At gymnastics nationals, Olympians give it the college try

1 Comment

TAMPA — For many star college athletes, August means easing back into campus life. But gymnasts Jade Carey and Jordan Chiles have unprecedented business ahead over the next two and a half months, starting with the U.S. Championships this week.

Carey and Chiles are the first U.S. Olympic female gymnasts to return to elite competition after a college season since NCAA gymnastics began in 1982. Leanne Wong, an Olympic alternate also coming off her freshman campaign, is another headliner this week.

The Tokyo veterans plan to vie for national titles on Friday and Sunday (broadcast schedule here), then bid at an October selection camp for a spot on the five-woman team for the world championships. Worlds are in late October and early November in Liverpool, Great Britain.

They would then have two months until the start of their sophomore NCAA seasons, should they keep the whirlwind going.

Some Olympians retire after the Games, or at least take a break. Others go compete in college, but never return to the more demanding elite level. Carey and Chiles want it all.

“I was pretty sure that, after the Olympics, I was going to be done [with Olympic-level gymnastics] and move on to college,” said Carey, the Olympic floor exercise gold medalist who attends Oregon State. “But I think just that whole [Tokyo] experience in general, I really just wanted to be able to experience it again.”

Chiles, who matriculated at UCLA after winning team silver in Tokyo, also has eyes on the 2024 Paris Games. Even though she’s had exhausting days at Westwood where she wondered what she got herself into.

“It’s hard being able to do online [classes], and then you have to be in person [for class] and then doing NCAA [gymnastics] and making sure you’re there with your team,” said Chiles, who said she didn’t take a break after April’s NCAA Championships. “I like challenges.”

For some Olympic sports, the NCAA can be a feeding system for the Olympics. Not women’s gymnastics, which looks very different in college than it does at the Games.

NCAA scoring is capped at 10.0 (similar to what the Olympics had through 2004), rather than the more open-ended international system. College places a greater emphasis on clean routines than the skill difficulty that might be necessary for international medals. It can be overkill to perform the most demanding elite skills in college when you’re competing weekly for most of the winter, a contrast from peaking for two or three meets a year as an elite. So gymnasts may switch to completely different routines than they performed in elite.

The last several U.S. Olympic men’s gymnastics teams included athletes who previously competed in college, and many who returned to school after the Games.

But it has been different for women. Before Tokyo, most Olympic female gymnasts were teenagers. For a collegian considering a return to elite training, that meant her primary competition for national team spots were athletes who weren’t balancing the two different types of gymnastics training, let alone competing every week in NCAA.

Up until last year, every U.S. Olympic female gymnastics star had to choose between NCAA eligibility and cashing in on professional opportunities. Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas and Nastia Liukin all turned pro in that era, forgoing college competition.

Name, image and likeness changed all that. Four of the six women on the Tokyo Olympic team competed collegiately last season, a record. Olympic all-around champion Suni Lee, a rising Auburn sophomore, plans to follow Carey and Chiles and return to elite competition in 2023. It has been more than a half-century since the only U.S. woman to compete at the Olympics, then compete in college and then compete in another Olympics.

Since, many women had to decide if and when to phase out of elite and into NCAA gymnastics. Some tried both at the same time.

In 2004, a 16-year-old Alicia Quinn did not make the Olympic team and signed a letter of intent to compete for UCLA. But before enrolling, she won the 2005 World title on floor exercise and decided to stick with elite gymnastics for a 2008 Olympic bid. That meant staying at home in Massachusetts and working with her elite coaches.

Quinn still wanted a college experience, so she joined the team down the road at Brown University, sometimes training at her elite gym in the morning and then driving to campus for Ivy League classes and practice.

“My [elite] coach [Mihai Brestyan] was like, look, just don’t let her do anything where she’s going to hurt herself,” Quinn said. “Mihai’s whole thing was education is really important. Put that first because, obviously, gymnastics doesn’t last forever. So he was on board with me going to school.”

A year after her one college season, Quinn made the Beijing Olympics and earned a team silver medal. She’s now one of three directors for the U.S. women’s national team program.

“Physically, it’s a toll,” Quinn said of doing college and elite. “I would tell [younger gymnasts], that’s great. Just know that it takes a lot of work and a lot of dedication.”

In 2015, Brenna Dowell placed second on floor exercise at the NCAA Championships as an Oklahoma freshman. She then chose not to renew her accommodation lease in Norman, deferred her sophomore season, went to the U.S. Championships that summer and competed at the world championships that fall despite not training elite skills during the January-to-April college season.

“I had nothing to lose because I got to keep my eligibility, and I could go back to college after taking my year off,” she said. “My bar routine was going to be twice as long [in elite], I’d have to add an extra floor pass, add an extra full twist on vault. Everything came back so easily.

“Leanne, Jade and Jordan and all the girls that are coming back, they’ve been doing elite gymnastics for so long, so this season of college gymnastics could actually be something that’s really good for them, because their bodies have had time off [from elite]. Retrain a skill, try to get rid of bad habits as you’re starting fresh.”

Elizabeth Price, a 2012 Olympic alternate, won the all-around at the 2014 American Cup and the 2014 Pacific Rim Championships. She looked like a contender for the 2016 Olympics. But she never had designs on Rio, nor second thoughts after enrolling at Stanford later in 2014.

“I was looking forward to that different phase of life,” said Price, who earned a biomechanical engineering degree, then got her master’s from Harvard in design engineering. “Even if my school hours were cut in half, I still don’t think it would have made much of a difference because for me personally at that time, I don’t think my body could have handled doing elite gymnastics on top of college gymnastics.”

Last year, MyKayla Skinner became the first American woman with college experience to make an Olympic team since Quinn. She retired after Tokyo.

This past April, Trinity Thomas of the University of Florida won the NCAA Championships all-around over the Olympic champion Lee.

Thomas did college and elite gymnastics back-to-back in 2019 and planned to do it again in 2020 before the pandemic shut down sports. She thought she would bid for the Olympic team in 2021, but sprained both ankles that NCAA season and announced her retirement from elite.

Thomas is now leaving the door open to a return to elite after deciding to come back for one more college season in 2023. Her motivation stems in part from seeing Carey, Chiles and her Gators teammate Wong try both.

“It does give me that extra kick in the butt, maybe that little bit more confidence that I can do it, too,” she said.

In Tampa this weekend, Carey and Chiles will experience what Price called “fighting from a different perspective.”

“You have to get back the skills that you hadn’t been training, also build up the endurance and strength that it requires to go to these competitions and compete significantly harder routines like you never left elite gymnastics,” Price said. “They’re fighting an uphill battle, but it’s been done before.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

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.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

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.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!