Under the circumstances, figure skating worlds – and future – hard to assess

ISU World Figure Skating Championships - Montpellier
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Even in normal times, it always has been hard to draw a lot of conclusions from the World Figure Skating Championships that immediately follow the Olympics.

The rigors of an Olympic season lead many medalists to take a pass on worlds. Those who do compete often are obviously fatigued.

It is exponentially harder to assess the competition that ended Saturday in Montpellier, France.

No world meet has taken place in more abnormal circumstances.

These championships came as the world entered the third year of a deadly viral pandemic that compelled Beijing 2022 Olympic organizers to bar foreign spectators and allow few Chinese. That meant a sport as much entertainment as competition played to nearly empty houses on its biggest stage, the Winter Games.

They came in a season when the pandemic forced either cancellation (Grand Prix Finals) or relocation/rescheduling of events (Cup of China, Four Continents Championships, World Junior Championships). Two seasons after Covid led to the cancellation of the 2020 worlds. A season after Covid made all skating competition domestic.

They came less than a month after Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. That made pariahs of Russian athletes, who have been barred from nearly all international competitions. That sanction included the figure skating World Championships, where Russia likely would have collected several medals.

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In the pairs’ competition, the significant absentees were not only the Russians but also the Chinese. China could have sent three pairs, including reigning Olympic champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, who were injured, according to Chinese media reports. Why no Chinese pairs came remains unclear.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian skaters won the applause and admiration of the world for having the courage to stand up for their county as bombs fell on their hometowns. They included ice dancers Oleksandra Nazarova and Maksim Nikitin, who had recently been in Kharkiv, Ukraine, one of the cities suffering most from Russia’s murderous attacks.

“We saw the tanks, heard the shooting; my house doesn’t have windows anymore,” Nazarova said.

In such a context, after such a difficult few years, it was no surprise that many of the world’s top skaters have deferred announcing their future competitive plans.

That uncertainty is one takeaway from the 2022 worlds. Here are some others:

 

*Some skaters, notably in women’s singles, might be more inclined to compete at least one more season if the ban on Russian athletes is extended past the end of this season.

Produced by a talent system that looks more Machiavellian the more it is exposed, young Russian women have dominated the sport so thoroughly in the past eight seasons that medals at major events looked almost out of reach for everyone else. It created two-tiered competition.

New world champion Kaori Sakamoto of Japan stopped a Russian sweep in Beijing when heavy favorite Kamila Valieva, 15, unraveled after it was revealed she had an unresolved doping case. Sakamoto, 22 in April, who never stood on a global championship podium before this year, said after winning the Olympic bronze medal next month she wants to go on to the 2026 Winter Games.

Her men’s champion compatriot, two-time Olympic medalist Shoma Uno, said Saturday, “I have never skated having the Olympics as my goal. All I know is I want to obtain more growth next year and the year after that. There could be the possibility the (next) Olympics are there for me too.”

Reigning Olympic champion Nathan Chen of the United States, who withdrew from worlds with a lingering injury, is returning to Yale for his final two years of studies after a two-year break.

Chen, 22, who had won the previous three world titles, could take two years off from competition and then return, although that seems unlikely, as does his competing again before graduation.

His longtime rival, two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan, said after his fourth place in Beijing that he had not ruled out another Olympic try in 2026. That, too, seems unlikely, given Hanyu is 27 and has battled ankle injuries since at least 2017.

 

* Among the 16 U.S. athletes at worlds, only Camden PulkinenIlia Malinin and two ice dance teams, bronze medalists Madison Chock and Evan Bates and eighth-place finishers Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, have expressed their intention to continue.

Pulkinen, 22, who will enter Columbia University in August, hopes to build on his unexpected fifth place, achieved with two clean programs and three personal bests, including massive improvement in the free skate and total.

“I still want to progress more technically and artistically for the next four years to hopefully make the (Olympic) team,” Pulkinen said.

While Pulkinen has no firm plans on his coaching or training venue after moving from Colorado Springs to New York, he intends to work intensely over the summer on building a base and expanding his quadruple jump repertoire beyond the toe loop.

 

*The presumed successor to Chen as the top U.S. man, Malinin, will go to next month’s (postponed) World Junior Championships looking to rebound from his implosion in Saturday’s free skate. Multiple errors dropped him from a medal-contending fourth after the short program to ninth overall.

Malinin, 17, should be a title contender at the junior championship, where he will skate less demanding programs: quads are not allowed in the short, and he likely will do just two quads in the free, which is 30 seconds shorter and has one fewer element than a senior free skate.

He tried four quads Saturday, executing the first two perfectly, falling hard on the third and making a hash of the fourth. He finished 11th in the free.

“There were some good and some bad things,” Malinin said of his senior worlds debut. “A whole pile of stuff happened.”

Malinin’s dazzling performances at January’s U.S. Championships, with six clean quads, revealed an impressive talent. What he did at nationals now looks like an outlier in a season he began as a junior. Among his seven junior and senior competitions this season, the national meet is the only time Malinin has done two clean programs.

 

*Isabeau Levito, 15, who also will be a title contender at junior worlds, becomes the heiress apparent to the U.S. crown if neither Alysa Liu, the new world bronze medalist, nor reigning champion Mariah Bell competes next season.

Levito was third in her senior nationals debut this January. She has been a strikingly consistent performer this season, with just three negative grades of execution in 30 jumping passes.

 

*The sport will look very different if neither Hanyu nor Chen is competing next season. Beginning with Hanyu’s first of two Olympic and world titles in 2014 and continuing when Chen first began to challenge Hanyu in 2017, the two have deservedly been the faces of men’s figure skating seemingly forever.

Had Chen won a fourth straight world title, he would have been the first to do that in men’s or women’s singles since the elimination of compulsory figures in 1990.

Beating Uno’s outstanding performances would have been a formidable task, but Chen’s scores in his three title wins were eight-to-10 points higher than what Uno scored last week. Chen won the Olympics with a 22-point margin over silver medalist Yuma Kagiyama of Japan and a 39-point margin over bronze medalist Uno.

“I always like the word `dominate,’” said Chen’s coach, Rafael Arutunian. “Nathan won the Olympics that way.”

*It would be both easy and unfair to say the results at worlds need an asterisk.

After all, you can only beat those who actually compete.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at every Winter Olympics since 1980, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.

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Kendall Gretsch wins six gold medals at Para Nordic Ski Worlds

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Kendall Gretsch, who won Paralympic titles at the last Summer and Winter Games, added another six gold medals at the World Para Nordic Skiing Championships in Sweden last week.

Gretsch, 30, earned seven total medals in seven days between biathlon and cross-country skiing.

Gretsch won gold medals in three different sports across the last three Paralympics: biathlon and cross-country skiing in 2018 (two years after taking up the sports), triathlon in 2021 and biathlon in 2022.

She plans to shift her focus back to triathlon after this winter for 2024 Paris Games qualification.

Gretsch, born with spina bifida, was the 2014 USA Triathlon Female Para Triathlete of the Year. Though triathlon was added to the Paralympics for the 2016 Rio Games, her classification was not added until Tokyo.

Also at last week’s worlds, six-time Paralympian Aaron Pike earned his first Paralympic or world championships gold medal in his decade-plus career, winning a 12.5km biathlon event.

Oksana Masters, who won seven medals in seven events at last year’s Paralympics to break the career U.S. Winter Paralympics medals record, missed worlds due to hand surgery.

The U.S. also picked up five medals at last week’s World Para Alpine Skiing Championships in Spain — three silvers for five-time Paralympian Laurie Stephens and two bronzes for 17-year-old Saylor O’Brien.

Stephens now has 18 career medals from world championships, plus seven at the Paralympics.

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World champion skier Kyle Smaine dies in avalanche at age 31

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Kyle Smaine, a retired world champion halfpipe skier, died in an avalanche in Japan on Sunday, according to NBC News, citing Smaine’s father. He was 31.

Smaine, a 2015 World champion in ski halfpipe, had been doing ski filming in Japan, sharing videos on his Instagram account over the past week.

The native of South Lake Tahoe, California, finished ninth in ski halfpipe at the 2016 Winter X Games in Aspen, Colorado.

In 2018, Smaine won the fifth and final U.S. Olympic qualifying series event in ski halfpipe but did not make the four-man team for PyeongChang. His last sanctioned international competition was in February 2018.

Late Sunday, two-time Olympic champion David Wise won the X Games men’s ski halfpipe and dedicated it to Smaine.

“We all did this for Kyle tonight,” Wise said on the broadcast. “It’s a little bit of an emotional day for us. We lost a friend.”