Karen Chen

Karen Chen
AP

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

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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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After solid showing in Greensboro, Karen Chen muses gap year from Cornell

Karen Chen
AP
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GREENSBORO, N.C. – Karen Chen’s competitive juices are flowing again.

After missing last season with a right foot stress fracture, the 20-year-old skater had up-and-down performances at her Grand Prix events this season, putting out solid short programs only to falter a bit in free skates.

But on Friday night at the 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Greensboro, North Carolina, the Cornell freshman recaptured some of the form that won her the 2017 U.S. title. She covered the ice with speed and assurance, and her opening triple Lutz was one of the finest in the event. Earning 123.24 points, she rose from fifth after the short program to place fourth overall.

A fine job, but not entirely satisfying.

“It was pretty disappointing, I felt like I definitely trained harder and I’ve done better,” Chen said, citing a missed triple flip.

A few minutes later, she gave longtime coach Tammy Gambill a jolt.

“Coming here and competing and being able to accomplish quite a bit here at nationals, although I feel like I could’ve done better, I know that school was definitely a factor into my training,” Chen said.

“I think I’m going to have to take some time to kind of re-evaluate while I’m on spring semester and just kind of see. Obviously, juggling two (priorities) is quite challenging. I think I would have to maybe take a gap year or something.”

If that’s Chen’s decision, Gambill certainly won’t try to talk her out of it.

“We haven’t discussed it, so I was kind of happy for her to just say that,” Gambill said. “I know what I’m thinking, but I wanted to get through this competition and then discuss what our plans were for next year.”

NATIONALS: TV Schedule | Full Results

Maintaining top competitive form while attending Cornell, an Ivy League college in Ithaca, New York, is challenging for Chen. She cannot get much ice time at the campus arena, and travels to a rink 10-15 minutes away to train on her own.

“Thankfully (the rink) has a lot of ice time that they were able to give me,” Chen said. “I had private ice, which was good and bad at the same time.”

There is much Chen loves about college: making friends outside of the skating world, living in her own dorm room, her classes in human development. Still, her most effective on-ice training has happened during academic breaks, when she returns to Colorado Springs to work with Gambill.

“I had to kind of put school as a priority, since classes are not negotiable,” Chen said. “Whatever the time is, you have to show up and do it. Then, having to figure out the times where I could fit skating in, and time for off-ice training was… it look a while to kind of figure out what was working and what made sense. I was lucky enough to have a solid two or three week winter break where I was able to train in Colorado before coming here.”

Chen did make time to scrap her free skate, a recurring theme in her career. Following her ninth-place finish at NHK Trophy in late November, she worked with Ilona Melnichenko to revivify a prior routine set to music from Slow Dancing in the Big City.

“She wasn’t feeling her free, it wasn’t working for her,” Gambill said. “It’s like, we’re not doing this program again after two disaster long programs (at Grand Prixes).”

“Things were much better here,” she added. “Karen had a few mistakes in there, but I think she’s back on the right track. She’s going in the right direction.”

While Chen’s plan is to return to Cornell for the second semester of her freshman year – which began on January 21st – something else might appear on her calendar: the 2020 Four Continents Figure Skating Championships, held in Seoul, South Korea February 4-9. If offered the assignment, Gambill hopes Chen will accept.

“We have not discussed that and that’s something that if it comes to it, we will sit down and try and talk about what our options are,” Gambill said.  “I would hope that she would be able to do it. I think the more she can get out and compete right now, the better she’s going to be.”

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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.

Alena Kostornaia takes one of three records on first day of NHK Trophy

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The International Skating Union reset the figure skating record book at the beginning of the 2018-19 season due to a change in the scoring system, and skaters followed up Friday by erasing three short-lived short program records at the high-scoring NHK Trophy in Tokyo.

Russia’s Alena Kostornaia, the Chinese pair of Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, and the dominant ice dance duo of France, Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, all set records on the competition’s first day. Only Papadakis and Cizeron had previously held the record. Kostornaia and Sui/Han leap-frogged the previous record holders.

Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu barely missed breaking his own record, settling instead for a lead of nearly 18 points in the men’s competition.

The surprise was in the women’s competition, where 2017 U.S. champion Karen Chen set a personal best and is in position to keep world and Olympic champion Alina Zagitova out of the Grand Prix Final.

SCENARIOS: See who needs what to qualify for the Final

WOMEN

Kostornaia took both the record and the lead from home favorite Rika Kihira, who held the previous record with 83.97 points at the World Team Trophy in April. The 16-year-old Russian scored 85.04 points to Kihira’s 79.89.

Both skaters opened with triple Axels, and each landed a triple-triple combination. But Kostornaia was graded a fraction of a point higher with every element and in the program components, and Kihira’s triple loop got a negative grade.

Chen posted a personal best of 67.21 with a routine to “You Say” by Lauren Daigle. Zagitova bested her rivals in program components with her typical edge in artistry but drew minus-5 marks across the board on a combination attempt that ended with just a single loop.

Chen’s jumps had a lower base value than many of the skaters behind her, and her program component scores were far behind Zagitova’s, but she drew solid marks on every element.

Starr Andrews was ninth, missing one of her jumps after opening with a strong triple-triple combination. Megan Wessenberg fell twice and ranked 12th.

MORE: Alina Zagitova focused on artistry, while other Russians push technical boundaries

MEN

Hanyu once again proved that no skater aside from Nathan Chen can challenge him. He thrilled his home crowd with an opening quadruple Salchow and outdistanced the field with a quad-triple combination. He also picked up many 9.75s on his program components and even picked up 10s from a couple of judges on his way to a 109.34 score, just shy of his record 110.53 set in the 2018 Rostelecom Cup.

France’s Kevin Aymoz overcame a shaky opening quad toe to rank second with 91.47 points. Russia’s Sergei Voronov took a firm grasp on the podium with an 88.63.

Jason Brown, who had a chance at reaching the Grand Prix Final heading into this event, racked up points in his program components but fell twice and was marked down on a triple Axel to rank eighth. Tomoki Hiwatashi also had two falls and an under-rotated jump in an ambitious program to place 11th.

ICE DANCE 

The peerless pair of four-time world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron got high marks on every element and dazzling program components to break the 90-point mark with 90.03 points with their “Fame” program. Russia’s Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin also set a personal best of 84.07 to sit second, just ahead of Italy’s Charlene Guignard and Marco Fabbri, who ditched their previous program to dance to “Grease.”

Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko placed in the middle of the chasing pack in fifth place. Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter are eighth.

MORE: Gabriella Papadakis, Guillaume Cizeron on ‘Fame,’ chasing history

PAIRS

Sui and Han scored 81.27 to take a substantial lead despite negative marks on one of their elements. They took the record by 0.06 points over Russia’s Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov, who posted the previous record at the 2019 World Championships.

The Canadian pair of Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro sit in second place. Alexa Scimera Knierim and Chris Knierim had a fall and one shaky element to place fifth. Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea struggled with their elements to take seventh.

NHK Trophy
Men’s short program
1. Yuzuru Hanyu (JPN)  — 109.34
2. Kevin Aymoz (FRA) — 91.47
3. Sergei Voronoz (RUS) — 88.63
4. Roman Sadovsky (CAN) — 78.51
5. Makar Ignatov (RUS) — 78.47
6. Koshiro Shimada (JPN) — 75.98
7. Sota Yamamoto (JPN) — 74.88
8. Jason Brown (USA) — 73.73
9. Anton Shulepov (RUS) — 71.76
10. Conrad Orzel (CAN) — 70.35
11. Tomoki Hiwatashi (USA) — 64.54
12. Alexei Bychenko (ISR) — 61.97

Women’s short program
1. Alena Kostornaia (RUS) — 85.04
2. Rika Kihira (JPN) — 79.89
3. Karen Chen (USA) — 67.21
4. Alina Zagitova (RUS) — 66.84
5. Mako Yamashita (JPN) — 65.70
6. Eun-Soo Lim (KOR) — 65.28
7. Sofia Samodurova (RUS) — 63.85
8. Yuhana Yokoi (JPN) — 62.67
9. Starr Andrews (USA) — 58.92
10. Kailani Craine (AUS) — 55.82
11. Mae-Berenice Meite (FRA) — 49.77
12. Megan Wessenberg (USA) — 44.78

Pairs short program
1. Sui Wenjing / Han Cong (CHN) — 81.27
2. Kirsten Moore-Towers / Michael Marinaro (CAN) — 71.21
3. Anastasia Mishina / Aleksandr Galliamov (RUS) — 69.00
4. Alisa Efimova / Alexander Korovin (RUS) — 64.94
5. Alexa Scimeca Knierim / Chris Knierim (USA) — 63.63
6. Riku Miura / Ryuichi Kihara (JPN) — 62.41
7. Tarah Kayne / Danny O’Shea (USA) — 58.70
8. Nicole Della Monica / Matteo Guarise (ITA) — 57.55

Ice dance rhythm dance
1. Gabriella Papadakis / Guillaume Cizeron (FRA) — 90.03
2. Alexandra Stepanova / Ivan Bukin (RUS) — 84.07
3. Charlene Guignard / Marco Fabbri (ITA) — 82.13
4. Lilah Fear / Lewis Gibson (GBR) — 76.09
5. Christina Carreira / Anthony Ponomarenko (USA) — 75.25
6. Wang Shiyue / Liu Xinyu (CHN) — 74.73
7. Sofia Shevchenko / Igor Eremenko (RUS) — 69.59
8. Lorraine McNamara / Quinn Carpenter (USA) — 68.80
9. Carolane Soucisse / Shane Firus (CAN) — 68.39

NHK Trophy Broadcast Schedule

Day Time (ET) Event Network
Friday 10 p.m. Free Dance NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
Saturday 12:30 a.m. Pairs’ Free NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
2:30 a.m. Women’s Free NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
5 a.m. Men’s Free NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
Sunday 4 p.m. Highlights NBC | STREAM LINK

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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