Emmy Ma

AP

Four Continents Reporter’s Notebook Day 1: Can U.S. Figure Skating’s junior world team help improve results?

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The next time you complain about working overtime, think of Timoki Hiwatashi and Ting Cui.

The young skaters distinguished themselves at the 2019 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit, Mich., placing fourth and fifth, respectively, in the senior men’s and ladies’ divisions. Cui finished up her event the night of Jan. 25; Hiwatashi, on the afternoon of Jan. 27.

Both are age-eligible for the 2019 World Junior Figure Skating Championships in Zagreb, Croatia Mar. 4-10, and both were invited to U.S. Figure Skating’s first-ever World Junior Team Camp, held Sunday and Monday in Strongsville, Ohio. To no one’s surprise, they were selected for the U.S. World Junior Team.

From there, Cui and Hiwatashi journeyed to Anaheim, Calif. for the 2019 Four Continents Figure Skating Championships. Three major competitions and a monitoring camp, all in the space of six weeks.

MORE: Bradie Tennell, Vincent Zhou lead Four Continents after short programs

“I flew straight here, so it’s kind of been a crazy week after nationals,” Cui, 16, said.

The 19-year-old Hiwatashi, who wasn’t expecting his fourth-place finish and subsequent Four Continents’ assignment, is glad to be here but admitted the schedule was tough.

“Originally I was planning to go back (home) to Chicago, take a rest, I wasn’t expecting fourth,” Hiwatashi said, adding, “I guess I may be a little fatigued, but I try not to think about anything. I try to do the best recovery I can, the best warm-up I can, to come here and not get injured.”

Neither Cui nor Hiwatashi looked fatigued during their short programs at the Honda Center on Thursday. Cui skated clean, earning 66.73 points and seventh place for a Rachmaninov short that included a triple lutz-triple toe loop combination; Hiwatashi touched down his free leg on the landing of his triple Axel, but shone in the rest of his jazzy “Cry Me a River” program, earning 76.95 points for ninth place.

“I was just trying to be focused and do what I do in practice,” Cui said. “When I landed (the triple-triple) I was happy to be able to complete it. It wasn’t my best one but I was happy I did it.”

Tom Zakrajsek, who coaches Cui in Colorado Springs, Colo., doesn’t think his skater is overdoing things.

“She practices so intensely, I told her to just think of it as how you practice every day,” Zakrajsek said. “She likes to have an intense workload, so nationals with the Junior Worlds Camp and then (Four Continents) is just like three weeks of hard training. If anything, it’s made her do less than she normally does in training.”

Cui, Harrell hope to end Junior Worlds’ medal drought

The camp, which included singles’ skaters only, simulated competition of both the short programs and free skates, with skaters receiving protocols complete with element levels, grades of execution and program component scores. Zakrajsek was uncertain if the process helped Cui.

“Well…I’d guess yes,” he said. “I think competing here in Anaheim is really helpful for Ting. We do what we are told we have to do (by U.S. Figure Skating) and the camp is not negotiable.”

No U.S. lady has earned a medal at Junior Worlds since Gracie Gold took silver in 2012. In the six seasons since then, Russian and Japanese ladies have claimed all of the medals. The last U.S. lady to win the event was Rachael Flatt in 2008. Cui, the top U.S. finisher last season, placed seventh.

At the Junior Grand Prix Final in December, Russians Alena Kostornaia, Alexandra Trusova and Alena Kanysheva claimed the top three spots. No U.S. lady qualified.

Results like this helped give birth to the camp, said Justin Dillon, U.S. Figure Skating’s Director, High Performance Development.

“The data over the last couple of years has shown our skaters are not as consistent as we would like them to be,” Dillon said, attributing some of the deficit to lack of direct head-to-head competition.

“We want to put these athletes together for a little bit of training, and also competition,” he added.

Differences in event types – some of the skaters competed on the Junior Grand Prix, while others had their best performances at senior events – make direct comparisons difficult.

“For example, the energy was different for Gabriella Izzo, who won juniors in Detroit, than it was for the ladies competing as seniors,” Dillon said. “I would like to see them do junior programs side-by-side…Apples to apples is a better way for U.S. Figure Skating to evaluate the athletes.”

Hanna Harrell, fourth at the 2019 U.S. Championships, will join Cui in Croatia. Alex Krasnozhon, who placed fifth in Detroit, and Camden Pulkinen, who was 12th, round out the U.S. junior men’s team.

Other skaters considered at the camp were: on the ladies’ side, Starr Andrews (eighth in Detroit); Emmy Ma (ninth) and Izzo, the 2019 U.S. junior ladies’ champion. Andrew Torgashev, seventh in Detroit, attended the camp, as did the top two junior men’s finishers, Ryan Dunk and Dinh Tran.

U.S. men have fared better on the junior circuit than U.S. ladies. In recent years, Nathan Chen and Hiwatashi have earned medals at Junior Worlds, and Vincent Zhou won the event in 2017.  But while Pulkinen, Hiwatashi and Torgashev all qualified for the Junior Grand Prix Final this season, none of them earned medals. (Torgashev withdrew from the event due to a fractured right big toe.)

According to Zakrajsek, while Pulkinen was disappointed by his programs in Detroit, his performances at the camp helped lift him to the team.

“At this camp, everyone stands around and watches you, including your competitors,” Zakrajsek said. “Eyes are on you the entire time, and Camden went out and did clean programs. He threw down a clean long program when he had to.”

The U.S. Championships and World Junior Team Camp are not the only criteria considered. The International Selection Committee also looks at performances on the Grand Prix circuit; placements at past World Junior Championships, and ISU Challenger Series’ performances.

“Camden did very well in Tier 2, 3 and 4 of the criteria, but in Tier 1, nationals, he didn’t,” Zakrajsek said. “At camp, we did some things a little different than we normally do, to help bring out his best.”

As for Cui, Zakrajsek thinks she’s capable of scoring an upset at the World Junior Championships.

“She has a maturity and a complete performance (quality) not all of the top girls have,” he said. “We know she can break 70 points in the short program, she did that at the Junior Grand Prix at Ostrava (in September; Cui placed seventh overall). She’s even stronger now. If she can break 70 in the short at Junior Worlds, she will be right in the medal hunt.”

MORE: How to watch Four Continents

U.S. Championships reporters’ notebook: Alysa Liu on TV tour and more from final day of U.S. Championships

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Our figure skating team is on the ground in Detroit to cover the U.S. Championships. This is our behind-the-scenes look at the final competition day, featuring the men’s free skate and the Skating Spectacular.

Alysa Liu’s upcoming TV tour

U.S. Figure Skating’s newest prodigal sensation will get her first taste of celebrity this week.

Four days after becoming the youngest women’s national champion in history, 13-year-old Alysa Liu is set to be in New York for scheduled Tuesday appearances on TODAY and the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.

The TODAY appearance is planned for the 8 a.m. hour.

Liu’s outgoing personality, evident in one-on-one interactions if not yet at press conferences, belies her age and her physical stature (4 feet, 7 inches).

In a telephone interview six weeks before nationals, Liu was unafraid to say she was coming to her first senior nationals with lofty goals.

“I hope to win, obviously,” Liu said. “I’d never go into a competition hoping I medal. I always strive for first, even if it’s not possible.”

Liu, of Richmond, Calif., won on the strength of her extraordinary jumping. She became the first woman to land a triple Axel in a short program at nationals and, in the free skate, the first to land two triple Axels in a single program.

MORE: Stellato, Bartholomay’s Four Continents selection snub stuns coach

Determined, Emmy Ma reclaims love of skating

Ninth place here in Detroit felt good as gold to Emmy Ma.

The 18-year-old Long Island native, often hailed for her musical style and balletic positions, was considered an up-and-comer last season. She won a medal on the Junior Grand Prix and was selected for the U.S. world junior team.

This season was a different story. She withdrew from Finlandia Trophy and placed just sixth at Eastern Sectionals. It looked like her season was over, but when two other competitors received retroactive byes, she qualified for nationals. For a while, though, she wasn’t sure if she really wanted to go.

“I kind of have had a tough season regarding a lot of issues – mental health, personal issues,” an emotional Ma said after her free skate.

Other stresses rained down on the skater, who trains with Mark Mitchell and Peter Johansson in Boston: What college to attend. (Ma eventually decided on Boston University.) Should she take a “gap” year. And whether she, an “older” teenager, could still compete with younger skaters.

“I know recently Gabby Daleman and Gracie Gold have come out and said they struggled with eating disorders, which especially in this sport are really hard,” Ma said. “I was dealing with that.”

“She was really down. I hate to use the word depressed, but that was the case,” Mitchell said. “There were a lot of circumstances surrounding the issues that ended up happening. For her to fight back is a true testament to her character. She hasn’t always had it easy.”

Ma began seeing a therapist, mainly for her eating issues. She reached out for help.

“It’s really important to be more open about it, because at moments I felt isolated and alone,” Ma said. “I’m really lucky I have such a great support system. My family is really supportive, as is my family at the rink and my coaches.”

With their encouragement, Ma trained for the U.S. Championships. And she did better than she had hoped in Detroit, even performing a clean short program. She impressed U.S. Figure Skating officials enough to be invited to the U.S. Junior World Camp Feb. 3-4.

“I didn’t come here expecting much, but the fact I could go out there and skate the why I did, it made me really proud,” Ma said. “The crowd was really amazing and I’m really happy.”

“It’s been a really rough six months. We’ve all stuck by her,” Mitchell said. “I’m just so proud of her. She put out two performances, especially in the short program, that just two months ago she never thought she could give again.”

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For Cui, there is always tomorrow

With some of the highest international scores this season of any U.S. lady, Ting Cui was tipped for big things here in Detroit. But when the 16-year-old fell twice in her short program on Thursday, she seemed to take herself out of the conversation.

Until Friday, that is.

Cui roared back, hitting seven clean triple jumps – including two triple-triple combinations – and gaining a standing ovation from crowd for her finely nuance free skate to the classic ballet Giselle. Her 139.66 points was third-best in the free skate, and she climbed from 12th place to fifth overall.

“It’s one of my best programs in performance (quality) and one with the hardest jumps I’ve ever done, with the triple Lutz-triple toe loop and triple flip-half loop-triple Salchow,” Cui said. “Definitely the best program in my career probably so far.”

This wasn’t the first time Cui had to fight back at the U.S. Championships. Competing as a junior last season, she was 11th after the short and ended up winning the bronze medal.

Tom Zakrajsek, who coaches Cui in Colorado Springs, knew his student was made of stern stuff.

“Basically, what I said to Ting and her parents was, tomorrow is another day,” Zakrajsek said. “We talked about it for a few minutes after the short, but then moved back to the present. It’s part of the sport. You can watch a lot of top skaters sometimes have a performance like that.”

Cui competed twice on the Junior Grand Prix early this season, but couldn’t reach the podium. But at Tallinn Trophy, an ISU Challenger Series event in Estonia in late November, she won the silver medal. Her total score, 199.79 points, ranks her second behind Bradie Tennell as the highest-scoring U.S. lady in international competition this season.

“International judges love her,” Zakrajsek said. “In terms of looking ahead to Junior Worlds or whatever else she can qualify for, she’s the complete package. She has not just the technical scores, but the (program) component marks, too. When she can give a performance like that and make the crowd stand, that’s pretty special.”

Cui, a junior at Towson High School near Baltimore, Md., began training in Colorado Springs last summer. She has to balance her training needs with her education; once she completed her second Junior Grand Prix at the end of September, she returned to Maryland for a few weeks. After that, it was back to Colorado Springs to prepare for Eastern Sectionals and Tallinn, and then home again for Christmas. She has been in Colorado Springs the past few weeks revving up for the U.S. Championships.

It’s a bit unorthodox, but Towson High School has had elite student athletes before: Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, is an alumnus. And Cui thinks all of the back-and-forth is worth it.

“You can feel the vibe in the rink each day,” she said. “Everyone is going into each training day really motivated trying to put their best foot forward.”

“We have a lot of the top junior ladies in the world at the rink, from Hong Kong and Korea, and Ting is one from the U.S.,” Zakrajsek said. “That makes it very competitive every day and I think it’s helping all of them.”

Cui, along with Hanna Harrell, Starr Andrews and Emmy Ma, who placed fourth, eighth and ninth, respectively, will attend U.S. Figure Skating’s Junior World Camp Feb. 3-4. They will be joined by newly crowned junior champion Gabriella Izzo and junior silver medalist Audrey Shin. At the conclusion of this camp, U.S. Figure Skating will select its two entrants for the 2019 World Junior Figure Skating Championships, held in Zagreb, Croatia March 4-10.

Stories compiled by Phil Hersh and Lynn Rutherford.

MORE: Reporters’ notebook from Day 1 | Day 2 | Later on Day 2

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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