The 16 Most Epic Skating Disasters of 2016-17

Image via kinpunshou on Tumblr.

Skating fans like to pretend we’re in it for the successes: the biggest and cleanest jumps, the most engaging and original performances, the mascara-ruining happy tears in the kiss and cry. But there’s something cathartic about an enormous failure. Often, the most memorable programs at a competition are not the technically cleanest ones, but the ones where the wheels come off and the athletes spend four minutes careening toward their worst nightmare.

Not all bad performances are epic. Most are boring and difficult to sit through. Some are so tragic that they’re not worth revisiting; this blog’s official policy until further notice is leave Gracie alone. Many are rooted in fear and inexperience, which is why I’m mostly leaving juniors off the list.  The greatest skating disasters almost always come from great skaters, and part of the fascination comes from knowing how phenomenal these athletes can be when they’re not screwing up. This post is dedicated to the small number of disastrous performances that demand to be rewatched, ridiculed, and picked apart for valuable lessons. It’s a celebration of skating schadenfreude, in more or less alphabetical order.

Mao Asada
Japan Championships free skate

Asada is an undisputed legend among ladies’ skaters, but she stayed in the game one season too long. At the height of her powers, she might have absorbed the fall on her triple Axel attempt, but this time, it signified the start of a slow disintegration. She cheated both jumps in her showy triple flip-triple loop combination, but the real problems arose in the second half, when she sat down on a relatively easy triple salchow and popped a triple flip. Even her artistry seemed diminished, like she was just trying to get to the end so she could get on with her life. Asada all but sealed her retirement plans with her 12th-place finish at Nationals – the first time she’d missed the podium since 2004.

Max Aaron
US National Championships short program

Max Aaron’s performance quality and skating skills aren’t the strongest, but his affable personality and penchant for very flattering man-tights make him easy to root for. He brought a brand new short program to Nationals, and even with strong technical content, it would have been campy and awkward. Unfortunately, Aaron’s program played out like a blooper reel. He took a nasty fall on his quad salchow, then flailed to save an off-kilter triple Axel. By the time he narrowly avoided face-planting in the middle of his camel spin, it was clear he’d lost hope of salvaging the wreck. Nevertheless, he tried to squeeze a jump combination into the second half, resulting in a painful triple lutz-triple toe loop-belly slide. At least his tuchus looked fabulous.

Madison Chock & Evan Bates
Grand Prix Final short dance

Chock and Bates looked okay for half of their short dance at the high-pressure GPF, and then they, um, funked it up. When Chock tumbled to the ice at the end of their partial step sequence, she slid so smoothly that it almost looked intentional. All but one judge ruled that the fall occurred during a transition, not during the element itself, but the error threw off their momentum for the rest of the routine. Chock almost spun out of her first twizzle, and they appeared to spend most of their no-touch step sequence trying not to fall instead of connecting with their music. In the end, the problem wasn’t that they made a mistake, but that they couldn’t recover the funk once they’d given it up.

Haven Denney & Brandon Frazier
World Championships short program

In case we needed more evidence that the United States’ pairs program is about as functional as its health care system, the 2017 national champions failed to qualify to the free skate at Worlds. They started off with a solid enough triple twist, but followed that with a pair of sprawling cartoon pratfalls. First, Denney caught her toe pick on their throw triple loop, grasping for control and dignity as she slid backwards on her stomach. Neither could hold onto their side-by-side triple salchows, but Frazier landed on his hip, as if hoping to be painted like one of your French girls. Perhaps aware that they shouldn’t really bother with the rest, they proceeded into a step sequence that went on for approximately twelve minutes. It was the kind of performance that can permanently wreck a reputation with the judges – a shame for a talented, energetic team that should have been gaining Olympic momentum.

Javier Fernandez
Grand Prix Final free skate

Fernandez won a number of competitions this season, but not for a lack of wiping out on his jumps and grinning as if to remind us that he was still the reigning World Champion. He was never worse than at the Grand Prix Final, where he plunged out of podium range by tripling a planned quad toe loop, falling on a triple Axel, and enduring a snarly step-out from a quad salchow. Fernandez was supposed to be portraying asuave 50’s Elvis, but instead, he brought the staggering, pill-addled 70’s King. It wasn’t the only men’s trainwreck at the GPF – Patrick Chan was even worse – but it added up to an especially frustrating example of Fernandez’s unsteady technique and faltering stamina.

Charlene Guignard & Marco Fabbri
European Championships free dance

It’s unfair to include a program on the disaster list because it gives me stultifying boredom flashbacks to the many ballet-student performances of The Nutcracker I have sat through in my lifetime. Or because Fabbri’s costume renders his right arm invisible for most of the free skate. But it’s totally fair to add this one to the hall of shame for the curve lift in which Fabbri lifts Guignard onto his back, she misses the crucial balance point, and they somersault over one another in a fall that, in a more colorful world, would have been punctuated with a record scratch and puffs of dust.

Madison Hubbell & Zachary Donohue
World Championships free dance

I promised myself I wouldn’t build this list based on my opinions about choreography or music choices, but I am glad I’ll never again have to watch this overwrought tribute to Nice Guys who won’t take no for an answer. I might have enjoyed it more, however, if Hubbell and Donohue hadn’t made hash out of it at two of the most important events of their season. They clung to bronze after a fall at Nationals, but their Worlds performance was a twizzle apocalypse. Donohue slid off his edge during their first set of twizzles, eliciting a gasp from the crowd as he barrel-rolled back to his feet. The error invalidated the entire element, and they couldn’t recover psychologically afterward. They dropped from a surprise 3rd in the short dance to an underwhelming 9th overall. It was the most shocking moment in one of the most volatile ice dance competitions ever.

Boyang Jin
Skate America short program

Jin should have been the men’s headliner at Skate America. Coming off a bronze medal at his first senior-level Worlds, he planned to premiere a campy, charming Spider-Man short program that accentuated his personality and addressed the program components gap he’d been working to close. In practice, he’d been drilling superhuman quad lutz-triple toe loop combinations all week. But faced with the pressure of his first meet of the season – and up against a bunch of guys who had been honing their nerves in the Challenger Series for months – he imploded. Jin fell on both of his quads, missed his combination, and barely saved his triple Axel. All the cute pointing and web-shooting couldn’t hide a reliance on two-footed skating and unsteady edges, and he earned one of the lowest components marks in the field. As a piece of choreography, this was terrific fun, but it wasn’t the radical reinvention that Jin had surely hoped for.

Alena Leonova
Trophee de France free skate

At 26 years old, Leonova is the grande dame of Russian figure skating. She’s at the point where she can do whatever she wants artistically, including a blessedly bizarre Harley Quinn-themed short program that was one of this season’s surreal delights. At TdF, she emerged from the short program with a medal in sight, 7th but only a few points back from bronze. But when Leonova melts down, she melts down completely. She fell five times in her free skate, incurring nine points in deductions, and did not land any triple jumps. If that weren’t enough horror and surrealism, a pigeon flew over the ice in the middle of her routine. By the end, I wanted to give her a hug, but what she needed was a bathtub full of ice and a can of bird repellent.

Julia Lipnitskaia
Rostelecom Cup free skate

Lipnitskaia had been nursing a leg injury in the weeks before the Rostelecom Cup, but a brilliant short program suggested she was on the mend. In the free skate, however, the worst-case scenario arose. She looked fine through the first half of her program, but a catch-foot position in her flying camel spin aggravated the injury; she cringed visibly as she bailed out of the spin. Gamely, she kept going, but a planned double Axel became a waltz jump, followed by an interminable pause in her program as she contemplated whether to go on. By the time she’d made up her mind, she’d incurred a five-point penalty for interruption in excess, and the pained double jumps didn’t seem worth it to anyone, least of all Lipnitskaia.

Alexander Majorov
Rostelecom Cup free skate

Lipnitskaia’s free skate was only the second most incredible injury-related trainwreck at the 2016 Rostelecom Cup. Majorov’s free skate was the stuff of horror movies: blood everywhere. He sniffled before taking his opening pose, and during the first minute or so, he repeatedly broke choreography to wipe his nose. But the spins were what really did him in. After a sit spin at the program’s midpoint, he’d drenched one hand in blood; during his final combination spin, the blood ran down his face and onto his shirt. Throughout the ordeal, Majorov maintained his sense of humor, pinching his nose shut during a step sequence and braving what might have been the most gruesome hydroblade in skating history. In the end, Majorov’s persistence was as inspiring as it was disgusting.

Lorraine McNamara & Quinn Carpenter
US National Championships free dance

The irony here, and the tragedy, is that for most of this free dance, McNamara and Carpenter were skating the best they had all season. A year earlier, they’d been bulletproof, plowing through juniors for an undefeated season that had established them as the rising stars of American ice dance. But this season’s programs showed less innovation than in the past, and they magnified every missed step and loss of synchronization. For three minutes, it looked like McNamara and Carpenter might shake off their demons. Then, at a crucial moment during a step sequence, Carpenter lost focus and stumbled. That spell-breaking fall destroyed their momentum not only for the day but for the rest of the season; at Junior Worlds, they placed only 7th after winning the previous year.

Anna Pogorilaya
World Championships free skate

Pogorilaya took the ice in Helsinki with the world on her shoulders. She’s spent most of her career in the shadow of Russia’s preteen flavors of the month, dogged by a reputation for inconsistency and odd artistic interpretation. But at 2016 Worlds, it all clicked into place for her, and she left Boston with a bronze medal. After a spectacular short program, Pogorilaya was poised to reach the podium again. It was not to be. In a ladies’ free skate marred by too many meltdowns to mention, Pogorilaya’s implosion was the most dramatic. She began by popping the lutz that should have been the first half of a triple-triple combination, and her focus degenerated from there. Each time she seemed to gather herself together, she fell again. By the time she reached her final layback spin, she was sobbing. So was most of the crowd.

Daniel Samohin
European Championships short program

You never know what you’re going to get with Samohin. One day, he’s winning a World Junior title; the next, he’s falling all over himself and dropping to the bottom of the ranks at a senior B event. Most of the time, there’s no rhyme or reason to Samohin’s inconsistency, but at Euros, he had an excuse. Following an airline mishap, he took the ice in a pair of borrowed boots and discovered he couldn’t launch anything in the unfamiliar footwear. He popped all of his jumps, rendering two of the three invalid, and placed a shocking 33rd in the short program. It was probably a blessing that he didn’t qualify through to the free skate.

Julianne Seguin & Charlie Bilodeau
Grand Prix Final short program

Seguin and Bilodeau’s sloppy showing at the GPF imparts a valuable lesson: if you’re going to switch programs in the middle of a season, don’t do it in the brief month between your second Grand Prix event and the Final. Although the program they switched to was the one from the previous season, they looked uncertain of the choreography throughout their performance, as if they might bust into the wrong steps at any moment. Their discomfort with the program took its biggest toll on their jumps, as Bilodeau hit his knees on their side-by-side triple salchows, and Seguin suffered a rare misjudgment of timing in their throw triple lutz. The whole thing was pretty awkward, though, a surprise from a team that is normally one of the most poised and musical in pairs.

Denis Ten
World Championships free skate

There’s a long-running fan joke about Ten’s history of giving only a handful of excellent performances per year and seeming to sleepwalk through the rest. He’s brought home World and Olympic medals by peaking at the right moment, but this season, he left his best behind at the Winter Universiade. At Worlds, a solid short program had put him outside the medal hunt but well within the realm of respectability. He blew that in the free skate, falling twice and fighting awkwardly for almost all of his other landings. If his program had been a tap dance number, the saves might have suited the mood of his music. Instead, they sucked the life out of a Tosca that should have soared.

Next on The Finer Sports: my picks for the best pairs and men’s programs of 2016-2017.

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