6 More Things I Learned from the 2017 US National Figure Skating Championships

Madison Chock and Evan Bates perform their free dance at Nationals.

What’s a blogger to do when she wants to say everything about Nationals? Someone with more restraint – or an editor – might just skip stuff, but skating fans hate it when you skip stuff. As it does almost every year, NBC blacked out the live performances of a number of ladies and ice dancers in the earlier warm-up groups, and Twitter threw a fit. So I’m going to indulge my completist tendencies and cover everything I have an opinion about. If you haven’t read the first part of my Nationals recap, start there. This is a continuation of that post, not a stand-alone sequel.

It’s been an ugly couple of weeks in the United States, and watching figure skating has given me some emotional relief from current events. At the same time, Nationals have reminded me that America’s strength comes from the diversity of its citizens and residents, and that my country has a long track record of undermining that strength. From the 1880’s until the end of World War II, Chinese-Americans like Nathan Chen, Karen Chen, and Vincent Zhou endured laws that restricted immigration, curtailed civil rights, and stoked anti-Chinese sentiment, using rhetoric that will sound familiar to anyone following the news lately. In the 1940’s, Japanese-Americans like Mirai Nagasu, Maia Shibutani, and Alex Shibutani were stripped of their livelihoods and property and forced to live in internment camps, while European Jews, like Jason Brown’s ancestors (and my own), were turned away from American borders despite facing almost certain death in their countries of origin. In the 1950’s, Americans of many backgrounds were targeted in anti-Communist inquisitions, but Russian immigrants and their descendants – people like Alex Krasnozhon and Anthony Ponomarenko – became particularly vulnerable to interrogation, imprisonment, and professional blacklisting. In retrospect, none of these violations of civil and human rights made America safer, and several harmed the United States economically. In this, as in most things, sports are a microcosm of society, and an illustration of what we have to lose through ignorance, paranoia, and bullying.

Anyway. Also there was skating.

6. ice dance was a toss-up at the top.

I’m not entirely convinced that the right team won gold in ice dance this year. I love Maia and Alex Shibutani and had hoped they would repeat, so from a fan standpoint, I got what I wanted and should just move on. But looking at things as a stats nerd, and striving for fairness, it was a very close call, to the point where I don’t think the difference between the Shibs and the silver medalists, Madison Chock and Evan Bates, was statistically significant. Of course, figure skating rules don’t account for mathematical error, but the narrow margin between the two teams – 1.01 points – reinforces that this one could have gone either way.

The Shibutanis finished the short dance with a small but meaningful lead of 2.46 points over Chock and Bates. The two teams’ technical scores were identical on two of their elements: they earned maximum levels on their lifts and pattern dances and received the same high grades of execution on both. The Shibutanis got the grade of execution advantage on their partial step sequence and twizzles, and it’s hard to argue with the latter in particular, since their twizzles are pretty much the best in the world. Chock and Bates also lost a precious level on their no-touch step sequence. I’ve rewatched those steps a few times and remain uncertain of where the deduction came in, although I caught a few split-second losses of synchronization. It’s a dubious advantage, though, because I also thought I saw the Shibs miss a checkpoint in their pattern dance, an element that was reviewed but ultimately judged a level 4.

Where the Shibutanis really gained ground, though, was in program components. Five judges gave them perfect 10’s for interpretation, while only one judge awarded Chock and Bates a 10 in the same category. Since both teams have exceptional edges and ice coverage, punishingly complex choreography, and terrific performance skills, I suspect that the gap really came down to the fact that the Shibs have the more interesting and cohesive program. Chock and Bates’ short dance shifts abruptly between two good songs that don’t really go together, while the Shibutanis’ flows seamlessly between two versions of “That’s Life,” one classic and one modern. Well-conceived short dances haven’t guaranteed teams’ success this season, but the Shibutanis’ stronger concept showcased their abilities more effectively than Chock and Bates’ fun but disjointed program showcased theirs. Does that justify a difference of 2.46? Maybe if you’re splitting hairs, as the Nationals judges had to.

The teams’ fortunes reversed in the free dance, with Chock and Bates edging out the Shibutanis, albeit not by enough to win the title. The Shibutanis lost most of their ground to a one-point deduction for an extended lift, although Chock and Bates surpassed them in grades of execution throughout. While the Shibutanis once again performed the better twizzles – and perhaps didn’t get enough credit for how much better they were – Chock and Bates were as good or better at every other element. In particular, Chock and Bates stood out for their fast, crisp, and challenging lifts, earning perfect grades of execution on all three leveled lift elements. The judges also gave them the highest possible marks for their diagonal step sequence, a crucial element that’s worth almost as much as a quad toe loop.

The program components marks were where I thought the judges might have gotten off track. While the Shibutanis came out ahead on program components by a few tenths, the judges narrowly preferred Chock and Bates on the Performance component. The Shibutanis are better than Chock and Bates at matching their edges and lines, but they also have a natural advantage in that respect, since they’re closer in height and have more similar body types. That’s not an excuse for Chock and Bates; teams with larger height differences know they have to put in more time on precision to make up for natural differences in extension. In terms of performance, interpretation, and choreography, however, Chock and Bates had a clear advantage in my eyes. They, and not the Shibutanis, were the ones who should have come away with a majority of perfect 10’s on the components most closely tied to artistry. The Shibutanis’ free dance is hauntingly beautiful but a bit flat, and especially in the final minute, they couldn’t rise above that flatness. Chock and Bates, on the other hand, have never thrown more reckless verve into their free dance, which is a showstopper even on a bad day. They’ve never performed it better than at Nationals, and I’m not sure the judges gave them sufficient credit for that achievement. Perhaps Chock and Bates will take that one-point deficit as a challenge as they head to Four Continents and Worlds, and we’ll see them force the judges to raise their components scores accordingly.

7. You Know What’s Not Dead? Artistry. 

It doesn’t matter as much as it should, but it’s not dead. The main thing that sets the United States apart from other countries in the men’s event is that it’s artistry all the way down. Skaters like Scott Dyer and Kevin Shum might never develop the technical content to threaten the upper ranks, but their extraordinary musicality made the IceNetwork portion of the men’s free skate a delight.

Among the top contenders, the first triumph of artistry over firepower came at the end of a long night of ugly short programs. Nathan Chen had already blown the roof off with his quads, but Ross Miner responded with a lesson in elegance. He skated the exact same program perfectly in 2016, and I’m beyond ready for him to get some new choreography. But Miner was skating for a medal, not to appease my low tolerance for Billy Joel, and his comfort with this program served him well. Instead of attempting a quad, Miner hit great landings on three easier jumping passes, including a triple Axel that came just short of perfect grades of execution. What stood out most, however, was Miner’s fluid, unhurried style while performing difficult steps and transitions. He couldn’t muster the same confidence in his free skate, where he crashed and burned his way off the podium, but his second-place short program was the most satisfying of the night for me.

Alexander Johnson’s Nationals was the mirror image of Miner’s. He struggled in his short program, making errors in two of his jumping passes, and squeaked into 9th almost entirely on the basis of program components. Johnson’s speed, control, and performance quality always stand out, but it’s rare to see his jumps fall into place as well, as they did in his free skate. One of only two men to earn positive grades of execution on every element in his free skate (the other, unsurprisingly, was Chen), Johnson ended up getting lowballed on components. He earned about the same components score as a far less polished Vincent Zhou. Nothing against Zhou, but maybe in five years, he and Chen will come close to Johnson’s nuanced interpretation and pristine body lines. Sixth place for a program with no jumping pass more difficult than a triple lutz-half loop-triple flip is no small accomplishment, but Johnson’s components scores reveal how much extra credit the judges hand to the bigger jumpers on their second mark.

Jason Brown, on the other hand, is the rare skater whose fundamentals and performance quality are so uniquely excellent that he doesn’t get assessed downward for sticking to triple jumps. Recovering from a stress fracture, he left out the quad toe loop that he never really lands anyway, but he also made uncharacteristic jump errors in both programs. In spite of his technical hiccups, Brown achieved the highest components scores in the field in both programs, albeit by a slimmer margin over Chen than made sense to me. Some fans complain that Brown’s programs are too dense with movement, but that’s where the high components come from. He makes relentlessness look easy. If most other skaters piled on the transitional steps and flexibility moves the way Brown does, they’d be gasping for air by the third minute. And they wouldn’t be landing any of those hard jumps if they had to bust them out of footwork and make split-second edge shifts like Brown does. His free skate is an odd piece of choreography, slow and lyrical but transformed by Brown’s irrepressibly sunny personality. Even with errors, it was captivating, and more than worthy of a bronze medal behind two teenagers who out-jumped him by miles.

8. it’s not quite time to take american pairs seriously.

The United States is so close to having a real pairs team. On paper, we have at least four, but they all seem to foul up their jumps at the worst times. All pairs teams do that, though, so you’ve got to wonder what the real problem is. I don’t have an eye for pairs like I do for dance or singles, but I suspect it has something to do with finesse. Even when the best Americans are on fire, they don’t have the speed or synchronization of the top Russians or Canadians. This year, it didn’t help that the two teams most capable of closing the artistry gap were out of the running. Last year’s champions, Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea, withdrew after Kayne suffered a concussion from a fall in their short program. Newlyweds Alexa and Chris Knierim didn’t even get that far; recovery from an injury left them too little time to prepare before Nationals, and they scratched entirely.

The new champions, Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier, didn’t put down the kind of decisive, triumphant performance that crowned 2017’s other three senior-level winners. They missed both of their side-by-side jumping passes, and their throw triple salchow wasn’t so hot, either. Denney and Frazier bring tremendous drama to their lifts, and their warm connection to one another stood out among many teams whose facial expressions mostly conveyed the desire to survive the next four minutes. Despite the mistakes, Denney and Frazier were far and away the best team this year. I only wish they’d shown as much certainty in their jump timing as they did at Skate America last autumn. Maybe they’ll get their groove back in time for Four Continents.

The one pure ray of sunshine in 2017’s dim pairs event was the short program by a newly formed team, Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc. Both names are familiar to followers of American figure skating. LeDuc has been on the pairs scene for nearly a decade with various partners, and even knocked on the door to the Olympics in 2014 with an amazing Nationals short program. With former partner Joshua Reagan, Cain won National titles at the novice and junior levels, then ended the partnership to focus on singles. That didn’t work out so well for Cain – she consistently qualified for Nationals but never reached the top 10 at the senior level – but it prepared her for an explosive return to pairs. While most American pairs ladies struggle to land their jumps, Cain has no trouble with a triple loop. That difficult side-by-side jump looked effortless. Cain and LeDuc didn’t just win the short program on technical elements, though; they edged out even Denney and Frazier on program components. They owe most of that to a clean, connected, and crowd-pleasing performance, but their elegant body lines contribute as well. Most pairs teams succeed because of striking size differences: a big, beefy guy lobbing a pint-sized girl through the air. At 5’6″ (168 cm), Cain is tall even for a singles skater, and that gives LeDuc more height and weight to negotiate as he lifts and throws her. The team turns their unconventional physicality into an asset, matching long extension on their stroking and adding drama to their death spiral. They look like ice dancers, and maybe that’s why they appeal to me so much.

9. NBC Needs To Rethink Its Free Skate Coverage.

This isn’t exactly news. Every year, the deal between NBC and IceNetwork means that a bunch of free skates aren’t shown live anywhere, leaving fans with no way to watch some of their favorites until days later. The dividing line is based on short program placement, so top skaters often fall into the blackout black hole if they had a bad Friday night. Once in a while, things line up perfectly: this year, every men’s free skate either streamed on IceNetwork or aired on NBC. That’s the exception to the rule, though.

NBC’s effective handling of the men’s event might have been in response to giant blunders in their ladies’ free skate coverage. A couple of notable ladies had fallen apart in the short program – Courtney Hicks and Hannah Miller – so NBC got IceNetwork to black out all of the first two warm-up groups of the ladies’ free skate. Hicks skated well, as did Amber Glenn and Angela Wang, but NBC skipped their performances anyway, instead showing everybody from the final two groups, those who had placed 1-10 in the short program. The first three of those ten were skaters I like, but they were all such disasters that day, Tara and Johnny ran out of things to say. Meanwhile, the only people allowed to see Glenn and Wang in real time were those in the arena. A few angels of fandom Periscoped from the stands, so if, like me, you follow the right people on Twitter, you got to see a blurry stream of underdogs kicking butt. The vast majority of viewers, however, didn’t get the opportunity to see how the 7th- and 8th-place finishers rose to those results, an omission that interfered with the narrative of the day.

Neither Glenn nor Wang was perfect. Glenn doubled the first jump in her planned triple lutz-triple toe loop combination, and Wang fell on an easy triple salchow after landing all the hard stuff. But Glenn rebounded from her early error to complete a gorgeous double Axel-triple toe loop and a full set of level 4 spins and steps, while Wang pulled off the single highest-scoring technical element of the day, a soaring triple flip-triple toe loop-double toe loop combo. In addition, both gave mature, engaging, TV-ready performances. For the sake of all future Wangs and Glenns, I hope NBC and IceNetwork will finally revisit their blackout policies and either stream the early groups on IceNetwork or put them on cable, as they did with the short programs. I also hope they’ll figure out how to make room to broadcast outstanding performances from earlier in the afternoon. I’m pretty sure that even the casuals would rather watch more actual skating than slog through a fluff piece.

10. some of the Best Ice Dancers in the world Are Skating Juniors.

Again, this isn’t exactly news, but if you missed the junior ice dance event, you missed an up-and-coming generation of ice dancers who are likely to outpace the technical and artistic achievements of the current top tier. Only eleven ice dance teams competed at the senior level this season, and the most likely reason is, nobody believes they have a prayer once these guys move up. In my first post, I wrote about Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter, who are exceptional when they’re not taking comedy falls and settling for bronze. Even with that fall, in most countries, they would have been the hands-down winners in juniors. Only in America could two teams have been this much better.

Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko have spent the past few years waiting for slightly older teams to move up. Barring disaster, they’ll be the queen and king of junior ice dance next season – not just in America, but worldwide. They earned maximum levels on every element in their free dance at Nationals, a big accomplishment for a team that has come up just short on their step sequences all season. They’ve also grown into their free skate choreography, more than I would have thought possible. “Exogenesis” is a bit too big and mature for these two apple-cheeked teenagers, and earlier in the season, they looked awkward when they tried to capture its seriousness. At Nationals, however, they made it their own, infusing the heavy music with a youthful lightness. Their most important takeaway from Nationals might be confidence, though. Now that they’ve beaten McNamara and Carpenter once, they should head to Junior Worlds with the belief that they can do it again.

The real stars of junior ice dance – at Nationals and throughout the season – have been Rachel and Michael Parsons. In some respects, they outshined even the best senior teams. Unlike any of the seniors, they earned maximum levels on all of their elements in the free dance. Their overall score would have placed fourth at the senior level, despite the fact that junior ice dancers perform two fewer technical elements. They’re fast, sharp, and musical, and like Maia and Alex Shibutani, they’ve figured out how to express their sibling bond in ways that are appealing rather than unsettling. But their most impressive accomplishment this season might be that they’ve proven it’s possible to perform a lyrical free dance that doesn’t devolve into cliched intensity or heaviness. Skating to a sweeping, hopeful pop song, their choreography stays free and light. It draws attention to their speed and flow, and it’s a welcome antidote to all the ice dance angst.

11. It’s a Good Year to Be a Chen.

This one doesn’t really need repeating. I just wanted to end on a triumphant note. Sure, I could harp on Karen Chen’s inconsistency, especially in international competition, or call out everyone who has suddenly mistaken Nathan Chen’s jumping ability for transitions or interpretation. Both skaters own those flaws, Karen with a poise beyond her years and Nathan with a sparkling sense of humor that I suspect is only going to get more endearing as he dominates American men’s skating for the next decade. Neither is a complete skater – at least not yet – and recognizing their limitations shows them more respect than pretending that, at 17, either is fully formed. It’s almost unquestionable that Nathan has nowhere to go but up. Karen’s path will be less straightforward, but she’s shaping up to follow the current pattern of great American teens who keep improving well into their 20’s. In a few years, we’ll be marveling at how tiny they looked when they won their first senior Nationals.


Next on The Finer Sports: Four Continents Championships recaps. I would have written previews, but I obviously have run out of time. Also, my predictions mostly stop at Help, there are so many quads happening. I will be live tweeting.

 

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