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Top 5 “WOW” Moments at the 2020 U.S. Championships

After looking back at my Top 5 Standing Ovation-Worthy Moments at the 2020 U.S. Championships, now I’m sharing my Top 5 “WOW” moments. There was plenty of great skating at this event in all four disciplines, but these five moments each earned a “wow,” from me, though not all in the same way. Some were in awe, some in surprise.

1. Nathan Chen’s performances in light of limited training during recovery from the flu
Since we’re talking about Nathan Chen, I’m going to use the word “only” in front of the phrase “four quads.” Yes, Chen only did four quads in his free skate here, and we know he is capable of six. But he honestly didn’t even have to do that many to guarantee a win here — he is that far ahead of the pack. We might not have been able to say that if Vincent Zhou was at the same form that won him a World bronze medal last season, but he took the fall off while attending Brown University and sorting out his training schedule, which meant he only had one quad here. Chen pushed himself even when the title was all but guaranteed, and even though he was recovering from a nasty bout with the flu, as we learned in this NBC Olympics article by Phil Hersh. Impressive.

2. Gracie Gold’s triple lutz-triple toe combo in practice
Gracie Gold’s performances in the competition were emotional moments for her and fans alike. But it was a moment in practice that wowed me: her triple lutz-triple toe loop combination of old is back. It may not be ready for the pressure situation of a competition yet, but to see her do it while watching the practice feeds on NBC Sports Gold was really cool. Good for her.

3. K. Chen and Zhou stay in contention — and in school (for now)
I was impressed by both Karen Chen and Vincent Zhou staying in contention here, even as they figure out how to balance Ivy League college schedules with training. To be fair, Zhou has already announced a break from Brown University, and Chen is apparently entertaining the idea of a break from Cornell after her strong showing here. Neither were at their peak, of course, but they did enough to earn assignments for the second half of the season and set themselves up well for fall assignments, too. It sounds like school might have to go on the back burner if they want to reach their previous heights, but we can’t all be Nathan Chen, right? Regardless, their showing here made a statement.

4. Hubbell and Donohue skate in the wrong direction
In the press conference after the free dance, Hubbell and Donohue said they got turned around in their spin and skated the rest of their program facing the wrong way. To non-skaters, this might sound weird/unlikely/unimportant, but as the excellent podcasters of Flutzes and Waxels explained in their 2020 U.S. Nationals Ice Dance recap, all the elements should be oriented towards the judges’ side of the arena, and in this case, you could see that Hubbell and Donohue’s were not. Maybe not impactful for a casual observer, but it isn’t ideal for the judges and can be disorienting for a skater. I think most of us skaters could say we’ve experienced something similar while skating in an unfamiliar rink or arena. Once, in an intercollegiate competition at the University of Michigan, I did my whole program with the elements facing the “wrong” way and didn’t even realize it until I hit my ending pose and it clicked that I wasn’t facing the judges. Something about Yost Arena was just disorienting to me, and I hadn’t had the opportunity for pre-competition practice ice. In this case, it is a pretty unusual occurrence, because Hubbell and Donohue had been practicing in the arena all week. So this one gets a “wow” for rarity.

5. The Knierims’ throw triple loop


This video is on the NBC Sports official channel, so fingers crossed it does not somehow get removed, because everyone should marvel at their throw triple loop here in the free skate. They have been posting this element looking good on Instagram, so my expectations were high for it in competition. The quality is just superb. It reminds me of Shen and Zhou’s incredible throws back in the early 2000s — so high and such a confident landing. Definitely a “wow moment” in their program.

So here’s my top 5 — which moments at Nationals impressed you or surprised you or led to an audible “Wow!”? Comment and share!


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Top 5 Standing Ovation-Worthy Moments at 2020 U.S. Nationals

Back in 2015 on this old blog, I ranked top five moments at U.S. Nationals in a variety of categories: tearjerkers, wow moments, standing ovation-worthy, etc., etc. I thought I’d revisit that format five years later, while simultaneously wondering how five years have passed so quickly. But with 2020 Nationals already in the rearview mirror and Four Continents upon us, it’s time for me to stop wondering and get posting. Here are my Top 5 Standing Ovation-Worthy Moments from 2020 U.S. Nationals in Greensboro, NC:

  1. Mariah Bell’s long program
    Of course, this one got a literal standing ovation from the crowd, as well as tears and a standing ovation from me in my living room. If Dick Button were still commentating for NBC, he would have been shouting “look at her heart on her sleeve!” into his headset, because the emotion was flowing in the choreo sequence at the end of that program. It was really special to see her nail her final triple lutz here, after a costly miss on the triple lutz in her long at Nationals last year.
  2. Alysa Liu keeping her cool
    Mariah’s performance blew the roof off the building, and defending champion Alysa Liu had to skate right after her, last in the final flight. Not an easy situation, but Liu proved her mental toughness by delivering one of her best performances, including two triple axels (I can’t count that quad lutz…it was too underrotated) and two triple-triples in the second half of the program. In situations like this, skaters can either get intimidated, or harness the positive energy in the building for their own skate, and Liu did the latter. Pretty rare for someone so young, and valuable experience that she’ll take with her as her career continues.
  3. Madison Chock and Evan Bates getting the job done
    Chock and Bates have been building momentum since they won the crowd (in my opinion) at last year’s U.S. Nationals. Their free dance has been a hit with fans and judges all season, and the speculation was that they would take the title here, in the same building where they won their first in 2015. They could have let pressure or expectations get the best of them, especially after a little slip in their Finnstep pattern in the rhythm dance here. But they didn’t, and earned the title and my literal and figurative standing ovation.
  4. The Knierims in the short program
    This pair rebounded from a tough performance at Nationals last year to reclaim their title, also in the same building where they won their first, much like Chock and Bates. Seeing them nail their side-by-side triples here (especially after what looked like some rough practices) was really exciting — much like her reaction at the end of the program.
  5. The entire final flight of the men’s long program
    As I was watching the final six men in this competition, I was just wowed by the quality of skating — the great jumps we were seeing, the artistry, the different styles. Not everyone was perfect, but they all really rose to the occasion and made it a compelling final group. They earned my at-home standing ovation.

You’ll notice I didn’t link videos with my list. In going back to my 2015 posts, I saw that nearly all the videos had been removed from YouTube for copyright, which is a bummer for fans who want to relive these great performances. (Though possibly good for my productivity…I have been known to disappear into a vacuum of watching old skating videos on YouTube). Most of these programs either didn’t make it to YouTube or were taken down. So words only it is! Next up: my Top 5 Wow/Surprise Moments.


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Spinning Out Review

If you are a figure skating fan and were on Twitter at all during the first week of January, you must have seen all the feelings and opinions on Spinning Out. I took my time watching the 10-episode series, but now I’m ready to weigh in.

I kept my blog notebook beside me while watching the show, and managed to fill four pages, front and back, with my observations. I’m going to stick to assessing the skating, not the plot, which was straight out of a 2000s CW teen drama. I write this as a diehard One Tree Hill fan, so I enjoy my fair share of CW drama, but it’s not for everyone. If this show didn’t have the skating element, I’m not sure I would have made it past the first few episodes.

As far as skating TV shows and movies go, my bar is pretty low. Isn’t yours, too? Ever since the Disney movie Ice Princess told us all that skating was just physics…

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…I’ve had low expectations for how my beloved sport is portrayed on screen. Blades of Glory may have been comedy gold, but I sat in the movie theater getting all offended by the stereotypes and annoyed that the “iron lotus” wouldn’t be possible because of GRAVITY. I’ve since evolved to have more of a sense of humor about these portrayals, which might be part of why I thought that, overall, Spinning Out had pretty good skating scenes.

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Gilles & Poirier Ice-Dance.com Interview: 2020 Canadians

The 2020 Canadian Tire National Skating Championships kick off next week, and I got to sit in on the pre-competition media call with ice dancers Piper Gilles and Paul Poirer – the favorites to take this year’s Canadian title. Check out my article for Ice-Dance.com to hear how they’re using a 5th-place finish in the Grand Prix Final as both motivation and confidence booster, and the changes they’ve made to their programs for the second half of the season.

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Photo by Robin Ritoss, Courtesy of Ice-Dance.com

Gilles & Poirier Use Grand Prix Final as Motivation for Second Half of Season

Piper Gilles & Paul Poirier returned to the Grand Prix Final this year for the first time since the 2014-15 season, propelled by their most successful Grand Prix campaign to date: a first-time Grand Prix victory at Skate Canada and a silver at Rostelecom Cup.

While the duo saw it as a milestone, they ultimately weren’t happy with their fifth place finish in the six-team field.

“We were really pleased to be back at the Final. It’s something that has eluded us for several years and we’ve been very close many times, so it was really nice to be back there and really feel a part of the top echelon in the world,” Poirier said on a Skate Canada media call ahead of the 2020 Canadian Tire National Skating Championships in Mississauga, Ontario. “As much as we didn’t quite get the result that we wanted there, we really feel like we were in the mix, especially with coming fourth in the free dance. I think that did build our confidence. We really feel that we are in the mix, that we’re competitive, that we can really challenge for the podium at the World Championships.”

Read the rest of the article on Ice-Dance.com, where we’ll be following all the action from the 2020 Canadian Tire National Skating Championships!


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The 2019-20 Season: What We’ve Learned So Far

Whew, somehow it is 2020 and National Championships season in the world of figure skating. Japan and Russia kicked it off at the end of December, and Canada and the U.S. are up next, in terms of the major players. As we look at the season so far, I’ve got some observations about the current skating landscape, and some suggestions, because I can’t help myself. Here’s what we’ve learned so far this season:

Fire Power in the Short is Tough to Beat

A clean triple axel in the short program can overpower a multi-quad long program. Alena Kostornia’s superb triple axels are putting her so far ahead in short programs that she isn’t at a huge disadvantage without a quad in the free skate. It’s how she won the Grand Prix Final, and her two Grand Prix events this season. She was second to Anna Shcherbakova at Russian Nationals this year, so it isn’t an infallible strategy, but with three triple axels and her superior skating skills, it is possible to top the quad jumpers among her fellow Russians. Now, this advantage will disappear quickly if the ISU votes to allow quadruple jumps in the women’s short program, which I believe will be up for vote at the 2020 ISU Congress.

Balanced Skating is Still Rewarded (But Not Enough)

I’m going to turn to the Russian ladies again in this example. Kostornia gets in the high 8s and low 9s for her program component scores, while Alexandra Trusova is averaging in the low 8s. Kostornia’s higher marks are completely deserved – she has better flow across the ice, and more extension and toe point in her strokes and pushes, whereas at times it seems like Trusova does a series of pumps to get speed and then launches into her jumps.

But almost across the board in singles, I keep noticing major gaps between the technical element score and the PCS score. A skater like Trusova, who relies on her jump content, can have a 20-30 point difference in the TES vs. PCS, with the TES much higher because of how the scoring system factors each segment into the total score. But even Nathan Chen, who has been lauded for his artistic strides in recent years, had a huge difference in his TES and PCS scores in his Grand Prix Final victory. Because of his incredible quad content (five at that event), his TES was 33.36 points higher than his PCS, which were all high 9s (out of a possible 10). There needs to be a change in the way that PCS are weighted in the final score, because the current setup does not give equal weight to technical and artistic feats. And since this is figure skating and not jump skating, both need to be given equal importance. Notice that I am not saying to de-value quadruple jumps (which are incredibly difficult and should be rewarded as such). I just think we need to balance out the scales a bit here by increasing the value of high PCS scores in the overall total.

I also think this would be more effective than an age limit in terms of the current controversy over young skaters doing multiple quads and how that may or may not affect their future health. There definitely needs to be more study on that point, because we really only know things anecdotally now. Until that can be done and an age limit proven as a way to support the future health of skaters, I think fixing the IJS (again) could help. Plus, it avoids a scenario where people can complain that a skater was held back by an age limit during his or her prime. This type of change would give them incentive to work on having a complete package over jumps alone, which could also help with the toll that quad jumps take on the body by limiting repetition a bit.

10s Should Be Rare (And They’re Not)

In citing all those PCS marks above, and just looking at judges’ scores throughout the season, what kept jumping out at me was how willingly and frequently judges are handing out high 9s and 10s in the PCS. To me, those types of marks should be rare and well-deserved, for the likes of a Kwan or a Gordeeva/Grinkov, a bit like the old 6.0 perfect mark. Not handed out because a skater landed multiple quads, or is competing in his or her home country. Clean quadruple jumps also shouldn’t automatically lead to a 9.75 in skating skills. Sure, they can go towards the performance segment of the PCS mark, because a clean skate certainly elevates the performance quality, or composition, because a program that is well-crafted but includes multiple falls should be docked a bit, just as a clean program gives a more well-composed overall picture. But, judges, let’s save the 10s for historic moments, like Virtue/Moir at the Olympics, or true excellence, like Hanyu’s transitions.

Now it’s time to get down off my soapbox and go watch episode four of Netflix’s figure skating series, Spinning Out. I’ve got some thoughts on the show coming for a later post…stay tuned!

All score research compiled via SkatingScores.com, an excellent resource for skating fans and followers who want to get into the details of the scoring system and event scores.

Correction: An earlier version of this post erroneously reported that Kostornia was 3rd at Russian Nationals in 2020 and the post has since been updated to reflect her 2nd place finish.


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Four Favorites: NHK Trophy 2019

Well, the 2019 Grand Prix season has flown by and the field is set for the Grand Prix Final. Part of me wishes that there could be a little more time between each event (I bet the skaters who have to compete back-to-back could get behind that as well!), because trying to keep up with all four disciplines at each event this year kind of felt like drinking from a fire hose. Hence, I’m skipping favorites from Cup of China and Rostelecom Cup and jumping right to last weekend’s NHK Trophy for my next post.

This Four Favorites series was initially meant to acknowledge greatness that didn’t always end up on the medal podium, or fantastic moments within a program. So that’s how you’re about to read a post about “favorites” that doesn’t include the brilliance of three of the gold medalists here: Yuzuru Hanyu, Sui/Han, and Papadakis/Cizeron. They were indisputably amazing here (though not perfect and, therefore, a good reminder that they are human) and everyone could see that. So here are my four favorites from each discipline, beyond that trio – who will surely go down as legends of our sport. Alas, no videos via YouTube to share because of copyright, but I’ll do my best to describe each moment/element and hope you’ll go re-watch them on NBC Sports Gold or wherever you get your skating.

Ladies

Karen Chen’s spiral sequence in her free skate is like a big, relaxing exhale. Her extension is gorgeous, and she holds the movement longer than anyone else on the ladies circuit these days. It is a throwback to the glorious days of her fellow Americans Michelle Kwan and Sasha Cohen and the required ladies spiral sequence. Spirals are my personal favorite skating move, too, so I’m always ready to applaud an old-school spiral sequence.

Men

A wally was far from my favorite back in the days when I was jumping more, so I really appreciate a well-executed, springy wally. Just like the one Kevin Aymoz of France did in the steps into his triple axel in the short program. We’ve been seeing a lot of the rocker-rocker-power pull entry, which is difficult and looks good, but I appreciated Aymoz’ different approach.

Pairs

Americans Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea had a rough short program here and an okay long program. Even with the falls and bobbles, the ending of their short program really stood out to me. They did their final lift, which had good speed, ice coverage, and extension, and then transitioned directly into a lower rotational lift, followed by O’Shea flipping Kayne in a cartwheel position into their ending pose. I think it can get even sharper as the season continues, but enjoyed the interesting ending.

Ice Dance

In the rhythm dance, Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin of Russia had a really difficult and innovative exit to their lift. She is straddling his shoulder in the final position of the lift, and he sets her down and then ducks under her back leg to finish the exit. So difficult, but they executed it really smoothly.

Now we have a week off, then it’s time for Torino and the Grand Prix Final!