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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!


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The Quad Game

There has been a lot of talk lately about the U.S. men and their quad game (or lack thereof, in some cases).

The Chicago Tribune‘s Philip Hersh expressed concern about Jason Brown’s quadless victory at Nationals. Hersh doesn’t think Brown can be a contender without a quad and was proven right this weekend when Brown only finished in 6th place at Four Continents. All five men ahead of him at least attempted quads, though not all were landed cleanly.

It should be noted that Brown did attempt a quad for the first time in competition in the short program at Four Continents, which was a huge milestone for him. He has been skating internationally as a senior since the fall of 2013 and has yet to even attempt one, so to get the first attempt out there and over with is a hurdle in itself. That being said, it was not the greatest attempt: he came down on two feet and well short of rotation, which makes me wonder how ready he is to include the jump at Worlds.

I read Hersh’s article after Nationals and had similar thoughts of my own, as much as I love Jason Brown’s positive attitude and skating style. Figure skating columnist extraordinaire Christine Brennan summed it up pretty well:

“…when the judges reward a quad-less program with a whopping 93.36 points, as they did Friday night for Brown, they aren’t sending the best message.” —Columnist Christine Brennan in USA Today on 1/24/15

What actually stood out to me the most was the huge difference in scores between Brown’s personal best of 93.36 and ladies champion Ashley Wagner’s personal best of 72.04, despite rather similar elements. I’m about to go down a math rabbit hole, so bear with me.

I understand that the men traditionally have higher scores than the women, what with triple axels, quads, and more triple-triple combinations, and I obviously don’t want to take anything away from either of these superb, personal best performances. But being said, the twenty point difference struck me as a huge discrepancy, especially since Brown’s program didn’t include a quad.

Brown earned his 93.36 with a triple axel, triple flip-triple toe, and a triple lutz, with 44.46 of those points for program components. In comparison, Wagner only had 33.71 for program components. Her elements were a triple lutz-triple toe (a more difficult combination, despite the -1 she got for GOE), double axel, and triple flip. The glaring difference here is clearly the double axel that earned Wagner 4.49 points, while Brown’s triple axel was worth 10.07. But that looks more like 6 points to me, not 20. From where I sit, it seems like Brennan has a point about over-rewarding in the scores. Any other wannabe-mathematicians out there have their own theory?

Brown may be the U.S. national champion, but it was bronze medalist Joshua Farris who made the podium at Four Continents, with a quad in his arsenal. I think he will be the one to watch going in to Worlds. With the likes of Denis Ten, Javier Fernandez, and Yuzuru Hanyu routinely hitting quads, those four revolutions have become the name of the game in the men’s event.


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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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U.S. Nationals Preview: The Ladies

Most articles about the senior ladies event at this year’s Nationals are painting it as a showdown between defending champion Gracie Gold and former champion Ashley Wagner. The NBC preview commercials (which I unfortunately can’t find a video of online—definitely worth flipping to NBC to try and catch it, because it involves Johnny in a bow tie made of crystals) are playing up the rivalry between these two ladies. You’re not going to find anything different here on this little blog. It is clear that Gracie and Ashley are the class of the field and one of them will wear the gold medal at the end of this week. Here’s how I think it will shake out:

  1. Ashley Wagner
  2. Gracie Gold
  3. Polina Edmunds
  4. Samantha Cesario

Wagner is carrying the momentum from her stellar free skate at the Grand Prix Final, where she vaulted from 6th place to the bronze medal, propelled by her best triple flip-triple toe combination in years. Wagner is also a fighter who loves being the underdog—she thrives on having something to prove. She had great performances in Sochi because she wanted to prove that she belonged on the team (though two-footing and downgrades kept her from being in the medal mix). I think the same will apply at Nationals. She wants to silence all the naysayers who wonder why she is still competing by reclaiming her title.

Gold is coming off a stress fracture in her foot, which forced her out of the Grand Prix Final. She won gold at NHK Trophy, but it was definitely a subpar performance by her usual standards. She earned 123 points, well off her personal best of 136.90. Gold has looked a little nervous all season, so it will be interesting to see how she handles the pressure of defending her title.

Edmunds has also looked a bit nervous and unsteady on the Grand Prix this season, but she has some of the strongest technical content in the field. Even with some mistakes, I think she could still end up on the podium. Without mistakes, I still don’t think her presentation is strong enough to beat Gold or Wagner. She still needs to work on her connection with the audience.

There are a number of contenders for the pewter medal, but I think Cesario’s consistency will lift her above the rest of the field. After a 5th place finish last year, she is eager to take her skating to the next level with a medal and a spot on the world team.

I’ve also got a dark horse in this event: Ashley Cain. She was fantastic in the short program at Nationals last season, but succumbed to nerves in the long. She had a rough Grand Prix season, but I really like her style and think she could challenge for a medal if she skates two clean performances. She is a former pairs skater who is ready to prove herself on the singles circuit.

Last but not least will be the men’s predictions…I know I promised them next in my last post, but I am still overanalyzing my guesses. The start of the senior events is upon us in just a few days, so I’ve got to make my decisions asap!


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U.S. Nationals Preview: The Pairs

It is almost U.S. Nationals week! I get excited about Nationals week like some people get excited about that whole Shark Week situation on the Discovery Channel. Last year, Nationals were held in my hometown of Boston and I spent so many days in a row at the arena that it started to feel like my second home. And man, was it the best. So much great skating to watch, and so much pre-Olympic excitement. This year there is the excitement of a brand new Olympic cycle—though with many familiar faces. It is great to see some of the big names from Sochi sticking around and in the mix again this year. But there are also new faces coming up from the junior ranks who are ready to prove themselves and stake their claim for 2018. So with that said, let’s make some predictions!

The pairs event will feature some familiar faces from Sochi, but none of them will be skating with the same partner. Olympic Bronze Medalists from the team event Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir both have new partners, as does Nate Batholomay (his partner Felicia Zhang retired over the summer). I think this event may be a bit of a free-for-all, but here are my picks for the podium:

  1. Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim
  2. Haven Denny and Brandon Frazier
  3. Maddie Aaron and Max Settlage
  4. Gretchen Donlan and Nate Bartholomay

The scores of the top three on this list were all in the same ballpark on the Grand Prix series this year, but Scimeca and Knierim have the most experience at this level and are hungry for the title after missing out on the Olympic team last year. They also had a solid Grand Prix season with 4th place finishes at Skate America and Trophee Eric Bombard. Denny and Frazier grabbed the silver medal ahead of Scimeca and Knierim at Skate America, so they could ride that momentum to a surprise title here. Aaron and Settlage are right on the heels of these two teams in terms of scoring, but they are a bit of a younger team. This is their first year at the senior level after winning the junior title last year.

My 4th place prediction is probably the wildest guess of the bunch. I really liked Nate with his previous partner and wonder if his solid pairs skills and experience could carry this new team? I can’t say the same for former Olympians Castelli and Shnapir, as neither has received overwhelmingly positive reviews with their respective new partners.

Next up: predictions for the ice dance event! Stay tuned.