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2018 U.S. Nationals Debrief: The Good & The Bad

The good, the bad, the happy, the sad…that’s me singing some Al Green after a crazy 2018 Nationals. Despite all the drama, I’ll stick with skating forever.

Watching the 2018 U.S. Nationals was more of an emotional viewing experience than I bargained for. I needed some time to digest, hence, why this post is coming almost two weeks after the event. I was so excited for the senior events to get started, and then was emotionally exhausted by the time it all wrapped up on Sunday night. Here’s why:

The Good

1. Consistency

2018 Nationals Podium

Image Courtesy Figure Skaters Online; Photo by Leah Adams

Bradie Tennell showed nerves of steel, following up on her breakout Skate America performance with two clean, confident performances here. She is the queen of consistency, but all of the ladies in that final group showed consistent performances. There were some mistakes, but no full-on meltdowns, which was very impressive under Olympic pressure.

2. Hubbell and Donohue Break Through

Madison Hubbell, Zachary Donahue

Image Source: Toledo Blade

Ice dance tends to be the most predictable event in figure skating, and surprise winners are rare. But Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue have been on an upward trajectory for several years now, and came into the event saying they wanted to win. Even though Maia and Alex Shibutani had stronger results internationally this fall, they stumbled in the free dance here, and Hubbell and Donohue were finally able to skate to their potential and take advantage of an open door. They missed similar opportunities at Worlds last year and the Grand Prix Final in December, so it was great to see them skate with such command and confidence.

The depth of U.S. ice dancing in general is incredibly exciting. A different couple won each segment of the event — the Shib Sibs won the short dance, Madison Chock and Evan Bates won the free dance, and Hubbell and Donohue’s total score won the whole thing. Some might say that previous results make a bronze medal more likely for the Shib Sibs at the Olympics (safely assuming the French and Canadians go 1-2), but I prefer to think it matters who skates best on the night. And these three teams proved here that it could be any one of them, and they are all contenders for that Olympic podium. Hubbell and Donohue will get the deserved momentum and boost of being the national champions, but I don’t doubt that will make the Shibutanis and Chock/Bates even more motivated in these remaining weeks until the Olympic Games.

3. Clean Performances from NChen

Nathan Chen is undefeated this season, but had yet to put together two solid performances before this event. It was more like gold medal by multiple attempted quads rather than brilliant skating, and after each event, Chen said that he was going to take it as a learning experience. He made good on that promise here, with great quads and incredible performance quality. The triple axel is still his pesky foe, but overall, this was a great last skate before he takes Olympic ice. It sends a message to those other top men in the world that he seems to be on track for peaking in PyeongChang.

The Bad

1. So. Much. Crying.

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I’m not talking about from the skaters (although there was plenty of that, too). I’m talking about from me.

There was happy crying when Ross Miner had the skate of his life in the long program, after a couple years of excellent shorts and subpar longs.

Sad crying watching Max Aaron’s interview with Andrew Joyce, about his Olympic dreams being over, and watching Jason Brown’s face in the kiss and cry as he realized the same thing. It was heartbreaking.

Beyond the tears, there was a whole gauntlet of emotions. Frustration seeing Ashley Wagner’s near-miss at qualifying for her second Olympics. Shock watching the Shib Sibs stumble. A mixture of disappointment and sympathy as nearly all the pairs struggled with side-by-side jumps.

2. The Judging

The judging also played a big role in my emotional roller coaster during this event. I’m going to share my thoughts here, and also recommend the superb, detailed analysis of The Skating Protocol on Instagram and skatingscores.com, if you want to delve into the scoring a bit more.

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The scores at any figure skating national championship, across the globe, are always inflated. It’s one of those facts of figure skating life. Technical callers aren’t as nit-picky on underrotations, program component scores are overly generous, everybody is cheering for the home team, basically. I understand it, but also felt like it left room for manipulation of the scores. It reminded me of when the judges used to “leave room” in the old 6.0 system, saving the highest marks for later in the event, even if one of the first skaters in the event brought down the house.

The new system was supposed to prevent that type of thing, but it felt like the program components scores, in particular, were being used to send a message. Ashley Wagner’s PCS, usually light years ahead of her fellow American competitors, were evenly matched or even lower than skaters who don’t bring her performance quality to the program. (Yes, I understand that PCS has a number of components beyond performance, but I’m highlighting that one because it is where Wagner clearly excels the most.) As The Skating Protocol pointed out, a judge giving Wagner a 63 for PCS compared to Tennell’s 68 doesn’t quite make sense, without taking anything away from Tennell’s stellar performance. She simply needs time to grow into the artist that Wagner is. Wagner’s PCS for the long program here were the same as they were for her dismal performance in the long at Worlds last year — no Nationals boost in sight (and it was in sight for others) for a performance that was much stronger than Worlds.

Underrotation calls also weren’t consistent between Wagner and Karen Chen in the ladies’ event (the judges were actually a bit more harsh with Karen), or with Jason Brown’s triple axel in the short program in the men’s event (it was underrotated but not called as such). In the men’s event overall, it felt like the judges were waiting for Adam Rippon and Jason Brown to come out and deliver their usual clean performances, so they could rain down the PCS numbers on them. Both skaters’ shaky performances meant that was impossible. I think it was the lack of consistency within events, as well as across events, that made it feel like the scores were jiggered to favor a certain Olympic team selection.

3. Confusing Olympic Selection Criteria

That last point brings me to the rather confusing Olympic selection criteria. I’m a fan of the criteria method, because I think it gives the U.S. the best chance of fielding the strongest team at the Olympics. It’s exciting and wonderful when a skater delivers a great performance at Nationals, given how pressure-packed the event is, but there is something to be said for consistency over an entire year or multiple seasons. That experience holds up more under Olympic pressure than just one good skate.

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Image Source: TeamUSA.org

That said, there are three levels of criteria, but lots of confusion and speculation about how much weight each is given. And there is still the misconception of Nationals as Olympic trials to overcome — this event is not the Olympic trials, and performances from this fall and last year matter. This type of confusion is frustrating to fans who tune in all the time, but even crazier for people who only tune in during the Olympics. I was listening to an episode of the Tara and Johnny podcast earlier today and Tara referred to Nationals as the Olympic trials, so it’s no wonder the confusion is out there.

In terms of the selections themselves, I think they made sense. Unfortunately, there was no justifying taking Wagner after another 4th place finish in an Olympic year. And as fabulous as Ross Miner skated, both Adam Rippon and Vincent Zhou checked more boxes of the criteria. People in the Twitterverse seemed to think that Ross was removed in favor of Adam, because of their placements on the medal stand, but that was never clearly stated and isn’t necessarily the case. The selection committee was choosing a team from a clean slate, based on the criteria, not eliminating people from the podium. I don’t think it makes sense to say that any one skater was subbed out for another.

Now that the U.S. Olympic team is set, I’m looking forward to seeing how the roster shakes out for the team event at the Olympics. After all this drama, I imagine there will be more once those teams are announced. Part of the strategy of this Olympic selection criteria is designed to have the right combination of skaters available for the team event, after all.

Whew, I waited a while to post this, but once I got going, the opinions really flooded out, huh?

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Just kidding.

What do you think about all the 2018 Nationals drama?

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Hubbell/Donohue Interview: Figure Skaters Online

Before the senior events at U.S. Nationals get going in San Jose tomorrow, one more preview article from Figure Skaters Online, with ice dancers Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue:

For the past three years, Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue have been the bronze medalists in the ice dance event at the U.S. Championships.

They finished third in the short dance at Worlds in 2017 before a disastrous fall on a twizzle in the free dance took them out of the medals.

They have qualified for the Grand Prix Final three years in a row, but missed the podium by less than a point in December.

This year, Hubbell and Donohue have had it with “almost.”

“I’m not here to get third place for the fifth time at Nationals, that’s not an option,” Donohue told reporters in a U.S. Figure Skating media call on Dec. 28.

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Image Source: Figure Skaters Online

Read the rest of the article on Figure Skaters Online for how Hubbell and Donohue plan to reach their goals at Nationals, and how they’ve changed their programs since the Grand Prix Final:

Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue Set Sights on First U.S. Title


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Vincent Zhou Interview: Figure Skaters Online

It’s almost time…U.S. Nationals starts next week! The competition is earlier than usual this year, since the Olympics kick off on Feb. 8. In the remaining days before the competition begins in San Jose, the stars of U.S. skating sat down for interview calls with the media, and I got to participate in a few of them with Figure Skaters Online.

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Image Source: Figure Skaters Online

Here’s an excerpt from my story on Vincent Zhou, defending silver medalist in the men’s event:

Vincent Zhou was riding high at the end of last season. The 2017 U.S. silver medalist and World Junior Champion, 16-year-old Zhou was turning heads with his arsenal of quad jumps and sparking talk of an Olympic berth.

But that momentum didn’t quite carry over into his first full senior season. His Grand Prix showings were inconsistent, with a fourth place at Cup of China followed by a ninth place finish at Internationaux de France. He was second in the free skate in China, climbing back from eighth place after the short. But overall, it wasn’t the strong, consistent Zhou we saw at the end of last season.

“We didn’t obsess over what went wrong, because that can lead to negativity and lots of stress,” Zhou said in a U.S. Figure Skating media call on Dec. 27. “We just discussed with a clear mind changes to make based on how I was feeling. We realized we were pushing too hard.”

Read the rest of the article on Figure Skaters Online to hear how Zhou has adjusted his training going into Nationals and his goals for the competition:

After an inconsistent Grand Prix campaign, Vincent Zhou retools training for Nationals


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Tara Lipinski Interview: Figure Skaters Online

“Going into this Olympics in South Korea it feels very surreal [to be on the prime time broadcast team], but it’s also my 20th anniversary and feels like the start of this career that I’ve always wanted,” said Tara Lipinski, 1998 Olympic Champion. 

She was answering my question about her transition from skater to broadcaster, and the sometimes-difficult path that elite and Olympic athletes have when their competitive days are over. More on what Lipinski calls her second career, and which legendary commentator she looks up to, in my piece for Figure Skaters Online:

On 20th anniversary of her Olympic gold medal, Tara Lipinski looks ahead to new chapter


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My Picks for the U.S. Olympic Team: Pairs & Ice Dance

While there are plenty of variables and speculation in the men’s and ladies’ events at U.S. Nationals, the pairs and ice dance seems to be much more straightforward.

A reminder of the three tiers of selection criteria from U.S. Figure Skating, via Phil Hersh:
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In pairs, Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim have earned the one U.S. spot. After a horrific year of injuries/illness last year (plus a few this year, too, with his knee problems), they are still working their way back to the top form that earned them a spot in the 2015 Grand Prix Final. They showed off a quad twist on Instagram recently and said on Ice Talk that they plan to add it back into the program for Nationals, so they are definitely getting there.

ISU Four Continents Figure Skating Championships - Gangneung - Day 1

Image Source: Mercury News

Scimeca Knierim and Knierim have the highest placements and scores of any U.S. pair team in any event of the three tiers, and are still the only U.S. pair to break 200 points internationally. While side-by-side jumps can be a problem, their pair elements are stunning. It won’t be enough for them to figure into the medal conversation, with the international pairs field as stacked as it is, but they could help the U.S. in their quest for a team medal. Hopefully they make it an easy choice and take their U.S. title back at Nationals, because a rough performance there could throw all of the above into question for casual viewers (a la the Wagner-Nagasu controversy of 2014).

In ice dance, Madison Chock/Evan Bates, Madison Hubbell/Zachary Donohue, and Maia/Alex Shibutani are, without a doubt, the U.S. Olympic team. I listed them in alphabetical order here because I think it is anyone’s game at Nationals. Yes, the Shibutanis had the most successful fall campaign, with two golds on the Grand Prix and a bronze at the final, but they didn’t have to skate against the two Olympic favorites, Canada’s Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir or France’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guilluame Cizeron, on the Grand Prix, like their U.S. counterparts did. And the three teams were separated by less than a point overall at the Grand Prix Final. The Shibs beat Hubbell and Donohue by 0.6, and Hubbell and Donohue were only 0.25 ahead of Chock and Bates.

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The top 3 U.S. ice dance teams pictured at 2017 Nationals, along with pewter medalists Elliana Pogrebinskiy and Alex Benoit (far right). Image Source: IceNetwork

I enjoy all these teams and think it will be an exciting dance event at U.S. Nationals — though I must say I’m pulling for Hubbell and Donohue this year, after their impressive rebound from disappointment at Worlds last year. Their skating is the best it’s ever been and it’s time for them to move up from that bronze medal position. I can’t wait to watch it all unfold in San Jose!


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My Picks for the U.S. Olympic Team: Ladies

I’ve made my picks for the U.S. men’s Olympic figure skating team, and now it’s time for the ladies. Unfortunately, the American ladies were underwhelming on the Grand Prix this year, and didn’t have anyone in the Final, an important tier 1 selection criteria. Nationals is going to carry extra weight for all of them.

A reminder of the three tiers of selection criteria from U.S. Figure Skating, via Phil Hersh:
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  1. Ashley Wagner
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    Image Source: IceNetwork

    While Ashley has had a bit of a bumpy road since the end of the Grand Prix series last year, she is still the leading U.S. lady in my mind. She’ll be putting out a new (old) free skate at Nationals, her original “La La Land” program, choreographed over the summer and then scrapped at Champs Camp. In 2014, she put together a new (old) free skate to “Samson and Delilah” and skated it clean in Sochi, so I have faith that a little extra pressure and excitement will bring out her fight and motivation.This title is hers to lose, and she said as much when she withdrew during the long program at Skate America. She needs it to check a tier 1 box, after missing this year’s Grand Prix Final and the subpar finish at Worlds last year. Plus, she didn’t compete in any events that fit tier 3, and only has her Skate Canada bronze for tier 2 credit. Anything off the podium at Nationals will put her in major jeopardy, but a fourth U.S. title would be an excellent statement to the selection committee. Here’s to the ones who dream, right?

  2. Mirai Nagasu

    Even though Mirai had some iffy results on the Grand Prix, she is looking more fit, strong, and confident this year than she ever has. Earning a 2018 Olympic spot would be sweet redemption for her after missing the 2014 team (which was the right call, and let’s not redo that conversation, guys). Her gumption in trying the triple axel and pushing herself to be a better skater, 10 years after she first won a U.S. Senior National Championship, is impressive and inspiring. Her bronze at last year’s Four Continents Championships checks a tier 2 box, while she earned a silver on the Challenger Series this year for tier 3. Imagine if she won a second U.S. title in 2018, 10 years after her first in 2008? The NBC promos people would be ALL over that, as would the loyal Mirai fans.

    3. Bradie Tennell

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    Image Source: TeamUSA.org

    I’ve been calling this one since November, people. Though Bradie only competed in one Grand Prix event, she grabbed a bronze medal and the highest international score of any of the U.S. ladies this season. She’s been skating consistently and calmly at competitions since the summer and has really solid jumps. Her artistry might not match the likes of Ashley Wagner, but her consistency is unparalleled in the current U.S. field. She needs to have a strong Nationals to cement an Olympic spot, but I think she can do it.

Dark Horse: Karen Chen

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Image Source: East Bay Times

It’s really tough to imagine leaving Karen Chen off the Olympic team, since her 4th place finish at Worlds last year clinched the three spots for the U.S. ladies. But that said, she hasn’t had a strong outing at a major event since Worlds and Nationals last year, and those were her only strong events of that season (granted, it’s pretty ideal to save your best stuff for the biggest events of the year, but still). Switching her free skate four times since the summer certainly hasn’t helped matters, and she has also gone back to last year’s short program. Both were signature pieces for her, and maybe the comfort level with those programs will lead to a strong showing at Nationals. If she defends her title, she should go to Pyeongchang. Anything other than that leaves a question mark in my mind.

Tough Call: Mariah Bell

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Image Source: IceNetwork

I absolutely adore Mariah’s skating, and when her jumps are on, they are excellent. This is not the first time that I’ve typed on this blog that her “East of Eden” free skate made me tear up at 2016 Skate America. She has great personality on the ice. But unfortunately, she hasn’t capitalized on last year’s momentum and had a difficult Grand Prix. Unless she blows everyone away at Nationals, it seems like an uphill battle for her to make the Olympic team. She had a rough outing at 2017 Worlds, which is a tier 1 criteria. She was 6th at Four Continents last year, with a career-best short, so that could gain her some points in the tier 2 category. I’ll be rooting for her to put it all together at Nationals.

Next up: pairs and ice dance!