Gracie Gold

Nathan Chen and Jason Brown
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Takeaways from the abbreviated 2019-20 figure skating season

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Before the cancellation of the world figure skating championships due to coronavirus, audiences were anticipating a head-to-head battle between two-time and reigning world champion Nathan Chen against two-time Olympic gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu

Three Russian teenagers — and training partners — were likely to finish in some order atop the women’s podium. The hot spot of ice dance today, Montreal, was to play host to the championships, with four-time French world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France going for title number five. 

Sui Wenjing and Han Cong of China, just off a sixth Four Continents crown, were favorites to become three-time world champions, but young Russians Aleksandra Boikovi and Dmitrii Kozlovskii looked strong to challenge them. And what about the world championships debut of U.S. pair Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson, who arguably captured the top moment of the national championships in January? 

With or without the world championships, the 2019-20 season has come to a close. Here, the NBC Sports figure skating contributors reflect on the standout moments of the season. 

MORE: Nathan Chen, skating coaches react to cancellation of world figure skating championships

Men’s 

For the second season in a row, Chen successfully completed a double: full-time studies at Yale University, combined with a near-full slate of competitions. He remains undefeated since the 2018 Olympics, with wins at Skate America, Internationaux de France, the Grand Prix Final and the U.S. Championships. His only seeming concession to scheduling was skipping the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships, held in Seoul, Korea in early February.

“Competition after competition keeps me motivated, knowing I have to achieve a certain goal at each competition,” Chen said early this season. “That’s what drives me through practices.”

The shining moment of his 2019/2020 campaign came in December at the Grand Prix Final in Torino, Italy, where he landed five quadruple jumps — two in combination with triple jumps — in a spectacular free skate that earned 224.92 points, a world record. His total for the event, 335.30, is also a record, and he defeated two-time Olympic champion Hanyu by nearly 44 points. 

Artistically, the highlight of the Chen’s free skate to Elton John’s “Rocketman” is a 30-second hip-hop sequence at the end of the routine. 

“I’m thrilled with the score,” Chen said after his “Rocketman” free skate in Torino. “I’m thrilled with this program.”

Hampered early in the season by a concussion suffered in an August car accident, Jason Brown hit his high note at Four Continents, where he skated two career-best programs to win silver behind Hanyu. His free skate, choreographed by David Wilson to music from Schindler’s List, was breathtaking in Seoul.

“My background, obviously, is Jewish, and the story is so touching,” Brown said. “I grew up learning about the Holocaust and about Oskar Schindler and the stories. I always wanted to skate to it, but it has to be when I’m at the level, maturity-wise, that I’m really ready to skate to it.”

Balancing skating with full-time studies isn’t doable when there are no available ice surfaces within an easy drive. Vincent Zhou couldn’t find the ice time he needed at Brown University. He withdrew from the Grand Prix Series and all but stopped skating after a few weeks, returning to the sport in full force around Christmas, under new coaches Lori Nichol and Lee Barkell in Toronto. He rallied to perform two clean programs and place fourth at nationals — his lowest finish since his 2016 senior debut — but made the Worlds team as the reigning Worlds bronze medalist.

MORE: Nathan Chen, from flu-ridden on the floor, fights for 4th U.S. title

Women’s 

Russia’s “three A’s” — Alena Kostornaia, Anna Shcherbakova and Alexandra Trusova — combined to win every major international senior event on the 2019-20 calendar. Shcherbakova and Trusova both have quads, but Kostornaia, the Grand Prix Final and European champion, outshone her compatriots by combining elegance and musicality with a consistent triple Axel.

Alysa Liu of the United States, 14, made her long-awaited junior international debut, adding a quadruple Lutz to her programs and becoming the first woman to land a triple Axel and a quad in the same routine, doing it at the Lake Placid JGP in August. She won her second U.S. crown in January, and then capped her season with a bronze medal behind two Russians at the World Junior Figure Skating Championships early last month. 

“I don’t feel [outside] pressure to be the best in the world,” Liu told Phil Hersh of NBCSports.com/figure-skating in January. “I just take it step by step and work hard for myself.”

U.S. silver medalist Mariah Bell had a fine season, winning two bronze medals on the Grand Prix circuit and creating one of the signature moments of the U.S. Championships with a stirring, near-perfect free skate to “Hallelujah.”

“Looking back, this was by far the best season of my career, so I’m very proud,” Bell said on a teleconference the day worlds were cancelled. “I’m really looking forward to building on that next season.”

U.S. bronze medalist Bradie Tennell can also celebrate her best campaign. The 2018 U.S. champion qualified for the Grand Prix Final for the first time, and broke more new ground in Seoul last month where two career-high programs earned her a bronze medal at Four Continents, her first ISU Championships medal.

“I feel like I was able to relax and skate the way that I do every day,” Tennell said at a press conference in Seoul. “That’s kind of been my goal not only this year but also last year. I feel like I never quite achieved it last year. But this year throughout each competition I’ve been getting closer and closer, and at this competition I was able to really achieve that.”

Following a long road back to the sport that involved treatment for depression, anxiety and an eating disorder, Gracie Gold earned a standing ovation at the U.S. Championships. She ultimately finished 12th after an emotional free skate to “She Used to be Mine,” but told reporters she would continue training for next season.

“I think I’ve earned that,” Gold said.

MORE: Gold recounts literally and figuratively running out of gas

Ice dance 

2019-20 was truly Madison Chock and Evan Bates’ season. The couple, who moved to Montreal to train under Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon last season, created a mesmerizing “Egyptian Snake Dance” program, won a silver medal at the Grand Prix Final and defeated longtime rivals Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue to take their second U.S. title, some five years after they first won the crown. Two weeks later, they won a second straight Four Continents title, defeating Hubbell and Donohue and Canadian champions Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier.

With Papadakis and Cizeron showing some cracks in their armor — the French duo placed second at the European Championships, their first loss since the 2018 Olympics — a world title seemed to be within Chock and Bates’ grasp. 

“This has been the best season of our careers, no doubt about that, and a big part of that is our program [“Egyptian Snake Dance”] and the way we performed it,” Bates said. “Also just the improvements we made to our skating, generally, since moving to Montreal have started to be recognized and rewarded.”

The French, who train alongside Chock and Bates, Hubbell and Donohue and many other teams in Montreal, may be glad to bid the 2019-20 season farewell. Their programs, especially their free dance to a spoken word poem, were not nearly as praised as their past efforts. After Europeans, a stressed Papadakis spoke to reporters about her mental fatigue, and the couple took a two-week break from training. Now, they have a long off-season to recoup and plan new programs.

Hubbell and Donohue, too, had a few ups-and-downs. The skaters and their coaches, Lauzon, Dubreuil and Romain Haguenauer, re-worked music edits and sections of choreography in their Star is Born free dance, hoping for a peak performance in Montreal and a third consecutive world medal. Now, the two-time U.S. champions will have a long off-season to create new programs.

The season ended on a truly somber note, with the loss of Chris Reed, a three-time Olympic ice dancer for Japan who died of a sudden cardiac event at age 30 in March. Fellow skaters paid tribute over social media for the Michigan-born Reed, who won 10 Japanese titles over his career. 

Pairs 

Chris Knieirm, winner of an Olympic team bronze medal and three U.S. Championships with his wife, Alexa, announced his retirement shortly after the couple withdrew following the short program at Four Continents. 

The Knierims, the only U.S. pair to execute a quadruple twist in competition, capped their career in January, at the U.S. Championship in Greensboro. Their final complete competition was highlighted by a clean, emotional performance to the romantic ballad “At Last,” which gave them a seven-point lead over Calalang and Johnson, and, ultimately, their third U.S. title

“It was a dream that was attainable to skate the way we did today, but it always seems something gets in the way,” Scimeca-Knierim said at the time. “I’ve just been wanting for this moment to happen, because it’s been a little bit of time for Chris and I to have a skate that makes you feel, like, alive. I’m just so happy.”

Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier also announced a split, and Scimeca-Knierim and Frazier plan to for a new pair and compete next season

The shakeup will add to the likely shuffling of U.S. pair rankings next season. U.S. silver medalists Calalang and Johnson won the free skate at the U.S. Championships, and two weeks later placed a solid fourth at Four Continents. Lacking an international resume, they were controversially left off the world team in favor of 2019 U.S. champs Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, who placed fourth in Greensboro. They had placed ninth at the 2019 Worlds, earning a second quota spot for the U.S. in the discipline. 

These two pairs, along with 2016 U.S. champions Tarah Kayne and Daniel O’Shea, and perhaps, a few improving teams, will compete for supremacy. This, partnered with the new Scimeca-Knierim/Frazier partnership should lead to something to watch for in the upcoming season.

Other notable aspects of the season: 

By the middle of September, it already was clear the season would feature a jump revolution in women’s skating. Yet no one could have foreseen the speed at which it occurred and how far it went.

With statistics courtesy of skatingscores.com, this illustrates what happened:

Until 2018, just one junior or senior woman, Miki Ando of Japan, had been credited with landing a quadruple jump in a significant national or international competition (2002 Junior Grand Prix Final). From the 2017-18 season until the start of this season, there were 21 quad attempts by three skaters (Shcherbakova, Trusova, Yelizabet Tursynbaeva) in significant international competitions, with 13 getting full rotational credit and eight judged clean (positive or neutral grade of execution).

This season, seven women were listed for 42 quad attempts in significant international competitions, with four — Shcherbakova, Trusova, Kamila Valieva and Alysa Liu — getting credit for at least one clean quad and 25 of the 42 judged clean.

Trusova landed three clean quads in a single free skate and did three different types cleanly during the season — Lutz, flip and toe loop (plus a fourth, the Salchow, at the Japan Open, which Skating Scores does not list among its “major,” or significant, events because of its limited field). Shcherbakova did two clean quad Lutzes in a single free skate.

There was a similar great leap forward on triple Axels.

Until this season, only eight women had been credited with landing one in a significant international competition. Four of those eight had done it in the pre-IJS and pre-replay era.

This season, the triple Axel club got three new members: Liu*, Kostornaia and Young You. Two previous members, Yelizaveta Tuktamysheva and Rika Kihira, did more. The five had an aggregate 23 judged clean.

And all that was without the senior worlds.

(*Liu was credited with landing a triple Axel at the 2018 Asian Open, when she competed in the advance novice division.)

A bit of history

2020 also marked the 10-year anniversary of two notable Olympic moments from Vancouver 2010: Yuna Kim won South Korea’s first Olympic figure skating gold and Evan Lysacek won the first U.S. men’s Olympic gold since Brian Boitano in 1988.

MORE: In figure skating, a radical proposal to reshape the sport

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 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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Gracie Gold overcomes literally and figuratively running out of gas

Gracie Gold
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Gracie Gold has told a lot of revelatory personal anecdotes over the years. (In the latest, she explained the reason for getting a tattoo of a moth.) Gold has been so open, in fact, that she cannot even remember the one that now sounds like an allegory for her larger story.

“I’m gonna have to text Carly,” she said of her twin sister, “Like, ‘do you remember that time in Detroit…’”

This is the story Gold told me in August 2017, before announcing her break from figure skating for treatment for depression, anxiety and an eating disorder a few weeks later. I brought it up to her after her return to the U.S. Championships this past weekend in Greensboro, N.C., wondering if it was a metaphor for her life.

She and Carly were coming home from a friend’s birthday party in the Detroit area, with the two-time national champion behind the wheel of a VW Tiguan. They dressed up, with Gracie wearing a “sensible-ish heel” and Carly in heels that were “not sensible.”

It was around 1 a.m., and they were on their way home, and both were tired and cranky. They had been driving about 45 minutes, with 10 minutes remaining to their destination.

They drove along… Got to an exit ramp… Suddenly, with no warning, the car stopped running.

Gold managed to navigate to the side of the road and realized she had run out of gas.

Carly was not amused.

“This wasn’t like we were sputtering. This was: the car no longer worked,” Gold said.

The way Gold described the car would sound familiar to those who have heard her talk about her mental health crisis.

There’s more to the story, though. Gold somehow had the presence of mind to get herself out of the situation. She told Carly to hold the wheel – after a debate about who’d be getting out of the car – and Gracie threw the SUV into neutral.

Gold remembered “being so mad at myself and finding this weird strength and anger to push this car. A gas station was close enough that it seemed possible.”

In her heels, Gold pushed the vehicle down the otherwise-barren exit ramp to a large “M” glowing in the distance.

“At the time, it felt like forever; I don’t even know if I could accurately gauge [the distance],” she said.

Pushing it was her best option, she figured, without any ride-sharing services nearby. She thought at the time a roadside assistance service might laugh at them, stranded so near a gas station. Gold had only lived in Michigan for about a month which left no friendly neighbors to call in a pinch.

After the initial push, she couldn’t believe how easily she got her car to roll.

“It was a straight shot, slightly downhill. I was like, ‘OK, this is possible,’” she said. “An uphill battle – or in this case, a neutral-to-downhill battle.”

The gas station, ironically, was part of a chain called “Marathon.”

Gold’s recovery has been more marathon than sprint. The 2014 Olympic team event bronze medalist took the long road to nationals this season. She qualified through sectional and regional competitions instead of automatically qualifying, as she had in previous years. It was her first U.S. Championships since 2017.

And she would use a car metaphor during her televised interview with NBC’s Andrea Joyce following the short program.

“You can’t get anywhere ‘til you start the car, right?” she said. “So, we just keep going.”

After the free skate, where she received a standing ovation and finished 12th out of 18 skaters, she put herself back in the driver’s seat. She said she intends to move forward as a competitive skater for at least another season.

“We’ve started the car, so to speak,” Gold said, “and now we’re shifting from first to second [gear], second to third, all the way up to sixth.”

With her mental and physical tanks refilled, Gold wants to see how fast she can go, and how far it will take her.

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U.S. FIGURE SKATING CHAMPIONSHIPS: Full Results | Worlds roster | 10 Takeaways

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 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. 

Alysa Liu repeats as U.S. figure skating champion at age 14

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Alysa Liu became the youngest U.S. figure skating champion in history last year, at age 13. In her title defense, she learned late Thursday that another new experience was on the horizon.

She would go last in the senior nationals free skate Friday night in Greensboro, N.C.

For many skaters, that assignment is the most pressure-packed in the sport. Liu embraced the challenge, confident that it will not be the last time she is in that spotlight.

“I kind of mentally prepared myself the night before for the long wait, and I think that kind of helped set up for the long wait today,” she said late Friday, after becoming the first woman to repeat as national champ since Ashley Wagner in 2013.

NATIONALS: TV Schedule | Full Results

The wait may have seemed longer after the penultimate skater, Mariah Bell, brought the house down with a clean program including seven triple jumps. Liu watched it. Even clapped along with the crowd.

Then Liu landed two triple Axels — as she did last year — and the first quadruple jump by a woman in nationals history (albeit under-rotated). Liu rallied from a short-program deficit and distanced Bell by 10.31 points.

“I guess I was kind of inspired by [Bell’s] emotion and her happiness,” Liu said. “I guess that inspired me at the end of my program to relax and be happy and just kind of be aware of the moment.”

Bradie Tennell, the short-program leader, dropped to third after falling on a triple loop.

The night’s emotional moment occurred two hours earlier. Gracie Gold, in her first nationals in three years, was brought to tears after coming back from an eating disorder, depression and anxiety.

“The full arena pulling for my existence, like, on the ice,” said Gold, who finished 12th, lacking the most difficult jumping combinations but determined to continue next season. “I want everything now when I demand it, but I have to remind myself of that it is a progression. And next, we just kind of keep the train going.”

More on Gold’s night, including video, here.

Nationals continue Saturday with the pairs’ free skate, free dance and the men’s short program, live on NBC Sports.

Liu won on her technical merit. No other active U.S. senior woman has landed either a triple Axel or a quad in competition. At least one is necessary to contend with the world’s best — Russians competing at the European Championships this week.

Liu is too young to compete on the senior international level until the 2022 Olympic season. She ranks third in the world among junior skaters this season, behind two Russians, going into March’s junior world championships.

Bell, the oldest skater in the last group at 23, had her best nationals result after bronze medals in 2017 and 2019. Much to the delight of her coaches at rink level — Rafael Arutunian and Olympian Adam Rippon.

Tennell, who couldn’t bend one of her arms on Wednesday, fell on the last of her 10 jumps in the free skate, a triple loop.

For the second straight year, Tennell topped the nationals short program, fell in the free skate and dropped down the podium. Stunning given Tennell broke through in the 2017-18 season as the only elite international skater without a fall going into the Olympics.

Bell and Tennell, the 2018 U.S. champion, will likely make up March’s senior world team for a second straight year. A U.S. Figure Skating committee makes that decision, hoping the duo has combined results add up to no greater than 13 to ensure the U.S. gets three world spots in 2021.

Earlier, Madison Chock and Evan Bates topped the rhythm dance with 87.63 points, taking a 1.32-point lead over two-time defending champions Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue going into Saturday’s free dance. They could become the first U.S. skater, couple or pair to go five years between national titles in many decades.

Chock and Bates came out of the Sochi Olympics as the top U.S. couple, succeeding Meryl Davis and Charlie White. But they fell behind both Hubbell and Donohue and Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani going into the PyeongChang Olympics.

After that, Chock underwent ankle surgery. The couple moved from Michigan to Montreal. They now train with Hubbell and Donohue and world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron.

“We’re just finding our groove right now,” Bates said. “It feels like we’re just having a bit of a renaissance with our career.”

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MORE: Vincent Zhou put Ivy League classes on hold to return to figure skating

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 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.