Elizaveta Tuktamysheva (RUS) 2018©International Skating Union (ISU)

Elizaveta Tuktamysheva returns to the Grand Prix Final

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Elizaveta Tuktamysheva arrived in Vancouver late Tuesday night to compete in her first Grand Prix Final since she went all but undefeated en route to her 2015 World Championship crown. The self-styled “Empress” aims to add two more strong skates to what has been a comeback campaign, with two wins on the ISU Challenger Series and another in Skate Canada – her first on the Grand Prix level in almost four years.

“I hope that I’ll do two clean triple Axels at the Grand Prix Final, and improve my skating even more than Japan,” she said after a bronze medal at the NHK Trophy, finishing behind senior debutante Rika Kihira and Satoko Miyahara. “I’m really excited about what I did, landing the triple Lutz-triple toe and the triple Axel in both programs. I was so nervous but I’m still skating well.”

The ladies free skate in Hiroshima was bar-none the best of the season; though Tuktamysheva won the short program with a clean triple Axel, Kihira landed two of her own to rally for gold in the free skate.

“I said before the Grand Prix started that this event would be the hardest to win. I know these girls and how they can skate so well. I’m just happy that I scored the highest total of my figure skating career. I’m not so much sad about finishing in third place, because I know Satoko was really good in the free program, and there’s no words for what Rika did!

“It’s a different feeling to a jump a triple Axel than a Lutz or a toe-loop. For a while, I felt scared about this jump, the way a woman might feel when they’re pregnant! I was scared to fall on it. You have to jump differently, and I keep working to understand every moment before its take-off. I have so much training with this jump in particular, and I want to do it so much. I need to understand exactly what I need to do, and do it the same way every time.”

Undaunted by the competition, Tuktamysheva plans to match Kihira’s base value by adding the triple flip back into her repertoire – posting a triple flip-triple toe combination to her Instagram over Thanksgiving weekend – and analyzed Olympic champion Alina Zagitova as a commentator during Rostelecom Cup.

“I’ve really wanted to have this opportunity for the last two years, because it’s really interesting for me,” she began diplomatically, then added with a laugh, “Well, first of all, my boyfriend Andrei Lazukin is skating, and I hope he does well. If he makes mistakes, I might end up saying some bad words on TV!”

The MatchTV gig is the latest addition to her growing media empire, one on which the sun never sets with the help of her Twitter, Instagram, and, most recently, a YouTube Channel that features a pun-filled interview with reigning world champion Nathan Chen.

“I really feel the love because I’m starting to do much more on social media. I’m speaking more with the fans, and I think that’s important for the people who love figure skating. All skaters should be like this.”

Tuktamysheva has always been a trend-setter. Beyond the triple Axel, her influence can be seen in the proliferation of arm variations and back-loaded triple-triple combinations, both of which she did to win her world title. From jokes about footballers and politicians to her audacious exhibition to Britney Spears’ “Toxic” – spurring others to take on the online #TuktikChallenge, copying her strip-tease cantilever – the 21-year-old has reclaimed the zeitgeist of the sport. Close as she is transcending it entirely, the “Empress” hasn’t lost her sense of humor.

“I think I started approaching my career differently after Sochi, realizing that I just needed to enjoy myself to have good performances on the ice.

“This year isn’t the first time I’ve felt that way, and I do hope that this will work for a second season in a row, and not like last time where it took another three years.”

As a reminder, you can watch the ISU Grand Prix Series 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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MORE: Alina Zagitova faces unfamiliar test at Grand Prix Final — a younger rival 

Alina Zagitova faces unfamiliar test at Grand Prix Final — a younger rival

Alina Zagitova, Rika Kihira
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Alina Zagitova made history merely by showing up this fall. No other Olympic women’s singles champion competed the following autumn in the Grand Prix era.

To the 16-year-old Russian’s credit, she rebounded from a fifth-place stumble at March’s season-ending world championships to sweep her three starts this season, posting the world’s highest score in her September debut.

She is the favorite at this week’s Grand Prix Final but, technically, does not have the highest ceiling. And that’s going to be the story for at least Zagitova’s near future.

“In the Grand Prix [season], she hasn’t been her absolute best; she’s leaving the door slightly open,” NBC Sports analyst Tara Lipinski said. “It’s the most vulnerable she’s been.”

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Another 16-year-old, first-year senior Rika Kihira of Japan, had the highest score of the Grand Prix season (but hasn’t faced Zagitova). She has an inconsistent triple Axel, landing it clean and fully rotated two out of five tries between two Grand Prix starts.

Zagitova, who benefited last season from performing all of her jumps in the second half of programs for bonuses (a rule now limits this), does not have a triple Axel, and she should get familiar to facing skaters with more difficult jumps.

Not only has Kihira arrived, but also two 14-year-old Russians in the Grand Prix Final’s junior competition this week can land quadruple jumps.

NBC Sports analyst Johnny Weir said the senior event conjures the 2005 Grand Prix Final, when a 15-year-old Mao Asada landed a triple Axel and beat reigning world champion Irina Slutskaya, despite not being age-eligible for the Olympics two months later.

“Rika is probably the one athlete that I would say I’m most excited about seeing in this Final,” Lipinski said.

There are other contenders in the six-woman field at the second-biggest annual international competition. Satoko Miyahara had the highest combined score between two Grand Prix starts. Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, the 2015 World champion, had a resurgent fall, landing a triple Axel with a positive grade of execution for the first time in nearly three years.

If everyone skates to their ability, Kihira is the class of the challengers to Zagitova’s repeat bid in Vancouver. That’s not to say Zagitova has stopped progressing.

“There’s a confidence and a bit more maturity,” Weir said.

Especially in relation to the Japanese phenom. Zagitova outscored Kihira by 21 points in program components (artistic marks) combining each woman’s four Grand Prix skates this fall.

“Rika Kihira looks inexperienced in comparison to Zagitova, just when they take the ice,” Weir said. “Rika skates to her opening position, and Alina skates to her opening position, there’s a whole different level of confidence there.”

As a reminder, you can watch the ISU Grand Prix Series live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. GO HERE 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.

MORE: Rika Kihira more than a new Miss Triple Axel

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New Japanese phenom Rika Kihira more than a new Miss Triple Axel

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After popping her triple Axel in the Internationaux de France short program, Rika Kihira, the new Japanese phenom, promised she would “double check” her trademark jump the next day, for her free skate.

The 16-year-old hit in morning practice, both by itself and in combination with a triple toe loop, a feat she was the first and still the only one in the world to accomplish. When she took the ice for competition in Grenoble for her free skate, she was determined to land it twice.

She did hit it to open the skate, but it was deemed underrotated, and she could only land a double Axel-triple toe combination instead of the planned triple-triple.

“I couldn’t condition my body well,” Kihira said apologetically, through an interpreter.

She nonetheless won the Grand Prix two weeks ago in the same, come-from-behind fashion she captured NHK Trophy on home ice two weeks earlier.

The triple Axel is far from Kihira’s only weapon. The triple flip-triple toe she landed in her short was also the mark of a great champion, as she landed it not only perfectly, but at full speed.

But still, Kihira was not satisfied with her performance.

“I did what I could, really. My muscles were not adjusting to the competition,” she said, unassumingly. “I’ll work to score a new personal best at the Final.”

Kihira goes into this week’s Grand Prix Final with the highest score of the six-skater field from the Grand Prix season. If anybody is to knock off Olympic champion Alina Zagitova, Kihira has the highest ceiling.

Mastering a triple Axel made Kihira an instant hit in Japan.

“Her reputation was more or less sleeping until three weeks ago, but her clear-cut victory [at NHK] in Hiroshima made her one of Japan’s hottest persons,” a Japanese agent said. “She gives a good face to what Japanese skating will be in the future.”

Kihira has not always been a skating sensation, however.

“When she came to me some five years ago, Rika couldn’t perform any triple jumps,” said her coach, Mie Hamada. “But she already had a high potential, however, and I saw it right away. Rika could run fast. She practiced gymnastics so she had developed a good upper body – in fact the only thing she couldn’t do was skating.

“The first thing I did was not to increase her rotational speed; it was to center her body correctly in the air as she was jumping. When she mastered it, I could start teaching her triples.

“If I compare Rika with Satoko Miyahara [Hamada’s other star pupil], Satoko doesn’t have strong jumping capabilities, so I taught her to rotate faster. Rika has a stronger jumping ability. She already has a quadruple jump [though not yet landed in competition]. Actually, the first day I saw her skate, five years ago, I was convinced that she could master a triple Axel.”

Miyahara, also in the Grand Prix Final, has been instrumental for Kihira.

“She not only is a hard worker,” Kihira said. “She helped me consider how to deal with competition. I always watched how she trained.”

When Kihira skates, she achieves a subtle balance between the incredible strength of her jumps and an equally impressive inner peace.

“Until last year, I couldn’t show my strength in competition,” said Kihira, an impressive third at last season’s Japanese senior championships and eighth at junior worlds. “I just built upon the experience I got. Each time I was losing my focus or making a mistake, I tried not to repeat my mistakes.”

Only two Japanese women have won the exclusive Grand Prix Final since its inception: Fumie Suguri (2003) and Asada (2005, 2008, 2012, 2013). Kihira could very well succeed them. Just like Asada, with that triple Axel.

“I don’t want to put too much forces into jumping,” Hamada said. “Just hit them at the right time and relax. This is true for jumps, but also for spins and every movement. Just make it natural. Also, I like to feel the edges. No noise. No sound. Even for as technical an element as a triple Axel, skate natural.”

As a reminder, you can watch the ISU Grand Prix Series 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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