Summer Updates! Shoma, Jason, Starr, Kaori, and More

Image by iguana012 on Tumblr, from Nobunari Oda’s Twitter

This blog went on hiatus while I plowed through an enormous pile of work and moved to my dream home, but I have emerged from hibernation. While I was gone, Jason Brown dropped the most deliciously fanboyish program music announcement in figure skating history. That got me back onto the skating side of YouTube, and I ended up watching several of the new competitive programs that athletes have been premiering at shows and club comps. As usual, a lot of the Japanese skaters are using their summer tours as an opportunity to work the bugs out of their new routines, and some are still too buggy to write about: Keiji Tanaka can’t get through his intriguing, bluesy free skate without falling all over himself, and Turandot looks several sizes too big for Marin Honda at this point. Meanwhile, the fan videos haven’t emerged from North American club competitions as readily as usual – I hear some events are cracking down – so we don’t get to preemptively judge the performances at events like the Chesapeake Open or the Broadmoor Open. But that still leaves me with several programs that I just can’t wait any longer to write about.

The program I’ve been itching to write about for the longest time is Shoma Uno’s new short program, which he’s been workshopping as a show number for the past month. Uno is the kind of brazen daredevil who not only attempts quadruple flips in a dark rink with no boards, but lands them. It’s a smart strategy: those jumps will feel so much easier this autumn, with the lights on. The new program is clearly a work in progress and needs significant refinement in the choreography, especially after the midpoint, when Uno stops connecting with the music so he can concentrate on his quad toe loop and triple Axel. It’s an unfortunate break in an otherwise captivating program that melds familiar Vivaldi strains with brooding teen angst. I assume that by October, Uno will have filled in the empty spaces and turned this promising piece into a nonstop Olympic highlight reel.

Starr Andrews does a great job of getting her skating up on YouTube, and that means we get an early look at her senior debut free skate. For those of us old enough to remember the 1988 Olympics, “One Moment in Time” seems a little on the nose for an Olympic year, but Andrews wasn’t born yet and therefore deserves a pass. Whitney Houston is a great fit for Andrews in general – something about the phrasing just works – and her commitment to the music sometimes makes up for moments in the choreography that don’t give her enough to do as a performer. It’s cool that she put the triple Axel attempt out there, although the jump is nowhere near ready. The triple flip-triple toe loop-double toe loop combination, on the other hand, is spectacular, especially with the difficult and beautiful spiral entrance. I worry that her performance quality is still a bit simple and juniors-y – she’s capable of more. But that’s exactly how I felt about Ashley Wagner at the same age.

Lots of Japanese ladies field-tested their new competitive programs on tour, and most filled me with doubt. In a field as crowded as Japan’s, with only two Olympic spots available, these athletes need to fight to stand out. In spite of this, most of the Japanese ladies seem to be playing it safe, choosing musical warhorses and conventional choreography that disguises, rather than highlights, their personalities and artistic quirks. The most notable exception has been Kaori Sakamoto, who has found a potential signature program in the Amelie soundtrack. The choreography is clever and demanding, often asking Sakamoto to establish her character with her upper body while twisting through footwork or firing up from a dead stop. She also gets to show off her high, muscular triple flip-triple toe loop, then save most of the other jumps for the high-scoring second half. Sakamoto kept elbowing her way into the spotlight as a junior last season – few predicted she’d take bronze at both the Junior Grand Prix Final and Junior Worlds – and this program suggests she’ll storm the senior ranks with the same power, mental toughness, and musicality.

It is possible I am almost as excited about Jason Brown’s new short program as he is. I’m thrilled about the music choice, of course: I love Hamilton, and this is one of the best songs from the show, as well as a non-obvious choice for a skating program. But what makes this so terrific is the program itself. Choreographically, it’s the kind of Advanced Rohene we’re used to seeing Brown perform, so crammed with transitions and difficult turns that I’m tired just watching it. With some pieces of music, that feels like too much movement and too little room to breathe, but the choreographic details feel so intentional here, from the triple Axel that drops right on the beat to the high front kick with a back arch that’s a split-second Fosse tribute. Besides, “The Room Where It Happens” is a song about frustration, so it makes sense that Brown looks like he’s trying to tear himself out of his own skin. He’s also playing the villain, which is a compelling character stretch. Most of the time, Brown is more of a Hamilton than a Burr, and it’s a rare pleasure to watch him seethe. The program sends a satisfying message for an Olympic year, the time when no athlete wants to be on the outside looking in.


Next on The Finer Sports: A recap of Skate Detroit, and a return to regular blog updates now that the pre-season is under way.

Slightly Unhinged Notes from the World Team Trophy Men’s Short Program

Shoma Uno, and his abs, at the 2017 Worlds gala.

It has been a long couple of weeks, during which I have discovered that I am ostensibly enough of an adult that people want to do things like grant me a home loan and hire me for paid work, despite the fact that my hair is three different colors on my driver’s license, my passport, and my actual head. I am also so tired of everyone’s program music that by the time I got to the men’s short program, I hit the mute button in the IceNetwork window and fired up the YouTube playlist of summer jams that I have been compiling. I watched the men’s short the evening after it occurred, because see above, plus there was a double episode of Survivor on Wednesday night, and I need very badly for Zeke Smith to triumph over transphobia and win a million dollars. So I am rating each program on 1) how well the athlete performed his technical elements, 2) how glad I am that I will never have to see his short program again (dear everybody, the Olympics are coming, please get new choreography), 3) how well his performance lined up with the arbitrary music that came out of my speakers while he skated, and 4) how adorable his teammates were in the kiss and cry afterward.

If you were looking for serious analysis, dude, it’s the freaking World Team Trophy. Team France are dressed as Minions. None of the world medalists in ice dance bothered to show up. The word “Presentation” was misspelled in the score graphic for the entirety of the short program. I am approaching this event with exactly the amount of gravitas that it demands.

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2017 World Championships Field Guide: Men Part 1

How is it time for Worlds already? It feels like just last week, I was booking a flight for Boston. Now, skaters are on their way to Helsinki to do it all over again. Although I won’t be there to witness the magic in person this year, I’ll still do my best to provide complete coverage of the biggest figure skating event of the season. And that starts with field guides, as many as I can finish before the competition begins.

With 10 days to go, there are 37 men on the roster for the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships, representing a total of 30 countries. As much as I’d love to trim things down the way I did for my World Junior Championships Men’s Field Guide, there’s no way to do it for senior-level Worlds. The minimum technical scores required are so high that any skater who competes at Worlds is capable of phenomenal jumps, and most of the guys on the list are fantastic performers to boot. So I’m splitting this into a series of three posts and covering every athlete in the event.

For the most part, this will look like the field guides I’ve written for U. S. Nationals and Junior Worlds. For each skater, I’ll provide basic background information, YouTube videos of recent performances, and a summary of his season so far. I’ll also analyze each athlete’s chances on a five-point scale. Four of the categories are the same as usual: Front Runners at the top, Dark Horses with an outside chance, Just Happy to Be Here who have already achieved their season goals by qualifying for Worlds, and Why I Drink for the wildcards so wild that I have no idea how they’ll perform. But since an athlete at Worlds is, by definition, at the top of his game, it doesn’t make sense to refer to any of these skaters as “on the rise.” Instead, I’ll rate the mid-range as On the Bubble: striving for more than just an appearance on the ice, but not on par with the top tier. I’m also adding one new section to each skater’s profile. Since quadruple jumps are such a defining aspect of men’s skating these days, I’ll discuss which quads each athlete is likely to attempt, and his chances of rotating and landing them.

This post features the first 12 men’s skaters in alphabetical order, which includes a lot of the heavy hitters. Here we go!

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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.

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2017 US Nationals Field Guide: Championship Men Part 1

I want them all to skate brilliantly, and I know most of them are going to screw up.

Jason Brown skates his free program at the 2016 NHK Trophy.

We have reached the pinnacle of these field guides – in my mind, at least. The ladies are the headliners in figure skating, which pleases me as a feminist, but no discipline fires up my fannish passions or depletes my booze reserves as much as men’s singles. In what I’m certain is a gift from the skating gods to me personally, the senior men’s field is also the largest one at Nationals this year, with so many athletes earning a bye through the qualifying rounds that there are a total of 21 men competing.

And that’s with one big name out of the running. For the third year in a row, the reigning men’s national champion will not return to defend his title. Jeremy Abbott took a break in 2015, which might or might not be permanent; Jason Brown bowed out in 2016 after re-aggravating a back injury. Now, in the middle of one of the most successful seasons of his long career, Adam Rippon has broken his foot and will be off the ice for several months. Rippon’s absence doesn’t just remove a front runner, but reshuffles the deck, opening the door for some young phenoms and hardworking mid-listers.

In case you’re just joining me, I’ve already written four field guides for this year’s Nationals:

  • Championship Ice Dance, with the highest level of talent across the board of any senior discipline
  • Junior Ice Dance, which will be as hotly contested as the senior event and almost as technically marvelous
  • Junior Men, the men’s event where you’re most likely to see a quadruple loop attempt
  • Junior Ladies, with some very small girls doing some very big jumps, plus an explanation of the four-point rating scale I’m using in all of the field guides

With so many competitors in the field, I’m dividing my men’s field guide into two posts. This one will cover the first 11 skaters, and the other will look at the remaining 10. I’m also diverging slightly from my usual order so that the top skaters will be more evenly distributed between the two posts. Instead of alphabetical order by last name, the skaters in this field guide are in alphabetical order by first name.

Since I’m writing about senior-level competitors, I’ve cranked up my sarcasm and my critical eye to full strength, and I’m going to be hard on almost everyone, even my favorites. I’m also in the delightful position of genuinely liking all of the top American men, and I have a soft spot for a lot of the guys lower in the ranks. I want them all to skate brilliantly, and I know most of them are going to screw up. On top of that, only two men can qualify for the World Championships, so there’s even less room for error than usual. It’s going to be brutal, and some very talented athletes will see their seasons end here.

With that in mind, I’m adding one more rating category for the senior men’s and ladies’ guides. The hierarchy I used for juniors and dance works for most of the skaters here, too: Front Runners for the athletes most strongly contending for the title, Dark Horses with a shot at the podium, On the Rise for the up-and-coming mid-listers, and Just Happy to Be Here for those who are thrilled just to have qualified. But in large fields like this one, there are a few who defy categorization, either because they’re so mercurial and unpredictable, or because their trajectory in the sport hasn’t followed a typical path. They’re wonderful at their best, excruciating at their worst, and lovable at all times. These skaters are Why I Drink.

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