Yevgenia Tarasova

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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Takeaways and top moments from the World Figure Skating Championships

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The 2019 World Figure Skating Championships are in the books with all of their highs and lows, triumphs and heartbreaks. The Japan-hosted event was lauded as well-organized by the skaters and was said to have featured sold-out crowds.

For the Americans, these championships seem to be a net positive, while other countries, like Japan, may still be reeling from their results on home ice.

Let’s take a look at the takeaways from the World Championships and the top moments.

Nathan Chen’s incredible title defense over home favorite Yuzuru Hanyu

NBCSports.com/figure-skating contributor Phil Hersh described Chen’s performance in Saitama, Japan during the student-athlete’s spring break from Yale University as transcendent, unblemished, and artistically compelling.

We’re running out of adjectives.

Chen stepped on the ice to warm up as the sweepers cleared a shower of Winnie the Pooh stuffed animals off the ice, thrown for hometown favorite, two-time Olympic champion and two-time world champion Yuzuru Hanyu. The pressure could not have been higher for Chen, nor the environment more tense.

His floaty quad Lutz to open his free skate set the tone for the rest of the program, which was unparalleled in its marriage of artistic and technical content. Combined with his lead from the short program, Chen defeated Hanyu in their first head-to-head since the PyeongChang Olympics by more than 20 points to win his second straight world title.

Neither Hanyu (who has a lingering ankle injury but didn’t skate like it on Saturday) nor his teammate in the crowded field, reigning Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno, got the results they were hoping for. Uno finished fourth.

“I lost, that is about it. To tell the truth, it is like death to me,” Hanyu told media after the free skate. “I really want to win. I think I did my best, but the problem is that in figure skating, competition consists of two days, and I am losing in both. It means that I simply do not have enough strength to win.”

“If I recall, there are more competitions that I got disappointed over joyful ones in this season,” Uno said after his performance. “I really admire Yuzuru Hanyu who always seeks high scores and good results, which made me realize I am still immature. Overall, I am still disappointed in myself. I need to become much stronger mentally. I want to skate better next year so that when I look back this Worlds in the future, this would be a good lesson for my skating career.”

Another top moment: Chen’s American teammate Vincent Zhou rose from fourth after the short program to claim the bronze – his second major international medal in as many months. It marks the first time the U.S. put two men on a World podium since 1996, when Todd Eldredge (gold) and Rudy Galindo (bronze) stood on the podium in Edmonton, Alberta.

What does this mean for U.S. men?

Chen, Zhou and Jason Brown show no signs of slowing down. They’re solidly the triumvirate of the U.S. field, though newly-crowned junior world champion Tomoki Hiwatashi was hot on their heels in fourth at the national championships in January.

MORE: Who else is on their way up behind Chen, Zhou and Brown? More names to know as U.S. men’s skating is on the upswell.

Redemption for the Russians; Americans miss the mark

Olympic champion Alina Zagitova floundered this season looking to find her footing. A bad skate in a weak field helped her earn a silver medal at Europeans in January behind Sofia Samodurova, who also joined her in Saitama. She won her first world title in the country that gave her a dog named Masaru (“Victory”) after her Olympic win.

Redemption of a different sort came for the third Russian in the field, Olympic silver medalist Yevgenia Medvedeva. While it might not track that the top two ladies from the Olympics even needed to redeem themselves this year, Medvedeva struggled in her own way this season. She split from her longtime Moscow-based coach, Eteri Tutberidze, where she trained with Zagitova, and moved to around the world to Toronto to train with Brian Orser. She ditched her short program halfway through the season, wasn’t named to the European team, and was in danger of missing the World team, too. At one point, Orser said they were on “stand-by” for the spot.

But the two-time world champion has an impressive resume for a reason. She skated lights-out at Worlds, sitting fourth after the short and winning what – believe it or not – is the first major international bronze medal of her career.

MORE: A deep dive into Yevgenia Medvedeva’s move to Toronto

Moment to learn from: Japanese women placed fourth, fifth and six at a home World Championships. Grand Prix Final medalist Rika Kihira, largely seen as a favorite coming in, was a long shot for a medal after she sat seventh in the short program due to a popped triple Axel attempt. She typically is able to make up some ground in the free skate by the virtue of her two triple Axel attempts, but when she missed one on Friday, her medal hopes were dashed.

Kaori Sakamoto, sixth in PyeongChang and the reigning Japanese national champion, skated well but it wasn’t enough.

And Satoko Miyahara owns two World medals but was dinged by under-rotation calls in 2019, which seem to follow her from competition to competition.

MORE: Rika Kihira wants to be more than Miss New Triple Axel

Bradie Tennell and Mariah Bell were the two ladies in the field for the U.S., looking to earn back a third quota spot for the 2020 World Championships. It would have taken a combined finish of 13th or lower, such as sixth and seventh place finishes.

In Saitama, Tennell finished seventh and Bell finished ninth. Tennell notched new best short program and total scores, while Bell improved on two consecutive years of 12th-place finishes at Worlds.

While this has no bearing (yet) on the spots at the 2022 Winter Olympics, their inability to get the job done this year puts the U.S. ladies’ growth on the world stage in a holding pattern. That’s probably frustrating, especially for active skaters other than Tennell and Bell who want the experience of a major international championship. For example, Hanna Harrell (fourth at nationals in January, then seventh at Junior Worlds) and Ting Cui (fifth at Nationals, then 11th at Four Continents and bronze medalist at World Juniors). Plus, there’s U.S. champion Alysa Liu to consider; she won’t be age-eligible for a senior World Championships until 2022 – after the next Olympic Winter Games.

MORE: How consistent is Bradie Tennell, really?

One more moment: Yelizabet Tursynbayeva of Kazakhstan landed the first-ever clean quadruple jump in senior ladies’ international competition, a Salchow. She moved from Toronto to Moscow this season (going from Orser to Tutberidze) and had never finished better than ninth at Worlds. In 2019, she earned silver. (Creating the opposite of the U.S. problem – Kazakhstan now has three ladies’ spots for next year’s worlds and, as of right now, not enough skaters to fill them.)

Sui and Han take back the title in shortened season

China’s 2017 world champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong had an abbreviated season this year due to Sui’s longstanding ankle and foot injuries. The 2018 Olympic silver medalists came into the World Championships as question marks; they won February’s Four Continents Championships but were not clean in either the short or the free there.

But at Worlds, they were at their best, rising from second after the short to top the Russians, Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov, by 6.37 points for their second World gold. Of course, Sui and Han are eyeing a home Olympics in Beijing in 2022.

The Russians now have three World medals but have never stood on the top spot. Pairs from Russia or the Soviet Union have won 33 World titles since 1965, but only one in the last 14 years.

Heartbreak for James and Cipres: Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres of France came to Worlds undefeated and first-time European and Grand Prix Final champions this season. They were widely expected to vie for the title, possibly even take it, but they buckled under what must’ve been enormous and unfamiliar pressure. A seventh-place finish in the short program combined with a just-not-enough free skate left them in fifth overall.

“I already knew during the short program that getting a medal was almost impossible, but I think we did our job today and we are never giving up,” Cipres said. “We won’t give up until we get the world title.”

American pair’s success: Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc had said all season it would be the job of the U.S. pair named to the World Championships team to win back two pair quota spots for the U.S. for the following year, requiring a top-10 finish. They wanted to be the team to do it.

Then, in December, the team’s plans were nearly derailed as Cain and LeDuc had a bad fall at a small competition in Croatia in December, resulting in a concussion for Cain. But they rallied stronger than ever to win their first national title in January, finished fourth at Four Continents in February and placed ninth at the World Championships. The U.S. will have two pair spots to fill at the 2020 World Championships.

MORE: Cain, LeDuc discuss foundation of their partnership and pressure on them for Worlds

Not just the status quo in ice dance

Sure, the French couple of Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron won their fourth world title.

But Russians Viktoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov won the country’s first medal since 2013, a silver. A second Russian team, Aleksandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin, were fourth. Russia missed the ice dance medals in PyeongChang – it was the first time in Olympic history that a team from Russia or the Soviet Union did not stand on the podium.

American dance still strong: An American team got on the podium for the 13th time in the past 15 years: Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue won bronze. The two-time and reigning U.S. champions won their second world medal in as many years after finishing fourth in PyeongChang.

Two U.S. teams moved to Montreal to train at the same school as Hubbell and Donohue ahead of this season, Madison Chock and Evan Bates, and Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker.

Chock and Bates, the 2015 U.S. champions and two-time world medalists, finished sixth in Saitama and have said repeatedly they’re refreshed and re-invigorated headed into their third Olympic cycle as a team. It shows in their programs this season. The couple also just won their first-ever major international gold medals at February’s Four Continents Championships.

Hawayek and Baker also had their best season ever. They won their first-ever Grand Prix series gold medal and qualified for the Grand Prix Final for the first time. They reached a new high at nationals, claiming bronze. They placed fifth at Four Continents and went onto finish ninth at Worlds, improving from 10th in 2018.

They’re especially looking forward to next season, when the required rhythm dance will be Broadway/operettas for teams. They shine in character-driven programs, and Baker told NBCSports.com/figure-skating he sees the team being able to flourish in that style while training in Montreal.

Oh, Canada: Canadian ice dance may forever be synonymous with Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the most decorated figure skaters in Olympic history, but the country’s other teams are impressive, too. Two-time Olympians Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje have finished inside the top five at Worlds each year for the past nine years, including fifth place this year and three World medals. Fan favorites Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier have finished a handful of times at sixth and eighth place at Worlds, and were seventh in Saitama.

Canada has three spots in dance at their home World Championships in Montreal in 2020, though only one men’s spot (Keegan Messing finished 15th in Saitama and teammate Nam Nguyen finished 16th), two ladies’ spots (Gabrielle Daleman finished 11th, while Alaine Chartrand finished 23rd and Aurora Cotop didn’t qualify for the free skate), and two pair spots (Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marino finished seventh).

U.S. spots for Worlds in 2020

The U.S. will be able to send two ladies, three men, two pairs and three ice dance teams to the 2020 World Championships in Montreal, Canada. The 2019 team will grow from 13 to 15 athletes with the addition of the pair spot.

MORE: World medalists Nathan Chen, Vincent Zhou, Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue headed back to Japan for World Team Trophy

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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Sui Wenjing, Han Cong recapture world pair title

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China’s Sui Wenjing and Han Cong captured their second World Championship title in on Thursday in Saitama, Japan.

The Olympic silver medalists only returned to major international competition a month ago, winning Four Continents in February. They skipped the fall season due to Sui’s lingering foot injury. Sui and Han won the 2017 world title after two years of silver medals.

They were sitting in second after the short program behind Russians Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov, but scored 155.60 points in their clean free skate for a winning total overall score of 234.84 points. They also set the highest free skate score for the season en route to gold.

“We are very happy to have shown our best performance and to win this Championship. We had a tough time we could not prepare so well and did not have much time to practice. Our coaches and our team gave us a lot of support and we knew we can make it and get the title. Winning the second time was harder and it was a team effort,” Sui said, according to the ISU.

Tarasova and Morozov scored 147.26 in the free skate for 228.47 total points total, both season’s bests. They took home silver medals, to add to their 2017 bronze and 2018 silver medals from worlds.

Their Russian teammates Natalya Zabiyako and Aleksandr Enbert also skated a season’s best free skate, tallying 144.02 points and a total overall score of 217.98 points to capture the bronze, their first World medal.

Full results are here.

French pair Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres squandered their chances at a gold medal after the short program, where a messy performance left them in seventh place.

The Grand Prix Final gold medalists and European champions scored 146.52 in the free skate to finish with 215.19 points overall, landing in fifth place. Without anything to lose, they skated a relatively clean performance: James doubled a plan triple toe, double toe, double toe combination and put her foot down on the landing of the throw triple Salchow.

“We won’t give up until we get the World title,” the pair told the ISU. “The Worlds hasn’t been our best friend, but every time we come back stronger.”

The lone American pair at worlds, Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc, celebrated exuberantly in the Kiss and Cry with coaches Peter and Darlene Cain, Ashley’s parents. Despite Cain’s fall on the throw triple Salchow in the free skate, they finished in ninth place. They scored 126.88 in the free skate for 193.81 points overall.

By staying within the top-10 overall, the U.S. national champions secured two quota spots for the U.S. at the 2020 World Championships. The pair told NBCSports.com/figure-skating that was their goal all season, even with Cain’s concussion in December nearly derailing those plans.

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WE DID IT✌🏻✌🏻⁣ Goals for the season:⁣ •Win National title✅⁣ •Top ten at our first World Championships✅⁣ •Earn the two spots back for Team USA pairs✅⁣ We feel truly honored to be here in Japan and competing on behalf of Team USA! This season has been a pretty wild ride and it wouldn’t have been possible without the amazing team around us! Thank you to our coaches, our trainers, my family, my fiancé, US Figure Skating staff, the spectators, and all of our training mates back home! ⛸ “Whenever you find yourself doubting how far you can go, just remember how far you have come. Remember everything you have faced, all the battles you have won and all the fears you have overcome.” #WorldFigure

A post shared by Ashley Cain-Gribble (@icegirlash) on

Also of note: Great Britain’s Zoe Jones, 39-year-old mother of three, competed with partner Christopher Boyadji. Jones is a former singles skater who retired in 2001 before coming back to the sport as a pair skater in 2014. They skated personal best scores in the short program, free skate and overall total and finished 17th in Japan.

The men’s short program gets underway at 3 a.m. ET Thursday.

MORE: How to watch the World Figure Skating Championships | Men’s Preview

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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