Vincent Zhou

AP

Figure skating Grand Prix: Five things to watch

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World champions Nathan Chen and Alina Zagitova. Former U.S. champions Karen Chen and Bradie Tennell. Two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu and world bronze medalist Vincent Zhou. World champion ice dancers Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, and two-time U.S. ice dance champions/world championship medalists Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue. Quads, quads, quads.

All of these skaters and jumps will be featured in figure skating’s Grand Prix, which runs from this weekend’s Skate America to the Grand Prix Final Dec. 5-8 at the 2006 Olympic venue of Torino, Italy. January has the U.S. Championships and European Championships, February has the Four Continents Championships, and the season wraps up with the world championships in March.

TV SCHEDULE: How to watch Skate America

Here’s what to watch over the next two months:

1. Dominant dancers due for defeat? 

France’s Papadakis and Cizeron have won four of the last five world championships. The only duo to beat them since 2014, Canada’s Tessa Virtue and Scott Moirhas officially retired. They’re still in their mid-20s. They posted the four highest scores last season.

The reigning world championship silver medalists, Russia’s Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov, had a major breakthrough last season. Until last season, they had never won the Russian championships, never skated in a Grand Prix Final, never finished higher than fourth in the European championships and never finished higher than ninth in the world championships. They still haven’t won a medal in the European championships or won a Grand Prix event. Were their second-place finishes in the world championships and Grand Prix Final a fluke or a sign that they’re ready to challenge for the top?

The top U.S. contenders, Madison Chock/Evan Bates and Madison Hubbell/Zach Donohue, train in Montreal with Papadakis and Cizeron, so they know what it takes to get to the top. Hubbell and Donohue posted the highest scores after the French champions and Russian runners-up last year to take their second straight world championship medal and a win at the Grand Prix Final ahead of Sinitsina/Katsalapov. Chock and Bates earned world championship medals in the middle of the decade and finished sixth last year as Chock returned from a long injury layoff.

Oddsmakers would surely favor Papadakis and Cizeron in every competition, but will the underdogs have their day?

The GP schedule for the top dancers and U.S. entries:

  • Skate America: Hubbell/Donohue, Christina Carreira/Anthony Ponomarenko, Caroline Green/Michael Parsons
  • Skate Canada: Hubbell/Donohue, Green/Parsons, Kaitlin Hawayek/Jean-Luc Baker
  • Internationaux de France: Papadakis/Cizeron, Chock/Bates
  • Cup of China: Sinitsina/Katsalapov, Chock/Bates, Hawayek/Baker
  • Rostelecom Cup: Sinitsina/Katsalapov
  • NHK Trophy: Papadakis/Cizeron, Carreira/Ponomarenko, Lorraine McNamara/Quinn Carpenter

2. Can Vincent Zhou topple Chen and Hanyu?

The 2017 world junior champion has steadily and rapidly climbed the ranks since moving to senior level, taking sixth in the 2018 Olympics and third in the 2019 Four Continents before laying down two stunners, taking third in the world championships and posting a score of 299.01 in the World Team Trophy, a mark bested only by Chen and Hanyu.

This season, after spending his youth in Colorado and California, he’ll go across the country to start college at Brown.

Chen and Hanyu have been over the 300-point mark, and Japan’s Shoma Uno is consistently over 275 — the only skater other than Chen, Hanyu and Zhou to beat that standard last season. (Uno, the 2018 Olympic silver medalist and two-time world championship runner-up, picked a bad time to fall just under 275 — the world championships, where he finished fourth behind the other three high scorers.)

The GP schedule for the top men’s skaters and U.S. entries:

  • Skate America: Chen, Jason Brown, Alexei Krasnozhon
  • Skate Canada: Hanyu, Camden Pulkinen
  • Internationaux de France: Uno, Chen, Tomoki Hiwatashi
  • Cup of China: Pulkinen, Zhou
  • Rostelecom Cup: Uno, Zhou, Krasnozhon
  • NHK Trophy: Hanyu, Brown, Hiwatashi

MORE: Zhou balances Brown University with overseas assignments

3. Can the Tampa-trained pair of Vanessa James and Morgan Ciprès follow up their big year?

James has taken a long and winding road to the top of the pairs world. She was born in Canada, then lived in Bermuda and Virginia before competing as a singles skater for Britain. When she moved to pairs, she also switched to France to partner first with Yannick Bonheur and then Ciprès.

For several years, the pair won the French championship but not much else. In the 2017-18 season, they earned a couple of Grand Prix medals and placed fifth in the Olympics before claiming their biggest international prize to date, a bronze medal in the world championships.

Last year, the pair went on a hot streak. They won Skate Canada. They won the Internationaux de France. They won the Grand Prix Final. They won the European championship. Finally, their streak ended at a bad time, and they took fifth in the world championships.

Olympic silver medalists Sui Wenjing and Han Cong won their second world championship last season after missing the GP season because of Han’s foot injury. Russia’s Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov were second in the world championships.

U.S. champions Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy Leduc skated in the U.S. Classic last month and posted a higher score than any of their compatriots last year. The previous champions, Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim, were seventh last year. The last two U.S. champions — Haven Denney/Brandon Frazier and Tarah Kayne/Danny O’Shea — also are continuing to compete this year.

The GP schedule for the top pairs and U.S. entries:

  • Skate America: Cain-Gribble/Leduc, Denney/Frazier, Jessica Calalang/Brian Johnson
  • Skate Canada: Tarasova/Morozov, Scimeca Knierim/Knierim, Calalang/Johnson
  • Internationaux de France: Cain-Gribble/Leduc, Denney/Frazier
  • Cup of China: Sui/Han, Kayne/O’Shea
  • Rostelecom Cup: Tarasova/Morozov, Audrey Lu/Misha Mitrofanov
  • NHK Trophy: Sui/Han, Kayne/O’Shea, Scimeca Knierim/Knierim

4. How many more young quad-jumping Russians can women’s skating handle? 

Zagitova is the defending world champion, and she isn’t even the Russian with the biggest buzz heading into the new season.

Back-to-back world junior champion Alexandra Trusova is the first woman to land a quadruple Lutz in competition. She’s also the first to land a quad toeloop. She landed two quads in one program at the 2018 world juniors, and she has done three in an unofficial skate this fall. She’s only 15. Her free skate this season includes music from “Game of Thrones.”

Anna Shcherbakova, also 15, has landed a quadruple Lutz and was second in last year’s world juniors, and she upset Trusova and Zagitova to win the Russian championship.

Trusova and Shcherbakova both lost in last year’s junior Grand Prix Final to yet another Russian, Alena Kostornaia, who’s 16 now and has the good taste to skate to the Muse song “Supermassive Black Hole” in her free skate.

Kostornaia, Trusova and Shcherbakova will make their senior-level Grand Prix debuts this season. Trusova already has competed this year and posted the highest score recorded under the new scoring system, just ahead of prior marks from Zagitova and Kostornaia.

5. Can the U.S. women put it together this year? 

Chen and Zhou give the U.S. men two legitimate medal threats in any competition, and the U.S. ice dance machine continues to spin forth contenders. But women’s skating has been in a long dry spell since the era of Michelle Kwan, Tara Lipinski, Sarah Hughes and Sasha Cohen ended. Ashley Wagner, the last U.S. woman on the podium in a major event, has retired.

Today, 2018 U.S. champion Bradie Tennell has shown she’s capable of big numbers, but cracking the top five has been difficult.

The reigning U.S. champion, Alysa Liu, is age eligible for only the Junior Grand Prix series. She’s 14, and she has already posted a score higher than any U.S. woman other than Tennell posted last year.

The good news for the U.S. women is the return of 2017 U.S. champion Karen Chen after an injury-riddled 2018-19 season. Like Zhou, she’s heading to an Ivy League school, enrolling at Cornell.

Two-time U.S. medalist Mariah Bell and the ever-entertaining Starr Andrews also have two Grand Prix assignments this season.

Ting Cui, the bronze medalist after Trusova and Shcherbakova in the 2019 world junior championships, withdrew from her Grand Prix events with an ankle injury.

The GP schedule for the top women and U.S. entries:

  • Skate America: Shcherbakova, Chen, Tennell, Amber Glenn
  • Skate Canada: Trusova, Tennell
  • Internationaux de France: Zagitova, Kostornaia, Andrews, Bell
  • Cup of China: Shcherbakova
  • Rostelecom Cup: Trusova, Bell
  • NHK Trophy: Zagitova, Kostornaia, Chen, Andrews, Megan Wessenberg

MORE: Tennell on self-doubt, lessons learned in 2019

MORE: Figure skating season broadcast schedule

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. Check out a free trial of the Figure Skating Pass during Skate America from Oct. 18-20. 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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Vincent Zhou to attend Brown University, details new skating situation

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World bronze medalist Vincent Zhou will attend Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island in the fall. He’ll train in Boston, though.

He plans to live on campus, he told NBCSports.com/figure-skating, and his mother will also make the cross-country move to help him commute to practice. He could train on campus at Brown, he said, but all their ice time is taken up by hockey, and his options were limited to midnight sessions.

“My mom will be coming to help with transportation because making the hour-plus commute to training and back can and will be dangerous under fatigue and mental load,” he said.

Zhou chose Brown for its “flexible, self-directed undergrad curriculum, beautiful campus and great surroundings, and relatively short proximity to a viable training location.” He’s interested in a variety of courses, including business, economics, public policy, philosophy and psychology.

He will complete the fall semester, then take gap years or semesters until after the 2022 Olympics.

“I can return home after the fall semester ends to get some good, proper training in before the more important second half of the season starts,” Zhou said. “Subsequently, I will be able to put full focus and effort into achieving my dream of becoming 2022 Olympic champion.”

Zhou expects to get on the ice about 10 hours per week to practice, a significant reduction.

Another change will be the addition of new coach, Mie Hamada from Japan. She also coaches top Japanese skaters Satoko Miyahara and Rika Kihira.

“The search for the right coach leads almost every high-ranking skater on a national or international search — see literally every skater competing at this level,” he said of his search for the right coach. “In pursuit of a common goal, I and others seek the best guidance and support, which of course isn’t always conveniently within arm’s reach. That’s why we all have searched and moved far and wide.”

He hasn’t been specific, but Zhou still plans to work with his other coaches, too. But while at Brown, he will primarily train alone.

“I have great self-awareness, so I trust that I can figure out some things alone,” he said. “However, my coaches, including coach Hamada, will be visiting me for short periods of time when their travels and schedules permit.”

There are other models of success for skaters who train and attend Ivy League schools – two-time world champion Nathan Chen, for example.

But Zhou and Chen’s situations are different, Zhou said, because Zhou wasn’t able to select his own international competitions like Chen could as the world’s top skater. Zhou was instead assigned back-to-back Grand Prix events, in China (Nov. 8-10) and Moscow (Nov. 15-17), but he doesn’t see it as an issue.

“I will likely do a senior B [lower-level event] before my Grand Prix, and maybe a summer international soon,” he said. “Back-to-back Grand Prixs are more than I could have asked for, since separate ones would not mix well with academic catch-up and jetlag. It’s like combining errands into one trip.”

He hasn’t spoken to Chen about his schedule and ability to balance and knows “ultimately, it will be up to me to figure it out.” Zhou will be in the same boat as Karen Chen, who plans to attend Cornell in the fall.

“Under challenge is when the best rewards come out, so I’m looking forward to the growth and opportunity that is sure to come out of it all,” Zhou said. “This season will be about self-discovery.”

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Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, Shoma Uno lead NHK Trophy

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Russian Elizaveta Tuktamysheva landed her second triple Axel in as many Grand Prix short programs, while Shoma Uno fell, but both skaters lead after the first day at NHK Trophy.

Tuktamysheva, who had struggled since winning the 2015 World title, leads Japanese Satoko Miyahara by .09 of a point going into Saturday’s free skate in Hiroshima. Both are looking to clinch spots in December’s exclusive, six-skater Grand Prix Final after winning Grand Prix series titles earlier this season.

Tuktamysheva, after going nearly three years between landing clean triple Axels in competition, has now done it in both of her Grand Prix starts this fall. Her short-program score Friday — 76.17 — ranks second in the world this season behind Olympic champion Alina Zagitova.

The elegant Miyahara, a two-time world medalist, beat Tuktamysheva on the components (artistic) score. Another Japanese skater, Mai Mihara, is in third. The top American is Mariah Bell in seventh.

NHK TROPHY: Results | TV/Stream Schedule

Uno, the Olympic and world silver medalist and overwhelming favorite at NHK, leads Russian Sergey Voronov by 1.12 despite falling on a quadruple toe loop and not having a jumping combination. Uno tallied 92.49 points.

U.S. Olympian Vincent Zhou was fifth with two under-rotated jumps, three weeks after being dinged for seven under rotations between two Skate America programs.

Earlier in pairs, Russians Natalya Zabiyako and Alexander Enbert skated a clean, 73.48-point short to take a 2.82 lead over Chinese Peng Cheng and Jin Yang.

Only French Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres, who are not at NHK, have scored higher in the short this season.

Americans Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim and Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea were fourth and fifth after trouble with their side-by-side triple Salchows.

As a reminder, you can watch the ISU Grand Prix Series live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. GO HERE 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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MORE: Bradie Tennell working to hammer home jumps