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Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, armed with triple Axel, fights to compete with Russian teens

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Figure skating is moving fast, and 2015 World champion Elizaveta Tuktamysheva is banking on an extra half-rotation to compete with a technical revolution led by quad-jumping countrywomen.

“I want to be on top,” Tuktamysheva told NBCSports.com/figure-skating in a phone interview following a bronze medal at Skate America. “If I want to do that, I have to work and keep improving in everything. Otherwise, I should stop skating.”

Five times a champion on the Grand Prix circuit – including at the 2014 Grand Prix Final – Tuktamysheva rallied from a solid short program but disappointing score of 67.28 (nearly six points below her season average) to land on the podium behind Russian national champion Anna Shcherbakova and 2018 U.S. champion Bradie Tennell.

“I was even happier to be third place here than I was when I was first place in Skate Canada last year, because I was thinking I could have been fifth because of the short program,” Tuktamysheva said. “I’m happy my free program was much better.”

Though the 22-year-old cleanly landed three of her signature triple Axels last weekend – including one in combination with a double toe loop in the free skate – she was nonetheless technically outgunned by Shcherbakova who, in her senior Grand Prix debut, became the first woman to land two quadruple Lutzes in international competition.

“Right now, it’s really hard to be on top in Russia, but you should keep trying so long as you feel like there’s a chance to win,” Tuktamysheva said. “I believe that I can compete. If there’s a girl who doesn’t believe, I don’t know why they would even try.”

Most fighting for one of three spots on the Russian team have a reasonable shot at earning medals – if not winning – at March’s world championships in Montréal, making December’s Russian Nationals a must-watch.

Besides Shcherbakova, Tuktamysheva must contend with Olympic champion Alina Zagitova, two-time world champion and Olympic silver medalist Yevgenia Medvedeva, reigning European champion and fellow Alexei Mishin pupil Sofia Samodurova, junior Grand Prix Final champion Alena Kostornaia – who attempted two triple Axels (landing one fully rotated) to win the Finlandia Trophy, and two-time world junior champion Alexandra Trusova, who landed four quadruple jumps at the free skate-only Japan Open on Oct. 5.

At an age where many skaters scale back their technical arsenals, Tuktamysheva continues to innovate, experimenting with a triple flip-triple toe loop short program combination while committing to three triple Axels at every competition.

Since beginning her season at the Russian Senior Test Skates – a veritable mini-Olympics featuring all eight women set to compete on the Grand Prix series – she has cleanly landed an impressive 12 of 14 triple Axels in competition.

“My technical conditioning is really good,” Tuktamysheva said. “This season, I hope to improve my components, programs, and also do the jumps. It’s so hard to be in your prime all season. It doesn’t work for me and, after all, I should be taking care of my health. I hope I’m going to do even better, but at the same time, I’m aware that I’m in my best-ever shape at the moment.”

Skate America saw more tinkering from Tuktamysheva, who unveiled a new transition into her “Drumming Song” short program’s triple Axel and changed the final edit of her Yiddish Jazz-themed free skate from “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen” to a reprise of the opening “Caravan.”

“We had one day after between Finlandia and Skate America, but in one day we made so many changes,” she said. “When I did the free program in Finlandia, I felt that the music at the end might not be as powerful, so we took the time to change. I heard the new version and thought it was 100 percent better. This is the final part to the program, and this time, I feel much more power and happiness as I finish it.”

Her current free skate layout allows for seven triple jumps – one away from the maximum eight she was competing at the end of last season to win the World Team Trophy over triple Axel rival Rika Kihira. Tuktamysheva plans to retain that content ahead of her next competition at Cup of China, while re-introducing the flip-toe combination back into the short program.

MORE: Quad revolution within women’s skating

“I don’t want to make big changes now,” she said. “I just want to skate clean, with power. I want my programs to feel like films, with no empty places.”

Her two programs are an intriguing contrast, and an artistic evolution from last year’s “Assassin’s Tango” and “You Don’t Love Me/Petit Fleur/Catgroove” outings.

She called “Drumming Song” – an earthy and primal Florence and The Machine song – her favorite short program of her career. A mash-up of “Caravan” and “Utt Da Zay” in the free skate shows the powerful Russian at her most fun and flirty – a refreshing departure from some of the more dramatic numbers attempted by her younger competitors.

“I’m a different feel in figure skating,” she said. “It just comes from inside. I listen to the music and the choreographer, and try to do my best to feel. When I feel and understand, it all comes together and looks really nice.”

A near-lock for last year’s world team, a bout of pneumonia felled Tuktamysheva days after taking bronze at the Grand Prix Final, forcing her out of the national championships. A narrow defeat to Medvedeva at February’s Russian Cup Final handed the last spot to her compatriot, who went on to earn a bronze medal at the world championships in Japan.

Where last season was a return to form, this season forecasts the former world champion, one of the most decorated athletes to never make an Olympic Games, at her athletic and artistic peak. With the Winter Games in Beijing just over two years away, the otherwise amiable Tuktamysheva still has something to say on the ice and plans to use the next three months of competitions to make her point.

“I will skate until I no longer feel I can compete with the other girls,” she said. “Right now, I want, and I will, and I will fight.”

MORE: Final Skate America 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.

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At Skate America, what happened in Vegas won’t stay in Vegas

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LAS VEGAS — As always in Sin City, there were highs, along with a few lows. Final thoughts from Skate America …

Reign of the A’s: The start of the Grand Prix series marked the debut of the trio some fans call the “3As” — Alexandra Trusova, Anna Shcherbakova and Alena Kostornaia, the Russian teens who among them won seven Junior Grand Prix events last season. Trusova also captured the world junior crown. (There are other young Russian “As,” but we’ll stick with these three for now.)

What’s chilling for their competitors, and any coach not named Eteri Tutberidze, is that the three skaters have a chance of duplicating the feat this season in the senior ranks: win every Grand Prix plus the world crown, with a raft of Challenger Series events thrown in for good measure.

At Skate America, Shcherbakova, 15, brushed off a fourth-place short program by landing two quadruple Lutzes in her free skate, one in combination.

The 33.45 points earned for the jumps contributed mightily to her 92.2-point technical score, more than compensating for two under-rotation deductions later in the program. Despite holding a 7.5-point lead after the short, and earning higher program component scores for a nearly-clean free skate, silver medalist Bradie Tennell couldn’t begin to fend off the young Russian.

Tennell’s challenge continues: The 2018 U.S. champion faces Trusova at Skate Canada this weekend. Trusova broke the free-skate record (163.78 points) at a Challenger event in Slovakia last month, hitting three quads. Needless to say, she won.

In Vegas, Shcherbakova acknowledged internal competition at Tutberidze’s Moscow training rink.

“Of course, we practice together and see what (the) other girls are jumping,” she said. “Every day we want to improve more and more, because we see the other girls do more quads.”

Tennell took positives from Vegas, including a personal-best short program (75.10). But at the final press conference, she couldn’t hide a bit of frustration to this reporter’s admittedly leading question about how difficult it was to mute the quad talk.

“When you hear something over and over, it’s kind of like reprimanding a child. They just start tune it out,” Tennell said. “Everybody is so quad-crazy. … For me, it’s just better to tune out all of the buzz and focus on what I can do well.”

MORE: Tennell’s personality breaks through at Skate America

Skaters, check your protocols: Not only did the 21-year-old Tennell have quads to contend with, but a scoring error by the technical panel shaved several points off of her free skate. The error had no impact on the Skate America standings, but points earned during Grand Prix events are used to break ties to decide who competes at the Grand Prix Final.

Tennell opened her free skate with her most difficult element, a triple Lutz-triple toe loop combination. She executed the same combination in the second half of her program, but the panel identified it as a triple-double.

Per ISU rules, an appeal is not permitted except in the case of an incorrect mathematical calculation; wrong identification of an element does not qualify. The rules do allow for a correction to be made, however, when an element misidentification is brought to the referee’s attention prior to the award ceremony. A spokesman for U.S. Figure Skating said that the organization did go to the ISU prior to the award ceremony, and was only told that an appeal was not permitted. No correction was made and Tennell’s score stood.

An ISU technical specialist, who consented to be interviewed about procedures, explained.

“Technical specialists call (identify) elements, which data entry operators enter into the judging system,” the technical specialist said. “At the end of the program, the data entry operator reads the list of elements, and the technical controller and assistant technical controller review the list for accuracy. Somehow, the error escaped notice.”

“Things like this should not happen,” Denise Myers, Tennell’s coach, relayed via text. “This is only the second time in my career (an error like this) happened.”

“I will say, every time something unusual happens, the ISU reviews the procedure and asks, ‘How can we prevent it from happening again?’” the technical specialist said. “This time, it was caught too late. If it had been caught before the ceremony started, it could have been changed … but human beings are not machines.”

No rest for U.S. ice dancers: Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue defended their Skate America title, the 11th straight time a U.S. couple won the event. With Donohue suffering a severe bout of bronchitis, the couple showed a well-earned sight of relief.

Still, the world bronze medalists narrowly lost the free dance to Aleksandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin of Russia, fourth in the world last season.

“There were good things and not-so-good things,” Hubbell said after the free dance to country-rock music from “A Star Is Born,” later adding, “It felt like there was a lot of energy missing. … It wasn’t the kind of performance we know we can give in that program.”

Antibiotics are on the menu for Donohue; he and Hubbell compete at Skate Canada in Kelowna, B.C., this week.

There, they will not face a world top-five dance couple. But the free dance result at their home Grand Prix shows the tough competition among the handful ranked below Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France. The two-time U.S. champions will want to make a statement in Kelowna.

“I hope to have two healthy lungs for Skate Canada,” Donohue said.

MORE: Hubbell, Donohue give U.S. ice dance 11 straight Skate America titles

A high for Denney and Frazier: Still just 23 and 26, respectively, Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier have had a roller-coaster career, marked by coaching changes and Denney’s severe knee injury that forced them to sit out the entire 2015-16 season.

Judging by their free skate, the roller coaster is on the ascent. Spectacular lifts and clean triple Salchows gave the U.S. silver medalists the second-highest technical score of the day, and a career-high 125.36 points. Their bronze is their third Skate America medal.

“Man, I told Haven a week ago that sometimes there’s been more stress than there needs to be to compete,” an emotional Frazier said. “I just want to enjoy it again. … I haven’t felt like this in a long time. We know there is a lot of pressure on these jumps, we want to hit them more than anything, and this was the first baby step in rebuilding our foundation.”

“I like to think outside of the box, I come up with some crazy things sometimes,” the skaters’ coach, John Zimmerman, said of the lifts, including a thrilling variation of “fly high, say bye” at the end of the routine. “They both have a lot of courage.”

Chen hip-hops on: In his teleconference prior to Skate America, Nathan Chen told reporters “three quads are a given” in his free skate. He was as good as his word, hitting Salchow, flip and toe to “Rocket Man.”

He also performed a hip-hop sequence so entertaining that coach Rafael Arutunian said, “you cannot feel he has blades on. He manipulates his feet like he is in shoes.” He won by 44 points over Jason Brown, who debuted a stirring free to “Schindler’s List.”

Not much else to say, except that Chen’s top competition in Vegas – Jin Boyang of China – looked way out of sorts, falling twice in his free on usually reliable quads.

After a strong short, bronze medalist Dmitri Aliev of Russia was sloppy in his free, making jump mistakes and not performing his choreography up to his capabilities. Their inconsistency shows why Brown – always armed with well-trained choreography, ready to wring out every possible point in steps and spins – is able to use his skating skills and showmanship to stay near the top, despite not performing quads.

Correction: An earlier version of this article mischaracterized the scoring issue related to Tennell’s free skate. It wasn’t that U.S. Figure Skating did not file an appeal, it’s that one was not permitted under the circumstances. 

MORE: Jason Brown on concussions, delayed start to season

MORE: Karen Chen balances Skate America with Cornell

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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Karen Chen wants to make the most of her ‘comeback year’

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LAS VEGAS — A few weeks before Skate America, Karen Chen texted her longtime coach, Tammy Gambill, that she wasn’t getting too much sleep.

“Welcome to college,” Gambill texted back.

It’s not that Gambill was unsympathetic.  She’s just seen it all before.

“That’s just part of the process I think they all have to go through,” Gambill said.

By the time Chen arrived in Las Vegas, she was battling not just sleep deprivation, but a cold. Again, Gambill wasn’t surprised.

“I think this is the first time Karen has been sick since going to college,” she said. “It was going to be inevitable at some point.”

Chen, 20, has a lot going on this fall. She’s immersed in her classes at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where she’s majoring in human development. She’s training every morning, on her own, at a rink that’s a 10- to 15-minute drive from campus. And she’s making an admittedly stressful return to competition, after missing last season due to a stress fracture in her right foot.

So much so, that when she took the ice at the Orleans Arena on Friday, her legs felt shaky.

“It was a little scary, not going to lie,” she told reporters after her short program. “It was definitely something new to me. But regardless, I know this is what I want to do. I love competing. I just want to feel comfortable out there again.”

Chen performed a solid program, earning 66.03 points for sixth place. She didn’t hit a triple Lutz, triple toe, the combination that helped her win the U.S. title in 2017, substituting a triple-double. But she felt her competitive juices flow. (In Saturday’s free skate, she appeared fatigued and fell three times to finish eighth overall.)

“It was definitely a step in the right direction,” she said after the short.

That’s how Chen is constructing her school-and-skating balancing act: step by step.

“At first, it was just getting used to the new environment,” she said. “After that, I kind of got into a routine. Although I’m definitely busy all the time and it’s a lot of work, I love it. I’m making great new friends. I’m getting through my classes.”

Chen left for Ithaca straight from U.S. Figure Skating’s Champs Camp, held in Irvine, California in late August. The departure was bittersweet.

“It was hard for me to leave,” she said. “Not necessarily to leave the whole skating world, but to leave Tammy and my training mates and go off by myself.”

It was also challenging logistically. Officials at Champs Camp recommended some changes to her free skate, choreographed by Ilona Melnichenko to “Illumination” by Secret Garden. Chen made the tweaks, but with her first competition, a Challenger Series’ event in Canada, scheduled for Sept. 12-14, she didn’t have much time to, in her words, let the changes “marinate in my body.”

Back at Cornell, organizing her class schedule took precedence.

“I definitely had to figure it out,” Chen said. “At first, I was thinking, ‘I can definitely do five classes, it’s no big deal.’ Then I was talking to my friends taking five classes, and they’re like, ‘It’s really hard.’ And I thought, ‘Yeah, it’s really hard, and I also have to skate.’”

So Chen pared down to four, still a full-time course load. Three – Infancy and Childhood, Adulthood and Aging, and Psychology of Gender – are in her major. She’s also taking the required freshman writing seminar.

“Definitely the professors that I have, have been very, very helpful,” Chen said. “I’ve told them ahead of time, ‘This is my competition schedule, this is when I’m going to be out.’ Thankfully, it doesn’t conflict with any of my prelims or any exams.”

Communication lines are also open to U.S. Figure Skating, for help with things like locating physical therapists in the Ithaca area. And Gambill is just a text, or a video, away.

“I get some little blurbs of video,” Gambill said. “It’s hard for her to send me full tapes of things, because there is really no one at the rink to help her. She’ll set (the recorder) it on the wall.”

Chen is making it work. Cornell’s academic schedule allowed her to return to Colorado Springs to train in high altitude with Gambill for five days, which helped. The coach has said she may visit Ithaca for occasional tune-ups with her student.

“This is my comeback year and I want to make it count,” Chen said. “At the same time, I know that I’m throwing a lot of things out there. It’s been tough balancing, but I do really enjoy everything and I think I made the right decision.”

MORE ON: Bradie Tennell | Nathan Chen | Jason Brown

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.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

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