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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By any measure, Nathan Chen’s performance at Worlds matches standard for transcendent greatness

By any measure, Nathan Chen’s performance at Worlds matches standard for transcendent greatness

Transcendent greatness in sports is both absolute and relative.

Absolute, because anyone who sees an exceptional performance can recognize it as exceptional judged against nothing but its own merits.

Relative, because we seek to define greatness by comparison, to determine levels of it (greater? greatest?) when judged by other exceptional performances we have seen or know of, no matter how hard it is to make such comparisons across long periods of time, with the wildly different athletic parameters of different eras.

No matter which standard we use, absolute or relative, what Nathan Chen did in winning the 2019 World Figure Skating Championships in Japan was transcendent greatness.


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After turning life upside down, Nathan Chen landing on his feet

After turning life upside down, Nathan Chen landing on his feet

DETROIT – For the first two seasons after Nathan Chen moved up to the senior level of international skating competition, Chen’s life revolved around his commitments to the sport.

Chen’s high school studies were done through correspondence courses, allowing him to have a schedule that prioritized his time practicing at a southern California rink with coach Rafael Arutunian. He became an immediate success internationally, and in the second senior season, he won a world title, a Grand Prix title, finished fifth in the Olympics and dazzled the world with his quadruple jump exploits.

And he also was a runaway winner in the 2017 and 2018 U.S. Championships.

At 19, Chen was ready for new academic challenges.

But he still wanted to do more in skating, a sport with time and travel demands that few elite competitors have succeeded in combining with a full course load at college.

For Chen, that meant turning his life inside out.

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Hanyu, Ledecká rise above it all in a year when world sport needed them - and other athletes - as salvation from scandal and cowardice

Hanyu, Ledecká rise above it all in a year when world sport needed them - and other athletes - as salvation from scandal and cowardice

In international sports, 2018 was a year of courage and cowardice and common sense in seeing through a con.

And, as usual, it was a year of athletes of all colors, backgrounds, nations, shapes and sizes rising above the inanity, craven callousness and amorality of the old, white men who run global sports.

To which one can only say this:  Thanks, Yuzuru Hanyu and Simone Biles, thanks Ester Ledecká and Chloe Kim, thanks Eliud Kipchoge and Team Shuster. . .thanks to you and more for the achievements and goodwill that made us remember that sport, for all its ugly, scandalous warts, can show humankind at its most attractive.

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A long, winding road to glory for French pairs skaters James and Cipres

A long, winding road to glory for French pairs skaters James and Cipres

Before they retire from competitive figure skating, French pairs team Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres should skate a program either to “The Long and Winding Road” or to “Truckin,” which includes the famous phrase, “what a long, strange trip it’s been.”

Or maybe one program to each. After all, the Beatles’ song title and the words in the Grateful Dead song cover a big part of their story, both individually and together.

Their lives’ itineraries have encompassed significant stops in Scarborough, Ont.; Bermuda; Great Britain; Melun, France; Paris; Moscow; Coral Gables and Wesley, Chapel, Fla. And that doesn’t count all the places where they have competed, a list expanded this week to include their first joint competitive visit to Vancouver, B.C., one of the most significant stops in nine seasons as a team on the ice.

James, 31, and Cipres, 27, made it to Vancouver by qualifying for the Grand Prix Final for the first time by winning both their Grand Prix “regular season” events. Those were their first victories in 14 appearances on the annual circuit.

Not only that, but they also are likely to win just the second medal by a French pair in the final, which takes place Friday and Saturday. And it would be no surprise if they topped the silver earned by compatriots Sarah Abitbol and Stephane Bernadis in the 2000 Grand Prix Final.

And, in a season of significant transition on the global pairs scene, a world title seems within the grasp of this team whose world bronze last season was their first medal at a global championship in two Olympics and seven world championships together.

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