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Vincent Zhou Interview: Figure Skaters Online

It’s almost time…U.S. Nationals starts next week! The competition is earlier than usual this year, since the Olympics kick off on Feb. 8. In the remaining days before the competition begins in San Jose, the stars of U.S. skating sat down for interview calls with the media, and I got to participate in a few of them with Figure Skaters Online.

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Image Source: Figure Skaters Online

Here’s an excerpt from my story on Vincent Zhou, defending silver medalist in the men’s event:

Vincent Zhou was riding high at the end of last season. The 2017 U.S. silver medalist and World Junior Champion, 16-year-old Zhou was turning heads with his arsenal of quad jumps and sparking talk of an Olympic berth.

But that momentum didn’t quite carry over into his first full senior season. His Grand Prix showings were inconsistent, with a fourth place at Cup of China followed by a ninth place finish at Internationaux de France. He was second in the free skate in China, climbing back from eighth place after the short. But overall, it wasn’t the strong, consistent Zhou we saw at the end of last season.

“We didn’t obsess over what went wrong, because that can lead to negativity and lots of stress,” Zhou said in a U.S. Figure Skating media call on Dec. 27. “We just discussed with a clear mind changes to make based on how I was feeling. We realized we were pushing too hard.”

Read the rest of the article on Figure Skaters Online to hear how Zhou has adjusted his training going into Nationals and his goals for the competition:

After an inconsistent Grand Prix campaign, Vincent Zhou retools training for Nationals

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My Picks for the 2018 U.S. Olympic Team: Men

It’s been on all U.S. skating fans’ minds this whole season: Who will qualify for the U.S. Olympic Team? With only one event left for skaters to prove their mettle (U.S. Nationals in San Jose at the end of the month), I thought it might be fun to share my picks in each of the disciplines. Here is the criteria that U.S. Figure Skating is using to pick the teams, shared from Olympic sports reporter Phil Hersh’s Twitter account:

Screen Shot 2017-12-16 at 6.40.37 PM

An important distinction to note, which began with World Team selection in 2017, is that the U.S. Champion is no longer guaranteed a berth to the Olympics or Worlds.

I had initially intended to put all four disciplines in one post, but after writing more than 600 words on the men alone, I decided to split it into more than one post. Here’s who I’d send to Pyeongchang to compete for the U.S. men, if I were the one-woman selection committee:

  1. Nathan Chen
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    Image Source: Figure Skaters Online

    Nathan will likely defend his U.S. title and become the 2018 U.S. Champion. While that doesn’t guarantee him an Olympic berth, as it did for champions in previous years, it will check all the boxes in tier 1: 2018 U.S. champ, 2017 Grand Prix Final champion, top six at 2017 Worlds. He has three gold medals for tier 2 (two on the 2017 Grand Prix Series and the 2017 Four Continents Championship), plus his 2017 national title for tier 3. There is no way he won’t go.

  2. Adam Rippon
    Figure Skating - ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating NHK Trophy - Men's Free Skating

    Image Source: Japan Times

    Adam would have been my sentimental favorite for the Olympic team no matter how his fall campaign went, but he came back from his broken foot with a vengeance and proved that he deserves to go to this Olympic Games. Two silver medals on the Grand Prix and a spot in the Grand Prix Final, with nearly clean, solid performances each time. The quad lutz is still eluding him, but how great would it be if he pulled it off at Nationals? He checks boxes in tiers 1 and 2, plus a bronze from Finlandia Trophy for tier 3. Adam has earned his spot with calm, consistent skating, not to mention breathtaking performance quality.

  3. Jason Brown

    Jason was the third U.S. man in the Grand Prix Final, and though he made it after an injury withdrawal by Boyang Jin, it still checks off an important tier 1 box, which has the most weight. He also grabbed 7th at World last year, helping the U.S. earn three Olympic spots alongside Nathan Chen. He was lacking some of his usual consistency on the Grand Prix (tier 2), but did earn two medals in the tier 3 Challenger Series this fall. While the consistency issues are a bit unusual for Brown, I still think his steadiness and resume based on this criteria should be enough to punch a ticket to his second Olympics — provided that he medals at Nationals. Anything off the podium at Nationals could be his undoing.

Dark Horse: Max Aaron

Max Aaron

Image Source: Associated Press

If Max Aaron delivers at Nationals and gets on the podium, it will make the selection committee’s decision a bit more complicated. He won the free skate at Cup of China, ahead of Mikhail Kolyada, Boyang Jin, and Javier Fernandez, none of whom were able to deliver their quads that day. Despite the hiccup of a 5th place finish at Rostelecom Cup, he also earned two Challenger Series medals this fall (tier 3). His only chance to check a box in tier 1 will be Nationals, and I’m definitely rooting for him to have a great performance. His skating has made huge strides since his 2013 U.S. title and his last Olympic campaign in 2014 — the spins, basic skating, and presentation have really improved and, if he hits his quads, Max could be a surprise medalists at Nationals.

Tough Call: Vincent Zhou

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Image Source: IceNetwork

Vincent has incredible potential, but really struggled to land his quads and put out solid performances on the Grand Prix this year. It’s good to remember that he’s only 17, and this is his first full senior season. I listened to his interview on Ice Talk, and he was mature, thoughtful, and well-spoken. He’s candid about the mistakes he’s made and his goals of making this Olympic team. It’s a tough one to call, because of the potential he has with the quads, but I think he needs to get some more experience and consistency before taking the Olympic stage. But watch out in 2022.

My ladies picks will be up next! Special shout out to the website Skating Scores for making it really easy to fact check everyone’s placements this season.


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Impressions: 5 Thoughts from Skate America 2017

The Grand Prix series wrapped up this weekend with Skate America — which usually kicks off the series. While I thought the timing was weird at first, it was definitely exciting to close out the series with an event broadcast live and in primetime on NBC here in the U.S. I’ve got five thoughts on five Americans at their home-country competition:

  1. Bradie Tennell! I’ve been watching her since this summer, when I worked on her website for Figure Skaters Online, and am such a fan. I remember watching her at previous Nationals and enjoying her skating, but she has kicked it up a notch this year. Her poise and confidence at this event were excellent. I know some are cautioning against anointing her as the next great American hope after one good performance, but it hasn’t been just one. She has been delivering consistently since July, and built on those successes to deliver two clean performances here, under pressure, and grab the bronze medal. If she continues on this trajectory, I predict big things for Nationals. (And just maybe…the Olympics!)

    Skate America Bronze Medalist

    Bradie with her coach, Denise Myers (left), and choreographer, Scott Brown (right). Photo Courtesy Figure Skaters Online

  2. You can always count on Maia and Alex Shibutani to be prepared and deliver clean, consistent programs. But here at Skate America, they looked even stronger and sharper than their last event, Rostelecom Cup. It particularly stood out to me in their short dance, where they brought such energy while still being precise in their movements and nailing the technical content. They are gunning for that third U.S. title — there is no resting on the laurels of success with these two.
  3. Speaking of no rest…who else loved it when Adam Rippon said that his trip to the Grand Prix Final was his reward for his excellent Skate America performance? His work ethic in this Olympic season — while also coming back from his broken foot — is incredibly impressive. If I were picking the U.S. men’s Olympic team, Adam would be on it, no question. He dislocated his shoulder on his opening quad lutz and gave no thought to giving up. He delivered a clean program from there. Johnny Weir and some of the other commentators have mentioned it, but the way that Adam takes his time and breathes through each element is so refreshing and easy to watch. Some of the guys attempting record-breaking quads look like they are gritting their teeth through these programs, but Adam is performing while nailing his jumps.
  4. It was sad, and somewhat shocking, to see Adam’s BFF Ashley Wagner withdraw mid-long program. People from the Twitterverse to commentator Johnny Weir were chattering about the timing of the withdrawal (should she have done it mid-program? toughed it out? withdrew after the warmup?) to the severity of the injury. Whatever you think, it was tough to watch someone who is so synonymous with being a fighter end a competition like that. In the last Olympic cycle, Ashley made her case for the Olympic team with her international successes in the fall, then faltered at Nationals. This time around, she has given herself no choice but to rise to the occasion at Nationals, after low scores at Skate Canada (even though she ended up with the bronze) and withdrawing here, plus some struggles internationally at the end of last season. Before she withdrew from the competition, her focus in comments to the media was on getting enough training time before Nationals, so even if she pulled out a win here and qualified for the Grand Prix Final, it seems unlikely that she would have gone. Hopefully she can buckle down and get the training and preparation in before heading to San Jose for Nationals at the end of December.
  5. The throw jumps by Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim are absolutely breath-taking, in the long program especially. They are timed perfectly with the music, she lands them with such strength and excellent posture, and he throws in a nice little flourish with his arms on the landing as well. Yes, they are still struggling with the side-by-side jumps, but they are maxing out points in their strength areas, like these throws and their huge triple twist.
  6. Ok, I have to do a bonus #6, on a non-American. Can’t help myself. How lovely was Satoko Miyahara? I loved her a few seasons ago and honestly, all her injuries and time away from the ice made her slip from my radar. Her subpar showing at NHK Trophy didn’t help, but, wow, was she great here. She skated with such emotion and heart, and her in-between skating is just stunning. I know her jumps aren’t the highest, but the way she puts together the full package of jumps, spins, and choreography is so appealing. Much like Ashley Wagner, she is a mature skater and genuine performer, which I’ll take over a jumping bean any day.

Between now and the Grand Prix Final (which is Dec. 7-10 in Nagoya, Japan), I’m going to take a look at some of my favorite elements (spins, lifts, etc.) in programs this season!


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Impressions: Cup of China 2017 and Backloading Programs

I have a lot to say about Alina Zagitiva’s victory in the ladies event at the 2017 Cup of China, and I’ll go from trivial to serious. Firstly, those tights:

Alina Zagitova

Image Source: The Daily Mail

Either go fully over the boot, or just wear regular tights. Please. This in-between look is messy and distracting.

Another distracting thing? How ridiculously backloaded her long program was. I actually got bored watching the first two minutes, waiting for jumps. Then I checked the time in disbelief, because I couldn’t imagine that she did two minutes without jumps. But she did, which made the second half a jumble of skating from jump to jump, without any transitions or interesting movements. I was watching on YouTube without commentary, though I noticed in watching later on NBC that commentator Tara Lipinski pointed it out at the start of the program and said she liked the buildup. I’m on the opposite side of the spectrum.

One of the requirements of the program components mark is proportion in choreography and composition of the program. How does a program like this fit that criteria? With this judging panel, her scores ranged from 8-9.25 in composition. That’s out of 10. And that’s absolutely ridiculous. Beyond that, you need to have the skating skills of someone with the last name Kwan, Cohen, or Kostner to keep my attention for two minutes without jumps.

Proportion requires a balanced program. That means she needs to jump in the first half, no question. I understand putting a majority of jumps in the second half to take advantage of the bonus points, and they are deserved bonus points in most cases. However, the component marks in the composition category should not have been as high as they were. Sure, give her the bonus on the jumps and contribute to her overall TES score of 76.09, but the imbalance needs to be reflected in the components score.

The ISU is considering all sorts of crazy rule changes, and Claire Cloutier of A Divine Sport did an excellent analysis that I highly recommend reading. The changes range from reducing the length of free skates for men and pairs to creating separate artistic and technical programs. They all seem unnecessary and unfounded, and Claire does a great job of explaining why. I’d rather see proposed rule changes that confront issues like this backloading problem, or the fact that people will purposefully rotate and fall on a quad over a clean triple jump, because it gets them more points (More on that from the great Jackie Wong of Rocker Skating). Or maybe the ISU could spend less time on rule changes and more time educating judges and making sure they are handing out marks that reflect the requirements.

The one redeeming quality of Zagitova’s program for me? She included a Charlotte spiral, one of my favorite moves to watch and to do. Here’s the original, performed by Charlotte Oelschlegel, after whom the spiral is named.

charlotte

Image Source: AHistoryBlog.com

Thoughts? Anybody love the backloaded approach and care to share a counterargument?


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Impressions: 5 Thoughts on Skate Canada 2017

Did anybody stay up to watch the Skate Canada broadcast on NBC Sports from 11:30 pm – 1 am on Sunday night/Monday morning?

No?

Perhaps because it was basically the middle of the night? Sigh.

Here are my five thoughts from Skate Canada 2017, starting with my tv schedule woes:

      1. I know most diehard fans are watching a live stream on IceNetwork, or following along on Twitter with the exceptional live-tweeting of Rocker Skating’s Jackie Wong. But I like catching the NBC broadcast of Grand Prix events on Sunday morning/early afternoon, and most casual skating viewers are going to watch at that time — rather than late at night. It is a bummer that a sport already struggling with the American audience is relegated to such a bad broadcast time. Get it in on Sunday before football starts, and I think you might have more viewers.
      2. Poor Anna Pogorilaya of Russia had another cringe-worthy performance, full of wild, body-crushing falls. It makes me wonder about how solid her technique is, that this keeps happening [it is at least the third time, with the 2017 Worlds long program and the short at 2015 NHK Trophy being two other noteworthy instances]. I’ve taken more than a few horrible, un-graceful falls in my day, but this is too much for someone at her level. The Skating Lesson even suggested that some of it may be dramatics, once she realizes that the program is going downhill. Whatever it is, it is harming her chances of getting one of the three Russian spots for the Olympic team. It’s too bad, because, in the short program at this event, it looked like she came out swinging and ready to make a comeback. She nailed a clean program, and I especially liked the steps into her triple loop:
      3. I am a HUGE fan of Kaitlin Hawayak and Jean-Luc Baker of the U.S. Their “Liebestraum” free dance is stunning, and I was thrilled that they kept the program for this year, after some sub-par outings at the end of last season. I also liked that they chose fun, popular music for the Latin short dance — I haven’t noticed too much current pop music among the top teams this year [except for the French dance team’s FAB short dance, of course]. That said, “Get Busy” by Sean Paul would not have been my choice.

        The lyrics are a little much for a competition program, and then when they slowed down the tempo for the pattern? I liked it even less. Which is hard because I like them so much — how cute was it that she told him “Good job!” so enthusiastically in the kiss and cry? I definitely prefer the free dance with them this year, because it so lyrical and heartfelt. This program, in addition to the iffy song choice, seemed a little bit like a Meryl Davis and Charlie White impression. I suppose if you’re going to imitate anyone, that’s a good choice. But this is what it reminded me of:
      4. Canada’s Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir grabbed another world record, despite a bobble in the free dance (that a lot of people apparently ignored, according to The Skating Protocol Instagram account). They look happy and relaxed, Tessa especially, when they are performing. They are unmatched in the seamless flow of their elements — there is no telegraphing that an element or pattern is coming up. It is all just pure skating. The short dance is fantastic (though I could do without the mouthing of the lyrics. Ashley Wagner did that in her short as well, and it’s just not my favorite when skaters do that. This isn’t Disney on Ice!). I’m not a huge fan of the free dance, only because Virtue and Moir are known for their originality, and “Moulin Rouge!” feels like it has been done so many times before. There was definite improvement since their first competition at Autumn Classic, so maybe I’ll be singing a different tune by the time the Olympics roll around.
      5. Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue are my vote for the U.S. national dance title this year. They are skating with incredible control — which is a good thing, after some really poorly timed mistakes kept them from moving up on the U.S. podium last year and making the World podium. The opening of their free dance is mesmerizing. Not only are they on point in their timing with the music, but they also uses the pauses in the music really effectively. It’s rare to have a pause in music in skating at all. I also think this program feels very genuine, especially compared to Virtue and Moir’s free dance. As a viewer, I tend to gravitate towards music I’m already familiar with, as I’m sure many of us do. So it’s interesting to me that even though I know Virtue and Moir’s music, and have never run across Hubbell and Donohue’s, that’s the one I connect with more. It feels less like a put-on performance and more like pure dancing. See for yourself:


Next up: Cup of China!

P.S. Apologies if the numbers are showing as roman numerals…I intended for regular old numbers, but lost a battle with WordPress code.


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5 Thoughts On Rostelecom Cup 2017

I’ve got five thoughts to share on Rostelecom Cup 2017, and they all have to do with music, or musicality. I realized the common thread as I was jotting down my notes after watching the NBC recap show on Sunday afternoon. Some people’s perfect fall Sunday involves a hike or an apple orchard, but mine includes an afternoon of skating narrated by Terry, Tara, and Johnny. At least I had a nice cup of tea and my pumpkin-scented candle burning, to set the seasonal mood.

    1. I love Mariah Bell of the U.S., but I don’t love her “West Side Story” program. I got my hopes up when she teased “Beauty and the Beast” for this season on Instagram last spring, because I love that music and character — and hello, gorgeous yellow dress potential. I think it would have fit her style so nicely. So when Mariah came out with this “West Side Story” number this year, I was already disappointed, before even seeing the program. After a few outings with it, she’s still not hitting the notes of the music with her movements, whether it’s those famous snaps or even just the right beats during her footwork sequence. Mark Hanretty, one of my favorite commentators, made the same point in the British Eurosport broadcast:

      I’ll just be over here in the corner, hoping she brings back last year’s “East of Eden” long, which brought me to tears when I saw it live at Skate America. And if you think Mark Hanretty is as awesome as I do, check out his guest spot on the Ice Talk podcast last year.
    2. Not to pile on Team Raf (the group that trains with Rafael Arutyunyan in southern California), but U.S. all-star Nathan Chen is also slightly off the music with his movements, especially in the intense middle section of his long program. I really like this section, and the footwork, so I hope he tightens it up. Maybe time for a visit to Marina Zoueva, who he worked with on choreography last season? Or, someone devoted entirely to choreography in the Arutyunyan camp?
    3. Julianne Seguin and Charlie Bilodeau of Canada are two of my favorites in the pairs field. They have such a pleasant, joyful energy about their skating, and are working their way back after two injury-ridden seasons. The music change at about the 3-minute mark in their long program is very effective — it happened juuust as the repetitiveness of the song was making me want to zone out. I also kind of loved how the lift coordinated with the words (“she was carried up into the clouds”), but I know not everyone appreciates that level of cute/corny.
    4. Carolina Kostner of Italy is just a delight to watch. I wanted her to get that early triple-triple combo! The dress is a lovely color and a super weird cut, but it is all overshadowed by the pure joy on her face. There has been plenty of criticism/bemoaning of her watered-down technical content, but I’m hoping that she is ramping up and getting her feet back under her with a plan to do more as the season goes on. Honestly, I’d take this kind of performance over one where the skater guts out 7-8 triples without any artistic expression. Which is, of course, why we have the program components mark, and why I think it is a bit of a travesty that she received almost three points less than winner Evgenia Medvedeva of Russia on that front. Evgenia is a beautiful skater and commits to both the artistic and athletic aspects of the performance, but there is a genuineness and honesty missing from her programs that is in Carolina’s.
    5. And a general note on the ice dance field, where music is arguably the most important: I wish NBC would broadcast more of the dance events. I understand for Rostelecom, that there weren’t names that would be as recognizable to the casual skating fan, but later in the season I hope to see more than just the winning free dance. I’m still mulling over the Shibutanis’ new Coldplay free dance, to “Paradise.” I was caught off guard by the interjection of one lyric from “Fix You” in this cut of the free dance — an interesting nod to their past? Trying too hard? I need to mull this over more. I thought “Fix You” was a complete masterpiece, and [nerd confession alert] probably watch it on YouTube every few months and cry every time. Share your thoughts in the comments if you’d like!