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Flashback Friday: Skate America 2018 Edition

The 2018 Grand Prix season is upon us! It feels like things are back to normal with Skate America kicking off the Grand Prix series as usual, unlike last year, when it was the final event. During the Grand Prix this year, I’m planning a Flashback Friday series where I will share a memorable performance from years past at each Grand Prix, on the Friday the competition kicks off.

First up: Michelle Kwan at 1999 Skate America. This was Kwan’s first Grand Prix event after starting college full-time at UCLA. And this weekend at Skate America, U.S. and World Champion Nathan Chen will take the ice for his first Grand Prix event since enrolling full-time at Yale University.

This gem of a flashback video not only includes Kwan’s long program, which clinched the gold, but some awesome behind the scenes shots and interview clips about her freshman year. Check it out:

Will Chen fare as well as Kwan did? He had a rough outing at Japan Open a few weeks ago and will be looking for a cleaner skate here. It all kicks off Friday night!

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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: Skate America 2015

I’m about to sit down and watch the Ice Network feeds from Skate Canada, but before I do that, it’s probably time to type out some of my thoughts on last weekend’s Skate America:

  • I was surprised that Gracie lost to Evengia Medvedeva. It’s pretty clear that it came down to the points she lost doubling her flip in the short program and her salchow in the long. Man, is this a numbers game or what? Medvedeva was thinking on her feet and added two combinations during her program, after falling on an earlier intended combination. It’s that kind of quick thinking that makes a difference in this judging system. Once Gracie gets enough confidence in her elements in competition, she is going to have to do that too—especially if she makes a mistake early in a long program.

    Image Source: fs-gossips.com

  • On a more superficial and less mathematical note, I loved Medvedeva’s dress (except the gloves, I am rarely a fan of gloves). The color and the varying sequin design were just gorgeous. Her fellow Russian and training mate, Julia Lipnitskaia, continues to make puzzling fashion choices, like this dress for her Elvis-themed short program:

    Image Source: dailyherald.com

    According to the NBC commentary team, these two ladies don’t speak to each other and won’t skate on the same ice. It makes Gracie Gold and Ashley Wagner’s relationship look positively chummy in comparison. I find the respectful rivalry between Gold and Wagner really refreshing and mature, and even moreso in light of this information about these Russian rivals.

  • Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim of the U.S. look FAST and their elements have the “big” quality that so many Russian and Chinese teams have excelled at while Americans did not; I think this could be their year to break through.
  • And on the opposite end of the spectrum from a breakthrough, we have the Russian team of Stolbova and Klimov. They skipped the World Championships last year and ended their season early to begin preparation for this season, and, allegedly, a quad element. I’m not quite sure what they did during their time off, because they seemed to barely have a handle on the elements they used to execute flawlessly. Is something else going on here?
  • The ice dance situation this season seems discombobulated—several teams have already been through multiple short dances, because they can’t seem to get the rhythm requirements right. I can’t believe that Chock and Bates are on their third short dance of the season already, and honestly, it didn’t look like it. They looked very confident, despite only having done a few runthroughs of the entire program, according to NBC commentator Tanith White. All these struggles with program and music choices sort of make me wonder about the quality of the pre-competition evaluations that federations are doing or whether the rules are too specific.
  • One distinctly non-discombobulated portion of the dance event was the overall performance of Russians Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov. They were utterly forgettable last season, so I was really impressed by their improvement and connection here. I will admit that I was more on the side of Katsalapov’s previous partner Elena Illinykh when they rather abruptly and strangely split after their bronze at the Sochi Olympics. She seems so passionate about skating and he seemed a bit apathetic last year. If these performances are any indication, I may be converted and enjoy them both with their new partners.

    Image Source: youtube.com

  • I’m not sure how I feel about Jason Brown’s long program. It’s beautiful, yes, but it is also so quiet. There is no big crescendo of emotion, which he is so good at. I’ll be interested to see this program develop as the season goes on.

And now, on to Canada!


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The Evolution of Max Aaron

The biggest news (or surprise, depending on who you ask) out of Skate America this past weekend was Max Aaron’s gold medal performance in the men’s event. And lots of people are calling it a “reinvention,” talking about how he completely revamped his skating during the off season. But I’m going to go ahead and disagree.  I call it an evolution, not a reinvention, because the improvements he made to his skating aren’t changes that can happen overnight.

The best part about watching Max’s performances at Skate America wasn’t the improved speed, knee bend, and edge quality (though all three of those things were great to see); it was that he looked like a better version of Max. No longer “Max trying to fulfill the abstract skating idea of an ‘artist,'” but Max, the artist. The style was true to his masculine, powerful roots,

Last year, especially in his “Footloose” short program, Max often looked uncomfortable. His artistry and interpretation were not convincing and made skating observers question whether he actually could be an artist, or whether he had peaked.

After a summer spent doing a lot of edge exercises, Max gave the naysayers their answer with this spectacular outing at Skate America. He has better knee bend, smoother skating, and his pushes take him farther across the ice. Max has always been fast, but as a former hockey player, he had that hockey-like quality of multiple quick crossovers to pick up speed. Now, you can tell he is really using his edges and his knees for speed. Not only that, but his spins are also faster, and he is holding each of the positions longer.

In both programs, he is skating to the music and taking musical cues, as opposed to using the music as a backdrop for his elements. His personal-best 81.30 program component score in the Skate America long program reflects that, and is right up there with the likes of renowned skating artists Patrick Chan or Jeremy Abbott.

Max has done all of this while skating to a ballet, “Black Swan,” and yet his skating still has a powerful, masculine quality. He made improvements without trying to mimic the Chans or the Abbotts of the skating world. Pardon the pun here, but he maximized his own potential to be the best Max Aaron. I didn’t watch his program this weekend and think, “I don’t recognize this skater.” Instead I thought, “Here’s a skater who has been working really hard—and man, does it show.” We got a better version of Max Aaron. He’s been trying to develop the performance side of his skating for years, and I look forward to seeing the evolution continue.


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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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Impressions: Skate America

I blogged my take on the ladies’ event at Skate America the other day, but also had a random collection of thoughts from watching the competition that didn’t belong in that post. I imagine this will happen with most of the competitions, so this will probably turn in to a consistent series. I’m going to call it “Impressions” and use it as a spot for all my random thoughts and observations immediately after a competition. So, let’s go:

  • Commentary

I love the commentary team of Terry Gannon, Tara Lipinski, and Johnny Weir. Terry is such a good sport, and I have loved him for years. His playful dynamic with Tara and Johnny adds so much personality to the telecasts. But I also appreciate how they are willing to analyze each performance with a critical eye, rather than lavishing praise on all the skaters. It is not help to the average viewer to say that everyone did well–that makes the complicated marks in the IJS judging system even more confusing!

The trio pictured at the 2014 Sochi Olympics (source: bizjournals.com/chicago)

Johnny in particular has a fantastic way of explaining skating intricacies to the casual viewer. He doesn’t use too much jargon and really breaks it down so people can understand. When American Jason Brown fell on his second triple axel in the long program, my observation was that he was too high on his knees and underrotated the jump, which wouldn’t really make sense to a non-skater. Johnny worded it perfectly for the broadcast audience by telling them that Brown didn’t get up on his toe pick on the takeoff and fell because he landed sideways instead of backwards. Johnny also picks up on small details that make a huge difference. South Korean skater So Youn Park was skating a beautiful program, but something was missing with her connection to the audience. Johnny astutely pointed out to the viewers that she was skating with her eyes down, impairing the connection with the audience and also making her look less confident. I love his observations!

Their fashion is pretty great as well and you can follow along with all of Tara and Johnny’s behind the scenes antics on Twitter and Instagram @TaraandJohnny!

  • Layback entrances

Why are almost all of the ladies doing a one-revolution camel spin/illusion into their layback spins? Did I miss something? Rule change? Definitely comment or email if you have the answer! It seemed like Gracie Gold was the only one who didn’t use this entrance.

  • Jason Brown’s hair

He deviated from his signature ponytail for a half up/half down braided look (hard to see in this photo from teamusa.org, but it is there). What do you think? I liked it and think it fit his program (the dramatic opera Tristan and Isolde about doomed lovers). The best part is that he wears it with such confidence in himself, no matter how unconventional the look is for figure skating.

source: teamusa.org

Her unique, flowy dress for the short program was gorgeous, but I was a little mystified when she came out in a very similar purple number for the long program.

Elizaveta Dress Comparison

Long program dress on the left, short program dress on the right (images via the AP and CBC Sports)

I loved the style for her short program, which was set to the iconic (but somewhat repetitive) Bolero. The music is so consistent and persistent, that I liked the contrast that the more relaxed dress style brought to the overall impression of the piece. Not sure why she went with a similar style in the long—it almost seems like she is trying to hide behind the puffy sleeves and flowy material. Am I overanalyzing?

Skate Canada is on the docket this weekend—with the much-anticipated presence of Ashley Wagner. I’m a big fan of her skating and am hoping she can recover from her last place finish at the Japan Open earlier this fall. I’ll be watching! Will you?