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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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Loena Hendrickx on the rise, making Grand Prix debut at Skate America

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Belgian teenager Loena Hendrickx made her Winter Olympic debut in PyeongChang, and began her short program with the aim of becoming the first from her country to qualify for a ladies’ singles free skate since Katrien Pauwels in 1988.

Fresh off a 14th place finish in the men’s event, brother Jorik sat in the stands. He looked away as the music – a cool arrangement of Madonna’s “Frozen” – began, and covered his eyes as the 18-year-old set up for a planned triple lutz, triple toe combination.

Eight years younger than her two-time Olympian elder brother, Hendrickx knew the feeling.

“I get nervous when he competes, too,” she explained after winning a bronze medal at the Nebelhorn Trophy, an ISU Challenger Series event. “I might be even more nervous watching him than when I have to skate myself, because I don’t know how he’s feeling on the ice, and I can’t control his skate.”

She ultimately landed the combination – albeit under-rotated – and bested Pauwels’ result from Calgary by one place, finishing 16th overall. Even stronger skates were to come at the world championships in Milan, where she beat reigning Olympic champion Alina Zagitova in the free skate to earn a Top 10 total score and qualify for her first-ever Grand Prix events in the upcoming season.

“I’m very excited because that’s something you wish for. The first one is immediately in Skate America, so it’s very exciting. I’ve never been to the States before!”

Jorik was initially scheduled to skate alongside his sister at the Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett, Wash., but opted to withdraw and spend the start of the season working with other athletes, including Loena.

“He is working with me sometimes. I really can learn a lot from him because he has the knowledge and experience. I think he can teach me a lot.”

While the siblings work primarily with coach Carine Herrygers, Jorik assisted Loena in selecting her “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now” short program music, another ’90s hit by Céline Dion.

“I really liked my program [“The Prayer” by Dion and Josh Groban] from two years ago, and so I think I chose the same style. I researched more of her music, and it was my brother who found this song. I didn’t like it at the beginning because I had another song I liked more.

“In the end, Jorik convinced me to take this one because it’s more powerful and I can skate better to powerful music.”

Hendrickx debuted the program in Oberstdorf, earning personal best scores to make the podium alongside Zagitova and Mai Mihara. More importantly, she achieved her pre-season goal of landing the lutz-toe combination – with positive Grades of Execution – in both phases of the competition.

While most of her competitors made waves as juniors, the Belgian struggled with multiple injuries – a 2016 stress fracture in her back, later a bone bruise on her landing knee – that kept her from eliciting the buzz many top skaters get on the Junior Grand Prix.

“After I healed, I was very happy to begin building back up again. For a long time, I worked on my fitness to make my back and body stronger. That made my jumps stronger and helped me perform better, more consistently.”

In a field that includes two-time world medalist Satoko Miyahara and U.S. national champion Bradie Tennell, Hendrickx heads to Skate America armed with a competitive technical arsenal, and a dose of inspiration imparted by her brother on the ice.

“In Belgium, there are fewer opportunities to be successful when you’re younger because it’s very difficult to combine skating with school. Jorik taught me that you never have to give up on your dreams. If you work hard, you’ll see where you can go.”

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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Older, wiser Tuktamysheva comfortable taking on new skating style and social media trolls

Elizaveta Tuktamysheva
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Just over a minute into her Lombardia Trophy free skate, Elizaveta Tuktamysheva glides to center ice. The 2015 World champion has landed two planned triple Lutzes after stepping out of an ambitious triple Axel attempt. She emerges from a level four layback spin and sets her expressive eyes on the judges.

Tuktamysheva, 21, is leading after the short program of her first competition of the season. A strong result will help her stand out in a field of Russian ladies so deep that the 2013 National champion is yet to qualify for an Olympic team.

With three triple jumps to go, the Glazov native hasn’t simply begun her step sequence as the music changes to The Hot Sardines’ “Petite Fleur.” She’s lip-syncing for her life.

“I sing along to my free skate!” Tuktamysheva admitted in her first-ever English interview. “When I first heard this music, I fell in love. I wanted to start skating right away.”

Coached by famed technician Alexei Mishin – noted for working with Olympic champions Alexei Yagudin and Yevgeny Plushenko – the Russian’s free skate, a Roaring Twenties mash-up of selections by Caro Emerald and Parov Stelar, is a distinct departure from the more dramatic endeavors she chose in seasons past.

Since landing the triple Axel to win her world title in Shanghai, she often donned dark costumes as the likes of Carmina Burana and Peer Gynt blared in the background. All the while, teenaged rivals Yevgenia Medvedeva and Alina Zagitova won world and Olympic golds by striking more major chords, musically speaking.

“This year is more me. I really like my [Assassin’s Tango] short, because it’s passionate. I like the style of the free, as well. I don’t know why I haven’t done this more often because it is so me, so light. I want to be able to do my programs cleanly, more beautifully, with more stability.”

Aiming to add a once-reliable triple Lutz-triple toe combination back into her technical arsenal, Tukstamysheva’s artistic shift was well-received by the judges. She won gold at Lombardia Tophy, earning her highest Program Component Score since the 2015 European Championships and the third-best free skating total on the senior level this season.

“I’m starting to enjoy skating again,” she said after regaining a consistent triple Axel at the end of last season. “I’m not worried about what people think of me, and I’m skating more freely. I’m full of love for my programs, and that’s a key to good skating. If you love something, you’ll do the best you can.”

She keeps that love alive by sharing it with fans, hosting a meet-and-greet party à la Taylor Swift at a St. Petersburg coffee shop last week, and makes a more global connection with a fast-growing Twitter account.

“Twitter is more comfortable for Americans like you and fans living in North America and Asia.”

Displaying a fluid command of English slang, Tuktamysheva collaborates with friend Valeriy Kharitonov to craft a confident voice, one that only an athlete who hurls herself in the air for up to three-and-a-half rotations could have.

“She appreciates her fans, but if there is a mean person, she’ll destroy him for sure,” notes Kharitonov, who occasionally translated questions during our 15-minute exchange.

“I don’t care!” Tuktamysheva adds. “I feel comfortable when anyone hates me.”

The only 20-something in an otherwise all-teen Top 15 at last year’s Russian Nationals, Tuktamysheva next heads to Finlandia Trophy, where she may continue channeling that more mature mindset and unflappable attitude – on and off the ice – towards more success.

“I don’t remember how I felt when I was 18. I just feel like I’m older, and maybe that I should think more about my future!” she joked. “Maybe I have more wisdom. I’ve realized some small things that I didn’t notice in the past. Those things definitely matter more now.”

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