Quick Thoughts on the 2018 US Ladies’ Olympic Team

Last night, I wrote half a post about ice dance. This morning, after the official announcement of the three ladies who will represent the United States at the Olympic Games, I knew I had to click the “Save Draft” button in WordPress and get with current events. Part of me would rather be nitpicking r(h)umbas, but nobody really feels like rehashing the short dance at the moment, do they? Not in the wake of a ladies’ free skate so intense that Shadowcat and I ordered a bottle of Rumchata from Amazon Prime Now so we could process our feelings with the right balance of sugar and alcohol in our bloodstreams.

A lot of the outrage – and the excitement – about the ladies’ podium and resulting team selection comes from strongly held fan preferences, and I’m no exception there. But I’m coming from a different angle than most of Twitter, as usual. Almost any team would have sparked controversy, and the choice to send the top three finishers was the expected one: Bradie Tennell, Mirai Nagasu, and Karen Chen all did their jobs and got rewarded. My goal on this blog is to be as impartial as possible, to celebrate good performances regardless of who my emotional favorites are, and to gently criticize athletes I love when I think they need improvement. I was a university writing instructor for over a decade; I’ve talked through C+ papers with students I’m still friends with on Facebook, and I’ve given A’s to individuals whom I hope I never encounter on the street. It’s hard to maintain the same attitude toward sports, but striving for it has made me appreciate figure skating more, because it keeps me from dismissing anyone out of hand.

Let’s face it, though – I am a Mirai Nagasu fan. I’ve been high on Mirai since she won her first surprise Nationals as a junior, and I was on the front lines of the hand-wringing wuzrobbed squad in 2014. I’ve always been partial to more muscular, athletic ladies’ skaters; Surya Bonaly and Midori Ito were the ones I looked up to when I was a child participating in the sport, and I see much of both of them in Nagasu’s skating. I’ve always preferred comic book heroines over princesses. When Nagasu’s scores came up last night, boosting her well past the 200-point mark and all but guaranteeing her a trip to Pyeongchang, I had everything I needed as a fan. The rest of the night was basically, “Who’s going to the Olympics with Mirai?” and I was fine with all of the possible outcomes.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m fond of Ashley Wagner, too. At 2016 Worlds, I wore red lipstick to the ladies’ events and handed out Ashley buttons to everyone in my section. But she’s had a weak season, marred by injury and some self-promotion strategies that I might have steered her away from if she’d asked me, which she certainly hasn’t. She’s great, but lately, she’s been less great than I’ve wanted her to be. When people have asked me about my ideal Olympic team, I’ve started with Mirai and ended with “the Ashley Wagner from a couple of years ago.” I was hoping she’d rise to the occasion yesterday and earn an Olympic spot. With a popped salchow and careless level drops on a couple of non-jump elements, as well as choreography that felt like an unfocused rough draft, I sensed in the moment that she hadn’t done enough.

Again, I was sad about that. But a few minutes earlier, Starr Andrews had skated the lights out, earning five more points in technical elements than Wagner had. After Wagner skated, I was more excited about Andrews than about her. For those of you bellyaching about who was robbed on program components: if Andrews’s PCS had been on par with Wagner’s, she’d be the first Black athlete since Debi Thomas to represent the United States in ladies’ figure skating at an Olympic Games. Andrews blew away both Wagner and Karen Chen in the free skate, from a technical standpoint, but lagged behind both by 8-10 points on her second mark. I understand Andrews’ components scores, as her choreography and transitions are simpler and her interpretation less mature than others’, but if anyone got held back on her second mark this year, it was Andrews.

This brings us to the two athletes who have become points of contention. Let’s start with Karen Chen, whose biggest crime was not skating quite as well as she did last year, and as a hometown favorite. Chen’s rotations have always been tight when she’s nervous, and she got nailed on those “hidden” errors. They weren’t so hidden, though; most of her short rotations were visible from the stands, and as with most skaters who have been terrific otherwise, my response in the moment was to shrug and hope the judges gave her a pass. That performance, in and of itself, was electrifying. I didn’t stand up for Wagner, but Chen’s skate moved me to my feet at the end. She was fast, poised, and powerful. Oddly enough, a bronze medal takes the pressure off of Chen in Pyeongchang, and she’s most successful when she feels like she has nothing to lose.

Like everyone else, I’m still getting my head around Bradie Tennell, National Champion. My whiplash comes from a different angle, though, because I’ve been talking her up for years, to a chorus of eyerolls and “Who?” I remember watching her take bronze as a novice in 2013, noting her errors but also recognizing that she was the one with the technique and the presence to go somewhere. A couple of years later, she blew away the pre-anointed favorite, Vivian Le, to capture gold in what might have been the biggest junior ladies’ upset at Nationals since Nagasu’s win in 2007. Unfortunately, she never made a mark internationally as a junior, held back often by injury and occasionally by nerves. But junior-level success has always been a poor predictor of how an athlete will transition to seniors, and Tennell has enjoyed nothing but success as a senior. She took bronze (and saved face for the USA) at her Grand Prix debut at Skate America; she medaled at her first senior international assignment ever, the 2017 Tallinn Trophy; I will die on a hill shouting that she was robbed of another bronze at the Lombardia Trophy earlier this season. Say what you want about her styling or her understated presence as a performer, but she shows up and does her job. American figure skating has been looking for an athlete as unruffled and consistent as Tennell for years. Can we all stop whining and celebrate that she’s peaking at the right moment?

The sun is shining in San Jose. I have a few precious hours until the men’s free skate crushes my soul. Mirai Nagasu is getting her comeback Olympics. I, for one, feel like it’s a good morning to be a figure skating fan.

US National Championships Men’s SP: I Love Everyone in This Rink

Nathan Chen competes in the Championship Men Short Program during Day 2 of the 2018 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships at SAP Center at SAP Center on January 4, 2018 in San Jose, California.

It is a testament to the well-oiled scheduling machine of USFSA that this is my first opportunity to blog from San Jose. I’ve been at Nationals since Monday night, but my enthusiasm for junior-level free skates – and my desire to spend any remaining stretches of unstructured time with friends who live in the area – has left little time for writing. Amid grumbles that this was supposed to be my vacation, I’ve waited until this morning to get words on the screen.

Last night was the championship men’s short program. Rest assured that I have plenty to say.

I’m here with a friend, Shadowcat, but we bought our tickets at different times. This turned out to be a smart move, since nobody bought the tickets next to either of us, so we’ve been switching off between our two sections. My seats are fabulously close to the ice, but put us at a weird angle where it’s unexpectedly hard to call jumps accurately, and also I feel like I’m flashing Scott Hamilton and Sandra Bezic whenever I stretch in my seat. Shadowcat’s seats directly overlook Tara and Johnny (whom we both enjoy, so do not start) and the loading area by the kiss and cry, and give more of a bird’s eye view. We watched the men’s short from that higher ground.

As far as I’m concerned, the men’s competition is the marquee event of these Nationals. American ice dance is at an all-time high, but the top three teams are almost guaranteed a trip to the Olympics, leaving only the die-hard dance fans to care about the race for a pewter medal. There’s a lot of talent among American ladies, but after their ho-hum collective showing during the Grand Prix season, it will take a miracle to put any of them on the podium in Pyeongchang. And do we even need to talk about pairs?

The American men, on the other hand, are killing it. Four achieved senior-level Grand Prix medals (Nathan Chen, Adam Rippon, Jason Brown, and Max Aaron); of those, three qualified to the Grand Prix Final, and Chen took gold there. Three more men competing as seniors at Nationals excelled at the junior level in the fall, earning Junior Grand Prix medals (Alex Krasnozhon, Andrew Torgashev, and Tomoki Hiwatashi); Krasnozhon is the Junior Grand Prix Final champion. Five different American men have competed at a World Championships in the past two years – Chen, Rippon, Brown, Aaron, and Grant Hochstein – and all have placed in the top ten. Vincent Zhou is the reigning World Junior Champion, and four others (Hiwatashi, Chen, Brown, and Rippon) are former World Junior medalists. American men have held onto a reputation as scrappy underdogs, but by the numbers, they’re looking dominant internationally.

Meanwhile, the domestic pedigrees of the competitors are equally impressive. Much has been made of the fact that four current or former senior National Champions are vying for a title here: Aaron, Brown, Rippon, and Chen. There are also eight current or former junior National Champions in the mix: Rippon, Ross Miner, Brown, Chen, Zhou, Torgashev, Hiwatashi, and Krasnozhon. And these lists don’t give due credit to the roster of hardworking mid-listers such as Hochstein, Timothy Dolensky, and Alexander Johnson – many of them late bloomers whose best competitive years have come in their twenties.

Although the deep men’s field put plenty of familiar names early in the starting order, the first warm-up group consisted mostly of guys I’ve only heard of because I pay attention to Sectionals. It was cool to see perennial qualifier Sebastien Payannet shoot for a triple Axel and almost land it; the rest was pretty dire.

That direness extends to Max Aaron, stuck skating fourth after a nightmare Nationals last year. Things are not looking up for him, despite the optimistic profile package that blasted all over the arena screens. (No one else got such a long, adulatory bio, not even Nathan Chen or Jason Brown; Adam Rippon got a funny clip, but it was much shorter.) Aaron did not fall, but he hung onto two very ugly quads, and his clean triple Axel was unspectacular. And in an environment increasingly driven by artistry and intricate choreography, Aaron didn’t have room in his components marks to recover from his mistakes. The silver lining: Aaron’s 74.95 put him a point ahead of Bradie Tennell’s winning short program score from the night before, saving us from a night of jokes about how the top lady was faring in the men’s event.

The second flight of skaters played it safe technically, which brought a string of pleasing performances, although not many breathtaking jumps. I’d been looking forward to Alex Krasnozhon’s quadruple loop, which is phenomenally dramatic even when he doesn’t land it. Instead, Krasnozhon opted for four clean triple jumps, including one of the night’s most confident triple Axels and a rare, terrific triple flip-triple loop. It was especially interesting to watch him in contrast with Aaron, as they both have the same fundamental flaw: they’re not natural artists. Krasnozhon can still look awkward, with limits to his speed and ice coverage, but there’s a lot of joy and personality in his Russian folk dance short program. The choreography also showcases his steadily improving flexibility and edge depth. At 17, he has time to develop those skills further, and the judges ratified his progress, putting him a couple of points ahead of Aaron in components and way ahead overall, with an 82.58.

As Krasnozhon headed to the kiss and cry, he high-fived his training mate, Timothy Dolensky, who was slated to skate next. Dolensky and Krasnozhon are opposites in many ways: while Krasnozhon came up through the Russian figure skating system and has enjoyed great success as a teenager, Dolensky is an outsider from Atlanta who was mostly invisible until he’d reached legal drinking age. Over the past couple of years, however, Dolensky has established himself as a consummate artist with enough jumping ability to stay in the conversation. He reinforced that reputation last night, becoming the first man at the event to break 40 points in program components, with particular approval from the judges for his interpretation and composition. He also got big grade of execution bonuses for graceful spins and steps with tricky surrounding transitions. The overall impact of his program was so beautiful that I forgot, until I rewatched for this recap, that he’d had to fight for his triple Axel. He pulled into the lead with an impressive 85.06.

Like most arenas hosting figure skating events, the SAP Center had not realized that figure skating fans need something stronger than beer to get through the men’s event, so I spent the entire ice resurface in line for the bar. (There was only one bartender. At least there are enough stalls in the ladies’ room, although toilet paper was running perilously low by the end of the night.)

I reached the front of the queue just as Grant Hochstein took the ice, so I had to watch him on a screen while clutching a pair of cocktails, one of which I had to save for Shadowcat. Hochstein’s skate turned out to be the performance of the evening, no matter what angle one watched from. While many of his competitors had played it safe technically, Hochstein knew he had to bring out his quadruple toe loop to stay in the conversation. And what a quad: soaring, out of a footwork sequence that included a smooth spread eagle, in combination with a triple toe loop. His other two jumps, a triple Axel and a triple lutz, were equally confident. It added up to the second highest technical score of the night, and the biggest smile of any athlete in the kiss and cry. His 92.18 gave him a comfortable lead.

It turned out that Hochstein’s risk was the right one to take, as another veteran with a comparable resume stuck to triple jumps and fell behind. Ross Miner hit three pristine jumping passes, including a tremendous triple Axel, and even edged out Hochstein by a few tenths of a point on components. I’m basically the only skating fan who loves his bizarre Macklemore short program, and he sold the hip hop with panache. His score, 88.91, should keep him in the conversation for a medal, but somehow, my memory of his energetic and well-executed skate had faded by the end of the night. I can’t just blame that on the mai tai I bought during the resurface.

The crowd held its breath as Vincent Zhou took the ice: we had no idea what kind of skate we would see from him. Last season, he was a revelation at Nationals, taking home a senior silver medal at only sixteen years old. He’s made a lot of progress artistically since then, but his jumps have declined in reliability, leading many fans to downgrade him from a shoo-in for the Olympic team to one of America’s greatest wildcards. His short program placed an even bigger question mark next to his name. He opened with a stunner of a quadruple lutz-triple toe loop, a jumping pass so spectacular that it earned near-perfect grades of execution and the highest number of points for a single element all night. His quad flip looked fine in real time, but the judges slapped it with an underrotation call (they were not wrong), and Zhou went down on an easy-for-him triple Axel. Although Zhou’s “Chasing Cars” short program brought out his most mature and nuanced performance to date, his components scores reflected the size of his jumps more than the impact of his artistry; as much as I enjoy Zhou’s skating, it doesn’t seem right to me that he scored ahead of Hochstein, Miner, and Dolensky on his second mark. His mistakes added up enough to put him behind Hochstein, but if one score last night seemed high, it was Zhou’s.

Jimmy Ma became a viral sensation with what I described in the moment as “the most New Jersey short program ever.” It was indeed a lot of fun, and the best I’ve seen Ma skate. He’s not in contention for anything more than fifteen minutes of well-deserved fame, but I’m delighting in the joy he brought to the casuals.

As the last group warmed up, I noted to Shadowcat that all of them except Scott Dyer were former Junior National Champions. That ended up putting too much pressure on both Andrew Torgashev and Tomoki Hiwatashi. Torgashev was solid enough, held back only by a stumble on his triple lutz-triple toe loop and by generally modest grades of execution and components scores. Hiwatashi was one of the night’s most disappointing bombs; he had to skate last, to the echo of Adam Rippon and Jason Brown’s screaming fans, and he tumbled on his quad attempt.

Nathan Chen skated first in the group, and it was a good place for him: all he had to do was outscore Hochstein, and he’d reinforce his status as the top American man. He did that, and then some, despite swapping his planned quad lutz for a more conservative quad toe loop and bungling his triple Axel. More than the high-flying jumps, his short program stood out to me for how thoroughly he sold it. Chen shines brightest when he has a strong beat behind him, and the driving rhythms of Benjamin Clementine’s “Nemesis” propel him into the character and narrative of the song. If there’s a story that Chen knows how to tell, it’s conquering his demons – injuries, a natural shyness, that pesky Axel – and rising to a massive lead after the short program with 104.45.

In real time, there were two skaters between Chen and Adam Rippon, but in my memory – and therefore in this blog post – there is no space between them. They train together, and Rippon’s mentorship of Chen provides a great contrast narrative: Chen a teenage prodigy who approaches his sport with a quiet professionalism beyond his years, Rippon a veteran who’s missed out on two Olympic teams and has approached the final act of his competitive career with zero F-bombs left to give.  Rippon stuck to triple jumps in his short program, but he made them look as effortless as a playful finger wag to the judges. He’s also gradually built intricacy into his choreography, to the point where there’s no longer a wasted moment in the program. The result was a master class in how to get to 96.52 and second place without a quad.

For all intents and purposes, Jason Brown closed out the night. That put a lot on his shoulders, especially with the army of fans strolling the SAP Center in chocolate-colored Team Brown t-shirts. There’s been a lot of derisive screaming on the internet about Brown’s triple Axel, for which he received a negative grade of execution but full rotation credit – or maybe it’s just Shadowcat, who’s been breezing through the kitchen of our AirBnB all morning reminding me to watch it again in slow motion now that I’m fully sober. The landing was definitely two-footed, with a spray of ice from the toe pick of his free leg, but replays show just enough rotation to receive full credit. Everything else was beyond reproach, from the triple lutz to the astronomical grades of execution on his non-jump elements to the punishing transitions. With only a point’s advantage over Hochstein going into the free skate, Brown has no room for errors, but like Rippon, he’s reaffirmed that he belongs in the top tier despite his technical limitations.

I’m off to watch the short dance. Shadowcat is calling an Uber as I type. May it be as exciting as the men’s short.

Rostelecom Cup Ice Dance Roundup: Feelsiness Is Not a Program Component

The Grand Prix season has begun, and it feels strange to watch the opening event from home. This is the first year in a long time that Skate America has not kicked off the series, with Russia hosting the inaugural event instead. Regardless of location, one thing always stands out about the first Grand Prix competition: nobody is quite ready for it. Even as the Challenger Series has created broader opportunities for athletes to iron out their programs earlier in the autumn, everyone looks shaky in October. I have plenty of notes on the ladies’ and men’s competitions, but they mostly boil down to that – everyone was a mess. The podiums in the singles disciplines were more or less as expected, and even the winners would most likely rather forget these performances and move on.

The one discipline where the top contenders looked ready to go was ice dance, and that’s part of why I have the most to say about dance this week. There were missteps here and there – and a couple of big disappointments – but it looked more like January than October for the teams at the top of the rankings.

The most anticipated performances of the weekend were by Maia and Alex Shibutani, largely because they were one of the few teams to skip the Challenger Series and debut their new programs at the Grand Prix. Strategically, this seems to have been wise: they looked rested and ready, and their overall score bested everything so far except for Virtue and Moir’s astronomical total at the Autumn Classic. Their choice of programs is also strategic, especially their free dance, a Coldplay medley that recalls the “Fix You” program that became a signature piece for them a couple of seasons ago. Some skating fans get irritable when athletes recycle choreography or themes, but it’s a smart decision in an Olympic year. Most four-year fans missed “Fix You” the first time around, and the Shibs can rest assured that they’re presenting an interpretive style that the judges are on board with.

Instead of innovating artistically, they’ve made notable technical upgrades to their lifts, and they have this season’s tricky Rhumba* pattern dance down cold. The Shibs are still having trouble earning maximum levels on their step sequences, though, and I’m hesitant to blame that entirely on the judges’ pickiness. I saw several missed edges in their free dance step sequences, and I’m not convinced that Alex’s one-foot section in their circular step sequence clearly shows all four types of difficult turns. They’ve confirmed that they’re among the strongest contenders for an Olympic medal this winter, and even have an outside shot at gold – but they have some technical refinements to work on between now and February.

* I’ve noted on Twitter, but not here, that the ISU’s official name for the pattern dance is Rhumba, while the standard spelling for the dance style in general is rumba. When it comes to concerns about ISU policies and practices, their inability to spell in Spanish is pretty far down my list.

I probably shouldn’t be surprised that Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev snagged silver, since they were the second-ranked team at the competition and were skating on home ice. But their fellow Russians, Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin, stole their thunder, and a different judging panel might not have respected the pecking order so much. Stepanova and Bukin beat Bobrova and Soloviev’s technical mark by several points, but Bobrova and Soloviev received a program components advantage that left the two teams virtually tied in the free dance. In past decades, Russian ice dancers’ clean, fluid movements were in a class by themselves, but now, teams like Stepanova and Bukin reach Grand Prix podiums despite frenzied performances. There’s a certain beauty to their unkempt style, like strands of hair coming loose from a bun, but their lack of polish stood out. However, Stepanova and Bukin executed their technical elements with admirable precision, raking in high grades of execution even when the transitions and choreographic moves around them looked sloppy. Their distinctive and difficult twizzles earned the highest execution score of the weekend, beating out even the Shibutanis – and I can’t argue. As for their choice of program music, well, it’s been a weekend of Mute and Replace around here anyway.

Seniority aside, Bobrova and Soloviev do present stronger components – they are smoother, faster, and crisper than Stepanova and Bukin – but I was surprised that the judges gave them the benefit of the doubt on so many elements. Their twizzles ticked off all the boxes for a level 4 and were solid enough, but compared to the Shibutanis or to Stepanova and Bukin, the element was nothing special; the judges nonetheless only set them back by a couple of tenths of a point in execution. I’ve long argued that twizzles are the element that will benefit most from a wider range of possible grades of execution, and now I’m starting to think that ice dancers should earn a bonus for placing them in the second half of their free skate, as athletes in the other disciplines do for difficult jumps. Much of the impact of the Shibutanis’ twizzles comes from their late, surprising appearance in the choreography, while Bobrova and Soloviev get their twizzles out of the way early and focus on lifts. Those lifts were terrific this time around, uniquely difficult and with a newfound control. But a botched dance spin so disrupted the flow of their program that it should have impacted their components score. Bobrova and Soloviev’s mistake should have kept them off the podium altogether; Canada’s Gilles and Poirier, as well as Stepanova and Bukin, skated more cleanly and with greater confidence.

Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier’s fourth-place finish inspired a flurry of “wuzrobbed” claims, about which I have mixed feelings. Gilles and Poirier are among my favorite current ice dance teams: they take both artistic and technical risks, and are often an antidote to the tonal and structural sameness that can drag the discipline down. I do think they skated well enough for bronze here – ahead of Bobrova and Soloviev, but behind Stepanova and Bukin. In the free dance, Gilles and Poirier received the same distribution of technical levels as Stepanova and Bukin (and indeed the Shibutanis), but they fell behind on grades of execution. That’s fair enough; Gilles and Poirier were less sharp and less explosive. Their program components did seem low to me, especially since their skating skills and timing showed more maturity and consistency than Stepanova and Bukin’s. Squinting at the protocols, we can see that that a number of judges – the ones from Turkey, Canada, and France – marked the two teams about equally in these components. But some of the other countries – particularly those from Belarus, Russia, and the Czech Republic – favored Stepanova and Bukin by more than a point. Judge #1, from Belarus, awarded an 8.00 for Interpretation/Timing to Gilles and Poirier in the free skate, and a 9.25 to Stepanova and Bukin; Judge #4, from France, split the difference, assigning 8.75 to both. These scores are not so wildly divergent as to trigger a review, but they do indicate that some judges had a clear preference that impacted the results, and that might have reflected subjective taste rather than which team demonstrated greater speed, control, and engagement.

The problem is that – despite preferring Gilles and Poirier in general – I thought Stepanova and Bukin performed better on the day. Gilles and Poirier have been uncharacteristically restrained this season. After two consecutive seasons of iconic and off-the-wall short dances, their short dance this season is a fairly conventional Latin number, spiced up only by a costume transformation trick. Their film noir free dance is a terrific high concept, but they haven’t figured out how to sell it yet. Gilles needs to find her inner Rita Hayworth, Poirier needs to choose between Humphrey Bogart smoothness and Raymond Burr earthiness, and both of them need to take notes on a bunch of old movies. I love the program’s potential, but they’ve performed it a bit flat so far.

One of the ways I get through the figure skating season is by muting program music I dislike or am sick of, and replacing it with whatever is on my current personal playlist. What started out as a mental health defense mechanism has turned into a tool for analysis, so I’m going to close out this post with a pair of transformed warhorses. Charlene Guignard and Marco Fabbri skated with a smoothness and confidence that many other teams lacked at Rostelecom, but their “Exogenesis” free skate is a dull disappointment. When they’re playful and lighthearted, as in their Grease short dance last season and their Lord of the Dance free dance a few years ago, they sparkle. But for some reason, they keep gravitating toward ponderous themes that interpret familiar music in the same old ways. By re-soundtracking their current free dance to “Province” by TV on the Radio, I gave them a song with a similar tempo and narrative theme, but with more drive and energy. While you can occasionally tell they’re skating to something more serious, the choreography lines up startlingly well with the song I assigned them. It shows that the problem isn’t with the warhorse itself, but with the specificity of their interpretation. They’re responding to the ethereal loveliness and the tension in the Muse song, but they’re not telling its particular story, or adjusting it to create a dynamic between two people. Guignard and Fabbri are a talented team with a history of fading into the middle of the ranks, and I think this failure to project a consistent, memorable personality is a big part of that. They should have been in the conversation for a medal at Rostelecom but weren’t, and that’s largely because their artistry seldom brings out their technical gifts as it should.

I doubled down on TV on the Radio for Betina Popova and Sergey Mozgov’s Carmen free dance, and not just because someone really needs to skate to TVotR one of these days. The tempo change in the bridge of “Wolf Like Me” doesn’t quite line up with the cuts in the original music, but it’s pleasingly close. Besides, if any team could rock a werewolf-themed free dance, it’s these two. Even with the familiar music swapped out, Popova is Carmen all the way, using her face and body to give as much fierce Spanish seductress as her choreography and technical content leave room for. There are times when both skaters are concentrating more on their lifts and steps than on their characters – understandable for a young and newly formed team – but Popova’s acting skills accentuate Mozgov’s, and their connection is unusually strong for a team at their stage of development. But the Carmen comes from them, not from the choreography itself. Substitute growls and scratches for smolders and wrist flicks, and we would have a werewolf romance on our hands. Popova and Mozgov make a meal out of surprisingly bland choreography, but that’s a mountain they shouldn’t have to climb.

Next on The Finer Sports: the Grand Prix of Figure Skating continues with Skate Canada!

*Hat tip to my friend Buffy for the post title, and for the gift of the word “feelsiness.”

Statistics, Scoring Changes, and Last Weekend’s Men’s Highlights

The Challenger Series kicked off this week with two simultaneous events – the Lombardia Trophy in Bergamo, Italy, and the US International Classic in Salt Lake City – and we are officially in peak skating season. It feels weird to say that with a few days of summer left in the Northern Hemisphere, as the program music on the live streams compete with my air conditioner humming in the background. But the majority of top skaters now begin their seasons with a Senior B or two, making the calendar more crowded for determined fans in September than in December. This is not great for those of us whose jobs finally get quiet when the weather gets cold.

Maybe this is why, rather than attempting to recap my favorite highlights from Lombardia and the US Classic, I am sticking my nose in a flame war about proposed ISU scoring changes that, if they are ever enacted, will be drastically watered down. It’s definitely why this post has graphs in it. (I considered running linear regressions but stopped myself short of true insanity.)

The proposed changes, as detailed in this IceNetwork article, range from reasonable and necessary to abjectly ridiculous. Here’s an overly reductive rundown:

  • Reduce the base values of the most difficult jumps – especially jumps like quad flips and quad lutzes, which had never been attempted when they were assigned point values.
  • Reduce the length of the men’s and pairs free skates to four minutes, and reduce the number of permitted jumping passes in a men’s free skate from eight to seven. This change has already been approved, and I am shaking my tiny fist at it, as are Kori Ade and Brian Orser. Top coaches are frustrated that these new policies are being touted as ways to improve artistry, because making programs shorter decreases the opportunities to build musicality and storytelling into choreography. I agree with this, and I’m also annoyed because stamina is, and should always be, one of the abilities that makes an athlete successful in the free skate. My inference is that the motivations are financial and logistical: shortening the programs is a way of making competitions shorter and therefore cheaper to run. Men’s and pairs events do tend to drag late into the night, but that doesn’t stop me from opposing how these changes are likely to impact the sport.
  • Create more granularity in the grades of execution, so it’s possible to earn as much as +5 GOE, or lose as much as -5 GOE, for a technical element. This is the change I’m happiest about, because I have seen Maia and Alex Shibutani do twizzles, and because I am a statistics nerd who prefers appropriately sensitive rating scales.
  • Award separate Olympic medals (and, likely, also separate medals at ISU championship events) for short “athletic” programs and long “artistic” programs, in addition to an all-around medal. Possibly, there would be gradual movement toward treating these as separate disciplines. I don’t think this is likely to happen – at least not as proposed – but it’s a reminder that there’s a vocal contingent that would rather just sign up for a jumping contest. I’m all for a jumping contest as a separate competitive event, perhaps with a format similar to the Aerial Challenge that the Broadmoor Skating Club has been hosting for the past few years.

As a fan, my first instinct is to trust my personal feelings on these matters. But I’ve spent the past couple of weeks learning how to get my statistics software to make elegant box plots and legible frequency tables, and dipping into Edward R. Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, which apparently is a book you read in college if you are not an English major. As a result, my second instinct is to throw a bunch of math at this, partially to discuss what kinds of scoring changes really would have a positive impact on figure skating, and partially to balance out the fact that I’ve already devoted plenty of blog space to the men’s skaters whose performances I most want to write about this week.

What I took away from most of my statistical wrangling is, revaluing jumps won’t change much. I recalibrated the scores for a number of athletes who competed this weekend, and the results remained the same. Deniss Vasiljevs tends to earn higher PCS than Brendan Kerry, but even with Kerry earning a couple of points less for his more difficult jumps, he would have beat Vasiljevs handily for bronze at the Lombardia Trophy.

I think Timothy Dolensky is a more aesthetically pleasing skater than Max Aaron or even Nathan Chen, but Dolensky’s multitude of technical errors dragged down his components score. A slightly fairer accounting on the PCS side wouldn’t have rescued him from a 6th-place finish under the circumstances, and his technical totals still didn’t come close to those of the athletes who placed ahead of him. My overall appraisal of the scoring changes – and again, I’m thinking as a professional stats nerd here, more than as a fan – is that their effect on the sport will be modest.

To illustrate this, I compared Shoma Uno’s and Jason Brown’s free skate scores at the Lombardia Trophy, both under the current scoring system and using the revised jump values. I left everything else the same: grades of execution, values for non-jump elements and double jumps, and program components scores. (It would have been nice to be able to test how the 11-point GOE scale will impact scores, but that would have required me to read the judges’ minds, so the current 7-point system stays.) It should come as no surprise that Uno still beats Brown by an enormous margin in the free skate, even with his quads worth slightly less. Under the current system, Uno earned 214.97 in the free skate, and Brown earned 176.87. Adjusted for the lower jump values, both of their free skate scores go down: Uno gets 208.22, and Brown gets 175.30. That’s still a blowout, but the margin is smaller: Uno now beats Brown in the free skate by 32.95 instead of by 38.10.

Where things do get interesting is in the ratios of how much their different strengths impact their scores. With the new, lower technical values, Uno’s high PCS do matter a bit more: they’re now 44.2% of his score instead of 42.8%. If the goal is to create better parity between technical and components scores, the re-valuing will accomplish that, albeit modestly. It’s possible that for a well-rounded athlete like Uno, who already earns high components scores (and, in my opinion, deserves them), the percentage difference would be statistically insignificant, but I’ll need more scores from more competitions to run the kind of significance tests that will confirm that hunch.

Things get more interesting when we look at how the proposed scoring changes will affect Brown, an athlete known for earning high scores on the strength of his components and execution. Uno, like most top skaters, earns almost half of his points from jumps alone, whereas at Lombardia, Brown’s jumps accounted for only about a third of his free skate point total. What’s remarkable is that with the new scoring in place, not only does Brown’s free skate total hardly budge – it goes down only 1.57 points, a reduction of less than 1%, as opposed to Uno’s change of about 3% – but the ratio of components to jumps doesn’t change much. This seems to be what the ISU intended: athletes like Brown, who rely on artistry, are rewarded for this approach.

Brown is a player in the one major change to this weekend’s results that the jump revaluation would bring about. At the US Classic, two American men earned higher overall scores than Brown did at Lombardia, and both of them did it with a quiver full of quads. Like Uno, Nathan Chen won easily, although unlike Uno, he skated conservatively, attempting only one quad in his short program and two in his free skate. Revalued jumps would have brought Chen’s score down a few points, but they wouldn’t have stopped him from winning the event by a tidy margin, or from becoming far and away the highest-scoring American man of the weekend. And deservedly so – a couple of technical errors didn’t detract from Chen’s most engaging artistic performance to date, with high components scores that reflected his growth.

Max Aaron, however, is another story. His overall score beat Brown’s, but by a slim margin of 1.68. I recalculated both skaters’ scores with the new, lower jump values, and in this case, it’s enough for Brown to pull ahead. Since the revaluation doesn’t impact Brown’s score as much, his new total becomes 257.60. Aaron – who landed five quads at the US Classic, three of them beautifully – takes a much bigger hit under the revaluation, especially because his PCS were far lower than Brown’s. Aaron’s overall score shrinks from 261.56 to 255.42, enough for Brown to pull ahead as the weekend’s second-best American. Brown beat Aaron by more than 11 PCS points in the free skate, a reflection of Brown’s superior interpretation and skating skills as well as Brown’s far more taxing choreography. If the goal of the revaluation is to give artistically adept athletes like Brown the edge over big jumpers like Aaron on a day when all other things are more or less equal, then it does its job.

The most interesting math problem arising from this weekend’s men’s events, however, centered around the two highest program components scores. Shoma Uno beat Jason Brown by almost 40 points in the free skate, and nearly all of that difference was in technical elements. On the components end, Uno edged out Brown by only 0.30, and both earned more than 90 points for components, a rare achievement at this point in the season. For all intents and purposes, the Lombardia Trophy judges threw up their hands and called it an artistic draw. Nobody else came close there; Deniss Vasiljevs’ components score was the third highest, and almost 12 points behind Brown. Chen, whose PCS were highest at the US Classic, trailed behind both Uno and Brown by about four points on his second mark.

At first, I questioned whether the two skaters really had tied, from a performance standpoint. When I’d watched the event live, Brown had stood out to me as the more accomplished artist. He’s had a few more years than Uno to develop his style and presence, and he has a preternatural gift for adapting to the mood and narrative of his music. Brown also navigates one of the most challenging pieces of choreography we’re likely to see this season, packed with sweeping flexibility moves and tricky turns that force him to maintain his momentum and balance when he’d rather be setting up for his next jump. This program has a little more breathing room than some of Brown’s past free skates, with more built-in opportunities for him to recover his speed. He also had to patch over a couple of wonky jump landings. The real irony is, this wasn’t Brown’s best showcase of his skating skills or interpretation, but Brown on a so-so artistry day is better than almost anyone else in the sport.

The problem with Uno, in terms of components, is that his finest qualities don’t come across on video. The tight frame of the camera makes his speed and ice coverage look less impressive, and it erases the impact of this small, shy man’s talent for filling a rink with his presence. Therefore, I have to assume that what comes off as a cautious and subdued performance was far more dynamic in person. What doesn’t disappear is Uno’s growing confidence in responding to his music with his face and upper body, as well as choreography that gives him more chances to show off his edges and core control than ever before. Next to Brown, he looks like an emerging artist rather than an established one, so I watched him again right after re-watching Nathan Chen. From that vantage point, it’s clear that compared to the other big jumpers of his generation, Uno is the most sophisticated performer. Chen is catching up in that respect, so Uno needs to watch his back. But for now, Uno has the advantage, and the ISU has all but assured that his performance ability will matter even more in the future than it does now.


Summer Skating: Men’s Roundup

Image via Johnny Weir’s Instagram.

The summer skating deluge continues, and like everyone else, I’m not remotely caught up. Canada held a series of summer regional meets, with most of the country’s top athletes showing up at one or more. There was a significant club competition in the United States every weekend from mid-July through mid-August. The season’s first senior B internationals, the Asian Open and Philadelphia Summer International, attracted athletes from a wider range of countries than ever before. South Korea held a qualifying event, showcasing its growing depth of talent and creating a pecking order of top contenders. Russia and China have both held test skates, too, although video wasn’t permitted at those events, perhaps in a quest to save fans’ sanity.

Meanwhile, some of us have jobs and families, not to mention new episodes of Game of Thrones to watch.

Continue reading “Summer Skating: Men’s Roundup”

Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships Recap: All Aboard the Rhumba Train

Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter perform their free dance.
Photo via ice-dance.com.

Skating fans are used to busy weekends, especially in the era of live streams and YouTube. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a weekend in July so crammed with skating, though. Between July 27 and 30, fans had to choose among the Glacier Falls Classic, a high-profile American club competition; a South Korean test event that determined assignments to the Junior Grand Prix and Olympics qualifiers; and Minto Summer Skate, a Canadian pre-season event with an impressive roster, especially in men’s singles. I’m working my way through videos of those events, and if I get through them before the Challenger Series begins, you can count me as one very determined and sleep-deprived skating fan.

What kept me away from that wealth of attractive choices was my favorite summer skating event, the Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships. Why do I love it so much? For one thing, as the name implies, it’s nothing but ice dance. That makes it a more manageable and focused event than most, and it gives me a chance, early in the summer, to hone my eye for pattern dance checkpoints and clever attempts to respond to ice dance’s ever-changing rules. For the past few years, it’s featured the most competitive ice dance fields of the pre-season, making the Challenger Series look like the bush league in comparison. This year was stronger than ever before, not only because the international portion of the event is drawing more and more prestigious competitors from abroad, but because there are so many incredible American teams. It’s a USFSA test event in an Olympic year, in the United States’ most stacked discipline, and everyone was trying to rhumba their way into the national federation’s good graces. Before last weekend, the reigning top three American teams looked like they had their tickets to Pyeongchang booked, but several young teams brought skills and scores that could make American ice dance far more interesting than expected. Meanwhile, the top juniors proved that the four-year cycle to come will be both crowded and unpredictable. And that’s just the Americans; there were plenty of strong statements from the international competitors as well, including a Russian surprise.

I’m just covering the most notable routines in this post, but I live tweeted the heck out of this thing. If you missed it and now want my mostly accurate play by play (with brief digressions about laundry and Cabaret), I Storified the whole thing.

Elliana Pogrebinsky and Alex Benoit weren’t the first to skate, but their short dance is a useful example of where I see the required Latin themes going this season. My knowledge of Latin ballroom dance is 10% classes I took in junior high and 90% devoted So You Think You Can Dance viewership, but apparently, that puts me ahead of a fair number of ice dance coaches. Throughout the weekend, teams with lovely, lyrical styles proceeded stiffly through their Rhumba patterns, either struggling with or not bothering with the hip and butt movements that make Latin dance look Latin. I wouldn’t have pegged Pogrebinsky and Benoit for Salsa King and Queen, but their musical interpretation was among the best of the weekend. It helps that Benoit is an un-self-conscious showman, and that Pogrebinsky moves with a natural shimmy. They skated like they’d been paying attention in dance class, picking up the nuances of posture and timing, but also like they’ve embraced the style. At this point in the season, their performance quality is way ahead of their technical precision, though. The judges rightly docked them on both levels and grades of execution for their pattern dance and step sequences: they often drifted from their intended edges, and their free legs didn’t always match. Their curve lift, however, is magnificent, a floating spiral that has the makings of a signature move.

Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter are definitely back. Eagle-eyed ice dance fans knew it after their pattern dance, which they executed perfectly – they were the only senior team to earn a level 4 – and with stunning speed and ice coverage. I was initially perplexed that they lost a level for what looked like a spectacular pass of twizzles, although they might need one more position to earn full credit. That, plus a little slide out of line on the second set, took away from what is normally one of their strongest elements. They didn’t even try for traditional Latin ballroom, but they were loose and engaged, a variation that worked for me. The judges, however, weren’t as enthusiastic, and placed them a few tenths of a point below both Parsons & Parsons and Pogrebinsky & Benoit in components. The gap wasn’t huge, but it suggests that their unconventional style might hinder them this season, especially since judges are often disinclined to reward first-year seniors for artistry. Their chemistry has always come off more as intense friendship than smoldering romance, and they’d be wise to figure out how to adapt that to the Rhumba before autumn rolls around.

As a sibling team, Rachel and Michael Parsons have a tougher row to hoe than most of their competitors this season. It’s hard to stay on the right side of the line between sassy and creepy, but Rachel in particular is an expert at conveying sex appeal without looking like she’s directing it at her brother. She’s like a girl at a family wedding who dances with her brother to get the groomsmen’s attention. I’m also a fan of their unusual middle section, which features a blues-rock song that happens to have a Rhumba beat; I wish they’d matched it with a similar song for their beginning and end, since there’s a bit of a disconnect between their music selections. Michael’s unfortunate stumble and tumble during their non-touching step sequence took away from the overall effect of the program, but their twizzles at the end were perfect. The transition to their final spinning motion – one of the weekend’s most authentic Latin ballroom moves – is the kind of ending that judges remember, and it will be rewarded even more handsomely when they skate this clean.

This video contains the entire first warm-up group; Carreira and Ponomarenko are first to skate.

For my money, the most successful Latin ballroom number of the weekend was in juniors. Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko were the first to skate in a large junior field, and nobody else came close to their score – or their energy level. During their step sequences, Ponomarenko did most of the heavy shimmying, but Carreira’s in-character choreography during their lift was a delight. Latin dance styles look better if you’re willing to stick out your butt and arch your back, and Carreira and Ponomarenko committed to those curvy body shapes. Their height probably helps them here; their lines stay long and elegant when they stick their chests out. They also whipped through one of the best twizzle passes all day, maintaining strong edge control and synchronization through difficult positions. They’re practically guaranteed the junior title at Nationals this winter, and if they keep skating like this, it’s hard to imagine anyone keeping up with them internationally, either.

The junior events were strong overall, and also interminable. Lake Placid features both an international competition and a club competition; both American and foreign competitors are permitted in both, and the difference lies mostly in how the scores figure into international records and federation monitoring. In other words, it’s a meaningful distinction for skaters and coaches, but not so much for spectators. Only three senior teams participated in the club competition, but the field was far deeper for juniors, since they don’t have an Olympic Games on the line. I’m skipping a number of strong junior performances, particularly those by Caroline & Gordon Green and by Avonley Nguyen & Vadym Kolesnik, because the United States is simply awash in up-and-coming teams.

The star Americans of the club competition were Chloe Lewis and Logan Bye – or, at least, they were supposed to be. But neither of their programs have made it to YouTube, and a week after the fact, I realize that I can hardly remember them. Eliana Gropman and Ian Somerville made a bigger artistic impact with a flamenco free dance that seems designed to convince the judges that these two have grown up a lot. Somerville no longer looks like a little boy with man-sized upper body strength, and Gropman’s flirtatiousness feels age-appropriate. Their edges and speed aren’t where they need to be, especially in such a deep domestic junior field. Their lifts are extraordinary, though, and they have an easygoing, appealing chemistry. Gropman and Somerville practically tied Lewis and Bye in the free dance, and only Carreira and Ponomarenko earned a higher score in the international division. That places them more solidly in the hunt for a junior medal at Nationals than I would have predicted, and strongly in the conversation at the Junior Grand Prix as well.

The other stars of the junior club competition were a surprise Russian entry. Someone on Twitter tipped me off to their presence, and after checking the roster for the international event, I said they must have been mistaken. But Sofia Polishchuk and Alexander Vakhnov appeared, as rumored, and they brought their tutu. While it was thematically appropriate for a Black Swan routine, it became a visual distraction and prevented them from executing close dance holds. When I managed to stop looking at Polishchuk’s costume, however, their performance was impressive, like a miniature Russian ballet on ice. I wanted more speed in their steps but couldn’t argue with their precision or edge depth. Their twizzles gained speed as they went, and the arm variations both suited the music and increased their difficulty. They outscored every junior team in the free dance, across both divisions, except Carreira and Ponomarenko, which is good news for those who want to see Russia have a prayer against the American ice dance juggernaut.

At the international event, nobody came close to the caliber of Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko. Only three senior teams beat their overall score, and that’s despite fewer required elements in the junior free dance and lower potential scoring value in the junior short – and despite a mistake in their final pose that counted as a fall. Up until those last seconds, this was nearly perfect. Their twizzles, in particular, were extraordinary, moving from one difficult position to the next while maintaining uncanny synchronization. They also got an impressive amount of interpretive mileage out of this music, although I hope they don’t make a career out of breathing life into bland, heavy selections that suck all the youthful energy out of them. Choices like this make it harder for them to showcase their emotional versatility and amazing speed.

The senior international competition reflected an equally deep American field at the top level, especially since four of the top five finishers at 2017 Nationals didn’t participate. That makes it hard to guess how the younger teams in attendance will stack up against the veterans, although scores like these – especially in July and with significant technical errors – signify the possibility of big shake-ups in the established order. Lake Placid was also a reminder of the tough road for teams like Karina Manta & Joe Johnson and Julia Biechler & Damian Dodge, who finished far ahead of most of the non-American field. They’d be stars in almost any other country, but as long as they represent the United States, they’ll struggle even to secure international assignments.

Manta and Johnson got a lot of love from fans last weekend, and it’s about time. They finished a respectable fifth overall, with scores that would easily put them in the top 20 at a World Championships, and yet significantly behind at least half a dozen of their fellow Americans. Their technical deficiencies are clear in comparison with the top teams: they’re slower, with more limited transitions, and their steps lack the precision and momentum that the very best ice dancers achieve. But if Manta and Johnson came from anywhere else, they’d have a lot more visibility and opportunity. As tired as I am of Moulin Rouge, I can admit they brought some freshness to it, along with a warm and natural chemistry. The judges agreed, awarding them relatively high components scores in both programs. That’s a great sign for them, along with high marks for interesting lifts that make their short stature look like an advantage.

Teams from abroad didn’t make much of a mark at the senior level, at least in terms of their scores, but it was fun to see how several young teams from small federations are progressing. Nicole Kuzmich and Alexandr Sinicyn, who represent the Czech Republic, caught my eye during last season’s Junior Grand Prix with their quirky flair. The judges aren’t always on board with their performance style, and their components scores were all over the map, with marks for Interpretation ranging from a respectable 7.00 to a downright nasty 5.50. As a devotee of Kander & Ebb, I’m offended, because Kuzmich and Sinicyn’s choreography captures the ugly magic of recent Cabaret revivals. Like Manta and Johnson, their strengths are big lifts and big personalities, and their step sequences tend to drag. They’re the kind of team that makes me wish I knew less about ice dance, so I could stop grumbling about levels and just enjoy them.

The only non-American team to threaten the top of the senior ranks was German duo Katharina Müller and Tim Dieck, and they also win my award for most improved since last season. Their flow across the ice is lovely, and they’ve figured out how to maintain speed through their steps and transitions. They’ve also developed a dance spin and a twizzle sequence that show off their lines and core strength. But what I’m most excited about is that they’ve finally given me the Whitney Houston number I’ve been waiting for. It’s hard to think of a ’90s movie more ripe for an ice dance tribute than The Bodyguard, and they’ve nailed the mood and story. I wanted to see more fire from them in the faster sections, and they seemed to get lost in their upgraded lifts. If they can iron out the kinks, though, they have a shot at an unexpected trip to the Olympics.

You know I’m all about keeping ice dance weird, but I don’t know how I’m going to deal with the Parsons’ free dance theme this season. Chilean folk music is about as far out of my musical wheelhouse as one can go, so part of it is just a distaste for the unfamiliar. But I feel like there’s a missed opportunity here, to fully blend in the character of the folk dance traditions that go along with this music, or to more directly address the tragic history that coincided with the Nueva Canción Chilena movement. (I knew nothing about this until I looked up their music, but here’s a brief explanation of how Latin American folk music revivals intersected with politics in the ’60s and ’70s, and here’s some information on Victor Jara specifically.) I can’t expect ice dance to provide us all with valuable lectures on 20th-century South American history, but I can spend three sentences grumbling about divorcing music from its cultural context.

Technically, the Parsons siblings were exceptional in the free dance. They have amazing control in their turns; their twizzles seemed to stop time, because they glided during the transitions rather than moving frantically to maintain their speed. The choreographic lift at the end of this program is likely to remain one of my favorite ice dance moves of the season, not only because it makes such a beautiful shape on the ice, but also because it requires so much strength from both skaters. And as usual, Parsons and Parsons express the unique emotions of a sibling bond in a way that’s endearing and familiar to anyone who’s close with a brother or sister.

Pogrebinsky and Benoit’s free dance was almost too rough and unready to assess fairly. It’s one of those programs where the second viewing brings out all the little problems: the places where they struggled to maintain unison or shuffled out of a difficult element instead of making a clean transition. Of course, the big disaster struck near the end, when they fumbled the entrance to their planned straight line lift and had to scrap the entire element. The program has good bones, though. It’s refreshingly upbeat, with lots of emotional range, and it gives them all kinds of opportunities to skate close together and show off the full range of their flexible cores and long legs. One of my favorite things about it is how much of the performance work it loads onto Benoit, whose bold on-ice personality should never be wasted. He gets to chase after Pogrebinsky like an eager puppy. Conservative ice dance judges don’t always take to programs that let the male partner shine this much, but maybe Pogrebinsky’s red dress will distract them. In any case, it’s promising that they scored as high as they did despite losing all credit for a high-value lift, and this seems destined to become a very cool program once it’s debugged.

Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter were the team I was most worried about, coming into the event. Literally unbeatable during their 2015-16 junior season, they looked like shadows of their former selves a year later. Even if they hadn’t spent a season burning off a lot of their good will with the judges, I would have had reservations: their quirky, sinister style differentiated them from the pack in juniors, but I feared that senior-level judges might interpret it as immature or too narrow. This must have occurred to McNamara, Carpenter, and their coaches, because they centered their free dance around a classic ice dance theme. McNamara and Carpenter have done brilliant work with reinvented classics before – their 2015-16 free dance was the most innovative Carmen in at least a decade – and they’ve brought a similar originality to the tango.

The team’s chemistry has always been intense, but never exactly romantic. At their best, they approach that chemistry as a strength rather than a liability, and that’s definitely what’s going on here. They’re like a pair of rival assassins, each waiting for the other to let down their guard so they can slip the knife in. Last weekend, they never wavered from that narrative, even as they showcased a full set of lift upgrades. Their twizzles blended into the music so naturally, they felt more like a choreographic move than one of the most challenging technical elements of the program. McNamara and Carpenter’s lack of senior-level experience did show through their step sequences, though. They left points on the table with rushed and unsynchronized steps and turns. Lifts and twizzles are the signature elements of ice dance, but step sequences bring the big points. Nonetheless, not many teams are capable of crossing the 100-point threshold in the free dance in midsummer, or posting an overall score that would have had them knocking on a top ten finish at the most recent World Championships. In that context, it’s almost better that they have obvious areas where they need to grow. They can only move up from here.

Next on The Finer Sports: a round-up of notable performances from other recent skating events, and maybe a brief digression into Broadway divas.

Skate Detroit Recap: Vincent Zhou and Other People

Photo via Vincent Zhou’s Instagram.

This was going to be a full, detailed recap of Skate Detroit. I had high hopes when I pulled from the little cash stash that I set aside to fund my skating fan habit, and I paid for the live stream of the competition. The cost for the weekend was greater than for a year of IceNetwork, for an event that heretofore has streamed free of charge. But the quality of the Skate Detroit streams has historically been excellent. So I treated myself.

This was the absolute worst live stream of a figure skating event I have ever endured. Shame on Pro Event Photo for providing such poor service, and for convincing the Detroit Skating Club to charge such a steep fee for it – most of which will go back to the reprehensible videographers, and not to the skating club that I would have been happy to give some money to support. Fortunately, Skating Twitter was in the building, and they uploaded some stunning cellphone videos of the most prominent senior-level skaters.

A post shared by Jenna Shi⛄ (@jennaskates) on

That still leaves me without review footage of the junior ladies, who were spectacular at the top of the field, from what I could piece together between stream freezes and error messages that tried to blame data transfer failures on my internet connection (hint: I have a gaming router and the fastest download speeds that Comcast is willing to sell me). Two of the shining lights of the novice ladies’ event at 2017 Nationals, Hanna Harrell and Pooja Kalyan, showed up, and both are maturing into powerful, versatile skaters with contrasting styles. Harrell is the perkiest ball of energy in American figure skating since Jason Brown, and she performed her mambo medley free skate with a level of spark and conviction that we can only hope the top ice dancers bring to this season’s short dance. She also competes a monster of a triple flip-triple toe loop, which she fought for in the preliminary rounds but stone-cold stuck in the final. Struggles with jump consistency placed her third overall, but she is a rare combination of technically gifted and fun to watch.

Two quieter presences outscored Harrell, and in many ways, also outshone her. Jenna Shi, a local kid from Detroit who was 5th in novice at Midwestern Sectionals last season – just missing the cutoff for Nationals – took a surprise gold despite lower technical base values than several of her rivals. She landed her jumps with confidence and strong technique, and her components scores rewarded her artistic maturity. She brought a Disney princess’s verve and grace to her Pocahontas free skate. I’m hesitant to say that Shi is one to watch until she makes some technical upgrades, now that so many American teenagers are hitting credible triple-triples, but she was a joy to watch, especially among so many athletes who struggled with both their jumps and their presentations.

But for me, the scene-stealer of the junior ladies’ event was Pooja Kalyan. Her jumps were intermittently shaky throughout the event, but her triple toe loop-triple toe loop is right on the verge. Judging from the power in her triple lutz, a higher-scoring triple-triple combination isn’t far behind. She also made the risky and inspired choice of skating to Satie’s Gymnopedie No. 1, the kind of pretty but unmelodic classical piece that even seasoned athletes should normally steer clear of. But the 14-year-old Kalyan has a precocious ear for music and balletic body lines that put most of the senior field to shame. More than any other competitor at Skate Detroit, she justified braving the choppy live stream, and I wish I had video of her to share.

So I guess I am recapping this, at least to some extent. Maybe it would have been more accurate to say that I just don’t have a lot of comments on most of the bigger names who competed at the senior level (or on pairs, most of which I missed). It was exciting to see Mirai Nagasu come so close to a triple Axel, but after several years of deeply personal programs, she’s chosen a Miss Saigon suite that doesn’t play to her strengths as a performer. It’s great that she’s stretching herself artistically, but I’m not sure it’s the best strategy for standing out in an Olympic year. I’d hoped she would pull out something more like Katie McBeath’s sassy, sultry short program, which was easily my favorite routine of the senior ladies’ event. McBeath, a Twitter favorite who perennially classes up the lower ranks at Nationals and is peaking in her twenties like a true American, earned the third-highest ladies’ short program score of the weekend and finished fourth overall, a tremendous result for her. With no triple-triple, she’s not in the hunt for any major international assignments, but her sky high triple loop-double loop and her on-ice presence made her far more memorable than competitors with higher base values.

The senior men’s field was shallow this year, with only five athletes competing in the free skate. The name recognition level was high, though, as was the number of quad attempts, especially for July. Keegan Messing and Grant Hochstein both stuck to what has succeeded for them in the past: breeziness and big, confident jumps for Messing, and lyricism and persistence for Hochstein. Neither will set the world on fire with what they’re presenting this season – no big technical upgrades, no shocking artistic left turns – but both have a maturity and poise that’s a pleasure to watch. Hochstein might be the only man in figure skating who can breathe new life into Phantom of the Opera, but his short program is the real winner. He skates to “Your Song” from Moulin Rouge as if it’s a personal statement; the first fifteen seconds are some of the loveliest establishing choreography I’ve seen in a competitive program. I hope he pulls off a clean skate to it sometime this season, so we get to see it at least once with the spell intact throughout.

But let’s not pretend that anyone came close to Vincent Zhou at Skate Detroit – in men’s or in any other discipline. As recently as two weeks ago, one of my friends was asking me why I was so high on Zhou, and I was stumbling through Jeremy Abbott comparisons and noting all the jumps he’d been landing in practice. Last weekend, he showed up with proof of both. That quad lutz-triple toe is as powerful and smooth as any in the world, and he corrected his quad flip so brilliantly that only one judge noticed/cared that he was forward on the landing. He also throws himself straight into footwork after his triple Axel. On the artistic side, it’s easy for a skater to look sensitive and emotional when skating to music like this, but the sweeping crescendos draw attention to the uniqueness of Zhou’s style. He’s like a Ravenclaw who qualified for the Triwizard Tournament, thinking his way to victory.

Zhou’s technical content in his free skate was all over the map. Four clean quads, one pop, and a fall on a triple Axel that is ironically one of his easiest jumps. So let’s talk Shakespeare instead, because if you are exactly my age, Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet was one of your formative emotional texts, and then I got advanced degrees in English and had to pretend to take it seriously as a film in a 9 AM seminar. Most of the time, when athletes skate to Romeo and Juliet soundtracks, they’re skating more to the folk narrative of timeless romance than to the actual play. But Zhou is moving more in the artistic direction of Shakespeare’s Romeo, the scared teenager whose best friend dies in Act 3, the boy who loves being in love and gets made fun of for preferring girls to sword fights. A lot of that comes from Zhou’s innate seriousness and sweetness, but I suspect that some of it also comes from watching the movie and finding his inner DiCaprio. If he continues in this interpretive direction, it will be one of the few Romeo and Juliet programs that I can get behind not just as a pretty piece of choreography, but as an actual reading of Shakespeare.

Next on The Finer Sports: a recap of the Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships, for which the stream has worked perfectly all day.

Summer Updates! Shoma, Jason, Starr, Kaori, and More

Image by iguana012 on Tumblr, from Nobunari Oda’s Twitter

This blog went on hiatus while I plowed through an enormous pile of work and moved to my dream home, but I have emerged from hibernation. While I was gone, Jason Brown dropped the most deliciously fanboyish program music announcement in figure skating history. That got me back onto the skating side of YouTube, and I ended up watching several of the new competitive programs that athletes have been premiering at shows and club comps. As usual, a lot of the Japanese skaters are using their summer tours as an opportunity to work the bugs out of their new routines, and some are still too buggy to write about: Keiji Tanaka can’t get through his intriguing, bluesy free skate without falling all over himself, and Turandot looks several sizes too big for Marin Honda at this point. Meanwhile, the fan videos haven’t emerged from North American club competitions as readily as usual – I hear some events are cracking down – so we don’t get to preemptively judge the performances at events like the Chesapeake Open or the Broadmoor Open. But that still leaves me with several programs that I just can’t wait any longer to write about.

The program I’ve been itching to write about for the longest time is Shoma Uno’s new short program, which he’s been workshopping as a show number for the past month. Uno is the kind of brazen daredevil who not only attempts quadruple flips in a dark rink with no boards, but lands them. It’s a smart strategy: those jumps will feel so much easier this autumn, with the lights on. The new program is clearly a work in progress and needs significant refinement in the choreography, especially after the midpoint, when Uno stops connecting with the music so he can concentrate on his quad toe loop and triple Axel. It’s an unfortunate break in an otherwise captivating program that melds familiar Vivaldi strains with brooding teen angst. I assume that by October, Uno will have filled in the empty spaces and turned this promising piece into a nonstop Olympic highlight reel.

Starr Andrews does a great job of getting her skating up on YouTube, and that means we get an early look at her senior debut free skate. For those of us old enough to remember the 1988 Olympics, “One Moment in Time” seems a little on the nose for an Olympic year, but Andrews wasn’t born yet and therefore deserves a pass. Whitney Houston is a great fit for Andrews in general – something about the phrasing just works – and her commitment to the music sometimes makes up for moments in the choreography that don’t give her enough to do as a performer. It’s cool that she put the triple Axel attempt out there, although the jump is nowhere near ready. The triple flip-triple toe loop-double toe loop combination, on the other hand, is spectacular, especially with the difficult and beautiful spiral entrance. I worry that her performance quality is still a bit simple and juniors-y – she’s capable of more. But that’s exactly how I felt about Ashley Wagner at the same age.

Lots of Japanese ladies field-tested their new competitive programs on tour, and most filled me with doubt. In a field as crowded as Japan’s, with only two Olympic spots available, these athletes need to fight to stand out. In spite of this, most of the Japanese ladies seem to be playing it safe, choosing musical warhorses and conventional choreography that disguises, rather than highlights, their personalities and artistic quirks. The most notable exception has been Kaori Sakamoto, who has found a potential signature program in the Amelie soundtrack. The choreography is clever and demanding, often asking Sakamoto to establish her character with her upper body while twisting through footwork or firing up from a dead stop. She also gets to show off her high, muscular triple flip-triple toe loop, then save most of the other jumps for the high-scoring second half. Sakamoto kept elbowing her way into the spotlight as a junior last season – few predicted she’d take bronze at both the Junior Grand Prix Final and Junior Worlds – and this program suggests she’ll storm the senior ranks with the same power, mental toughness, and musicality.

It is possible I am almost as excited about Jason Brown’s new short program as he is. I’m thrilled about the music choice, of course: I love Hamilton, and this is one of the best songs from the show, as well as a non-obvious choice for a skating program. But what makes this so terrific is the program itself. Choreographically, it’s the kind of Advanced Rohene we’re used to seeing Brown perform, so crammed with transitions and difficult turns that I’m tired just watching it. With some pieces of music, that feels like too much movement and too little room to breathe, but the choreographic details feel so intentional here, from the triple Axel that drops right on the beat to the high front kick with a back arch that’s a split-second Fosse tribute. Besides, “The Room Where It Happens” is a song about frustration, so it makes sense that Brown looks like he’s trying to tear himself out of his own skin. He’s also playing the villain, which is a compelling character stretch. Most of the time, Brown is more of a Hamilton than a Burr, and it’s a rare pleasure to watch him seethe. The program sends a satisfying message for an Olympic year, the time when no athlete wants to be on the outside looking in.

Next on The Finer Sports: A recap of Skate Detroit, and a return to regular blog updates now that the pre-season is under way.

The 16 Most Epic Skating Disasters of 2016-17

Image via kinpunshou on Tumblr.

Skating fans like to pretend we’re in it for the successes: the biggest and cleanest jumps, the most engaging and original performances, the mascara-ruining happy tears in the kiss and cry. But there’s something cathartic about an enormous failure. Often, the most memorable programs at a competition are not the technically cleanest ones, but the ones where the wheels come off and the athletes spend four minutes careening toward their worst nightmare.

Not all bad performances are epic. Most are boring and difficult to sit through. Some are so tragic that they’re not worth revisiting; this blog’s official policy until further notice is leave Gracie alone. Many are rooted in fear and inexperience, which is why I’m mostly leaving juniors off the list.  The greatest skating disasters almost always come from great skaters, and part of the fascination comes from knowing how phenomenal these athletes can be when they’re not screwing up. This post is dedicated to the small number of disastrous performances that demand to be rewatched, ridiculed, and picked apart for valuable lessons. It’s a celebration of skating schadenfreude, in more or less alphabetical order.

Continue reading “The 16 Most Epic Skating Disasters of 2016-17”

14 Great Ladies’ Performances of the 2016-17 Figure Skating Season

I pretend to be more invested in men and dance than ladies, but tell me I have to narrow things down to ten great performances, and I turn into a gesticulating mass of feelings. I enlisted my friends to help me whittle things down, but they left me to my own devices for too long afterward. The “Wait! What about…?” list grew and grew. I decided to leave them all on the list, because what skating fan doesn’t want to watch 14 stellar ladies’ performances from throughout the season, and then subtweet me about how I am so obviously wrong?

Here they are, more or less alphabetically, with consideration taken for athleticism, artistry, and how much it hurt when I tried to convince myself to take them off the list.

Continue reading “14 Great Ladies’ Performances of the 2016-17 Figure Skating Season”