Michelle Kwan

AP

European Championships analysis: Female Russian skaters stars rise fast, but burn out too soon

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Jean-Christophe Berlot is on the ground in Minsk, Belarus to cover the European Championships. This is his analysis of the pace and progression of women’s skating around the world.

Eteri Tutberidze, the renowned Russian coach, declined all interviews in Minsk, Belarus, the setting for the 2019 European Championships. The organization of the practice and main rinks made it possible for coaches to have no interaction at all with journalists during the week. Tutberidze could not be seen in the mixed zones, and she could flee the practice rink through underground paths that were not open to the press.

“I don’t know what I could say,” she politely answered when an interview request was made.

The same was true for Alina Zagitova, her star pupil. Zagitova, the Olympic champion, lost her 2018 European crown to Russian Sofia Samodurova.

Tutberidze was nonetheless quite a disputed behind-the-scenes topic in Minsk.

“The problem is that Eteri is very much criticized in Russia at the moment,” a noted Russian journalist explained. “People think that she pushes her pupils at a very young age and after a year or two they are done for the sport.”

True – Russian skating has been characterized by a never-seen turnover of its female wunderkinds in the recent years: Yulia Lipnitskaya was an instant star in 2014 and disappeared; Adelina Sotnikova won her Olympic gold and turned to other endeavors.

Yevgenia Medvedeva could have had the same fortune, had she not decided to move to Canada. The perspective of seeing Zagitova disappear can’t be discarded. And many more lesser known skaters left the radar as well.

The system has best demonstrated its nonsense at Russian nationals, one month ago, as the top three at the senior championship were not even allowed to compete on the senior level internationally. Skaters placed fourth, fifth, and sixth at Nationals were selected for these Europeans, namely Samodurova, Zagitova and Stanislava Konstantinova.

Tutberidze is far from being the sole responsible of what could be called the “Kleenex syndrome” of female skating – you take one, use it, and then throw it.

The turmoil is even amplified in Russia by the tons of hate messages that flood each day on social media. The phenomenon is far from being mastered, especially since most messages are written anonymously under a pseudonym. They destabilize the best skaters.

“I don’t want to read those criticisms, but they are actually there, as toxic as they are,” Maria Sotskova, a prominent skater until last year, explained. “Athletes shouldn’t read internet comments. They make you more nervous and make you lose some of your confidence.”

Medvedeva had to make strong decisions a few months ago: “I never expected that there would be so much negative on social media, so I’ve made a strong rule between social networks and me,” she told NBCSports at her French Grand Prix outing two months ago. “The connection with social media is running through my agent, and I’m not using it anymore.”

She has since made a reappearance on social platforms, but to a lesser extent than the past.

Zagitova had to come to a complete black-out as well.

“After Russian nationals, my parents took away my phone and gave me another one, with no access to the internet,” she said to media in Minsk. “Now I’m reading books and I’m studying for school. I don’t see or hear anything about what is being said. No social media. I only watch TV serials.”

More than any other country, Russia has created somewhat of a system – mostly unconsciously at the start, however: create the best jumpers and spinners of the world at a very young age, when children obey without condition, and make them win before puberty. Hence the proposal to raise the age limit that was presented to the last ISU Congress.

It was rejected.

Age may not be the key factor anyway, as every girl grows at her own pace. It also differs from one continent to the next.

“The Causasian and the Asian people are quite different,” Japanese coach Mie Hamada acknowledged a few years ago. “The Caucasian bodies do change much more dramatically than the Asians’. We do have body changes, but they are not as big.”

She cited one of her star students, Satoko Miyahara, as a good example: “Satoko’s body is changing, but she works very hard every day and she can reset and adjust day after day to the change. I don’t have any trouble there.”

The system is expanding fast. In Japan, new star Rika Kihira, who won every competition she entered at her first senior year (and is coached by Hamada), has three triple Axels planned in each of her outings.

Alysa Liu, the new U.S. national champion, is on par with Kihira – except she doesn’t have the age limit to compete in the senior ranks. This age limit is in itself a tough constraint on skaters and their coach; the shooting window in a skater’s life is quite short, as it ranges between that age limit and puberty. Having an Olympics take place at that precise moment helps.

How long will these young ladies keep landing their triple Axel remains to be seen.

“You have the choice,” offered Igor Samohin, coach and father of 2016 world junior champion Daniel Samohin. “Either you push them right away to do everything, but then they will have a short skating life. Or you opt for a long career and, as Brian Orser says, you go step by step. At the same time, can a coach, a parent, a federation accept to take the risk of taking time and going step by step, knowing there is an additional risk at puberty?”

Examples of wunderkinds embarking into a long-term career do exist: Michelle Kwan and Irina Slutskaya, in the late 1990s, both won at a tender age and did succeed in staying many years at the top. As did Mao Asada. In those days as well as throughout the whole skating saga, the younger skaters were there to learn and grow, not to shine all at once and disappear, with the risk of mental health problems, disordered eating and depressions that spread out recently.

Samodurova and Konstantinova, the most physically mature of the Russian squad in Minsk, stated firmly that they were there to last in the sport.

Some common answers in Minsk were clear-cut: “This is sport. The wheel has to turn, and it’s just turning faster.”

If this is the route, then what sense does the age limit to access the senior ranks make?

Yet how does skating as a whole benefit from the Kleenex syndrome? The 2015 and 2016 Worlds gold medalist, Javier Fernandez, was clear, it’s penalizing skating: “Why would you come to watch a competition, if after just a few years a skater you had enjoyed watching doesn’t even compete anymore?” he asked.

The Kleenex route nonetheless seems to be favored nowadays. The embroidered tissue becomes the exception, at least in the ladies’ field. For sure the show will be quite different from what we have known it in the past.

The challenge for the best coaches of the world is to find a way to develop the Kwans and the Katarina Witts of tomorrow. Knowing Tutberidze enough, we may be confident that she is striving to do so.

MORE: Behind the scenes on Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 at the European Championships

As a reminder, you can watch the European 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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Michelle Kwan works long hours for Hillary Clinton campaign

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Michelle Kwan says the first time she met Hillary Clinton was April 29, 1998, visiting the White House with the U.S. Olympic team, two months after the Nagano Winter Games.

Now, more than 18 years later, the two-time Olympic figure skating medalist is in the final days of trying to help get Clinton back to the White House.

She joined the campaign 16 months ago as a surrogate outreach coordinator, working with celebrity and politician endorsers. The list includes Katy Perry, Barbra Streisand, John Legend and Magic Johnson. If Kwan hasn’t spoken to them personally, she’s been in touch with their managers.

“Long hours,” Kwan said while rushing through the red carpet of the Women’s Sports Foundation awards in New York City on Wednesday.

Kwan, 36, appeared at the awards with other female sports stars such as Billie Jean King, Laila Ali and a host of Olympic champions. She had to jet early, however, to attend a watch party for the third and final presidential debate between Clinton and Donald Trump.

Clinton has a unique relationship with the Olympics.

She sat next to Florence Griffith-Joyner in the frozen stands in Kvitfjell, Norway, at the Lillehammer 1994 men’s downhill. Clinton attended the start of the 1996 Olympic torch relay in Olympia, Greece. And she gave a speech for the failed New York City 2012 Olympic bid at an International Olympic Committee session in Singapore in 2005.

In 2006, Kwan was appointed the first U.S. public diplomacy envoy by then-Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice.

Kwan continued in that role when Clinton succeeded Rice and then got what she called her “first real job” with the State Department, senior adviser for public diplomacy and public affairs, after earning her master’s degree in 2011.

She helped her husband, Clay Pell, in his 2014 Democratic bid for the Governor of Rhode Island. Pell finished third in his primary.

In the last year-plus, Kwan stumped for Clinton in at least 18 states, according to her social media logs. In speeches at universities or forums, she breaks the ice by remembering her experiences performing at nearby arenas. She knocks on doors and works the phones.

“Super fun,” Kwan has said, “and nerve-racking.”

Kwan hosted the Periscope of Clinton’s first campaign rally on Roosevelt Island just off Manhattan, not far from Kwan’s campaign headquarters desk in Brooklyn, on June 13, 2015.

“It really comes into play the skills that you learn in figure skating about determination, hard work, perseverance,” Kwan said on The Skating Lesson. “I think the schedule itself is kind of what was like training for the Olympic Games, the world championships. You wake up in the morning, determined, you have a set of goals, you organize, you’re just at it and you’re taking one day at a time. And then, before you know, it’s 7 o’clock at night.”

Kwan is documenting the last 100 days of the campaign on her Instagram. Where will she be posting from on Nov. 8?

“I can’t tell you that,” she said, smiling, on the red carpet Wednesday night.

MORE: 2016-17 figure skating season broadcast schedule

Johnny Weir ranks Yuzuru Hanyu’s record skates with 4 historic performances

Johnny Weir
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NEW YORK — Johnny Weir said Yuzuru Hanyu‘s record-breaking win at NHK Trophy in Japan last weekend was “one of those things that will stay forever.”

The Olympic champion Hanyu posted the highest short program and free skate scores under the decade-old system that replaced the 6.0 scale. His total score of 322.40 points smashed Patrick Chan‘s previous record by 27.13.

Weir, speaking at the Bank of America Winter Village at Bryant Park tree lighting ceremony on Tuesday, ranked Hanyu’s performance with four of his favorite all-time skates.

“It was a moment in time,” Weir said. “I don’t know how long it’ll take for someone to even come close to that score.”

Here are the four performances Weir grouped with Hanyu’s record:

Michelle Kwan‘s short program and free skate at the 1998 U.S. Championships.

Kwan regained her U.S. crown from Tara Lipinski after coming back from a broken toe with skating that reportedly left at least one judge in tears. Seven of nine judges awarded her perfect 6.0s in presentation for the short, and eight of nine did so for the free skate.

Kwan captured the second of her nine U.S. titles and would go on to take Olympic silver behind Lipinski in Nagano one month later and then bronze at Salt Lake City 2002.

Yevgeny Plushenko‘s free skate at the 2002 Olympics.

The Russian fell in his Olympic debut in the short program, putting him in fourth going into the free skate. Unable to control his own destiny for a gold medal, Plushenko nonetheless skated brilliantly, landing two quadruple jumps, including a quad-triple-triple combination, stepping out of the landing on the last jump.

He was beaten by only Yagudin in the free skate and earned silver behind the countryman with whom he formerly shared a coach. Plushenko was only 19 and embarking on a career that would include Olympic medals at the next three Winter Games.

Irina Slutskaya‘s short program and free skate at the 2000 World Championships and free skate at the 2005 World Championships.

Slutskaya almost gave the sport up after failing to make the Russian team for the 1999 World Championships, one year after taking Worlds silver. She came back strong for 1999-2000, however, sweeping the Russian Championship, Russian Grand Prix, Grand Prix Final and European Championship. She took silver behind an exquisite Kwan at Worlds in Nice, France.

In 2004-05, Slutskaya came back from a lengthy hospital stay due to a heart condition to win a World title at home in Moscow. The previous two years, she had pulled out before the 2003 Worlds due to her mother falling ill and then finished ninth at the 2004 Worlds before the hospitalization.

MORE FIGURE SKATING: Nancy Kerrigan finds new passion

*Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Yevgeny Plushenko won gold medals at the last three Olympics. He won silver in 2010.