Could we see same-sex figure skating pairs at the Olympics? Never say never

Figure skater Alysa Liu of Team USA at the 2022 Winter Olympics
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By Patricia Fiske, @patriciacfiske

The women’s figure skating competition in Beijing might be over, but U.S. figure skating star Alysa Liu will have one last opportunity to skate on Olympic ice during the traditional figure skating gala that’s scheduled for Sunday in Beijing (Saturday night in the U.S. – tune-in details below).

If she had the choice, she’d probably be skating with one of her female competitors.

The Olympic figure skating gala is an invite-only event where medalists and other chosen skaters perform in an exhibition to celebrate the conclusion of the Games. Athletes from all four disciplines participate, including men’s singles, women’s singles, ice dance, and pairs, performing alternative routines that feature new music, choreography, and fun elements that aren’t part of the formal competition. (Canada’s Keegan Messing is training a backflip for the occasion!)

After Liu’s refreshing performance in Beijing, they were invited to the gala, but the Olympian faced a bit of a dilemma: they didn’t have a routine prepared for the showcase.

Enter: South Korea’s You Young – Liu’s friend and competitor.

“I’m not going to spoil her gala – but [Young] said I could do it with her because she has two outfits,” Liu shared in a candid social media moment. “I don’t think they’ll let us, but we could try, right?”

While Liu and Young won’t pair up for the gala in Beijing, Liu raises a good question.

Why don’t we talk about same-sex pairs’ skating more often?

The tweet featuring the video of Liu talking about pairs’ skating with You had garnered over 42,100 views, 1,247 likes, and 269 retweets at time of publishing, with an overwhelmingly supportive and positive reaction to the suggestion.

“if they don’t let Alysa and Young do their cute duet gala program… this is war”

“this is the kind of energy and collaboration figure skating should have more of”

“Give me the Alysa/Young duet program, PLEASE”

“LET THEM DUET @Olympics”

While it’s a small sample size compared to the massive, worldwide figure skating fanbase, it’s obvious there is serious interest in seeing less rigid gender norms in figure skating. From a business perspective, men’s pairs, women’s pairs, or even an open gender discipline would mean extra airtime for the most-watched Winter Olympic sport. So why isn’t the prospect talked about more?

The 2022 Winter Olympics feature 12 “mixed gender” events, including three in figure skating. But even mixed gender events have strict gender restrictions.

Rule 300 of the International Skating Union (ISU) rulebook states that teams in both pairs’ skating and ice dance consist of “one Woman and one Man.” (The rule previously read as “one Lady and one Man,” but the ISU announced it would start using “Woman” instead in June 2021.)

Some athletes have already challenged the rigid binary that figure skating exists on, including U.S. pairs’ skater Timothy LeDuc. On Friday, LeDuc became the first publicly out nonbinary athlete to compete at the Olympic Winter Games when they competed in the pairs’ short program with partner Ashley Cain-Gribble.

“As a person that exists and really thrives outside of the binary, it can be very complicated sometimes navigating a gendered sport,” LeDuc said on a recent episode of the NBCLX podcast My New Favorite Olympian.

LeDuc came out as gay when they were 18 and first spoke publicly about being nonbinary in 2021. They hope this is the beginning of a narrative shift, sending the message that Queer people can have the opportunity to be “open and successful in sports.”

While we’re at it, why can’t that shift also include changes on the ice?

While same-sex or open gender pairs’ skating would allow for there to be a wider range of romantic depictions in skating, these new disciplines wouldn’t need to have a romantic dynamic to be successful. While routines could emote intimacy, they could also be more akin to synchronized diving or synchronized skating (yes, it exists!), focusing on teamwork, synchronicity, and potentially progressing the sport further with more difficult skills (e.g. side-by-side quads, throw quads or quints).

Other artistic sports, like competitive cheerleading, and performing arts, like Cirque Du Soleil, feature same-sex pairings that perform at an impressive level and are celebrated by audiences.

Change in figure skating starts at the top

An acceptance revolution is occurring in the sporting world, but governing bodies like the ISU tend to be slower to change, as exhibited by the “Ladies” to “Women” decision of 2021.

Back in 1998, the ISU notified its members that disciplinary action would be taken against them if they competed in the Gay Games — a worldwide sport and cultural event that promotes acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community— specifically, if they entered the same-sex pairs’ competition.

The ISU wouldn’t sanction the competition, since it mandates pairs consist of one man and one woman. After two failed attempts, the International Gay Figure Skating Union and the Gay Games didn’t even try to talk to the ISU again until the lead up to the 2018 Paris Gay Games, according to Outsports.

In a change of tune, the ISU was more willing to work with the competition the third time around, and while the events weren’t sanctioned by the ISU, the French Federation was given permission to help organize the skating event. The union also said that, this time, no action would be taken against any ISU members who chose to compete.

Does that mean same-sex pairs’ skating is coming to the next Olympic Games in 2026? No. But it does show that even historically traditional organizations are becoming more open to new ideas, and with new ideas, come new opportunities… and excitement.

“OMG, wait, what if they actually let us do it? What if they let me and Young do a duet program?” Liu said, as she did a happy dance toward the end of her video. It’s the kind of reaction a 16-year-old has when thinking about exploring a fresh concept in a sport that has origins dating back to 300 A.D.

One teenager talking about skating with her friend. One nonbinary athlete unashamed to live their truth. They’re all important steps.

As the world becomes more accepting, and athletes more outspoken, maybe on-ice innovations will follow. Who knows what changes another decade of progress will bring?

How to Watch the Figure Skating Gala at the 2022 Winter Olympics:

Figure skating’s exhibition gala will begin at 11:00pm ET on Saturday night in the United States (12pm on Sunday in Beijing). You can stream the event live on Peacock and NBCOlympics.com, or watch it on NBC at 11:30pm ET.

Crystal Dunn returns to USWNT roster five months after giving birth

Nigeria v USWNT
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Crystal Dunn was named to the USWNT roster for two upcoming friendlies against England and Spain, marking her first official selection since giving birth to son Marcel in May.

Dunn made her NWSL return with the Portland Thorns earlier this month and also trained with the U.S. team as a non-rostered player ahead of friendlies vs. Nigeria.

In addition to Dunn, the 24-player roster features a veteran core of Alyssa Naeher, Becky Sauerbrunn, Rose Lavelle, Lindsey Horan, Mallory Pugh, and Megan Rapinoe.

Alex Morgan was not named to the USWNT roster due to a knee injury. While U.S. head coach Vlatko Andonovski did not provide details of the injury, he noted that “if this was a World Cup final, Alex was going to be on this trip and was going to play, no question.”

Other roster highlights include 17-year-old Alyssa Thompson, who becomes the first player born in 2004 to receive a USWNT call-up. Thomas, a high senior, plays club soccer for the U-17 Total Futbol Academy boys’ team.

“We are very excited for her, very excited about her potential and qualities and looking forward to seeing how she will turn out in our environment,” Andonovski said of Thompson. “This camp is not make it or break it. It’s a first experience for her, it’s just something that she shouldn’t even worry about.”

The USWNT also includes a handful of players who have made their USWNT breakthrough this season — thanks in part to both strong NWSL play and injuries to more veteran players. That list includes the likes of Naomi Girma (7 caps), Taylor Kornieck (5 caps), Hailie Mace (5 caps), Sam Coffey (1 cap), and Savannah DeMelo (0 caps).

Andonovski on Thursday called Coffey, a midfielder for the Portland Thorns, a candidate for NWSL MVP.


USWNT Roster for October 2022 Friendlies vs. England and Spain

Goalkeepers (3):

  • Aubrey Kingsbury (Washington Spirit)
  • Casey Murphy (North Carolina Courage)
  • Alyssa Naeher (Chicago Red Stars)

Defenders(7):

  • Alana Cook (OL Reign)
  • Crystal Dunn (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Emily Fox (Racing Louisville FC)
  • Naomi Girma (San Diego Wave FC)
  • Sofia Huerta (OL Reign)
  • Hailie Mace (Kansas City Current)
  • Becky Sauerbrunn (Portland Thorns FC)

Midfielders (8):

  • Sam Coffey (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Savannah DeMelo (Racing Louisville FC)
  • Lindsey Horan (Olympique Lyon, FRA)
  • Taylor Kornieck (San Diego Wave FC)
  • Rose Lavelle (OL Reign)
  • Kristie Mewis (NJ/NY Gotham FC)
  • Ashley Sanchez (Washington Spirit)
  • Andi Sullivan (Washington Spirit)

Forwards (6):

  • Ashley Hatch (Washington Spirit)
  • Mallory Pugh (Chicago Red Stars)
  • Megan Rapinoe (OL Reign)
  • Trinity Rodman (Washington Spirit)
  • Sophia Smith (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Alyssa Thompson (Total Futbol Academy)

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC

Justine Wong-Orantes’ atypical path to becoming one of the best liberos in the world

Justine Wong-Orantes hits the ball in the women's semi-final volleyball match between USA and Serbia during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
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It’s been 20 years since the same nation held both the Olympic and world volleyball titles at the same time, but libero Justine Wong-Orantes is looking to help lead Team USA accomplish that very feat at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championships in the Netherlands and Poland. Competition began on Friday and the U.S. is currently 2-0 after group play wins against Kazakhstan and Canada.

“We’re trying to win, for sure,” Wong-Orantes told On Her Turf. “I think, especially with the new turn of the program and the new year of the quad, we just have a really nice blend of veterans and also newcomers on the team.”

The 14-woman roster for Team USA, which is ranked No. 1 in the world and won its first Olympic title last summer, features six players from that gold-medal-winning team. And while Wong-Orantes is among the 2021 U.S. Olympic team veterans, she’s still a relative newcomer to international play.

The Southern California native enjoyed a notable junior career – she was 12 when she became the youngest female to ever earn an AAA rating in beach volleyball – and was a standout collegian at Nebraska, where she was a member of the 2015 NCAA championship team. But Wong-Orantes followed a different path upon graduation, initially choosing not to go overseas to play professionally.

While she was first selected for the U.S. national team in 2016 and played a handful of international tournaments in the following years, it wasn’t until she started playing professionally in Germany in 2019 that she saw the potential to elevate her position on the roster. In particular, the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics gave her an additional year of overseas experience, which she calls “a blessing in disguise.”

“I just felt like I was still in that developmental stage,” she said. “And a whole year postponement allowed me to go overseas and really get all the touches, all the repetitions, and just kind of expose myself to international volleyball another year. So I was, in hindsight, pretty thankful for that COVID season because I got an extra year under my belt, and I think that just gave me a ton of confidence.”

Ahead of the Olympics, Wong-Orantes earned “best libero” honors at the 2021 FIVB Volleyball National League in Rimini, Italy, which helped secure her spot on the Olympic roster. In Tokyo, she followed up with another standout performance and was named best libero of the Olympic tournament.

As to how the Wong-Orantes transformed into one of the world’s top liberos, she points to her background as a beach volleyball player. She began competing at age 8, and her first partner was Sara Hughes, a star on the AVP Pro Tour who also won two NCAA titles with USC.

“I think having that background and just the court awareness that beach volleyball forces you to have allowed me to really have a good read on the game,” said Wong-Orantes. “I think that’s what makes a great libero is just reading and always being reactive towards the ball.”

Wong-Orantes also credits the assistance of mental coach Sue Enquist, a former UCLA softball coach and U.S. national team coach, who now helps teams work on their culture and relationships. Enquist began working with the U.S. volleyball team during the pandemic and has continued in her role ever since.

“We just worked on a lot of stuff within ourselves, within our program, how to communicate with each other off the court, and I think that honestly propelled us into such a high, high level with how we worked with each other, and then that transferred onto the court,” explained Wong-Orantes, who noted the team has Enquist on speed dial while at the World Championship. “I really commend Sue. I just really give a lot of praise to her because I think our culture was never bad, but I think [she] just transformed into a different level.”

2022-09-26 - FIVB Volleyball Womens World Championship 2022 - Day 4
ARNHEM, NETHERLANDS – Justine Wong-Orantes (far right) poses for a photo with her U.S. teammates after defeating Canada at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championship on September 26, 2022. (Photo by Rene Nijhuis/Orange Pictures/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Wong-Orantes said she and her U.S. teammates are on their toes for the world championships, which features twice as many teams (24) as the Olympics and a “more grueling” format.

“It’s going to be a long tournament, and I think we’re really going to need all 14 of us that are here. I’m pretty certain that, at any given moment, someone’s going to be called on and someone’s going to need to step up in big moments.”