Alexander Enbert

AP

Cain and LeDuc target world top 5, starting at Skate America

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LAS VEGAS — Don’t tell Ashley Cain-Gribble, even gingerly, that there’s been a lull in U.S. pairs’ international results the past few years. She isn’t buying it.

“I would not say there’s a lull,” Cain-Gribble said after Thursday’s practice at Skate America in Las Vegas. “If you look at the last two years, there are a lot of international medals coming from pairs.”

True, to an extent. Cain-Gribble and partner Timothy LeDuc took home a bronze medal at Skate America last season, and last month they won the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic in Salt Lake City, defeating out-of-form Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov, three-time World medalists from Russia. Their U.S. teammates Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim also opened the 2019-2020 campaign strong, with a silver medal at Nebelhorn Trophy.

Still, a U.S. pair hasn’t stood on a world championships podium since 2002, and no U.S. pair has ever won a medal at the Grand Prix Final.

“I think it’s all coming down to doing it at the right moment and I think we’re all going to be doing that,” Cain-Gribble said. “We’re technically strong, all of us.”

The skater’s coach and father, Peter Cain, thinks “nervy” errors have cost U.S. pairs big on the international stage.

“We all want U.S. teams to be successful again,” Cain said. “Pushing Ashley and Tim to be good pushes all of the teams to be good. I’ve been watching practices; all of the teams can put it together at the right moment, but we often see teams getting a little nervy and making mistakes. At this level you can’t do that.”

Cain-Gribble and LeDuc have set an ambitious goal: Finish in the world’s top five. Last season, their bronze medal at Skate America helped pave the way for the Texas-based duo’s first U.S. title and a top-10 finish at the 2019 World Figure Skating Championships; this week, they’re shooting for another medal, maybe silver or gold.

“This is one step, nationals another, and Worlds is the final step,” LeDuc said.

MORE: How to watch Skate America

They’re doing all they can to get there. About three years ago, U.S. Figure Skating enlisted Nina Mozer, coach of Russian World and European medalists including Olympic champions Tatiana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov, to visit U.S. pairs’ training sites and offer expertise at pairs’ camps and seminars, including this summer’s Champs Camp.

Mozer works with several top U.S. pairs, but has formed an especially close partnership with Cain-Gribble and LeDuc. She’s coaching them here in Vegas, alongside Peter Cain.

“I’m learning a lot, too, about better planning, better ways to train. She’s really good at that, and that’s why her teams are on top,” Cain said. “I kind of stand aside and let her run the show a lot when she’s with us, and part of it for me is to learn how she handles teams in competition….That makes me a better coach in the long run for all of my students, because her mannerisms are rubbing off (on me).”

Mozer thinks Cain-Gribble and LeDuc’s goals are within reach – if they can reign in their competitive juices and skate within themselves.

“It is not possible to get to the podium immediately but step-by-step they can reach the goal,” she said through an interpreter.

“During this season they are making all of the elements well, the key thing is do not rush. I’m worried that the audience is expecting a lot, and they have to forget about that and do their work. When expectations are so high, sometimes it’s hard to concentrate and very easy to be nervous.”

Cain-Gribble and LeDuc, who teamed up in May 2016, are both strong single skaters. They use their long lines – Cain-Gribble is 5-foot-6, while LeDuc is 6’1” – to their advantage, and each season have targeted areas for improvement.

During their 2018/2019 campaign, they upgraded their triple twist, making it a high-scoring (Level 4) element.

“When U.S. Figure Skating spoke to me, one of the first things (they did) was asking me to work on the twist lift,” Mozer said. “They came up to me and said, ‘Please do something.’”

This summer, the skaters attended Mozer’s camp in Italy, where the focus was overall packaging.

“It’s a really intense camp up in the Alps,” LeDuc said at Champs Camp in August. “For the most part, we really focus on our overall packaging, and speed and power through everything. With our goal top five at the World’s this year, we’re trying to do everything we can to make that happen.”

The skaters also targeted another element: their lifts. To add difficulty (and points), LeDuc is lifting and holding aloft his partner with one arm, while Cain-Gribble’s arms remain free.

“That’s the biggest difference you’ll see this year, I think,” Cain-Gribble said at Champs Camp. “Pretty much all of our lifts are one point of contact, so I’m not holding on (to LeDuc) at all.”

“I think that when we teamed up, it was one of the things people saw as our weakness,” she added. “The thought was with my height, we wouldn’t be able to do all these intricate positions, or do the one point of contact, but we’ve made our bodies strong enough to be able to do that.”

Mozer acknowledges helping the pair with their lifts, but refuses to share too many particulars.

“It’s the secrets of the coaching staff,” she said, laughing. “We knew the problems of the (lifts) and we understood what to do, and now they have no problems. They changed some things. Timothy did a lot of work to make this element better and better.”

Skating isn’t all that’s been on the agenda. Ashley married Dalton Gribble on June 1, balancing much of her off-season with wedding and honeymoon plans.

“The way we got through it, was we scheduled everything in advance,” Cain-Gribble said. “We (choreographed) our short program in the two weeks we were in Japan between Worlds and World Team Trophy, and that made up for time we would have lost. It came down to scheduling.”

The bride doesn’t think she sacrificed anything.

“I was able to take in every emotion for this big life event,” she said. “I got married and the team around me let me relax a little bit and take it all in, instead of stressing about training and run-throughs.”

Opportunity may be knocking here in Vegas. Natalia Zabiyako and Alexander Enbert of Russia, the reigning world bronze medalists, withdrew from the event due to injury. China’s Peng Cheng and Jin Yang, who won silver at last season’s Grand Prix Final, are the top-ranked pair at Skate America; Cain and LeDuc defeated them in Salt Lake City.

Mozer, who also coaches Zabiiako and Enbert, would like nothing more than to see her U.S. students atop the podium.

“When I started to work with international pairs, it was interesting for me to help raise the level of pairs skating,” she said. “We were hearing pairs’ skating is weak, it’s not interesting anymore. I want (pairs) to be as strong as singles and ice dance. We will reach that result if everyone is stronger.”

MORE: Nathan Chen calls 3 quads at Skate America ‘a given’

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Check out a free trial of the Figure Skating Pass during Skate America from Oct. 18-20. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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Russia submits names for 2019 world team, without world champions Medvedeva, Tuktamysheva; changes are still possible

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Russia released their preliminary entries for the 2019 World Championships on Monday, designating 2015 world champion Elizaveta Tuktamysheva and double world champion Yevgenia Medvedeva as alternates so far.

Instead, Russia will send Olympic champion Alina Zagitova, new European champion Sofia Samodurova, and Stanislava Konstantinova, who finished fourth at Europeans last month.

Russian media reported that there may still be changes made to the lineup, as there was not adequate time before the conclusion of a Russian selection competition and the entry deadline. Tuktamysheva was also given an assignment to the World University Games, alongside Konstantinova; Medvedeva, who won that selection competition on Saturday, is currently listed as an alternate for that event as well.

The rest of Russia’s lineup includes:

Men: Maxim Kovtun, Mikhail Kolyada, Alexander Samarin

Pairs: Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov; Natalia Zabiyako and Alexander Enbert; and Alexandra Boikova and Dmitri Kozlovsky

Ice dance: Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov; Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin (read NBCSports’ interview with the team here); and Sofia Evdokimova and Igor Bazin

MORE: Armed with new attitude, Michal Brezina is having his best season yet

As a reminder, you can watch the world championships live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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Rika Kihira lands two triple Axels, with Shoma Uno makes it Japan sweep at NHK

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Rika Kihira has arrived on the senior Grand Prix.

Kihira, 16, became the first woman to land two fully rotated triple Axels in one program on the top senior international level since Mao Asada at the 2010 Olympics and the youngest Japanese skater to win a Grand Prix since Kanako Murakami, also in 2010.

Kihira leaped from fifth after Friday’s short program to win NHK Trophy in Hiroshima on Saturday, beating winners of two of the first three Grand Prix events — Japanese Satoko Miyahara and Russian Elizaveta Tuktamysheva. It was her senior Grand Prix debut.

Kihira’s free-skate and total scores (154.72 and 224.31, boosted by an opening triple Axel-triple toe loop combination and standalone triple Axel) rank second in the world this season behind Olympic champion Alina Zagitova, whom she will likely face at December’s Grand Prix Final.

Kihira came into NHK as a wild card. Eighth at last season’s junior worlds, she won her senior international debut in September with two triple Axels in her free at a lower-level event. She fell on an under-rotated triple Axel in Friday’s short program, putting her six points behind Tuktamysheva and training partner Miyahara.

“Yesterday there were some concerns about my triple Axel, but in the morning practice I checked on my Axel, and this was reflected in my performance,” Kihira said, according to the International Skating Union. “After the short program I wasn’t sure if I could come back and be here today. The mistake motivated me today, but I didn’t imagine I could get such a high score.”

Tuktamysheva, the only other senior woman performing the triple Axel, turned out of her landing in Saturday’s free skate. Miyahara had two under-rotated jumps and an edge call, but passed the Russian for silver by .45. Mariah Bell was the top American in fifth.

Kihira still has maturing to do, evidenced by ceding four points to the elegant Miyahara in artistic marks.

“[Kihira] is working very hard on the artistry, because I want her to become a very beautiful lady skater with triple Axel and quad,” the Japanese stars’ coach, Mie Hamadasaid last month. “This year I am not planning to have quads in her programs, but I want beautiful edges, beautiful flow.”

NHK TROPHY: Results | TV/Stream Schedule

Shoma Uno won the men’s event for a Japanese singles sweep. The Olympic and world silver medalist attempted six quads between two programs, with a fall and missed combination in the short program and some messy landings in the free.

He totaled 276.45 points and remains ranked third in the world this season behind Yuzuru Hanyu and Nathan Chen, whom he will likely face at the Grand Prix Final.

Russian Sergei Voronov took silver, 22.17 points back, followed by Matteo Rizzo, the first Italian man to earn a Grand Prix singles medal. U.S. Olympian Vincent Zhou was fourth, then revealed on social media that he was off skates the week before with a dislocated shoulder.

Earlier Saturday, Russians Natalya Zabiyako and Alexander Enbert and Chinese Peng Cheng and Jin Yang qualified for the Grand Prix Final by going one-two in pairs. U.S. Olympians Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim improved from fourth after Friday’s short to take bronze, their first Grand Prix medal in three years.

Zabiyako and Enbert, who were seventh at the Olympics, won back-to-back Grand Prix events and rank second in the world this season behind French Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres, who were not in the NHK field. None of the Olympic medalists are competing on the Grand Prix series.

Russians Tiffany Zahorski and Jonathan Guerreiro topped the rhythm dance with 75.49 points. U.S. couples Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker and Rachel Parsons and Michael Parsons are in second and third, respectively, going into Sunday’s free dance.

As a reminder, you can watch the ISU Grand Prix Series live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. GO HERE to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season…NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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