Most of the rest of the world has already crowned its skating royalty for the 2016-17 seasons. Only the North American powerhouses, the United States and Canada, save their National Championships for the middle of January. More than ever, internet live streams and social media have made it possible for the world to watch, leaving even many dedicated fans wondering, “Who the hell are these people?”
From now until the start of the higher-level competition (junior and senior) at U. S. Nationals, I’ll be presenting guides to the athletes. I’ll give equal space to everyone, providing video of a recent performance, summaries of their 2016-17 results and past achievements, and a brief description of what they have to offer. I’ll also be dividing them into four categories, based on how I think they’ll perform:
- Front Runners. These are the skaters you’ve probably heard of already, especially at the senior level. In some fields, there’s only one front runner; in some, it’s a legitimate five-way fight. Front runners aren’t guaranteed to earn a medal, but they’re the safest bets.
- Dark Horses. A skater can become a dark horse in a number of ways. Some are newcomers who have shot into the spotlight with impressive results earlier in the season. Others are mid-list veterans who have taken big steps forward this year, or former front runners who are recovering from injuries or other types of disappointment. Dark horses often make the podium and sometimes even win.
- On the Rise. A lot of the skaters at Nationals don’t have the technical difficulty to contend for a medal, but a solid finish can bring big opportunities like financial support and international competitive assignments. For senior-level singles skaters, it might also mean a moment in the NBC broadcast limelight.
- Just Happy to Be Here. For many skaters, the goal is just to get to Nationals. There are always a few athletes in the field for whom scores and placement are less meaningful than the experience. Even though they’re likely to finish toward the bottom of the rankings, many are terrific performers or have great backstories.
When I’m writing about junior-level skaters, I’m well aware that some are very young. One of the top contenders is younger than my cats. Generally, I tone down the sarcasm when discussing athletes this age, but I do sometimes write about aspects of their skating that could be improved. I always intend it as constructive criticism – it’s the teacher in me, always thinking about how someone great could be even better.
With no further ado, here’s the lowdown on the twelve young athletes competing in junior ladies in 2017. It’s a relatively wide-open field this year, headlined by relative unknowns who debuted formidable jumps at club competitions and qualifying meets. With the American ladies struggling internationally at the junior level, there’s huge pressure for the Next Big Thing to spread her wings here. It will be an exciting and unpredictable event, with the top competitors planning jump content as difficult as the top senior ladies’. I updated this post on 1/11/17 to reflect a change in the roster: Ashley Kim has withdrawn, and Madalyn Moree has been added.
The Basics: Andrews is 15 years old and represents the Los Angeles Figure Skating Club. Her primary coach is Derrick Delmore.
Season So Far: Andrews has emerged as one of America’s top juniors this season. She began with a few weak performances at club competitions including the All Year Open and L. A. Open. Things looked up a bit at the Glacier Falls Classic, where she won her qualifying group but fell apart in the final round. She won gold at the US Challenge Skate, then gold again at her international debut, Golden Bear in Croatia. As a result, she got to skip Regionals and go directly to Pacific Coast Sectionals, where she won the free skate with an astounding triple salchow-triple toe loop-double toe loop combination but came in second overall after a mistake in her short program.
Outlook for Nationals: Andrews first hit the radar six years ago, at age 9, when a video of her skating to “Whip My Hair” went viral. This season, for the first time, it’s clear that Andrews is more than a novelty act. She competes two types of triple-triple combinations – not the most difficult in the field, but among the most consistent. Andrews is also a preternaturally talented performer, perhaps the only junior lady who can absorb a mistake or two on the strength of her components score. Her well-roundedness and great results this season make her a Front Runner here.
Maxine Marie Bautista
The Basics: Bautista is 15 years old and represents the DuPage Figure Skating Club in suburban Chicago. Her primary coach is Alex Ouriashev.
Season So Far: Bautista posted solid results in club competitions in the summer and early fall, placing 4th at the US Challenge Skate, and winning smaller competitions including the Southport Summer Classic, Skate Milwaukee, and DuPage Open. She did great in the qualifying round at Skate Detroit, placing 2nd in her group, but had trouble in the final round, falling to 6th. She excelled in her free skate at the Upper Great Lakes Regional Championships, recovering from short program troubles to place 2nd. At Midwestern Sectionals, Bautista looked strong in the moment but suffered big deductions for underrotated jumps, finishing 4th overall and just making the cut for Nationals.
Outlook for Nationals: At Sectionals, Bautista took the kind of risk that gets a girl noticed, attempting a triple toe loop-triple toe loop combination. She didn’t quite get it all the way around, but she’ll likely give it another shot this month. Even if she gets full credit for a triple-triple, she’s unlikely to reach the top ranks: she needs to work on her jump technique to avoid deductions, and that’s a long process. For now, she’s coming into Nationals with the lowest Sectionals qualifying score in the field. As a result, she’ll be wise to treat this year as a growth experience and be Just Happy to Be Here.
The Basics: Beavers is 17 years old and a member of the Washington Figure Skating Club. Originally from the DC area, she trains in Riverside, CA, with Tammy Gambill and Ron Ludington.
Season So Far: After a triumphant 2015-16 that ended with a Novice title at Nationals, Beavers has suffered a rough transition to the junior level. Mostly, this is the result of injuries that forced her to withdraw from her first Junior Grand Prix assignment. In the summer, she placed 2nd at both the Philadelphia Summer Championships and Cranberry Open, losing to Alexia Paganini at both. She struggled at South Atlantic Regionals, popping several jumps in her free skate, but did enough to advance. Beavers looked substantially better at Eastern Sectionals, but still below her best; her 4th-place finish there was just enough to bring her to Nationals.
Outlook for Nationals: It’s hard to say how Beavers will look at Nationals, since her results at qualifying competitions have shown a slow but steady recovery to full strength. In general, her technical content is less difficult than many of her competitors’, although she’s tried out a triple-triple combination a couple of times this season, which would narrow the gap. Even without that, it’s unwise to count out a skater who pulled out a dark horse win last year, especially one with such a captivating on-ice personality. It will be tough for her to reach the podium this year, but she’s very much a skater On the Rise.
Update: As of 1/10/17, Kim has withdrawn from Nationals due to injury. I’m leaving her profile up because she’s still one to watch for next season! Best wishes to her for a speedy recovery.
The Basics: Kim is 14 years old and a member of the Dallas Figure Skating Club. Her primary coach is Aleksey Letov.
Season So Far: Kim made a giant splash at summer club competitions, showing off a consistent triple flip-triple toe loop with solid technique. Kim won with sky-high scores at the Cannon Texas Open and posted the highest short program score at Skate Houston. She placed second at both the Broadmoor Open and Skate Detroit, although her qualifying free skate at Skate Detroit (embedded above) broke 100 points and outscored not only her direct competitors but all the senior ladies at the event. On the strength of these performances, Kim earned a Junior Grand Prix assignment, but she had to withdraw at the last minute due to injury. She got another opportunity for international experience at Golden Bear; she froze a little under the pressure but still did enough for a bronze medal. That took her right to Midwestern Sectionals, where she performed a stunning short program, then lost her nerve in the free skate. It added up to a 2nd place finish.
Outlook for Nationals: In August, I would have pegged Kim as a front runner, but my optimism is more cautious now. She’s an extraordinary jumper, and her hardest jumps – which also include a lovely double Axel-triple toe loop – are there for her time after time. But Kim isn’t used to success at this level: for the past three years, she hasn’t even qualified to Nationals. That lack of experience sometimes shows in the second half of her free skate, when most of her mistakes occur. It’s a problem that Kim can solve with maturity, but for now, she’s a Dark Horse.
The Basics: Kulik is 14 years old and represents the Glacier Falls Figure Skating Club in Southern California. She trains with her parents, Ilia Kulik and Katia Gordeeva. Perhaps you have heard of them.
Season So Far: Kulik’s 2016-17 has been her best season ever. She started out strong at the L. A. Open, placing 3rd, and came back from a rough short program to win the Pasadena Open. She placed 3rd at Southwest Pacific Regionals, qualifying through to Sectionals for the first time. Then, she beat a number of more seasoned competitors – including both of the girls who’d placed ahead of her at Regionals – to take 4th at Pacific Coast Sectionals.
Outlook for Nationals: Kulik is likely to get a lot of attention at Nationals because of her famous and accomplished parents, and it’s definitely fun to see her skating so well. Taken on her own terms, however, she’s a lovely skater but not as technically advanced as most of the other competitors. I hope Kulik doesn’t get bogged down in the hype and expectations and skates like she’s Just Happy to Be Here, as she’s been doing all season.
The Basics: Lin is 13 years old and represents the Dallas Figure Skating Club. Her coach is Sergey Artemov.
Season So Far: Lin smashed expectations at last year’s Nationals, finishing 4th in novice after barely qualifying through Sectionals. Since then, she’s made huge leaps technically and surpassed most of the skaters who beat her there. She began with easy wins at Skate Dallas and Skate Houston. At the Broadmoor Open and Glacier Falls Classic, facing stiffer competition, Lin earned strong scores – especially in components – despite some falls. Those performances brought Lin to her first international competition, Junior Grand Prix Ljubljana, where she landed a triple flip-triple toe loop in the short program and a triple flip-half loop-triple salchow in the free skate. Both lost credit for underrotation, but she was the only American lady in the JGP who looked like she could stand up to the Russians and Japanese. Lin struggled a bit in the short program at Midwestern Sectionals, barely saving her jump combination, but she was extraordinary in the free skate, coming from behind to win gold there.
Outlook for Nationals: Despite some rocky moments, Lin has emerged as one of America’s most promising teen skaters. Rotation issues aside, her ability to execute two types of difficult triple-triple combinations – plus a double Axel-triple toe loop – gives her the base value to surge way ahead of the field. She’s not all jumps, though: Lin has graceful body lines and an effervescent smile, and she might be the best female spinner in America. We could be on the verge of a long, friendly rivalry between tiny Texan Ashleys, but for now, Lin is the Front Runner of the two.
The Basics: Ma is 15 years old. Originally from New York, she trains in Boston with Peter Johansson and Mark Mitchell and represents the Skating Club of Boston.
Season So Far: Ma began her season with easy wins at the Colonial Open and the Boston Open. She had a so-so skate at the Glacier Falls Classic, placing 5th in her qualifying group and 6th in the final round, and finished 3rd at the Cranberry Open despite some technical trouble. But Ma found her groove just in time for her qualifying competitions, blowing away the rest of the field by almost 14 points at New England Regionals. Her streak continued at Eastern Sectionals, where she won the short program and took silver overall, besting several more seasoned competitors.
Outlook for Nationals: Ma’s short program at Sectionals was one of my favorites at the event, mature and confident, but consistency and poise can’t get her quite as far at Nationals. Her jump content is limited – she can’t do a triple-triple combination and plans several double jumps in her free skate – which will most likely hold her back, even as she wins the crowd with her on-ice presence. In seasons to come, she might close that technical gap and become a serious contender. I hope that prediction comes true, and Ma really is a skater On the Rise.
The Basics: McIsaac is 17 years old and represents the Washington Figure Skating Club. Her primary coach is Shirley Hughes.
Season So Far: McIsaac looked amazing over the summer, winning the May Day Open and Broadmoor Open and absolutely destroying in her final-round free skate at Skate Detroit. Unfortunately, she couldn’t maintain her early momentum at higher-stakes competitions later in the season. The judges assessed her harshly at Junior Grand Prix Saransk, taking away points for so many underrotated jumps that she wound up in 8th place. Similar problems held her down at Eastern Sectionals, where she only earned full credit for one triple jump at the entire meet. But McIsaac stayed on her feet and earned high components scores, which added up to a 3rd-place finish.
Outlook for Nationals: McIsaac is the most seasoned competitor in this year’s junior ladies field. It’s her third consecutive year competing at Nationals as a junior, and she has yet to reach the podium. If she skates like she did over the summer – and gets rotation credit for her jumps – she might pull off a surprise. Nonetheless, I worry that her technical content isn’t quite strong enough to carry her past the field’s most powerful jumpers. I’d be thrilled to see McIsaac have the skate of her life, and I think she’s more likely to achieve it if she’s Just Happy to Be Here.
Update: As of 1/10/17, Moree has been added to the roster to replace Ashley Kim, who withdrew. A reminder that 5th place at Sectionals isn’t always the end of the road!
The Basics: Moree represents the Starlight Ice Dance Club in Minneapolis, and her coach is Paige Lipe. I don’t have information on her age.
Season So Far: Moree won the Minnesota State Figure Skating Championships with an excellent free skate and a career-best score. She did great at Upper Great Lakes Regionals, too, finishing first in her qualifying group and 3rd overall. At Midwestern Sectionals, Moree was a surprise fourth after the short program but slipped to fifth overall.
Outlook for Nationals: It’s a treat that we get to see Moree at Nationals, because she’s an uncommonly beautiful skater. Her jumps, step sequences, and connecting moves reflect her experience in ice dance. However, with only three triple jumps planned for her free skate, her base technical content will make it extremely difficult for her to escape the bottom of the rankings. She only had a week to prepare for Nationals and is sure to enjoy the experience. Few skaters will be more Just Happy to Be Here.
The Basics: Nguyen turned 13 in November, making her the youngest junior lady this year, and the only one not eligible for Junior Worlds. After many years training in Colorado Springs, she moved to California this season. She now represents the Los Angeles Figure Skating Club and trains with Angela Nikodinov and Ivan Dinev.
Season So Far: Of the many young skaters who seemed to come out of nowhere this season, Nguyen might be the biggest overnight sensation. She first attracted attention in the summer, when she brought her triple lutz-triple toe loop to the L. A. Open and won by almost 17 points. Her margin of victory was narrower at the Glacier Falls Classic, but she took that gold ahead of both Lin and Andrews. She settled for silver behind Andrews at the U. S. Junior Challenge Skate – the only competition this season she hasn’t won – before leading an American sweep of the novice-level podium at Golden Bear. At Pacific Coast Sectionals, Nguyen once again found herself neck and neck with Andrews, and she ended up taking the title by less than a point.
Outlook for Nationals: Nguyen isn’t quite bulletproof, but she’s one of the surest bets for a podium finish this year. She’s an exceptional jumper, with excellent control over the edge on her triple lutz, which she can perform in two different types of triple-triple combination. Nguyen is also mind-bogglingly consistent and effortless. However, she has more work to do on her program components than the other top contenders here. She performs relatively simple transitions so she can execute those hard jumps, and she’s not as natural an artist as some of her competitors. Once she finds her voice on the ice, she’ll be well nigh unstoppable, but even now, she’s a Front Runner.
The Basics: Ouellette is 14 years old and a member of the St. Moritz Ice Skating Club in Berkeley, CA. She’s coached by Diana Miro.
Season So Far: Ouellette spent her summer making the rounds of club competitions, and she was largely successful. She won some smaller meets – Red, White & Blue Ice, the Silicon Valley Open, and Skate St. Moritz – and held her own in the tough field at the Glacier Falls Classic, placing 3rd in her qualifying group and 5th in the final. At the Junior Grand Prix Dresden, she had a tough time in the short program but fought hard in the free skate, achieving a redemptive 9th place finish. Two solid skates, featuring some stunning spins, earned her a bronze medal at Pacific Coast Sectionals.
Outlook for Nationals: Ouellette doesn’t have a triple-triple, but she has plenty of tricks to make up for that. She raises her difficulty – and her Grade of Execution bonus points – with challenging entrances and arm variations. Ouellette also has a cute, lively persona on the ice and a killer double Axel-double loop-double loop combination at the end of her free skate. She’ll have to be flat-out perfect to make the podium, but I wouldn’t count this Dark Horse out.
The Basics: Paganini is 15 years old and trains in Hackensack, NJ, with Gilberto Viadana and Michela Boschetto. She represents the Skating Club of New York.
Season So Far: Paganini began her season with a pair of gold medals at the Philadelphia Summer Championships and the Cranberry Open. She had a little more trouble at the U. S. Junior Challenge Skate, taking bronze behind Andrews and Nguyen. At the Junior Grand Prix St. Gervais, Paganini landed a terrific triple lutz-triple toe loop combination in the short program but looked nervous in her free skate. Even with two falls, she finished a solid 6th. That big jump looked even better at Eastern Sectionals, where Paganini won gold with this season’s highest overall score for a junior lady at any Sectional Championships.
Outlook for Nationals: Paganini is such an understated and elegant skater that I forgot how good she really is until I watched her performances for this field guide. She competes some of the most difficult jumps in the field, including a remarkable triple salchow-half loop-triple salchow that she nailed near the end of her free skate at Sectionals. She’s not as flashy of a performer as the other top competitors, which puts her at a bit of a disadvantage in program components, but not enough to stop her from being a Front Runner.
The Basics: Porter is 15 years old and represents the Broadmoor Skating Club in Colorado Springs. Her primary coach is Eddie Shipstad.
Season So Far: Porter had a tough time at her summer club competitions. She placed 9th at the Broadmoor Open and 8th at the U. S. Junior Challenge Skate. Things looked up a bit at Skate Detroit, where she won her qualifying group and placed 4th in the final round. At her qualifying competitions, however, Porter looked like a whole new skater. She won Southwestern Regionals decisively – the highest-profile gold medal of her career – and took bronze at Midwestern Sectionals with a near-perfect free skate.
Outlook for Nationals: Porter’s technical difficulty sets her at a disadvantage, as does the inconsistency that brought her such disappointing results over the summer. She did hit a terrific double Axel-half loop-triple salchow at Sectionals, though, and she’s made major technical strides since her 8th-place finish at Nationals last season. She’s also an absolute delight on the ice, with natural charisma and a unique lightness to her skating. Porter has talents for making an impression and peaking at the right time, and that makes her an athlete On the Rise.
The junior ladies’ competition begins on Wednesday, January 18, at 6 PM CST, and concludes with the free skate at 8:30 AM on Friday, January 20. It will be streamed live on IceNetwork.
Next up on The Finer Sports: the junior men’s field guide.