Alina Zagitova

10 things we’ve learned halfway through the Grand Prix figure skating season

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With the senior Grand Prix series at its halfway point and skaters heading for Chonqing, China for the fourth of six “regular season” events, here are 10 things we’ve learned from the series so far:

WOMEN

1. The kiddie corps of Russian women has been even better than expected – and expectations were very high.

Anna Shcherbakova, 15, Alexandra Trusova, 15, and Alena Kostornaia, 16, each has easily won gold in the first three events. Shcherbakova took Skate America by 10-plus points; Trusova won Skate Canada by 10-plus points over reigning Grand Prix Final champion Rika Kihira of Japan; and Kostornaia took Grand Prix France by nearly 20 points over reigning world and Olympic champion Alina Zagitova of Russia.

It is likely that only Kihira, at the season-ending NHK Trophy in Japan, can prevent Russian women from sweeping gold in the six events. That has happened in only one of the four Grand Prix disciplines; Russian men swept in 1998-99 and 1999-00, an era when some skaters did three events instead of the current two.

The three young Russian women have posted the three highest free skate scores in the two seasons of the revised scoring system.

2. The jump revolution in women’s skating, with quads and triple Axels, has had a bigger and faster impact than expected – even though women cannot do quads in the short program.

Trusova’s four quad attempts (three clean) helped her wipe out Kihira’s 7.95-point edge after the short program at Skate Canada. Shcherbakova’s two clean quad Lutzes carried her from fourth after the short (7.5 points from first) to the title at Skate America. Kostornaia’s three triple Axels (even the one under-rotated in the short) were difference-makers in France.

And these stats, courtesy of skatingscores.com: Four women – Trusova, Shcherbakova and juniors Kamila Valieva of Russia and Alysa Liu of the United States, the latter two winners of two Junior Grand Prix events each this season – have done 19 jumps credited as quads in international events (including the free skate-only Japan Open) this season. There had been only 22 other jumps called quads in the previous history of the sport.

The success rate for women’s quads is the big change: Last season, just five of the 16 jumps called quads got a positive Grade of Execution (another got a neutral 0.0). This season, 16 of the 19 jumps have positive GOEs – 12 of them at 2.30 or higher.

3. Mariah Bell’s two strong skates in France produced the second Grand Prix medal of her career, a bronze (after her silver at Skate America in 2016).

More striking: Bell never lost her focus and made no significant mistakes, as she frequently had in the past, and she beat Zagitova in the free skate. Yet it still seems unlikely (but not impossible) that either Bell or Bradie Tennell, second and fourth at her two events, will be the first U.S. woman to qualify for the Grand Prix Final since Ashley Wagner in 2015. Bell’s second event is Rostelecom Cup in mid-November.

MEN

4. Two-time men’s Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan, the sport’s superstar, may be heading for an even higher level of brilliance if his performance at Skate Canada is any indication.

Hanyu’s skating was his finest ever in his Grand Prix season debut. Clean in a two-quad short program, one minor mistake in a four-quad free skate, full of passion and competitive fire, this was a Hanyu asking “Can you top this?” to rival Nathan Chen, winner of the last two world titles.

5. The answer? Chen could not top it – so far.

In finishing first in all four programs at his two Grand Prix events, taking gold in both by a mile, Chen extended his Grand Prix winning streak to eight (including two wins at the Final) and became the first man to qualify for this season’s Final. But just one of his four performances (the short at Skate America) was clean.

Of course, Chen had an even messier Grand Prix record last season, but he improved in each event before lights-out, landmark performances at the U.S. and world championships.

6. All skating fans should keep their fingers crossed for a Hanyu-Chen meeting at the Grand Prix Final, since Hanyu missed the last two with foot injuries. Hanyu’s second event is the series finale (NHK in Sapporo) three weekends from now.

7. Hanyu and Chen are now light years ahead of the rest of the men in the world.

Reigning Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno of Japan is struggling, reigning world bronze medalist Vincent Zhou of the U.S. is sitting out the Grand Prix to concentrate on his first semester of college, and eye-catching Kevin Aymoz of France is a year or two from international title contention.

PAIRS

8. Few would have foreseen heading into the season that three young Russian couples, Daria Pavliuchenko and Denis Khodykin (ages 16 and 20), Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitri Kozlovski (17 and 19) and Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov (18 and 20) would take command of the pair scene so far.

Call it making hay while the sun shines (and the veteran teams haven’t – yet). Reigning world champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong (24 and 27) of China make their season debut this week at Cup of China. Reigning Grand Prix Final and European champions Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres (32 and 28) are taking the long view at contending for a 2022 Olympic medal by skipping this season’s Grand Prix for a mental and physical break. Reigning world silver medalists Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov (24 and 27) slogged to third at their first competition.

And a veteran U.S. couple, Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier (24 and 26), have stepped into the open space with two second-place free skates to get bronze medals and, if results are jumbled enough the next three weeks, have a shot at a spot in the Final. Only one U.S. pair has made it in the past 11 seasons (Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim in 2015.)

ICE DANCE

9. It is no surprise that there is the team Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France, first at the Grand Prix of France, and then there is everyone else. Their “Fame” rhythm dance is disco delight, goofy costumes included, even if it is better in execution than conception. The spoken passages in their free dance are more distraction than enhancement. But the skating – oh, the skating. The attention to detail, the synchronicity, flow, edge work. They are prohibitive favorites to win Olympic gold in 2022.

10. What a battle there should be at 2020 Worlds in Montreal for the silver and bronze medals in dance. Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier of Canada threw themselves into the mix with a Skate Canada upset of Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue of the U.S. (Hubbell and Donohue are reigning Grand Prix Final champions and world bronze medalists who have won medals in 13 straight series events.)

Madison Chock and Evan Bates of the U.S., looking for their first worlds medal since 2016 after 11 straight medals on the Grand Prix, were a solid second behind Papadakis and Cizeron in France. Reigning world silver medalists Viktoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov of Russia make their Grand Prix season debut this week. Charlene Guignard and Marco Fabbri of Italy are contenders, as are Aleksandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin of Russia. Musical chairs dance, anyone?

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

MORE: Will Nathan Chen return to six quad jumps in his free skate?

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. 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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Alena Kostornaia defeats Alina Zagitova to win first Grand Prix in France

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Alena Kostornaia is now the third straight first-year senior Russian woman to win on the Grand Prix season. The past two weeks, 15-year-olds Anna Shcherbakova and Alexandra Trusova did it while landing quads at Skate America and Skate Canada, respectively.

Kostornaia did it sans quads, but with three triple Axels across two programs Friday and Saturday in Grenoble, France.

Kostornaia, 16 and skating in her Grand Prix debut, opened her free skate with a clean triple Axel in combination, followed by a solo triple Axel and a double Axel. She was accompanied by music from the Twilight soundtrack and Muse.

Despite an edge call on a triple flip, she scored 159.45 points in the free skate for a total of 236.00 points.

“I can’t answer that question because Alina’s a great sportsman,” said Kostornaia, after being asked if she was happy she defeated Alina Zagitova (the interview was conducted in English and posted on Twitter). “She win[s] all competition you can imagine and I’m very happy that she can go to the podium.”

(Note for fans just getting acquainted with Kostornaia: She pronounces her first name “al-YON-ah,” while Zagitova’s first name is “ah-LEE-nah.”)

Kostornaia trains alongside Zagitova, the reigning world and Olympic champion. Zagitova scored 141.82 points in the free skate (actually third in the phase) for a total of 216.06 points and the silver medal. Zagitova is 17 and in her third season as a senior skater.

Zagitova skated to a “Cleopatra” medley and was called for three under-rotations: the opening triple Lutz (which also received an unclear edge call), her double Axel in combination with a triple toe, and her triple Lutz, triple loop combination.

Closing out the session, American Mariah Bell, 23, claimed her first Grand Prix medal since a breakout performance at 2016 Skate America. She held on to her bronze medal position after the short program to tally 142.64 points in the free skate (scoring ahead of Zagitova in the phase) for a total score of 212.89 points.

“I’ve gone last many times, but this time was a little more challenging,” Bell said in audio provided by U.S. Figure Skating following the event. “I sometimes feel like when I get off the ice it’s a dream. And I hope I don’t wake up. It’s such a good feeling.”

Bell was called for just one under-rotation on her triple Lutz, the final jump of her “Hallelujah” program.

The other American in the field, Starr Andrews, was fifth with 180.54 total points.

Russia’s two pair teams in Grenoble landed on the podium to close the event. Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov took home the gold with 207.58 total points while Daria Pavliuchenko and Denis Khodykin earned silver with 206.56 points.

U.S. pair team Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier won their second Grand Prix bronze medal of the season, matching their Skate America finish two week ago. This marks their best-ever Grand Prix season as a team.

“This was a tough one, this week,” Frazier said following the event in audio provided by U.S. Figure Skating. “It was different physically, mentally, coming off a pretty exciting competition from Skate America. It was a big test to see how we kept our composure in a different kind of pressured situation, which is what we’re trying to do more.

“We were competing for a medal spot with a very respectable team from our country,” he added. “We knew they were gonna bring it and we had to fight. That’s the kind of fight we’ll see at Nationals.”

Americans Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, the 2019 national pair champions, finished in fourth place.

Earlier Saturday, Nathan Chen extended his Grand Prix winning streak to the longest in 18 years, and French ice dance couple Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron won their first Grand Prix of the season after a “Fame”/disco-themed rhythm dance.

Internationaux de France
Women
1. Alena Kostornaia (RUS) — 236.00

2. Alina Zagitova (RUS) — 216.06
3. Mariah Bell (USA) — 212.89
4. Kaori Sakamoto (JPN) — 199.24
5. Starr Andrews (USA) — 180.54
6. Wakaba Higuchi (JPN) — 174.12
7. Nicole Schott (GER) — 166.89
8. Lea Serna (FRA) — 166.02
9. Yuna Shiraiwa (JPN) — 161.71
10. Mae Berenice Meite (FRA) — 157.45
11. Maria Sotskova (RUS) — 144.89
WD. Laurine Lecavelier (FRA)

Pairs
1. Mishina/Galliamov (RUS) — 207.58

2. Pavliuchenko/Khodykin (RUS) — 206.56
3. Denney/Frazier (USA) — 199.40
4. Cain-Gribble/LeDuc (USA) — 195.78
5. Miriam Zielger/Severin Kiefer (AUT) — 181.26
6. Camille Ruest/Andrew Wolfe (CAN) — 166.15
7. Minerva Fabienne Hase/Nolan Seegert (GER) — 163.09
8. Rebecca Ghilardi/Filippo Ambrosini (ITA) — 157.92

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. 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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MORE: Canada seeks new figure skating stars after gold-medal retirements

Nathan Chen leads Grand Prix France, looking to extend remarkable win streak

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Nathan Chen is halfway to his eighth straight Grand Prix title, landing two quadruple jumps en route to a four-point lead at Internationaux de France on Friday.

Chen, a two-time world champion undefeated since a fifth-place PyeongChang Olympic finish, tallied 102.48 points in his “La Bohème” short program in Grenoble. Only two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu, who is not competing in France, has scored higher this season.

All 11 skaters committed jumping errors Friday. Chen put both hands on the ice on a triple Axel landing. That was sandwiched between a quad toe loop-triple toe loop combination and a quad flip.

He scored .23 lower than his short program at Skate America two weeks ago.

“One week is difficult between competitions,” said Chen, who is skipping Yale sophomore classes to compete in France. “Two weeks, you have time to recover, rest and then start building back up. … But having one week, it’s like two days of travel, two days of travel, and then three days of actual training.”

Russian Alexander Samarin is second going into Saturday’s free skate (live streaming schedule here).

Japanese Shoma Uno, the Olympic silver medalist and two-time world silver medalist, fell on a quad toe loop and nearly faceplanted on a triple Axel. He is in fourth, 23.43 behind Chen.

Chen will qualify for December’s six-skater Grand Prix Final with a podium finish, setting the stage for a likely showdown with Hanyu for the first time since Chen beat him at last season’s worlds. No singles skater has won eight straight Grand Prix events since Yevgeny Plushenko at the turn of the century.

Later Friday, 16-year-old Alena Kostornaia landed an under-rotated triple Axel in her senior Grand Prix debut, tallied 76.55 and took a 2.31 lead over Olympic and world champion Alina Zagitova going into Saturday’s free skate.

Kostornaia is looking to become the third straight first-year senior Russian to win on the Grand Prix this season after 15-year-olds Anna Shcherbakova and Alexandra Trusova, who landed quads at Skate America and Skate Canada, respectively.

Zagitova, 17, had the back end of her triple Lutz-triple loop combination called under-rotated.

Mariah Bell, seeking her first Grand Prix medal since her 2016 Skate America breakthrough silver, is in third after a relatively clean skate, just an unclear edge call on a triple flip. Her short program is to Britney Spears music (with lyrics), choreographed by former training partner Adam Rippon.

“I’m getting more into my skates with it,” Bell said.

World champions Gabriella Papapdakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France topped the rhythm dance with 88.69 points, best in the world this season.

Americans Madison Chock and Evan Bates, who missed the last Grand Prix season due to Chock’s recovery from ankle surgery, skated into second with 80.69, their best score in three events this season.

“It was the best performance of this program we’ve had this season,” Bates said in audio provided by U.S. Figure Skating. “Room for improvement in the technical score still, particularly Finnstep, but overall really pleased.”

Papadakis and Cizeron haven’t lost to a couple other than recently retired world champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir in almost five years. Chock and Bates have their work cut out in Saturday’s free dance, but even a runner-up will put them in great position to qualify for the Grand Prix Final later this month.

“It really doesn’t feel like we’ve taken that much [time away],” Chock said. “It’s like riding a bike.”

Internationaux de France
Men’s Short Program
1. Nathan Chen (USA) — 102.48
2. Alexander Samarin (RUS) — 98.48
3. Kevin Aymoz (FRA) — 82.50
4. Shoma Uno (JPN) — 79.05
5. Moris Kvitelashvili (GEO) — 78.79
6. Romain Ponsart (FRA) — 77.48
7. Sergey Voronov (RUS) — 76.60
8. Daniel Samohin (ISR) — 70.84
9. Nicolas Nadeau (CAN) — 69.42
10. Tomoki Hiwatashi (USA) — 68.70
11. Anton Shulepov (RUS) — 63.67

Women’s Short Program
1. Alena Kostornaia (RUS) — 76.55
2. Alina Zagitova (RUS) — 74.24
3. Mariah Bell (USA) — 70.25
4. Starr Andrews (USA) — 66.59
5. Wakaba Higuchi (JPN) — 64.78
6. Kaori Sakamoto (JPN) — 64.08
7. Yuna Shiraiwa (JPN) — 63.12
8. Lee Serna (FRA) — 62.43
9. Mae Berenice Meite (FRA) — 56.35
10. Nicole Schott (GER) — 54.43
11. Maria Sotskova (RUS) — 50.38
WD. Laurine Lecavelier (FRA)

Rhythm Dance
1. Gabriella Papadakis/Guillaume Cizeron (FRA) — 88.69
2. Madison Chock/Evan Bates (USA) — 80.69
3. Charlene Guignard/Marco Fabbri (ITA) — 79.65
4. Olivia Smart/Adrian Diaz (ESP) — 76.09
5. Tiffani Zagorski/Jonathan Guerreiro (RUS) — 75.05
6. Natalya Kaliszek/Maksym Spodyriev (POL) — 74.19
7. Carolane Soucisse/Shane Firus (CAN) — 68.61
8. Julia Wagret/Pierre Souquet-Basiege (FRA) — 63.55
9. Marie-Jade Lauriault/Romain Le Gac (FRA) — 61.48
10. Allison Reed/Saulius Ambrulevicius (LTU) — 58.10

Pairs’ Short Program
1. Daria Pavliuchenko/Denis Khodykin (RUS) — 76.59
2. Anastasia Mishina/Aleksandr Galliamov (RUS) — 73.77
3. Haven Denney/Brandon Frazier (USA) — 68.65
4. Ashley Cain-Gribble/Timothy LeDuc (USA) — 66.12
5. Rebecca Ghilardi/Filippo Ambrosini (ITA) — 59.62
6. Minerva Hase/Nolan Seegert (GER) — 59.13
7. Camille Ruest/Andrew Wolfe (CAN) — 57.90
8. Miriam Ziegler/Severin Kiefer (AUT) — 57.30

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. 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.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Canada seeks new figure skating stars after gold-medal retirements