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:
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
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.
1. So. Much. Crying.
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.
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.
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?
What do you think about all the 2018 Nationals drama?