Philip Hersh

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

Yuzuru Hanyu
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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.

MORE: Looking back at Yuna Kim’s 10-year gold medal anniversary

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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Virtual figure skating competition offers glimpse of sport’s possible future

Karen Chen
AP
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It was early April. The 2020 World Figure Skating Championships had been canceled by Covid-19, abruptly ending last season. Rinks were closing down for health reasons. Some entire countries were on lockdown.

Anyone who has been around figure skating as long as Gale Tanger could see even then how difficult it would be to have any competitions the rest of 2020 if they required travel by athletes or officials, whether the events were international, national, regional or local.

Tanger, an international judge for 32 years, began looking for an alternative to give elite U.S. skaters left unmoored by the pandemic’s impact at least something that could feel like a competition, something to anchor a goal in the early part of the 2020-21 season.

So the Peggy Fleming Trophy became the first virtual event in the sport’s history.

“It worked!!!!!!!” an excited Tanger said in an email late Tuesday, after the judging of the competition was completed. “What an incredible leap for our sport. Obstacles have been removed, and a new highway has been paved.”

A 90-minute streamed video of the event will be available to the public beginning Friday at 7 p.m. EDT on the U.S. Figure Skating Fan Zone video center. The question now is whether this concept can be expanded during the pandemic to make more competitions possible.

“Any time you experiment with something new, you always are paying attention to how it can be applied to other things – and for normal times, as well,” U.S. Figure Skating spokesman Michael Terry said. “The virtual concept has not yet been discussed for any other specific events, including the qualifying season (for the 2021 U.S. Championships).”

Tanger figured the Peggy Fleming Trophy was a good place to experiment. The event, which she and 1968 Olympic champion Fleming had created in 2018, already was an alternative to the usual competition format.

It has just one program, a three-and-a-half-minute freestyle in which there is heavy emphasis on artistry and musicality and significantly reduced weight on jumps. It allows men to compete against women and is easier to judge than an event using the International Judging System and ISU rules.

The third Peggy Fleming Trophy was supposed to take place July 1 at the Broadmoor World Arena in Colorado Springs, its home in 2018 and 2019. When it was clear by late April that doing it live would likely be impossible for public safety reasons, Tanger enlisted the help of U.S. Figure Skating and immediately began working through the logistics of doing it virtually.

After all, Tanger and her husband, Tom, who live in Wauwatosa, Wis., had been using Zoom to help with the virtual schooling of their grandchildren in Sydney, Australia, and she was using Facebook Live to judge off-ice competitions in Latin America. She thought there had to be a way to use such technology for a judged competition in which both athletes and judges could take part from their own rink or, in the case of the judges, their home or office.

Once the various parties were sufficiently convinced it could be done to post an online entry announcement, the 18-person field filled overnight.

Gale Tanger
Gale Tanger at the 2019 Peggy Fleming Trophy at the Broadmoor World Arena. (Courtesy Gale Tanger)

“I thought we may have found the Holy Grail,” Tanger said, referring to the way skaters responded to a solution to save at least this event.

“It’s so great that everyone associated with the event is trying to test the waters and see what is possible,” said 2018 Olympian Karen Chen, third in last year’s Peggy Fleming Trophy and a virtual contestant in the 2020 event.

This was the basic premise: each skater would perform a program at his or her convenience between July 8 and 10. He or she would submit video of the program, to be shot from a high center-ice position. Multiple attempts were permitted, but the video chosen had to be of a single complete attempt, with no editing.

The seven judges and technical specialist David Santee, all qualified to work international events, watched the videos from eight different places via Zoom at the same time Tuesday, as if they were in an arena. They scored on iPads, using the IJS software they have at live events, and they have taken a vow of secrecy about the results until the event is streamed.

Could it be more than a one-off? Probably not for more significant events like the Grand Prix series. The International Skating Union council will again discuss its fate for 2020 in early August. A decision is supposed to be made by Aug. 1 on Skate America, the series opener, scheduled Oct. 23-25 in Las Vegas.

To the question of whether the ISU is looking at a virtual format as a possibility for some events this season, ISU vice-president Alexander Lakernik said in an email: “No… At least at the moment.”

Added Fabio Bianchetti of Italy, chair of the ISU singles and pairs technical committee: “I didn’t know about the idea of having it (the Peggy Fleming Trophy) online this year, and I think it is a wonderful possibility to do it in this way in such a difficult moment. As to the possibility of using this format for other events this season, I have no answer. The matter has never been discussed so far.”

Chen, who has been training at the World Arena since late May, chose an expanded version of a short program to Katy Perry’s version of “Rise” that Drew Meekins had choreographed for her to use this season. She did three “takes,” with about 30 minutes between each, for an iPhone recording done by her boyfriend, Camden Pulkinen, the 2018 U.S. junior champion, who also competed. Another competitor, Andrew Torgashev, shot iPhone video of Chen as a backup.

(Defending champion Jason Brown heads the field, which includes 12 athletes who train at the World Arena. For a complete list of the competitors, now 10 women and seven men after Amber Glenn withdrew, click here.)

“I was quite happy with my first attempt, but I got nit-picky and ran two more,” Chen said. “I finally decided to use the third because it didn’t make sense to go with the first after all that effort.”

The limitations of iPhone video, where close-ups can lead to a blur from pixelization, meant about half the rink was visible on nearly all of Chen’s video. That obviously reduced the size of her image.

“For the most part, all the skaters’ videos were clear,” Tanger said.

Pulkinen, who competed in the first two editions of the Peggy Fleming Trophy (finishing second in 2018), also did three takes, using the third, as videographed by Torgashev. His performance, to “In This Shirt” by The Irrepressibles, enlarged on the new short program choreographed for him by Josh Farris.

“I tried to treat it as if each run-through was my only shot, the way it would be in a normal competition, instead of falling back on the mindset that if one was bad, I have multiple attempts,” Pulkinen said. “I felt the same sense of relief one would typically feel at the end of a competition.”

Pulkinen did not think it was impossible for a variation on this format to be used for more important events, perhaps with each competitor using a live feed and taking the ice one after another for a single attempt. It might require choreographic changes for skaters knowing they are not being judged on the view from several sets of eyes but on the view from a single camera angle.

“I’m keeping an open mind and taking this as, ‘Okay, this is a trial run for how video competitions may be, and maybe I learn how to choreograph something differently to appeal more to that specific camera more,’” Pulkinen said.

Such “virtually live” competitions would eventually depend on the ability of the ISU or USFS to ensure a high-quality, very reliable stream created with professional video equipment by a professional camera operator at the many rinks where skaters would perform. Given the money saved if there are no live Grand Prix or Junior Grand Prix events, arranging for such equipment might be money well spent to preserve some of the season.

“I think it would be very mentally challenging to do live feed competitions,” Chen said. “Part of competition is its whole environment: being with other skaters, feeling the pressure, having the adrenaline kick in when you get on the ice with people cheering.

“Letting go of that side of competition and embracing this new side will be quite challenging for people. I think it could work, but there will need to be a lot of experimentation.”

Over the weekend, Tanger judged a “live” off-line competition run by Argentina that had skaters from four countries. The marks were simple, on a scale of 1-to-10, but so was the execution of a concept that would have seemed like science fiction a few years ago.

Now the Peggy Fleming Trophy has paved a few miles of a way for figure skating to travel the information highway.

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

MORE: Jason Brown remains optimistic facing uncertain skating season

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