2017 US Nationals Field Guide: Championship Ladies Part 2

Ashley Wagner competes in the free skate at 2016 Skate America.

The senior ladies skate their short program tonight, and I’m here right under the wire with the second part of my field guide. If you’re looking for the first half of the alphabet, here’s part 1 of my Championship Ladies’ Guide. And if you’re really just joining us, I’ve written a full set of field guides for junior and senior ladies, men, and ice dance:

  • Championship Men Part 1 and Part 2, beginning their quad-off on Friday night
  • Championship Ice Dance, America’s best figure skating discipline, kicking off Friday afternoon
  • Junior Ice Dance, almost as good as the seniors, skating their free dance Friday morning
  • Junior Men, already full of surprises in the short program, and competing in the free skate Friday afternoon
  • Junior Ladies, with more promise at this level than we’ve seen in a few years and a free skate battle on Friday morning

Of the 19 ladies scheduled to compete at Nationals this year, this field guide covers the 10 in the second half of the alphabet. At the senior level, skaters are accustomed to a certain level of scrutiny (or need to learn to be), so I’m not shy with the sarcasm – but it always comes from a place of love. This year’s ladies’ field is especially volatile, so I don’t see any point in making predictions. Still, I’ve divided the skaters into five categories that give a sense of where they stand. Front Runners are the most likely to contend for a gold medal. Dark Horses are aiming for the podium and have a chance at stealing gold. Skaters On the Rise will push for a top 10 finish, a live free skate on NBC, and international competition assignments in the fall. Beyond that, there are plenty of athletes who worked hard to qualify to Nationals and are Just Happy to Be Here. The fifth category is for the skaters too difficult to rank: the inconsistent and unconventional, and the ones having uncharacteristic seasons. Those skaters are a big part of the fun of figure skating, and they’re Why I Drink.

Mirai Nagasu

The Basics: Nagasu is 23 years old and represents her hometown club, the Pasadena Figure Skating Club. She now lives and trains in Colorado Springs with Tom Zakrajsek.

Season So Far: Nagasu has had the up-and-down season that her longtime fans have come to expect of her. She tested her programs at Skate Detroit in the summer, purposely singling some jumps and finishing second in her group nonetheless. She looked solid at her first Challenger Series event, the Lombardia Trophy, and won a bronze medal. The Autumn Classic was the highlight of her season, though: she destroyed in the short program and won gold. The Grand Prix wasn’t as kind to Nagasu, especially Skate Canada, where she placed a lowly 9th with big mistakes in both programs. While she looked better at the NHK Trophy, especially in the short program, she settled for 5th place there.

Outlook for Nationals: Slapping a “Why I Drink” label on Nagasu and walking away is the coward’s way out, and I’m not succumbing to the temptation. As mercurial as Nagasu is, she’s held her ground as one of the top American ladies for a decade; this will be her 10th senior Nationals. Since she moved to Zakrajsek a couple of years ago, her jump technique has improved, and she’s taking fewer hits for rotation errors. She might also attempt the holy grail of ladies’ jumps, the triple Axel. With all this in mind, she’s more likely to overachieve this weekend than to bomb out, and she’s more of a Dark Horse than a reason to imbibe.

Rebecca Peng

The Basics: 17-year-old Peng trains with Peter Johansson and Mark Mitchell. She represents the Skating Club of Boston.

Season So Far: Peng began her senior-level career with a disappointing result at the Glacier Falls Classic, placing only 11th in a field packed with high-achieving American ladies. She skated slightly below her best at New England Regionals but had no problem taking gold there, winning by a 16-point margin. Facing much tougher competition at Eastern Sectionals, Peng suffered some rotation deductions but landed all her jumps as planned, qualifying for Nationals with a 4th-place finish.

Outlook for Nationals: Peng has been a constant presence at the novice and junior levels, generally performing well under pressure and twice standing on the lower steps of the podium. She doesn’t have the technical difficulty to contend with the top ladies here, and despite a lovely, fluid skating style, she can’t rely on program components to make up for technical errors. Peng is the kind of solid athlete who can qualify through to Nationals for as long as she sticks with it, but unless she makes a big technical breakthrough, she’ll always be Just Happy to Be Here.

Paige Rydberg

The Basics: Rydberg is 17 years old. Although she represents the All Year Figure Skating Club in the Los Angeles area, she’s originally from the Chicago suburbs, where she trains with Mary Antensteiner.

Season So Far: Rydberg began her first senior season with strong performances at several high-profile club competitions. She placed 4th at the Broadmoor Open, then 2nd at the Glacier Falls Classic with a career-best score, beating a number of other aspiring Nationals contenders. Despite some errors, she pulled off a fifth-place finish at her senior international debut, the U.S. International Classic. Rydberg landed a terrific triple toe loop-triple toe loop in the short program at Pacific Coast Sectionals, but she ran out of steam in the free skate, popping jumps late in her program and just qualifying for Nationals in 4th place overall.

Outlook for Nationals: Rydberg frequently looks promising over the summer, only to fail to deliver in high-profile competitions. She’s the 2014 National silver medalist at the novice level, but in juniors, she never placed in the top half of the standings. Despite Rydberg’s prodigious technical talent, I suspect the same will happen now that she’s moved up to the big leagues. At Sectionals, even a clean short program was only good enough for 4th in the segment, and it all came down to components. Until Rydberg develops her skating skills, expression, and choreography to a senior level, she won’t be able to keep up. It’s a blind spot common among a lot of jump-focused young skaters, and it’s why she’s Just Happy to Be Here.

Livvy Shilling

The Basics: Shilling is 19 years old and comes from Columbus, Ohio. She now represents the Sun Valley Figure Skating Club in Idaho and trains in Colorado Springs with Christy Krall.

Season So Far: Shilling had a so-so start to her season, with a 9th-place finish at the Broadmoor Open. She improved both her scores and her placement at the Glacier Falls Classic, coming in 6th, ahead of some bigger names. She raised the bar again at Northwest Pacific Regionals, setting a new career best score and winning by an incredible 50 points. Nonetheless, she came into Pacific Coast Sectionals as an underdog, only to perform a near-perfect free skate. Shilling won bronze, shutting out several competitors who’d expected to breeze past her, and earned her first trip to Nationals since 2011.

Outlook for Nationals: After graduating from high school, Shilling seems to have shifted her priorities toward skating, and the results have been remarkable. She showed up to Sectionals with a massive triple flip-half loop-triple salchow, which she landed like it was no big deal. That jump alone puts her in the conversation, but it’s her well-roundedness that really sets her apart. Shilling’s high levels and grades of execution on her non-jump elements add up to a big score boost, and her challenging choreography and musical skating style contribute to strong components scores. She’ll have to outdo herself yet again to crack the top 10, but with the strides she’s made in just one season, she’s clearly On the Rise.

Ashley Shin

The Basics: Shin is 19 years old and a member of the Dallas Figure Skating Club. She now trains in Colorado with Kori Ade.

Season So Far: Shin didn’t look terribly promising in the summer, finishing way down in 13th at the Broadmoor Open. She turned things around for her qualifying competitions, though, starting with a first-place short program and an overall silver medal at Southwestern Regionals. Shin wasn’t perfect at Midwestern Sectionals – her Regionals score was a little higher overall – but she held steady and stayed on her feet while others faltered. Her surprise 4th-place finish earned her a trip to Nationals.

Outlook for Nationals: Shin has the lowest overall Sectionals score of the twelve athletes who qualified through. That’s not necessarily a death sentence, especially since she doubled a couple of jumps in her free skate. She’s capable of greater technical feats, including a triple flip-triple toe loop, and she could rocket up the standings if she skates her absolute best. Shin is also a terrific spinner who can pick up some points on her non-jump elements. Still, she probably hadn’t expected to make it past Sectionals, and she’s the kind of skater who’s likely to savor every moment even if she comes in last. And who knows? Sometimes a Just Happy to Be Here philosophy brings great results.

Bradie Tennell

The Basics: Tennell is 18 years old and represents the Wagon Wheel Figure Skating Club in the Chicago suburbs. Her primary coach is Denise Myers.

Season So Far: Tennell sat out the summer and most of the autumn; withdrawals from club competitions suggest she was taking care of her health. She had no trouble winning Upper Great Lakes Regionals, though, taking gold by a 55-point margin. Scheduled for another round of qualifications at Midwestern Sectionals, she instead got a last-minute trip to a Challenger Series event, the Tallinn Trophy. Tennell blew away all expectations with a bronze-medal performance that included an incredible triple lutz-triple toe loop in her free skate. If she hadn’t already been granted a bye to Nationals, that would have secured it.

Outlook for Nationals: I keep having high hopes for Tennell, and every once in awhile, she lives up to them, as she did when she became Junior National Champion in 2015. But she’s just as likely to disappoint, as when she plummeted from 4th in the short program to 11th overall at 2016 Junior Worlds. She’s an extraordinary technician with lots of power in her jumps, but she’s at the point where she needs more sophisticated and mature choreography, not to mention some training time dedicated to her fundamental skating skills. On a good day, she could repeat her 6th-place finish from last year, and it would be cool to see her skate like she did at Tallinn Trophy. (Or see that performance at all – it’s not on YouTube.) As it stands, the only thing I’m willing to count on from Tennell is that she’ll be a reason Why I Drink tonight.

Ashley Wagner

The Basics: Wagner is 25 years old. Although she’s trained in Southern California for a number of years, she still belongs to the Skating Club of Wilmington, Delaware. Her primary coach is Rafael Arutunian.

Season So Far: Wagner sat out the summer competitions and the Challenger Series to make her season debut at the Japan Open. She looked solid there, with the 3rd-place free skate. But she was extraordinary at her first Grand Prix event, Skate America, validating her 2016 Worlds silver medal with a pair of lights-out performances. Wagner looked like a shoo-in for the Grand Prix Final, but instead, she melted down at the Cup of China, receiving seven underrotation deductions in her free skate and placing only 6th.

Outlook for Nationals: Wagner is, by reputation, the top American ladies’ skater, untouchable on her best days. A mistake or two, however, and technical errors will take her down. That’s why she was only 3rd in the USA in 2016, and why, in general, she often receives low scores after performances that look great in the moment. Lurking beneath her triple-triple combinations are persistent technique issues that result in rotation and edge calls when the judges are in a picky mood. It’s hard to remember to watch her feet, though, because she’s a consummate performer, one of the most captivating artists in current figure skating. She’s the only bona fide Front Runner in Kansas City, and she’s on track for her fourth National title. But she’s beatable, and she knows it.

Angela Wang

The Basics: 20-year-old Wang trains with Christy Krall in Colorado Springs. She represents her hometown club, Salt Lake Figure Skating.

Season So Far: Battling injuries in the autumn, Wang kept a low profile for most of the season. She showed up for an easy win and a scholarship at the U.S. Collegiate Championships. That, along with strong performances in her test skates, earned her a Grand Prix spot at Skate America. Unfortunately, she withdrew due to injury, effectively forfeiting her international season. The recovery time did her good, as she showed up to Pacific Coast Sectionals with a world-class triple flip-triple toe loop. Some cracks showed in her free skate there, but she nonetheless earned the highest qualifying score of any Sectionals competitor.

Outlook for Nationals: If injuries hadn’t set in, there’s a good chance that Wang would have had a season more like Mariah Bell’s, emerging in her early 20’s with mental toughness and artistic expression to equal her technical talents. Wang has some of the most secure jump technique in America, and she’s technically well-rounded, with consistent high levels and grades of execution on her spins and steps. Where she falters is in her stamina, in ways that seem more psychological than physical, letting mistakes rob her of her focus. Judging from the end of her Sectionals free skate, she hasn’t entirely conquered that demon, but she’s tackling it better than she used to. And it’s not like anyone else here is less meltdown prone. My heart says she’s a Dark Horse, but my liver insists that she’s Why I Drink.

Megan Wessenberg

The Basics: Wessenberg is 18 years old and represents the Skating Club of Boston. She trains with Peter Johansson and Mark Mitchell.

Season So Far: Wessenberg has had a busy season, honing her skills at a number of club competitions. She placed 2nd at the Lake Placid Figure Skating Championship, losing only to Canadian champion Alaine Chartrand. From there, she went on to a solid 4th-place finish at the Glacier Falls Classic and a silver medal at the Cranberry Open. She earned her highest scores of the season, and a gold medal, at the Boston Open. At Wessenberg’s sole international meet of the season, Junior Grand Prix Ostrava, she landed a big triple toe loop-triple toe loop combination in her short program and finished a solid 6th. She hit a few snags at Eastern Sectionals, with a fall in each program, but performed well enough overall for 2nd place.

Outlook for Nationals: Wessenberg’s triple-triple ought to put her on the map. But her jumping content is some of the least balanced in the field: she doesn’t compete a triple flip or triple lutz, and the absence of those high-scoring jumps limits how high her technical scores can go. She’s an engaging skater, but not particularly fast or secure on her edges, so she can’t make up ground in her components scores, either. Wessenberg does have a history of exceeding expectations – she won bronze as a junior at last year’s Nationals – but she lacks the magic bullet that would make her more than Just Happy to Be Here.

Caroline Zhang

The Basics: Zhang is 23 years old and represents the All Year Figure Skating Club near Los Angeles. She trains with Peter Oppegard and Karen Kwan-Oppegard.

Season So Far: Zhang has been on the comeback trail all season long. She began with promising short programs at the California Championships and All Year Open. She looked a bit cautious at the Glacier Falls Classic but took bronze nonetheless, then won the Golden West Championships. A couple of months later, having reintroduced more challenging technical content, she ran away with Southwest Pacific Regionals, winning by almost 35 points. At Pacific Coast Sectionals, she couldn’t get past the Angela Wang juggernaut, but she won the free skate and took silver with a score that would have won either of the other Sectionals.

Outlook for Nationals: Zhang spent a full year recovering from surgery to correct a hip problem that might have ended the career of a less determined skater. Things looked dodgy for her at first, but by November, she was posting scores that she hadn’t come close to since 2012. In fact, her jump technique is far more secure than during her glory days as a teen prodigy, with full rotation and lots of air time on her signature triple loop-triple loop. She has some work to do on her speed and musicality, especially with so many natural showstoppers in the field. Still, if anyone knows how to bring the fight when it counts, it’s Zhang. She may be a veteran, but it’s never too late to be On the Rise.

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: Follow me on Twitter for real time reactions! Then, stay tuned for highlights from U.S. and Canadian Nationals.

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