, while noting her skiing was “feeling pretty on point” after third- and ninth-place World Cup finishes. “It’s pretty typical once the season goes on. Towards the end you start to feel that a little bit.”

Shiffrin has a not-so-comfortable-but-significant 56-point lead over Slovakian rival Petra Vlhova in the standings for the World Cup overall title, the most prestigious annual prize in Alpine skiing.

There are four races left in the 37-race season that began in October. One each in downhill, super-G, slalom and giant slalom. They are Wednesday through Sunday at the World Cup Finals in Courchevel and Meribel in France. A broadcast schedule is here.

The World Cup points system works like this: 100 points to a race winner, 80 points to second place, 60 points to third, 50 points to fourth and on down a descending scale through the 15th skier at finals. At non-finals races, it goes through the 30th finisher.

The overall title goes to the skier who accumulates the most points across all races.

So the head-to-head between Shiffrin, looking to tie Lindsey Vonn with a fourth overall title, and Vlhova, who last year became the first Slovakian to lift the big globe, could come down to the 37th and last race this season, the giant slalom on Sunday.

It’s a new experience for Shiffrin. She clinched her three previous overall titles before those seasons’ finals. The last was in 2019, when she won 17 times in arguably the greatest season in history. Her life challenges since that high have been well-documented.

It’s tempting to connect the World Cup to the most recent adversity at the Olympics, to wonder if that 20-pound trophy could at all mitigate leaving China without a medal.

“I think you can’t take the sting out of that experience in China,” Mike Day, one of Shiffrin’s coaches, said from France on Monday. “[The overall title] would have meaning, but, ultimately, I think the experience in China’s something that will be long lasting, and this is something separate from that.”

Shiffrin began the season peppered with questions about potentially racing all five individual events at the Olympics. One wondered what was possible after she won four medals in four events at the February 2021 World Championships on a lack of training in speed events.

Then, on Oct. 23, she won the season-opening race outright for the first time in her career — World Cup victory No. 70. Two days later came the first significant obstacle of the campaign, a severe, spasm-like back injury that curtailed a planned two-week training block in her native Colorado.

The previous season, separate acute back tightness affected her for two months and led her to say, at age 25, it was the first injury that posed some threat to her ski racing career.

As she did in 2020-21, Shiffrin recovered and returned to winning races. She actually had the most consistent start to a season of her career, finishing first or second in all six slaloms or giant slaloms heading into Christmas, plus a pair of third-place finishes in super-Gs.

Then she announced Dec. 27 that she tested positive for the coronavirus with mild symptoms. Shiffrin went more than a week without skiing, missing a GS and slalom that could prove significant in the overall race by this week’s end.

What little exercise she could do while quarantined in an Austrian hotel room was limited to things like bed frame pull-ups.

Again, Shiffrin climbed back on the top podium step, winning the last World Cup slalom before the Olympics.

At the Olympics, her best finish in five individual races was ninth. Since, she placed second, fourth, third and ninth between two World Cup stops, breaking her tie with Vlhova in the overall standings. Though Vlhova gained 61 points back over the most recent two races.

Day said Shiffrin’s team had very little focus on the overall title chase this season. His first time encountering it after the Olympics wasn’t in conversation with Shiffrin, but reading about it in the press.

Shiffrin has long emphasized the day-to-day training, the fight and not the results. Day echoed that. He called this the most difficult full season her career, not counting the abbreviated 2019-20 campaign, when she took a break after her father’s death that Feb. 2.

“It’s not necessarily the 17-win seasons that ultimately define you,” Day said, noting Shiffrin’s record-breaking 2018-19, the last time she was crowned the world’s best skier. “It’s the ones that you really have to claw and fight.”

Yet he did not deny that what happens this week will have an impact on how team Shiffrin looks back on an unforgettable 2021-22.

“I think you probably need to ask me about that six days from now,” he said.

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Ilia Malinin’s quadruple Axel sheds light on first figure skater to land triple Axel

Vern Taylor
Vern Taylor, the first figure skater to land a triple Axel in competition. (Getty Images)

Vern Taylor arrived at the Riverside Skating Club in Windsor, Ontario, on Sept. 15 to do what he has done at that rink for the last three decades: coach figure skaters. But this day was different.

Taylor, who in 1978 became the first man to land a ratified triple Axel in competition, was told that 17-year-old American Ilia Malinin performed the first quadruple Axel the previous night.

“When we heard that he landed it, I said, ‘Oh my goodness, that’s terrific,'” Taylor said by phone.

He was then shown video of Malinin’s feat.

“Anything’s possible,” Taylor said. “43 years [later], that’s something. It’s knowing that you can perform the jump that makes it challenging.”

Malinin, the world junior champion, landed the most difficult jump in skating and checked off the only remaining quad yet to be performed.

At the 1978 World Championships in Ottawa, a 20-year-old Taylor broke through a similar barrier in hitting the last remaining unchecked triple jump. But while Malinin’s senior career seems to be just getting started, and many medals appear in his future, Taylor is largely a forgotten man outside of ardent figure skating followers.

He finished 12th at those 1978 World Championships. Taylor’s 1980 Olympic prospects were dimmed by the fact that Canada had just one men’s singles spot, and he had taken runner-up at nationals in 1978 and 1979 to Brian Pockar, who also outscored Taylor at those years’ world championships. So Taylor stopped competing a year before the Lake Placid Games.

“I didn’t have a reason,” he said. “I just decided to take a break.”

Taylor will always have that day at the world championships in Ottawa. He can still remember the nervousness, knowing that two other skaters also planned to attempt a triple Axel. They were unsuccessful, though Taylor didn’t know it.

“I didn’t see their jumps,” he said. “I didn’t want to know what was ahead of me.”

American David Jenkins landed a triple Axel in Movietone newsreel footage reported to be from 1957, but that was not in competition.

Taylor, skating to music from “Rocky,” put the triple Axel as the third jump of his program, according to reports at the time. The one YouTube video of it, published two years ago, has 32,000 views. It shows Taylor landing the three-and-a-half revolution jump on one foot and spinning out of it while managing to stay on that single skate blade amid a crowd roar.

“During that program, it was like a rock concert,” Taylor said. “I got the energy from the audience.”

The Montreal Gazette reported at the time that the jump was ratified three hours later. Italian Sonia Bianchetti, the men’s referee at the 1978 Worlds, said she met with the assistant referee, the ISU president and a technical delegate.

“During this short meeting it was recognized that Vern had completed the first triple Axel Paulsen jump [Norwegian Axel Paulsen was the skater who landed the first Axel jump in 1882, getting it named after him] in an officially recognized figure skating competition,” she wrote in an email last month. “The triple Axel was fully rotated and landed on one foot.”

One of the people inside the Ottawa Civic Centre that day was 16-year-old Canadian Brian Orser. Orser, inspired by Taylor, later became synonymous with the jump — labeled “Mr. Triple Axel” and landing it en route to silver medals at the Olympics in 1984 and 1988 and the 1987 World title.

Orser remembered Taylor visiting his skating club for an exhibition. Orser saw Taylor doing an Axel takeoff exercise off the ice, incorporated it into his own routine and began teaching it to his skaters after becoming a coach.

Yet another Canadian, Kurt Browning, was the first man to land a ratified quadruple jump of any kind in competition — a toe loop at the 1988 World Championships.

“For me, personally, it was huge,” he said, “because I was promised a car if I could land it.”

Through an agreement with an Edmonton car dealership, Browning was handed the keys to a Quattro — quad/Quattro — after hitting the toe loop. The skater was unaware that the dealer was merely leasing it to him. About six months later, Browning received a call asking to bring the car back.

Browning was inspired by American Brian Boitano, whom he previously saw land a quad outside of competition. Taylor motivated him, too.

“[Taylor] gave me permission, even at a young age, to start thinking bigger,” he said.

Browning also pointed to Jozef Sabovčík, a 1980s skater for then-Czechoslovakia who many believe was the first man to land a quad in competition, Browning included. Sabovčík was initially given credit for a quad toe loop at the 1986 European Championships, but weeks later it was invalidated because he touched down with his free foot, according to reports.

“I never want to come off as arrogant, but despite what ISU [International Skating Union] decided in the end, I do know that I landed the jump on that day,” Sabovčík, who said he performed a quad jump on his birthdays through age 44, wrote in an email. “The fact that most of the people in the skating world believe the same thing, it means everything to me that Kurt is one of them. It would have been nice to have my name in the Guinness Book of Records, but I am also not trying to change history.”

Sabovčík, now 58 and coaching in Salt Lake City, attended March’s world championships in Montpellier, France, where Malinin finished ninth. There, he spoke with Malinin’s parents, Russian-born Uzbek Olympic skaters Tatyana Malinina and Roman Skornyakov, whom he calls friends.

“They told me that he was already doing a quad Axel on a fishing pole harness [in practice], and that it was coming,” Sabovčík said.

Less than two months after that talk, the first video surfaced of Malinin landing a clean quad Axel — at a U.S. Figure Skating jump camp.

“I did not think [a quad Axel] was possible,” Sabovčík said. “It really has to be an athlete that can combine the technical ability with jumping ability with the speed of rotation. When Kurt and I jumped, we had a relatively speaking slow rotation, but we jumped really big compared to these kids. But Ilia, he has the vertical lift, but he [also] has an unbelievably fast rotation.”

The recent proliferation of quads in men’s and women’s skating can be attributed to several factors, including better boots, better ice conditions and improvements in technology that can aid coaching. Still, there are concerns about if and how the pounding of training quads can wear down a skater physically.

“It’s a lot of pain you don’t feel at first, but you know it comes later,” said Frenchwoman Surya Bonaly, who started training a quad in 1989 and attempting it through the mid-1990s. Bonaly had two hip surgeries after her competitive career.

Even Taylor faced those questions.

“People said, ‘Aren’t you worried about injuring yourself?'” he said. “I would say, ‘No, I want you to know it can be done.'”

Sabovčík never tried a quad Axel in his skating days, but Browning did for less than a week in the early 1990s after winning four consecutive world titles.

“Just playing with it,” said Browning, who never tried it in competition. “Ilia has that special ability to not only get up in the air, but then he has that beautiful rotation that doesn’t look hurried. It’s fast, it’s quick as lightning, but it doesn’t look hurried. It’s so easy. Like a good golfer swings easy, and the ball goes 400 yards.”

Browning recalled a conversation he had with two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu, who in recent years made the quad Axel his quest. Hanyu attempted it in competition last season but did not land it cleanly before retiring in July. He said upon retirement that he still hoped to master the jump for his non-competitive show career.

“I asked Yuzu one day, ‘When you do quad Axel, does it just feel like you’re up there forever?'” Browning said. “And he kind of looked at me funny, and he goes, ‘Yeah, like it never ends.'”

The skating world awaits the reserved Hanyu’s thoughts on Malinin’s quad.

“Knowing Yuzu, I would think he’d be very supportive,” said Orser, who coached Hanyu for nearly a decade. “He appreciates that kind of athleticism.”

Orser also noted what comes with being the first — and so far only — skater to land a rarefied jump. Malinin, who headlines Skate America in two weeks, will be asked about the quad Axel in just about every interview for the foreseeable future. For some skaters, they may feel a responsibility to land it all the time.

“But I don’t think [Malinin] thinks too much about it,” Orser said. “His technique is perfect, so he’ll be fine.”

The inevitable topic after that is the next progression in skating: the first quintuple jump. Orser said that Hanyu did five-rotation Salchows in practice with the aid of a harness.

“It’s just a little bit more rotation than the quadruple Axel, so it’s not that far off,” said Sabovčík, whose unratified quad toe loop came eight years after Taylor’s triple Axel. “Now that I’ve seen the quad Axel, I don’t think it’s impossible.”

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Aleksandra Trusova splits from coach Eteri Tutberidze, months after Olympic tears

Alexandra Trusova, Eteri Tutberidze

Olympic figure skating silver medalist Aleksandra Trusova reportedly split from coach Eteri Tutberidze‘s group, eight months after a tearful scene after the Olympic free skate.

Trusova, 18, will now be coached by Svetlana Sokolovskaya, according to Russian media reports dating to Saturday. All Russian skaters are ineligible to compete internationally indefinitely due to the national ban over the war in Ukraine, but Russia is still holding domestic events.

At the Beijing Winter Games, Trusova became the first woman to land five quadruple jumps in a free skate. She had the highest score that day, but it wasn’t enough to make up the gap to fellow Tutberidze pupil Anna Shcherbakova from the short program.

Moments after the competition ended, Trusova was seen crying and yelling at Sergey Dudakov, a member of Tutberidze’s coaching team.

“Everyone has a gold medal! Everyone has! Only I don’t! I hate figure skating! I hate! I will never step on the ice again! Never!” she said in Russian.

Shcherbakova had the individual gold, and the other Russian women’s singles skater at the Games, Kamila Valiyeva, skated both programs of the team event. The Russians placed first in the team event, but medals will not be awarded until Valiyeva’s doping case is adjudicated. It’s possible that Valiyeva gets retroactively disqualified, the Russian team gets disqualified and the other nations all move up with the U.S. going from silver to gold.

Trusova performed at the Russian test skates last month, withdrawing after her short program due to a back injury.

Trusova previously left Tutberidze in 2020 for two-time Olympic champion turned coach Yevgeny Plushenko‘s group, then moved back to Tutberidze’s group after the 2020-21 season.

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