2017 US Nationals Field Guide: Championship Men Part 1

I want them all to skate brilliantly, and I know most of them are going to screw up.

Jason Brown skates his free program at the 2016 NHK Trophy.

We have reached the pinnacle of these field guides – in my mind, at least. The ladies are the headliners in figure skating, which pleases me as a feminist, but no discipline fires up my fannish passions or depletes my booze reserves as much as men’s singles. In what I’m certain is a gift from the skating gods to me personally, the senior men’s field is also the largest one at Nationals this year, with so many athletes earning a bye through the qualifying rounds that there are a total of 21 men competing.

And that’s with one big name out of the running. For the third year in a row, the reigning men’s national champion will not return to defend his title. Jeremy Abbott took a break in 2015, which might or might not be permanent; Jason Brown bowed out in 2016 after re-aggravating a back injury. Now, in the middle of one of the most successful seasons of his long career, Adam Rippon has broken his foot and will be off the ice for several months. Rippon’s absence doesn’t just remove a front runner, but reshuffles the deck, opening the door for some young phenoms and hardworking mid-listers.

In case you’re just joining me, I’ve already written four field guides for this year’s Nationals:

  • Championship Ice Dance, with the highest level of talent across the board of any senior discipline
  • Junior Ice Dance, which will be as hotly contested as the senior event and almost as technically marvelous
  • Junior Men, the men’s event where you’re most likely to see a quadruple loop attempt
  • Junior Ladies, with some very small girls doing some very big jumps, plus an explanation of the four-point rating scale I’m using in all of the field guides

With so many competitors in the field, I’m dividing my men’s field guide into two posts. This one will cover the first 11 skaters, and the other will look at the remaining 10. I’m also diverging slightly from my usual order so that the top skaters will be more evenly distributed between the two posts. Instead of alphabetical order by last name, the skaters in this field guide are in alphabetical order by first name.

Since I’m writing about senior-level competitors, I’ve cranked up my sarcasm and my critical eye to full strength, and I’m going to be hard on almost everyone, even my favorites. I’m also in the delightful position of genuinely liking all of the top American men, and I have a soft spot for a lot of the guys lower in the ranks. I want them all to skate brilliantly, and I know most of them are going to screw up. On top of that, only two men can qualify for the World Championships, so there’s even less room for error than usual. It’s going to be brutal, and some very talented athletes will see their seasons end here.

With that in mind, I’m adding one more rating category for the senior men’s and ladies’ guides. The hierarchy I used for juniors and dance works for most of the skaters here, too: Front Runners for the athletes most strongly contending for the title, Dark Horses with a shot at the podium, On the Rise for the up-and-coming mid-listers, and Just Happy to Be Here for those who are thrilled just to have qualified. But in large fields like this one, there are a few who defy categorization, either because they’re so mercurial and unpredictable, or because their trajectory in the sport hasn’t followed a typical path. They’re wonderful at their best, excruciating at their worst, and lovable at all times. These skaters are Why I Drink.

Alexander Johnson

The Basics: Johnson is 26 years old and represents the Braemar-City of Lakes Figure Skating Club in Minnesota. He trains with Page Lipe in the Minneapolis area.

Season So Far: Johnson began his season at Skate Detroit; his performances were far from perfect, but still good enough for a bronze medal. He went on to place a respectable 6th at the Ondrej Nepela Memorial, his only international assignment of the season. There, he struggled with his quad toe loop attempt and fell on a triple Axel but earned high levels on his spins and strong components scores. Favored to win Midwestern Sectionals, he scored the highest of any Sectionals competitor in the short program but popped three jumps in his free skate on the way to a silver medal finish.

Outlook for Nationals: After many years training in Colorado Springs, Johnson returned to his home state this season to focus more on his education. It’s not clear what effect this has had on his skating, since he’s always struggled with consistency. At Sectionals, he landed a beauty of a triple Axel in his short program but tripped over both attempts at the same jump in his free skate. If all the pieces fall into place for Johnson – the quad, the Axel, his signature triple lutz-half loop-triple flip – he could steal one of the lower steps on the podium, especially with the extra lift he gets from components. Realistically, however, he’s unlikely to match 2016’s 6th-place finish. He’s a plausible long shot for a medal and an equally plausible long shot to come in 17th, and that’s Why I Drink.

Andrew Torgashev

The Basics: At 15 years old, Torgashev is the youngest man in this year’s field. He trains in Coral Springs, Florida, with his parents, former Soviet skaters Artem Torgashev and Ilona Melnichenko, and in Colorado Springs with Christy Krall. He’s a member of the Panthers Figure Skating Club in Coral Springs.

Season So Far: Torgashev won the first senior-level competition of his career, the Philadelphia Summer Championships, skating a little below his best but still demolishing the rest of the field. He went back to juniors for a pair of Junior Grand Prix events. At the first, JGP Saransk, he won his first major international medal, a silver, after hanging onto his quad toe loop and earning straight level 4’s on the non-jump elements in his free skate. Torgashev was solid in the short program at JGP Dresden but imploded in his free skate, falling four times. He finished fourth there and just missed the cut for the Junior Grand Prix Final.

Outlook for Nationals: Torgashev is up against a lot this season. He had to take all of 2015-16 off to recover from an injury; he’s at an age where his body is changing rapidly; he’s never competed senior on nearly as big of a stage as Nationals. On the other hand, he has a long history of triumph at Nationals. He won at the intermediate level in 2013 and as a junior in 2015 – odd-numbered years have been good to him. Torgashev hasn’t competed since early October, so there’s a good chance he’s had his nose to the grindstone in the meantime, cleaning up his quad technique and preparing artistically and mentally for the performance demands of senior-level competition. He’ll have a hard time contending for a medal this year, but he’s On the Rise to become one of the top Americans of his generation.

Daniel Kulenkamp

The Basics: Kulenkamp is 21 years old. He belongs to the Sun Valley Figure Skating Club in Idaho. His coaches are Doug and Lara Ladret.

Season So Far: Kulenkamp performed above expectations at both of his major club competitions during the summer. His 4th-place short program at Skate Detroit was one of the highlights of the meet, although he dropped to 6th overall. He was similarly solid at the Golden West Championships, where he finished 4th, losing only to athletes with extensive international resumes. Kulenkamp had some trouble at Pacific Coast Sectionals, doubling some jumps in his free skate and struggling with his triple Axels, but he did enough for a 4th-place finish.

Outlook for Nationals: Kulenkamp was one of the bigger surprises at 2016 Nationals, finishing in the top 10 after a near-perfect free skate. His jump technique isn’t the greatest – he lacks the height and amplitude that others achieve – and he almost never fully rotates his triple Axel as a result. On the other hand, his choreography works the system well, saving his jump combinations for the second half, and his spins can be a saving grace when he’s having trouble elsewhere. He doesn’t have a prayer of making the podium, but he has a great shot at four minutes of fame on NBC, which means he’s On the Rise even though he’ll be subjecting America to the Michael Bublé version of “Feeling Good.”

Dennis Phan

The Basics: Phan is 31 years old and a member of the Birmingham Figure Skating Club in Alabama. Although based in that part of the country now, he still lists Tammy Gambill as his primary coach.

Season So Far: Phan seemed to show up out of nowhere at Eastern Great Lakes Regionals. He hadn’t competed at any club competitions in the summer – or anywhere at all since 2012. After winning Regionals, he performed an excellent free skate at Midwestern Sectionals and won a bronze medal.

Outlook for Nationals: Phan is this season’s most unexpected comeback in any discipline, to the point where, in my research for this post, I took extra care to make sure there wasn’t another skater with the same name. Sure enough, it’s the same guy, the one who won the Junior Grand Prix Final in 2004 and then never did much of anything else. Phan has never placed higher than 10th at a senior-level Nationals, probably because he never mastered the crucial triple Axel. With one of the lowest overall Sectionals scores of any qualifier, he’s unlikely to crack the top 10 this time, especially since his choreography and non-jump elements haven’t evolved to take full advantage of current judging and scoring rules. But I have to imagine, after a seven-year hiatus from Nationals, that few are more Just Happy to Be Here than Phan.

Emmanuel Savary

The Basics: Savary is 19 years old. He represents the University of Delaware Figure Skating Club, and his primary coach is Jeffrey DiGregorio.

Season So Far: Savary had a busy summer, refining his programs at small club competitions as well as some higher-profile club meets. After warming up his short program at the May Day Open and his free skate at the Chesapeake Open, he headed to the Philadelphia Summer Championships, where he placed 3rd overall. At Junior Grand Prix Yokohama, he looked confident in his short program but imploded in his free skate, sinking from 8th in the short to 12th overall. Things looked way up at Eastern Sectionals, though, as Savary landed a spectacular quadruple salchow on his way to a silver medal.

Outlook for Nationals: Like so many other skaters in this field, Savary is a long-ago national champion, with an Intermediate title from way back in 2009. Since then, he’s grown lanky and unpredictable, often looking strong in the short program only to unravel in free skate after free skate. Men’s singles, more than any other discipline, is a stamina game, and Savary has not yet mastered the art of getting through the last two minutes of a long program without dying. That’s how he managed to bring a clean quad to Sectionals but lose to a guy who can’t land a triple Axel – the equivalent of bringing a gun to a knife fight and losing anyway. I’m sure Savary aspires to more, but until he does some crucial retraining, he’ll be a perennial Just Happy to Be Here.

Grant Hochstein

The Basics: Hochstein is 26 years old. Originally from Michigan, he represents the Skating Club of New York and trains in Southern California with Peter Oppegard and Karen Kwan-Oppegard.

Season So Far: Hochstein got off to an ominous start at the Glacier Falls Classic, finishing an unexpectedly low 7th. He rallied at his Challenger Series events, winning bronze at the Nebelhorn Trophy and placing 5th at the Lombardia Trophy. Disaster really set in at the Grand Prix, however. Hochstein couldn’t connect on his quad toe loop or triple Axel most of the time, and those errors seemed to impede his focus. He placed a disappointing 11th at both Skate Canada and the NHK Trophy.

Outlook for Nationals: Hochstein had a miracle season in 2015-16, placing 4th at two Grand Prix events, taking 4th at Nationals, and finishing a triumphant 10th at the World Championships. It’s hard to back up that kind of success, especially after a long career as a mid-roster journeyman. Hochstein is like a singer-songwriter who writes the feel-good radio hit of the summer and, inevitably, can’t replicate the magic on his next album. Still, his quad toe loop is gorgeous when he hits it, and he gets great mileage out of his components scores even when he’s technically shaky. If he can put the autumn behind him, he has everything it takes to be a Dark Horse again this year.

Jason Brown

The Basics: Brown is 22 years old. He represents the Skokie Valley Skating Club, near his hometown in the Chicago area, but now trains outside Colorado Springs. His lifelong coach is Kori Ade.

Season So Far: Brown tested his legs and new short program over the summer at the Glacier Falls Classic, dominating both segments of this “mini Nationals” club competition and winning by almost 50 points. His confidence and success continued during the Challenger Series, as he won the free skate at the Lombardia Trophy but ended up in a close 2nd behind Shoma Uno. At the U.S. International Classic, Brown recovered from a so-so short program to take gold with an exquisite free skate. That free skate looked even better at his first Grand Prix event, Skate America, where he landed a quad toe loop in the free skate (and took an underrotation deduction, to the consternation of many fans), on his way to a silver medal, again behind Uno. Brown struggled at the NHK Trophy, however, uncharacteristically doubling jumps in his free skate and placing only 7th.

Outlook for Nationals: Last week, Brown revealed that he’s been recovering from a stress fracture in his leg. While he didn’t blame the injury for his troubles in Japan, it explains why an athlete who looked sublime in October was a mess by the end of November. After a back injury kept Brown out of Nationals last year, it’s clear that no power in the ‘Verse can keep him from competing this time. What’s not clear is whether his quad – already a jump he almost never lands – will be competition ready. If not, the slightly simplified technical content might work in Brown’s favor. After all, he reached the top 10 at the Olympics and placed 4th in the world with no quadruple jump. His programs, brilliantly designed by Rohene Ward, squeeze every bonus point out of the scoring system, and Brown is the rare skater who can consistently perform the transitions, steps, and body variations that earn high grades of execution. It’s possible that Brown arrives with as much as a 25-point overall advantage in components scores. That’s not as flashy a superpower as a quad lutz, but it means he’s a Front Runner even if he’s not at full strength.

Jimmy Ma

The Basics: Ma is 21 years old and represents the Skating Club of New York. A Long Island native, he trains across the Hudson River in Hackensack, New Jersey, with Elaine Zayak.

Season So Far: Ma started his season with a bronze medal at the Broadmoor Open, with a score far below his best. He scored higher but placed lower at the Philadelphia Summer Championships, finishing 4th. Facing many of the top senior men at the Glacier Falls Classic, Ma came in only 8th despite posting his best score of the season. He topped those scores again, setting a career best, at Eastern Sectionals, and won the short program with a beautiful triple Axel. He couldn’t find his Axel in the free skate, though, and jump errors took him down to an overall Sectionals bronze.

Outlook for Nationals: For as long as he’s been on my radar, Ma has looked like he’s on the verge of a technical breakthrough. However, his results throughout the season show a skater who still hasn’t achieved consistency in his triple Axel, and although he often plans to include a quad toe loop, he doesn’t quite have that jump either. At 2016 Nationals, he gave it a shot, but with a fall and a downgrade for underrotation, he barely earned credit for it at all. And unlike many other mid-list Americans, Ma doesn’t have the components to make up for technical errors, which is why Kevin Shum destroyed him at Sectionals despite a much lower technical base value. Ma is a hardworking athlete, the sort who will qualify to Nationals as long as he sticks with the sport, but he doesn’t stand out enough as a jumper or as a performer to move up from Just Happy to Be Here – not yet, at least.

Jordan Moeller

The Basics: Moeller is 21 years old and represents the Northern Ice Skating Club in the Chicago area. He trains in Colorado with Kori Ade.

Season So Far: At his first club competition of the season, the Broadmoor Open, Moeller performed intentional single and double jumps, developing his choreography for an audience and a judging panel. That’s why he placed 6th. He attempted a full technical program at the Glacier Falls Classic but was clearly still workshopping, especially in the free skate, finishing 9th as a result. Several months later, at Midwestern Sectionals, Moeller looked like an entirely different skater, especially when he hung onto a big triple Axel in his free skate. He made errors in both programs but did enough to win a surprise gold medal.

Outlook for Nationals: Moeller is a hard skater to assess because he seems to treat his summer like it’s just practice for Sectionals and Nationals. His technical difficulty, and as a result his scores, will rise throughout a season, ensuring that he peaks at the right time. In 2014, he got the timing perfect and won silver at the junior level. With an inconsistent triple Axel, no quad, and – strangely – no triple-triple combination at Mids, he doesn’t have the technical base value for that kind of upset in this field. He does, however, have the potential to climb into the top 10 with a pair of strong performances, especially since his excellent skating skills and challenging choreography put some oomph in his components mark. This week is an important opportunity for Moeller to prove he’s still On the Rise.

Kevin Shum

The Basics: Shum is 19 years old. Originally from the Bay Area, he moved to Boston to attend MIT. He now trains with Peter Johansson and Mark Mitchell and belongs to the Skating Club of Boston.

Season So Far: Shum prepared for his first senior season at a local club competition, the Champlain Valley Open, before heading to Ostrava to compete in the Junior Grand Prix. There, he placed a respectable 7th and achieved a new international career best score. A couple of months later, at Eastern Sectionals, he blew that score away by more than 30 points, performing a near-perfect free skate and winning an unexpected, well-deserved gold medal.

Outlook for Nationals: Shum always looks overwhelmed in international competition, then turns it out like a champion at domestic events. He’s a two-time junior national silver medalist, and both times, he looked like an impossible long shot for the podium going in. At 19, he still doesn’t have a triple Axel, let alone a quad, but his lovely technique and cool head under pressure keep him on his feet when others are stumbling. That mental fortitude, plus a uniquely sophisticated and musical performance style, bring him big components scores and high grades of execution. He seems more interested in giving us all a case of the feelings than in upgrading his jumps, and somehow, that brings him a pile of medals. That’s why I love figure skating, and it’s Why I Drink.

Max Aaron

The Basics: Aaron is 24 years old and originally from Scottsdale, Arizona. He represents the Broadmoor Skating Club in Colorado Springs, where he trains with Tom Zakrajsek and Becky Calvin.

Season So Far: Aaron mostly sat out the club competition season, although he earned a scholarship as the only entry in the senior men’s event at the U.S. Collegiate Championships. His busy international season included two Challenger Series events, the Lombardia Trophy and the Autumn Classic. He won bronze at both despite significant technical errors. Aaron’s technical difficulties continued at his first Grand Prix event, the Rostelecom Cup, where he rebounded to 5th overall after a dismal 8th-place short program. At Cup of China, Aaron was again underwhelming in the short, but he had one hell of a free skate, landing two gorgeous quad salchows and finishing just off the podium, in 4th place.

Outlook for Nationals: Aaron won his first and only senior-level title in 2013, and every Nationals since, he’s skated like he was fighting to reclaim that glory. In 2016, he came close, taking a silver medal in the wake of the best performance of Adam Rippon’s life. It will be a shock if Aaron doesn’t reach the podium this year, but he’s far from the favorite to win. Nathan Chen’s ascent means Aaron is no longer the biggest jumper in the field, although Aaron might be planning to add a quad toe loop to his free skate. There’s also no way Aaron can compete with Jason Brown’s components or execution scores, even with a brand new short program and a crowd-pleasing Lion King free skate. In a certain light, he’s a more balanced skater than either Chen or Brown, but that still adds up to a status that’s more Dark Horse than front runner.

The senior men’s short program begins at 7:30 PM CST on Friday, January 20. It will be streamed on IceNetwork and also air live on Universal HD. The early groups of the men’s free skate will stream on IceNetwork, starting at 1:00 PM CST on Sunday, January 22. The later groups, which include the top contenders, will be shown live on NBC, starting at 3:00 PM CST.

Next on The Finer Sports: the rest of the senior men.

2 thoughts on “2017 US Nationals Field Guide: Championship Men Part 1”

  1. You are a fabulous writer while making me laugh out loud. If NBC doesn’t late broadcast with drag racing I’ll get to see Nationals live with delightful morsels and a bottle of liqueur, less likely to splash at screen (I thought I was the only one to imbibe during these telecasts). Congratulations on your new website.

  2. Oh! Emmanuel Savary–I wish this guy would smile. Have you ever seen him smile? Once, briefly while on the ice, seldom sitting at kiss and cry; it just breaks my heart because it feels as though he’s running through multiplication tables (total focus) and not having any fun. I’m cheering for him.

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