14 Great Ladies’ Performances of the 2016-17 Figure Skating Season

I pretend to be more invested in men and dance than ladies, but tell me I have to narrow things down to ten great performances, and I turn into a gesticulating mass of feelings. I enlisted my friends to help me whittle things down, but they left me to my own devices for too long afterward. The “Wait! What about…?” list grew and grew. I decided to leave them all on the list, because what skating fan doesn’t want to watch 14 stellar ladies’ performances from throughout the season, and then subtweet me about how I am so obviously wrong?

Here they are, more or less alphabetically, with consideration taken for athleticism, artistry, and how much it hurt when I tried to convince myself to take them off the list.

Karen Chen
US National Championships short program

Twitter has been calling Chen “Our lord and savior” for a couple of years now, and I have been secretly ridiculing Twitter about it for most of that time. On January 19, 2017, I stopped making fun of them. While Chen’s performances later in the season showed that she still has maturity and consistency to develop, her victory at Nationals was the more important statement. She was terrific in her intense tango free skate, but she was iconic in her lights-out short program, interpreting On Golden Pond with ethereal grace. She impressed me with the sense of timing in her jumps, the apex of her triple lutz almost lapsing into slow motion so she could control the triple toe loop that followed. American ladies peak late these days, and I have to believe Chen’s best is yet to come – but it’s hard to imagine how she could get much better than this.

Dabin Choi
Asian Winter Games Free Skate

South Korea is full of promising ladies, but they’re still waiting for the next Yuna. Choi isn’t yet consistent or dynamic enough to inherit the throne, but she was the queen of the ice at the Asian Winter Games. With a quirky and creative short program, she established a narrow lead, but she soared to the first major international gold medal of her career in the free skate. Her three jump combinations were the key to her success, especially a triple lutz-triple toe loop with so much speed on the exit that she could have tacked on a third jump, and a triple lutz-double toe-double toe with an arm variation, late in the program, that was a triumph of focus and stamina. Choi also showed in her step sequences that she’s developed an easy, inviting musicality. It’s fun to watch the Korean broadcast of this program, as the commentators held back their excitement until Choi’s final jump, then lost their chill completely as she took her bows.

Gabrielle Daleman
World Championships free skate

Daleman’s technical content brought her bronze at Worlds, but her poise and charisma made her the diva of the free skate. If your hardest jump is a triple toe loop-triple toe loop combination, you have to sell it like hell to stay in the hunt. It’s a good thing Daleman’s is the best in the sport, getting the kind of height and ice coverage you’d expect from a quad in the men’s event. In an event where many athletes seemed small and nervous, Daleman exuded “I’ve got this,” looking secure even when she bobbled a double Axel near the end. She also skated with more rhythm in her ponytail than most of her competitors’ found in their entire bodies. No bronze medal this season felt more like a win.

Rika Kihira
Junior Grand Prix Ljubljana free skate

Hey, want to see a 14-year-old hit a triple Axel like it’s easy? Well, thank YouTube, because you probably missed it back in September. Kihira followed that up with an equally effortless triple lutz-triple toe loop that transitioned into a fast, centered Biellmann spin. While she’s rough around the edges, Kihira showed potential to grow into a components beast as well as a jumping phenom, with emotional range through the contrasting sections of her program and surprisingly little two-footed skating for an athlete at her level. Unfortunately, she lost the second half of her season to a knee injury, so she didn’t get to show off that triple Axel at Junior Worlds – or the quad toe loop that she has cooking in practice. Give her a season or two to grow out of her awkward phase and build some height into her jumps, and she’s destined to become one of the stars of her generation.

Laurine Lecavelier
European Championships free skate

When is a mid-program costume change more than a gimmick? Pretty much never, but that doesn’t mean it’s not fun. Lecavelier’s Good Sandy/Bad Sandy Grease routine became an instant camp classic when it brought her Senior B gold at Golden Bear early in the season. When Lecavelier placed 5th at Euros, it became something else: proof that silly choreography can frame serious technical content. She earned more points for the triple lutz-triple toe loop at the top of her program than Evgenia Medvedeva did for her opening triple-triple, and a springy double Axel in the program’s final moments revealed dazzling stamina. It takes tremendous focus to commit to a program like this, and to get the audience on board – a risk that a skater with more of an international reputation never would have taken. Now that Lecavelier has made a name for herself, let’s hope she doesn’t leave her artistic courage behind.

Evgenia Medvedeva
World team trophy short program

The backlash against Medvedeva was strong on social media this year, and some of it was deserved; we’re all long past ready to shove her disturbing and insensitive 9/11-themed free skate down the memory hole. But anyone trying to argue that another current ladies’ skater comes close to Medvedeva’s level of accomplishment is deluding themselves. Loose and goofy at the World Team Trophy, she began by shouting “Spasibo!” to the crowd and ended by pulling faces at some misstep invisible to anyone but her. In between, she was captivating. Her short program choreography this season was, at best, unremarkable, but it’s hard to imagine any other skater making more of it. She’s made a career out of saving all of her jumps for the lucrative second half, taking advantage of the code of points as no other lady could without collapsing from exhaustion. Every move was organic and seamless, and she pulled speed out of nowhere. Medvedeva’s unique brilliance lies in her ability to pack difficulty into every corner of her programs, and to do so with so little effort that she makes everyone else look like they’re slacking off.

Mai Mihara
Four Continents Championships free skate

Last season, after Mihara won her second Junior Grand Prix silver medal, I crowed about her as an unsung hero of Japanese ladies’ skating. She didn’t have the star quality of other athletes her age, but she possessed a mental toughness rarely seen in veteran skaters, let alone unassuming ponytailed teenagers. That rare maturity brought her gold at her first major senior international, the 2016 Nebelhorn Trophy, and a far more impressive victory at her first ISU championship at any level, Four Continents. There, she faced a roster of more experienced ladies and the added pressure of anchoring the Japanese team in the absence of an injured Satoko Miyahara. Mihara rose to the occasion with understated confidence and massive jumps. Her tight rotation and airborne body position earned her big bonuses for grades of execution, and her prescient choice of program music made her literally the Cinderella story of the season.

Satoko Miyahara
Grand Prix Final free skate

Miyahara’s skating drives my brain to nitpicking more than any other lady’s, so I’m all the more pleased when she performs so beautifully that I can get lost in the moment. I wish she’d sold her sci-fi theme more forcefully, but her clever and of-the-moment take on Holst’s The Planets pushed her toward sweeping body movements and full ice coverage. She also showcased subtle but crucial improvements in her jump technique, especially in her high and explosive opening triple loop. Strong as her first few jumping passes were, she conserved her energy for a triumphant final minute, soaring into a spiral like a TIE fighter in flight. Her efforts brought her career-best scores, positioned her as a plausible challenge to Medvedeva, and pacified skeptics like me with evidence that Miyahara’s potential and work ethic are both infinite.

Mirai Nagasu
Skate Canada Autumn Classic short program

Nobody expected anything this great in September, least of all from fan favorite and noted emotional roller coaster Nagasu. Early in the autumn, even the technically clean performances tend to lack polish, so Nagasu’s exquisite lines and effortless timing seemed to have arrived via time machine. They earned her the highest short program score of any American lady this season, a record that produced both laughter and outrage on Twitter as the skaters who beat her out for a spot at Worlds failed to defeat it. When Nagasu’s wits are about her, her muscular jumps are enormous, and she’s one of the most flexible and powerful spinners in the sport. She’s also developed an admirable artistic range, mastering the light-footed delicacy of a Chopin Nocturne that’s the opposite of her irreverent personality. The promising but raw teen skaters on this list should take notes.

Kaetlyn Osmond
Canadian National Championships short program

People were salty about Osmond’s victory over Daleman at Nationals, and if you focused only on their free skates, you were right to side-eye those standings. But Osmond was so gloriously dominant in the short program, she won the title then and there. She earned near-perfect grades of execution for her first two jumping passes, which featured not only exceptional height and clean landings but complex entrances and exits. Her Edith Piaf medley was one of the most inspired matches between program and skater this season, and Osmond not only felt the music but used it, timing her elements to the rhythm and the changes in tempo. Compared to the tiny, tidy ice princesses she competes with, Osmond can look gangly and blowsy. Working with that, rather than fighting it, she’s built an identity for herself on the ice – and enjoyed her most successful season ever.

Anna Pogorilaya
Rostelecom Cup short program

For a few blissful months in late 2016, we all believed that Hillary Clinton would be President and Anna Pogorilaya had achieved technical consistency. Both false hopes reached their highest point during the weekend of the Rostelecom Cup, when Pogorilaya snagged gold on home ice. Her power and fundamental technique have never been in doubt, and when she launched into her triple lutz-triple toe loop, she looked not only strong but comfortable. She’d also made an artistic breakthrough. Past choreographers haven’t quite known what to do with Pogorilaya’s energy, but Misha Ge figured out how to channel it into a tango. She played it with the right mix of sensuality and cheerfulness, and the synergy between her elements and the music boosted her components scores. If the world had literally ended a few days later with the American election, Pogorilaya would have been on top of it.

Kaori Sakamoto
Japan Junior Championships

While Japan’s media focused on middle-school prodigies, 16-year-old Sakamoto quietly cleaned up in juniors this season. She took bronze at both the Junior Grand Prix Final and Junior Worlds, but her crowning moment of fabulousness came at the Japan Junior Championships, where her maturity and clean skating blazed past all those pre-pubescent upstarts. Sakamoto jumps outward as much as upward, and her ice coverage in the air gives her tons of time to rotate and easier control of her landings. By November, she’d developed her Color Purple free skate into a signature program, not in any way telling the story of the film but drawing out the delicate nuances of the music to make it her own. It’s not clear where Sakamoto will fit into the crowded field of Japanese ladies, but her adorable reactions in the kiss and cry reveal a budding off-ice underdog heroine as well as an on-ice champion.

Angela Wang
Pacific Coast Sectional Championships short program

In my notes for this post, this program is listed as Angela Wang at goddamn Sectionals. Since I insist on getting my money’s worth out of IceNetwork, I’ve gotten in the habit of watching the American qualifying competitions, and Wang’s short program was this season’s I can’t believe nobody is going to see this. When Wang’s jumps are on, it’s hard to believe she ever misses. She hit them with poise and confidence here, from the enormous triple flip-triple toe loop at the top to the triple loop with a beautiful arm variation toward the end. She also zipped through her packed choreography, keeping momentum through music that could have descended into schmaltz. Wang has been a hidden gem of the U.S. ladies’ program for years, and performances like this are why more fans should know her name.

Ashley Wagner
Skate America free skate

I tweaked the alphabet to put Wagner at the end not because she’s Ashley – although that would be a perfectly acceptable reason – but because this is the one performance on the list that I got to see live. At the time, I predicted that Wagner’s successes would only grow from here, but it turns out that I sat in the audience of Wagner’s finest free skate. Throughout the season, she tweaked the choreography to maximize her points and clarify the narrative, but this understated and emotionally intense version made the greatest artistic impact. It’s the kind of performance where you look at a two-footed triple loop or a dubiously rotated triple flip-triple toe loop and say, “Eh, looks good to me.” Indeed, Wagner trailed Mariah Bell by 10 points in technical elements in the free skate. She won gold on the basis of program components instead, and I’ve seldom seen a more compelling argument for the second mark as a deciding factor. Whereas most athletes spend the first minute of a free skate gaining speed for a series of difficult jumps, Wagner took that time to establish a mood, firing off a couple of easy double Axels among the anguished stares into the distance. When I write about ice dance, I often complain about generic angst, and this is the opposite: it’s a specific experience of emotional turmoil, matched to a specific interpretation of the music. It’s designed to grab you by the heart and squeeze. The effect worked when I was a few feet away from it, and it works just as well now, on YouTube, in between loads of laundry. If there’s a definition of art, that’s it.

Next on The Finer Sports: my Best Of lists for pairs and men, plus the greatest skating disasters of 2016-17.

3 thoughts on “14 Great Ladies’ Performances of the 2016-17 Figure Skating Season”

  1. Always great observations, humor and honesty. Always a delight to read your comments and give opportunities of considering and changing viewpoints. Thank you for that whether you’re doing laundry or why you drink. Well done, Sarah Rasher.

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