2017 Nationals have begun! While juvenile and intermediate champions earn the first medals of the year, I’m hustling to finish guides to the top-level skaters who will compete next weekend. Since there are 21 men in this year’s senior field, I’ve split my men’s field guide into two posts. The first half of the alphabet is over here. For this guide only, I’m alphabetizing by first name, to spread out the top contenders more evenly between the two. If you’re interested in reading about juniors and/or ice dance, I also have the following guides ready to go:
- Junior Ladies, with some of the biggest jumps you’ll see in any ladies’ event, performed by some of the smallest humans
- Junior Men, with 11 new reasons to mix a cocktail and watch through your fingers (one of the dark horse competitors, William Hubbart, has unfortunately withdrawn)
- Junior Ice Dance, with most of last season’s World Junior podium angling for a repeat
- Championship Ice Dance, with most of last season’s World podium in a hip hop dance-off
I’m more invested in the men’s event than any other, so I have lots to say about all of these guys, from those at the top of the field to the ones who will be proud to not place last. Although I recognize that some are quite young, senior-level skaters should be able to handle brutal honesty, especially since it’s all delivered with a heavy dose of admiration for what they’re capable of. I don’t do predictions, but I’m willing to divide the competitors into five categories that reflect where I think they stand. The Front Runners are those most likely to win; Dark Horses have a strong shot at a medal, maybe even a gold one. Skaters On the Rise are looking to build for future seasons and get their moment on NBC, while the Just Happy to Be Here crowd are fulfilling their season goals just by qualifying to Nationals. The last group are the ones who are too unpredictable or too far outside the conventional order to predict. They are why I love this sport, but also Why I Drink.
The Basics: Chen is 17 years old and a member of Salt Lake Figure Skating in his native Utah. He currently trains in Southern California with Rafael Arutunian, although he spent substantial time this season working with Marina Zoueva as well.
Season So Far: After years of hype at the lower levels, Chen’s first senior season was everything he could have dreamed. He tested his legs at the Golden West Championships and won overall despite a messy 3rd-place short program. At Chen’s senior international debut, the Challenger Series Finlandia Trophy, he fell once in the short program and twice in the free skate, but his four successful quadruple jumps were enough for a decisive win. A near-perfect short program at his first Grand Prix event, the Trophée de France, put him in line for the podium, but two falls and a missed combo in his free skate brought him down to 4th overall. A slightly less ambitious free skate – only four quads! – worked in Chen’s favor at the NHK Trophy, and he took silver. An unusually volatile Grand Prix season meant Chen had done enough for a trip to the Grand Prix Final, and he made the most of it. Chen performed a clean four-quad free skate and shot up from 5th in the short program to 2nd overall, beating several of the best men’s skaters in the world and became the first American man to earn a senior-level GPF medal since 2009.
Outlook for Nationals: It’s tempting to point to Chen’s “season so far” section and drop the mic, but I don’t think his path to gold is as clear-cut as many other fans assume. If Chen skates like he did at NHK or the Grand Prix Final, he has it in the bag. No other American man has anything close to Chen’s technical abilities, and no man in the world competes a greater variety of quadruple jumps. But that firepower was only good enough for a bronze medal at last year’s Nationals, and it came down almost entirely to Chen’s components marks. Some teenagers are natural performers, but Chen isn’t one of them, and he often comes off as so focused on landing his jumps that the music hardly registers with him. Chen is prone to falls, and he doesn’t have the stamina to land a quad in the latter half of his free skate, which means he sacrifices bonuses that most other skaters take advantage of. Chen is a Front Runner – probably the front runner – but he’ll be wise to skate like he’s the underdog.
The Basics: 19-year-old Melnyk represents the Washington Figure Skating Club. His primary coach is Sergei Kuznetsov.
Season So Far: Melnyk prepared for his first senior season at several club competitions, posting solid scores at the Chesapeake Open, then taking silver in a no-nonsense field at the Philadelphia Summer Championships. Still eligible for the Junior Grand Prix, he competed in St. Gervais, placing a disappointing 9th. Melnyk’s troubles continued at Eastern Sectionals, where he didn’t make any giant errors but couldn’t amass the execution or components points to balance out relatively low technical difficulty. He placed 4th, just high enough to qualify.
Outlook for Nationals: Four years ago, Melnyk came in 2nd at Nationals as a novice, and he looked like a future force to be reckoned with. Since then, he’s had trouble developing the consistency and difficulty in his jumps that he needs to move up to the next level. He’s capable of a nice triple Axel but competed only doubles at Sectionals; he’ll have to risk the triple if he hopes to make any impression at the National level. Even if he does, his simple choreography and lack of speed will put him at a major disadvantage in the components department. Melnyk is firmly in the Just Happy to Be Here category, and many of the other athletes in the lower ranks will outshine him.
The Basics: Miner is 25 years old and comes from Vermont. He represents the Skating Club of Boston and trains there with Peter Johansson and Mark Mitchell.
Season So Far: 2016 was a dumpster fire for everyone, but it hit Miner especially hard. At the Glacier Falls Classic, the club competition that started the season for many top American men, Miner placed a dispiriting 6th, behind a number of athletes he’s accustomed to beating easily. He gave it another shot at the Cranberry Open and achieved what was to be his highest score of the season – 40 points below his career best. The nightmare intensified at his Challenger Series event, the U.S. International Classic, where he came in only 6th. Next came a pair of Grand Prix competitions that I’m sure Miner would rather forget: dead last at Skate Canada and 9th of 10 at Cup of China.
Outlook for Nationals: Unless Miner has achieved a major turnaround since November, the signs don’t look good for him. He’s competed at seven senior-level Nationals, earning medals at 3, but he hasn’t stood on the podium since 2013. As recently as last season, Miner showed flashes of brilliance, earning a surprise bronze medal at the 2015 Rostelecom Cup and performing the hands-down best short program at 2016 Nationals before imploding in the free skate. Lately, however, it’s been all implosions for Miner, and it’s hard to perceive him as a serious podium contender this time. On the other hand, it feels unfair to count him out completely, which is another reason Why I Drink.
The Basics: Dyer is 25 years old and originally from Maryland. He now trains in Southern California with Ken Congemi and belongs to the All Year Figure Skating Club.
Season So Far: Dyer sat out the club competition circuit this year, beginning his season at Pacific Coast Sectionals. There, he showcased his refined skating skills and mature performance style, as well as a perfect slate of level 4 spins and step sequences. These made up for his decision not to compete a triple Axel and earned him a bronze medal.
Outlook for Nationals: Dyer is a perennial Nationals competitor who has placed as well as 10th. He lacks the technical content to finish higher but is consistently one of the most pleasurable lower-ranked skaters to watch because he prioritizes his non-jump elements and skating fundamentals. Dyer always seems to be skating for love of the sport and personal challenge, rather than for a particular score or placement, and that frees him up to perform beautifully and sometimes place ahead of more technically skilled skaters who have made more errors. He’s the most enjoyable kind of Just Happy to Be Here, and I’m looking forward to watching him.
The Basics: Rabbitt is 26 years old and represents the Glacier Falls Figure Skating Club in Southern California. His primary coach is Tammy Gambill.
Season So Far: Rabbitt looked terrific at his summer club competitions, with a decisive win at the L.A. Open and a surprise 4th-place finish at the Glacier Falls Classic, ahead of a number of more decorated competitors. His score at the latter was a career best. He found himself outclassed at the U.S. International Classic, his only Challenger Series event of the season, but he put forth a solid skate for 7th place overall. A couple of months later, at Pacific Coast Sectionals, Rabbitt looked terrific, winning the event for the second year in a row with the highest score earned at any Sectionals. If he’d received full credit for the triple Axel he saved in his free skate, he would have scored even higher.
Outlook for Nationals: Rabbitt has competed at five senior-level Nationals, and each time, he’s placed higher than the last. With what he’s up against, an improvement on last year’s 9th will be challenging, but far from impossible. Rabbitt will need to stay on his feet and bring his best triple Axel to make it to the NBC broadcast, and if he does, it’s a good thing for America, since his mambo free skate is a goofy delight. Strange as it sounds to peg a 26-year-old mid-lister as On the Rise, Rabbitt seems poised to move up while many younger skaters have begun to decline.
The Basics: Payannet is 22 years old and represents the Rocky Mountain Figure Skating Club outside Denver. His coaches are LouAnne Conant Peterson and Cindy Larson Sullivan.
Season So Far: Payannet placed 5th at the Broadmoor Open, relatively low in the standings. At Midwestern Sectionals, he skated two clean programs, a refreshing sight after the top contenders struggled with their jumps. Payannet’s low technical difficulty meant that those well-executed performances were only enough for 4th place.
Outlook for Nationals: I’ve got to hand it to Payannet – he’s persisted in aiming for Nationals despite scores that might have convinced others to give up on high-level competition, steadily improving year after year. As a novice and junior, he never managed to qualify for Nationals, but since he’s risen to the senior level, he’s qualified three years in a row. With no triple Axel or triple-triple combination, Payannet is unlikely to ever crack the top 10. However, it was clear at Sectionals that he’s grown in confidence, and it would be great to see him skate at the top of his ability, as he did there. Payannet is Just Happy to Be Here, and he knows how to make the most of the opportunity he’s earned.
The Basics: Omori is 21 years old and a member of the Los Angeles Figure Skating Club. His primary coach is Tammy Gambill.
Season So Far: Omori had a rough time at his summer club competitions. He began by finishing 2nd to Rabbitt at the L.A. Open, then placed way down in 10th at the Glacier Falls Classic. He regained some ground later in the autumn, winning the Pasadena Open. But the tide really turned at Southwest Pacific Regionals, which he won with his strongest performance in years. A month later, at Pacific Coast Sectionals, he outdid that accomplishment, earning a career-best score and landing clean triple Axels in both programs. Omori won the free skate at Sectionals but wound up in 2nd overall, trailing Rabbitt by just over a point.
Outlook for Nationals: Back in 2013, Omori was the U.S. junior silver medalist and the World Junior bronze medalist, and he seemed destined for greatness. Then, a combination of injuries, financial woes, and tumultuous coaching changes almost did him in. Gradually, Omori has worked his way up the comeback trail, and this season, he looks ready to cash in on his potential. There’s no guarantee that he’ll keep control of his nerves and his jumps on the big stage at Nationals, but if he does, he could be one of the biggest surprises in Kansas City. Or he could bomb tragically, but I’d rather bet that Omori is back On the Rise.
The Basics: Dolensky is 24 years old and represents the Atlanta Figure Skating Club. Resisting pressure to move to an area of the country with more extensive figure skating resources, Dolensky continues to train with Brittney Bottoms in Georgia.
Season So Far: Building on a remarkable 7th-place finish at 2016 Nationals, Dolensky kicked off his season with an exhibition skate at the Atlanta Open that proved his quad salchow is real. Since then, Dolensky hasn’t landed the jump in competition, but he’s had a solid season otherwise. He took silver at Skate Detroit and bronze at the Glacier Falls Classic, and these club competition successes earned him a number of international assignments. He struggled a bit at his two Challenger Series events, finishing 7th at the Nebelhorn Trophy and 6th at Golden Spin. Although he wound up in 8th place at his only Grand Prix assignment, Skate America, he performed a beautiful short program there and earned a career-best overall score.
Outlook for Nationals: Dolensky is a classic late bloomer and an appealing underdog, so it’s hard not to root for him. It’s also unwise to count out a skater with a plausible quadruple jump, especially one who understands how to pace himself through a free skate and build points through transitions, interpretation, and non-jump elements. He’s worked to address the inconsistency in his most difficult jumps, spending several crucial pre-Nationals weeks working with jump specialists in Dallas. Plus, USFSA put him shirtless on the cover of Skating Magazine‘s fitness issue, so he’s literally the federation’s current poster boy. All of these factors make it tempting to peg him as a Dark Horse, but his scores don’t put him in the same league as the other medal threats. That dissonance between potential and cold hard numbers is Why I Drink.
The Basics: Hiwatashi will turn 17 on January 20, the day of the men’s short program. He represents the DuPage Figure Skating Club in the Chicago suburbs, and his primary coach is Alex Ouriashev. Correction: Hiwatashi is now training in Monument, CO, with Kori Ade. Sorry for the error!
Season So Far: Hiwatashi competed on the junior level early in the season. He placed 2nd in juniors at the Broadmoor Open, attempting a quad toe loop in competition for the first time. Hiwatashi was originally slated to compete at two Junior Grand Prix events but only made it to one, JGP St. Gervais, where he skated well below his ability and placed only 6th. His results weren’t great at his senior international debut, either: he was 9th overall at the Challenger Series Warsaw Cup. He did land an enormous, if messy, quad toe loop-triple toe loop combination in the short program there, though.
Outlook for Nationals: Hiwatashi didn’t look great in his autumn season, but he almost never does. In 2015-16, he failed to qualify for the Junior Grand Prix Final, then went on to win a junior National title and a surprise bronze medal at Junior Worlds. It’s not exactly a foregone conclusion that he’ll look better this week than he did in November, but it fits the pattern that Hiwatashi has established. From a technical standpoint, he’s certainly in the conversation, and he’s the most musical and engaging of the up-and-coming generation of men’s skaters. It’s overstating things to call him a Dark Horse at this point, but I feel like I’m lowballing him by saying he’s On the Rise. Call him a Rising Horse or something.
The Basics: Zhou is 16 years old and represents the Skating Club of San Francisco. He now trains in Southern California with Tammy Gambill.
Season So Far: Zhou began his season on a promising note, with a strong second-place finish in a challenging field at the Glacier Falls Classic. His scores weren’t quite as high at the Golden West Championships, but they were enough for another silver medal. Zhou looked great at his first Junior Grand Prix event, especially in the short program, but settled for yet another silver after rough landings on two of the easiest jumps in his free skate. He appeared to be in prime position for a trip to the Junior Grand Prix Final, but disaster struck in his free skate, with two falls and a salchow attempt that failed to even launch. He took bronze but just missed the cut for the Final.
Outlook for Nationals: All season long, Zhou has looked spectacular in the short program, only to lose steam in his free skate. This isn’t a new problem for him, but it’s intensified as he’s raised his technical difficulty to include a quadruple salchow. It might also be a side effect of promising developments on the components side of his skating. Zhou’s past programs suited him poorly, sometimes to the point of unintentional comedy, but his choreography and music this season accentuate his introverted and cerebral personality. That personal style could be this Dark Horse‘s secret weapon, even more than his quad.
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: senior ladies, part 1.