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Worlds 2017 Postmortem for Team USA

If you look at 2017 Worlds purely from a medal count or placement perspective, Team USA had a pretty rough outing in Helsinki.

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Image Source: helsinski2017.com

  • Ashley Wagner, usually so reliable on a major stage, skated as poorly as she did in the long program at U.S. Nationals in 2014, without her usual fight and verve.
  • All eyes were on Nathan Chen to get to the podium—many people, including me, had him pegged for the top spot—but boot problems thwarted him and his quads were not nearly as consistent as usual. (Stay tuned for a post with my thoughts on the boot problems that plagued both Americans with the last name Chen this season, because I have strong feelings.)
  • With U.S. Champions Haven Denny and Brandon Frazier not qualifying for the free skate, Team USA only earned one Olympic spot for pairs.
  • And Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue were en route to a medal before disaster struck on their twizzle sequence.

I could go on, but it has already gotten a little too depressing, huh? There is plenty of dejection out there right now, as well as some doomsday predictions for U.S. prospects at the 2018 Olympics. So I’m going to interject some positivity into the skating interwebz today, because there were some encouraging bright spots for Team USA at Worlds this year:

  • Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim’s comeback was inspiring. Despite her surgeries and the fact that it was only their second event of the season, they still earned the top scores by a U.S. pair this year. They are the best pair that the U.S has had in years, and I hope they can grab back on to the momentum that they had going before her stomach issues.

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    Image Source: mercurynews.com

  • I had my doubts about Karen Chen at this event after her dismal showing at Four Continents, but she held her own and proved me, and a lot of other people, wrong. She gave two steady performances that were absolutely essential to the U.S. maintaining three spots in the ladies’ event for the Olympics.

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    Image Source: Newsday

  • I know all the talk about Jason Brown is that he still doesn’t have that quad consistent, but the numbers he is putting up without quads are huge. His free skate total at 2016 Skate America (with a quad deemed underrotated) earned 182.63 points, and is the 7th highest score this season, behind the six guys who have multiple quads in their long programs. And it is 15 points higher than the 167.37-scoring long program that won Evan Lysacek the 2010 Olympic Gold Medal without a quad [It should be noted that there have been rule changes since 2010, and that it’s not an exact comparison, but it does speak to how well Brown maximizes every point possible in terms of grade of execution and difficulty of spins and footwork.].

  • I thought Ashley Wagner’s spins (always a spot where she leaves points on the table) significantly improved for this event. The ISU rules for 2016 state that each spin position needs at least three revolutions to count, and every time she did a position with only two revolutions, I would just cringe. Unfortunately, this bright spot is one that I saw but the judges apparently missed—in comparing her free skate scores from U.S. Nationals and Worlds, I expected the spin points to be significantly improved at Worlds, but was I ever wrong. She actually earned a few tenths of a point lower on her first two spins, and the exact same points (3.36 to be exact) on her final combo spin.

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    Image Source: USA Today

  • But by far the brightest and, I think most admirable, display by Team USA at Worlds was their sportsmanship and team spirit. Wagner was candid and gracious about how Chen’s performance locked in three spots for the women’s team at the Olympics next year, and Chen was gracious in return. Check out their Twitter exchange:
    SportsmanshipAnd Brown posted a celebratory video with Nathan Chen after they cemented three spots for the men with their 7th and 6th place performances, respectively:

 

Skating can be known for cattiness and rivalries, from Tonya vs. Nancy to this little gem from 2008, starring Johnny Weir and Evan Lysacek:

As humorous and ridiculous as that clip is—and as much as I’m sure the NBC producers loved playing up that rivalry for ratings—I’m happy that this current generation is the type to support their fellow Team USA skaters, rather than take them down. Not only because I’m a fan of positivity (hello, this post), but because it will create a stronger Team USA down the road. With team events like World Team Trophy (WTT) and the Olympic team event growing in popularity and importance, they need to cultivate a team atmosphere a la gymnastics or swimming relays to be successful.

And if nothing else, it will help them have the most enthusiastic and spirited cheering section at WWT later this week!


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2017 Worlds Predictions: Ladies

Alright, Worlds officially begins tomorrow (yay!) and it’s time to make my last round of predictions: the ladies.

Sentimental:
Gold – Carolina Kostner, Italy
Silver – Ashley Wagner, USA
Bronze – Evgenia Medvedeva, Russia
Bonus: Canadian Kaetlyn Osmond in 4th and American Mariah Bell in the top 8 (to guarantee three Olympic spots for the U.S. women)

My sentimental predictions are really out there, and most likely impossible, I’d say. Carolina is on the comeback trail, and while she has made steady progress, her technical content doesn’t quite measure up to the top ladies yet. But I just love watching her skate, and the fact that she has made a comeback after her controversial ban. I’m all about the skaters here for the love of the game. Like my girl Ashley Wagner, who I would love to repeat as World silver medalist.

I think she has a great shot at the podium (both my sentimental and rational one), because she is such a fierce competitor and wants to prove that last year’s medal wasn’t a fluke. The withdrawal of Satoko Miyahara of Japan also helps, as unfortunate as that may be.

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Image Source: icenetwork.com

Rational:
Gold – Evgenia Medvedeva, Russia
Silver – Anna Pogorilaya, Russia
Bronze – Ashley Wagner, USA

Medvedeva is so ridiculously consistent that I’d be crazy to have her off of either of my podiums. If she doesn’t win this event, it will be because she had to withdraw. She’s only lost once in her senior career, after all, and it wasn’t to anyone in this field (it was to fellow Russian Elena Radionova at the 2015 Rostelecom Cup). Russian teammate Anna Pogorilaya has had such a consistent season that I think she will land on the podium as well.

My bonus sentimental picks for Osmond in 4th and Bell in the top 8 are because those two ladies are some of my personal favorites – I love the spunk and flair in their skating, and will cross fingers that the jumps are reliable in Helsinki. A top 8 finish by Bell and a medal from Wagner would ensure three spots at the Olympics for the American women. Bell and U.S. champion Karen Chen both said in their pre-Worlds teleconferences (you can listen under the Video tab on IceNetwork) that they aren’t thinking about it, and that skating their best should be enough to lock it up for the U.S. I think it’s safe to say that even if those two allegedly aren’t thinking about it, it is at the forefront of every fan and journalist’s mind at this point, on both the ladies’ and men’s side for the U.S. men.

I’ll be crossing my fingers and watching the live streams. Let the fun begin!


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2017 Worlds Predictions: Pairs

Of the four skating disciplines, pairs tends to be the one that I don’t follow as closely. I certainly know less about it – despite my childhood dreams of being a #pairgirl because of how fun the throws looked. Not only was there a shortage of male skaters at my rink, but I was also too tall by the time I was approximately 10. Hat’s off to the brave pair ladies in this discipline.

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Image Source: icenetwork.com

In listening to the awesome episodes of the Ice Talk podcast with Nick McCarvel and Jackie Wong on Ice Network, I’ve not only learned more about pairs this year, but loved hearing firsthand from some of the teams, in particular, France’s Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres and Canada’s Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford. You should check out their episodes if you haven’t already!

I have less of a blind loyalty/emotional attachment to any of the pairs as compared to other disciplines, but that doesn’t mean I still don’t have strong opinions about it. So here goes:

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Image Source: vancouversun.com

Sentimental:
Gold – Meagan Duhamel/Eric Radford, Canada
Silver – Wenjing Sui/Cong Han, China
Bronze – Vanessa James/Morgan Cipres, France
Bonus: Julianne Seguin/Charlie Bilodeau of Canada and Americans Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim in the top 6

Rational:
Gold –Wenjing Sui/Cong Han, China
Silver –Meagan Duhamel/Eric Radford, Canada
Bronze – Evgenia Tarasova/Valdimir Morozov, Russian

I’ve loved Duhamel and Radford since Sochi – when they skate with true ease and joy, it is completely infectious. It would make my sappy little heart so happy for them to win a third World title after an up-and-down season. Sui and Han were beautiful at Four Continents, especially considering it was their first competition of the year and a comeback after injury for Sui. That performance was so solid that I think they are likely to take the title, and the Russian team is riding a wave of success after victories at the Grand Prix Final and Europeans.

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Image Source: goldenskate.com

My bonus sentimental predictions are for two teams whose style and attitude I love. The Canadians skate with a lightness that is a pleasure to watch, and I’d love to see them succeed. The married Knierims are coming back from a terrible injury to Alexa, and yet still posted the highest scores of a U.S. pair this year in their comeback outing at Four Continents. I think the odds are good that they skate well, and it would be well-deserved after all they have been through.

Last but not least, my ladies predictions are up next!


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2017 Worlds Predictions: Men

Sometimes I let my personal favorites get in the way of all logic and reason when it comes to figure skating. So I’m predicting the 2017 Worlds results in two sets: sentimental vs. rational. See the full explanation in my initial post with ice dance predictions.

The men’s event is full of skaters tossing off quads left and right. It’s going to be awesome. I’ll never forget watching the final warmup group, live at Worlds in Boston last year, and being completely blown away by quad after quad, and the incredible quality of the jumps. If you’re going to be in Helsinki this year, I’m both super jealous and thrilled for you. Here are my thoughts on this quad festival:

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Image Source: justjaredjr.com

Sentimental:
Gold – Javier Fernandez, Spain
Silver – Nathan Chen, USA
Bronze – Yuzuru Hanyu, Japan

Last year at Worlds, Javier Fernandez held the audience in the palm of his hand during the long program. Stellar jumps, all delivered with this pizzaz and ease that made it seem like he was doing an exhibition program. I loved it, I love him, and I want him to get his third World title this week. I also have so much admiration for Nathan Chen’s poise under pressure and commitment to pushing himself. I’ve got him in second in my sentimental picks because of my love for Javi, but let’s be honest…I bet he will run away with this title. He’s been riding some excellent momentum since the Grand Prix Final and just seems to do better with each outing. And as Phil Hersh pointed out in his IceNetwork preview, Fernandez’ quad content doesn’t quite measure up to some of the other top guys. So my rational podium has two Japanese men, Yuzuru Hanyu and Shoma Uno. And not just because of their stellar quads; these guys have the whole package.

Rational:
Gold – Nathan Chen, USA
Silver – Yuzuru Hanyu, Japan
Bronze – Shoma Uno, Japan

P.S. It is also Nathan’s first World Championships. When was the last time anyone won in their first try? Let alone the last U.S. man to do that? Google sleuthing didn’t help me out on this one, so if anyone knows, leave it in the comments! We can just call it pulling a Medvedeva in the meantime, since she won 2016 Worlds in her first year at the senior level.


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2017 Worlds Predictions: Ice Dance

It’s almost time for the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships, and I’m going to make some guesses on how the standings will shake out.

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Image Source: helsinki2017.com

I’ve been shying away from doing predictions posts this year, because there are plenty of them out there, and because I sometimes find that my personal biases battle against my analytical knowledge. Which actually makes this a great time to bring back a post format I did prior to the 2016 U.S. Figure Skating Championships: sentimental vs. rational results predictions.

I have so much respect for all the skaters, both in terms of their talent and the rigorous training they put in. But that said, I also have my favorites, and these sentimental picks reflect that. Whereas the rational picks, on the other hand, are based more on how this season has gone so far.

Let’s say, sentimental picks by superfan Maura, rational picks by wannabe journalist Maura. I’ll start with the ice dance event:

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Image Source: justjaredjr.com

Sentimental:
Gold – Maia Shibutani/Alex Shibutani, USA
Silver – Tessa Virtue/Scott Moir, Canada
Bronze – Gabriella Papadakis/Guillaume Cizeron, France

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Image Source: lfpress.com

Rational:
Gold – Tessa Virtue/Scott Moir, Canada
Silver – Maia Shibutani/Alex Shibutani, USA
Bronze – Gabriella Papadakis/Guillaume Cizeron, France

Virtue and Moir have been on a roll in their comeback season, not losing a single event. It’s almost been too easy. I think all reason and logic points to them on the top step of the podium, based on the point margins they have been winning with all season (5 points ahead of the Shibutanis at Four Continents, 11 ahead of Americans Madison Chock and Evan Bates at the same event, 5 points ahead of the French at the Grand Prix Final).

It has been several months since all of those competitions, offering plenty of time for the other teams to improve, and we all know ice is slippery and anything can happen on a given day. I think a little adversity will make Virtue and Moir hungrier and even more motivated, hence my sentimental pick of the Shib Sibs in first.

I just LOVE their short dance (To me, it is the most cohesive, in terms of theme and hip hop movement, of all the teams). On the rational side, I think that will land them in second overall, because their programs are stronger than the French team’s this season. Papadakis and Cizeron are fighters, who stormed back from third place in the short dance to win Europeans, so I think they will still land on the podium this year.

Bonus non-podium prediction that has both some sentimentality and logic in it: American Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue jump to fourth place. They have made such great strides in the past two years, and their free dance is so beautiful. That moment in the dance spin when the grasp hands? I legitimately said “AWWW” aloud when I saw it live at Skate America this fall.

I’ll be back with ladies, men, and pairs predictions before the competition gets going on Wednesday!


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Nationals Hype and The Next Competition

 

Jackie Wong of Rocker Skating wrote a great post about how Four Continents is used in the selection process for the U.S. World team—and how it’s pretty complicated. Between reading his insightful post, and then watching some performances at Four Continents that paled in comparison to Nationals, I’ve been thinking a lot about “nationals hype.”

Excitement after a great U.S. Championships performance is certainly appropriate and deserved, but sometimes I think we can go overboard, christening a skater as the next big thing before they’ve had a chance to really prove themselves. The competition that follows Nationals should carry more weight for world team selection.

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Vincent Zhou; Image Source: Ice Network

Amidst all the well-deserved excitement over Nathan Chen’s historic five-quad performance, Vincent Zhou also made a splash at U.S. Nationals, with some quads of his own and the silver medal. It  was a bit of a surprise, after a rough Junior Grand Prix series and an injury in the fall.

But he followed it with a win at the 2017 Bavarian Open, and his program included a gorgeous quad lutz. By all appearances, Zhou was able to harness that momentum and use it for his next competition.

Context is important here, of course. He was at a much smaller event (note the empty stands in the video), partially because he still needed to get the minimum technical score to be eligible for senior worlds (he is the first alternate). Next up for Zhou is the World Junior Championships, which is on a much larger stage, so we’ll see how he fares.

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Karen Chen; Image Source: USA Today

On the flip side, we have Karen Chen, who followed up two glorious performances at Nationals with a 12th place showing at Four Continents. She didn’t even get a mention in the Ice Network article about the competition; the U.S. Ladies Champion, completely out of the conversation at her next event.

Now, I understand that everyone has bad days on the ice. Maybe what happened to Chen this week at Four Continents was an anomaly. Maybe she’ll go out at Worlds, blow us all away and help earn three spots for the U.S. ladies at the Olympics. But based on a recent Instagram post, it looks like the injury and boot problems that plagued her throughout 2016 might be back. It sort of begs the question of whether fans, judges, everyone got a little too excited after Chen’s win in Kansas City.

Unlike Zhou, she wasn’t able to translate her Nationals success into an impressive showing on the international stage. Besides her 2017 title and a bronze at the 2015 U.S. Nationals, Chen hasn’t risen to the occasion in international events.

After Nationals, I wrote about how mentally tough I thought the U.S. ladies are, and that I had high hopes for Worlds. After this event, I have to say that I’m a little more nervous than hopeful.

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Mai Mihara; Image Source: NBC Sports

Especially since Mai Mihara grabbed the gold at Four Continents. She looked like a sweet, consistent junior skater when I saw her at Skate America this fall, but this win proves that she is going to be another force to be reckoned with on the world stage.

The inflation of scores at national championship events is oft-discussed and oft-maligned among skating fans, but this goes beyond numbers to me. Chen was heralded as a contender for worlds, based on one event. Zhou, on the other hand, was seen as somebody who had a good day, but needed more room to grow, passed over for the more experienced Jason Brown on the world team. [Note: I think Brown was the right choice for the world team, I’m just pointing out the discrepancy.]

I think we ought to reserve judgment until a Zhou-like outing, where a skater proves that an electric Nationals performance wasn’t a one-time thing. Success at U.S. Nationals, or any country’s national championships for that matter, does not always translate in higher pressure, primetime events.

There’s lots of talk out there on the internet that maybe Karen Chen or Mariah Bell should be removed from the world team, after their subpar Four Continents performances, in comparison to their U.S. teammate Mirai Nagasu’s career-best long program and bronze medal.

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 Mirai Nagasu on the podium at Four Continents;  Image Source: Mercury News

It is certainly a valid discussion as the “body of work” criteria becomes more important and prevalent in the selection process for the world and Olympic teams, as opposed to just placements at Nationals. I’d be in favor of adopting something similar to the Russian system, where skaters have to prove themselves at multiple events to be named to a world or Olympic team—the U.S. is already inching its way in that direction with the new selection criteria.

This way, the U.S. would send skaters who’ve proven themselves over multiple events, in pressured situations, and ideally set themselves up for more success at worlds or the Olympics Games. And the skaters themselves would have multiple opportunities to prove their mettle.

Until then, the U.S. will be sending some “wild card” skaters, with high hopes of earning three Olympics spots, to Helsinki next month.