2017 Junior Worlds Men’s Recap: Pretty Sure I Dreamed This

If anyone was hoping I would live tweet the World Junior Championships men’s event, I’m sorry to have abandoned Twitter. But none of the men’s competition occurred at a reasonable hour, and I was already tired from full days of work before and after. To avoid publicly airing any inappropriate remarks about 16-year-old boys (or just miscalling jumps where folks could see me) I messaged my friends privately.

So I have notes for posterity. And I haven’t stopped laughing at them yet.

This recap is a cleaned up version of those notes, with some commentary added. I’ve redacted most of the swearing, fixed most of the autocorrect bloopers, and toned down the exuberant caps lock. My initial impressions are a more entertaining, and probably more accurate, reflection of what happened than anything I could produce by endlessly rewatching these performances on YouTube, although I’ve given several a second viewing, mostly for my own enjoyment. I’m including time stamps, so you can put my mental decline into context.

I am still not sure any of this happened. The entire event has been eradicated from YouTube on dubious copyright grounds, which strengthens my conviction that I might have dreamed it.

Men’s Short Program

Tuesday, 11:45 PM Central Daylight Time

Not much is happening yet. my feelings right now are 45% hang on tiny Mexican boy, 45% time for Conrad Orzel to prove he should have beaten Gogolev at Nationals, and 10% “Wow, those shrimp I made for dinner turned out really well.” [Friend A, henceforth known as Buffy] told me this is just an exhibition event, though. I’m really glad it’s canceled and the scores don’t count, because imagine how stressed out I’m going to be in an hour.

Artur Panikhin of Kazakhstan is skating to Genesis. It’s a medley with “Fat Bottomed Girls,” and this is why I love this sport. The polite Taiwanese audience is not sure how to respond to a program that ends with devil horns in the air.


2017 Conrad Orzel Junior Worlds SP (720p) by siberia1982

Conrad Orzel lands all his jumps. [Friend B, henceforth Kamala] says she is deeply charmed, which is good because she has been rolling her eyes at me all week as I’ve talked this kid up. I express the hope that he’ll go over 70 points, because his technical scores make that possible. But it’s only 66.21 despite a clean skate, in what will turn out to be a pattern of WJC judges lowballing lesser-known skaters in early groups. His coaches look personally offended by his components marks.

A few mediocre skates, during which I get snacks, followed by an ice resurface. It is now Wednesday, 1:00 AM CDT.

After a year of rolling her eyes at me affectionately when I rambled about Kazuki Tomono, Buffy understands the appeal: “Look at his sparkly costume! And flopsy hair!” I insist he is perfect, and then he falls on his triple Axel. Japan is right now apologizing for pouring their funding and attention into other skaters. High components scores put him ahead of Orzel. Buffy asks if I’m okay. I’m not, and yet feeling fine.

Chat records show an extended detour into discussion of musicals and picking up girls on dating apps, as well as a rehashing of the timeless Mac vs. PC debate, which means my notes are spotty for the rest of the warm-up group. We are excited that Irakli Maysuradze is skating to Javier Fernandez’s music from last year, which makes it all the more tragic when he’s the first skater I’ve cared about who has melted down. I pause to note that Chih-I Tsao and Daniel Albert Naurits, both of whom I’d skipped in my preview because they never skate well, have gone lights out. I am perplexed and proud, scared of where the night will lead.

Wednesday, 1: 45 AM CDT

While we debate whether Sondre Oddvoll Boe’s music is “hobbit music” or a tribute to Joshua Farris, he lands everything and logs yet another clean skate on a night when it seems like everyone has taken an immunity potion and could not screw up if they tried.

All semblance of chill crumbles. Koshiro Shimada skates beautifully, earning one of the night’s highest single-element grades of execution for his triple lutz-triple toe loop. I’m broken. I don’t know how to feel when all of my favorites are killing it. I’m even excited for the Nordic kids who somehow skated clean for the first and last time in their lives. I’m suspicious that the last two groups are all going to implode because this level of achievement cannot hold.


JWC2017 Jun Hwan CHA SP by arealy_ru

Jun Hwan Cha is like Yuzuru Hanyu and Yuna Kim birthed a perfect child. And made him skate to my favorite musical. Everyone else can just go home now, because early as it is, I can’t imagine anyone beating this. His score is well over 80 points, and it’s all grades of execution and components because let’s face it, everyone else is busy being perfect tonight, too.

I try to explain Alexei Krasnozhon to Buffy and describe him as a “hunk of meat” because he is not the most refined. Three minutes later, I am asking, “Since when is Kras elegant? I’m confused.” This is all new and excellent. Because it continues to be that kind of night, Krasnozhon lands everything beautifully. His scores are lower than Cha’s – purely a matter of GOEs and components – but Krasnozhon is ecstatic in the kiss and cry. He always wins the kiss and cry, because he’s precious. I apologize for my earlier meat-related remarks.

This is the first time in history that men’s has not been the disaster event, I remark as Sihyeong Lee turns out yet another clean performance. Kamala is suddenly concerned. “Either the last groups need to implode beautifully to make up for it, or there’s going to be some serious trainwrecking in the other disciplines.” I tell her there are worse things than all of Russia imploding.

Buffy asks me how many more favorites I have. I tell her there are still two more warm-up groups, plus an ice resurface, and urge her to go to bed. I am suffering for my obsessions, but she doesn’t have to.

Wednesday, 2:45 AM CDT

Kamala goes to bed during the Zamboni break, too, but she has asked for my live updates so she can read them in the morning. Nobody should give me permission for that kind of thing. I begin with an attempt at compassion, not mentioning that Yaroslav Paniot had performed the billionth clean short program of the night, the kind of skate that normally would shoot a junior-level athlete into the lead but has left him only third behind Cha and Krasnozhon.


JWC2017 Vincent ZHOU SP by arealy_ru

Vincent! How are they all skating this well? When did he get this pretty? Did all the American boys get emergency lessons in pretty? Going over his scores now, I’m personally insulted by judge #6, who gave Zhou components scores in the 6.0-6.5 range and lowballed him on GOE as well. On the other hand, Zhou earned 12.73 points for his triple lutz-triple toe loop, because seriously, look at it. I do not know how this is not a first-place short program, but this is the world we are living in.

We are also living in the world where Nicolas Nadeau and Roman Sadovsky are both perfect, one right after the other, like an advertisement for the depth of talent in Canadian figure skating. Nadeau slots just behind Zhou, and Sadovsky a couple of tenths of a point behind Krasnozhon, all of them so close together that the judges’ message is basically, “Everyone is fantastic, let them sort it out in the free skate.” I, too, am perplexed and elated. Sadovsky looks up at his scores like he can’t figure out how he scored that high, or how he could be in 5th place with seven skaters still to go.

Graham [Forking] Newberry. Skates perfectly. I’m 90% sure I’m not dreaming this.

At this point, there have been ten consecutive clean short programs, which is the kind of statistical fluke that people in my line of work dismiss as a results-destroying outlier. It is now 3:15 AM CDT, and it has been an hour and a half since someone made a significant jump error. That was Petr Kotlarik, who nonetheless set a career-best score. Nobody has fallen for two hours. It’s like a Dungeons & Dragons game that runs all night because everyone keeps rolling 20’s.

Enter Andrew Torgashev, who pops his Axel, falls on his triple loop, and fails to qualify for the free skate. I want to give him a hug, but I’m also kind of relieved that someone has finally messed up.


JWC2017 Alexander PETROV SP by arealy_ru

I’m running on adrenaline, and so are the skaters in the last group, which includes all three Russians in a row, followed by three of the least technically consistent men in figure skating. The first of the Russians is Alexander Petrov, who has come back down from getting underscored in seniors all season. Three perfect jumping passes, three perfect spins, and we’re back to statistically improbable levels of everyone destroying.


JWC2017 Dmitri ALIEV SP by arealy_ru

Dmitri Aliev does one of the prettiest triple Axels I have seen in my lifetime. His other two jump landings look a little off to me, but the surrounding transitions are so hard that the judges are like, “We’ve been here for six hours, this is awesome, what do you want?” Nothing makes sense anymore, and I’m wondering how I’m still awake. Aliev ends up ahead of Cha, purely on components. I would be shouting at the screen about why that is a fatally wrong decision, but it’s the time of morning when one’s neighbors knock tersely on your door in response to that kind of behavior.


JWC2017 Alexander SAMARIN SP by arealy_ru

Alexander Samarin’s triple Axel is even more stunning than Aliev’s, which is true in general but especially true on a night when I’ve seen at least fifteen excellent triple Axels. He biffs his triple loop just enough to score behind Aliev. But this performance is the artistic achievement of the night, and I am not being ironic. It takes a special skater to make this ridiculous testosterone-fueled chest-bump of a short program into a marvel of balletic body lines and emotional range.

IceNetwork starts to glitch for the first time, which is remarkable considering that this live stream has been running uninterrupted for over six hours. This is probably my computer’s way of telling me to go to bed already. As a result, I see Daniel Samohin fall on his triple lutz and miss his combination, but I’m spared from the horror that is his triple Axel. I assume he’s failed to qualify, but he’s pulled a Jason Brown and scraped together 67 points purely on components and non-jump elements.


JWC2017 Kevin AYMOZ SP by -tomaayuvdzhy

The feed completely dies during Matteo Rizzo’s short program but sputters back to life for Kevin Aymoz, who finally shows what it looks like when he lands all his jumps. It’s a moment to treasure. He’s an exceptionally beautiful performer, even when his music is more suited for a video game trailer than for figure skating. In any case, this doubles as a demonstration of what spins are supposed to look like, and it’s the kind of night/morning/what is time anyway when a skate like Aymoz’s is only good enough for sixth place.

Intermission: Wednesday, 9:44 AM CDT

Kamala: *blinks awake* oh my GOD

Me: Yeah, sorry. Actually I wrote less to you last night than I thought.

Kamala: How was everyone THIS GOOD??

Me: Maybe they weren’t and I was tired. But the scores suggest everyone was that good. The minimum qualifying SP score was lower at Euros.

Kamala: Of course this all sets up for some potentially legendary bombing in the free. They’re probably not going to all roll 20’s twice in a row. Although I would not complain if they did.

Me: I like this sad D&D metaphor and am glad we are running with it.

Men’s Free Skate

Thursday, 5:45 AM CDT


Kazuki TOMONO (JPN) FP ― 2017 WJSC by shintorasports

I’m up, it’s Kazuki Tomono time, send help. Kazuki has some very special landings, but he goes for the quad and rotates his triple Axels, which is more than acceptable. He breaks 200 points, and my heart explodes with glee. He was only 14th in the short program so I’m looking forward to seeing how far he moves up the rankings.

Conrad Orzel pops an Axel early in the program, and I assume it’s all over, since he needs those triple Axels to contend. But just before the program’s halfway point, Orzel invokes the spirit of Shoma Uno and improvises an emergency triple Axel so enormous that he tacks a three-jump combo onto the back end. It’s already shaping up to be the kind of morning when a YOLO Axel can save your life, and it is way too early for me to deal with watching skaters lose their minds correctly.


Daniel SAMOHIN (ISR) FP ― 2017 WJSC by shintorasports

To test my emotional resilience, Daniel Samohin is next, my friends are asleep, and I am no longer a college student whose digestive system can handle a shot of whiskey at 6:00 in the morning. Right off the bat, he lands two quads and a triple Axel. Who is this non-disaster, and why can’t he show up all the time? He does eventually fall on his third quad attempt, and some of his other landings are dramatic saves. He rotates everything, though. Aside from the one jerkface judge who gives him a 5.00 for transitions, the panel is willing to hold him way up on components, too. And here I was, thinking Tomono’s score would hold up for awhile.

I accidentally doze off in the first minute of Daniel Albert Naurits’ program, wake up briefly as Matteo Rizzo is receiving his scores, and power nap through the Zamboni break. The cat, who has apparently learned the vocabulary of skating competition announcements, sticks her nose in my face just as Group 3 is being told they have one minute remaining in their warm-up.

Thursday, 7:00 AM CDT

Koshiro Shimada skates well but doesn’t have the difficulty to keep up with all the quads. May he return next year with a triple Axel and even more charisma. Paniot and Newberry fizzle in the free skate, which is too bad, but not entirely a surprise. Samohin remains in the lead, as he’s been for an hour. I’m having flashbacks to 2016.

I’m extremely excited about Nicolas Nadeau’s Elvis free skate, because it’s bananas. He pops his Axel, and then IceNetwork freezes, unable to cope. He goes on to pop two more jumps and mess up the landings on several of his triples. Nadeau’s free skate score is 30 points lower than what he earned for his silver-medal performance in 2016. I’m so transparently not okay about this, the cat is trying to figure out how she can help.

Canada is not done breaking my heart. Roman Sadovsky falls twice in the first 30 seconds of his free skate, and things do not improve from there. He lands one clean triple jump in the entire program. The skating gods are unhappy with Canada for some reason.


Alexei KRASNOZHON (USA) FP ― 2017 WJSC by shintorasports

In the moment, Alexei Krasnozhon looks terrific. He stands up on his quad loop and hits a couple of gorgeous triple Axels. “Immigrants, they get things done!” I exclaim. But on closer scrutiny, the quad loop is underrotated, and Krasnozhon is short a jump combination. Good for him for getting his spin levels up, and for his full commitment to being an ice cowboy. I’ll miss this program. I wish his scores were higher.

Thursday, 7:30 AM CDT


JWC2017 Vincent ZHOU FS by arealy_ru

Vincent Zhou is first to skate after the ice resurfacing. I explain to my friends, who are still asleep or at least not checking their messages yet, that I’m not okay but appear calm because it’s so early. Looking back on my text logs, I do not appear calm at all; half of my notes are in all caps. My messages to Buffy are as follows:

BOTH QUADS
LANDED
I
Feelings
It’s cute that people thought he couldn’t win

There are actually three quads – one more than I expected – and the first is a quad lutz so pristine that Nathan Chen needs to start looking over his shoulder. Zhou earns positive grades of execution on everything and exceeds 100 points in his technical element score for the first time in Junior Worlds history. He has the perfect Humphrey Bogart eyes for Casablanca. 

After the Kevin Aymoz meltdown that surprises nobody, it’s Russians who are not as amazing as Vincent: a play in three acts. Alexander Petrov skates with his usual understated competence and even lands a half-decent quad toe loop. Under other circumstances, I enjoy his skating, but his performance lacks Zhou’s plucky drama or Samohin’s balls-to-the wall explosiveness.


JWC2017 Alexander SAMARIN FS by arealy_ru

Alexander Samarin, on the other hand, has grown into a huge on-ice personality this year. With one quad less than Zhou, and a bunch of funky wobbles that look like his nerves getting the best of him, Samarin posts a great score but can’t catch up. He seems less tired of his programs than any other skater at the event, like he could do this choreography forever and make a change to the world.


JWC2017 Jun Hwan CHA FS by arealy_ru

I have somehow forgotten that Jun Hwan Cha hasn’t skated yet. Maybe I’m blocking it out for the sake of my own mental health. For the first two minutes, he looks like he has this in the bag, with a terrific quad salchow and graceful, noodly energy. But he can’t hang onto his second quad attempt, and he literally falls right off the podium. After that, he looks like he’s accepted defeat. I am trying to be upset, but I’m still riding the How is Vincent still winning? high.


JWC2017 Dmitri ALIEV FS by arealy_ru

I am certain that Aliev is going to take Vincent’s gold away. The only person more certain than me appears to be Aliev, who assumes his opening pose like the judges wouldn’t dare deny him his rightful World Junior title. But he’s just so-so. He attempts only one quad toe loop, and it’s a janky one. Even his knee slide triple flip looks tentative. The judges do their best to make him feel better with a giant components score, handing him silver ahead of Samarin, who probably deserved it more. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen a skater this cranky about second place.

 epilogue

In the post-competition interview and press conference, Zhou is giddy and well-spoken, like the media training has kicked in but not enough to prevent him from being himself. “I can’t be a robot,” he says with a smile when asked about what he wants to work on in the future. The Russians, meanwhile, sound pissed off that this dorky American kid who didn’t even qualify for the Junior Grand Prix Final has quad-lutzed off with the title. It’s like the end of The Karate Kid. I can only hope that senior Worlds will be this full of surprises, strong performances, and feel-good sports movie endings.

I feel I should be recapping ice dance as well, but that whole mess can be summarized as disaster, disaster, THE PARSONS FAMILY, disaster, and hey wait, Carreira/Ponomarenko got a medal? American and Russian ice dance will be real interesting next year.


Next on The Finer Sports: As many World Championships field guides as I have time for before the event starts.

 

 

2017 Junior Worlds Cheat Sheet: Ladies

I’ve run out of time to do a full analysis of the ladies like I did of the men’s and ice dance fields, but I have the list of athletes I was going to write about. With 45 entries on the ladies’ roster, I know we could all use a cheat sheet. Since almost half of those skaters won’t make it to the free skate, I’m not covering everyone – just the 20 I think are likely to perform well, or at least be fun to watch.

For each skater, I’ll provide a YouTube video, some basic info, highlights of their season so far, and a placement in one of my four categories. (I refuse to blame fourteen-year-old girls for Why I Drink, so that one’s off the table.) Front Runners are the strongest contenders for a medal, and Dark Horses are the athletes who could shake things up for the favorites. Skaters On the Rise aren’t shooting for the podium yet, but they’re looking to make a name for themselves. I’m leaving most of the Just Happy to Be Here crowd off this list, but I’ve included several who are enjoyable, unique, and memorable.

If you’re interested in the other disciplines (despite the fact that they’re mostly done skating), check out my Ice Dance Field Guide, Men’s Field Guide Part 1, and Men’s Field Guide Part 2.

Continue reading “2017 Junior Worlds Cheat Sheet: Ladies”

2017 Junior Worlds Field Guide: Ice Dance

Of the four disciplines at Junior Worlds this season, ice dance is the easiest to predict. Unless someone falls or in some other way has the worst skate of their lives, we know who’s going to be on the podium – although not necessarily the order in which they’ll place. Below those three golden teams, there are maybe five who will battle for placement within a second tier. And then there’s everybody else, way behind in terms of experience, technical difficulty, and scores. A lot of those lower-level teams are fun to watch, though, and some have promise to move up the ranks as they mature. So this field guide is unlikely to tell you anything you don’t know in terms of predictions, but it will almost definitely give you a sneak peek at some teams you’ve never watched before, and a sense of why you might not want to get a snack during their programs.

There are 31 teams on the roster for Junior Worlds this year, and I’m going to cover the top half: the 16 teams that I think are most interesting. As in my other field guides, I’ll avoid making predictions, but I will place each team in one of four categories that describes where they stand. (As much as McNamara & Carpenter’s inconsistency has raised my anxiety this season, I’m giving the “Why I Drink” designation a rest this time around.) Front Runners are the most likely to win a medal. Dark Horses could reach the podium on their best day. Teams On the Rise are looking for a top ten finish and increased opportunities in the future. And while I’m omitting a lot of the Just Happy to Be Here contingent, I’ll include some teams who are worth knowing for reasons other than scores or placement.

I’ve already posted field guides for the men’s event. If you’re an ice dance fan looking for more stress in your life, go check out Men’s Field Guide Part 1 and Men’s Field Guide Part 2. It’s going to be an especially unpredictable and entertaining event this year.

With no further ado, here are 16 ice dance teams to watch out for at 2017 Junior Worlds:

Continue reading “2017 Junior Worlds Field Guide: Ice Dance”

2017 Junior Worlds Field Guide: Men Part 2

The World Junior Figure Skating Championships are less than a week away, and there’s a good chance you don’t even know who most of these kids are. In men’s singles, there are 44 competitors on the list, almost half of whom won’t even qualify to perform their free skates. This guide covers the 22 athletes most likely to make some kind of an impression in Taipei City: the medal contenders as well as the entertainers and the emerging talents. For the first half of the alphabet and a more detailed explanation of how this works, start with part 1 of my men’s field guide.

Continue reading “2017 Junior Worlds Field Guide: Men Part 2”

2017 Junior Worlds Field Guide: Men Part 1

If you’re not following junior-level figure skating, the World Junior Figure Skating Championships is your excuse to start. For one thing, a lot of the athletes currently competing at the second-highest level will move up just in time to contend for the Olympics, so it’s worth getting to know them now. For another, the level of technical ability among the most accomplished juniors would be impressive in senior-level competition. Plus, it’s still almost a month until Worlds. You could curl up with your favorite skating reruns on YouTube or binge watch NCAA gymnastics –  not that this is how I plan to spend most of March – but it’s so much more fun to get way too emotionally invested in hyper-talented 15-year-olds.

Even most devoted skating fans are less familiar with juniors than seniors, so I’ve received a few specific requests for a field guide. I’m only too happy to oblige. The problem is, there are more than 40 competitors entered in both men’s and ladies’ singles at Junior Worlds, and the majority of them are Just Happy to Be Here. Since only the top 24 qualify to perform a free skate, almost half of the singles competitors will see their Junior Worlds experience end in under three minutes. Even ice dance is crowded, with 31 teams currently listed. For the sake of everyone’s sanity, I’m not covering every skater in the field. That still leaves me with so many men to write about that I’m splitting them into two posts. I’ve chosen them based on the scores they’ve achieved, as well as on the overall impressions they’ve left on me when I’ve watched them earlier in the season. I am almost definitely leaving out someone who will give a breakout performance in Taipei City, and the odds dictate that I’ll feature at least one athlete in each discipline who fails to qualify for the free skate.

I’m structuring these field guides in pretty much the same way as the ones I wrote a couple of months ago for U.S. Nationals. For each athlete, I’ll provide the best recent video I can find, a summary of their season so far, and a brief analysis of how I think they’ll do at Junior Worlds. Instead of making predictions, I’ll rate each athlete on a five-point scale that reflects where I think they stand. The Front Runners are the few skaters with the strongest chance of winning a medal, and the Dark Horses are the ones good enough to pull an upset. Skaters On the Rise are unlikely to threaten the podium but could break into the top 10 and, in some cases, put their countries on the figure skating map. While the most Just Happy to Be Here won’t make the cut for this guide, I’m covering a few skaters who will be memorable even though they won’t place particularly high. Finally, despite my reservations about blaming teenagers for my bad habits, some athletes are so unpredictable that I can only describe them as Why I Drink. Many of the skaters in that last category are among the most talented and entertaining in the field, so it’s not a ranking so much as an acknowledgement that some skaters are impossible to rank.

With no further ado, here are 11 men to watch at this year’s Junior Worlds, in alphabetical order.

Continue reading “2017 Junior Worlds Field Guide: Men Part 1”

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.

Continue reading “6 More Things I Learned from the 2017 US National Figure Skating Championships”

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: Junior Ice Dance

The 9th-best American dance team is better than most countries’ 2nd-best team. Enjoy your ice dance golden age, America.

It’s part 3 of my comprehensive Nationals field guide series, and I’m still at the point where I think I’m going to get all of these done before the competition starts. (Shut up; I’m cute when I’m ambitious.) If you’re just joining me now, take a minute to check out my overly enthusiastic Junior Men’s Field Guide and, especially, my Junior Ladies’ Field Guide, which explains the four-point rating system I’m using to loosely predict how each skater will rank. My purpose here is to highlight every athlete in the event, from the big names to those who just barely qualified, so that when you watch next week, you know who everyone is. Sometimes we forget, watching the skaters at the low end of the standings, how hard it is to put in the hours and pass the skills tests necessary to compete as a junior or senior at a National Figure Skating Championships in a talent-rich country like the United States.

In ice dance – this year and most years – if you have a partner, a set of programs, and the ability to complete a set of twizzles without dying, you’ll get to Nationals. But implicitly, the bar is a bit higher than that, since America’s top contenders in junior dance are among the best in the world. The less accomplished teams might not be anywhere close to the same level of difficulty and performance quality as the medalists – in fact, their combined scores probably won’t reach the scores that McNamara & Carpenter or Parsons & Parsons earn in the free dance alone – but the 9th-best American dance team is better than most countries’ 2nd-best team. Enjoy your ice dance golden age, America.

Continue reading “2017 US Nationals Field Guide: Junior Ice Dance”

2017 US Nationals Field Guide: Junior Men

There’s Krasnozhon and his quad loop, and then there’s a heck of a fight for silver.

The 2017 US National Figure Skating Championships are fast approaching, and it’s time for a preview of my favorite discipline, men’s singles. This season’s 13-man line-up has a clear front runner in Alex Krasnozhon, but it’s open season for the rest of the podium, with lots of young talent and big personalities in contention. This field guide provides basic information on each skater, a summary of their seasons so far, and my thoughts on how they’re likely to do at Nationals. For an explanation of the four-point scale I’m using to describe where each skater stands, and more information on my field guides in general, go read my Junior Ladies’ Field Guide first.

Continue reading “2017 US Nationals Field Guide: Junior Men”

2017 US Nationals Field Guide: Junior Ladies

More than ever, internet live streams and social media have made it possible for the world to watch, leaving even many dedicated fans wondering, “Who the hell are these people?”

Most of the rest of the world has already crowned its skating royalty for the 2016-17 seasons. Only the North American powerhouses, the United States and Canada, save their National Championships for the middle of January. More than ever, internet live streams and social media have made it possible for the world to watch, leaving even many dedicated fans wondering, “Who the hell are these people?”

From now until the start of the higher-level competition (junior and senior) at U. S. Nationals, I’ll be presenting guides to the athletes. I’ll give equal space to everyone, providing video of a recent performance, summaries of their 2016-17 results and past achievements, and a brief description of what they have to offer. I’ll also be dividing them into four categories, based on how I think they’ll perform:

  • Front Runners. These are the skaters you’ve probably heard of already, especially at the senior level. In some fields, there’s only one front runner; in some, it’s a legitimate five-way fight. Front runners aren’t guaranteed to earn a medal, but they’re the safest bets.
  • Dark Horses. A skater can become a dark horse in a number of ways. Some are newcomers who have shot into the spotlight with impressive results earlier in the season. Others are mid-list veterans who have taken big steps forward this year, or former front runners who are recovering from injuries or other types of disappointment. Dark horses often make the podium and sometimes even win.
  • On the Rise. A lot of the skaters at Nationals don’t have the technical difficulty to contend for a medal, but a solid finish can bring big opportunities like financial support and international competitive assignments. For senior-level singles skaters, it might also mean a moment in the NBC broadcast limelight.
  • Just Happy to Be Here. For many skaters, the goal is just to get to Nationals. There are always a few athletes in the field for whom scores and placement are less meaningful than the experience. Even though they’re likely to finish toward the bottom of the rankings, many are terrific performers or have great backstories.

When I’m writing about junior-level skaters, I’m well aware that some are very young. One of the top contenders is younger than my cats. Generally, I tone down the sarcasm when discussing athletes this age, but I do sometimes write about aspects of their skating that could be improved. I always intend it as constructive criticism – it’s the teacher in me, always thinking about how someone great could be even better.

With no further ado, here’s the lowdown on the twelve young athletes competing in junior ladies in 2017. It’s a relatively wide-open field this year, headlined by relative unknowns who debuted formidable jumps at club competitions and qualifying meets. With the American ladies struggling internationally at the junior level, there’s huge pressure for the Next Big Thing to spread her wings here. It will be an exciting and unpredictable event, with the top competitors planning jump content as difficult as the top senior ladies’. I updated this post on 1/11/17 to reflect a change in the roster: Ashley Kim has withdrawn, and Madalyn Moree has been added.

Continue reading “2017 US Nationals Field Guide: Junior Ladies”