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My Picks for the U.S. Olympic Team: Pairs & Ice Dance

While there are plenty of variables and speculation in the men’s and ladies’ events at U.S. Nationals, the pairs and ice dance seems to be much more straightforward.

A reminder of the three tiers of selection criteria from U.S. Figure Skating, via Phil Hersh:
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In pairs, Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim have earned the one U.S. spot. After a horrific year of injuries/illness last year (plus a few this year, too, with his knee problems), they are still working their way back to the top form that earned them a spot in the 2015 Grand Prix Final. They showed off a quad twist on Instagram recently and said on Ice Talk that they plan to add it back into the program for Nationals, so they are definitely getting there.

ISU Four Continents Figure Skating Championships - Gangneung - Day 1

Image Source: Mercury News

Scimeca Knierim and Knierim have the highest placements and scores of any U.S. pair team in any event of the three tiers, and are still the only U.S. pair to break 200 points internationally. While side-by-side jumps can be a problem, their pair elements are stunning. It won’t be enough for them to figure into the medal conversation, with the international pairs field as stacked as it is, but they could help the U.S. in their quest for a team medal. Hopefully they make it an easy choice and take their U.S. title back at Nationals, because a rough performance there could throw all of the above into question for casual viewers (a la the Wagner-Nagasu controversy of 2014).

In ice dance, Madison Chock/Evan Bates, Madison Hubbell/Zachary Donohue, and Maia/Alex Shibutani are, without a doubt, the U.S. Olympic team. I listed them in alphabetical order here because I think it is anyone’s game at Nationals. Yes, the Shibutanis had the most successful fall campaign, with two golds on the Grand Prix and a bronze at the final, but they didn’t have to skate against the two Olympic favorites, Canada’s Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir or France’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guilluame Cizeron, on the Grand Prix, like their U.S. counterparts did. And the three teams were separated by less than a point overall at the Grand Prix Final. The Shibs beat Hubbell and Donohue by 0.6, and Hubbell and Donohue were only 0.25 ahead of Chock and Bates.

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The top 3 U.S. ice dance teams pictured at 2017 Nationals, along with pewter medalists Elliana Pogrebinskiy and Alex Benoit (far right). Image Source: IceNetwork

I enjoy all these teams and think it will be an exciting dance event at U.S. Nationals — though I must say I’m pulling for Hubbell and Donohue this year, after their impressive rebound from disappointment at Worlds last year. Their skating is the best it’s ever been and it’s time for them to move up from that bronze medal position. I can’t wait to watch it all unfold in San Jose!

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My Picks for the U.S. Olympic Team: Ladies

I’ve made my picks for the U.S. men’s Olympic figure skating team, and now it’s time for the ladies. Unfortunately, the American ladies were underwhelming on the Grand Prix this year, and didn’t have anyone in the Final, an important tier 1 selection criteria. Nationals is going to carry extra weight for all of them.

A reminder of the three tiers of selection criteria from U.S. Figure Skating, via Phil Hersh:
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  1. Ashley Wagner
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    Image Source: IceNetwork

    While Ashley has had a bit of a bumpy road since the end of the Grand Prix series last year, she is still the leading U.S. lady in my mind. She’ll be putting out a new (old) free skate at Nationals, her original “La La Land” program, choreographed over the summer and then scrapped at Champs Camp. In 2014, she put together a new (old) free skate to “Samson and Delilah” and skated it clean in Sochi, so I have faith that a little extra pressure and excitement will bring out her fight and motivation.This title is hers to lose, and she said as much when she withdrew during the long program at Skate America. She needs it to check a tier 1 box, after missing this year’s Grand Prix Final and the subpar finish at Worlds last year. Plus, she didn’t compete in any events that fit tier 3, and only has her Skate Canada bronze for tier 2 credit. Anything off the podium at Nationals will put her in major jeopardy, but a fourth U.S. title would be an excellent statement to the selection committee. Here’s to the ones who dream, right?

  2. Mirai Nagasu

    Even though Mirai had some iffy results on the Grand Prix, she is looking more fit, strong, and confident this year than she ever has. Earning a 2018 Olympic spot would be sweet redemption for her after missing the 2014 team (which was the right call, and let’s not redo that conversation, guys). Her gumption in trying the triple axel and pushing herself to be a better skater, 10 years after she first won a U.S. Senior National Championship, is impressive and inspiring. Her bronze at last year’s Four Continents Championships checks a tier 2 box, while she earned a silver on the Challenger Series this year for tier 3. Imagine if she won a second U.S. title in 2018, 10 years after her first in 2008? The NBC promos people would be ALL over that, as would the loyal Mirai fans.

    3. Bradie Tennell

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    Image Source: TeamUSA.org

    I’ve been calling this one since November, people. Though Bradie only competed in one Grand Prix event, she grabbed a bronze medal and the highest international score of any of the U.S. ladies this season. She’s been skating consistently and calmly at competitions since the summer and has really solid jumps. Her artistry might not match the likes of Ashley Wagner, but her consistency is unparalleled in the current U.S. field. She needs to have a strong Nationals to cement an Olympic spot, but I think she can do it.

Dark Horse: Karen Chen

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Image Source: East Bay Times

It’s really tough to imagine leaving Karen Chen off the Olympic team, since her 4th place finish at Worlds last year clinched the three spots for the U.S. ladies. But that said, she hasn’t had a strong outing at a major event since Worlds and Nationals last year, and those were her only strong events of that season (granted, it’s pretty ideal to save your best stuff for the biggest events of the year, but still). Switching her free skate four times since the summer certainly hasn’t helped matters, and she has also gone back to last year’s short program. Both were signature pieces for her, and maybe the comfort level with those programs will lead to a strong showing at Nationals. If she defends her title, she should go to Pyeongchang. Anything other than that leaves a question mark in my mind.

Tough Call: Mariah Bell

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Image Source: IceNetwork

I absolutely adore Mariah’s skating, and when her jumps are on, they are excellent. This is not the first time that I’ve typed on this blog that her “East of Eden” free skate made me tear up at 2016 Skate America. She has great personality on the ice. But unfortunately, she hasn’t capitalized on last year’s momentum and had a difficult Grand Prix. Unless she blows everyone away at Nationals, it seems like an uphill battle for her to make the Olympic team. She had a rough outing at 2017 Worlds, which is a tier 1 criteria. She was 6th at Four Continents last year, with a career-best short, so that could gain her some points in the tier 2 category. I’ll be rooting for her to put it all together at Nationals.

Next up: pairs and ice dance!


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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:

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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
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    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

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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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The American Underdog

The American ladies finished off the podium again at the 2015 World Championships, keeping alive a streak that I’m sure U.S. Figure Skating would much rather see end. The last American woman to finish on the podium was Kimmie Meissner, who won gold in 2006.

Both Gracie Gold and Ashley Wagner staged herculean comebacks in the long program, finishing second and third, respectively in that segment of the competition. They were fourth and fifth place overall, quite the jump from 8th and 11th after the short. When you think about how different the results might have been if both girls had skated clean (or even with just fewer mistakes) in the short program, it’s a hard one to take. Obviously even more so for the skaters’ themselves. The fabulous potential is there, but it seems like they crumble under expectations.

Not only did both athletes skate impressively in the long, but they gave performances that required great mental toughness—something both skaters have demonstrated throughout this season. Gold skated a nearly clean program at U.S. Nationals right after the crowd blew the roof off for Wagner’s record score. Wagner was in last place after the short program at the Grand Prix Final and pulled herself up to win the bronze medal. When people write them off, the American ladies come out fighting to prove them wrong. Both skaters thrive in the underdog position, rising to the occasion when they have to chase the leader.

Gracie Gold (left) and Ashley Wagner Image Source: abcnews.go.com

But it is another story when they are expected to place well or win the competition. Gold was supposed to walk away with the Four Continents title in February and ended up fourth. Wagner was predicted to breeze her way onto the Olympic team in 2014, then finished fourth and had to be named to the team by U.S. Figure Skating.

It is extraordinarily difficult to live up to the pressure of expectations and Gold and Wagner are by no means lost causes. But how hard is it to change the mentality and thrive as the favorite?

It’s something Michelle Kwan learned throughout her career. After faltering in her first national title defense in 1997, she changed her mental approach and was able to own the U.S. ladies’ title from 1998-2005. Plenty of former champions serve as mentors to current competitors through U.S. Figure Skating—maybe they can add Kwan to the list to help elevate these ladies to the next level.


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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 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: