Oksana Masters reflects on record-breaking Paralympics, and a huge problem

Paralympics 2022 in Beijing - Biathlon

Oksana Masters did not expect to win a medal in all seven of her events at the Paralympics. She had no idea going into the Games that she could break the U.S. record for career Winter Paralympic medals, which she did with her 14th in the closing relay.

“I’m still speechless,” she said after the Games ended two weeks ago. “I’m still soaking it in.”

Masters, a cross-country skier and biathlete, also addressed what she called a huge problem in the Paralympic Movement that she believed was present at the Games: misclassification, which other Paralympic stars expressed concern about in other competitions, notably in swimming.

Paralympic athletes are classified according to their degree of impairment, similar to weight classes in wrestling or boxing. Trying to ensure competitive parity based on levels of impairment, across a field of thousands of athletes from dozens of countries across the world – is an imperfect science. The International Paralympic Committee recognizes that in stating the purpose of classification is “to minimize” the impact of impairments on competition.

Misclassification, where an athlete is placed by an expert panel in the wrong category unintentionally or because of deliberate misrepresentation, can result in an uneven playing field.

In cross-country skiing and biathlon, athletes compete in one of three categories: visually impaired, standing and sitting (Masters’ category). Within each category, athletes can be further separated by factored time, a percentage that can adjust race times of competitors based on level of impairment.

In Masters’ last two of three individual cross-country skiing races in China, finish-area microphones picked up her questioning the fairness of the competition. She clarified last week that her comments were about potential misclassification, though she did not make a specific allegation against an athlete or country.

“Misclassification had a massive, massive impact on athletes, not just including myself and Team USA, but across all different classes [in Beijing],” she said in an interview. “It has been an issue for a very long time, and it’s not being addressed.”

The U.S. has not lodged a formal complaint regarding the Beijing Games competition.

A spokesperson for the IPC and World Para Nordic Skiing said they do not disclose details about athlete classification and “treat all allegations of intentional misrepresentation and other misconduct very seriously.”

“Each allegation is looked into and, where merited, appropriate action is taken,” the spokesperson said in an email. “In the event that World Para Nordic Skiing has reason to believe that an athlete under its jurisdiction has been allocated an incorrect sport class, it can make an International Federation Protest in respect of that athlete at any time.”

In all three of her individual cross-country skiing races, Masters earned a silver medal behind China’s Yang Hongqiong. Masters did not name any specific athlete that she believed was misclassified. She did say that she had never heard of Yang before the Games.

IPC records show that Yang raced at competitions in China starting in January 2020. She debuted internationally this past December in a pair of races in Finland, placing 11th and 16th, followed by her three golds at the Paralympics. Many Chinese athletes across sports did not compete internationally in the 2020-21 season due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Masters was surprised by the host nation’s overall performance — 61 medals, including 30 in biathlon or cross-country skiing, after earning one medal in all of its five previous Winter Games combined.

“I don’t want to take away from the fact that [Yang] also has three gold medals and that China did perform really well,” Masters said. “I think she’s a great athlete, because you have to put the work into it, too.”

Masters had the fastest time in all three of her races with Yang, if one didn’t take into account factored time. Yang’s factor according to her level of impairment was 86 percent of her time, the smallest percentage of the field in all three finals, meaning her raw time gets the biggest reduction.

Masters’ factor based on her level of impairment was 100 percent, meaning her time doesn’t get reduced.

Masters said multiple skiers with a significant factored percentage had a faster raw time (not including the factor) than some other skiers with the maximum 100 percent, which she called “mind-blowing.”

Masters, who was born in Ukraine, also said officials did not allow her to compete with a quarter-sized, heart-shaped sticker with the Ukrainian flag colors on it. They did not give her a reason. An IPC spokesperson did not address it in an email response to a series of questions regarding Masters’ comments about the Games.

“I wanted to race for something that was bigger than myself and to help where I came from and bring awareness to it,” she said. “I was competing for two countries, and it was devastating to see that stickers were constantly being covered up and taken off, and I wasn’t allowed to show my support.”

Overall, Masters emphasized the work of those around her, notably six ski wax technicians, including one nicknamed “D Money,” who also deserve credit for her three golds and four silvers.

She said these Games brought the greatest highlight of her decade-long Paralympic career so far: having teammates whom she helped recruit to the sport.

Masters, 32, hopes to compete in a fourth Summer Games in Paris (in cycling) and a fourth Winter Games in Italy in 2026, again in biathlon and cross-country skiing.

“I’m so excited for Paris, especially because as a cyclist and a hand cyclist, that is such a huge community and a big sport there,” she said. “And I can’t wait to hopefully compete under no more COVID times.”

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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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