Vanessa James

10 things we’ve learned halfway through the Grand Prix figure skating season

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With the senior Grand Prix series at its halfway point and skaters heading for Chonqing, China for the fourth of six “regular season” events, here are 10 things we’ve learned from the series so far:

WOMEN

1. The kiddie corps of Russian women has been even better than expected – and expectations were very high.

Anna Shcherbakova, 15, Alexandra Trusova, 15, and Alena Kostornaia, 16, each has easily won gold in the first three events. Shcherbakova took Skate America by 10-plus points; Trusova won Skate Canada by 10-plus points over reigning Grand Prix Final champion Rika Kihira of Japan; and Kostornaia took Grand Prix France by nearly 20 points over reigning world and Olympic champion Alina Zagitova of Russia.

It is likely that only Kihira, at the season-ending NHK Trophy in Japan, can prevent Russian women from sweeping gold in the six events. That has happened in only one of the four Grand Prix disciplines; Russian men swept in 1998-99 and 1999-00, an era when some skaters did three events instead of the current two.

The three young Russian women have posted the three highest free skate scores in the two seasons of the revised scoring system.

2. The jump revolution in women’s skating, with quads and triple Axels, has had a bigger and faster impact than expected – even though women cannot do quads in the short program.

Trusova’s four quad attempts (three clean) helped her wipe out Kihira’s 7.95-point edge after the short program at Skate Canada. Shcherbakova’s two clean quad Lutzes carried her from fourth after the short (7.5 points from first) to the title at Skate America. Kostornaia’s three triple Axels (even the one under-rotated in the short) were difference-makers in France.

And these stats, courtesy of skatingscores.com: Four women – Trusova, Shcherbakova and juniors Kamila Valieva of Russia and Alysa Liu of the United States, the latter two winners of two Junior Grand Prix events each this season – have done 19 jumps credited as quads in international events (including the free skate-only Japan Open) this season. There had been only 22 other jumps called quads in the previous history of the sport.

The success rate for women’s quads is the big change: Last season, just five of the 16 jumps called quads got a positive Grade of Execution (another got a neutral 0.0). This season, 16 of the 19 jumps have positive GOEs – 12 of them at 2.30 or higher.

3. Mariah Bell’s two strong skates in France produced the second Grand Prix medal of her career, a bronze (after her silver at Skate America in 2016).

More striking: Bell never lost her focus and made no significant mistakes, as she frequently had in the past, and she beat Zagitova in the free skate. Yet it still seems unlikely (but not impossible) that either Bell or Bradie Tennell, second and fourth at her two events, will be the first U.S. woman to qualify for the Grand Prix Final since Ashley Wagner in 2015. Bell’s second event is Rostelecom Cup in mid-November.

MEN

4. Two-time men’s Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan, the sport’s superstar, may be heading for an even higher level of brilliance if his performance at Skate Canada is any indication.

Hanyu’s skating was his finest ever in his Grand Prix season debut. Clean in a two-quad short program, one minor mistake in a four-quad free skate, full of passion and competitive fire, this was a Hanyu asking “Can you top this?” to rival Nathan Chen, winner of the last two world titles.

5. The answer? Chen could not top it – so far.

In finishing first in all four programs at his two Grand Prix events, taking gold in both by a mile, Chen extended his Grand Prix winning streak to eight (including two wins at the Final) and became the first man to qualify for this season’s Final. But just one of his four performances (the short at Skate America) was clean.

Of course, Chen had an even messier Grand Prix record last season, but he improved in each event before lights-out, landmark performances at the U.S. and world championships.

6. All skating fans should keep their fingers crossed for a Hanyu-Chen meeting at the Grand Prix Final, since Hanyu missed the last two with foot injuries. Hanyu’s second event is the series finale (NHK in Sapporo) three weekends from now.

7. Hanyu and Chen are now light years ahead of the rest of the men in the world.

Reigning Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno of Japan is struggling, reigning world bronze medalist Vincent Zhou of the U.S. is sitting out the Grand Prix to concentrate on his first semester of college, and eye-catching Kevin Aymoz of France is a year or two from international title contention.

PAIRS

8. Few would have foreseen heading into the season that three young Russian couples, Daria Pavliuchenko and Denis Khodykin (ages 16 and 20), Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitri Kozlovski (17 and 19) and Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov (18 and 20) would take command of the pair scene so far.

Call it making hay while the sun shines (and the veteran teams haven’t – yet). Reigning world champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong (24 and 27) of China make their season debut this week at Cup of China. Reigning Grand Prix Final and European champions Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres (32 and 28) are taking the long view at contending for a 2022 Olympic medal by skipping this season’s Grand Prix for a mental and physical break. Reigning world silver medalists Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov (24 and 27) slogged to third at their first competition.

And a veteran U.S. couple, Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier (24 and 26), have stepped into the open space with two second-place free skates to get bronze medals and, if results are jumbled enough the next three weeks, have a shot at a spot in the Final. Only one U.S. pair has made it in the past 11 seasons (Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim in 2015.)

ICE DANCE

9. It is no surprise that there is the team Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France, first at the Grand Prix of France, and then there is everyone else. Their “Fame” rhythm dance is disco delight, goofy costumes included, even if it is better in execution than conception. The spoken passages in their free dance are more distraction than enhancement. But the skating – oh, the skating. The attention to detail, the synchronicity, flow, edge work. They are prohibitive favorites to win Olympic gold in 2022.

10. What a battle there should be at 2020 Worlds in Montreal for the silver and bronze medals in dance. Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier of Canada threw themselves into the mix with a Skate Canada upset of Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue of the U.S. (Hubbell and Donohue are reigning Grand Prix Final champions and world bronze medalists who have won medals in 13 straight series events.)

Madison Chock and Evan Bates of the U.S., looking for their first worlds medal since 2016 after 11 straight medals on the Grand Prix, were a solid second behind Papadakis and Cizeron in France. Reigning world silver medalists Viktoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov of Russia make their Grand Prix season debut this week. Charlene Guignard and Marco Fabbri of Italy are contenders, as are Aleksandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin of Russia. Musical chairs dance, anyone?

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

MORE: Will Nathan Chen return to six quad jumps in his free skate?

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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Figure skating Grand Prix series: Eight matchups to watch

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Now that the Grand Prix figure skating assignments have been announced, a look at eight of the most exciting head-to-heads this fall …

Men
Skate America – Nathan Chen vs. Jason Brown
Two of the U.S. men are showcased at the Grand Prix opener in October. What makes this so special? The last time these two competed at the same Grand Prix, in France last November, Brown actually led Chen after the short program. In the end, though, Chen rallied to keep his undefeated season intact.

Also notable in the field: South Korea’s Cha Jun-Hwan, who trains with Brown in Toronto.

Internationaux de France – Nathan Chen vs. Shoma Uno
Chen and Uno have shared world podiums, most recently in 2018 when Chen took gold and Uno the silver. Uno’s coaching change should only spice things up; however, he has not announced where he will train.

Also notable in the field: world junior champion Tomoki Hiwatashi makes his senior Grand Prix debut. He was fourth at the U.S. Championships in January.

Rostelecom Cup – Shoma Uno vs. Vincent Zhou
After competing in France, Uno gets a week to rest before facing another top American in Vincent Zhou. Zhou had a breakthrough end of last season, claiming his first, top-level senior international medals — bronze at Four Continents and worlds.

MORE: Nathan Chen learns from chaos of balancing Yale, skating

Women
Skate America – Anna Shcherbakova, Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, and Yelizabet Tursynbaeva
All are known for jumps: Shcherbakova, the 15-year-old Russian champion, for a quadruple Lutz, Tuktamysheva, the 2015 World champion, for her triple Axel and the Kazakh Tursynbaeva for a quad Salchow in taking silver at worlds.

Also notable in the field: 2017 U.S. champion Karen Chen returns to competition for the first time since the PyeongChang Olympics; 2018 U.S. champion Bradie Tennell, Chen’s Olympic teammate.

NHK Trophy – Rika Kihira vs. Alina Zagitova
Kihira, who swept her Grand Prix starts last fall, will likely show off her triple Axel on home ice, but Olympic and world champion Zagitova is also beloved in Japan.

Also notable in the field: Russian Sofia Samodurova, who defeated Zagitova at January’s European Championships.

MORE: Bradie Tennell on self-doubt, lessons learned in 2019

Pairs
NHK Trophy – Sui Wenjing and Han Cong vs. Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres
We have to wait a while for it, but China’s Sui and Han facing off against France’s James and Cipres should be a real treat.

Sui and Han own two world titles, including from March despite a series of injuries that kept them out most of the season. James and Cipres had been undefeated last season before a short program error at worlds, where they finished fifth.

Also notable in the field: The two U.S. pairs, Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea and Alexa Scimeca-Knierim and Chris Knierim, should be pretty evenly matched. It could be a preview of January’s nationals.

Ice dance
Skate America – Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue vs. Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin
The Americans earned world champs bronze ahead of the Russians by a slim 1.88 points in March. Similar to last season, Hubbell and Donohue will get their Grand Prix starts out of the way in the first two weeks and likely become the first qualifiers for December’s Grand Prix Final.

Also notable in the field: Spain’s Olivia Smart and Adrian Diaz train in Montreal alongside Hubbell and Donohue and a number of other teams that will be at Skate America.

MORE: Hubbell, Donohue already eyeing 2020 World Championships

Internationaux de France – Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron vs. Madison Chock and Evan Bates
Four-time world champions Papadakis and Cizeron will face stiff competition from training mates Chock and Bates. Chock and Bates had an abbreviated season last year, as Chock was away from competition for nearly 10 months after ankle surgery. Nevertheless, they won Four Continents and placed sixth at worlds.

Also notable in the field: European bronze medalists Charlene Guignard and Marco Fabbri from Italy, who earned bronze at their first Grand Prix Final last season.

MORE: Chen, Zagitova among top takeaways from last season

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Nathan Chen, Alina Zagitova among the top takeaways for the figure skating season

AP
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A baker’s dozen takeaways, with some looks to the future, from the 2018-19 figure skating season, which ended Saturday in Japan with the United States winning the World Team Trophy.

1. It’s time to give Russia’s Alina Zagitova full – and massive – credit for what she has done the past two seasons.

Zagitova and her coaching team were unfairly criticized in some quarters for what turned out to be a brilliant strategy of doing all seven jumping passes in the second half bonus area of the 2018 Olympic free skate. Not only was that an impressive feat of stamina, the bonus points Zagitova got for those jumps were the difference between her winning gold and getting silver.

When a Zagitova worn down by a post-Olympic whirl of appearances flopped to fifth in the 2018 World Championships, staggered to fifth at this season’s Russian Championships and was beaten at Europeans, there were suggestions she might be a one-hit wonder. Then, as she later said in an interview on the Russian Skating Federation website, Zagitova became so unsettled by the pressure and the thought of failure at worlds her jumps deserted her in practice, and she had thoughts of quitting.

Some of her struggles were not unexpected. She had grown some three inches since the Olympics. Her body proportions were changing from those of a girl to those of a young woman. New rules minimized one of her strengths by limited skaters to just three jumping passes in the bonus area.

And Zagitova overcame all that, the psychological and the physical issues and the scoring changes, to win the 2019 worlds with two clean programs, a dazzling short and a strong, commanding free. At 16, she had added a world title to her Olympic title. That is worthy of unqualified acclaim.

2. Nathan Chen had a remarkable season, even if judged only by what he did on the ice.

When one puts his undefeated record in the context of having done it while simultaneously being a full-time freshman student at Yale University whose coach was 3,000 miles away, Chen’s was a season for the ages.

Chen was lights out in winning a third straight U.S. title. Then, he was even better in winning a second straight world title, this one more significant because two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan was in the field.

Chen has not yet decided – or perhaps just not yet announced – whether he will be a full-time student again next season, although there doesn’t seem any reason to mess with success given there are two more seasons before the next Olympics.

If Yale allows him three straight semesters off – and the University already has been very accommodating of his travel schedule and his need for ice time on the Yale rink – it would make more sense for him to take an academic leave beginning with the second half of the 2020-21 season and academic year and going through the 2022 Winter Games.

3. Vincent Zhou of the U.S. no longer is just that guy who goes from jump to jump (while collecting under-rotation marks.)

Zhou’s improvement in the last two months of the season was tremendous. He went on from a bronze medal at worlds to do two terrific skates at the World Team Trophy, his free skate a seamless, compelling performance and an athletic tour de force. The under-rotation calls were disappearing.

Doing three quads at World Team Trophy instead of his usual four seemed to give Zhou the time to breathe and create an entertaining impression. Maybe he should keep thinking less is more.

4. The changes in the scoring system had a small mathematical effect on their goal of rebalancing athletic (TES) and artistic (loosely, PCS) scores in singles free skates, especially among the men.

This is tricky to calculate, because the drops in value of the highest scoring jumps were offset by the possibility of higher (and lower) Grades of Execution when the range was expanded from +3/-3 to +5/-5. And the limiting of free skate bonus area jumping passes lowered potential TES scores.

At the 2017 worlds, each of the top four men in the free (Hanyu and Shoma Uno of Japan, Boyang Jin of China, and Chen) had significantly higher TES scores, with none getting more than 44 percent of the total from PCS.

At the 2019 worlds, the top four men in the free did get a higher percentage of their total from PCS, even if the difference was insignificant for winner Chen (43.8 to 43.9). The others: Hanyu, 46.5; Vincent Zhou, 46.7; Uno, 49.8 (Uno’s TES scores were dramatically affected by two downgraded quads).

The women’s scores shifted in the opposite way. At the 2017 worlds and 2018 Olympics, six of the top eight in the free had higher TES. This season, it was seven of the top eight (only fifth-place Kaori Sakamato of Japan had a higher PCS, and it was a minimal difference of less than one percent). Japan’s Rika Kihira, second in the free, had a TES score nearly 12 points higher than her PCS, accounting for 54 percent of her total, even though she fell on a triple Axel.

Given the concurrent rise of PCS scores, almost across the board, it would have seemed the change in score percentages might have been more dramatic.

5. Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron could take the next two seasons off and return to waltz to the 2022 Olympic gold.

The French ice dancers have a greater gap on their competition than any team in the 15-season history of the IJS. They won the 2019 world title by 10.89 points, a margin topped only by their 10.96 of a year ago, when reigning Olympic champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada skipped worlds.

In the 13 previous seasons, no team had won by more than 5.95 (Tatiana Navka and Roman Kostomarov of Russia in 2005).

Ice dance had been blessed with compelling rivalries from 2010 through 2018: Virtue/Moir vs. Papadakis/Cizeron, Virtue/Moir vs. Meryl Davis and Charlie White of the U.S. Now the French are unrivalled, competing only against themselves and abstract ideas of brilliance. So far, they haven’t been slowed down by having to play a solo game of “Can you top this?”

6. The most anticipated figure skating event in the United States next season is the Aug. 28-31 Junior Grand Prix stop in Lake Placid, N.Y.

That is where reigning U.S. senior champion Alysa Liu, 13 (until Aug. 8) and ineligible for senior international competition until the 2021-22 season, will likely debut in a consequential junior international junior event. (She could be in a lesser event before that.) Liu, who hit three triple Axels at nationals, may have added a quad by Lake Placid. She tried two unsuccessfully in last season’s U.S. Regionals.

7. The quad wave is about to sweep into senior women’s competition.

Russians Anna Shcherbakova (quad Lutz) and Alexandra Trusova (quad Lutz, quad toe, quad Salchow) who finished 1-2 in seniors at this season’s Russian Championships and 2-1 at the World Junior Championships, are the headliners. They join Kazakh Elizabet Tursynbaeva, whose quad Salchow at worlds made her the first woman to land a quad in a senior event.

8. Ting Cui, 16, looks ready to take one of the two U.S. singles spots at next year’s senior worlds.

Cui, 2019 junior world bronze medalist and fifth at senior nationals (third in the free skate), has a good chance to bump either Mariah Bell or Bradie Tennell, more likely the former. Bell has finished an unremarkable ninth, 12th, and 12th in the last three worlds. After underwhelming performances much of this season, 2018 U.S. champion Tennell (seventh and sixth) in the last two worlds, ended with the best free skate of her career at the World Team Trophy.

9. Rika Kihira rose and fell (literally) on the success of her triple Axel.

The jump carried her past Zagitova to win the Grand Prix title. Then it cost her a chance at the world title after Kihira popped (singled) the jump in the short program.

Kihira’s season triple Axel tally, in ISU or national championship events: 13 clean in 23 attempts (56.5 percent), with five falls, three pops, one downgrade and one double.

10. Yevgenia Medvedeva showed she deserved her spot at worlds. So did Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, who did not get one.

Sofia Samodurova’s surprising win at the European Championships and the illness that sidelined Tuktamysheva at her nationals left the Russian federation in a quandary.

They couldn’t keep the European champion off the team. And they wanted to include Medvedeva, no matter that she had struggled – but slowly improved – all season after leaving Russia to train in Canada with Brian Orser. And hadn’t Tuktamysheva been an also-ran for the three seasons after her 2015 world title, no matter that she won two Grand Prix events and a bronze at the Grand Prix Final this season?

Medvedeva skated well enough at worlds to win a bronze medal when Kihira and Sakamoto made big mistakes.

Tuktamysheva went to the World Team Trophy and was outstanding in winning the free skate and finishing second in the short program. She did a massive, effortless triple Axel in each program, having regained full command of a jump she added to her arsenal in 2015 but could not land cleanly the next three seasons.

Beyond that, Tuktamysheva at age 22 became a presence: she developed a funny, outgoing persona on social media, pushed the limits with a sexy “striptease” in her exhibition program – and accepted her worlds snub with grace.

11. It’s great that French pair Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres have decided to keep competing.

They began 2018-19 uncertain about their future beyond the season, then reached heights they never imagined possible a few years ago, coming into worlds as the undefeated European and Grand Prix Final champions. That worlds was their one poor competition of the season, leaving them fifth, undoubtedly was a motivation to continue.

James and Cipres finished with a stunning free skate at World Team Trophy, showing flawless unison on their big tricks.

It would be a real treat to see what the judges do if they and the sparkling Chinese world champions, Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, both skate cleanly in the same competition next season.

12. Canada went without a world medal for the first time since 2004**.

Its best finish at the 2019 worlds was fifth in dance.

Its top woman’s singles finish, 11th by Gabrielle Daleman, was the lowest since Alaine Chartrand was 11th in 2015. And, according to Skate Canada, its top men’s finish, 15th by Keegan Messing, was its lowest ever (the previous low was 13th by Kevin Pockar in 1979.)

So why the asterisks**?

The gold and bronze medalists in ice dance, from France and the USA, are coached by Canadians Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon in Montreal.

Montreal is also the site of the 2020 worlds, but Canada’s medal chances don’t look much better even on home ice. It earned just one 2020 worlds spot in men’s singles and barely got two in women’s singles.

13. Yuzuru Hanyu’s desire to push the technical envelope, admirable as it is, may shorten one of the greatest careers in the history of skating.

The Japanese superstar was out of competition for three months in both the last two seasons, missing two Grand Prix Finals and Japanese Championships, after injuring his right ankle while attempting quad Lutz (November 2017) and quad loop jumps (November 2018).

He has done just one quad Lutz in a competition. Although he has had 10 clean quad loops in 18 attempts, according to skatingscores.com, Hanyu won the 2018 Olympics without that difficult edge jump.

After he finished second at the 2019 worlds, the Japanese Skating Federation announced Hanyu would need two to three months of treatment on the long-term ligament damage in his ankle. Getting the ligaments to heal completely will not be easy, especially should Hanyu choose to try to reach his stated goal of landing a quad Axel.

Hanyu means too much to the sport for him to risk his future on jumps he likely can still win without if the rest of his skating is flawless.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

MORE: Takeaways and top moments from the World Figure Skating Championships

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2018-19 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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