European Figure Skating Championships

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Nathan Chen, Alina Zagitova among the top takeaways for the figure skating season

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A baker’s dozen takeaways, with some looks to the future, from the 2018-19 figure skating season, which ended Saturday in Japan with the United States winning the World Team Trophy.

1. It’s time to give Russia’s Alina Zagitova full – and massive – credit for what she has done the past two seasons.

Zagitova and her coaching team were unfairly criticized in some quarters for what turned out to be a brilliant strategy of doing all seven jumping passes in the second half bonus area of the 2018 Olympic free skate. Not only was that an impressive feat of stamina, the bonus points Zagitova got for those jumps were the difference between her winning gold and getting silver.

When a Zagitova worn down by a post-Olympic whirl of appearances flopped to fifth in the 2018 World Championships, staggered to fifth at this season’s Russian Championships and was beaten at Europeans, there were suggestions she might be a one-hit wonder. Then, as she later said in an interview on the Russian Skating Federation website, Zagitova became so unsettled by the pressure and the thought of failure at worlds her jumps deserted her in practice, and she had thoughts of quitting.

Some of her struggles were not unexpected. She had grown some three inches since the Olympics. Her body proportions were changing from those of a girl to those of a young woman. New rules minimized one of her strengths by limited skaters to just three jumping passes in the bonus area.

And Zagitova overcame all that, the psychological and the physical issues and the scoring changes, to win the 2019 worlds with two clean programs, a dazzling short and a strong, commanding free. At 16, she had added a world title to her Olympic title. That is worthy of unqualified acclaim.

2. Nathan Chen had a remarkable season, even if judged only by what he did on the ice.

When one puts his undefeated record in the context of having done it while simultaneously being a full-time freshman student at Yale University whose coach was 3,000 miles away, Chen’s was a season for the ages.

Chen was lights out in winning a third straight U.S. title. Then, he was even better in winning a second straight world title, this one more significant because two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan was in the field.

Chen has not yet decided – or perhaps just not yet announced – whether he will be a full-time student again next season, although there doesn’t seem any reason to mess with success given there are two more seasons before the next Olympics.

If Yale allows him three straight semesters off – and the University already has been very accommodating of his travel schedule and his need for ice time on the Yale rink – it would make more sense for him to take an academic leave beginning with the second half of the 2020-21 season and academic year and going through the 2022 Winter Games.

3. Vincent Zhou of the U.S. no longer is just that guy who goes from jump to jump (while collecting under-rotation marks.)

Zhou’s improvement in the last two months of the season was tremendous. He went on from a bronze medal at worlds to do two terrific skates at the World Team Trophy, his free skate a seamless, compelling performance and an athletic tour de force. The under-rotation calls were disappearing.

Doing three quads at World Team Trophy instead of his usual four seemed to give Zhou the time to breathe and create an entertaining impression. Maybe he should keep thinking less is more.

4. The changes in the scoring system had a small mathematical effect on their goal of rebalancing athletic (TES) and artistic (loosely, PCS) scores in singles free skates, especially among the men.

This is tricky to calculate, because the drops in value of the highest scoring jumps were offset by the possibility of higher (and lower) Grades of Execution when the range was expanded from +3/-3 to +5/-5. And the limiting of free skate bonus area jumping passes lowered potential TES scores.

At the 2017 worlds, each of the top four men in the free (Hanyu and Shoma Uno of Japan, Boyang Jin of China, and Chen) had significantly higher TES scores, with none getting more than 44 percent of the total from PCS.

At the 2019 worlds, the top four men in the free did get a higher percentage of their total from PCS, even if the difference was insignificant for winner Chen (43.8 to 43.9). The others: Hanyu, 46.5; Vincent Zhou, 46.7; Uno, 49.8 (Uno’s TES scores were dramatically affected by two downgraded quads).

The women’s scores shifted in the opposite way. At the 2017 worlds and 2018 Olympics, six of the top eight in the free had higher TES. This season, it was seven of the top eight (only fifth-place Kaori Sakamato of Japan had a higher PCS, and it was a minimal difference of less than one percent). Japan’s Rika Kihira, second in the free, had a TES score nearly 12 points higher than her PCS, accounting for 54 percent of her total, even though she fell on a triple Axel.

Given the concurrent rise of PCS scores, almost across the board, it would have seemed the change in score percentages might have been more dramatic.

5. Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron could take the next two seasons off and return to waltz to the 2022 Olympic gold.

The French ice dancers have a greater gap on their competition than any team in the 15-season history of the IJS. They won the 2019 world title by 10.89 points, a margin topped only by their 10.96 of a year ago, when reigning Olympic champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada skipped worlds.

In the 13 previous seasons, no team had won by more than 5.95 (Tatiana Navka and Roman Kostomarov of Russia in 2005).

Ice dance had been blessed with compelling rivalries from 2010 through 2018: Virtue/Moir vs. Papadakis/Cizeron, Virtue/Moir vs. Meryl Davis and Charlie White of the U.S. Now the French are unrivalled, competing only against themselves and abstract ideas of brilliance. So far, they haven’t been slowed down by having to play a solo game of “Can you top this?”

6. The most anticipated figure skating event in the United States next season is the Aug. 28-31 Junior Grand Prix stop in Lake Placid, N.Y.

That is where reigning U.S. senior champion Alysa Liu, 13 (until Aug. 8) and ineligible for senior international competition until the 2021-22 season, will likely debut in a consequential junior international junior event. (She could be in a lesser event before that.) Liu, who hit three triple Axels at nationals, may have added a quad by Lake Placid. She tried two unsuccessfully in last season’s U.S. Regionals.

7. The quad wave is about to sweep into senior women’s competition.

Russians Anna Shcherbakova (quad Lutz) and Alexandra Trusova (quad Lutz, quad toe, quad Salchow) who finished 1-2 in seniors at this season’s Russian Championships and 2-1 at the World Junior Championships, are the headliners. They join Kazakh Elizabet Tursynbaeva, whose quad Salchow at worlds made her the first woman to land a quad in a senior event.

8. Ting Cui, 16, looks ready to take one of the two U.S. singles spots at next year’s senior worlds.

Cui, 2019 junior world bronze medalist and fifth at senior nationals (third in the free skate), has a good chance to bump either Mariah Bell or Bradie Tennell, more likely the former. Bell has finished an unremarkable ninth, 12th, and 12th in the last three worlds. After underwhelming performances much of this season, 2018 U.S. champion Tennell (seventh and sixth) in the last two worlds, ended with the best free skate of her career at the World Team Trophy.

9. Rika Kihira rose and fell (literally) on the success of her triple Axel.

The jump carried her past Zagitova to win the Grand Prix title. Then it cost her a chance at the world title after Kihira popped (singled) the jump in the short program.

Kihira’s season triple Axel tally, in ISU or national championship events: 13 clean in 23 attempts (56.5 percent), with five falls, three pops, one downgrade and one double.

10. Yevgenia Medvedeva showed she deserved her spot at worlds. So did Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, who did not get one.

Sofia Samodurova’s surprising win at the European Championships and the illness that sidelined Tuktamysheva at her nationals left the Russian federation in a quandary.

They couldn’t keep the European champion off the team. And they wanted to include Medvedeva, no matter that she had struggled – but slowly improved – all season after leaving Russia to train in Canada with Brian Orser. And hadn’t Tuktamysheva been an also-ran for the three seasons after her 2015 world title, no matter that she won two Grand Prix events and a bronze at the Grand Prix Final this season?

Medvedeva skated well enough at worlds to win a bronze medal when Kihira and Sakamoto made big mistakes.

Tuktamysheva went to the World Team Trophy and was outstanding in winning the free skate and finishing second in the short program. She did a massive, effortless triple Axel in each program, having regained full command of a jump she added to her arsenal in 2015 but could not land cleanly the next three seasons.

Beyond that, Tuktamysheva at age 22 became a presence: she developed a funny, outgoing persona on social media, pushed the limits with a sexy “striptease” in her exhibition program – and accepted her worlds snub with grace.

11. It’s great that French pair Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres have decided to keep competing.

They began 2018-19 uncertain about their future beyond the season, then reached heights they never imagined possible a few years ago, coming into worlds as the undefeated European and Grand Prix Final champions. That worlds was their one poor competition of the season, leaving them fifth, undoubtedly was a motivation to continue.

James and Cipres finished with a stunning free skate at World Team Trophy, showing flawless unison on their big tricks.

It would be a real treat to see what the judges do if they and the sparkling Chinese world champions, Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, both skate cleanly in the same competition next season.

12. Canada went without a world medal for the first time since 2004**.

Its best finish at the 2019 worlds was fifth in dance.

Its top woman’s singles finish, 11th by Gabrielle Daleman, was the lowest since Alaine Chartrand was 11th in 2015. And, according to Skate Canada, its top men’s finish, 15th by Keegan Messing, was its lowest ever (the previous low was 13th by Kevin Pockar in 1979.)

So why the asterisks**?

The gold and bronze medalists in ice dance, from France and the USA, are coached by Canadians Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon in Montreal.

Montreal is also the site of the 2020 worlds, but Canada’s medal chances don’t look much better even on home ice. It earned just one 2020 worlds spot in men’s singles and barely got two in women’s singles.

13. Yuzuru Hanyu’s desire to push the technical envelope, admirable as it is, may shorten one of the greatest careers in the history of skating.

The Japanese superstar was out of competition for three months in both the last two seasons, missing two Grand Prix Finals and Japanese Championships, after injuring his right ankle while attempting quad Lutz (November 2017) and quad loop jumps (November 2018).

He has done just one quad Lutz in a competition. Although he has had 10 clean quad loops in 18 attempts, according to skatingscores.com, Hanyu won the 2018 Olympics without that difficult edge jump.

After he finished second at the 2019 worlds, the Japanese Skating Federation announced Hanyu would need two to three months of treatment on the long-term ligament damage in his ankle. Getting the ligaments to heal completely will not be easy, especially should Hanyu choose to try to reach his stated goal of landing a quad Axel.

Hanyu means too much to the sport for him to risk his future on jumps he likely can still win without if the rest of his skating is flawless.

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

MORE: Takeaways and top moments from the World Figure Skating Championships

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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Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron on training with three American ice dance teams

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Three-time world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron started a trend when they moved to their Montreal training camp. Now, they train with three American teams – which includes their top competitors.

After winning their fifth consecutive European Championship title (no other team had ever won five in a row), they sat with NBCSports.com/figure-skating to discuss how they see ice dance changing since they’ve come to dominate the field, what it takes in order to do so for so long, and how to keep things fresh.

The world championships are in Saitama, Japan from March 18-24. Papadakis and Cizeron are chasing their fourth World title.

You’re now training with three American teams – Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, Madison Chock and Evan Bates, and Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker. How is it going?

Cizeron: The atmosphere in the Gadbois rink has not changed. It’s still quite a sportive one!

Papadakis: They were already good friends before coming to Montreal. You can feel that Madi and Zach, and Madison and Evan had a good relationship together. It’s not like they would compete against one another and were acquainted through competition. They had a sheer appreciation of one another. Each one is quite friendly and has a lot of respect for the others. Each one works his or her best. Each one is fun to share the ice with.

Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue were the first ones to join you: how did you see them improve?

Cizeron: Madi and Zach are relying on speed more than on glide. Their approach has been unique.

Papadakis: They were coming from quite different backgrounds than ours. They have more of an American approach, they went to hip-hop and opened several other fields. They really exploded at the highest level with their short dance to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” They had such an incredible connection to this program. They may have discovered at that point the huge capacity they had to be connected, which in fact very few teams have. They’ve developed from then on.

MORE: One-on-one with Hubbell and Donohue before Worlds

How do you train together? Do you feel like everyone is following your lead as the pioneers in Montreal? 

Papadakis: We have the ice from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Each one of us has one’s share of it for three to four hours. That allows us to practice together – or not.

Cizeron: We don’t really feel that we would be leaders there. Each one has one’s own style, and that’s what matters most. You keep your eyes concentrated onto your own work, really. Daily routine is always the same: you have some runs, you have some exercises to practice, you have some private lessons. There’s no surprise. You just support each other. It’s just like what we do at competition: you are concentrated on your own work. If you think of what the others are doing, then you’re doing your job!

On the bigger scale, do you see the landscape of ice dance change under your leadership?

Papadakis: We don’t try to make the sport change. But we certainly don’t want to follow paths that have been already opened by others.

Cizeron: It’s the same question as who, from the chicken or the egg, which came first? Do we win because we’re doing what we do, or do the others follow the doors we’ve opened because we win? It may be something we’ll realize later, when we have more perspective. The real challenge for us is to renew ourselves, and never be contempt with what we do, especially as we’re opening a second chapter in our career with this new quadrennial.

The good thing with ice dance is that you learn your technique forever. Once you get your steps, you keep them for life.

Papadakis: It’s not like with ladies, for instance: you don’t lose your choctaws at puberty!

MORE: Hawayek, Baker on what Montreal means to them

What does it take then to stay at the top in this sport?

Cizeron: Of course, you need to preserve oneself, both physically and mentally. Have a superlative team. Then keep your curiosity and will to learn. Just as in any field when you want to perform.

Papadakis: As success comes, you need to give up things. Then you may fear to let go things that were key to your success. Will it work the same way, if you leave them away? The new things you take on board have not proven themselves. But don’t be frightened. We could certainly make up a list of everything that works and get points, and derive a formula for success. Maybe some do that. We can’t. We’re not into marketing.

Cizeron: In fact, durability is also a fight with people’s opinions. We’ve always changed costumes many times during the course of a season. People told us: “No, don’t it’s so good!” And then once we had changed, they would say: “Oh yes, it’s better!” You need to believe that you can always do better. You need to believe in your instincts for that. That’s a major point: listen to your instinct and never doubt it. You’re growing and encompassing different phases, just like in your life. Some things become more important. Our coaches listen a lot, and then they have a filter and a funnel to decide what to discuss with us.

Papadakis: We’re lucky to have several faces in front of us. You’re better off with five people making a decision than with just one.

Cizeron: Then we need to devise programs that will please us and will please the audience. We like to bring a density, a depth to every program. We love movement, we love dancing extremely, both of us. We don’t do things because they are trendy. When we skated to Mozart concerto, in 2015, it was not that trendy. But people loved it. We created a kind of a fashion, without even knowing it.

Papadakis: Still we need to pay attention: we may create a fashion, but we shouldn’t stay in it. You can’t create a fashion and be stuck with it.

Fashion designers do take the trends they perceive in society, and they create a fashion to push them forward. Aren’t you saying that you are aiming at becoming like the fashion designers of ice dance?

Cizeron: Ice dance may not be an art, but it’s an artistic field. Fashion needs to be renewed all the time, just like for clothes. In order to succeed, you need to be fully yourself, but not stick to the same forever. If you’re too much of yourself, people will say “they don’t change.” We aim at creating timeless pieces. We would like to create fashions, not trends. A dress designed by Christian Lacroix may become out of fashion, but still be remarkable on anyone. Those who follow fashions are easily forgotten. Those who create them are remembered forever. We don’t really invent anything. We listen and observe, we go to theater and ballet and to the movies. The whole process is not a conscious one, but that’s how it works.

MORE: Chock, Bates planning on peaking at world championships

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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Vanessa James, Morgan Ciprès mark sport with innovative and rewarding lifts

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Vanessa James and Morgan Ciprès were the first French pair to win the European Championships since 1932, and the first non-Russian team to claim gold there since 2011.

The pair also won the prestigious Grand Prix Final title in December in their first appearance at the event.

Now, they could be well on their way to what would be their first-ever world title in March. They’ve stood on the podium at Worlds before; last year, they earned a bronze. But could a world title for James and Ciprès spur their retirement?

They sat with NBCSports.com/figure-skating following their European Championship victory to contemplate such a question.

One year ago, you mentioned that you wanted to retire after the Games, especially if you won one Olympic medal. Where do you stand now?

Ciprès: We would definitely have retired if we had won an Olympic medal [laughing]. We are very happy of the decision we made to be on the ice again this year. We had an amazing start of the season. We won the Grand Prix Final, which was amazing. It was our first Final and we were really happy to be there and win with a big fight in the long program. Our European title was also an accomplishment for us. We may have felt old, but now we’re young winners! As sportsmen we want more. We’ll keep going… Until there’s no more!

James: It’s always difficult for any athlete, physically, mentally and emotionally, to give everything you have and not to get the results you were aiming at. Winning like this can continue for four more years without any problems [laughing]! I’ve not done all this stretching for stopping now. But we’ll take it one year at a time.

What is the creative process for your lifts? What drives you to be creative and make them special?

James: First, I work a lot on flexibility with a rhythmic gymnastics coach. It’s not easy, when you are 31 years old. She also helps me strengthening my back.

Ciprès: I go with her sometimes [smiling]… To encourage her!

James: We also work on extensions and on our body lines, so that they don’t look like broken lines during the lifts. We aim at presenting extended legs during the lifts and landings, even when I hold my foot above my head: the other leg shall be extended. So that’s a different perspective from what we were used to.

Ciprès: I must emphasize Vanessa’s imagination and research capacities. She’ll go look on the Internet from gym, circus, roller skating or any other field. We discuss what she found, and try when time permits. I did bring our final lift, the one when I hold her in lunge position. But she brought the lift on an outside spread eagle. That one is really difficult for me. It requires a lot of energy and control. She also created the choreographic sequence, when I hold her on an inside edge.

James: I thought that it would be neat if we could do that, but I didn’t want it to be counted as a lift. I tried with Morgan, then with John [Zimmerman, their coach], and it was so cool! So, we included it in the choreographic sequence.

Ciprès: At first that one would take me as much energy as a real lift! Now it’s almost a moment of rest in the program – well, almost.

It seems that pair skating is taking a lot from ice dance – positions, transitions, steps… Is it a trend you are pursuing yourself?

Ciprès: We get a lot of inspiration from ice dance, it’s true. But ice dance gets a lot of inspiration from us as well, most notably in lifts! They are doing more and more acrobatics, and a lot comes from us pairs. May I tell you? At French Nationals, two dance teams came to me and asked me to teach them one of our lifts! They’ll have to deserve it, though! [smiling]

Some years ago, you said that you wanted to push the sport through more difficult jumps, like quad Salchow or triple-triple side-by-side combinations. Now you’re pushing the sport with lifts?

Ciprès: Indeed, we wanted to mark the history of our sport with our attempts of the riskiest elements. The other day Vanessa saw another competitor landing a throw jump with her arms over her head. That’s something we started, and we have to take it as a compliment. Actually, keeping the quads off means also less risk of injury. Landing quads day after day in practice was physically exhausting and very risky.

What do you think will determine victory at Worlds?

Ciprès [straight-faced]: What will be done on that day. We’ll have to do it.

James: One key factor will also be in the evolution we make in our programs until then. They need to evolve constantly. When we skated our programs at Autumn Classic, early in the season, we had good feedback. But these programs have been intensified so much since then. At each competition we’ve come up with better elements and increased transitions. We need to continue on that trend. I’m sure all our competitors will be in great shape in Japan, whatever can be heard now. We’ll have to be better anyhow.

Ciprès: The main difference now is that we concentrate on ourselves much more than on our competitors. The game before was to see how we could get one point over them. That’s over: we come up with what we need to be the best.

MORE: Jason Brown didn’t think he’d make PyeongChang without a quad, sees season as stepping stone

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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