Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Why World Silver Medalist Ashley Wagner is So Much More Than a Drought-Buster

Who does that...? ME! That’s who. Crazy people (like me).

Does that sound like something that reigning World Silver Medalist Ashley Wagner would say? It does to me. But, alas, it’s not her quote.

Let me explain.

I’m what you might call a workout-at-home aficionado, and as I result I know what exercise programs—and trainers—work me into a sweaty, drippy pulp. Currently, that trainer is Jillian Michaels. And dear ol’ Jillian has a DVD that’s been out a few years now called Ripped in 30 that I tend to use when I’m bored with the cardio discs in her Body Revolution series. And during one particularly grueling stretch of floor-based cardio (I HATE most of her floor-based moves, so I know they must be good for me) she pairs up 30 seconds of mountain climbers with 30 seconds of what I think she calls floor-jacks. Then she repeats the sequence. Ugh. UGH!

And in the middle of all this you hear her voice (because you don’t dare look up at the screen if you know the moves by now) saying “Two minutes... of cardio... in plank (position). Who does that? Who...does... that...? 

"ME! That’s who. Crazy people!

"And you bought this DVD, you fool!” she then barks, as she is prone to do. I don't remember much she says after that; I’m usually chuckling a little by this point because I get all my Jillian DVDs from my local library, you see...

But I digress. I’ll get back on track now by explaining what any of this has to do with Wagner. And I’ll start by throwing down a little research I did in the past week:

+  In the post-World War II era (1946 to present), 30 different ladies have held the U.S. National title.

+  Of those 30 ladies, 24 have gone on to win World and/or Olympic medals. (I’m not counting the Olympic team bronze won by USA in 2014... only individual medals.)

+  The six that have not done so: Laurence Owen (1961 winner who perished in the Sabena Flight 548 crash en route to Worlds; she finished 9th at Worlds the previous year)... Lorraine Hanlon (1963 winner and part of the “rebuilding” years; best finish at Worlds was 10th)... Mirai Nagasu (2008 winner; 2010 Olympics 4th, best Worlds finish to-date 7th)... Alissa Czisny (2009 & 2011 winner; best Worlds finish 5th)... Rachael Flatt (2010 winner; 2010 Olympics 7th, best Worlds finish 5th)...and Gracie Gold (2014 Olympics 4th, best Worlds finish to-date 4th).

I hope it’s needless to say this, but I list these names as a statement of history... not blame. Obviously Owen’s story is tragic, and I suspect Hanlon’s might be more interesting than anyone knows (go read her Wiki page to see what I mean). And the modern-day names... the ones who contributed to the infamous “drought”? There’s at least a dozen different things you could point to as explanation, including the rise of Japanese singles skaters, injuries on the part of the U.S. team, “mental toughness” (or lack thereof) on the part of the U.S. team, lack of competitive drive, skating in the shadow of the Kwan Era, skating during Kim Yu-Na and Mao Asada’s dominance... I’m not sure it matters.

Until a couple weeks ago, Wagner’s name was right in there with the rest of them. First she was the “almost girl” because she couldn’t quite claim that National title in her first four attempts (3rd in her ’08 senior debut, then 4th in ’09, 3rd in ’10, and 6th in ’11)... then something similar happened with the Worlds podium: four attempts in four years, with the results being 4th, 5th, 7th, and 5th, respectively.

And then came Boston.

Sometime shortly after the final results were announced (and yes, I do plan to do a more comprehensive review of those results/Worlds itself), I said something on Twitter speculating about Gracie’s FS implosion—admittedly a big exaggeration; I mean, we have seen implosions in this sport and that wasn’t one of them. But I was thinking of Gracie in 1st after the SP, and Ash in 4th... and yes, I can see the outcome being reversed had Ashley been in the lead. (And I bet Mirai Nagasu really can see it; she herself fell from 1st in the SP to 7th overall in her only other Worlds appearance.)  I also thought it worth noting that Gracie’s got a lot less experience from which to draw. When Ashley was Gracie’s age at Worlds—in 2012—she finished 4th, just as Gracie did. But that was after being 8th in the SP and rebounding with the 3rd best FS of the event (with her Black Swan program).

That actually brings me back to my original point (love it when that happens), which is this: Ashley Wagner is in a class by herself now... a true exception to The Rule. I’ll go back to my research to explain:

+  Of those 24 post-WW2 champions who went on to medal on the World and/or Olympic podium, 21 of them did so within 2 years of winning the U.S. title. Many got to the World podium the same year as their initial U.S. win; several actually medaled at Worlds and/or Olympics before nabbing that title (see Carol Heiss, Nancy Kerrigan and Sasha Cohen, to name a few).

+  Exception #1: Gretchen Merrill, who kept the U.S. title from 1943-1948 but didn’t claim her only World medal—a bronze—until 1947. In her case we’ll never know if she’d have medaled sooner... due to the war there were no World Championships between 1940-46.

+  Exception #2: Janet Lynn, who first won the U.S. title in 1969 but didn’t have a podium breakthrough on the world stage until three years later—when she won bronze both at the Olympics and at Worlds. In her case, as you might already know, her struggles with compulsory figures undercut her exceptional free skating. (Example: Lynn was 5th in figures and 1st in the free skate at 1971 Worlds—remember, there was no SP until 1973—so with figures counting 60% of the overall score, Lynn finished behind medalists Trixie Schuba, fellow American Julie Lynn Holmes, and Karen Magnussen.)

 Exception #3: Wagner. And in her case, there was no World War interference and no figures holding her down. Just some powerful determination keeping her together, over and over again.

It could be argued that Wagner is fortunate to be competing at a time in the sport when women single skaters often continue at a world-class level well into their 20s. And I guess she is. But the days of “going professional” after one Olympic cycle (maybe two, depending on the skater) are very seldom seen anymore. The opportunities just aren’t there. So they keep going—maybe longer than their body is willing, maybe longer than they have any real desire to. Are they “crazy people”, to bring back the Jillian quote I used earlier? Not likely. They’re just people, trying to (still) make something happen when the odds stack higher against them all the time.

And that’s what makes Ashley’s accomplishment so much more than simply “ending the medal drought” for the U.S. women. Her victory is, quite literally, EXCEPTIONAL. All on its own.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

When the World(s) Came to Boston: World Championship predictions pt. 2


GOLD: Evgenia Medvedeva (RUS)
SILVER: Satoko Miyahara (JPN)
BRONZE: Elena Radionova (RUS)
Dark Horse: Mao Asada (JPN)

Best U.S. finish: Gracie Gold, 4th

Here is the difference, in my book anyway, between someone I predict to finish 4th and one that I cast as the “Dark Horse”: the latter is a wild card. In this case... if Asada can put things together like she has a hundred times before, she’s a definite threat to the podium. If she skates like she has most of this season... different story.

As for our chances of “ending the drought” in terms of U.S. medals in this discipline? Yes, I think we have a chance. But I went ahead and predicted Wagner for the podium last year, and she ended up 5th. So I’m swinging the opposite way this time... simple as that J

So yes, I’ve got Medvedeva on top like so many others. I DO think there is upset potential via Miyahara, whose skating I admittedly prefer to Med’s. But any potential errors aside, I know Miyahara still has smallish jumps that are starting to (have been??) get tagged for edge calls and underrotations. She’s consistent as can be, but this may not be her year. On the other hand, Med has been on fire all year as if she knows her “moment” will expire in a few short months... and as Russian skating dynamos go, that could prove to be true. (Looking at you, Maria Sotskova.)

GOLD: Volosohzar/Trankov (RUS)
BRONZE: Duhamel/Radford (CAN)
Dark Horse: Stolbova/Klimov (RUS) and Savchenko/Massot (GER)

Top U.S. placement: Kayne/O’Shea, 7th

This is so hard!! I feel a lot more familiar with Du/Rad and Sui/Han currently than Volo/Trank (and especially “newbies” Sav/Mass), so my reasoning on this predictions goes like this:

1) Volo/Trank have about as solid a reputation as can be had in this sport (oh, and an OGM too)
2) Sui/Han looked breathtaking at 4CC a few weeks ago.
3) Du/Rad had had a tumultuous year, sometimes through no fault of their own
4) Sav/Mass fought long and hard to get the right to compete... but above all else, they’re still quite new compared to the other names mentioned here.

And FINALLY... a small wish list of things I’d really like to see in Boston
(Aside from, you know, everyone skating their best followed by fair, honest judging)

1) For Wagner to shred that SP (and Asada with her FS) like they did the first time competing with it.

2) For U.S. pair teams to land their SBS jumps.

3) For U.S. men to Find A Way to three spots again.

4) For at least one of the top 3 men to “skate like we know they can” so we’re not needing to explain the podium to our friends all off-season long

That’s all I’ve got! As usual, look for me on Twitter @ KLBSt8ofSk8!

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

When the World(s) Came to Boston: World Figure Skating Predictions Pt. 1



Are you ready?? I’m not. I mean yes, I’m ready for the season-climaxing, wall-to-wall coverage that I’ve heard about both from IceNetwork and NBC Sports (if you have NBC SN, that is—and yeay, I do). But I don’t have the times embedded in my brain yet... I haven’t read a ton of practice notes... I don’t even know what color Adam’s hair is!! (No, that’s a lie. It’s brown. Still brown, pretty much like at Nationals. I think. Whew.)

For better or worse, I haven’t even looked at others’ predictions for the podium. So if these guesses I’m making for DANCE and the MEN (both of whom get started on Wednesday) look eerily like another blogger/writer/fan’s, we’re just going to have to live with it. OK? OK. Let’s get to it...

GOLD: Papadakis/Cizeron (FRA)
SILVER: Weaver/Poje (CAN)
BRONZE: Shibutani/Shibutani (USA)

Dark Horse: Cappellini/Lanotte (ITA)

Let me be clear: I would enjoy a Wea/Po victory here very much... especially with the Virtue/Moir comeback looming. But seeing how exceptional the Pap/Ciz work is again makes me think they are destined to be more than one-hit wonders. As for the Shibs in the bronze spot, repeating what they did in their debut season at this event... they are ON FIRE. I want them to medal. Very, very much.

But with Cappellini/Lannote and Chock/Bates at their heels (and yes, I prefer to think of it that way than the other way around!), it won’t be easy!

Assuming I’m somehow right about the podium (the teams if not the order), I will guess Hubbell/Donohue to end up in 8th place (they were 10th last year), and Chock/Bates to take a dip down to 5th. FIFTH?? Yeah, maybe.

But if I’m wrong, remember... I go all on instinct with this discipline. (Translated: I don’t know nuttin’ ‘bout dance.)

GOLD: Yuzuru Hanyu (JPN)
SILVER: Javier Fernandez (ESP)
BRONZE: Patrick Chan (CAN)

Dark Horse: Jin Boyang (CHN), Denis Ten (KAZ)

Best U.S. Finish: Adam Rippon, 6th

This discipline has the biggest ‘can’t wait’ moments as far as I’m concerned. Armed with so much risk/reward... and so much artistic excellence... that I’ve got (arguably) the best jumper in the event with only an outsider’s chance at medaling! But on the “risk” side is a whole mess-o-quads and triple axels (and more!), so you know as well as I do that this could go many different ways. I think I’m choosing this particular way based on the variety and consistency of performances we’ve seen this season. And I say the following to Chan in particular: keep it together, Pat. There are some highly worthy guys who might keep you from ANY spot on that podium if you blow up the SP this time. (I’m including Rippon on that unseen list... especially if he’s able to nail a quad lutz like I’ve seen and heard about in practices! Ooh that would be sweet... Sigh. But I digress.)

By the way, I’m figuring Max Aaron somewhere in the 7th-10th range and Grant Hochstein placing 11th-14th . I hope they prove me wrong and (at least) go all top 10!

More predictions (and maybe a Worlds Wish List) tomorrow!!

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Five Observations from 2016 Four Continents

We’re still four weeks away from Worlds, so I’m declaring I have not yet exceeded the statute of limitations for a Four Continents review!! Hooray! Here we go...

Five Observations from Four CC 2016

1)The “Chan-pion” gets the last gloriously skated laugh... for now.
One of the biggest complaints about Patrick Chan is that he typically misses out, at least in part, on that “skating to one’s full potential” thing. Of course that’s what happens when one’s full potential is so freaking HUGE, right? But he delivered at 4CC. Mercy, did he ever. I mentioned he got his competitive groove back at Canadian Nationals, but even then, the 2nd triple-axel-in-the-free-skate thing eluded him—this, after acknowledging he needs additional content to stay competitive among the Hanyus, Jins and Fernandezes (Fernandii?) of the skating world. At 4CC, he nailed EVERYTHING, which was precisely what was necessary to come back from a 5th place SP to squeak a victory over increasingly stunning Boy Jumper Jin Boyang.

And that’s what’s notable as well: completely glorious as Chan’s FS was here, the score he received for it (203.99) still can’t touch Yuzuru Hanyu’s transcendent GPF performance from December. This is where the sport is at right now on its best days—untouchably special.

2) The U.S. guys are at it again. Or not...
The men’s SP wasn’t even over yet and I could see the tweeted headlines before they were even written: THREE SPOTS AT 2017 WORLDS FOR U.S. MEN? NOT LIKELY. And, unfortunately, they’d have a point. Max Aaron looked pained each time he finished a program at 4CC, and somewhat humiliated each time he awaited the bad news in the K&C (ultimately finishing 7th). Not a disaster—that dubious honor was reserved for Ross Miner, particularly his SP—but Aaron’s total of 220.94 would have only been good enough for 13th place at last year’s Worlds. And his score was the best of the U.S. guys in attendance; Grant Hochstein apparently fell victim to one of the strains of illness plaguing a number of competitors (see below) and skated well below his season average to finish just behind Aaron, in 8th.

So all we need by the start of Worlds is for Hochstein to get healthy again... for Aaron to relocate whatever sent him to the top at Skate America earlier in the season... and for Adam Rippon to keep doing what he does and add a consistent quad lutz to the mix.

Easy-peasy, right??

3) The Nagasu Mystique
It’s often a maddening thing to root for Mirai Nagasu. A high-ranking SP will beget a lackluster FS. A “pretty good” program will leave you wondering why it wasn’t a “great” program. And what seems like a showstopper performance will suddenly slam on the brakes when the judges have their say about edge calls and under-rotations. But here—kind of like at Nats, but even moreso, and without the pesky ripped-boot issues(!!)—Nagasu found her groove and skated right on with it to win silver behind Satoko Miyahara (who gave yet another pair of stunning performances). And for those of you wishing Nagasu could somehow find her way to the Worlds team from here, consider this factoid: in her nine years of competing at the senior level at Nats, Nagasu has only made ONE Worlds appearance to date (2010, where she finished 7th).           
4)Falls from Grace(ee).
I know that’s not how you spell her first name, but I guess I drew the short straw this time for having some headline fun with part of her name. Anyway, Gracie Gold’s downright miserable SP (and some subsequent references to her “not feeling fully prepared” for 4CC) leave one to wonder a number of things about this event. Anything from Will the timing of this competition EVER line up well with U.S. Nationals? To timing-schmiming; will Gracie EVER skate well enough long enough to build up any international momentum? I’m glad she rallied as well as she did in the FS, and I don’t really see this affecting what she does at Worlds (after all, she has yet to make it to the 4CC podium in three attempts). All I’m saying is that if the top U.S. ladies could just take a sip or two from the Mirahara (or Medvedeva, for that matter) Well of Consistency, that would be GREAT.    

5) All the highest-ranked U.S. skaters faltered, except...
Now let's see... Gold had a miserable SP, Aaron had a handful of miserable mistakes scattered across his programs, and Kayne/O’Shea were ill-at-ease all event long (or, we learned later, just plain ill in Tarah Kayne’s case). The exception to this year’s 4CC rule? The Shib Sibs, of course. I say “of course” because they appear to be riding a wave unlike any they’ve seen since maybe their first season as seniors. They did more here than hold their own; more than defeat Chock/Bates again... they defeated EVERYONE, giving Canada’s Weaver/Poje (who won bronze, behind Shibs and C/B) a disappointing end to what had to be an unsettling week... you’ve heard that Virtue/Moir plan to return to competition next year, right?

I wouldn’t have said this with much confidence in December, but can Maia and Alex be anything BUT Worlds podium contenders now? 

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

2016 Four Continents Preview/Predictions

Here we are again... a major skating competition straight ahead (Feb 18-21 to be specific, though its Taiwanese locale means the U.S. audience will be catching the start of the short dance on the very edge of Feb. 17) and I HAVE YET TO WRITE UP ANYTHING ABOUT U.S. NATIONALS OR THE EUROPEAN CHAMPIONSHIPS.


But anyway... thank goodness... the competitive season marches on, so the least I can do is get some predictions in before said competition gets going! So here’s what I’ve got for the 2016 Four Continents Championship:

DANCE—16 teams from 7 countries

GOLD: Weaver/Poje (CAN)
SILVER: Shibutanis (USA)
BRONZE: Chock/Bates (USA)

DARK HORSE: Hubbell/Donohue (USA)

Now that Maia and Alex have conquered the U.S. Championships, it’s nice to think of them being considered a favorite at 4CCs (where those pesky French and Russian dance teams will NOT be). But we mustn’t forget the equally pesky—and by “pesky” I mean awe-inducing—Weaver and Poje. I will go out on a tiny limb, though, and pick the Shibs for silver over Chock/Bates.

LADIES – 23 competitors from 10 countries

GOLD: Satoko Miyahara (JPN)
SILVER: Gracie Gold (USA)
BRONZE: Rika Hongo (JPN)

DARK HORSE: Alaine Chartrand (CAN)

As I write this, a poll I’m running on Twitter currently leans in favor of Gold winning her first 4CC title this weekend. So I don’t suppose my prediction will sit well with those fans! I can see why she’s favored; her FS at Nats was fantastic, the kind of performance that could take her skating around a more confident corner for years to come. And if she skates like that against Miyahara’s best, I might have her winning too. But I’m not ready to put Gracie’s jumps over Miyahara’s consistency just yet.

And I just took a look at Chartrand’s FS from Canadian Nats, where she won the title. She’s taken out the triple axel attempt that derailed her program throughout the GP season—her toughest jump pass is now a 3lutz/3toe—and she was mighty good. Look out for her if she can skate like that in Taiwan.

PAIRS—10 teams from 5 countries, including North Korea (for only the 2nd time that I can recall in a major international competition)

GOLD: Duhamel/Radford (CAN)
BRONZE: Kayne/O’Shea (USA)

DARK HORSE: Scimeca/Knierim (USA) or Yu/Jin (CHN)

Du/Rad hit a mid-season slump—as much as they’re capable of these days, anyway—starting near the end of the GP season. Even so, my wager is that they’ll bounce back (or start to) here at 4CC. Their biggest threat is China’s Sui/Han, and they are legit of course (winning silver to Du/Rad’s gold at 2015 Worlds). But they withdrew from the GPF due to injury, so I’m not sure what to expect here. As for the U.S. representation... new national champs Kayne/O’Shea actually had a very good outing at this event two years ago, winning silver over Scimeca/Knierim’s bronze. Will 2014 history repeat itself? I’m saying yes, though I suspect the gap between the two teams will be much tighter than it was a few weeks ago in St. Paul.

MEN—23 competitors from 11 countries

GOLD: Patrick Chan (CAN)
SILVER: Shoma Uno (JPN)
BRONZE: Jin Boyang (CHN)

DARK HORSE: Max Aaron (USA) or Takahito Mura (JPN)

Denis Ten (last year’s 4CC winner) has withdrawn due to injury. Adam Rippon (who won 4CC waaaay back in 2010) gave up his spot this year to focus on Worlds. So who’s got the edge?  Patrick Chan has won here twice before (2009 & 2012), and while he had a rough re-entry to competition earlier in the season, his Canadian Nats performances (where he just won for the 8th time with nearly 60 points between him and 2nd-place Liam Firius) indicating he’s likely got his groove back... or at least enough of it to win in a field without Fernandez or Hanyu. Uno, I think, is well on his way to a Hanyu-esque sort of greatness, but is likely to settle for silver here. Jin has definitely proven himself capable of pulling down some serious technical scores, but his free skates have still proven to be somewhat sloppy affairs overall—and his “artistry” cannot yet share the air with the big guns. So he’ll do well to make the podium at all, especially if either Aaron or Mura do all they’re capable of.

Live coverage in the U.S. can be found via NBC will air 2 hours worth of coverage this coming Sunday (“check your local listings”)... and if you want to join the Twitterverse as things unfold, the event is #4CCTaipeiCity and you can find me @KLBSt8ofSk8.

Friday, January 22, 2016

2016 U.S. National Figure Skating Championships: Previews/Predictions Part 2

Here's what I've got for you regarding DANCE predictions at 2016 Nationals:

GOLD: Madison Chock/Evan Bates
SILVER: Maia Shibutani/Alex Shibutani
BRONZE: Madison Hubbell/Zachary Donohue
PEWTER: Kaitlin Hawayek/Jean-Luc Baker

Dark Horse: Anastasia Cannuscio/Colin McManus

Like my Ladies predictions from yesterday, this list is pretty similar to last year’s. But for what it’s worth (and since I’m not a judge, “it” is not worth much at all I’m afraid), I would like to see the Shib Sibs win this year. I know I’m not alone in the feeling that their “Fix You” free dance has elevated their skating this season. And it’s not that the Chock/Bates classically-rooted FD is a problem,  or a step backward, or anything like that—at least not for me, as still enjoy it (and them) very much.

But “Fix You” is special. The Shibs, like so many sibling couples ahead of them, have struggled at times to conceptualize their contributions to the part of this sport that is uniquely driven by romantic imagery. Here, in “Fix You”, they have created a piece that is so much more than beautiful and (for lack of a better word) appropriate. It is contemporary, it is evocative—and maybe most important of all, it is a wonderfully telling reflection of how much those two have grown, both individually and as a team.

Unfortunately, “it” still landed them behind C/B at the recent Grand Prix Final—even with the latter team having a notable error on at least one element (the twizzles). And while I guess it could be argued that the Shibs couldn’t possibly have done their best at the GPF—Alex suffering terribly from a stomach ailment and all—I’m one of those who thought it was possibly the best and most moving performance they’ve ever given in competition (and not knowing something was actually wrong with Alex until post-performance).

So the reasoning goes like this: If they couldn’t finish ahead of C/B there... they won’t do it here either. (Sigh. I really, really want to be wrong though—can you tell?)

As for the bronze/pewter battle: after 2015 Nats it looked like Hawayek/Baker had a crazy head of steam propelling them towards overtaking Hubbell/Donohue this year. But as of right now, it feels like all that steam has dissipated. From Baker’s concussion in September, to Hawayek’s bout with food poisoning that took the team out of  Cup of China, to a free dance (taking on the Hawking story of The Theory of Everything) that seems a little difficult to connect with—yeah, I find myself thinking Advantage HUBBELL/DONOHUE. And that’s not by default either—I think they have risen to the challenge of staying on the World team this year. (I still like their Hallelujah SD much more than their Adagio for Tron FD, though.)

The one change I made from last year’s predictions is having Cannuscio/ McManus (or as one of my Twitter followers calls them endearingly, Can Man) as the Dark Horse. For better or worse, both Can Man and Haw/Bake have taken on story pieces for their free dances—Beethoven’s saga is the Can Man version—and it feels like the time might be right for them to make a move.

As for the rest of the field (14 teams in all), I watched their qualifying Sectionals performances and... sorry to say... very few stood out for me in a positive way. (As always, I note that I don’t “know” dance like I know singles skating... I just know what looks/feels good to me.)  The only exceptions—aka teams you might want to take note of—are:

+     Karina Manta/Joseph Johnson, who were 10th at Junior Nats last year (I wrote in my notes pretty good twizzles; seem much better than the rest)

+     Alexandra Aldridge/Matthew Blackmer and Danielle Thomas/Daniel Eaton. The names sound familiar because A) Aldridge and Eaton competed together through 2015 Nats, and B) Blackmer previously competed as a pairs skater, winning Junior Nats in 2013 with Britney Simpson. (FYI, Thomas/Eaton are skating 3rd in the SD while Aldridge/Blackmer are skating 9th.)


Here's what I'm predicting for the MEN:

GOLD: Nathan Chen
SILVER: Max Aaron
BRONZE: Adam Rippon
PEWTER: Vincent Zhou

Dark Horse: Grant Hochstein or Ross Miner

“Nowhere” Man: Zhou

“Not Here” Men (that is, the laundry list of guys who have scratched from this event):
Jason Brown, Richard Dornbush, Joshua Farris, Jordan Moeller

Admittedly, I haven’t peeked around to see what others are predicting so I’ve no idea of choosing Chen is a surprise, or the surprise-that-everyone-saw-coming. But here’s how I’m looking at this:

+      Chen has good quads. Yes, he has artistry (still developing, of course—he’s only 16!—but it’s coming). But more importantly for this level of competition: Chen has good, point-mongering QUADS. And he lands them most of the time.

+      Aaron has quads too, and so does Rippon. But so far this year, the consistency hasn’t been there for either of them (and that goes moreso for some of their triples than the quads).

+      Especially with all the WDs at the top, the pressure is both Rippon and Aaron like it probably hasn’t been since... well, since a team was being chosen for Sochi (which didn’t include either of them). While I don’t think they will have dates with disaster—I wouldn’t predict them for medals if I did—I’m afraid the nerves will tag them both just enough to keep the top spot out of reach. Chen, meanwhile, has nothing to lose. Did I mention he’s 16??

+      Speaking of teenagers... Vincent Zhou. He won Novice Men on his first attempt. He won Junior Men on his first attempt. He didn’t compete last year due to injury... but he’s back. With a quad salchow (one of the few to successfully land one in Sectionals, if not THE only one). And a full arsenal of triples. And some decent musicality (his FS is to The Godfather, or as I’ll probably quip on Twitter, The Godfather’s Unexpected Nephew). And yes, I’m predicting this 15 (FIFTEEN!!) year-old will finish his senior-level debut in a most-exciting 4th place.

+      Finally, we’ve got Grant (Hochstein) and Ross (Miner). One turned in surprisingly strong 4th place finishes at both his GP events this season (after being away from the entire circuit for several years); the other earned a surprise of his own when he claimed bronze at Rostelecom Cup a couple months ago. Can either of them convert those successes into a podium-worthy Nationals? Yep, I think either one of them could do it—especially with a landed quad (which both have done) and IF the other guys I’ve mentioned execute seriously flawed programs. (And after watching the ladies Thursday night, we certainly know what that’s like!) But those are pretty specific circumstances, which is why I give both Hochstein and Miner the Dark Horse slot.

 OTHER MEN RETURNING WITH A “BYE” (as in by-passing Sectionals): Tim Dolensky

OTHERS RETURNING VIA SECTIONALS: Scott Dyer, Alexander Johnson (NOTE: he skates first in the SD tonight) Jimmy Ma, Curran Oi**, Sebastien Payannet, Robert Przepioski, Sean Rabbitt

ROOKIES to the senior ranks this year are Ben Jalovick, Daniel Kulenkamp, Emmanuel Savary, Eric Stinehart, and the previously mentioned Zhou.

VETERANS: 26 year-old Rippon’s first senior-level Nationals was 2009.
**But of special note is 25 year-old Curran Oi, who you might recall was a standout 6th-place finisher that same year (FUN FACT—he outskated Rippon by less than half a point!). He then dropped out of competition to attend M.I.T. full-time. But he’s back, and while his FS at Sectionals wasn’t a complete return to that 2009 form, it was enough to get him back to Nationals for the first time in seven years! No small accomplishment.

Whether you’re following everything on Ice Network, or just the marquee groups/events on NBC this weekend, chances are good that I’ll be on Twitter at the same time... look for me @KLBSt8ofSk8, using #USChamps16 on all Nats-related Tweets!

Thursday, January 21, 2016

2016 U.S. National Figure Skating Championships: Previews/Predictions Part 1

Hey! Welcome back to State of the Skate! Say, did you know 2016 U.S. Nationals are underway?

Of course you did. I'm just messing with you. Anyway, the Pairs SP is up first-- as usual-- so here's a few words and predictions about all of that:


GOLD: Alexa Scimeca/Chris Knierim
SILVER: Tarah Kayne/Daniel O’Shea
BRONZE: Madeline Aaron/Max Settlage
PEWTER: Marissa Castelli/Mervin Tran

Dark Horse: Jessica Calalang/Zack Sidhu

Even with two teams scratching (Donlan/Bartholomay and reigning silver medalists Denney/Frazier), this year’s pairs field is a little bigger than last year’s. Trouble is, I feel like I barely know what’s happening with any of them. Sci/Kni seem to be a lock for gold this year, especially with Denney/Frazier gone. Kayne/O’Shea have had a pretty good season thus far—1st at the U.S. Classic and 4th at Rostelecom among the highlights—so I’ve got them making the move from bronze to silver this year. The rest is kind of a crap shoot... Aaron/Settlage had to scratch from their only GP assignment, Castelli/Tran are improving rapidly but still had a ways to go last time I saw them (4th at Skate Canada), and Calalang/Sidhu could only manage 7th place at NHK. So consider all those placements sheer guesswork!

As for the nine teams that got here by way of Sectionals—I tried to watch all of them via IceNetwork, but couldn’t locate four of the teams (!!). And the five I DID see were not particularly noteworthy—not in a good way, at least!

So when it comes to new teams, I’ll just call out two of ‘em: Chelsea Liu/Brian Johnson, who skated the JGP circuit this past fall (and had a BYE from Sectionals for that reason I think) and have “good speed and energy” with their Beauty and the Beast program... and Caitlin Fields/Ernie Utah Stevens, who didn’t have a great skate at Midwestern Sectionals but won Junior Nationals last year, so I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt. Also I’m giving them a “homer” vote because they skate out of the Indianapolis area (and Stevens is (or was?) a Butler University student)!

VETERAN OF THE FIELD: 25 year-old Castelli, who first competed senior Nats in 2010 with Simon Shnapir. But to be fair her current partner (Tran, also 25) is even more of a veteran, considering he first competed in a senior nats (for Japan, with Narumi Takahashi) back in 2008!


GOLD: Gracie Gold
SILVER: Ashley Wagner
BRONZE: Polina Edmunds
PEWTER: Courtney Hicks

Dark Horse: Karen Chen
“Nowhere” Lady: Tyler Pierce

Eagle-eyed readers will notice that this is the exact same gold-to-pewter set of predictions I made last year. That’s not by mistake. This time, I’m saying “Gracie for Gold” because I’ve grown concerned about Wagner’s ability, of late, to deliver back-to-back great skates. While I’m not convinced Gold will skate either program clean, I’m better the sum of her mistakes will be slightly less than whichever program Wagner might bungle (FWIW I’m guessing that will be the long... I just don’t know that she can come close to her Nats performance of essentially the same Moulin Rouge free skate of 2015.) But, having said all that, keep in mind that I’ve gotten this particular prediction correct only ONE TIME in the past five years!

As for Bronze, Pewter, and my DH pick, the thinking goes like this:
+      both Edmunds and Hicks have been stronger so far this year (with Hicks picking up her first GP medal!) but I tend to think Edmunds is both more fluid and more consistent... so long as she fully rotates her jumps.
+      Hicks’ jumps are FIERCE but she’s had issues with her combo jumps in particular. (As in, not really combo jumps.)
+      While Chen has been OK in the first half of the season, I don’t really see her improving (or “keeping up”?) enough to get another podium finish. BUT she’s proven she’s capable...

And I’ve got Pierce as a coming out of “nowhere” for a top-6 finish because based on what I saw last year and this year. I started this prediction last year and didn’t do well with it, so I won’t talk more about it unless I happen to be right this time... heh heh.

OTHER LADIES RETURNING WITH A “BYE” (as in by-passing Sectionals): Mariah Bell, Hannah Miller, Mirai Nagasu, and Angela Wang.

MISSING IN ACTION? Last year’s 12th place finisher Leah Keiser. If you know what she’s up to (injured, taking a break, full-time college, etc.) please share in the comments!

OTHERS RETURNING VIA SECTIONALS: Ashley Cain, Francesca Chiera, Christina Cleveland, Katie McBeath, Maria Yang

ROOKIES to the senior ranks this year are Alexis Gagnon, Carly Gold (aka Gracie’s redheaded sister), Avery Kurtz, Alexie Mieskoski, Heidi Munger, Elena Pulkinen, and Bradie Tennell (last year’s Junior Champ—watch for her!)

VETERANS: Both Wagner (age 24) and Mirai Nagasu (age 22) have competed at senior Nats since 2008!

See you on Twitter, I hope...? More predictions coming Friday of course!