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Favorite Exhibitions of 2015-16

One of the (many) unique aspects of figure skating is the post-event exhibition. It’s a celebratory show that takes place at the end of a competition, after the medals have been handed out and when the pressure is off. It would be like Cam Newton and Peyton Manning taking the field to toss the football around, the day after the Super Bowl, for a packed stadium. Improbable, and probably unnecessary, in most sports. But not figure skating.

The post-event exhibition reflects the importance of the performance side of skating, and the blending of athletics and art. Skaters always put on a show, but most especially in the exhibition. This is where the funny/creative/weird numbers come out, along with tricks and costumes that are illegal in competition. This season, I’ve got four favorite exhibition programs and three of them just happen to be by U.S. skaters.

Mirai Nagasu — “I Put a Spell On You”

Who is this skater? With such confidence and ease of movement. She looks completely different in this program than when she competes; can we get some of this Mirai in competition? I’m starting a petition now that this becomes her short program for next year! (I’m pretty sure that this year’s “Demons” short program started off as an exhibition piece, and this one has way more life and enthusiasm to it.) This song is one that can be overused in skating, and yet I still really enjoy her take on it.

Team Paradise of Russia — “Meditation of Thais” by Jules Massenet

That first intersection, with the spirals…all I can say is, “WOW.” Except it came out more like “Woooooowwwww” as I was staring at it on my computer screen, sitting at my kitchen table. Such beauty and strength. I couldn’t determine if this is an exhibition program or also their short program. Anybody out there know? I may have given my computer some kind of virus trying to get to what I thought was the team’s website to look for program details, but a ton of Russian pop ups ensued instead. Whoops.

Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim — “Rise Up” by Andra Day

They’ve been using this program all year, but the first time I saw it was in the exhibition at U.S. Nationals. As you can probably gather from the title of the song, this one felt particularly poignant given that the team had just lost their national title. Would I have loved it as much if I that wasn’t when I saw it for the first time? I’m not sure. But this program demonstrates what I love about this team so much, their emotion and fabulous pair elements.

Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter — “I Want It That Way” by the Backstreet Boys

The Backstreet Boys are apparently very rigid about copyright infringement, because this is the only video I could find of this program, and the audio is blocked. If you have an IceNetwork subscription, you’ve got to go watch this program, either in the video from the Grand Prix Final exhibition or the U.S. Nationals exhibition. The two-time U.S. Junior Ice Dance Champions exude personality in this light-hearted program about a boy bander and his superfan. Cute without being overly gimmicky, and who doesn’t love a good BSB song?

While these were my favorite exhibition programs, there were definitely a few that made me raise my eyebrows…those, in a future post!

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Mental Toughness Key at 2016 Nationals

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

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.

Ladies

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.

Men

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.

Dance

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!


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Nationals Predictions: Sentimental vs. Rational

The best week of the year is here! The U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

Lots of people are making predictions and rooting for their favorites. Those two options don’t always line up: sometimes the sentimental favorite is actually a long shot for the title, or the skater who is best on paper doesn’t connect with fans or the audience. For this year’s U.S. Nationals, I’ve got my sentimental favorites and those who I think are the more rational pick for the title. Check them out:

Men

Sentimental Favorite: Adam Rippon

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Image Source: examiner.com

He had such a moment at Nationals last year, with a long program performance that was championship-worthy. I want him to be able to stand on the top step of the podium. If his jumps are on, he is the class of the men’s field, with beautiful spins and transitions. Adam is also still skating for the pure love of the sport (listen to more about that in his appearance on the Open Kwong Dore podcast), and that relaxed attitude often leads to his best performances.

Rational Favorite: Max Aaron

Max has the most consistent quads of all the U.S. men, and has also made incredible strides in his components this season. Combine by that with a Skate America victory and success at senior B events, he is riding a wave of momentum that, if logic holds, should take the title.

Ice Dance

Sentimental Favorite: Maia and Alex Shibutani

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Image Source: rinksidecafe.wordpress.com

The Shib Sibs free dance this year is a work of art, and has been incredibly moving each time they’ve performed it. Not only that, but they’ve visibly improved their lines and speed since last year. I just really want this to be the year that they take the title. They’ve been toiling in the shadows for too long. And an in-country rivalry with Chock and Bates a la the rivalry between Davis/White and Virtue/Moir could only do great things for ice dancing in the U.S.

Rational Favorite: Madison Chock and Evan Bates

The judges at the Grand Prix Final preferred Chock and Bates to the Shibutanis, despite similar results on the circuit and solid performances by both teams. Most signs point to the pecking order remaining the same this year. Chock and Bates have been solid in all their competitions this season, despite the fact that they have had to make some big changes to both programs (including a new short dance early in the season). This consistency is on their side.

Pairs

Sentimental Favorite: Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim

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Image Source: goldenskate.com

These two are the best pair team that the U.S. has had in a long time, and its exciting to watch them. They also have oodles of personality and sass. I’d love to see them defend their title and keep the momentum going into the 2018 Olympics.

Rational Favorite: Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim

This is the one event where my sentimental and rational favorites line up. This team had a superb fall and should have a big confidence boost from qualifying for the Grand Prix Final (the first U.S. pair to qualify since 2007), even though they had a rough outing at the event. They are the most experienced in the lineup and will use that to their advantage.

Ladies

Sentimental Favorite: Ashley Wagner

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Image Source: skatecanada.ca

Ashley’s my girl and I want to see her take a fourth title. It would be such an accomplishment and testament to her drive to continually improve. I also think it would be great for American ladies skating to have some consistency at the top.

Rational Favorite: Whoever’s Brain Doesn’t Get In the Way

It’s either Gold or Wagner’s game and honestly, I can’t choose here. It will be whoever is able to turn their brain off and just skate. In an ideal world, they’d both skate great, the chips would fall where they may, and they’d both go off to Worlds poised for a good showing. That’s what U.S. ladies skating needs, and man, I hope we get it.

Less than 24 hours until senior short programs kick off. Happy viewing, everybody!