Anna Shcherbakova

AP

Figure skating Grand Prix series: Eight matchups to watch

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Now that the Grand Prix figure skating assignments have been announced, a look at eight of the most exciting head-to-heads this fall …

Men
Skate America – Nathan Chen vs. Jason Brown
Two of the U.S. men are showcased at the Grand Prix opener in October. What makes this so special? The last time these two competed at the same Grand Prix, in France last November, Brown actually led Chen after the short program. In the end, though, Chen rallied to keep his undefeated season intact.

Also notable in the field: South Korea’s Cha Jun-Hwan, who trains with Brown in Toronto.

Internationaux de France – Nathan Chen vs. Shoma Uno
Chen and Uno have shared world podiums, most recently in 2018 when Chen took gold and Uno the silver. Uno’s coaching change should only spice things up; however, he has not announced where he will train.

Also notable in the field: world junior champion Tomoki Hiwatashi makes his senior Grand Prix debut. He was fourth at the U.S. Championships in January.

Rostelecom Cup – Shoma Uno vs. Vincent Zhou
After competing in France, Uno gets a week to rest before facing another top American in Vincent Zhou. Zhou had a breakthrough end of last season, claiming his first, top-level senior international medals — bronze at Four Continents and worlds.

MORE: Nathan Chen learns from chaos of balancing Yale, skating

Women
Skate America – Anna Shcherbakova, Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, and Yelizabet Tursynbaeva
All are known for jumps: Shcherbakova, the 15-year-old Russian champion, for a quadruple Lutz, Tuktamysheva, the 2015 World champion, for her triple Axel and the Kazakh Tursynbaeva for a quad Salchow in taking silver at worlds.

Also notable in the field: 2017 U.S. champion Karen Chen returns to competition for the first time since the PyeongChang Olympics; 2018 U.S. champion Bradie Tennell, Chen’s Olympic teammate.

NHK Trophy – Rika Kihira vs. Alina Zagitova
Kihira, who swept her Grand Prix starts last fall, will likely show off her triple Axel on home ice, but Olympic and world champion Zagitova is also beloved in Japan.

Also notable in the field: Russian Sofia Samodurova, who defeated Zagitova at January’s European Championships.

MORE: Bradie Tennell on self-doubt, lessons learned in 2019

Pairs
NHK Trophy – Sui Wenjing and Han Cong vs. Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres
We have to wait a while for it, but China’s Sui and Han facing off against France’s James and Cipres should be a real treat.

Sui and Han own two world titles, including from March despite a series of injuries that kept them out most of the season. James and Cipres had been undefeated last season before a short program error at worlds, where they finished fifth.

Also notable in the field: The two U.S. pairs, Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea and Alexa Scimeca-Knierim and Chris Knierim, should be pretty evenly matched. It could be a preview of January’s nationals.

Ice dance
Skate America – Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue vs. Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin
The Americans earned world champs bronze ahead of the Russians by a slim 1.88 points in March. Similar to last season, Hubbell and Donohue will get their Grand Prix starts out of the way in the first two weeks and likely become the first qualifiers for December’s Grand Prix Final.

Also notable in the field: Spain’s Olivia Smart and Adrian Diaz train in Montreal alongside Hubbell and Donohue and a number of other teams that will be at Skate America.

MORE: Hubbell, Donohue already eyeing 2020 World Championships

Internationaux de France – Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron vs. Madison Chock and Evan Bates
Four-time world champions Papadakis and Cizeron will face stiff competition from training mates Chock and Bates. Chock and Bates had an abbreviated season last year, as Chock was away from competition for nearly 10 months after ankle surgery. Nevertheless, they won Four Continents and placed sixth at worlds.

Also notable in the field: European bronze medalists Charlene Guignard and Marco Fabbri from Italy, who earned bronze at their first Grand Prix Final last season.

MORE: Chen, Zagitova among top takeaways from last season

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Ice Age: Should a country’s senior nationals include figure skaters frozen out of senior – or even junior – world championships?

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Over three days in late January, Alysa Liu turned into a sensation whose fame briefly reached beyond her sport.

Liu went from becoming, at age 13, the youngest senior national champion in U.S. figure skating history to appearances on TODAY and the Late Show with Jimmy Fallon, charming both viewers and the hosts.

And then, because of her age, Liu disappeared from not only the wider stage provided by those shows but also from figure skating’s stage until next season.

The situation is similar for the three young women, Anna Shcherbakova, Alexandra Trusova and Alena Kostornaia, then 14, 14 and 15, respectively, who swept the senior podium at the Russian Championships in December.

And for Stephen Gogolev, 14, senior silver medalist at the Canadian national championships in January.

At least the three Russians and Gogolev made the minimum age cutoff for this week’s World Junior Championships in Zagreb, Croatia, although Kostornaia withdrew for unspecified medical reasons. Liu is too young even for junior worlds.

But none of those five are old enough to compete in the senior world championships later this month in Japan.

That means the premier figure skating event of this season will be missing five of the best and most compelling skaters – at least as determined by national championship results – from three of the world’s traditionally powerful skating countries.

That’s enough to leave even dedicated figure skating fans scratching their heads. And it cannot help gain fans in the United States, where interest in the sport is flagging, among the people who might stumble upon NBC’s coverage of senior worlds and wonder what happened to that Liu kid.

That raises the issue of whether national federations should have the same age eligibility rules as those the International Skating Union applies to international events. Since 2001, an athlete must be 15 by the July 1 before a season begins to compete as a senior in international championships and 13 by that date for junior events.

That question has taken on new significance because of the current iteration of the sport’s judging and scoring system (IJS), first used at Worlds (with different parameters) in 2005.

The system now has made it possible for advanced 13- and 14-year-olds, whose often pre-pubescent morphology makes it easier to do the most difficult jumps, to get enough technical points to overcome their lack of mature skating skills and presentation.

In the past, phenoms like Tara Lipinski and Michelle Kwan could go from winning senior national titles and medals to compete as seniors internationally before their 15th birthday. Whether that was a good or bad idea is open to a debate that the sport’s current realities has revived.

“I fully understand the concern about the confusion that the various age limit rules may create, and I fully agree that it would be much wiser to have the same rules nationally and internationally,” Fabio Bianchetti of Italy, chair of the ISU’s single & pair skating committee, said in an email. “I find (it) nonsense to allow 11-year-old girls to compete in senior events and national championships.

“Unfortunately, the ISU cannot interfere in national regulations, but I definitely would support the idea of discussing the matter with the various federations concerned and try to convince them of the importance of having their champions to represent them in senior ISU Championships.”

That discussion likely won’t get far, given the feelings of national federations like Russia, Canada and the United States.

“While the ISU has rules based on age, U.S. Figure Skating does not – and will not – impede the advancement of an athlete in domestic competitions based on age,” USFS president Anne Cammett said in an email.

“U.S. Figure Skating’s position on performance continues to be based on proficiency and achievement as opposed to age categories… We will continue to follow what the organization believes is in the best interests of our skaters in their pursuit of excellence.”

Through a spokesperson, Skate Canada chief executive Debra Armstrong said her federation is satisfied with the system that allows athletes to compete in senior national events before they are eligible for such events internationally.

Alexander Lakernik of Russia, the ISU’s top figure skating official, said via email, “It is not so evident that federations who allow their young skaters to compete in seniors are wrong.”

Lakernik, like Bianchetti, noted the ISU has no authority to interfere in the rules of national federations.

Lakernik contested the idea that very young skaters could not win in seniors under IJS until recently, noting that Adelina Sotnikova had won the Russian Championship at age 12 and gone on five seasons later to become 2014 Olympic champion. But when Sotnikova won her country’s 2009 senior nationals, Russian women’s singles skating was struggling toward at its lowest ebb since the early 1980s.

Another eminent Russian, venerable coach Alexei Mishin, said in a text message he “completely agreed” with the idea national federations should use the same age rules as the international federation.

As part of its selection process for the World Junior Championships, the Japanese Skating Federation allows the top six finishers from its junior nationals to compete in the senior event about a month later. In an email, the JSF said its records show no junior ever has won its senior national title.

Japan’s Mao Asada, an eventual three-time world senior champion and 2010 Olympic silver medalist, won the 2005 national silver medal at 14. Asada could not compete at senior worlds that year or the Olympics in 2006, when she would have been a gold medal contender.

“Some people have the opinion that you want the best at competition,” said Canadian coach Brian Orser. “Others think if they are going to compete as seniors, they probably should be that age at nationals. I have no opinion either way.”

In sports like gymnastics and Alpine skiing, the U.S. federations use the same age rules for senior events as its international federation. In gymnastics, it is 16 in the calendar year of a competition for women and 18 for men. In skiing, it is 16 during the calendar year, so Mikaela Shiffrin, now the sport’s leading woman at 23, was able to do her first World Cup race two days before her 16th birthday.

Track and field follows different national and international rules.

USA Track & Field has no minimum age for men in senior (or “open”) track and field championships and a minimum of 14 for women. At this year’s world championships, minimums vary by event, with the endurance events requiring an older minimum, and all athletes must have been born before 2004.

In addition to facing questions about harmonizing national and international age minimums, figure skating officials have been talking about raising the international minimums. Although a so-called “urgent” proposal to raise it to 17 for seniors did not make it to floor discussion at last summer’s biennial ISU Congress, the issue is expected to come up again in 2020.

Laura Lipetsky, who coaches Liu, has repeatedly said she and her skater are not frustrated by having her held back internationally by her birth date because they were aware of the rules in place.

But Lipetsky unsurprisingly is opposed to the age restrictions.

“Minimum age requirements shouldn’t be a factor in sending a qualified skater to either nationals or worlds. A skater should be judged strictly on her talents,” Lipetsky said in a text message.

“Many have made the argument that a minimum age should be established in order to make sure that we have mature skaters on a world stage. Unfortunately, in ice skating a person’s age does not establish their maturity level. Many girls mature at different ages.

“A 12-year-old skater can have mastered all the triple jumps for a high technical score but lack the maturity to score high in the artistry marks. In this scenario, she will probably not score high overall marks. You can take another skater who is 12 but mature for her age, (who) has all of the triple jumps and the maturity level to score high in artistry. A skater’s maturity level should not judged by an age, but by their performance.”

Coincidentally, while Liu won’t be competing at junior or senior worlds this month, she will have another turn in the spotlight for a non-sports audience this Friday, when VH1 airs its annual Trailblazer Honors.

Liu is being recognized as an “Everyday Trailblazer” in this year’s awards, which are centered on breakthroughs in female empowerment. Other honorees include House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, filmmaker Ava DuVernay, #MeToo founder Tarana Burke and “The Handmaid’s Tale” author Margaret Burke.

Pretty heady company for a 13-year-old, even if you could bet she would rather be with kids around her own age when they skate the short program Friday at junior worlds.

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

MORE: Jason Brown didn’t think he’d make PyeongChang without a quad, sees season as stepping stone

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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Alina Zagitova, Yevgenia Medvedeva defeated by 14-year-olds at Russian Nationals

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A pair of 14-year-olds defeated the Olympic gold and silver medalists at the Russian Figure Skating Championships, arguably the deepest competition in figure skating.

Anna Shcherbakova and Alexandra Trusova, who are too young for senior international events, went one-two in Saransk on Saturday after Olympic champion Alina Zagitova had a disastrous, 12th-place free skate that included two falls.

Zagitova dropped from first after the short program to fifth, two spots ahead of two-time world champion Yevgenia Medvedeva, who rebounded from a 14th-place short program.

Medvedeva was unsurprisingly left off the three-woman team for January’s European Championships, the first time she will miss the event in four season as a senior skater.

Shcherbakova and Trusova each landed a quadruple Lutz, a jump none of the world’s top senior women are doing.

Zagitova still made the Euros team and is likely for March’s world championships, given Shcherbakova, Trusova and bronze medalist Alena Kostornaya are all juniors and thus ineligible.

Stanislava Konstantinova and Sofia Samodurova, who finished fourth and sixth, round out the Euros team. Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, the 2015 World champion who missed nationals due to pneumonia, and Medvedeva are the alternates.

The world team, also three women, will be named some time after the European Championships.

Medvedeva, who went undefeated from 2015 to 2017, hasn’t won in more than a year. She placed second, third or fourth at her last five international events since suffering a broken bone in her foot in fall 2017. She fell in all four of her competitions this season under new coach Brian Orser, who stresses patience as his latest star pupil makes technical changes.

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MORE: 13-year-old eyes U.S. Championships podium