Philip Hersh spent 28 years as Olympic sports writer for the Chicago Tribune. He has covered 30 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, 13 World Figure Skating Championships, 12 World Track and Field Championships, two Pan American Games and more than two dozen other national championships in Olympic sports.
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 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 limited 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.
Nathan Chen with the celebratory meal he had been waiting for all week. (Nathan Chen Instagram)
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.
Old Glory, new glory: Nathan Chen became the first U.S. man in 35 years to win consecutive singles titles at the World Figure Skating Championships. (Getty Images)
With a baker’s dozen of tweets, I wrap up Day 4 of the World Figure Skating Championships, a big one for Team USA:
*Nathan Chen (gold), who was simply otherworldly, and Vincent Zhou (bronze), confident and solid, gave the U.S. two men on the podium for the first time since 1996, when Todd Eldredge and Rudy Galindo went gold/bronze.
*Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue’s bronze extended the U.S. streak of world dance medals to five years.
I’ve enjoyed covering the meet this way. I hope you enjoyed reading about it this way. (High-quality, uninterrupted NBC Sports Gold live stream made it possible.)
I’ll have more about Chen’s victory Monday on nbcsports.com, and there also will be a link to it here.
Ok, I’m going to try something here. And, no, it’s not because it’s the easy way out. It’s because I said everything I wanted about Day I of the World Figure Skating Championships in a 14-item Twitter thread…and a couple later tweets.
So, in a bow to 2019 short-form journalism, here they are:
Nathan Chen has had little down time at Yale University since the beginning of his first-year classes in late summer.
The reigning figure skating world champion had embarked in August on a journey unlike almost any other in the history of the sport. Not only was he trying to blend both full-time college studies and competitive skating, as other champions had successfully done in the past, he was trying to do it with limited input from a coach who was 3,000 miles away.
His skating practice schedule includes a one-hour round trip to a nearby rink. His courses this semester include calculus, statistics, abnormal psychology and Listening to Music.
But it’s typical of Chen that when he had a break from classes last week, he used it to take on another challenge.
He went into an empty common room at one of Yale’s 14 residential colleges and sat down at a piano that was, to be polite, in need of some TLC.
Chen, 19, later said the exercise wasn’t just for fun and relaxation but rather to see if he remembered how to play the instrument, on which he had achieved a solid level of proficiency nine years ago but played little since.
Judging from the video snippets Chen posted on Instagram, the answer is yes.
Yuzuru Hanyu reacts after his free skate at the 2018 Olympics, when he won a second straight Olympic gold. (Getty Images.)
There are two ways to do figure skating predictions.
One is based on the unlikely event that the top six or so skaters or couples in every discipline skate cleanly (wouldn’t that be wonderful to see.) Predictions then are relatively simple, since one can rely on measures of past clean programs and of pure ability.
The second method factors in recent performances, injuries, the way judges have perceived an athlete or team, how the athletes have done under pressure in big events and other intangibles. These are much more valid but also trickier, given what might happen when you combine all that information with a slippery surface, knife-blade-wide skate edges and limit-pushing, extreme sports skills.
Take my 2018 Olympic predictions for icenetwork, which relied on using the variables cited in the second method.
I got just two of the five gold medalists right – Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan in men’s singles and Tessa Virtue-Scott Moir of Canada in ice dance. I had the eventual silver medalists as winners in team, women’s singles and pairs, and my predicted silver medalists won gold in all three of those disciplines.
I managed to get all three medalists, if not the right order, in pairs and the team event.
Overall, I picked 12 of the 15 medalists. My biggest miss was predicting a Russian (or, to be exact, “Olympic Athlete from Russia”) sweep in women’s singles. They got 1-2 with Alina Zagitova and Evgenia Medvedeva, but the third Russian, then reigning Grand Prix Final silver medalist Maria Sotskova, began what has been an increasingly precipitous decline by finishing a distant eighth at the Games.
I also missed by picking Nathan Chen for singles bronze (he was 17th after an awful short program but won the free to finish fifth) and Madison Hubbell – Zach Donohue for bronze in ice dance, which they were on track to win before two big errors in the free dance.
And why am I bringing all this up?
As preamble to my predictions for next week’s World Championships, with competition beginning Wednesday in Saitama, Japan.
And here they are:
Gold – Yuzuru Hanyu, Japan*
Silver – Nathan Chen, USA
Bronze – Shoma Uno, Japan
The asterisk (*) after Hanyu is there for the same reason I used one a year ago: uncertainty. If he is healthy, he wins a third world title.
Hanyu missed competitions and a lot of training time after an ankle injury last season and returned from the sidelines to win the Olympics. Vincent Zhou of the U.S., sixth at the 2018 Winter Games, said he wouldn’t be surprised to see Hanyu rebound that way after a similar impact from an injury this season. “He’s on a different level from the rest of us,” Zhou said of the Japanese superstar. “The way he made such a quick recovery to win the Olympic title, I don’t think anybody else could have done that. He makes everything look easy."
Added to the surpassing quality of Hanyu’s skating is a fierce competitive will that is the X factor making it hard to bet against him.
Prior to this season’s injury, Hanyu had three so-so (by his standards) free skates, even if the second (with two under-rotated quads) earned the highest score in the world for 2018-19 and included a wowza quad toe – triple axel sequence. Hanyu had also been up and down prior to his injury last season
Chen, who won the 2018 world gold in Hanyu’s absence, comes into the season’s biggest event undefeated for the second year in a row. His performances have improved all season, and Chen was lights out in winning a third straight U.S. title.
Should Chen repeat his performance level of nationals, Hanyu likely could not afford more than one significant mistake in the free skate. A clean Hanyu in both programs is impossible to beat, even if Chen decides to revive the six-quad free skates he did at Olympics and worlds (nine of the quads got positive grades; the others all got full rotational credit.)
The other U.S. men? Two clean skates could put Jason Brown in the top six, and Zhou could be close to a medal if the under-rotation police don’t arrest him again.
Rika Kihira and coach Mi Hamada after seeing her winning scores. (Getty Images)
Gold – Rika Kihira, Japan
Silver – Alina Zagitova, Russia
Bronze – Kaori Sakamoto, Japan
This is the hardest event to predict, given reigning Olympic champion Zagitova’s recent struggles and the pressure Kihira may feel as the favorite on home ice in her senior worlds debut.
Let’s start with the bronze medal. I see five women in the running – Sakamoto, compatriot Satoko Miyahara, Russians Evgenia Medvedeva and Sofia Samodurova and Kazakh Elizabet Tursynbaeva. If two-time world champ Medvedeva somehow pulls off two clean programs, which she hasn’t done all season, she will win the bronze – and maybe more, depending on how Kihira and Zagitova perform. And if Tursynbaeva has a solid short and lands a quad salchow in the free, she could wind up with a medal.
Zagitova skated well enough in her first competition of the season, the Nebelhorn Challenger Series event, to win the world title. FWIW: her total score from Nebelhorn has remained the highest in the world this season – by more than five points.
But three of Zagitova’s last four free skates, including the last two, have been poor to dismal, with the three bad ones producing an aggregate three falls, four under-rotations, one downgrade and one triple that she doubled. (In the good free skate, she still singled a planned triple toe.) She also fell twice in the free at the pre-season Russian test skate, and she has not been skating with the champion’s confidence and newbie’s insouciance (remember that five-triple-jump combo in Olympic practice?) that carried her from junior world champion at age 14 to Olympic champion at 15.
Kihira has made major mistakes (falls and popped jumps) in every one of her events this season except the low-key Challenge Cup last month. She came closest to two clean programs at the Grand Prix Final, where she emphatically beat a solid Zagitova (no negative GOEs) to establish herself as the current top senior woman in the world.
Kihira, 16, has gained fame (and points) as a master of the triple axel, but her 18 (!!!) attempts this season have included three falls, two pops (singles), one downgrade and one double, for a decent success rate of 61 percent. She has come from behind after the short program to win four times, missing a winning rally only at the Japanese Championships, where she was second to Sakamoto. In three of the five SP losses, a failed triple axel was her undoing.
Kihira is trending up, despite a blip or two, while Zagitova has mainly been trending down since falling three times in the free skate at 2018 worlds. So it would not even be surprising to see the Russian miss the podium entirely.
And the U.S. women? Bradie Tennell, sixth at 2018 worlds, has been hammered by judges all this season for under rotations. Mariah Bell, a distant 12th at the last two worlds, struggles to put together two solid programs. A top six for either would be very good, but their chances look slim to gain back a third women’s singles spot for the U.S. with combined finishes adding up to 13 or less.
Bronze – Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov, Russia
The dazzling French couple has dominated the scene all season, with an undefeated record that includes historic golds at the Grand Prix Final (first by a French pair) and European Championships (second by a French pair – the other was 87 years ago.) Their inventive lifts and powerful skating are compelling to watch.
For the second time in three years, reigning Olympic silver medalists and 2017 world champions Sui and Han of China have missed most of the season due to her foot injuries. They returned this time to win the Four Continents Championships last month despite a fall in each program. Sui reportedly had another injury in a recent practice, but she and Han remain on the entry list.
The U.S? The hope is for lone entry Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc to turn their worlds debut into a top 10 finish and a second U.S. pairs spot for next year. Given that their top score this season ranks ninth in the world, that is not impossible.
Gold – Gabrielle Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, France
Silver – Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin, Russia
Bronze – Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue, USA
This is the one clear gold prediction, with the French team light years ahead of the competition as they seek a second straight world title and fourth in the last five years.
The other two medals are up for grabs. Reigning world silver medalists Hubbell and Donohue have shot their medal chances in the foot with big free skate mistakes at other major events (2017 worlds, 2018 Olympics, 2019 Four Continents), but they won this season’s Grand Prix Final with Papadakis-Cizeron sidelined by an injury. Madison Chock and Evan Bates of the U.S. won world medals in 2015 and 2016 but slipped to seventh and fifth the past two seasons. After missing the first half of this season as Chock recovered from a foot injury, they won Four Continents. Canadians Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje could also be in the medal mix.
The third U.S. team? Kaitlyn Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker finished 10th at worlds last season and could move up a spot or two.
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 Shcherbakova, Alexandra Trusovaand 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.
Part of the U.S. Center for SafeSport’s home page on the internet.
In response to a U.S. Figure Skating letter that challenged its credibility and operating methods, the U.S. Center for SafeSport has criticized figure skating for a culture that “allowed grooming and abuse to go on unchecked for too long.”
SafeSport leveled that charge in a statement sent to Globetrotting that also rejected a USFS request made last week for the Center to complete its investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct made against late pairs skater John Coughlin.
It a Feb. 26 letter to the SafeSport board of directors, USFS cited concerns about the way SafeSport handles such allegations as a reason for wanting the investigation finished.
“Many U.S. Figure Skating athletes and members have expressed concern to U.S. Figure Skating leadership over the Center’s actions and shared that they have lost trust and confidence in how the Center processes allegations of abuse,” the USFS letter said.
SafeSport’s Monday statement said its work on the Coughlin case and “other Figure Skating matters” had uncovered evidence that there “was/is” a wider problem of abuse in the sport.
“The issues in this sport are similar to those the Center has seen in many others and cut across a wide population,” the statement said. “This cannot be allowed to continue.”
USFS and SafeSport had been turning a tragedy involving both Coughlin and those he was alleged to have abused into an increasingly pointed series of exchanges.
In its reaction to Monday’s SafeSport statement, USFS clearly was trying to avoid any further escalation. USFS did not reiterate a desire to see the investigation completed.
“U.S. Figure Skating fully supports the mission of the U.S. Center for SafeSport and works in cooperation with the Center to help end abuse in sport,” USFS said in an email Monday afternoon. “The Center has clearly stated it will not advance its investigation into the allegations against the late John Coughlin. U.S. Figure Skating is constantly striving to ensure athlete safety and looks forward to working with the Center to better understand the issues raised in this case.
“We have and continue to encourage anyone in the U.S. Figure Skating community who has been abused or suspects abuse or misconduct to immediately report it to local law enforcement, the U.S. Center for SafeSport or U.S. Figure Skating.”
SafeSport’s latest statement on the status of the Coughlin investigation cited and elaborated upon the same reasons it had mentioned Feb. 12, following an earlier USFS request to complete the investigation. (Neither statement mentioned Coughlin by name.)
The first is that Coughlin’s Jan. 18, death, by suicide, has removed the need to finish the investigation because there no longer is a potential threat that could have been caused by his continued presence in the sport.
“Furthermore,” the SafeSport Monday statement said, “the Center is dedicated to providing a fundamentally fair adjudicatory process. Indeed, fairness dictates that the Center not complete an investigation when it is impossible for the respondent to provide testimony regarding events about which only he would have knowledge.
“While the Center can proceed with an investigation where a respondent voluntarily elects not to participate in the process, it cannot and would not, complete an investigation when a respondent is deceased.”
USFS had disputed that stance in its letter last week.
“While the Center may believe any threat has been mitigated by Mr. Coughlin’s death, the lack of a completed investigation has produced great uncertainty,” the letter said. “Further, the lack of a completed investigation has allowed for innuendo and continued speculation to dominate the conversation instead of a resolution of the facts.”
Coughlin was placed on restricted status by SafeSport in December and then given an interim suspension a day before he took his own life at age 33. Both the restriction and suspension are interim measures SafeSport can apply while investigating and adjudicating a case after it has received reports of abuse or misconduct.
Pending resolution of the case, the prohibitions prevented or had the effect of preventing Coughlin from doing nearly everything he had done in the sport since leaving competitive skating in 2014: coaching, commentating, representing an equipment manufacturer and serving on international and national figure skating athletes’ commissions.
USA Today reported that SafeSport had received three reports alleging sexual misconduct by Coughlin and that two involved minors.
Sources confirmed to Globetrotting that the initial SafeSport notice of a restriction, posted Dec. 17, led others to come forward with reports alleging sexual misconduct by Coughlin.