Last year after U.S. Nationals, I mused about how important mental toughness is in skating, and how well it was displayed across the disciplines. This year, no disrespect to the men, pairs or dance skaters, but the top three finishers in the ladies’ event completely wowed me with their mental strength and will to do their best. And each of them rose to the occasion in a different way:
Gold medalist Karen Chen didn’t succumb to the pressure of leading after her exquisite short program. Plenty of skaters can’t hold on to the momentum of a great short program in the free—we’ve seen it happen to poor Ross Miner two years in row at Nationals, finishing second after a great short only to falter in the free. But that wasn’t the case with Karen:
Reigning World Silver Medalist Ashley Wagner had to skate right after hearing Chen’s giant score and the crowd roar in response. But in true and gritty Wagner fashion, she dug deep for another emotional, strong performance that brought the crowd to its feet:
She was rocking a new dress for the long program (I suspected she might be one to do a mid-season switch), and I loved the ombre color and the back strap detail.
Mariah Bell had the most serious errors of the top three, with a hopped landing on her opening triple-triple combo and a fall on her second jump, the triple loop. She could have folded under the pressure or given up in disappointment at that point (as it looked like Gracie Gold and Mirai Nagasu did later in the free skate, after making errors of their own.) But instead, Bell calmed down, righted herself, and skated beautifully the rest of the way:
And man, did it pay off. Because it’s Bell who is the bronze medalist, who punched her ticket to the 2017 World Championships in Helsinki, Finland, while Gold and Nagasu were left off the team.
Gold and Nagasu seem to be the cautionary tales, in terms of mental strength. They both have a history of letting a program collapse once one mistake creeps in, rather than forgetting the mistake and moving on to the next element. Obviously that’s easy for me to say from behind my computer screen, but I think it’s something all skaters strive to do, whether they are on the world stage or just an adult skater still plugging away on her junior moves. Previous mistakes can’t impact what happens next.
The way Chen, Wagner, and Bell responded to their unique adversity on Saturday night is an important step in their personal skating journeys, and experience that will serve them well going into a pressure-packed Olympic season.
Chen proved that she could overcome boot problems and injuries to put together two clean programs at a high-stakes event. Hopefully this gives her the boost to perform like she belongs among the best in the world when she competes at international events.
Wagner showed yet again that she can tune out the noise (both literal and figurative) around her and deliver the goods. And she’s going to need that when skating against the ridiculously consistent Russian and Japanese ladies at Worlds and the Olympics.
Bell demonstrated poise, maturity, and commitment when she salvaged the rest of her program after the early mistakes. That ability to reassess and stay calm will be invaluable as she heads to her first World Championships and starts to experience more pressure and expectations after her strong showings this season.
I don’t know about you, but I feel pretty good about this crew heading to Worlds and staking their claim on three spots for the U.S. ladies in the 2018 Olympics.