Tuesday, January 23, 2018

2018 U.S. Nationals in Retrospect... (mostly about Ashley, Adam, and Ross)

There were so many things to ruminate on in the wake of US Nationals it’s hard to know where to start (especially when you blog about skating but somehow haven’t done more than previews & predictions of events for quite a while).

I started writing this just a few days after Nats ended to see where it would take me, and  lots of Top Thoughts bubbled to the surface: Ashley not making the team. Adam almost not making the team. Mirai’s triumph. Bradie’s unflappability. Madison and Zach’s redemption. Chris Knierim’s baffling inability to land jumps. The initial decision to put Max Aaron on the 4CC team over Grant Hochstein (a moot point now, as Hochstein is going anyway… in place of Ross. Oh, good gracious, what to say about ROSS…)

I never quite know what to make of Christine Brennan when she says figure skating “never, ever disappoints” in terms of intrigue and drama. It feels like she’s simultaneously mocking and adoring it at the same time, like a cute nerdy little sister that will absolutely outearn her when she grows up. Both she and Phil The Harsh (aka Phil Hersh) were understandably vocal (or Twitteriffic?) about US Nationals this time, even simultaneously tweeting out frustration about the transparency (or lack thereof) of USFS when asked about the names of the people on that infamous 13-member selection committee. More on that later…

But as everyone’s favorite “level-headed” skating journalist Jackie Wong reminded us a couple days back, the cup for figure skating fans is surely runneth-ing over right now:

1/12-1/13  brought us Canadian Nationals
1/17-1/20 brought the European Championships
1/24-1/27 is about to bring us the Four Continents Championships
2/9-2/12 is the Olympic Team Event
2/14-2/23 are the Olympic individual events

SO, without further adieu I’d better get to it digging just a little deeper into those first two bubbles that surfaced for me…

ASHLEY WAGNER. I admit I thought her presence on this year’s Olympic team was a bygone conclusion… that even if she didn’t skate completely clean, her artistic scores would suffice. (Not saying “hold her up” because that implies those scores would be unearned.) I think most of us did. Obviously SHE did.

But as this Christine Brennan article illustrates, something seemed amiss from the moment Wagner’s SP scores went up. By the time all was said and done her total, pewter medal-winning score was less than 2.5 points behind Karen Chen… a deficit a more typical(again, see Brennan’s article) PCS would cover, under previous circumstances.

Phil Hersh’s Icenetwork piece about Wagner indicated—with help from Scott Hamilton and Sandra Bezic, both of whom were quoted extensively—that the blame rests squarely on the 2016 World Silver Medalist’s own shoulders. That whether it was her decision to ditch her planned La La Land FS until Nationals (a move Bezic said suggested complacency), or a sense that the quality of her skating has been on the decline since taking that Worlds stage in Boston nearly two years ago (“everyone has a shelf life,” Hamilton said matter-of-factly), or the simple truth that she has never skated her technical best at an Olympic-year nationals… Ash should have read her situation better, prepared better, taken absolutely nothing for granted, including component scores.

But as Michelle Kennedy opined in her Centered Spin blog post about Nationals, it was like USFS broke up with Ashley without telling her. That’s such a great metaphor that I can only try to add this: not having USFS and the ISU on the same PCS page this season is like having a long-term, high-profile boyfriend that treats you great when you’re out in public (and you’re out in public A LOT), but inexplicably reads you the riot act the minute you finally get home. You’re left with a whole lot of the what the hell did I do to deserve THIS? Feeling. Which is a lousy way to feel in a romantic partnership, to say nothing of a sport and career you’ve poured your life into as long as you can remember.

The Epilogue, for now: Wagner fought off one more round of social media slams, gave the perfect “no regrets” interview on the TODAY show a few days later, and scratched from 4CC. Apparently she’s not only training as the 1st alternate for the Olympics and Worlds, but some other media-related PyeongChangwork TBA. So maybe we’ll see her again this season, maybe not. Beyond that…?

During the Ladies Free Skate at I Tweeted about how strange it would be next year at this time when Ash, Mirai Nagasu and Caroline Zhang—all of whom made their senior debut in 2008-- might be gone from the competitive scene altogether. But is Wagner really done? Did a single performance of La La Land  turn out to be her swan song?

ADAM RIPPON: I’m gonna bring my husband’s comments in for this one (as I do occasionally on Twitter) because he’s an all-around sports fan and huge Olympics aficionado… in other words, a probable viewer of Olympic figure skating.

He knows who Rippon is; could probably pick him out of a skating lineup, especially if his SP or FS music was playing in the background. (I’m not as sure he’d recognize “embryo Adam”, aka one where he still has his curly locks, but it’s possible.)

Anyway, He was aware of the cocky things Rippon said in the days leading up to Nationals, like “I consider this to be my coronation” and “The only way I don’t make this Olympic team is if another skater’s mother is on the selection committee.”

I was watching Rippon’s FS on the upstairs TV because Husband was flipping channels downstairs. He DID flip to NBC SN (where the Men’s Final played out)… just in time to catch Rippon’s last minute or so. Pop #1, followed by pop #2. That was all he saw of The Fourth Place Guy To Later Be Named To The Team.

So when we met up in the hallway afterwards, I said something like “wow, that was rough”—thinking of not only Adam's FS but Jason (Brown)’s, and Grant (Hochstein)’s… and Husband responded with something like “I know. I saw it.” Followed by an irritated look that said Wellll…??? What does Mr. Coronation have to say for himself NOW??

Once I knew the answer, I filled him in on that too: Mr. Coronation accepted full responsibility for the pair of popped jumps, and said in the press conference that he “would be fine” with whatever decision was made by the Selection Committee (I have to note he didn’t say “I AM fine”… hinting he might not be OK with it outright if it did not play in his favor).

“He could use a dose of humility right about now,” Husband retorted, unimpressed.

And I’ll be honest… I tend to agree. While I am part of the camp that thinks the US Men’s Team should’ve been Chen/Miner/Rippon (on the argument that Vincent Zhou has thus far proven unreliable to medal in international senior competition and has “plenty of time” to be part of a future Olympic team), I truly/madly/deeply wish Rippon had either a) been on the podium and/or b) skated cleanly (with the possible exception of his 4lz) and still ended up in 4th. As it stands, he’s got an Olympic-sized uphill battle for redemption not unlike his BFF had four years ago in Sochi. A lot of us die-hards may fully believe he belongs on the team, but a whole bunch of “four year fans” are likely to roll their collective eyes at anything less than clean performances from Rippon in PyeongChang. Is that fair? No. Does he give a crap about the nay-sayers? He doesn’t appear to. But once again, USFS’s selection process is under the microscope. The sport needs to GAIN fans in this country, not drive them away in frustration.

So let’s just say I think it would be a FABULOUS time for Adam Rippon to somehow be able to convince himself it’s still Grand Prix Season, and the Final just happens to be in a MUCH. BIGGER. VENUE. This time.

I need to wrap this up… but not before including this article that ran in Forbes with Ross Miner’s photo front and center. What a pair of performances he had in San Jose! What a shame they were cast into a “too little too late” file that everyone was hoping didn’t exist (but does under current USFS selection processes). What an unnecessary kick-him-when-he’s-down-move to make Miner the SECONDARY Olympic alternate (behind 6th-place finisher Jason Brown). What a brutal twist of fate that Mark Mitchell—who got his own Olympic-year snub back in 1992—happens to be his coach. Or at least he was… the day Team USA was announced was also the day Mitchell “announced” (on social media) that his coaching days were in the past.

We’ll likely know more about what is and isn’t continuing with Mitchell and Miner sometime in the next few months, after PyeongChang is in the rear view mirror and all the dust from this long season settles with Worlds in Milano, Italy (March 19-25). But one big difference between Miner’s snub and that of Mirai Nagasu in 2014: the latter was only 20 when it happened, and (thank goodness) had the means to “stay in” for another Olympic cycle. Ross turns 27 this week. What are the odds…

So much has happened since then, and so much is obviously still to come! I’ll drop in with posts like this as much as I can. 

Friday, January 5, 2018

2018 U.S. Nationals Preview/Predictions: Ice Dance

I’m somehow always surprised by the low number of dance entrants at U.S. Nationals. Interest in the sport has surely taken flight here in the past 10 years, but only six (of a possible 12) slots were claimed this year by way of the three Sectional championships to be held across the country. “Byes” account for the other seven entrants, which include the top 5 finishers from 2017 and two of last year’s junior medalists.

That adds up to 13 dance teams… two more than last year, but still even less than eligible pairs teams (16). Maybe we’ll see more little teenage Meryl-and-Charlies by 2022?

In any case, here’s my prediction for the Top Six:

GOLD—Shibutanis. I’ve already said a time or two that “Paradise” would not be my personal choice for a Coldplay Shib Sequel—not enough highs and lows; no real “excitement” a la “Fix You”—but this is one team that has NOT gone back to an old program this year, so I guess it’s here to stay. And of course they’ve been delivering it cleanly all year long, save for an oddly “off” GP Final performance. I think they’re still set for gold here.

SILVER—Hubbell/Donohue. Last Nats they bungled their FD; last Worlds they bungled their FD again when they sat with a legit chance to medal after the SP. This year’s programs by H/D are the first ones I’ve greatly enjoyed since their “I Put a Spell on You” debut. I pray the ghosts that tripped them up late last season don’t get the best of them this time. Would not mind AT ALL if they won the whole event.

BRONZE—Chock/Bates. The tough thing about these teams… I enjoy all three of them. And I definitely like the statement C/B is making with its ever-more-timely “Imagine” FD. But of the top three, I guess I just enjoy H/D and the Shibs a little bit more.

4th (PEWTER)—Hawayek/Baker. As I recall, a number of small, noticeable errors is what swung Haw/Bake down to 5th last year. But I love them. And it’s payback time.

5th Pogrebinsky/Benoit. Just flippy-floppy with the Haw/Bake placement please. Thanks.

6th McNamara/Carpenter. Because among last year’s juniors, I like their work (read: music choice) my better than the Parsons.

Be sure to check out my polls about Nationals—the newest one will be pinned to the top of my Twitter feed (@KLBSt8ofSk8).

Thursday, January 4, 2018

2018 U.S. Nationals Preview/Predictions: Men

We’ve been hearing about this event more than any other this season… three spots, countless contenders. Well, not exactly…

There are 21 men scheduled to compete; here are the names I expect to make the top ten by competition’s end:

Max Aaron
Jason Brown
Nathan Chen
Timothy Dolensky
Grant Hochstein
Alexander Johnson
Alexei Krasnozhon
Ross Miner
Adam Rippon
Vincent Zhou

And my “short list” (Top 6, AKA actual medal contenders)?

Aaron—former Nats champ who has struggled ever since, but still “brings it” at times
Brown—former Nats champ known for every skating skill under the sun EXCEPT a quad
Chen—Current champ, guy on skateboard in NBC ads, quad machine, boot-and-blade wearer-outer
Hochstein—two-time pewter medalist, struggles with consistency, engaged to Caroline Zhang aka “Bunny”
Rippon—former Nats champ, out with broken foot last year, veteran of veterans here
Zhou—Silver medalist last year, potential quad machine but overdid it in the GP season (translation- he wiped out a lot and didn’t medal)

Which leaves me with these predictions:

GOLD: Nathan Chen
SILVER: Adam Rippon
BRONZE: Vincent Zhou

DARK HORSE: Jason Brown or Max Aaron

What I hope and pray everyone has learned from earlier in the season (by “everyone” I mean coaches too) is that it’s too costly to go wild wild west with the quads. Throwing caution to the wind could, quite literally, mean throwing out your shoulder… your hip… ankle, big toe, bellybutton, WHATEVER. It’s not worth it, right? Can we all agree?

Yeah, I know… probably not. But if we could: Chen would rein it in enough to get the triple axels AND three or four quads (Ok, probably four +) and carry the rest on the strength of two very well-designed and skated programs.

Rippon would do exactly what he’s been doing all season, along with the gorgeous quad lutz we know he can do. (BTW if he misses out on the team this time I may assume the fetal position and primal scream it out for a week.)

Zhou would take it down to maybe 2 or 3 quads in the FS and let his talent shine.

And if any of the above aren’t able to deliver, Brown and Aaron better be RIGHT behind them ready to get it done. I’d love to see either of them make it too. We shall see.

Be sure to check out my polls about Nationals—the newest one will be pinned to the top of my Twitter feed (@KLBSt8ofSk8).

2018 U.S. Nationals Preview & Predictions: PAIRS

As most U.S. skating fans know already (and Olympic-year fans will soon find out), there will only be ONE pair team representing our country in South Korea. That’s because last year’s U.S. champs (Haven Denney/Brandon Frazier) did not qualify for the free skate at 2017 Worlds, leaving a very low “placement” number to add to the placement of Scimeca-Knierim/Knierim, and consequently no minimum ordinal reached to qualify two teams.

Unfortunately it’s high symbolism for the state of U.S. pair skating these days, which likely hasn’t put a team in the Worlds top 5 (let alone medal) in over a decade. I say “likely” because I haven’t the time to verify that statement via research—gotta get these pairs predictions up, then go get my teenage daughter fitted for another pair of pointe shoes, then back to at least follow Twitter as the next event shakes out (may save watching until later… so much to get done!)

All I’ll really say about the pairs as a whole is this: PLEASE hit those side-by-side jumps. The most gorgeous lifts in the world can’t really overcome a botched staple element of the discipline.

GOLD: Scimeca-Knierim/Knierim (out last year due to health issues)
SILVER: Denney/Frazier (last year’s gold medalists)
BRONZE: Stellato-Dudek/Bartholomay


NOTE: As I understand it, ONE team will be chosen for Olympics but TWO teams will be chosen for the World Championships in March.

MEN’s predictions up later today!

Also check out my polls about Nationals—the newest one will be pinned to the top of my Twitter feed (@KLBSt8ofSk8).

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

2018 U.S. Nationals Preview & Predictions: LADIES

Well here we are again at the crossroads of U.S. figure skating… where all-the-other-factors determining the makeup of this year’s Olympic team meet up against NATIONALS. The mother of competitions, at least in this country. (And Canada, and Japan, and Russia, and maybe a few others.)

First up this time are the LADIES… 22 in all this year, vying for three spots on the team. Who’s up to the task? I didn’t have time in this abbreviated, just-after-holidays season to do a full preview of all the skaters as I’ve done in the past. But based on what I know… also based a little on what I’ve heard about (thanks Twitter, especially Jackie Wong!)… here’s my “long list” of who’s likely to finish in the top half of the standings (alphabetical order):

Starr Andrews
Mariah Bell
Karen Chen
Polina Edmunds
Amber Glenn
Courtney Hicks
Mirai Nagasu
Bradie Tennell
Ashley Wagner
Angela Wang
Caroline Zhang

Then comes my “short list”—Top six, aka best medal contenders:

Bell—last year’s bronze medalist; struggling so far this season
Chen—last year’s gold medalist; also struggling
Nagasu—2008 U.S. Champ, 4th last year, triple axels loaded and ready
Tennell— Top 10 finish last 2 years, (surprise) Bronze at Skate America this year
Wagner—former U.S. champ and multiple medal-winner; 2016 World Silver Medalist
Zhang—three-time national medalist, 5th last year

Here’s what I’ve ended up with, and let me preface this by saying I had one set of predictions earlier in the day and then changed my mind:

GOLD: Mirai Nagasu
SILVER: Ashley Wagner
BRONZE: Bradie Tennell

DARK HORSE (for making the top 6, not to necessarily medal): Starr Andrews

I’ve been torn between these two veterans for the top spot, but not all for good reasons…

Both have been inconsistent of late.
Nagasu historically underdelivers if she manages a strong short program.
Wagner may be a couple years past her best work.
Nagasu now has a triple axel, but still struggles to get full credit for it (to say nothing for her other jumps).
Wagner is debuting a new skate at Nationals—not sure she’s ever done that before.

BUT, all things being equal, I think Nagasu’s got the edge. Yeah, it would be an extra-sweet thing to happen 10 years after her first U.S. title. Yes, it’d also be a nice “answer” to the controversy that surrounded the 2014 Olympic selections. But sentiment aside, I’m sticking with my story. Also because I don't know that any of the other ladies can defeat them this year. There hasn't been a lot of guns-ablazin' skating among the U.S. ladies lately, I'm sorry to say...

Having said that: I think bronze goes to Tennell because I don’t think she’s had time yet to feel any pressure of expectations. Unfortunately, it’s hard to say the same about Bell and Chen right now. (Zhang, by the way, is a sentimental favorite of mine who has logged nearly as much time at Nats as Nagasu and Wagner… I don’t think she can medal, but it would be very exciting if she did!)

One more important note: IF Tennell wins bronze and Chen gets, say, pewter (4th), I wouldn’t be shocked if Chen was chosen for the team over Tennell. She is, after all, last year’s champ who finished the highest of the U.S. ladies at Worlds last year (4th).

Watch this space tomorrow for pairs and men’s predictions!

Also check out my polls about Nationals—the newest one will be pinned to the top of my Twitter feed (@KLBSt8ofSk8).