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Takeaways from Four Continents Championships

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Shoma Uno performs a record-setting free skate. Sui Wenjing and Han Cong return to competition. Rika Kihira continues her climb. Madison Chock and Evan Bates win their first title at an ISU Championships. 

Now that the 2019 Four Continents Figure Skating Championships, held in Anaheim, Calif. is in the books, here are some of the big takeaways:

Nathan Chen will need his A+ game to repeat as World champion. Japan’s Shoma Uno won his first Four Continents title and with the highest free score of the season, 197.36 points. (It’s also the highest free skate score ever, but various judging changes this season make it unfair to compare it to past seasons’ scores.)

Uno, who has struggled with multiple sprained ankles since the Japanese Championships in late December, landed three quads and two triple Axels in his “Moonlight Sonata” program in Anaheim. He could round into even better form for the 2019 World Figure Skating Championships in Saitama, Japan a month from now. Yuzuru Hanyu, troubled by an ankle ligament injury, was not in Anaheim. Japan’s two-time Olympic champion hasn’t competed since Rostelecom Cup in mid-November, but vows to compete in Saitama and try for a third world title.

Rika, Rika, Rika. Japan’s Rika Kihira confirmed her status as the odds-on favorite to win the ladies’ title at Worlds – not only because of her triple Axel and rapidly improving skating skills, but because of her strong mental game. The 16-year-old arrived in Anaheim with a new boot on her left foot, an old (and too soft) boot on her right foot, and mismatched blades: one was silver, one was gold. A fall on a triple Lutz in practice injured her left ring finger, causing considerable pain. Yet after popping her triple Axel into a single and placing fifth in the short program, she performed a clutch free skate to win the title. Kihira is undefeated in international competition this season, including wins at both of her Grand Prix events and the Grand Prix Final.

U.S. can earn two pairs’ spots for the 2020 World Championships. Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc performed two solid programs at Four Continents, and can increase their scores if they tweak a few elements to get higher levels. They have a good chance to crack the top 10 in Saitama, which would qualify the U.S. to enter two pairs the following season.

“Overall it’s going to take two really strong performances from us, to get those spots,” Cain said. “We can’t make any big mistakes. We want to hit the 200-point mark. I think if we just get our levels, we’ll be right there.”

Pair’s title in Saitama still looks wide open. China’s Sui Wenjing and Han Cong won Four Continents by just .06 points over Canadians Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro; the Canadians won the short program, but a costly error on a lift in their free skate cost them the title.

The Olympic silver medalists were impressive but did not look unbeatable: Sui, who missed the first half of the season with a right foot stress fracture, fell on triple jumps in both the short program and free skate. Strong performances by Russia’s Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov or France’s Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres could win the day. If James and Cipres do win, it will be the first time a French pair has won worlds since 1932. Of course, Sui and Han still have a month to improve.

No guarantees in ice dance. The shocking fourth-place finish of Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue in Anaheim showed their margin for error is thin. It is unlikely the U.S. champions will repeat the lift error that cost them more than four points, but even a smaller mistake – especially on step sequences in the rhythm dance – could cost them a world medal.

As their training partner, Jean-Luc Baker, explained in Anaheim: “The intricacy of the tango (rhythm dance) is significantly harder than what we had last year with the rhumba. The image the technical panel wants to see and what they are asking for, is so minuscule that one small thing like that angle of your skate can cost you three points.”

Three-time world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France have separated themselves from the rest. While Hubbell and Donohue are still the favorites for silver, one slip opens the door for teams including Chock and Bates; Canadians Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, and Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier; and Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin of Russia.

Tomoki Hiwatashi marked himself a favorite for the World junior podium. Hiwatashi, fourth at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships last month, skated his best programs ever in Anaheim to place eighth. His coach, Christy Krall, thinks he has made a breakthrough.

“Nationals really changed his persona,” she said. “He’s been very inspired. I think he understands that he has a great chance and the ability to be a very keen competitor, which he has always wanted to be.”

The 19-year-old won a world junior bronze in 2016 and in this, his final year of eligibility, could win another medal. The favorite for the event, held in Zagreb, Croatia Mar. 4-10, is Canada’s Stephen Gogolov, this season’s Junior Grand Prix Final champion.

Four Continents reporter’s notebook: Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 | Day 5

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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Memories of 2018 PyeongChang Olympics still burn bright

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One year ago, the Olympic cauldron was lit at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympic Games. Despite the flame being extinguished, the memories of the Games remain seared in history.

Remember when Shaun White, the king of the Olympic snowboard halfpipe, made his return; throwing down back-to-back 1440’s, a double McTwist and a frontside 1260 on his way to the top of the podium?

Or when the effervescent Chloe Kim, then just 17 years old, won her first Olympic halfpipe gold medal, or Kikkan Randall and Jessie Diggins’ historic gold medal for U.S. cross-country skiing?

What about Mikaela Shiffrin’s gold in giant slalom, or Lindsey Vonn battling back to her second Olympics after missing Sochi in 2014 due to injury, to claim bronze in the downhill?

And who could forget the U.S.’ Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson’s “Oops, I did it again” shootout golden goal against Canada in the women’s hockey final, or when Mirai Nagasu’s triple axel not only helped the U.S. win figure skating team bronze, but pushed her sport past what was thought possible.

The highlights of the Games just keep coming; John Shuster and his team of “rejects” winning curling gold, Ester Ledecka, the Czech snowboarder who shocked everyone, herself included, to win Super-G gold and Nathan Chen, bouncing back from a disappointing short program, to perform the Olympic free skate of his life. While Chen’s teammate, Adam Rippon, used his grace on the ice and outspoken charisma off it to wrap the world around his finger.  

Look back at these moments and more from those 16 glorious days in South Korea as Olympians of a different sort continue to prepare as their time nears at the Games of the XXXII Olympiad next summer in Tokyo on the networks of NBC.

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