Twizzle Talk

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The Quad Game, Take 2

After the U.S. Championships and heading into Worlds this year, all the talk was about U.S. skater Jason Brown’s lack of a quad. Chicago Tribune columnist Phillip Hersh was skeptical that Brown could take on the top guys in the world without it. USA Today columnist Christine Brennan thought the US judges were inflating their scores too much and setting their skaters up for failure on the world stage. I threw my two cents in and agreed with Brennan, saying it seemed like Brown was over-rewarded at Nationals.

I think it’s safe to say that all three of us were wrong.

Brown took 4th place at Worlds and then set a record at the World Team Trophy, earning the highest-ever international score by a U.S. man. All without that oft-talked about quad. How does he do it? Attention to detail.

He racks up the points in the International Judging System (IJS) with intricate transitions and jump entrances, as well as difficult spin positions that he is able to perform at incredible speeds. And the jumps he does do are usually clean; no under rotations or scratchy landings, which usually earns him positive grades of execution on plenty of elements. All those points add up, sometimes more so than one 13-point quad will. Especially against guys who get rattled after missing a quad and skate poorly through the rest of the program. Brown’s adeptness at collecting points reminds me of his fellow Chicagoan, Evan Lysacek. Lysacek was able to work the point system so well that he leapt from 10th after the short to 4th overall at the 2006 Olympics and won the gold medal at the 2010 Games ahead of Evegni Plushenko’s quads.

Figure skater Jason Brown performs at the 2015 World Team Trophy

Brown performs his long program at the 2015 World Team Trophy. Image Source:

Brennan’s argument that Brown’s Nationals scores were inflated is not entirely without merit. The 30-point difference is significant, but all U.S. Nationals scores are inflated compared to international scores. In international competition, seven judges’ marks count towards the score; nine judges are used at U.S. events. Combine that with a bit of the inflation Brennan was talking about, and I think it’s easy to account for those 30 points.

The IJS definitely has its quirks and weaknesses (I have enough thoughts on this for a whole other post), but those who study it and work it like Brown does are the ones that will have the most success. And despite the shortcomings of the IJS, it is great how the system encourages skaters to use unique entrances and transitions throughout their programs. Yuzuru Hanyu’s triple axel entrance from his short program at the 2014 Olympics and Evan Lysacek’s 2006 Olympic long program are two of my favorite examples of these types of innovative transitions.

This isn’t to say that Brown won’t need the quad eventually. His best-ever score by a U.S. man ranks 31st all-time in the IJS, behind the likes of quad kings Javier Fernandez of Spain, Patrick Chan of Canada, and Japanese Olympic Champion Yuzuru Hanyu. But if Brown can do all this without the quad, imagine the numbers once he has it in his arsenal.

The quad game is definitely ongoing, and we might have spoken a bit too soon in writing off Brown’s international chances. Here’s hoping he masters the quad over the summer, but even if he doesn’t, I think we’ve learned it’s not wise to count Brown out.

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Kiss and Cry and Analyze

The Kiss and Cry is an aspect of figure skating that most non-fans just don’t understand:

What’s with the fluffy name? That’s where they get their scores? Why does that bench look so weird?

Weird or not, it is tradition for skaters to receive their scores in the Kiss and Cry. Which makes this unique area the site of both the most jubilant celebrations and the worst disappointments, a spot where emotions are often running high in a pressure-packed event.

So naturally, spectators and diehard fans analyze Kiss and Cry moments. I loved watching Michelle Kwan do the same hand signal in the Kiss and Cry for her entire career, personally acknowledging somebody important in her life. Some people love watching the drama and the tears that often unfold in the Kiss and Cry. Others read into hugs and hand holding by pairs and dance teams as they wait for their scores, trying to decipher if they are romantically linked off the ice.

Lately, some people out there on the internet have been dissecting Gracie Gold’s Kiss and Cry reactions this year, which has been a bit of an up-and-down season for her. Some commenters think that she is too flippant and relaxed after poor skates, while others find it refreshing that she remains composed even when things don’t go her way. Whichever side you fall on, I say it is PR genius.

Check her out at U.S. Nationals:

Doesn’t look like the face of a skater who had just faltered and failed to defend her title.

And post-Four Continents free skate, which was what the commenters in the link above were discussing:

Doesn’t look like someone who was expected to win and then finished off the podium.

This playfulness in the Kiss and Cry makes the audience forget the bobbles and mistakes in her program (at least for a little while). Her young fans are more likely to remember that she loves Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups just like they do, rather than the popped double toe loops in that performance.

By showing her personality in the Kiss and Cry, Gracie is reminding the audience that she is not some sort of figure skating robot. There is a real person behind the hair and the makeup and the sequins, which I think can sometimes be forgotten or overlooked, like these athletes are some kind of skater Barbie dolls.

Whether this is an intentional strategy or not, and whatever emotions Gracie is actually feeling in the Kiss and Cry, I think her approach works. Better to be known as the goofy Kiss and Cry skater than someone who pouts or throws fits.

All that said, I have to say that my favorite Gracie Gold Kiss and Cry moment of the year was less about her than about her coach Frank Carroll. Check out this gem from after the short program at 2014 Skate America:

Gotta love when Frank Carroll breaks his serious face in the Kiss and Cry. So rare, and so fantastic.

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Top 5 Standing Ovation-Worthy Moments at the U.S. Championships

I’ve typed much of my own analysis and musings of many moments at the 2015 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, but I think I’ll let these Top 5 Standing Ovation-Worthy Moments speak for themselves. The roar of the crowd at the end of each of these programs tells the story.

1. Ashley Wagner’s stunning and gutsy long program—her best ever:

2. Maia and Alex Shibutani not only got a standing ovation at the end of the free dance, but their mesmerizing twizzle sequence also got lots of applause from the crowd:

3. Jason Brown brought the crowd to its feet in both the short and long programs with his outstanding performance skills:

4. And the same goes for Adam Rippon, who thrilled the crowd in both segments of the men’s competition:

5. Madison Chock and Evan Bates’ gold medal-wining free dance had a powerful, emotional ending:

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Top 5 Surprise Moments from the U.S. Championships

We had the “wow moments” and the tearjerkers at Nationals this year, and I think there were also a few surprises. Check out my top 5:

1. The return of Joshua Farris

I ruled him out based on his recent ankle injury and a rough showing at NHK Trophy, but man, was that a mistake. And I’m glad it was, because he is my favorite of all the men’s skaters on the scene right now. Not only does he have the jumps, but his spins, footwork, and artistry are superb. His jump entrances are also unique (and difficult). Watch his footwork sequence get a huge reaction from the crowd in his Nationals long program (which is rare in a piece as somber and quiet as Farris’ Schindler’s List long program):

The best part about his skating is that he looks so natural on the ice, as if nothing is forced. Johnny Weir pointed out in that video that Farris is a natural artist, and I couldn’t agree more. Hopefully he makes a strong showing at Worlds! I think it is entirely possible, because Farris was one double toe loop away from winning the title at Nationals. He did three double toes in combination, which is against the rules and resulted in him not earning any points for his triple lutz-double toe combination. The 7 or so points that combo would have given him would have been enough for the title. A rough lesson to learn, but one that will not be forgotten any time soon and will serve him well in the future.

2. And as a bonus surprise, Farris is also a fantastic guitar player and singer. Thanks to NBC for revealing this hidden talent:

3. Mariah Bell in 6th place for the ladies was another pleasant surprise.

I loved her when I first saw her perform live in Boston last year and was thrilled to see her put out two solid performances this year. I bet she will grow a lot before next season and hopefully get some Grand Prix assignments. I think she flies a little too far under everyone’s radar–she skates with beautiful ease and pizzazz. Watch her short program performance and just try not to smile (really, you can’t not grin while watching this):

4. Tarah Kayne and Daniel O’Shea’s bronze medal in the pairs event

She had surgery on her right hip in July, and the commentators during the event mentioned that the pair hadn’t resumed full-time training until about a month prior to Nationals. It certainly didn’t show in their long program, and the emotion was palpable as they hit nearly all of their elements:

Quite the impressive showing for last year’s Four Continents silver medalists, and they will head to that event again this year.

5. There was some buzz surrounding 15-year-old Karen Chen (who is from the same town in California as Olympic Champion Kristi Yamaguchi) coming in to Nationals, but she still blew everyone away with a career-best performance that included six triples and earned the bronze medal. Too young to compete at the World Championships, she will go to the Junior World Championships instead. After withdrawing from Nationals last year with a broken ankle, this was a great moment for her:

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Tearjerker Moments at the U.S. Championships

The U.S. Championships is always an event with high drama and emotion. A lot is at stake for the skaters—spots on the World Championship team, as well as the possibility of international competition assignments for the following year. Amongst all the excitement, pressure, and those “wow” moments, there were a few tearjerker moments as well.

Figure skating is a sport that provides many moments of pure joy, when everything falls in to place and a skater performs at their best. You see it on the grand stage, on TV at the Olympics, but it also happens in cold rinks around the country—when someone lands an axel for the first time, or skates a clean program at a local competition.

Rippon Nationals 15 Kiss & Cry

Image Source:

It happened for Adam Rippon in the senior men’s long program, when he skated his best performance ever—including a fantastic, nearly-clean quad lutz. He was overcome with emotion in the kiss and cry (pictured), and I have to say that I was too, while sitting on my couch at home. I shed a few happy tears along with Adam, and I bet many of the other viewers at home and in the arena did, too.

But there are also the moments that can be heartbreaking, when months and years of training come down to the few minutes of a competition program and, for whatever reason, the skater doesn’t perform well. Mirai Nagasu’s untimely crash into the boards on a back crossover during her long program was one of these moments. She started out so strong, with a triple flip-triple toe-double toe and a double axel-triple toe, and most fans wanted to see her skate well after she missed out on the Olympic team last year. But unfortunately, it wasn’t her night. Mirai finished the program as best she could with what was later diagnosed as a hyperextended knee and bruised cartilage. This situation had many skating fans asking why the “skating gods” couldn’t cut Mirai a break, since she has dealt with a lot of disappointment on the ice lately. But the strength and courage she displayed in finishing her performance–despite all those disappointments–are as impressive as a perfect free skate.

There are also moments where you realize that skating is about much more than the score on the jumbotron or who stands on the podium when all is said and done. The ups and downs of a figure skating career not only have the power to bring us joy or teach us to get up and try again when we fall, but to heal in times of struggle. That was pretty plain at the end of Jeremy Abbott’s performance in the short program, when he looked skyward and raised his arm in a moving tribute to his father, who recently passed away from Parkinson’s disease. Putting blade to ice is one of the best remedies for figure skaters, no matter what the trouble might be.

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From the happy to the difficult to the poignant, skating never fails to move us. Yes, even sometimes to tears.


Top 5 “Wow” Moments at the U.S. Championships

What a week of fantastic skating at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Since I’m pretty sure everybody knows the results by now, I’m going to do some posts on my top moments from the competition. Let’s start with the Top 5 “Wow” Moments—those performances or elements that were, quite literally, jaw-dropping.

1. Adam Rippon’s quad lutz in the long program

It’s the first element of his program in the video below and it absolutely soars:

For a skater that often struggled with consistency and living up to his potential, the rest of his program also qualifies as a wow moment. He blew everyone away with superb technical skills, beautiful spins, and fantastic skating skills en route to the silver medal.

2. Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim’s quad twist in their long program

This year’s newly crowned champions opened with a stunning quad twist. The height and technique are fantastic:

3. Madison Chock and Evan Bates’ opening lift in their free dance

They make it look so easy, but the strength and balance required from both of them in this lift is insane. NBC commentator Tara Lipinski said it took Chock and Bates weeks of practice on the floor before they even dared to try this on the ice. The work paid off as they earned their first U.S. title.

Image Source: Madison Chock, Instagram (@chockolate02)

Image Source: Madison Chock, Instagram (@chockolate02)

4. Max Aaron’s quad salchow-triple toe in his Gladiator free skate

Aaron, the eventual 4th place finisher, has the best quads in the U.S., without question. This explosive combination is reminiscent of the Yagudin-Plushenko-Goebel years, where the men were tossing off these quad-triple combos with ease:

5. Joshua Farris’ opening triple axel in his short program

Not only is this axel huge and done with great technique, but he looks so calm and relaxed going in to it, it might as well be a waltz jump. It’s also worth noting that the entry out of footwork and a one-foot change of edge ups the level of difficulty, yet he still pulls it off masterfully:

He added two more of these excellent axels in a long program that earned him the bronze medal.

As I was writing this post, I realized that all these wow moments also happened to be the opening elements in their respective programs. Looks like these skaters and their choreographers really know how to start a program out strong.

What were your favorite wow moments from Nationals?