Karen Chen

Karen Chen
AP

Virtual figure skating competition offers glimpse of sport’s possible future

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It was early April. The 2020 World Figure Skating Championships had been canceled by Covid-19, abruptly ending last season. Rinks were closing down for health reasons. Some entire countries were on lockdown.

Anyone who has been around figure skating as long as Gale Tanger could see even then how difficult it would be to have any competitions the rest of 2020 if they required travel by athletes or officials, whether the events were international, national, regional or local.

Tanger, an international judge for 32 years, began looking for an alternative to give elite U.S. skaters left unmoored by the pandemic’s impact at least something that could feel like a competition, something to anchor a goal in the early part of the 2020-21 season.

So the Peggy Fleming Trophy became the first virtual event in the sport’s history.

“It worked!!!!!!!” an excited Tanger said in an email late Tuesday, after the judging of the competition was completed. “What an incredible leap for our sport. Obstacles have been removed, and a new highway has been paved.”

A 90-minute streamed video of the event will be available to the public beginning Friday at 7 p.m. EDT on the U.S. Figure Skating Fan Zone video center. The question now is whether this concept can be expanded during the pandemic to make more competitions possible.

“Any time you experiment with something new, you always are paying attention to how it can be applied to other things – and for normal times, as well,” U.S. Figure Skating spokesman Michael Terry said. “The virtual concept has not yet been discussed for any other specific events, including the qualifying season (for the 2021 U.S. Championships).”

Tanger figured the Peggy Fleming Trophy was a good place to experiment. The event, which she and 1968 Olympic champion Fleming had created in 2018, already was an alternative to the usual competition format.

It has just one program, a three-and-a-half-minute freestyle in which there is heavy emphasis on artistry and musicality and significantly reduced weight on jumps. It allows men to compete against women and is easier to judge than an event using the International Judging System and ISU rules.

The third Peggy Fleming Trophy was supposed to take place July 1 at the Broadmoor World Arena in Colorado Springs, its home in 2018 and 2019. When it was clear by late April that doing it live would likely be impossible for public safety reasons, Tanger enlisted the help of U.S. Figure Skating and immediately began working through the logistics of doing it virtually.

After all, Tanger and her husband, Tom, who live in Wauwatosa, Wis., had been using Zoom to help with the virtual schooling of their grandchildren in Sydney, Australia, and she was using Facebook Live to judge off-ice competitions in Latin America. She thought there had to be a way to use such technology for a judged competition in which both athletes and judges could take part from their own rink or, in the case of the judges, their home or office.

Once the various parties were sufficiently convinced it could be done to post an online entry announcement, the 18-person field filled overnight.

Gale Tanger
Gale Tanger at the 2019 Peggy Fleming Trophy at the Broadmoor World Arena. (Courtesy Gale Tanger)

“I thought we may have found the Holy Grail,” Tanger said, referring to the way skaters responded to a solution to save at least this event.

“It’s so great that everyone associated with the event is trying to test the waters and see what is possible,” said 2018 Olympian Karen Chen, third in last year’s Peggy Fleming Trophy and a virtual contestant in the 2020 event.

This was the basic premise: each skater would perform a program at his or her convenience between July 8 and 10. He or she would submit video of the program, to be shot from a high center-ice position. Multiple attempts were permitted, but the video chosen had to be of a single complete attempt, with no editing.

The seven judges and technical specialist David Santee, all qualified to work international events, watched the videos from eight different places via Zoom at the same time Tuesday, as if they were in an arena. They scored on iPads, using the IJS software they have at live events, and they have taken a vow of secrecy about the results until the event is streamed.

Could it be more than a one-off? Probably not for more significant events like the Grand Prix series. The International Skating Union council will again discuss its fate for 2020 in early August. A decision is supposed to be made by Aug. 1 on Skate America, the series opener, scheduled Oct. 23-25 in Las Vegas.

To the question of whether the ISU is looking at a virtual format as a possibility for some events this season, ISU vice-president Alexander Lakernik said in an email: “No… At least at the moment.”

Added Fabio Bianchetti of Italy, chair of the ISU singles and pairs technical committee: “I didn’t know about the idea of having it (the Peggy Fleming Trophy) online this year, and I think it is a wonderful possibility to do it in this way in such a difficult moment. As to the possibility of using this format for other events this season, I have no answer. The matter has never been discussed so far.”

Chen, who has been training at the World Arena since late May, chose an expanded version of a short program to Katy Perry’s version of “Rise” that Drew Meekins had choreographed for her to use this season. She did three “takes,” with about 30 minutes between each, for an iPhone recording done by her boyfriend, Camden Pulkinen, the 2018 U.S. junior champion, who also competed. Another competitor, Andrew Torgashev, shot iPhone video of Chen as a backup.

(Defending champion Jason Brown heads the field, which includes 12 athletes who train at the World Arena. For a complete list of the competitors, now 10 women and seven men after Amber Glenn withdrew, click here.)

“I was quite happy with my first attempt, but I got nit-picky and ran two more,” Chen said. “I finally decided to use the third because it didn’t make sense to go with the first after all that effort.”

The limitations of iPhone video, where close-ups can lead to a blur from pixelization, meant about half the rink was visible on nearly all of Chen’s video. That obviously reduced the size of her image.

“For the most part, all the skaters’ videos were clear,” Tanger said.

Pulkinen, who competed in the first two editions of the Peggy Fleming Trophy (finishing second in 2018), also did three takes, using the third, as videographed by Torgashev. His performance, to “In This Shirt” by The Irrepressibles, enlarged on the new short program choreographed for him by Josh Farris.

“I tried to treat it as if each run-through was my only shot, the way it would be in a normal competition, instead of falling back on the mindset that if one was bad, I have multiple attempts,” Pulkinen said. “I felt the same sense of relief one would typically feel at the end of a competition.”

Pulkinen did not think it was impossible for a variation on this format to be used for more important events, perhaps with each competitor using a live feed and taking the ice one after another for a single attempt. It might require choreographic changes for skaters knowing they are not being judged on the view from several sets of eyes but on the view from a single camera angle.

“I’m keeping an open mind and taking this as, ‘Okay, this is a trial run for how video competitions may be, and maybe I learn how to choreograph something differently to appeal more to that specific camera more,’” Pulkinen said.

Such “virtually live” competitions would eventually depend on the ability of the ISU or USFS to ensure a high-quality, very reliable stream created with professional video equipment by a professional camera operator at the many rinks where skaters would perform. Given the money saved if there are no live Grand Prix or Junior Grand Prix events, arranging for such equipment might be money well spent to preserve some of the season.

“I think it would be very mentally challenging to do live feed competitions,” Chen said. “Part of competition is its whole environment: being with other skaters, feeling the pressure, having the adrenaline kick in when you get on the ice with people cheering.

“Letting go of that side of competition and embracing this new side will be quite challenging for people. I think it could work, but there will need to be a lot of experimentation.”

Over the weekend, Tanger judged a “live” off-line competition run by Argentina that had skaters from four countries. The marks were simple, on a scale of 1-to-10, but so was the execution of a concept that would have seemed like science fiction a few years ago.

Now the Peggy Fleming Trophy has paved a few miles of a way for figure skating to travel the information highway.

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 remains optimistic facing uncertain skating season

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After solid showing in Greensboro, Karen Chen muses gap year from Cornell

Karen Chen
AP
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GREENSBORO, N.C. – Karen Chen’s competitive juices are flowing again.

After missing last season with a right foot stress fracture, the 20-year-old skater had up-and-down performances at her Grand Prix events this season, putting out solid short programs only to falter a bit in free skates.

But on Friday night at the 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Greensboro, North Carolina, the Cornell freshman recaptured some of the form that won her the 2017 U.S. title. She covered the ice with speed and assurance, and her opening triple Lutz was one of the finest in the event. Earning 123.24 points, she rose from fifth after the short program to place fourth overall.

A fine job, but not entirely satisfying.

“It was pretty disappointing, I felt like I definitely trained harder and I’ve done better,” Chen said, citing a missed triple flip.

A few minutes later, she gave longtime coach Tammy Gambill a jolt.

“Coming here and competing and being able to accomplish quite a bit here at nationals, although I feel like I could’ve done better, I know that school was definitely a factor into my training,” Chen said.

“I think I’m going to have to take some time to kind of re-evaluate while I’m on spring semester and just kind of see. Obviously, juggling two (priorities) is quite challenging. I think I would have to maybe take a gap year or something.”

If that’s Chen’s decision, Gambill certainly won’t try to talk her out of it.

“We haven’t discussed it, so I was kind of happy for her to just say that,” Gambill said. “I know what I’m thinking, but I wanted to get through this competition and then discuss what our plans were for next year.”

NATIONALS: TV Schedule | Full Results

Maintaining top competitive form while attending Cornell, an Ivy League college in Ithaca, New York, is challenging for Chen. She cannot get much ice time at the campus arena, and travels to a rink 10-15 minutes away to train on her own.

“Thankfully (the rink) has a lot of ice time that they were able to give me,” Chen said. “I had private ice, which was good and bad at the same time.”

There is much Chen loves about college: making friends outside of the skating world, living in her own dorm room, her classes in human development. Still, her most effective on-ice training has happened during academic breaks, when she returns to Colorado Springs to work with Gambill.

“I had to kind of put school as a priority, since classes are not negotiable,” Chen said. “Whatever the time is, you have to show up and do it. Then, having to figure out the times where I could fit skating in, and time for off-ice training was… it look a while to kind of figure out what was working and what made sense. I was lucky enough to have a solid two or three week winter break where I was able to train in Colorado before coming here.”

Chen did make time to scrap her free skate, a recurring theme in her career. Following her ninth-place finish at NHK Trophy in late November, she worked with Ilona Melnichenko to revivify a prior routine set to music from Slow Dancing in the Big City.

“She wasn’t feeling her free, it wasn’t working for her,” Gambill said. “It’s like, we’re not doing this program again after two disaster long programs (at Grand Prixes).”

“Things were much better here,” she added. “Karen had a few mistakes in there, but I think she’s back on the right track. She’s going in the right direction.”

While Chen’s plan is to return to Cornell for the second semester of her freshman year – which began on January 21st – something else might appear on her calendar: the 2020 Four Continents Figure Skating Championships, held in Seoul, South Korea February 4-9. If offered the assignment, Gambill hopes Chen will accept.

“We have not discussed that and that’s something that if it comes to it, we will sit down and try and talk about what our options are,” Gambill said.  “I would hope that she would be able to do it. I think the more she can get out and compete right now, the better she’s going to be.”

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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.

Yuzuru Hanyu, Alina Zagitova make NHK Trophy podium and set Grand Prix Final fields

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Yuzuru Hanyu handily won NHK Trophy on home ice in Japan on Saturday, setting up a head-to-head Grand Prix Final with American Nathan Chen. The Dec. 5-8 event takes place in Torino, Italy and will stream live for NBC Sports Gold subscribers.

Also, reigning Olympic and world champion Alina Zagitova will take on three of her younger training partners at the Grand Prix Final after a bronze medal finish at NHK Trophy.

Hanyu won four Grand Prix Finals from 2013-16, and Chen won the event in 2017 and 2018. Hanyu did not compete in the Final in 2017 or 2018, but at their head-to-head battle at the world championships in March, Chen took gold to Hanyu’s silver.

But at NHK Trophy, Hanyu was untouchable in a field that included few real threats. He executed four quadruple jumps in a free skate (loop, Salchow, toe, and quad toe, triple toe in combination) that racked up 195.71 points for a total score of 305.05.

“For now I’m happy that I was able to get through, leading up the free program, stayed healthy, had no pain and no injuries. I’m also now going to the [Grand Prix] Final. I want to recover by then and do some more training and coordination to be ready for the Final,” Hanyu said through the ISU.

France’s Kevin Aymoz was second to Hanyu by 55.03 points. Aymoz makes the Grand Prix Final with his silver medal at NHK Trophy. Canada’s Roman Sadovsky took bronze with 247.50 total points.

American Jason Brown needed a bronze medal or better to have a shot at the Grand Prix Final, but a shaky short program left him eighth. He placed fourth in the free skate for a fifth place finish — but it wasn’t enough for him to get to Torino.

A full breakdown of how NHK Trophy could’ve impacted Grand Prix standings can be found here.

Grand Prix Series Standings: Men | Ladies | Pairs | Ice Dance

Zagitova was briefly in danger of possibly missing the Grand Prix Final after a fourth place short program, but she ended up with a bronze medal behind Japan’s Rika Kihira (silver) and Russia’s Alena Kostornaia (gold). All three will head to the Grand Prix Final.

Kostornaia and Kihira both included two triple Axels in their free skates. Kostornaia opened her program with a clean triple Axel, double toe combination followed by a solo triple Axel that was called under-rotated. Kihira’s triple Axel, double toe and solo triple Axel were both called clean. Zagitova has never landed a triple Axel in competition.

“After the short program I was upset of course, but I pulled myself together for the free skating thanks to my coaches that found the right words. In the program, I was just thinking from one element to the next what I need to do,” Zagitova said via the ISU.

American Karen Chen was in bronze medal position after the short program, but placed 11th (of 12) in the free skate for an overall ninth place finish. After a season off the ice due to injury, Chen is juggling figure skating with studying at Cornell University.

MORE: Alina Zagitova focused on artistry, while other Russians push technical boundaries

China’s two-time world champion pair Sui Wenjing and Han Cong won NHK Trophy and earned themselves a spot in the Grand Prix Final. The teams that joined them on the podium, Canada’s Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro with silver and Russia’s Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov with bronze, will also join them in Torino.

In ice dance, French duo Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron earned 226.61 points on the way to the gold medal, which included a free dance performance to spoken word poetry set to music. They out-distanced silver medalists Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin by nearly 20 points, though the Russians will also compete in Torino.

Charlene Guignard and Marco Fabbri of Italy took the bronze medal at NHK Trophy, though missed qualifying for the six-team Grand Prix Final by finishing seventh in the standings.

MORE: Gabriella Papadakis, Guillaume Cizeron on ‘Fame,’ chasing history

NHK Trophy Results
Men
1. Yuzuru Hanyu (JPN)  — 305.05
2. Kevin Aymoz (FRA) — 250.02
3. Roman Sadovsky (CAN) — 247.50
4. Sergei Voronov (RUS) — 239.05
5. Jason Brown (USA) — 231.27
6. Sota Yamamoto (JPN) — 226.27
7. Makar Ignatov (RUS) — 222.45
8. Anton Shulepov (RUS) — 218.38
9. Koshiro Shimada (JPN) — 213.65
10. Tomoki Hiwatashi (USA) — 207.30
11. Alexei Bychenko (ISR) — 197.63
12. Conrad Orzel (CAN) — 196.34

Women
1. Alena Kostornaia (RUS) — 240.00
2. Rika Kihira (JPN) — 231.84
3. Alina Zagitova (RUS) — 217.99
4. Yuhana Yokoi (JPN) — 189.54
5. Mako Yamashita (JPN) — 189.25
6. Sofia Samodurova (RUS) — 183.27
7. Eun-Soo Lim (KOR) — 172.47
8. Starr Andrews (USA) — 166.72
9. Karen Chen (USA) — 165.70
10. Kailani Craine (AUS) — 165.46
11. Mae Berenice Meite (FRA) — 159.98
12. Megan Wessenberg (USA) — 131.73

Pairs 
1. Sui Wenjing / Han Cong (CHN) — 266.96
2. Kirsten Moore-Towers / Michael Marinaro (CAN) — 208.49
3. Anastasia Mishina / Aleksandr Galliamov (RUS) — 203.35
4. Alisa Efimova / Alexander Korovin (RUS) — 189.34
5. Riku Miura / Ryuichi Kihara (JPN) — 179.94
6. Tarah Kayne / Danny O’Shea (USA) — 178.73
7. Alexa Scimeca Knierim / Chris Knierim (USA) — 173.33
8. Nicole Della Monica / Matteo Guarise (ITA) — 171.43

Ice dance
1. Gabriella Papadakis / Guillaume Cizeron (FRA) — 226.61

2. Alexandra Stepanova / Ivan Bukin (RUS) — 208.81
3. Charlene Guignard / Marco Fabbri (ITA) — 198.06
4. Lilah Fear / Lewis Gibson (GBR) — 193.01
5. Wang Shiyue / Liu Xinyu (CHN) — 183.11
6. Christina Carreira / Anthony Ponomarenko (USA) — 182.26
7. Sofia Shevchenko / Igor Eremenko (RUS) — 178.08
8. Carolane Soucisse / Shane Firus (CAN) — 172.01
9. Lorraine McNamara / Quinn Carpenter (USA) — 170.21

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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