Takeaways from 2018-19 figure skating season: big props for Zagitova (and others)

Takeaways from 2018-19 figure skating season:  big props for Zagitova (and others)

A baker’s dozen takeaways, with some looks to the future, from the 2018-19 figure skating season, which ended Saturday in Japan with the United States winning the World Team Trophy.

1. It’s time to give Russia’s Alina Zagitova full – and massive – credit for what she has done the past two seasons.

Zagitova and her coaching team were unfairly criticized in some quarters for what turned out to be a brilliant strategy of doing all seven jumping passes in the second half bonus area of the 2018 Olympic free skate. Not only was that an impressive feat of stamina, the bonus points Zagitova got for those jumps were the difference between her winning gold and getting silver.

When a Zagitova worn down by a post-Olympic whirl of appearances flopped to fifth in the 2018 World Championships, staggered to fifth at this season’s Russian Championships and was beaten at Europeans, there were suggestions she might be a one-hit wonder. Then, as she later said in an interview on the Russian Skating Federation website, Zagitova became so unsettled by the pressure and the thought of failure at 2019 worlds her jumps deserted her in practice, and she had thoughts of quitting.

Some of her struggles were not unexpected. She had grown some three inches since the Olympics. Her body proportions were changing from those of a girl to those of a young woman. New rules minimized one of her strengths by limiting skaters to just three jumping passes in the bonus area.

And Zagitova overcame all that, the psychological and the physical issues and the scoring changes, to win the 2019 worlds with two clean programs, a dazzling short and a strong, commanding free. At 16, she had added a world title to her Olympic title. That is worthy of unqualified acclaim.

2. Nathan Chen had a remarkable season, even if judged only by what he did on the ice.

When one puts his undefeated record in the context of having done it while simultaneously being a full-time freshman student at Yale University whose coach was 3,000 miles away, Chen’s was a season for the ages.

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Ice Age: Should a country’s senior nationals include figure skaters frozen out of senior – or even junior – world championships?

Ice Age: Should a country’s senior nationals include figure skaters frozen out of senior – or even junior – world championships?

Over three days in late January, Alysa Liu turned into a sensation whose fame briefly reached beyond her sport.

Liu went from becoming, at age 13, the youngest senior national champion in U.S. figure skating history to appearances on TODAY and the Late Show with Jimmy Fallon, charming both viewers and the hosts.

And then, because of her age, Liu disappeared from not only the wider stage provided by those shows but also from figure skating’s stage until next season.

The situation is similar for the three young women, Anna ShcherbakovaAlexandra Trusova and Alena Kostornaia, then 14, 14 and 15, respectively, who swept the senior podium at the Russian Championships in December.

And for Stephen Gogolev, 14, senior silver medalist at the Canadian national championships in January.

At least the three Russians and Gogolev made the minimum age cutoff for this week’s World Junior Championships in Zagreb, Croatia, although Kostornaia withdrew for unspecified medical reasons. Liu is too young even for junior worlds.

But none of those five are old enough to compete in the senior world championships later this month in Japan.

That means the premier figure skating event of this season will be missing five of the best and most compelling skaters – at least as determined by national championship results – from three of the world’s traditionally powerful skating countries.

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At 4 feet, 7 inches, Alysa Liu leaps into history - and stands atop U.S. women's skating

At 4 feet, 7 inches, Alysa Liu leaps into history - and stands atop U.S. women's skating

DETROIT – The top step of the awards podium at Little Caesars Arena is 1 foot, 10 inches high.

Alysa Liu, who is 4 feet, 7 inches tall, needed to get to that step after Friday’s free skate at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

Liu stood in front of the podium, quickly sized up the chances of being able to jump from the ice onto the spot she had just earned and then let Bradie Tennell and Mariah Bell reach down to pull her up to the step between them.

It was the only extraordinary leap Liu did not attempt in the past two days.

Alysa Liu is helped onto the podium by silver and bronze medalists Bradie Tennell and Mariah Bell. AP Photo

She pulled off all the others, vaulting into the record books with a combination of insouciance, enthusiasm, ambition and stunning poise under pressure for one so young.

“She is the future of U.S. ladies’ skating,” said 1998 Olympic champion Tara Lipinski. “And she will be the one to push the next generation forward.”

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Alysa Liu makes history but wants to make more

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Twenty-five seconds into her short program Thursday, Alysa Liu made history.

She was the first woman to land a triple Axel in the short program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

Not bad for a 13-year-old making her senior debut at nationals.

And not enough for Liu. She wants to make more.

“She definitely wants to be the youngest champion,” said her coach, Laura Lipetsky. “That’s in the back of her head.”

It won’t be easy. Liu, second after the short program, likely will need another historic performance to overcome reigning champion Bradie Tennellwho takes a 2.71-point lead into Friday’s free skate.

But one would not be wise to discount the possibility of Liu pulling it off.

For the whole story on NBCSports.Com, click here:

And for a brief story on Bradie Tennell taking command of the short program, click here: