Nick Zaccardi

OlympicTalk Editor

A wild Grand Prix Final has a quadruple Axel, the Brits and a figure skating tale for the ages

Ilia Malinin
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The world’s best figure skaters gather for the first time this season at this week’s Grand Prix Final in Turin, Italy. The Who’s Who is a very different group than from February’s Olympics, as expected, with the fall Grand Prix Series also producing some unpredictable stories.

Of the 18 skaters who won Olympic medals outside of the team event, just two of them competed internationally this fall. As was known before the season, all Russians are banned indefinitely due to the war in Ukraine. China’s top skaters didn’t enter the Grand Prix Series. Nathan Chen and the French ice dance couple of Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron are on indefinite, possibly permanent breaks after winning long-awaited golds.

It is time for new stars to emerge. That happened. American Ilia Malinin, last year’s world junior champion at age 17, became the first skater to land a quadruple Axel in competition in September. Then he did it again in October, and again in November.

It is time for new stories to emerge. The Grand Prix Final is the most exclusive event in figure skating — taking the top six per discipline from the Grand Prix Series — since it was introduced in 1996. This year, Belgium and Great Britain qualified skaters for the first time in more than a decade. Japanese men who were seventh and eighth at their national championships last season are in the field. As is a 39-year-old pairs’ skater from Canada who competed against Michelle Kwan in the 6.0 scoring era.

GRAND PRIX FINAL: Broadcast Schedule

The U.S. qualified skaters into the Final in every discipline for the first time in 15 years. The team is led statistically by Malinin, the world No. 1 bidding to be the second-youngest man to win a Final after Russian Yevgeny Plushenko.

Malinin, whose mom won the 1999 Grand Prix Final, is one half of the most anticipated head-to-head showdown this week. He takes on Japan’s Shoma Uno for the first time since the world championships in March, when Uno won and Malinin placed ninth in his debut on that stage. This season, Malinin and Uno each won their two separate Grand Prix starts, with Malinin having the best total score by a scant 61 hundredths of a point.

NBC Sports analyst Johnny Weir called Malinin the favorite for the Final and for March’s worlds (which could include Olympic silver medalist Yuma Kagiyama of Japan, who has been sidelined this fall due to leg and ankle injuries). But Weir also said that if Malinin and Uno skate clean this week, the 24-year-old Uno has the advantage.

“He’s had the longevity. He’s had the time in front of these top judges. And artistically, he’s so excellent,” Weir said.

The world’s highest-scoring women’s singles skater this season will compete at the Final, but in the junior division. Japan’s Mao Shimada won both of her junior Grand Prix starts. She is 14 years old, and with the age limit being raised in coming seasons will not be old enough for the next Olympics in 2026 (reminiscent of countrywoman Mao Asada, who was too young the last time Italy hosted the Winter Games in 2006).

Without Shimada, and without the Russians who dominated recent seasons, the women’s field is the most closely bunched at the Final. Mai Mihara, who missed the Olympics after placing fourth at Japan’s Nationals last December, was the lone woman to win both of her Grand Prix starts this fall. Kaori Sakamoto, last season’s world champion in the Russians’ absence, has the top score this season among senior women (and a shout out from Janet Jackson). But the six skaters at the Final are separated by just 4.47 points in best scores this fall.

American Isabeau Levito, the 15-year-old world junior champion, is the youngest woman in the field by four years. NBC Sports analyst Tara Lipinski said that Levito has a total package of jumps, artistry and competitive fire not seen in U.S. skating in many years. Levito, who has made short films, including “The Pickle Murder,” is reminiscent of Sasha Cohen, the last U.S. women’s singles skater to win an Olympic medal in 2006.

“There’s never a hand, finger, hair out of place when it comes to Isabeau’s skating,” Lipinski said. “Looking back at my first year as a senior, I was terrified. I looked like a junior coming up to the senior ranks. Isabeau, she’s gone past that phase.”

Pairs’ skating saw the highest turnover. The top five teams at the Olympics were Russian and Chinese, and none have competed internationally since. Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier took advantage at March’s worlds, becoming the first U.S. pair to win a world title since 1979.

Knierim and Frazier won both of their Grand Prix starts this fall, but were flawed. Japan’s Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara, who took silver at worlds, averaged 10 more points in their separate Grand Prix victories.

“Comparing people based on the scores that they accrue in different competitions is a nice way to see how people are faring in front of international panels, but it’s not a direct comparison between the two at all,” Weir said. “They’re very evenly matched.”

But the coolest story in pairs, and arguably in all of figure skating, is 39-year-old Canadian Deanna Stellato-Dudek. With partner Maxime Deschamps, she became the oldest Grand Prix podium finisher in October and the oldest champion in November. Stellato-Dudek, the 2000 World junior silver medalist in singles from Chicagoland, retired from figure skating in 2001 due to injuries, then came back in 2016 in pairs and switched nationality.

Weir recently came across photos of him with Stellato-Dudek when they competed at the same junior Grand Prix event in Norway in 1999.

“I’m pretty sure she was skating when I was skating, so that is a crazy feat in itself,” said Lipinski, whose last competition was winning the 1998 Olympics.

Ice dance, usually the most predictable of the four disciplines, sprung surprises this fall. Three-time world medalists Madison Chock and Evan Bates were the top returning couple based on results from last season’s Olympics and worlds, but the Americans rank outside the top three this fall by results and best total score.

Still, 2006 Olympic silver medalist Ben Agosto said they’re looking better than ever, having improved from their first Grand Prix to their second Grand Prix.

“The challenge for them is they’ve been so good for so long that they don’t want to get stale,” Agosto said of a couple that’s in their 12th season together. “They don’t want people to start to think, well, you know, two seasons ago was better than this, or five seasons ago was better than this. They want to always be reinventing, but then also capitalizing on their biggest strengths.”

Canadian veterans Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier, ranked third among returning couples going into the fall, won both of their Grand Prix starts with the world’s top two scores across all events. Agosto believes that the field is closer than the point totals suggest and that some couples have been underscored, including Americans Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, who qualified into the Final in the sixth and last spot.

Agosto said that Lilah Fear and Lewis Gibson, Great Britain’s first Grand Prix Final qualifiers since 2009, can “blow the roof off” with their Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez rhythm dance and Lady Gaga free dance.

“You can just feel the the intensity that everyone is bringing after their Olympic experience and coming back and feeling rejuvenated and maybe feeling the adrenaline effect of having a little bit more of an opportunity because Papadakis and Cizeron are not there, because the Russians are not there,” Agosto said. “I’ve really seen across the board this group stepping up from last season, so I don’t think that it would just be a clear OK, well, if those other teams were in the game this year, they would, by default, be on top.”

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Something new for Olympic artistic swimming: men

Bill May
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Artistic swimming, formerly known as synchronized swimming, has been on the Olympic program since 1984. It has always been a women’s-only discipline at the Games. That may change in Paris in 2024.

FINA, the international governing body for aquatic sports, last month amended its rules to allow up to two men per country in the artistic team event at competitions including the Olympics.

However, that has not gone into effect for the 2024 Paris Games. Not yet at least. The official 2024 Olympic documentation for artistic swimming has not been changed from what was initially published in July, before the FINA rule passed.

The International Olympic Committee pointed out that the Paris 2024 event program and athlete quotas were approved in December 2020, 22 months before FINA moved to allow men in the team event at future Olympics.

When asked if it’s too late to change the team event’s athlete makeup for Paris 2024, the IOC said it “is currently working with FINA to understand their long term development plans for the integration of men into artistic swimming, and the opportunities that may exist for men to compete in artistic swimming at the Olympic Games.”

Key U.S. artistic swimming figures believe that the change will go into effect for Paris. The IOC may have an update at or following its next executive board meeting in two weeks.

U.S. artistic swimming head coach Andrea Fuentes is looking forward to having men in her athlete pool for the team event. There are candidates. Since 2015, the world championships have included a mixed duet with one male swimmer and female swimmer, an event that is not on the Olympic program.

“We have males ready to swim, but there are other countries who have not,” Fuentes said, adding that she will decide whether to enter men in upcoming team competitions to test them out. “I want inclusion. … If I have the opportunity to do it, I will for sure use it.”

The current U.S. national team includes 25 athletes: 24 women and one man: Kenny Gaudet, an 18-year-old from Lakeland, Florida, recently highlighted by the Los Angeles Times. Gaudet has competed in solo and duet events, plus is part of the U.S. team in the acrobatic routine that FINA announced last week will be added to the Olympic event for Paris.

“With time, it’s becoming a sport where we need more strength, more power,” Fuentes said. “Naturally, men have more strength.

“We can use the strength of each individual in a different way. We have a female swimmer, for example, who is extremely light. So imagine [a male artistic swimmer] pushing to the air this super light person. You can make the most impactful acrobatics to have ever happened in our sport, no? So it changes everything.”

Bill May, a 43-year-old American, is a pioneer for men’s artistic swimming. He came out of a 10-year retirement — spending much of that time performing in a Cirque du Soleil water show — when the mixed duet was added to worlds. He partnered with Christina Jones to win the first gold.

May said there have been discussions about adding men since at least 2000, back when he didn’t know of any other men in the sport.

May, who last competed in 2021 and now coaches the Santa Clara Aquamaids program in California, said he learned of male Olympic inclusion via text message from a FINA artistic swimming official on Oct. 20. May described his reaction as “an explosion. Not just for me. For the sport.”

“The world all of a sudden becomes tunnel vision,” said May, who was elected onto FINA’s athlete commission in June. “All of these people that we’ve had that camaraderie together now have the opportunity to compete at a competition we thought we could only dream of.

“Every male athlete, every coach, every federation, every official that is pushing for men, it’s not to push females out. It’s to expand the sport that we all love and respect so much.”

The U.S. still must qualify for the 10-nation 2024 Olympic team event. It failed to reach the last three Olympics. It missed the Tokyo Games by one spot and .2108 of a point in a last-chance qualifier.

At this past summer’s world championships, the U.S. placed sixth in the technical routine, ninth in the free routine and fifth in the highlight (acrobatic) routine, the three events that will make up future Olympic competition. That was its best combined result at a worlds since 2007, the last year it qualified for the Olympic team event.

For 2024, the winner of the 2023 Pan American Games qualifies for the Olympics. The U.S. is expected to contend with Canada and Mexico for that spot.

If the U.S. does not win Pan Ams, its last shot to qualify will be the February 2024 World Championships. The top five nations among those not already qualified via continental championships will round out the 10-nation Olympic field.

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Aja Evans, Olympic bobsled medalist, banned two years

Aja Evans
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Aja Evans, an Olympic bobsled bronze medalist, was banned two years for not submitting a drug-testing sample during an out-of-competition test on March 29.

Evans, a 34-year-old who earned Olympic bronze in 2014 and placed fifth in 2018, “failed to submit to sample collection after being notified by a USADA [U.S. Anti-Doping Agency] doping control officer,” according to a press release.

Athletes can qualify for a reduction from the default four-year ban for not submitting a sample if they can show that it wasn’t intentional. A USADA investigation determined Evans “negligently failed to submit to sample collection.”

Evans’ ban began on Nov. 8, the date she accepted the sanction.

She released the following statement through a representative:

As many of you know, I’ve dedicated my heart and soul to bobsled over these last 10 years. The sport has rewarded me with not only amazing opportunities and achievements, but also tremendous teammates and friends. I am very grateful for my journey through bobsled and for the personal growth I’ve experienced by being in the sport.

In the spirit of good sportsmanship and professional responsibility I accept the two-year sanction imposed upon me by USADA. At no time have I ever purposely avoided testing or failed a test, as my integrity and dignity stands for so much more than that. My mistake was simply failing to submit to a test when the rules mandated that I had to. Although I never thought I had done anything wrong at that time, I understand my actions have consequences.

I humbly accept this sanction, and will use the time to focus on my health and wellbeing. This is by no means a reflection of who I am in the sport of bobsled, as my impact in the sport remains positive and far reaching, even outside of competition. And, I will always remain positive, appreciative, and practice good sportsmanship.

To accept this sanction was a very difficult decision to make, but one that I ultimately felt was necessary given where I am in my life. At this time, I ask for your support and respect as I turn inward and focus on myself so that I can come out from this a better athlete and an even better person.

Thank you, everyone, in advance, for your love and support.

Evans was an alternate for the U.S. Olympic team this past February after making the previous two Olympic teams. She was set back last season by a Dec. 3 training accident that put her in a hospital with facial lacerations.

The World Cup bobsled season starts next week. Evans had been the lone Olympian named to the national team of female push athletes for this season.

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