Autumn Classic

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Yuzuru Hanyu opens season with win; Nathan Chen challenge coming

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Yuzuru Hanyu began his season the way he did three of the previous four years — by winning the lower-level Autumn Classic in Canada. Hardly a surprise. The real head-turner would be if he can end it with a victory, too.

Hanyu, the two-time Olympic champion who was beaten by Nathan Chen for last season’s world title, cruised the last two days against a field lacking any other top-10 finishers from worlds.

Though the Japanese megastar fell on his opening quadruple Salchow in Friday’s short program, he landed four quads in Saturday’s free skate (the first two with turnouts on the landings). He totaled 279.05 points, distancing Frenchman Kevin Aymoz by 16.57.

Hanyu’s attention turns to the Grand Prix Series. He competes at Skate Canada in October and NHK Trophy in November. But the most anticipated events are December’s Grand Prix Final, likely the first time he and Chen go head-to-head this season, and the world championships in Montreal in March.

Though Hanyu has the biggest prize of all, Chen outscored him comfortably at their last three programs dating to the PyeongChang Winter Games free skate. Hanyu has never faced such a rival since overtaking Canadian Patrick Chan as the world’s best six years ago.

“I have never seen him at this time of the year to be so focused,” coach Brian Orser said before the Autumn Classic. “When we were trying to surpass Patrick Chan, [Chan] was the benchmark. … We had to play to Patrick’s strengths, which was components [artistry]. … We had to build a plan to catch them and exceed them [the components] to get where he wants to be. Now, to get where he wants to be, he has to use himself as the measure.”

Earlier Saturday, Russian 15-year-old Anna Shcherbakova became the second woman to land a quadruple jump in senior international competition. She hit a quad Lutz en route to winning her senior international debut at Lombardia Trophy, a lower-level event in Italy.

Shcherbakova, the world junior silver medalist, overtook 2015 World champion Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, who landed three triple Axels between both programs, two of them with negative grades of execution. South Korean 15-year-old You Young, who finished third, also landed triple Axels in both programs with negative grades.

Quads and triple Axels, rare in senior women’s skating before this season, are looking more and more necessary to be favored for medals at upcoming global competitions.

Shcherbakova also landed a quad Lutz in winning last season’s senior Russian Championships, where she beat Olympic gold and silver medalists Alina Zagitova and Yevgenia Medvedeva.

Two weeks ago, 14-year-old national champion Alysa Liu became the first American woman to land a quad at her junior international debut.

The figure skating season continues next week with a Junior Grand Prix in Poland (featuring Liu), the U.S. International Classic in Salt Lake City (with U.S. bronze medalist Vincent Zhou) and two-time world junior champion Alexandra Trusova in her senior international debut in Slovakia.

NBC Sports researcher Sarah Hughes (not the Olympic figure skater) contributed to this report from the Autumn Classic.

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Rika Kihira denies Yevgenia Medvedeva first win in two years

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Japan’s Rika Kihira landed triple Axels in both programs to open her international figure skating season with a victory over Olympic silver medalist Yevgenia Medvedeva at the Autumn Classic in Oakville, Ontario.

Kihira, a 17-year-old who went undefeated last fall before taking fourth at the world championships, totaled 224.16 points after landing two triple Axels in her free skate (one called under rotated). Medvedeva, without the high-scoring triple Axel, finished 6.63 points behind while beating Kihira in artistic scores in both programs.

Medvedeva, the 2016 and 2017 World champion, last won an international event in November 2017. Training partner Alina Zagitova surpassed her for the Olympic title, and last year Medvedeva took third at worlds after moving from Russia to Toronto to train under Brian Orser.

“I’m feeling almost that comfortable, that confident [sic] in myself that I was two years ago, three years ago, four years ago,” Medvedeva told media after the short program.

American Karen Chen took fourth at the Autumn Classic in her first international competition since the Olympics. Chen, the 2017 U.S. champion, missed all of last season with a stress fracture in her foot.

Earlier Friday, two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu opened his season by falling on a quadruple Salchow but recovered to top the men’s short program at the Autumn Classic.

Hanyu, beaten by Nathan Chen for last season’s world title, tallied 98.38 points to lead by 3.62 over Frenchman Kevin Aymoz. The field lacks any of the other top 10 men from worlds. Hanyu and Chen aren’t expected to go head-to-head until December’s Grand Prix Final.

The Autumn Classic finishes Saturday with the men’s free skate.

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Marvel superheroes inspire Bradie Tennell, Starr Andrews

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Bradie Tennell and Starr Andrews have something in common beyond their obvious figure skating talents: both skaters look to Marvel superheroes for inspiration.

The 20-year-old Tennell, who opened her 2018-19 international season with a big win over two-time world champion Yevgenia Medvedeva of Russia at the Autumn International Classic in Oakville, Ontario, counts Iron Man and Spider-Man as her favorites.

Believe it or not, Iron Man – also known as Tony Stark – figures into Tennell’s free skate to “Romeo and Juliet.”

“After I land the triple salchow toward the end of my program, I go down on one knee and do what I call my Iron Man pose, because that’s what Iron Man (played by Robert Downey Jr.) does in the first Avengers movie,” she said.

Summoning superhuman strength worked. Tennell had a personal-best free skate in Oakville. But in other ways, she’s the opposite of her hero: Iron Man survives his adventures largely be wearing a special suit of armor, while Tennell is all about dropping her guard this season and being more expressive on the ice.

“I believe in myself a lot more,” she said. “I don’t think I’m as timid. I’m really working on not being as shy, just kind of letting my personality come through in everything.”

Andrews, 17, is inspired by the noble and determined Black Panther, depicted in the 2018 film by Chadwick Boseman.

“There is always a challenge and you always have to fight to get what you want,” she said.

“I wanted something different this year, I definitely wanted no lyrics, and an African theme,” she added. “When I watched Black Panther, I said, ‘Yeah, I want something like (the music in) this’ and Derrick (Delmore) pulled up some music.”

Delmore, who coaches Andrews in Los Angeles, wracked his brain to find the right material. Ultimately, he choreographed her free to a medley he calls “African Tribal Xotica.”

“The music is from five different things,” he said. “She saw the movie, loved it, and sent me some music from that movie she cut herself that I didn’t love. She was inspired to do something in that genre. I finally thought of music I used a few years back for another skater, and I played it for her, and as soon as it came on she said, ‘Oh, this is what I want.’”

What Andrews wants now is a triple axel. She attempted the three-and-a-half revolution jump in her free skate in Oakville, but it was downgraded (judged short of rotation) by the technical panel. Still, she placed a respectable seventh in a tough international field.

“I’m excited for the day I get it,” Andrews said. “I just have to keep working on it. One day I will land it and will be super-confident and happy.  It’s not new to me, I’ve been working on it for a while. That little extra effort, and then I’ll land it.”

Only two other senior U.S. ladies – Tonya Harding, back in the early 1990s, and Mirai Nagasu at the Pyeongchang Olympics in February – have landed the jump in international competition, but Andrews believes it is becoming almost commonplace.  While Tennell and Andrews were competing in Oakville, Japanese teenager Rika Kihira landed two triple axels, including one in combination with a triple toe, at Ondrej Nepela Trophy.

“There are so many more people doing it know. I feel like it’s not surprising for women to do it,” Andrews said. “They are doing it in junior and even in advanced novice, like Alysa Liu (at the Asian Open), which was amazing.”

Delmore supports his student’s ambition, with a few caveats.

“Right now, I want her to get used to doing the axel,” he said. “I want it to be a regular part of her competitive experience, so she knows how to keep going when it doesn’t go well, and hopefully when she gets it, she knows what it’s like to have that amazing moment and to keep going.”

MORE: 12-year-old is third U.S. woman to land triple Axel internationally