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Four Continents Reporter’s Notebook Day 3: Analyzing the ladies’ standings flip-flop

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That hoary old saying – “You can’t win a competition with a good short program, but you can lose it with a bad one” – proved only half-true on Friday night at the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships in Anaheim, Calif.

None of the four leaders after the short wound up on the podium. Rika Kihara, fifth in the short after popping her triple Axel, leapfrogged over Eunsoo Lim, Mariah Bell, Kaori Sakamoto and Bradie Tennell to win her first Four Continents title. Elizabet Tursynbaeva climbed from sixth place to win silver. Mai Mihara, eighth after the short, claimed bronze.

Then there’s the way the results flipped.

For Kihara, it included a lot of improvisation: she arrived in Anaheim wearing a new boot on her left foot, and an old boot on her right foot.

“I felt my old boots were too soft so I tried a lot of things,” the Japanese skater said through an interpreter.  “I tried changing both boots, and then I decided to just change the left boot. Three days after I did this I was quite comfortable.”

The popped Axel cost her at least eight points in the short on Thursday, just as it did earlier this season at Grand Prix France. So in Friday’s free skate, she improvised again: After hitting a stellar opening triple Axel, she changed a planned second triple Axel to a double Axel-triple toe combination.

Four Continents reporter’s notebook: Day 1 | Day 2

“During the short, I was not comfortable with my triple Axel on this rink,” Kihara said, echoing the concerns several skaters here voiced about the NHL-size surface. “I decided in the warm-up whether I would do one or two (triple Axels). I had not enough practice at the main rink, and I decided to play it safe in the program and did only one triple Axel.”

Kihara’s 153.14 point free skate, which gave her the win with 221.99 total points, wasn’t surprising; she has scored higher than that this season. Tursynbaeva’s 139.37 point free skate in Anaheim, though, far eclipsed her efforts in her two Grand Prix events.

The Kazakh skater chose Friday night to try her first-ever quadruple Salchow in competition. No lady has ever landed a quad in an international senior event.

Tursynbaeva landed the quad in practices here and in the six-minute warm-up, but fell on a fully-rotated attempt in her program. Despite a long-standing hip injury, she didn’t let it rattle her, going on to land seven triples including a triple Salchow-triple toe loop combination.

“I started working on quad Salchow a long time ago, and then I stopped because of the (hip) injury,” she said. “Now I was feeling physically ready and my coach [Eteri Tutberidze] helped me to start working on the jump. A few weeks ago I was able to land it and try to put the jump in the program. I think that’s a great start. It was my coaches’ idea. They believe that I can do it.”

Mihara arrived in Anaheim with something to prove. A fourth-place finish at the Japanese Figure Skating Championships in late December left her off of her country’s world team.

A sleepless night after her eighth-place short helped snap her out of a funk created by her subpar short, and she was relaxed and confident during her near-perfect free skate, which was second only to Kihara’s. She ended with 207.12 points, edging out Sakamoto – who defeated her at the Japanese Championships, thus winning a place at worlds – by less than half a point.

“I switched to a positive mindset after the practice (on Friday),” Mihara said. “Last season, there were a lot of cases when I made mistakes in short, but I got better in free. This is my weakness. That made me nervous. I should improve my weakness.”

And then there’s the flip side of the equation.

Four under rotation calls cost Tennell big in her free skate, as did popping her opening triple Lutz-triple loop combination into a triple-single. The U.S. silver medalist was clearly irked by her performance in the mixed zone.

“It seems I only mess up my Lutz-loop during competition,” Tennell said. “I’m really frustrated about that. I have no words, because it’s so frustrating. So just go back home, work things out, work harder to train for worlds.”

Tennell removed the triple Lutz-triple loop combination from her short earlier this season, replacing it with Lutz-toe. She has kept it as the opening jump element of her free skate.

When asked whether the combination should be removed, Tennell replied, “I would love to keep it in there for Worlds, because I know I can do it. I do it every day.”

As to the under-rotation calls, Tennell admitted she “felt shaky” during the program.

“I have to agree with the judges calls, go home, work harder and train smarter,” she said.

The moment Bell stepped off of the ice after her free skate, which included a rare fall on a triple loop and reducing a planned triple Lutz to a double, her coach Rafael Arutunian expressed dissatisfaction.

“There was not enough speed,” Arutunian said about her entrance to the Lutz. “You understand, you have to go (into it) from steps.”

Bell told reporters she planned to rest for a few days, then return to her Southern California rink to train hard with Arutunian for the upcoming world championships.

“There were silly mistakes today. My mind kind of got away from me,” Bell said. “I was surprised by the fall on the (triple) loop and then I kind of had a hard time re-focusing after that. You live and learn and Worlds will be better.”

MORE: How to watch Four Continents

As a reminder, you can watch Four Continents and 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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Four Continents Reporter’s Notebook Day 2: Vincent Zhou’s under-rotation thoughts; catching up with Alysa Liu

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Under-rotation calls – the dreaded “<” from technical panels – give skaters and their coaches fits. They’ve certainly been on Vincent Zhou’s mind this season.

“Every session, every day, every minute,” a smiling Zhou said at the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships on Thursday, when asked if he’s been working to avoid them.

Quick primer: quadruple jumps have four rotations; triple Axels, three and a half. If the final rotation is a quarter-turn or more short, it is reduced to 70 percent of its base value and saddled with a < on the judging sheet. Almost every skater in the world has lost points by way under rotations this season.

Zhou’s fixation paid off: his clean program, with jumps including a quadruple lutz-triple toe loop combination, quad Salchow and triple Axel, leads the Anaheim, Calif. event with 100.18 points heading into Saturday’s free skate.

“I was happy with how I skated, not really much more to say,” Zhou said, before flipping back to self-critical mode.

“I just felt satisfied with my performance, my jumps, almost everything except for the flying camel and triple Axel,” he added. “Those could have been better.”

Under rotations cost the U.S. silver medalist some points at Skate America and NHK Trophy. They followed him to the Tallinn Trophy in Estonia in late November and he had a few at the 2019 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit, Mich. last month.

But as Zhou said before the U.S. Championships, “Honestly, I know that people now have an eagle eye on my jump landings, but that doesn’t really bother me too much.”

Philosophical and determined – and avoiding social media chatter on the topic – the 18-year-old just wants to fix things.

“There’s not really one thing I can specifically state helps,” Zhou said. “It’s just been focusing on improving it. I believe regardless of what it is, if you work on it over time, it will get better. There’s no magical correction, it’s thinking about ways to improve it.”

Zhou’s longtime coach, Tammy Gambill, gets a bit more specific.

“A lot of tightness, technique tweaks, pattern tweaks,” said Gambill, who trains Zhou in Colorado Springs alongside Tom Zakrajsek and Christy Krall. “Just trying to keep things tighter in the air. It’s a process, going back to singles, doubles, triples. We’re working on the basics of the landings, making them better than they have been.”

Zhou isn’t out of the woods (or <’s) yet. He’s less than three points ahead of South Korea’s Junhwan Cha. China’s Jin Boyang and Japan’s Shoma Uno, who sit third and fourth respectively, made mistakes in their short programs but have the ability to make up a lot of ground.

But those back-to-basics training sessions in Colorado Springs aren’t just producing higher jumps; they’re producing confidence.

“I’ve been I thinking, it’s just been the more I train like this, the more good muscle memory you have and the more confident you become,” Zhou said. “I started realizing I’m actually able to put out good performances. I knew I was able to do this.”

Waiting is not so hard for Liu

If Alysa Liu feels overwhelmed by all of the attention she’s receiving since winning the U.S. title in Detroit last month, she sure isn’t showing it.

“I never thought I would be on TODAY, or Jimmy Fallon’s show,” she said at Anaheim’s Honda Center on Thursday. “It’s really fun. They’re all really nice.”

The triple Axel-wielding 13-year-old’s biggest preoccupations at the moment include her new dog, a terrier mix; learning Mandarin Chinese; and visiting Disneyland next weekend, where she plans to ride the Guardians of Galaxy rollercoaster.

“I also spend time with my friends. I do still get to do what normal teens do,” Liu, a home-schooled ninth grader, said.

“I don’t get to go to normal school. I don’t get to eat junk a lot, maybe once in a while,” she added. “I also don’t get to have sleepovers every single day like some people do, but not too bad. Mainly it’s because I have to train and travel so much.”

Liu won’t be traveling to Japan for the upcoming world championships in March. Skaters must have turned 15 by July 1 of the preceding year to be eligible for senior ISU competitions. Born Aug. 8, 2005, Liu won’t be eligible to enter them until the 2021-22 season; she is too young, even, for the 2019 World Junior Figure Skating Championships. She will be eligible for Junior Worlds next season.

“Time goes by fast,” she shrugged.

The waiting doesn’t seem hard for Liu, who traveled from her home in the Bay area to Anaheim to learn and observe. She performed her competitive short program, set to “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” in the event’s opening ceremony and watched U.S. teammates Bradie Tennell and Mariah Bell place first and third, respectively, in the short program.

“It’s really fun to watch,” she said, adding, “(Tennell and Bell) skated so well. I’m so happy for them.”

With no big competitions in the offing until she debuts on the Junior Grand Prix next season, Liu has time practice new things on the ice. The primary goal, said both the skater and her coach, Laura Lipetsky, is to improve her skating skills. Learning quads, particularly Lutz and Salchow, is also on the menu.

“I wish to get some quads before I compete next season, but mainly I want to improve everything,” she said. “I haven’t worked on (quads) in a while because I was focusing on triple Axel.”

“I tried a quad (Lutz) at regionals, and I fell,” she added. “Not so great. It was under (rotated). I’m going to start working on it soon again.”

Another young teenager, Russia’s Alexandra Trusova, has landed quad Lutz and toe loop in competition. Trusova, along with teammates Alena Kanysheva and Alena Kostornaia, took all three medals at the Junior Grand Prix Final this season.

“(The Russians) are more my inspiration right now, I can’t compete against them so I’m really looking up to them,” Liu said. “Hopefully I get to compete against them at junior worlds (next season).”

There are no guarantees. Other recent prodigies, including Russia’s Julia Lipnitskaia, have made big splashes on the international scene only to retire from competition while still teenagers. It’s hard to predict whether young skaters will continue to maintain and grow skills as they move into adulthood.

For now, though, neither Liu nor Lipetsky is worried.

“We’re taking it one day at a time, trying to work hard and improve the technique,” Lipetsky said. “(She is) trying to become a better skater.”

MORE: How to watch Four Continents

As a reminder, you can watch Four Continents and 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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Americans Bradie Tennell, Vincent Zhou lead fields at Four Continents Championships

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Americans Bradie Tennell and Vincent Zhou are in first place in the ladies’ and men’s short programs at the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships in Anaheim, Calif. after skating Thursday.

Full results: Ladies | Men

Tennell skated clean to score 73.91 points. Japan’s Kaori Sakamoto, who won the event last year, sits in second place with 73.36 points.

“I feel like I performed very well,” Tennell said through U.S. Figure Skating. “I’m extremely happy with how I did. It’s exactly how I train at home and it’s what I wanted to do here, to go out there and trust myself and trust my training.”

Mariah Bell from Team USA is in third place heading into Friday’s free skate with 70.02 points. The third American in the field, Ting Cui, sits in seventh with 66.73 points. Cui received an edge call on her triple flip.

“I think it’s the first time I’ve put out a really solid short program and I have so much more room to grow,” Bell said.

The last U.S. woman to win Four Continents was Polina Edmunds in 2015.

Reporter’s NotebookCan U.S. Figure Skating’s junior world team help improve results?

Later Thursday, Zhou was the only man in the field to crack the 100-point mark, scoring 100.18 points. South Korea’s Junhwan Cha is in second place with 97.33 points and China’s Boyang Jin, who won the event last year, is third with 92.17 points.

“This is my first time breaking 100 in the short in international competition,” Zhou said. “I am very happy with this result. It is a reward and a testimony to the hard work I’ve been putting in.”

Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno is fourth with 91.76 points. The other two Americans in the field, Jason Brown and Tomoki Hiwatashi, sit sixth and ninth, respectively. The men’s free skate is Saturday.

Nathan Chen is the most recent U.S. man to win Four Continents, doing so in 2017. He is not competing at Four Continents but is expected to defend his world title next month in Japan.

MORE: How to watch Four Continents

As a reminder, you can watch Four Continents and 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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