2017 US Nationals Field Guide: Championship Ladies Part 1

Gracie Gold skates her free program at the 2016 Trophee de France.

At long last – and with one day to go until they take the ice – we’ve reached what for most fans is the marquee event. From the casuals who only tune into NBC once a year to the lifers on the message boards who will wait eternally for the next Michelle Kwan, most people are in it for the ladies. Even if, like me, you’re a bigger nerd for other disciplines, the hype and excitement that surround the senior ladies make them more or less unskippable. And that makes it all the more important to know who all 19 of this season’s competitors are.

Since it’s likely you’re one of those casuals who googled your way in (and if you are, you’re an important part of why figure skating airs on network TV, so please stick around), you should know I’ve written a full set of field guides for the junior and senior competitors in ladies, men, and ice dance:

  • Championship Men Part 1 and Championship Men Part 2, the event I’m most emotionally over-invested in, with Nathan Chen planning some of the biggest jumps in the world and a herd of dark horses ready to swoop in if he falls on them
  • Championship Ice Dance, the most talent-rich field in American figure skating, and the USA’s best hopes for a World Championships medal
  • Junior Ladies, full of potential future stars, and jumps as difficult as what you’ll see at the senior level
  • Junior Men, a scrappy and quirky field that will feature this week’s only quadruple loop attempt
  • Junior Ice Dance, a field as stacked as the senior one, and possibly even more entertaining and unpredictable

This season’s Championship Ladies event features most of the big names, but it’s marked by a number of notable withdrawals. There are more top skaters missing here than in any other event. Polina Edmunds, the 2016 silver medalist and 2014 Olympian, has been out with injuries all year, and she has not recovered in time to compete. Tyler Pierce, who was 5th last year, has also been injured all season, as has Vivian Le, who would have made her senior Nationals debut after an accomplished junior-level career. The 2016 Junior National Champion, Emily Chan, had a disastrous free skate at Midwestern Sectionals and didn’t qualify for Nationals. An especially competitive field at Pacific Coast Sectionals meant that hyper-talented athletes like Olivia Serafini and Vanna Giang didn’t make the cut, either. Even more than most years, the technical ability of the 12 ladies who reached Nationals via successes at Regionals and Sectionals is exceptionally high, and several have a real shot at a medal.

As in my other field guides, I’m going to shy away from making exact predictions about how everyone will fare. Instead, I’m placing each skater in one of five categories. Four of those categories are a rating scale, with Front Runners most likely to contend for gold, Dark Horses with the podium (and maybe a title) in sight, On the Rise athletes looking for their turn on NBC and a spot in the international selection pool, and the Just Happy to Be Here crowd, for whom it’s an honor to reach this level of competition. The fifth group are the true wildcards, the ones who make this sport both pleasurable and stressful. Some have an excellent shot at a medal – and some are among my favorite American ladies – but I have no idea where they’ll end up in the final standings. Those skaters are Why I Drink.

Since there are 19 competitors in the senior ladies’ event, I’ve divided this field guide into two posts. This one features the first 9 skaters, alphabetically by last name. I promise to have the second one up before Thursday night.

Mariah Bell

The Basics: Bell is 20 years old and a native of Tulsa, Oklahoma. She represents the Rocky Mountain Figure Skating Club in the Denver area but relocated in 2016 to Southern California to train with Rafael Arutunian.

Season So Far: Bell has looked better this season than ever before. She began with a strong showing at the Broadmoor Open, climbing from a 4th-place short program to take silver overall. At the Glacier Falls Classic, she posted an enormous score and won by over 20 points. Moving on to international competition, Bell made an argument for herself as one of the top American ladies, taking home hardware almost everywhere she went. She wobbled here and there at the U.S. International Classic, her first Challenger Series event of the season, but she did more than enough for a silver medal. Bell made major errors in both segments at the Ondrej Nepela Memorial, but most of her competitors were giant messes, and it added up to bronze for her. But Bell’s real moment in the sun came at Skate America, her only Grand Prix event of the season, and one she came to at the last minute after replacing an injured Angela Wang. Bell delivered a stunning triple lutz-triple toe loop in the free skate and won a silver medal in one of the biggest upsets of the season. She couldn’t repeat that brilliance at the Tallinn Trophy in November, where she finished a nonetheless respectable 4th.

Outlook for Nationals: Bell’s scores have been up and down this season, but her results haven’t: she’s earned great placements wherever she’s gone. Arutunian hasn’t repaired her consistency issues, but he’s addressed her stamina and mental toughness, so that she recovers well when she does make errors. In other words, the coaching change was a smart move. A signature short program, full of bubbly and flirtatious choreography to music from Chicago, has helped Bell stand out artistically, too. Those upgrades, along with a rare ability to maintain her timing and speed through difficult steps and transitions, give Bell an edge over many other strong jumpers and make her a Dark Horse.

Karen Chen

The Basics: Chen is 17 years old and belongs to the Peninsula Figure Skating Club in San Jose. She trains in Riverside, California, with Tammy Gambill.

Season So Far: Chen shook the rust off at a couple of summer club competitions. She had only the 8th-place short program at the Glacier Falls Classic, but she didn’t skate full out and didn’t compete her free skate. Her first full competition of the season was the Silicon Valley Open, which she won effortlessly, with no real challengers. Major technical troubles set in at both of her Challenger Series events. She squeaked into 3rd place at the U.S. International Classic because most of the other competitors were a flat-out mess, and could only manage 7th place at Golden Spin after a fall and a ton of underrotation deductions in her free skate. Her scores improved at her two Grand Prix assignments, but not her placements, as stacked fields at the Cup of China and the NHK Trophy left her in 7th and 6th place, respectively. Her performance at Cup of China wasn’t bad at all, though: she recovered from a rough short program to earn the highest international free skate score of her career.

Outlook for Nationals: Chen has an exuberant following on social media, and it breaks my heart every time she fails to live up to their expectations. She’s one of those skaters who looks better on the ice in real time than she does in a slow-motion replay, and as a result, her scores are often lower than I expect. The judges frequently take her down for insufficient rotation on her jumps and for unclear edges on her flip and lutz takeoffs. Technique issues like those are difficult to fix, since they often require an athlete to completely relearn her jumps. And while Chen has improved her musicality and range of expression as she’s matured, she has trouble maintaining her speed, edge control, and posture, flaws in her fundamental skating skills that hurt her program components scores. Even knowing all this, it never stops being a giant disappointment when Chen gives what looks like a great performance but sinks in the rankings anyway. That alone is Why I Drink, but Chen’s inconsistency this season makes her prospects downright impossible to predict.

Franchesca Chiera

The Basics: Chiera is 19 years old. She represents the Panthers Figure Skating Club in Coral Springs, Florida, where she trains with Artem Torgashev and Ilona Melnichenko.

Season So Far: Chiera began her season with a decisive win at the Philadelphia Summer Championships, setting a new personal best in her short program. She went on to the first international competition of her career, the Autumn Classic in Canada, where she placed a respectable 8th, largely on the basis of a confident short program. The highlight of her season, however, was Eastern Sectionals, where she skated back-to-back clean programs, earned maximum levels on all of her spins, and won by 10 points overall.

Outlook for Nationals: Some years, none of the Sectionals qualifiers have a prayer, but this season, there’s a solid coterie of high-scoring ladies with a shot at an upset. Chiera’s shot is longer than some others’, but her performance at Easterns verified that she’s in the conversation. She planned a triple flip-triple toe loop at Easterns but did not attempt it; if she unveils that tricky combination at Nationals, it will be a huge breakthrough for her. On the other hand, Chiera has a fatal tendency to disintegrate in the free skate, which is how she dropped out of the top 10 at Nationals in 2016 after an 8th-place short program. And while her terrific speed and edge control set her apart in less prestigious competitions, her components aren’t enough to boost her at Nationals. Chiera is On the Rise, but she’s going to have to fight to stand out from the crowd.

Amber Glenn

The Basics: Glenn is 17 years old and a member of the Dallas Figure Skating Club. Her coaches are Peter and Darlene Cain.

Season So Far: Glenn started strong in the summer of 2016, winning the short program at the Broadmoor Open and placing 3rd overall. She built her confidence with a pair of easy wins at the Cannon Texas Open and Cranberry Open before moving on to the Challenger Series. Glenn looked great at both of her international events, placing 5th at the Nebelhorn Trophy and 4th at Golden Spin. The latter was her bigger statement: she performed a stunning 2nd-place short program and beat both Karen Chen and Gracie Gold. Glenn had more trouble at Midwestern Sectionals, with popped jumps in both programs, although she did land a gorgeous triple lutz-triple toe loop combination in the free skate. Her bronze medal qualified her through to Nationals.

Outlook for Nationals: Glenn is riding some powerful momentum into Kansas City, having proven she can contend internationally and land some of the hardest jumps in ladies’ skating. She’s also put some effort into developing her second mark, raising her components scores with intricate transitions and lovely flexibility. Still, she’s prone to leaving points on the table, especially in the free skate, and she lacks both the expression and the explosiveness of the ladies at the very top. A medal is not out of the question for her, especially if she hits that triple-triple in both programs, but I suspect she needs another season On the Rise before she really breaks through.

Gracie Gold

The Basics: Gold is 21 years old and spent her early years in Springfield, Illinois, and in the Chicago suburbs. She still represents the Wagon Wheel Figure Skating Club in the Chicago area but now trains outside Los Angeles. Her primary coach is Frank Carroll, although she returned to former coach Alex Ouriashev for several weeks of training this winter.

Season So Far: Gold has struggled throughout 2016-17. She looked fine this summer, when she premiered her short program at the Golden West Championships, but things went downhill from there. She placed a distant 6th at the Japan Open, looking uncertain in her free skate. Her confidence didn’t improve at her Grand Prix events. She dropped from a precarious 3rd in the short program to 5th overall at Skate America after a free skate meltdown. It was to be the high point of her international season, as she placed 8th at the Trophée de France, struggling in both programs. She got a shot at redemption at a Challenger Series event late in the season, Golden Spin, but stumbled to a 6th place finish.

Outlook for Nationals: What do you say when the reigning National Champion has stopped looking like much of a champion at all? Gold’s chief weakness has always been her propensity for giving in to nerves, but her lapses in focus and confidence this season have grown so severe as to raise concerns about her mental state. Since her disappointment at Golden Spin, she’s followed the dictum that mental health is part of overall health, returning to her hometown to train in a more relaxed environment. There are promising signs that Gold is feeling better now – maybe even enough to defend her title. Without concrete evidence of that, however, it’s hard to see Gold as a Front Runner with the season she’s had. But it seems insulting to call the current champion a Dark Horse, which is Why I Drink.

Courtney Hicks

The Basics: Hicks is 21 years old. She represents the All Year Figure Skating Club outside Los Angeles, and her primary coach is Todd Sand.

Season So Far: Hicks skipped the club competition circuit and began her season with a Challenger Series event, the Finlandia Trophy. She struggled with her jumps, especially in the free skate, and finished a so-so 6th. A very different Hicks showed up to the Rostelecom Cup, her first Grand Prix event, and she won a bronze medal despite errors in both programs. She couldn’t maintain that momentum two weeks later at Cup of China, though, and she finished only 9th.

Outlook for Nationals: Hicks switched coaches over the summer, but so far, the change hasn’t addressed the weaknesses in her skating that keep her from rising to the next level. She’s one of the most powerful American skaters, with impressive lift and amplitude in her jumps, but she often misses the timing of her takeoffs and pops them. She also suffers from constant criticism of her limited speed and workmanlike skating style. She’s addressed the latter somewhat this season with a clever Maleficent short program, but not enough to close the gap between her high technical scores and middling components. With so many excellent but inconsistent skaters in this year’s ladies’ field, Hicks is a Dark Horse on her best day, aiming for her first podium finish since 2013.

Tessa Hong

The Basics: At 14 years old, Hong is the youngest senior-level competitor at this year’s Nationals. Originally from the Los Angeles area, she now lives and trains in Colorado Springs and represents the Broadmoor Skating Club. Her primary coach is Tom Zakrajsek.

Season So Far: Hong looked ready for the move up to seniors right out of the gate when she won the Broadmoor Open in the summer. She looked less confident at Junior Grand Prix Tallinn, however, where she slipped to 5th place after losing credit for a number of severely underrotated jumps. Her rotation troubles followed her to Midwestern Sectionals, but it was hard to argue with the triple lutz-triple toe loop and triple loop-triple toe loop combinations in her free skate. With the most difficult technical content in the field by far, she won gold.

Outlook for Nationals: Hong has received a lot of hype for her big jumps, and she’s a talented technician, especially for her age. In other respects, however, she skates like a 14-year-old. That’s not a bad thing, especially since Hong has plenty of time to grow. But she’s only one of several American teenagers with huge jumps, and the rest have hung back in juniors. Some of those others seem more ready for the senior level than Hong does, in terms of their ability to pace a program and relate to the music. In a couple of years, if she stays healthy and addresses her rotation issues, Hong is likely to emerge as one of the best of her generation. This time around, she’s On the Rise and not quite ready for the big time.

Katie McBeath

The Basics: McBeath is 22 years old and represents the Westminster Figure Skating Club of Erie, Pennsylvania. Her coaches are Jacqueline Redenshek-Henry and Sally Tasca.

Season So Far: McBeath landed in the middle of the pack at the Broadmoor Open, in 11th place with a score well below her best. She’d improved by leaps and bounds in time for her qualifying competitions. At North Atlantic Regionals, she blew away the rest of the field by almost 22 points, skating nearly clean in the free skate and setting a new career best score in the short program. Her performance at Eastern Sectionals was even more impressive, bringing McBeath new personal bests in the free skate and overall, and earning her a bronze medal for the third time.

Outlook for Nationals: McBeath never qualified to Nationals at the lower levels, and now, in her 20’s, she’s gotten there three years in a row. Each time, her jumps look more secure, and she’s improved the skating skills and transitions that support her performance quality. She’s always had a sparkling presence, the kind of skater who looks thrilled to be on the ice. Her technical content is less sophisticated than most, although the triple flip-half loop-double loop toward the end of her free skate is a bit of a secret weapon. With her lower base technical values, she’ll have a tough time cracking the top 10, but she’s the kind of Just Happy to Be Here I most enjoy seeing.

Hannah Miller

The Basics: Miller is 20 years old and represents the Lansing Skating Club in Michigan. She trains in Southern California with Rafael Arutunian.

Season So Far: Miller has lain low this season, taking it easy while she recovers from a groin injury. She didn’t look 100% at the Glacier Falls Classic, where she placed only 10th. She’d improved greatly by Eastern Great Lakes Regionals, which she won by 35 points, although she intentionally doubled a number of the jumps in the second half of her free skate. Close to full strength at Midwestern Sectionals, she didn’t attempt a triple-triple combination but looked confident otherwise, winning the short program and earning top components marks on her way to a silver medal.

Outlook for Nationals: After a busy and tumultuous international season last year, which culminated in a disappointing 7th-place finish at 2016 Nationals, Miller’s injury has given her the opportunity to regroup and reinvent herself as a skater. She’s always brimmed with power and potential but lacked stamina and charisma. That’s changing now, although it’s hard to say whether her artistry will stand out as much at Nationals as it did at Sectionals. It’s also hard to say whether Miller will have to hold back technically to protect her body. Considering the year she’s had, Miller seems to be taking a Just Happy to Be Here approach, but she’s nonetheless capable of a high placement if she’s physically ready.

The Championship Ladies short program begins at 8:05 PM CST on Thursday, January 19. It will be streamed on IceNetwork and aired live on NBCSN. A few free skates will be shown on IceNetwork, but the majority of the free skate will be live on NBC starting at 7:00 PM on Saturday, January 21. That means a number of the ladies’ free skates in the middle of the ranks will not be shown live anywhere.

Next on The Finer Sports: the rest of the senior ladies!

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