Kamila Valiyeva investigation complete, next step in coming weeks, RUSADA says

Kamila Valieva
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The Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) completed its investigation into figure skater Kamila Valiyeva‘s doping case and in processing the results will hold at least one hearing before an anti-doping disciplinary committee in late September or early October, according to Russian media.

Valiyeva, then 15, was the favorite going into this year’s Olympics and finished fourth after news surfaced of a positive drug test for a banned heart medication from a sample taken on Christmas.

She was allowed to compete after a RUSADA anti-doping disciplinary committee in February lifted her suspension upon appeal by the skater. The committee cited, among other reasons, a “low” amount of the banned substance in Valiyeva’s sample, that she tested negative before and after the Dec. 25 test and that, as an athlete under the age of 16, she had less of a burden of proof.

Anti-doping rules have a provision that athletes under the age of 16 may face lesser punishments for doping violations than those 16 and over, including a reprimand rather than a suspension.

The International Olympic Committee, World Anti-Doping Agency and the International Skating Union then appealed RUSADA’s lifting of the suspension to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), which ruled that Valiyeva could compete in the Olympics while her case was still being adjudicated.

The CAS panel largely based its decision on an “untenable delay” in Valiyeva’s sample test results being processed through a Stockholm lab. “This case was not about the underlying alleged anti-doping rule violation and the panel takes no position on that,” it stated.

The IOC then put an indefinite delay on holding the medal ceremony from the Olympic team event, where Valiyeva helped the Russian Olympic Committee to win. The U.S. was second and Japan third, but nobody will receive medals until after Valiyeva’s case is adjudicated.

“It continues to be an outrageous situation,” U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee CEO Sarah Hirshland said Thursday. “Our No. 1 priority is to make sure that our Team USA athletes who are sitting without their medals know that we haven’t forgotten them.”

The World Anti-Doping Agency said Thursday that it reserves the right to appeal RUSADA’s verdict on Valiyeva to CAS “if it feels the World Anti-Doping Code has not been applied appropriately.”

“The bad news is there can be hearings, and then of course there can be appeals,” Hirshland said. “I fear that this is going to linger for quite some time.”

Also Thursday, USOPC board chair Susanne Lyons said the IOC is reaching out to its stakeholders, including National Olympic Committees and international sports federations “about whether there’s a pathway back” for Russian athletes who have largely been banned from international competition since shortly after the invasion of Ukraine in February.

“I don’t think any decisions have been made yet, but I think all of us feel that at some point in time, the individual athletes should not be the victim of whatever their individual governments’ political or other tensions are around the world,” Lyons said. “So I think, inevitably, there will be a desire to see athletes who happen to reside in Russia come back and be part of competition, but what the timing is and what that pathway looks like is to be determined.”

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Ilia Malinin lands first quadruple Axel in figure skating history

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Ilia Malinin landed the first clean, fully rotated quadruple Axel in figure skating competition history to win the U.S. International Classic in Lake Placid, N.Y., on Wednesday night.

Malinin, the 17-year-old world junior champion from Virginia, opened his free skate to “Euphoria” by Labrinth with a quad Axel, the last remaining quadruple jump that had yet to be landed clean by any skater in competition.

“It felt really good,” Malinin said, according to U.S. Figure Skating. “When I’m practicing it, it’s pretty easy for me to figure out how to get the right timing and everything to have it be a good attempt. To do it in competition is a different story because you have nerves and pressure that can get in the way of that. So I have to treat it like I’m at home, and it feels pretty good.”

The jump received a full base value of 12.50 points (the most awarded for any of the six quad jumps, as it is the hardest, requiring four and a half revolutions) plus a 1.00 grade of execution from a judges panel. A jump with a positive grade of execution is considered clean.

“This is the CRAZIEST thing I’ve ever seen anyone do on the ice,” 2018 Olympian Adam Rippon tweeted. “ILIA BOY WONDER!!!”

Malinin, whose parents competed at the Olympics for Uzbekistan, landed four quads overall in his free skate, plus a triple Lutz-triple Axel combination, which has rarely, if ever, been done to rise from sixth place after Tuesday’s short program to win his season debut, despite three falls between two programs.

The top-level Grand Prix Series opens next month with Skate America, where Malinin faces Olympic and world silver medalist Yuma Kagiyama of Japan in the absence of Olympic champion Nathan Chen. Chen is on an indefinite and perhaps permanent break from competition.

Chen never attempted a quad Axel in competition. Few men have.

Malinin previously landed what appeared to be a clean quad Axel at a U.S. Figure Skating camp in May. Before that, the jumping master with the Instagram handle @quadg0d posted training video of a quad Axel without a clean landing.

“I had an idea for trying it for a little while now,” Malinin said Wednesday, according to U.S. Figure Skating. “March or April was when I really started to work on the technique and try to improve it.”

Malinin took silver at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in January, hitting five clean quads (three different types) between two programs. He was passed over for the three-man Olympic team because of his lack of senior experience.

Then at junior worlds in April, he attempted four quads in his free skate, landing three clean.

Other skaters previously shared videos of landing a quad Axel with the aid of a harness in training. Others attempted it in competition but did not land it clean, including two-time Olympic gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan, who made it his mission to land the jump, even in retirement from competition.

Last December, Hanyu two-footed a quadruple Axel attempt landing at the Japanese Championships. The jump was well shy of four and a half rotations, so it was downgraded to a triple Axel, but it marked the best attempt in competition of any skater to that point.

At the Beijing Olympics, Hanyu fell on a quad Axel attempt. It was deemed under-rotated but not downgraded.

“Hanyu definitely inspired me to try it here,” Malinin said.

Russian-turned American Artur Dmitriev Jr. worked on a quad Axel for years but did not master it. He was credited with an under-rotated quad Axel at January’s nationals, where he stepped out of the landing.

The Axel was created by Norwegian Axel Paulsen, who landed it at the first international skating “meeting” in Vienna in 1882. American Dick Button landed the first double Axel en route to the first of his back-to-back Olympic titles in 1948.

The first triple Axel in competition was landed by Canadian Vern Taylor at the 1978 World Championships.

“It’s been 43 years since Vern Taylor of Canada successfully landed the 3A in 1978,” Hanyu said in December. “No skater has been able to add another rotation to this so far. Trying to do something nobody else has done is like walking in the dark.”

NBC Olympic research contributed to this report.

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Figure skating champion Bradie Tennell, a competitive ‘shark,’ making her comeback in new waters

Benoit Richaud
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A week after chronic foot pain forced Bradie Tennell to withdraw from the 2022 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, the impact of that situation hit her full force.

Tennell was the defending national champion, a good bet to make the 2022 Olympic team had she been healthy. But she was lying in bed in her family home in the Chicago suburbs as nationals was going on in Nashville.

She had lost the chance to realize her dream of skating in another Olympic Games. She had lost an entire competitive season. Then she realized a fundamental part of her also had been lost when walking to the kitchen became so painful it was easier to stay hungry until someone could bring her food.

“In my core, I’m an athlete,” Tennell said via telephone in an interview last week. “I take so much pride in being able to demand pretty much anything of my body and being able to do it. If I want to go on a 10-mile hike, I can go on a 10-mile hike. This was like my identity as an athlete being so suddenly ripped away.”

This lengthy phone and text interview was the first time the two-time U.S. champion and 2018 Olympian had spoken at length about what she described as an “honestly traumatic experience.”

Its nadir, feeling the loss of self, followed several difficult months in which the two-time U.S. champion had withdrawn from one event after another, seven in all, with a right foot issue whose source she said has never been diagnosed. She rejected a suggestion for what would have amounted to exploratory surgery to seek an answer.

Tennell had vowed to herself even before last season that it would not be her last as a competitor. Being physically able to fulfill that vow was an eight-month process that went on below the radar until her Aug. 22 post on Instagram revealed a startling change in the process: new coach, new training base on a different continent.

Maybe there should have been a hint to the switch in the posts a few days earlier that showed her floating blissfully on her back in the limpid turquoise water of a cove near Marseille, France, and gazing at the sea from rocks in Toulon. Tennell clearly seemed at home in the environment of southeastern France, so much so she has moved to Nice, a seaside city she will see for the first time when she lands there Monday.

She pulled up stakes to train at a rink she has never seen with a Peak Ice coaching team in Nice headed by Benoit Richaud, her choreographer since 2017. Tennell, 24, had spent the previous two seasons training with coach Tom Zakrajsek in Colorado Springs, Colorado, after 12 with Denise Myers in the Chicago area.

Her original plan had been to return to Colorado Springs once she was healthy enough to train. The idea of relocating to Nice began to attract Tennell while working with Richaud’s team at an August camp in La Garde, France, about 80 miles southwest of Nice.

“The vibes and atmosphere in the group there were very good,” said Tennell, whose French so far is limited to what she has gleaned from language learning apps.

During her second week in La Garde, she approached Richaud about training with his group full-time and found him “very open to the idea.” That was all the encouragement she needed.

“Bradie is at an age and point of maturity that she wanted to take responsibility for what is good for her,” Richaud said. “Over the years working together, we have had a very trusting relationship.”

She long had enjoyed working with Richaud, 34, a former ice dancer who choreographed the programs with which Japan’s Kaori Sakamoto won the world title and the Olympic bronze medal last season. But Tennell had no coaching history with Cedric Tour, 28, the Peak Ice technical director, who competed once in the French senior championships, finishing 12th.

It took just one session with Tour for Tennell to like his approach. She immediately told Richaud how impressed she was with the way Tour could fix flaws and explain the reasons both for doing it and for how he did it.

“I said that to Benoit after my first lesson with Cedric because he is so smart in technical corrections,” Tennell said. “Some of the things he was telling me I hadn’t heard before, and the exercises and drills he was putting me through was like a cold bucket of water over my head.

“I loved it because it showed me how much more I have to learn about jumping and technique in general. I think at this point in my career, it’s important to be excited not only for training every day, but also to learn about the how and why certain things are important.”

Richaud makes no secret of his disdain for continual pat-on-the back coaching when a skater needs criticism. He sees in Tennell a skater whose ego will not be bruised by having her mistakes pointed out.

“Everywhere I go, I always hear, ‘Good job,’ even when it’s a terrible job,” Richaud said. “Bradie is not a `good job’ girl. She craves correction. She wants to be better.”

Tennell agrees.

“I have always been that way,” she said. “I prefer to have somebody tell me something bluntly than to beat around the bush and sugarcoat it. If something is bad, tell me it’s bad so I can fix it and move on to something else. Also, by working this way, it allows me to truly believe somebody when they tell me something is good or I’ve done a good job.”

In less than a month working in France, Tennell knew she had done a good job when she landed a clean triple lutz-triple toe loop combination, an element she had not executed successfully in nearly a year because of the pain when she did the right foot pick on the lutz takeoff. Tennell unashamedly cried after landing it.

“A very large part of me believed I never would be able to do it again,” Tennell said. “By some miracle, I’ve been able to continue. I keep that in the back of my mind, and I’m so grateful. I’m going to step on the ice and literally cherish every moment.

“In those dark winter months in Chicago when everything was going on without me, I really didn’t think this was a possibility.”

It has been a slow process to get back this point. The first step involved eliminating the pain, and much of the treatment simply was rest. She had been on crutches at various times and took days off but it wasn’t true rest.

So Tennell did not skate at all this year until the end of March, eased herself back onto the ice in April and May and did minimal jumping after then, including the first two weeks at the summer camp.

“Those first two months back were just getting a feel for the ice again,” she said. “I was allowing myself to come back in a way where I could process everything I had lost last season but also use the newfound kind of wisdom I had gained from going through the honestly traumatic experience.”

By early-summer, Tennell felt confident enough to ask for Grand Prix assignments, and she got two, for the fourth (England) and sixth (Finland) meets of the six-event series. She plans to do a couple other events before then. Her last competition was the World Team Trophy in April 2021.

Tennell will re-use half of the tango short program prepared for the Olympic season, with Richaud revising the other half. His choreography for her new free skate will give an oft-used piece of music in figure skating, Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” a strikingly different interpretation he chose not to reveal until it is performed.

“The point of this season will be her reconnection with competition,” Richaud said. “Bradie is addicted to competition. She is a shark on the ice.”

Like a shark, Tennell is relentless in pursuit of her goals, her devotion to hard training often maniacal. She does not intend to change out of fear of injury. Tennell wants more from herself than just being a good comeback story.

“I think I’m still going to be kind of a maniac because I have a lot of work ahead of me,” she said. “I will be much more careful and mindful but I’m not going to allow myself not to train as hard because I’m afraid of something happening. I want to fully give myself to the goals I have.”

Tennell came out of nowhere to win the U.S. title in 2018. She won it again in 2021 and made the podium in both years in between. She was the top U.S. finisher in women’s singles at the 2018 Olympics. She has finished as high as sixth in three world championship appearances.

She returns to a sport with a very different competitive landscape. The Russians who have dominated women’s skating the past eight seasons are barred because of their country’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. The three U.S women on the 2022 Olympic team are either retired (Alysa Liu) or all but retired (Mariah Bell and Karen Chen). Two skaters moving up to senior international competition, reigning world junior champion Isabeau Levito and reigning world junior bronze medalist Lindsay Thorngren, presumably would be a healthy Tennell’s main national rivals.

“My job is still the same, and my goals are still the same,” Tennell said. “I want to show this is what I’m meant to be doing and what I love. I want to be national champion again. I want to be on the podium at worlds.”

Just being a warm and fuzzy comeback story is not enough for Bradie Tennell. That’s not how sharks roll.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at every Winter Olympics since 1980, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.

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