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Tutberidze with Medvedeva
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Brian Orser reacts to Yevgenia Medvedeva’s coaching switch back to Eteri Tutberidze

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During the Russian Figure Skating test event last weekend, when Brian Orser and Yevgenia Medvedeva were bridging the 5,000-mile span between him in Toronto and her in Moscow via video chat, they laughed about how different the atmosphere seemed than it had been at the same event two years earlier.

Orser would tell me Wednesday morning he had no idea during those weekend conversations that the bridge linking them was on the verge of collapse under the weight of separation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

A few hours before Orser called me, what Medvedeva had told him Tuesday became public: she was making the stunning move of returning to her previous and longtime coach, Moscow-based Eteri Tutberidze, whom she had left in an acrimonious split three months after the 2018 Olympics.

“She (Medvedeva) and I agree if there was no pandemic, we would not be having this discussion right now,” Orser said.

So, there was a bittersweet irony in Orser’s recollection of his earlier conversations with Medvedeva, 2016 and 2017 world champion and 2018 Olympic silver medalist.

“We talked about how two years ago at the test skates, it was all about me and Eteri,” Orser said. “I could see from the telecast that this time, it was about Eteri and [Yevgeny] Plushenko. It was nice not to be involved in that media circus, and Yevgenia and I joked about that.

“Fast forward two days, and I’m back in it.”

The 2020 test skates came a few months after two of Tutberidze’s stars, Alexandra Trusova and Alena Kostornaia, had decamped to join a group headed by Plushenko, the 2006 Olympic champion. Plushenko and Tutberidze already had been sniping at each other on social media before the skaters officially switched sides.

The 2018 test skates had come just a few months after Medvedeva made the even more startling decision to leave Tutberidze to train with Orser. Never before had one of the sport’s Russian stars left Mother Russia to train with a non-Russian coach.

But this latest switch is almost as startling because she has gone back to the coach who had bad-mouthed Medvedeva publicly when their 2018 split was imminent.

“Yevgenia told me she had four options,” Orser said, declining to specify them. “The going to Eteri one was totally out of the blue. I don’t think anyone saw that coming.

“I’m definitely not angry, and there is absolutely no bitterness. I don’t believe this was a case of a political move or a strategy. It just happened.”

In a statement issued by the Russian Figure Skating Federation, Medvedeva said, “I am very grateful to Brian for his understanding and the work done.”

Medvedeva, who turns 21 in November, and Orser stopped working together in person soon after the pandemic led to cancellation of the 2020 World Championships and the shutdown of Canadian rinks in March.

Medvedeva first went to Los Angeles to work with choreographer Shae-Lynn Bourne on new free program and then to Japan for a show that was cancelled. After quarantining in Japan, she and her mother returned to Moscow.

Trying to get back into Canada was complicated for Medvedeva, Orser said, because she would be coming by air with no guarantees she would be given an exception from Canada’s immigration restrictions in response to the pandemic. There was also the issue of whether her mother would be allowed to enter Canada.

As the weeks passed, it became obvious to both Orser and Medvedeva that she needed more coaching than he could give a few times a week via Face Time.

“I told her she needed to get some real coaching, daily coaching,” Orser said.

Until they spoke Monday, after Medvedeva’s poor performances at the test skates Saturday and Sunday, Orser had no inkling that would lead to her ending their relationship.

“These wheels were not in motion prior to the test skates,” Orser said. “Yevgenia and I don’t mince words, so she got right to the point (Monday) and said, ‘I’m thinking of going back to Eteri.’ Of course, I was kind of shocked.

“I told her, I can’t do anything for you if we can’t be together. The pandemic is bigger than both of us. Our hands are tied.”

Medvedeva made up her mind Tuesday.

“I don’t know how it all came down,” Orser said. “The (Russian) federation was involved, Eteri was involved and ultimately Yevgenia was involved. And that’s fine. They want to help her.”

Tutberidze suddenly found herself with openings for senior skaters when Trusova and Kostornaia left, and Alina Zagitova, the 2018 Olympic champion, all but retired in announcing she was skipping the test skates to be host of a reality TV show. At the test skates, cameras caught Tutberidze clapping encouragement for Medvedeva after her badly flawed free skate.

In an interview at the Toronto Cricket Club in early fall 2018, Medvedeva had pointedly avoided criticizing Tutberidze. She spoke of feeling “more adult” and also of how at the Cricket Club “…everyone looks so happy that you don’t feel you came to do heavy work, hard work, only work, work, work and nothing else. You feel you just came here to improve yourself, to improve your personality, not only your athlete side.”

“Maybe Yevgenia will be able to go back into her old environment with a different outlook,” Orser said. “I don’t know if there are any conditions. I don’t know if she [Tutberidze] will approach coaching her any differently than she did before. Whatever the conditions are, I think she [Medvedeva] will have some kind of control.”

Medvedeva had drawn virulent criticism on social media for her decision to leave Tutberidze. But spectators have been overwhelmingly supportive when she competed in Russia, turning her into something of a beloved grande dame trying to fend off skaters three and four years younger who brought quadruple jumps to the party.

Her two years with Orser had ups-and-downs that were not unexpected for someone who not only had changed coaches but had turned her life inside out and was dealing with what has become chronic back pain.

The first season ended with an unexpected bronze medal at the 2019 world championships. The second ended unexpectedly when boot problems forced her to withdraw from the 2020 Russian Championships.

Earlier last season, she finished second to Trusova at the 2019 Rostelecom Cup. Medvedeva won the short program and finishing second in the free skate with a near flawless performance without the quadruple jumps that accounted for Trusova’s winning margin.

“I think we made some great progress.” Orser said. “I think I got her back on track emotionally to the point where she really loves skating and training.

“I guess I kind of got her to see it from another angle. I think she came to the conclusion she is not being defined as a person by her championship medals. She’s a strong woman. It was a great experience to coach her.”

Orser said he had no idea if Medvedeva might come back to him when the pandemic is brought under control.

“She is jumping in with both feet right now, so I’m out,” he said. “There is not going to be a collaboration between me and Eteri. And that’s fine. All I want is for Yevgenia to be happy and skating well.”

She began training again with Tutberidze Wednesday. Medvedeva posted a picture to her Instagram account of her and the old/new coaching team with the caption, “Good, when all is good. We will work hard, and that is great.”

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

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Brian Orser reveals Hanyu’s, Medvedeva’s, and Brown’s Grand Prix plans

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Over the past decade, the Toronto club where Brian Orser coached South Korea’s Yuna Kim to the 2010 Olympic title has become such an attraction for top figure skaters from around the globe that it could add a word to a name that already is a mouthful.

You could call it the Toronto International Cricket Skating and Curling Club.

But its reach now is limited by the deadly virus pandemic that has effectively frozen out the elite athletes from Japan, Russia, South Korea and Poland who train at the Cricket Club.

That situation won’t change quickly, even with the International Skating Union having announced Monday its plans to proceed with a live format for the international Grand Prix Series. This fall, it will become a series of six essentially domestic competitions scheduled to begin with Skate America Oct. 23-25 in Las Vegas.

If they take place.

“As soon as the skaters can come back, it will be full steam ahead… to where, we don’t know,” Orser said via telephone Wednesday.

Two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu remains in Japan. Two-time world champion Yevgenia Medvedeva is in Russia, four-time national champion Cha Jun-Hwan in South Korea, and two-time national champion Yekaterina Kurakova in Poland.

“We would like for them all to come back, but with the Canadian travel restrictions in place until at least Aug. 21, we can’t guarantee approval to get them in, and they would have a 14-day quarantine here if they do get in,” Tracy Wilson, who coaches with Orser, said via telephone Wednesday. “Right now, they are all training at home, and that’s OK.

“The situation is different for each one. The Japanese federation may need Yuzu to do the Grand Prix in Japan, and at this point he would face quarantine entering Canada and returning to Japan.

“For Yevgenia, as soon as she does the Russian test skates (scheduled for early September), we will re-evaluate her situation.”

Orser said he has been doing three video coaching sessions a week with Medvedeva, with whom he is in his third season as coach. Medvedeva, who left Russia for Canada after winning a silver medal at the 2018 Olympics, also is currently getting help from coach Elena Buyanova at the CSKA rink in Moscow.

“She (Medvedeva) looks way ahead of where she was at this point last year,” Orser said.

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Orser also has been having live remote sessions with Cha and Kurakova, and they are also sending videos to him. The only skater he has not seen is Hanyu.

“That’s normal when he is back in Japan,” Orser said. “I wasn’t expecting anything.”

How long Hanyu stays in Japan may depend on travel restrictions being loosened in both his homeland and Canada.

“I would like to get them all back, and they need to come back,” Orser said. “But facing a double quarantine is not in anyone’s best interest.”

Only two of the Cricket Club’s international skaters, 2014 Olympian Jason Brown of suburban Chicago and Yi Zhu of Los Angeles (who represents China), have come back to Toronto after leaving in late winter.

It took Brown two tries to get back across the border because of issues with the paperwork necessary for Canada to consider it essential he be allowed to enter. Orser and Wilson want to be sure any skaters coming from Asia and Europe are admitted on the first try.

From April to July, until skaters could get back on the ice in their various homelands, Brown led Thursday off-ice fitness classes via Zoom, with Medvedeva, Cha and Kurakova taking part.

“It was such a fun way to stay connected and still ‘train’ together while we were oceans apart,” Brown said in a Wednesday text message.

Orser and Wilson will recommend that all the foreign skaters training at the Cricket Club try to compete at Skate Canada, scheduled the last weekend of October at a 9,500-seat arena in Ottawa. Wilson thought if the event cannot have spectators, it might be moved to a smaller facility, possibly in a different city.

“All plans are in the early stages,” Skate Canada spokesperson Emma Bowie said in an email.

Grand Prix assignments have not yet been made.

Whether Brown picks Skate Canada over Skate America – if he gets a choice – could depend on when (and if) the Canadian government shortens quarantine periods for travelers from the United States.

“I know that we are in such unprecedented and uncertain times, so I love seeing the ISU being creative and trying to find a way to hold skating events this year,” Brown wrote. “While a lot can happen before October, if it’s safe to do so, I’ll be ready and eager to take part in any events that I can.”

The ISU said it wants to have the Grand Prix Final in Beijing, whether it takes place on its original dates (Dec. 10-13) or early in 2021. The competition is to be used as a test event of the skating venue for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

There are no details yet on qualification for the final, which usually is determined by points for placements at the six “regular season” events of the series, held in the U.S., Canada, China, France, Russia and Japan. The top six in each of the sport’s four disciplines make the Final.

In the past, the highest-ranked skaters could compete in up to two Grand Prix events, but ISU Vice-President Alexander Lakernik of Russia said in a Tuesday email that everyone would be limited to one event this year.

Because the Final presumably would have much more of an international field than the six other events, staging it is infinitely more problematic because of travel involved.

“We want what’s best for the sport,” Wilson said. “We have to get these kids out there doing programs, to get them on TV. [Note: An NBC spokesman said the network would, as planned, provide coverage of the Grand Prix, with details forthcoming.] In terms of competition, we’re up for anything.

“For me, though, with all the restrictions, there is no way they will be able to run a fair qualification for the Grand Prix Final. You’ve got to reinvent yourself and make it something else – if you are able to have it at all.”

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

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Alina Zagitova pushes artistry while younger Russians focus on jumping prowess

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Russia’s Alina Zagitova, the 2018 Olympic gold medalist and 2019 world champion, has been under intense scrutiny since winning in PyeongChang some 21 months ago. No doubt she will be again when she skates at NHK Trophy (this weekend, live and on-demand for NBC Sports Gold subscribers).

Her last outing, at Grand Prix France, was no exception. Zagitova placed second, some 19.94 points behind 16-year-old Alena Kostornaia, her training partner at the Sambo-70 school in Moscow lead by coach Eteri Tutberidze.

Kostornaia is capable of two triple Axels in a free skate. Anna Shcherbakova is capable of two quad Lutzes in a free skate. Alexandra Trusova is capable of a quad Salchow, quad Lutz, and quad toe. She attempted four in her winning Rostelecom Cup free skate.

Talk has swirled on social media and in the press, as audiences wonder if Zagitova may experience the feeling of being pushed out by younger, more technically acute skaters. Zagitova won Olympic gold by defeating older training partner Yevgenia Medvedeva, then a nearly undefeated two-time world champion. But a year ago, Zagitova lost the European championship to another young Russian, Sofia Samodurova (coached by Alexei Mishin). Zagitova managed to bounce back to win the World title two months later.

Zagitova is not ready to admit that the wheel of fortune was turning too fast for her, however.

“I also was one of these junior skaters who did all their jumps with a hand above their heads,” she said after Grand Prix France. “I was one who did their jumps in the second half of their program, because it gave you more points. I was even the first one to land a triple Lutz, triple loop combination, also in the second half. Rules have changed since, what can I do?”

At the same time, she genuinely acknowledged her teammates’ prowess.

“I think that those girls who do quads are great,” she said enthusiastically, though Zagitova nonetheless had tears in her eyes when she understood that she had lost to Kostornaia.

The technical disruption that ladies’ skating has undergone these few last years caused this pattern, but it won’t last forever, according to Daniil Gleikhengauz. He choreographs for both Zagitova and Kostornaia at the school in Moscow.

“When Alina was younger, no one thought of quads for ladies,” he explained. “She learned the most difficult jumps of that time. Then, we pushed to have our pupils land them in the second half of their programs [because it was worth more points under the rules]. Then, we asked ourselves ‘what’s next?’ We thought that maybe quads would be coming up, and we taught quads to the newcomers. They learned harder jumps.

“Alina is very smart,” Gleikhengauz continued. “She understands that she is 17 years old, not 11 or 12. The current generation will learn quads and land them for several years. At this point in time, ladies’ skating is at the top of technique, so it’s a little bit tough to maintain yourself many years, as technique is going so fast. Tomorrow will be different. Quads will be there for 10 to 15 years. So those girls who are mastering quads [now] will have many more years.”

The technical route is not the only path to winning, however.

“There are two ways to succeed: either you skate like Carolina Kostner, who takes your heart and each move is perfect. The other way is to do what young girls are doing,” Kostornaia said after her win in Grenoble.

Zagitova understands that as well.

“Quads are too dangerous for me for the time being,” Zagitova acknowledged. “I will need to prepare for them physically and mentally. I will also need to lose some weight, something like three kilos, to decrease the risk of injuries.

“If it’s really necessary for me to land a quad, I may train for landing one. But it will be difficult. It won’t be a quad Salchow or a quad toe, though, as they wouldn’t be the easiest for me.”

Zagitova thought she may try to train a quad Lutz first, like another young teammate of hers is landing. Shcherbakova’s free skate this season includes two quad Lutzes, and she won both Skate America and Cup of China.

“Learning a quad is a question of mentality,” Gleikhengauz said. “When you are 11 or 13, you’re falling every day, as you are learning triple jumps. Then you master them. You start learning triple Axels and quads – and again you fall, fall, fall. And then you master them and you don’t fall anymore. What happens next is that you forget about falling and how to fall. When you have to learn triple Axel or quad later on, then you’re really scared about it and it may become dangerous for you.”

Zagitova, though, may be on the “Kostner route” for the time being.

“For now, I can’t skate like Carolina Kostner yet,” Zagitova said while laughing, “but I’m working at it.”

Kostner, the 2014 Sochi Olympic bronze medalist, won her first European title at age 20. She is known for her artistic qualities on the ice.

This season, Zagitova chose a Flamenco piece, Yasmin Levy’s “Me Voy,” for her short program. Her free skate is a medley of music she called “Cleopatra” which includes pieces from Peter Gabriel’s “The Feeling Begins,” Maurice Jarre’s “Lawrence of Arabia” soundtrack, and Khatir Hicham’s “Ramses.”

“We tried different kinds of choreography, but we felt this music was good for me,” Zagitova said. “I think it suits my style and my skating well, and I loved it right away. My short and my free programs are very different, with two different styles. Fans are telling me that I can do a lot more than ballet music. I’m glad I can show that on the ice.”

“Alina is a really beautiful skater,” Gleikhengauz said. “She is amazing. When we make a program, she always makes something bigger than a program. She always comes up with new ideas: ‘why don’t we do this?’ ‘why wouldn’t we try that?’ She is such an artist.”

Eventually, Zagitova wants to work her way through a list of various different styles.

“We work on them, thanks to the many specialists who come teach us,” she said. “We dance a lot on the floor. We have jazz dance or twist right now. That helps us develop our programs, and gives us huge possibilities to develop ourselves.”

No one knows how long Zagitova will take to master her most difficult jumps. But as for now, she still is the reigning Olympic and world champion, and she intends for that to last.

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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