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.

Continue reading “The 16 Most Epic Skating Disasters of 2016-17”

5 Things I Learned from the 2017 US National Figure Skating Championships

Nathan Chen skates his short program at 2017 Nationals.

Another U.S. Nationals is in the books, and as usual, I have a lot of opinions. So many opinions, in fact, that this is going to be a multi-part post. It’s not the only Nationals I have strong feelings about – I got out several thousand words on the Russian men a few weeks ago – but for better or for worse, I’m American, and my home country’s champions hold a special place in my heart. For that reason, I haven’t seen a lick of Canadian Nationals, which took place during the same busy weekend, and I’m unlikely to expend nearly as many words on the European Championships. I’m sure I’ll get around to that, but today, it’s time for a big, patriotic debrief on one of the things that makes me proud of my country, regardless of how angry the political climate has made me. On Saturday morning, I marched in Downtown Chicago; that evening, I watched a physically and mentally powerful teenage girl, the daughter of immigrants, break a whole bunch of records. If you’re a straight, middle-aged white dude, and you’re afraid of Karen Chen, you probably have the right idea. Or, to put it another way:

1. The Teen Titans Are Taking Over.

Last season, as athletes in their 20’s triumphed over teenage upstarts at 2016 Nationals, I wrote that the younger generation had not quite overtaken the veterans yet. The revolution came exactly as soon as I expected, with dominant performances by a team of teenage superheroes. The Starfire of the group is Karen Chen, who rebounded from an underwhelming 2016 – 8th at 2016 Nationals, middle-of-the-road at her international events – to run away with the short program and seal the deal in her free skate. Chen has a tendency to rush through her elements, so her delicate, minimalist music was a smart choice, forcing her to breathe and pay attention to each movement. I’ve never seen artistry from Chen like this before, and it was breathtaking to see her flow smoothly from a roof-raising triple lutz-triple toe loop to flicks of the wrist that captured moments in her music.

Nathan Chen has been the Boy Wonder of American figure skating for years, but he came into his own this season like never before. I’d feared that he would achieve a messy and unsatisfying win, racking up points from his uniquely difficult jumps despite falls or – perhaps worse – robotic performances. While Chen still has some growing to do when it comes to building transitions and expressing musical nuance, he didn’t miss a jump all weekend. He’s the only American man who can land two quadruple jumps in his short program, and they’re the two hardest, the flip and the lutz. His technique on both is gorgeous, with exceptional height and instinctive, controlled timing on his takeoffs and landings. We could hardly ask for a better Nightwing.

Most of the focus has been on the two senior champions, but it’s not hard to extend the metaphor into a five-person squad. The men’s silver medalist, Vincent Zhou, is even younger than Chen, and he’s spent much of his career in Chen’s shadow – as well as working around a series of injuries and a natural shyness. This year, for the first time, his performances came off as thoughtful and graceful rather than awkward, and he went 3 for 3 on his quad salchows. Zhou isn’t robotic at all, but he’s the quiet, steadfast Cyborg of the group.

The fourth member of the team, and in every way the most logical candidate for Beast Boy, is the men’s junior champion, Alexei Krasnozhon. Despite enjoying the most successful junior-level season of any American, including a Junior Grand Prix win, he was the only top teenager to stick to the safety of figure skating’s second-highest level. It was probably a wise decision, because his quad loop is close but not quite there. Krasnozhon also has a ton of personal style but needs to refine his edges and upper body movement. Nonetheless, he was far and away the best thing about this year’s ragtag junior men’s event, and he’ll ensure that America maintains a deep bench in men’s singles for the next couple of Olympic cycles.

It’s impossible to choose just one Raven. I’m stuck in a four-way tie among four talented young ice dancers. That’s not to say that Rachel Parsons, Christina Carreira, Lorraine McNamara, and Elliana Pogrebinsky should have to share the title – or that their male teammates should be overlooked. We’re just going to have to expand the squad to account for all the talent in American ice dance.

2. The American Ladies’ Program Is Going to Be Just Fine.

Especially at the junior level, Russia and Japan have a lock on ladies’ singles. In seniors, there are more cracks in those two countries’ dominance, but the conventional wisdom among skating fans is that the American ladies don’t have a prayer. Countries’ program strength comes and goes in waves, though – does nobody else remember 10 years ago, when Russia sent only one lady to Worlds? After a few years of drought, the United States is starting to see teenage skaters whose technical abilities approach the level of the top juniors in the world. Not all of them will make it to 2022 – the first time most will be age-eligible for an Olympic Games – but if a few hold steady, the position of the USA in ladies’ skating will look very different five years from now.

The boldest attempt at a breakthrough came from 14-year-old Tessa Hong, who effectively skipped right from the intermediate level to her senior Nationals debut after destroying at Midwestern Sectionals. Hong crumbled under the pressure in her free skate, placing 10th overall, but her 4th-place short program was probably more indicative of her future greatness. Like several of the top Russian teenagers, Hong skates a “backwards” short program, saving her jumps for the second half to maximize her bonuses. She lost some points on her triple lutz-triple toe loop to underrotation, and she has some catching up to do in terms of transitions and skating skills. There’s a natural loveliness to Hong’s skating, though, and no doubt that the kid can jump.

Meanwhile, in juniors, a passel of teenagers brought jumps as difficult as anything in seniors. With lower expectations for artistry and fewer required elements, junior ladies have more space to develop those triple-triples and to build strong underlying technique before it’s too late. The youngest athlete in the field, 13-year-old Kaitlyn Nguyen, opened her free skate with a giant triple lutz-half loop-triple salchow. Throughout her program, she demonstrated flexibility and stamina as well as power, and at no point did she look like a kid too young to compete at even Junior Worlds. Sometimes, it’s too soon to predict greatness from a seventh-grader, but Nguyen seems destined to rise like Nathan Chen, a skater who was similarly overpowered and underage when he won his first junior title.

Another junior lady, Starr Andrews, presented similarly challenging technical content, kicking off her free skate with a triple salchow-triple toe loop-double toe loop with arm variations that might have been the coolest jump of this year’s Nationals. She had trouble with some jumps later in the program, revealing some room to grow in terms of stamina and focus, but her charisma shined until the final moments. As a performer, 15-year-old Andrews is a prodigy, the kind of young skater who has future fan favorite written all over her.

Down another level, in novice, the triple-triples didn’t stop. This year’s champion, Angelina Huang, had a little trouble with her triple lutz-half loop-triple salchow, but it’s exciting to see such difficulty performed by a novice skater. Even more exciting is Huang’s bubbly presence. Kung Fu Panda was a perfect choice of theme, and her commitment to the music’s changes of tempo and mood set her apart from her competitors. She’s on her way to the Bavarian Open to gain international experience; if she succeeds there, she’s likely to snap up a spot or two at this fall’s Junior Grand Prix. And Huang isn’t the only one. Other names to remember include Ashley Lin (junior bronze), Emmy Ma (junior pewter, with a 1st-place short program), Ting Cui (novice silver, with a 1st-place free skate), and Pooja Kalyan (novice bronze).

3. The Potato Class of 2017 Is Phenomenal.

I think it was Elvis Costello who said that the key track on any album is its 4th. Regardless of which 70’s rock star originated that concept, my music-trading friends ran with it, and somewhere at the bottom of a trunk, I have a pile of cassettes containing homemade mixes in which the fourth song is very, very important. The same holds true for figure skating surprisingly often: fourth-place finishers, for whatever reason, tend to produce memorable performances. At most competitions, fourth place earns a skater nothing more than an imaginary “potato” award, but at U. S. Nationals, you’re a pewter medalist taking awkward podium photos. The additional recognition befits this year’s especially accomplished group.

The pairs pewter medalists, Deanna Stellato-Dudek and Nathan Bartholomay, arrived with an irresistible backstory. Bartholomay had split with the fourth partner of his career in the middle of the previous season, and despite his trip to the 2014 Olympics, felt he still had plenty to prove. Stellato-Dudek had been a ladies’ singles superstar at the junior level circa 2000, but she’d retired while still a teenager following a series of injuries. Now 33, she’s married and has a job outside the skating world, but she’s still hitting triple toe loops like she’s 16. Stellato-Dudek and Bartholomay showed some flaws in the free skate – more to do with newness as a team than with age – but their short program was packed with joy and clean technical elements.

When Mirai Nagasu saw her short program score, her “Oh, dang!” became an instant Tumblr meme. While Karen Chen held onto her lead, the difference was less than a point, building up the tantalizing possibility that Nagasu might win her first National title in a decade. Nagasu’s technique on her triple flip-triple toe loop had never looked so secure, and nobody else came near the grades of execution she earned for her spins. Sadly, Nagasu couldn’t repeat the magic in her free skate. A tumble on a triple lutz early in the program seemed to shatter her concentration, and the jumps that followed were mostly sloppy, as if she’d already resigned herself to a second consecutive pewter medal. Still, that deflated performance shouldn’t take anything away from Nagasu’s short program, one of the best performances at 2017 Nationals in any discipline.

Last season, when Grant Hochstein finished 4th at Nationals, it was almost a punchline. He’d also come in 4th at both of his Grand Prix events, and fans were only half joking when we predicted he’d earn the same placement at Four Continents and Worlds. Those predictions didn’t come true, although 10th in the world is nothing to sneeze at. The problem is, Hochstein has struggled this season to live up to his accomplishments in 2015-16. In his free skate at 2017 Nationals, it finally felt like we had the old Grant back. He’d popped his quad attempt in the short program, but he got his revenge in the free skate, standing up on his first quad toe loop and landing a beautiful one on the second try. As always, Hochstein accompanied his strong jumps with a soulful performance. Let Tara and Johnny complain about Hochstein’s somber music choices; I have a hard time imagining him picking anything else.

Point out if you must that Elliana Pogrebinsky and Alex Benoit only won pewter in 2017 because the pre-anointed 4th-place team, Hawayek and Baker, fell twice in their free skate. The other way to look at it is, Pogrebinsky and Benoit gave two solid performances while other teams faltered. They’ve also vastly exceeded expectations throughout the year, busting into their first senior season with a uniquely charismatic style that has made more than one friend ask me, “Wait, she’s only 18?!” I’ve enthused about their Elvis short program since the summer, but their free dance was the real star at Nationals: a four-minute trailer for an imaginary action romance blockbuster, only with cooler lifts. And in case there’s any lingering doubt that Pogrebinsky and Benoit got to the podium all on their own, their technical base value was the same as the gold medalists’. The difference was in grades of execution – numbers that will grow as this team does.

4. Ice Dance Is So Hard Now, Even the Good Ones Fall. (And Win Bronze Anyway.)

How hard is it to get to the podium in ice dance in the United States? So hard that skaters are falling all over themselves in a quest to raise their difficulty high enough to stand out from the rest. Since there’s no jumping in ice dance, falls are rare, but the senior free dance saw three falls among top contenders, and a fall in juniors shook up the presumed podium order. Two of the senior falls happened to Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, in a free dance so tragic that I can’t bring myself to embed it. If you enjoy watching pretty people’s dreams get crushed, here’s your link.

The other two big falls took place in the midst of programs that were otherwise excellent. I’m not a huge fan of Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue’s free dance concept this season; I wish they would have skated to actual Whitney Houston instead of this Starbucks-y cover version. But I owe them tremendous respect for their technical achievements, which include an opening rotational lift that begins from a virtual standstill and builds speed as it goes. For 30 seconds, it looked like they might spoil for a silver medal, but Hubbell tripped on a transitional move and dashed their hopes early. Fortunately, the fall occurred between elements, so they didn’t lose precious technical points, but it yanked down the Skating Skills mark in their program components and generally sucked the wind out of the program. It’s a testament to the team’s abilities that they still finished solidly in third place, with a score higher than any that would be posted at the European Championships a week later. Even acknowledging that Nationals scores are generally a bit inflated in comparison with scores from ISU international events, that’s a notable feat.

The junior-level fall had more dramatic consequences. Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter arrived as two-time junior National Champions, but they’ve looked rough all season and have lost ground internationally to their training mates, Rachel and Michael Parsons. Nonetheless, McNamara and Carpenter had a shot at a third title, and failing that, they were almost shoo-ins for a silver medal. For most of their free skate, it looked like they might surge to the top of the podium. Indeed, the technical scores for their first five elements were a hair higher than the Parsons’. But in their final step sequence, Carpenter lost focus for a moment and slipped. The team dropped to 3rd place overall, an ironic end to what was otherwise the best free dance they’d skated all season.

5. Some Ladies Get Better with Age.

Figure skating is generally seen as a sport that favors extreme youth. Many athletes peak as teenagers and are washed up before they graduate from high school – sometimes even before puberty. Remarkably, six of the top seven finishers at this year’s Nationals are 20 or older. It’s possible to view that statistic cynically, as a sign of a talent vacuum, but I’d rather look at it favorably. The American approach to training allows athletes to continue competing well into their twenties, supporting their ongoing physical health as well as their incentive and drive to compete. As a result, many of the top American ladies have had time to develop their artistic styles and learn to project their personalities on the ice. Teenage jumping beans can be exciting to watch, but the grown-ups are often more interesting and memorable.

No grown lady at 2017 Nationals made a bigger statement than Caroline Zhang. After enduring a hip injury and subsequent surgery that would have convinced most athletes to retire, Zhang returned to the ice at 23 not to take care of unfinished business, but out of love for the sport. Throughout the season, as she made her way through local club competitions and qualifying events, she built up her skills methodically, preparing to peak at the right moment. Zhang still has some developing to do: her choreography was simpler and less expressive than others’, a deficiency reflected in low components scores. On the technical side, however, Zhang is better than ever. The “donkey kick” entrance into her toe jumps is mostly gone, and she gets perfect height and rotation on the huge triple loop-triple loop that she saves for a second-half bonus. Her fifth-place finish is her best Nationals result since 2012 and all but guarantees her return to international competition next season. If she continues on this path, she’ll put herself in the conversation for the Olympic team for the first time in a long and accomplished career.

Someday soon, the rest of the skating world is going to take Mariah Bell as seriously as I’ve been since her terrific 6th-place performance at 2015 Nationals. Maybe she gets written off because she’s inconsistent, although she’s improved remarkably in her ability to recover from errors. Maybe it’s because she didn’t make much of an impact at the junior level, instead hitting her athletic stride after puberty. In any case, no other American lady has earned more international medals this season. Nonetheless, her bronze medal at Nationals was widely treated as an upset. Twitter is already complaining that Bell is going to lose the USA its three ladies’ spots at the Olympics, despite a commanding silver-medal performance at Skate America and a versatile, crowd-pleasing performance style that has been winning over international judges all year. Not to mention the highest technical base value of any ladies’ free skate at Nationals, featuring two tough triple-triple combinations. Arena announcers had better get busy learning how to pronounce Bell’s first name correctly, because late bloomers tend to stick around.

Of course, the queen of butt-kicking adult women in American figure skating is Ashley Wagner. She was a little less than her best at Nationals, but her crown remains unchallenged. Nobody else came within shooting distance of her program components scores, and there’s no chance she’s being held up on the basis of her reputation. Her style and presence, as well as the intricacy of her choreographic and transitional moves, are unique in American figure skating. The judges rode her a little for flaws in her jump technique and called a few low levels on her spins, although they assessed her less harshly than most international judges have. This time around, those technical calls added up to a silver medal rather than a gold one. But second place doesn’t diminish the contributions of an athlete whose impact goes beyond the ice. Wagner might be the first top American ladies’ skater to assertively position herself as a feminist role model. Let’s hope she’s not the last, because as she reminded us half-jokingly in the press conference after the short program, she’s not going to live forever.


Next on The Finer Sports: More lessons from 2017 Nationals.

2017 US Nationals Field Guide: Championship Ice Dance

The United States has the strongest ice dance program in the world. Even the Just Happy to Be Here contingent is terrific.

Maia and Alex Shibutani in the short dance at the 2016 Grand Prix Final.

It’s part four of my US Nationals preview, and we’ve finally graduated to the senior level! Yes, that means I’m skipping pairs, partially because pairs are the first to go when I’m short on time, and partially because my opinions on pairs are not actually worth a hill of beans. If you’re interested in catching up on juniors – and you should be – go check out my other 2017 field guides:

  • Junior Ice Dance, featuring a deeper field than you’ll probably see at Euros and a genuine race for gold
  • Junior Men, where the top contender will try to land a quad loop
  • Junior Ladies, with a ridiculous amount of pint-size talent, an update to reflect a last-minute withdrawal and replacement, and an explanation of the four-point scale I’m using in all my field guides

Now, onward to championship ice dance. I went easy on the juniors, but I pull fewer punches when assessing senior skaters: there’s more at stake, and they’re old enough that they can take it. And since we’re looking at a field in which the majority of competitors are legitimately world-class, the only way to explain the difference between great and extraordinary is with merciless nitpicking.

The wonderful problem is, for a combination of reasons that really do make sense but would take an entire long blog post to explain, the United States has the strongest ice dance program in the world. There are teams from other countries that can and do beat the Americans – it’s not like women’s artistic gymnastics over here – but no other nation has as many excellent dance teams as the USA. Watching Russian Nationals a couple of weeks ago, it blew me away how precipitously the quality of skating dropped after the top few teams. The high expectations for ice dance achievement in America seem to have thinned the herd: only 11 teams have entered this year, and 7 of those teams are so accomplished that they didn’t have to qualify through Sectionals. Even the Just Happy to Be Here contingent is terrific. Here’s the lowdown on the field, with equal time given to the JHBH squad and the two sets of reigning World Championships medalists.

Julia Biechler & Damian Dodge

The Basics: Biechler is 18 years old, and Dodge is 22. They train in Philadelphia with Natalia Linichuk. Biechler represents the Skating Club of Wilmington in Delaware, and Dodge represents the Peninsula Skating Club in San Jose. They’ve been skating together since 2012. Dodge previously skated with Cassandra Jeandell, and Biechler’s former partner is Alexander Petrov.

Season So Far: Biechler and Dodge had a so-so outing at the Lake Placid International Championships, placing 5th overall. The story was similar at Dance Chicago, where they finished 4th. Strong junior-level results last season earned them an assignment to a Challenger Series event, the Lombardia Trophy, where they struggled with levels on their step sequences and finished 4th. In the two months between that event and Eastern Sectionals, Biechler and Dodge appear to have used their training time wisely, because they posted excellent scores there, setting across-the-board career bests and winning gold in a two-team field.

Outlook for Nationals: I’m glad Biechler and Dodge’s names put them first in my preview, because they’re one of the best illustrations of the current American talent glut. In terms of scores and results, they’re maybe the 7th-best ice dance team in the United States, but they’re good enough that they could have held their own at a Grand Prix event. Their step sequence levels are a perennial problem – they can never quite get to level 4 – and they don’t present the intricate connecting moves that the top teams are capable of. Their lyrical free dance, to Sia’s “Breathe Me,” is one of my favorites of the season, but I feel like I’m still waiting for them to skate it to its full potential. It’s only their first year as seniors, so I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and say they’re On the Rise, although they’ll rise a lot higher if they can find some other country to skate for.

Anastasia Cannuscio & Colin McManus

The Basics: Cannuscio is 24 years old, and McManus is 26. They have skated together since 2008, although they both had other partners before teaming up: Dean Copely for Cannuscio, Kate McDermott for McManus. They train with Karen Ludington and Christie Moxley-Hutson in Delaware. Cannuscio belongs to the University of Delaware Figure Skating Club, and McManus to the Skating Club of Boston.

Season So Far: Like the rest of last season’s National medalists in ice dance, Cannuscio and McManus skipped the club competition circuit and began their season with a Challenger Series event, the Ondrej Nepela Memorial. They finished a lukewarm 7th. Their experiences and their scores at their two Grand Prix assignments were similar, with placements near the bottom of the ranks at both Cup of China (7th) and NHK Trophy (8th).

Outlook for Nationals: After their surprise pewter medal at 2016 Nationals, Cannuscio and McManus unfortunately have nowhere to go but down. The good news is that they’re consistent, posting similar scores at almost every meet. The bad news is, those scores haven’t risen appreciably since last year, and pretty much everyone else in America is upgrading like their lives depend on it. Cannuscio and McManus skate with tremendous speed, but not always with precision, which knocks down both their step sequence levels and their components scores. Still, the problem is not really with Cannuscio and McManus themselves. The two first-year senior teams are already ahead of them, and Hawayek and Baker are unlikely to screw up as badly as they did in 2016. As a result, Cannuscio and McManus are Just Happy to Be Here this time, and it will be a surprise if their free dance even makes it to the NBC broadcast.

Madison Chock & Evan Bates

The Basics: Chock is 24, and Bates is 27. They teamed up in 2011, having both achieved substantial success with previous partners: Bates with Emily Samuelson, and Chock with Greg Zuerlein. Chock represents the All Year Figure Skating Club in the Los Angeles area, and Bates belongs to the Ann Arbor Figure Skating Club in Michigan. They train in the Detroit area with Igor Shpilband.

Season So Far: Coming off two consecutive World Championship medals – silver in 2015 and bronze in 2016 – Chock and Bates have been losing high-profile competitions all autumn long. They earned their first two silver medals on the Challenger Series circuit, losing to Italians Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte at the Nebelhorn Trophy and to Russians Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev at the Ondrej Nepela Memorial. At their first Grand Prix assignment, Skate Canada, they performed a stunning first-place free dance, but the unstoppable Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir beat them overall. Chock and Bates faced Bobrova and Soloviev again at the Rostelecom Cup, and they won the short dance but fizzled in the free. The real disaster, however, occurred at the Grand Prix Final, where Chock fell in the short dance and consigned them to last place, ensuring that they’ve been beaten at least once by every top team in the world, including fellow Americans Shibutani/Shibutani and Hubbell/Donohue.

Outlook for Nationals: Now that I’ve painted Chock and Bates’ season in the worst possible light, I’m going to put things another way. For one thing, they’re good enough to have stood on the podium at Worlds for the past two years, a distinction that no other American team can claim. For another, they’re the 2015 National Champions, and although they lost to Maia and Alex Shibutani last year, it was very close – Chock and Bates won the short program. They’ve implemented notable upgrades to their lifts and dance spin, and they’re hitting the checkpoints in their pattern dances like never before. But their most valuable weapons are their programs this season. In their short dance, they feel the hip hop rhythm like few teams do – Bates is a fan of the genre to begin with – and their free dance, to a remix of Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure,” is ballsy and sharp, a standout in a season with a lot of safe, same-y free dances. Even Tumblr is kind of in love with them these days. They are unquestionable Front Runners with a very plausible chance of reclaiming gold.

Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker

The Basics: Hawayek is 20 years old, and Baker is 23. They’ve been skating together since 2012. Hawayek’s previous partner was Michael Bramante, and Baker’s was Joylyn Yang. They train in Detroit with Pasquale Camerlengo. She’s a member of the Detroit Skating Club, and he represents the Seattle Skating Club.

Season So Far: Hawayek and Baker’s season debut was pretty much the reason I drove out to Dance Chicago, and they didn’t disappoint, winning decisively. They went on to strong results on the larger stages of their Challenger Series events, earning silver medals at both the Autumn Classic International and Golden Spin, and achieving a full set of new career-best scores at the latter. They were good but not great at the Grand Prix, settling for 6th in a stacked field at Skate Canada and squeaking into 4th place with a great free dance at the NHK Trophy.

Outlook for Nationals: In 2014-15, when Hawayek and Baker won a bronze medal at the NHK Trophy and finished 4th at Nationals in their first senior season, they seemed poised for a swift, brutal takeover of American ice dance. Two years later, having weathered injuries, illness, and the insidious “wait your turn” mentality that hasn’t been eradicated from ice dance yet, they remain a team on the verge of greatness. Their performance at Golden Spin, in particular, proved they are very much in the conversation, and their “Liebestraum” free dance is an understated pleasure, even if it’s kind of the same thing they’ve been doing for years. They have everything they need to fight their way back onto the podium, from spectacular upgraded twizzles to an increasingly natural, mature on-ice connection. Hawayek and Baker are the very definition of Dark Horses, equally capable of contending for a medal and of blowing it completely.

Madison Hubbell & Zachary Donohue

The Basics: Hubbell is 25 years old, and Donohue is 26. They’ve been a team since 2011. Before that, Hubbell skated with her brother, Keiffer, and Donohue skated with a number of partners, including Piper Gilles and Alissandra Aronow. Both are members of the Lansing Skating Club in Michigan and train with Patrice Lauzon and Marie-France Dubrueil in Montreal.

Season So Far: Here’s what it’s like being the third-best ice dance team in the United States. You win your first Challenger Series event, the U.S. International Classic, only to have fans dismiss it as the result of a weak field. You slip into 2nd place at the Finlandia Trophy, a little below your best. Then, as if out for revenge, you snag silver at both of your Grand Prix events, beating top Russians Bobrova and Soloviev at Skate America and rival Canadians Gilles and Poirier at Trophée de France. This qualifies you for the Grand Prix Final, where you achieve the 5th place finish most people were expecting, except that it’s ahead of Chock and Bates, and with a career-best overall score.

Outlook for Nationals: Hubbell and Donohue have had a stupendous season by any measure. The problem is, they’re just far enough behind the two top teams that it will take a miracle for them to place higher than 3rd. They’ve also saddled themselves with a couple of weird programs, pasted-together medleys that don’t cohere artistically. The judges seem more okay with these music choices than I am, but they nonetheless give Hubbell and Donohue an uphill battle in terms of expression and performance. They’re admirably game about it, though, and powerful lifts and twizzles give them a technical edge. If any Dark Horses are capable of pulling an upset, it’s these two, but it won’t come easy.

Karina Manta & Joseph Johnson

The Basics: Manta is 20 years old, and Johnson is 22. They teamed up in 2014, having previously skated with Jonathan Thompson and Tory Patsis, respectively. Manta represents the Coyotes Skating Club of Arizona, and Johnson belongs to the Broadmoor Skating Club in Colorado Springs. They train in Colorado Springs with Patti Gottwein.

Season So Far: Manta and Johnson honed their programs at several summer club competitions. At the Lake Placid International Championships, they recovered from a so-so short dance with a terrific free dance; they placed 6th, but they were only 0.15 points out of 4th place. Against a similar field at Dance Chicago, they finished 5th. At their sole international assignment, the U. S. International Classic, they were 5th again, and once again they gained ground with a terrific free dance. They were the only entry in senior ice dance at Midwestern Sectionals, but they skated like their future depended on it, setting a new career-best total score and picking up strong marks in components.

Outlook for Nationals: Manta and Johnson are another team that most other countries in the world would be proud to adopt as their own: they’d probably rank higher at a Four Continents Championships than they will at U. S. Nationals. They’re a fun team to watch, full of energy, with a different approach to technical elements like lifts and spins than most American teams. But they have a tough time getting above a level 2 on their step sequences and pattern dances, and that places them at an almost insurmountable technical disadvantage. They’ll be awfully lucky to repeat last year’s 7th-place finish, which makes them Just Happy to Be Here even though they’re capable of pulling off a surprise.

Charlotte Maxwell & Ryan Devereaux

The Basics: Maxwell and Devereaux are both 27 years old. They began skating together in 2014; Maxwell had previously teamed with Nick Traxler, and Devereaux with Shannon Wingle. She represents the Arctic Figure Skating Club in Michigan, and he the Pittsburgh Figure Skating Club. They’re coached by Marina Zoueva in the Detroit area.

Season So Far: Maxwell and Devereaux appeared at almost every club competition that included ice dance. They looked great early on at the Chesapeake Open, beating their previous career best scores and, just as importantly, winning. Facing a much tougher field at the Lake Placid International Championships, Maxwell and Devereaux had a rough weekend, finishing only 9th after problems in their free dance. Their scores recuperated at Dance Chicago, with one of the strongest artistic performances of the free dance, but it was still only enough for 6th place. Relaxed and uncontested at the Philadelphia Challenge Cup, they posted their best scores of the season. Unfortunately, they couldn’t repeat that success at their first major international assignment as a team, the Warsaw Cup, where they started strong but made small, crucial mistakes in their last few technical elements. They placed 6th, near the bottom.

Outlook for Nationals: Maxwell and Devereaux aren’t going to place particularly high – they just don’t have the speed or intricacy – but they’ll be a joy to watch. Devereaux is one of the most nuanced actors in ice dance, and Maxwell keeps pace with him emotionally. It’s hard to imagine another team that could turn a medley of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet and James Blunt’s “Goodbye My Lover” into an engaging narrative of doomed love. They’re Just Happy to Be Here, and I’m just happy to have them here.

Elliana Pogrebinsky and Alex Benoit

The Basics: Pogrebinsky is 18 years old, and Benoit is 21. They train in Novi, Michigan, with Igor Shpilband. Pogrebinsky represents the Peninsula Skating Club in San Jose, and Benoit belongs to the Skokie Valley Skating Club in suburban Chicago. Before they teamed up in 2014, Pogrebinsky skated with Ross Gudis, and Benoit skated with Olivia Di Iorio.

Season So Far: Pogrebinsky and Benoit kicked off their senior career with a win at the Lake Placid International Championships. At the Nebelhorn Trophy, facing several of the best teams in the world, they finished a solid 4th. Under the greater scrutiny of the Grand Prix judges, Pogrebinsky and Benoit achieved so-so results at Skate America and the Rostelecom Cup – 7th and 6th, respectively – but showed growing confidence.

Outlook for Nationals: We’re used to seeing promising junior ice dance teams make the leap to seniors and fizzle out, so it’s exciting to watch Pogrebinsky and Benoit take the opposite trajectory. For two years, they languished in the shadow of two other sets of powerhouse American juniors, McNamara/Carpenter and Parsons/Parsons, and they came up just short of an American podium sweep of 2016 Junior Worlds by placing 4th. Arguably, their biggest problem was not their competition, but their lack of artistic presence on the ice. When they moved up to seniors – the only top American junior team to do so – they showed up looking like a whole new team, full of energy and personality. They’re using Benoit’s innate charisma and Pogrebinsky’s stunning flexibility to their fullest extent, and just as importantly, they’re getting maximum levels on step sequences and pattern dances. Those levels aren’t happening consistently yet, but with a couple of months of training since their last competition, there’s a good chance they’ve made another leap forward. A more rational mind would probably identify them as On the Rise, but it’s my blog, and I can call them Dark Horses if I want to.

Kseniya Ponomaryova & Oleg Altukhov

The Basics: Ponomaryova is 28 years old, and Altukhov is 33. They’ve been a team since 2012. Ponomaryova previously skated with Raphael Kelling, and Altukhov with Alexis Shaw. They train in the Chicago area with Alina Ponomaryova and Jamie Whyte. Ponomaryova represents the Skokie Valley Skating Club in the Chicago suburbs, and Altukhov the North County Skating Club in the San Diego area.

Season So Far: Ponomaryova and Altukhov were a near-constant presence at summer club competitions. They competed only in the free dance at the Chesapeake Open, placing second in the segment. At the Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships, they finished near the bottom of the rankings, 6th in the short dance and 5th in the free dance. They were again low in the standings at Dance Chicago, 11th in the short dance and 10th in the free dance. They were the only senior dance team to compete at Pacific Coast Sectionals, giving them an easy road to Nationals.

Outlook for Nationals: Ponomaryova and Altukhov are the oldest competitors in the field, and they seem to just love competing. Technically, they’re far behind most American teams, with lifts and twizzles that are visibly simpler than what the rest of the field routinely attempts. Every year since they’ve teamed up, they’ve qualified to Nationals, and each time, they’ve placed toward the bottom. Teams with far better results have shown far less determination, and that speaks well of Ponomaryova and Altukhov. I hope they use the Nationals spotlight to really shine, and to show how Just Happy to Be Here they are.

Elicia Reynolds & Stephen Reynolds

The Basics: Elicia and Stephen are siblings, ages 26 and 23. Originally from Florida, they train in the Philadelphia area with Natalia Linichuk and Uschi Keszler. Both represent the Skating Club of Wilmington in Delaware. They’ve skated as a team since 2006, their entire competitive career.

Season So Far: Reynolds and Reynolds had a tough time at the Chesapeake Open, placing 3rd in both segments. Their only other significant competition of the season was Midwestern Sectionals, where they finished 2nd in a two-team field but set new career-best scores in the free dance and overall.

Outlook for Nationals: Reynolds and Reynolds are another persistent, enthusiastic team who work hard year after year to qualify to Nationals. Every year, they look a little better, with a steady trajectory of technical upgrades and improvements to their sharpness and speed. They’re not likely to rocket up the rankings this season, but they have a real shot at raising their career best scores across the board. In terms of placement, Reynolds and Reynolds are Just Happy to Be Herebut this Nationals presents a big opportunity for them to achieve some personal goals.

Maia Shibutani & Alex Shibutani

The Basics: Maia, 22, and Alex, 25, are sister and brother. They spent their early years in New York and Connecticut, and both retain their membership in the Skating Club of New York. They now train in the Detroit area with Marina Zoueva and Massimo Scali. They’ve skated together since 2006, a career-long partnership.

Season So Far: Following an exceptional 2015-16 in which they won gold at Nationals and silver at Worlds, the Shibutani siblings stayed out of sight until October, skipping the Challenger Series. Instead, they began their season with a Grand Prix event, Skate America, which they won by a 10-point margin. The gap was narrower at Cup of China, but they took their second Grand Prix gold with a strong free dance. At the Grand Prix Final, they posted their best international short dance and overall scores ever, but they couldn’t get past bulletproof teams from Canada and France, settling for bronze. Still, it was the first Grand Prix Final medal of their career.

Outlook for Nationals: After a big surge in scores and rankings last year, Shibutani and Shibutani have a daunting mission this season: they have to keep up their momentum. In terms of technical proficiency, they’ve raised the bar, adding difficulty to what were already the world’s best twizzles and increasing the precision of their steps. Even so, they’ll face a tough challenge from Chock and Bates in particular, and it has everything to do with artistry. A year ago, the Shibutanis had been riding high on a pair of signature programs that were already iconic by January. This season, their hip hop short program is entertaining but not as innovative as some others, and their free dance is beautiful but too abstract for a lot of fans’ tastes. There’s no doubt that they’re Front Runners, but a second consecutive title is far from a sure thing.


The championship ice dance competition begins on Friday, January 20, at 5 PM CST, and will be streamed live on IceNetwork as well as broadcast on NBCSN. For the free dance, the lower-ranked teams will be streamed on IceNetwork starting at noon CST on Saturday, January 21, and the top teams will be live on NBC in a shared broadcast with pairs that begins at 2 PM CST.

Next up on The Finer Sports: the championship men’s field guide!