Whenever skaters are asked about U.S. Nationals, they often talk about how it is the most pressure-packed event of the year. The expectations are high, and placements determine whether their seasons are over or they get to move on to the big international competitions, Four Continents, Worlds, etc. Not to mention coveted spots at the next season’s international events are on the line, since most are given out to the top finishers at Nationals. The skaters who triumph are the ones who can put all that aside and do their job. The 2016 Nationals was an impressive display of this kind of mental toughness across all four disciplines at the senior level.
Pairs champions Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea were clutch and flawless throughout the event. After their unexpected lead in the short program, they easily could have faltered in the long. How many times have we seen short program standouts crumble in the long at Nationals? Unfortunately, it happened to the fabulous Ross Miner in this year’s men’s event. But Kayne and O’Shea stayed tough and gave a brilliant performance. They told IceNetwork: “The day between the short and long program, a little bit of doubt creeps into your mind,” Kayne said. “You think, ‘I just had this awesome short program—am I going to be able to follow it up?’ With this program, I can definitely follow it up. I believe in this program so much that any doubt I had right when the music came on was gone.”
On the flip side, defending champions Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim seemed to let their wobbly showing at the Grand Prix Final get into their heads and they weren’t skating with quite the same confidence we’ve seen from them this season. But this team gets mad and buckles down and I have a feeling they will come back with a vengeance at Worlds. And I hope so, because I really enjoy watching them.
Speaking of holding it together for TWO spectacular programs, how about Polina Edmunds? She was cool, collected, and confident for the whole event, delivering two really solid programs that showed artistic growth and reduced emphasis on overdone arm movements. All the post-short program talk was about Polina possibly coming in and stealing the title, and she took it in stride.
The rest of the short program chatter was about how Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold once again faltered under pressure. I was actually pretty grumpy after watching the ladies’ short; I was thinking, “Not again…seriously?” I bet they might have been as well. But they both really delivered in the long.
Ashley was in a familiar spot, trying to make up points after the short program, and this type of situation is her forte. She always brings it with the mental toughness in this scenario. Her long program was amazing, but for the one blip of the popped lutz. Was anybody else thinking about last year’s triumphant fist pump after the final lutz as she went into it? Maybe she was, too. At any rate, that popped jump was an absolute necessity if she wanted to challenge for the silver or the title.
Gracie finally out-did everybody else’s mental game. Finally. And man, was it impressive. When I heard she was skating last, I thought it was a bad spot, since she would be hearing all the marks before her. In the TV interview after her performance, she said herself how she always seems to go after these fantastic, rafter-shaking performances (after eventual champion Adelina Sotnikova at the 2014 Olympics, right after Ashley did really well at this year’s Grand Prix Final, it’s a definite pattern). It was awesome to see her channel that into a fabulous performance of her own, which can’t have been easy. I felt like everyone watching had sort of mentally handed the title to Polina, even before Gracie’s name was called, based on her past history. The fact that these three ladies all delivered such strong performances and tuned out the noise around them bodes VERY well for Worlds.
Speaking of a night of strong performances, how about those men? One right after another, they were all able to do their job despite the high scores and records (Nathan Chen with FOUR quads in the long program?!) popping up all around them.
“I knew exactly what was going on, but it didn’t change what I wanted to do and what I needed to do,” champion Adam Rippon said after the event. That’s really what they all did. Chen threw down a technical gauntlet, but Max Aaron went out and nailed his planned program. Knowing how well Aaron did, Rippon went out and skated like there was no pressure at all. And we can’t overlook the great skates by upstart Vincent Zhou and pewter medalist Grant Hochstein. It was just a really fun event to watch.
Maia and Alex Shibutani. I cried. They tuned out all the hype and doubters alike, forgetting disappointment about past placements, and they created a moment out there. I have re-watched the program so many times since Nationals and kind of can’t believe I’ll get to see them do it live at Worlds here in Boston.
Although Chock and Bates didn’t defend their title, they still kept their heads in the game and delivered a strong performance, especially with all the program changes they’ve dealt with this season. They didn’t make any egregious errors or choke, by any means. An event where the skating quality is so high that any given team can win is way more exciting to watch than one with a predetermined favorite/incumbent. I hope this rivalry continues up to the next Olympics.
Outside of the longstanding success in international ice dance, I think it is the mental game that has been missing for the U.S. in international competition. Hopefully this streak continues at Worlds and the medal droughts in the other disciplines will come to an end. Pairs might be a long shot, but I think we’ve got a good chance in the men’s and ladies’ side of things!