US National Championships Men’s SP: I Love Everyone in This Rink

Nathan Chen competes in the Championship Men Short Program during Day 2 of the 2018 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships at SAP Center at SAP Center on January 4, 2018 in San Jose, California.

It is a testament to the well-oiled scheduling machine of USFSA that this is my first opportunity to blog from San Jose. I’ve been at Nationals since Monday night, but my enthusiasm for junior-level free skates – and my desire to spend any remaining stretches of unstructured time with friends who live in the area – has left little time for writing. Amid grumbles that this was supposed to be my vacation, I’ve waited until this morning to get words on the screen.

Last night was the championship men’s short program. Rest assured that I have plenty to say.

I’m here with a friend, Shadowcat, but we bought our tickets at different times. This turned out to be a smart move, since nobody bought the tickets next to either of us, so we’ve been switching off between our two sections. My seats are fabulously close to the ice, but put us at a weird angle where it’s unexpectedly hard to call jumps accurately, and also I feel like I’m flashing Scott Hamilton and Sandra Bezic whenever I stretch in my seat. Shadowcat’s seats directly overlook Tara and Johnny (whom we both enjoy, so do not start) and the loading area by the kiss and cry, and give more of a bird’s eye view. We watched the men’s short from that higher ground.

As far as I’m concerned, the men’s competition is the marquee event of these Nationals. American ice dance is at an all-time high, but the top three teams are almost guaranteed a trip to the Olympics, leaving only the die-hard dance fans to care about the race for a pewter medal. There’s a lot of talent among American ladies, but after their ho-hum collective showing during the Grand Prix season, it will take a miracle to put any of them on the podium in Pyeongchang. And do we even need to talk about pairs?

The American men, on the other hand, are killing it. Four achieved senior-level Grand Prix medals (Nathan Chen, Adam Rippon, Jason Brown, and Max Aaron); of those, three qualified to the Grand Prix Final, and Chen took gold there. Three more men competing as seniors at Nationals excelled at the junior level in the fall, earning Junior Grand Prix medals (Alex Krasnozhon, Andrew Torgashev, and Tomoki Hiwatashi); Krasnozhon is the Junior Grand Prix Final champion. Five different American men have competed at a World Championships in the past two years – Chen, Rippon, Brown, Aaron, and Grant Hochstein – and all have placed in the top ten. Vincent Zhou is the reigning World Junior Champion, and four others (Hiwatashi, Chen, Brown, and Rippon) are former World Junior medalists. American men have held onto a reputation as scrappy underdogs, but by the numbers, they’re looking dominant internationally.

Meanwhile, the domestic pedigrees of the competitors are equally impressive. Much has been made of the fact that four current or former senior National Champions are vying for a title here: Aaron, Brown, Rippon, and Chen. There are also eight current or former junior National Champions in the mix: Rippon, Ross Miner, Brown, Chen, Zhou, Torgashev, Hiwatashi, and Krasnozhon. And these lists don’t give due credit to the roster of hardworking mid-listers such as Hochstein, Timothy Dolensky, and Alexander Johnson – many of them late bloomers whose best competitive years have come in their twenties.

Although the deep men’s field put plenty of familiar names early in the starting order, the first warm-up group consisted mostly of guys I’ve only heard of because I pay attention to Sectionals. It was cool to see perennial qualifier Sebastien Payannet shoot for a triple Axel and almost land it; the rest was pretty dire.

That direness extends to Max Aaron, stuck skating fourth after a nightmare Nationals last year. Things are not looking up for him, despite the optimistic profile package that blasted all over the arena screens. (No one else got such a long, adulatory bio, not even Nathan Chen or Jason Brown; Adam Rippon got a funny clip, but it was much shorter.) Aaron did not fall, but he hung onto two very ugly quads, and his clean triple Axel was unspectacular. And in an environment increasingly driven by artistry and intricate choreography, Aaron didn’t have room in his components marks to recover from his mistakes. The silver lining: Aaron’s 74.95 put him a point ahead of Bradie Tennell’s winning short program score from the night before, saving us from a night of jokes about how the top lady was faring in the men’s event.

The second flight of skaters played it safe technically, which brought a string of pleasing performances, although not many breathtaking jumps. I’d been looking forward to Alex Krasnozhon’s quadruple loop, which is phenomenally dramatic even when he doesn’t land it. Instead, Krasnozhon opted for four clean triple jumps, including one of the night’s most confident triple Axels and a rare, terrific triple flip-triple loop. It was especially interesting to watch him in contrast with Aaron, as they both have the same fundamental flaw: they’re not natural artists. Krasnozhon can still look awkward, with limits to his speed and ice coverage, but there’s a lot of joy and personality in his Russian folk dance short program. The choreography also showcases his steadily improving flexibility and edge depth. At 17, he has time to develop those skills further, and the judges ratified his progress, putting him a couple of points ahead of Aaron in components and way ahead overall, with an 82.58.

As Krasnozhon headed to the kiss and cry, he high-fived his training mate, Timothy Dolensky, who was slated to skate next. Dolensky and Krasnozhon are opposites in many ways: while Krasnozhon came up through the Russian figure skating system and has enjoyed great success as a teenager, Dolensky is an outsider from Atlanta who was mostly invisible until he’d reached legal drinking age. Over the past couple of years, however, Dolensky has established himself as a consummate artist with enough jumping ability to stay in the conversation. He reinforced that reputation last night, becoming the first man at the event to break 40 points in program components, with particular approval from the judges for his interpretation and composition. He also got big grade of execution bonuses for graceful spins and steps with tricky surrounding transitions. The overall impact of his program was so beautiful that I forgot, until I rewatched for this recap, that he’d had to fight for his triple Axel. He pulled into the lead with an impressive 85.06.

Like most arenas hosting figure skating events, the SAP Center had not realized that figure skating fans need something stronger than beer to get through the men’s event, so I spent the entire ice resurface in line for the bar. (There was only one bartender. At least there are enough stalls in the ladies’ room, although toilet paper was running perilously low by the end of the night.)

I reached the front of the queue just as Grant Hochstein took the ice, so I had to watch him on a screen while clutching a pair of cocktails, one of which I had to save for Shadowcat. Hochstein’s skate turned out to be the performance of the evening, no matter what angle one watched from. While many of his competitors had played it safe technically, Hochstein knew he had to bring out his quadruple toe loop to stay in the conversation. And what a quad: soaring, out of a footwork sequence that included a smooth spread eagle, in combination with a triple toe loop. His other two jumps, a triple Axel and a triple lutz, were equally confident. It added up to the second highest technical score of the night, and the biggest smile of any athlete in the kiss and cry. His 92.18 gave him a comfortable lead.

It turned out that Hochstein’s risk was the right one to take, as another veteran with a comparable resume stuck to triple jumps and fell behind. Ross Miner hit three pristine jumping passes, including a tremendous triple Axel, and even edged out Hochstein by a few tenths of a point on components. I’m basically the only skating fan who loves his bizarre Macklemore short program, and he sold the hip hop with panache. His score, 88.91, should keep him in the conversation for a medal, but somehow, my memory of his energetic and well-executed skate had faded by the end of the night. I can’t just blame that on the mai tai I bought during the resurface.

The crowd held its breath as Vincent Zhou took the ice: we had no idea what kind of skate we would see from him. Last season, he was a revelation at Nationals, taking home a senior silver medal at only sixteen years old. He’s made a lot of progress artistically since then, but his jumps have declined in reliability, leading many fans to downgrade him from a shoo-in for the Olympic team to one of America’s greatest wildcards. His short program placed an even bigger question mark next to his name. He opened with a stunner of a quadruple lutz-triple toe loop, a jumping pass so spectacular that it earned near-perfect grades of execution and the highest number of points for a single element all night. His quad flip looked fine in real time, but the judges slapped it with an underrotation call (they were not wrong), and Zhou went down on an easy-for-him triple Axel. Although Zhou’s “Chasing Cars” short program brought out his most mature and nuanced performance to date, his components scores reflected the size of his jumps more than the impact of his artistry; as much as I enjoy Zhou’s skating, it doesn’t seem right to me that he scored ahead of Hochstein, Miner, and Dolensky on his second mark. His mistakes added up enough to put him behind Hochstein, but if one score last night seemed high, it was Zhou’s.

Jimmy Ma became a viral sensation with what I described in the moment as “the most New Jersey short program ever.” It was indeed a lot of fun, and the best I’ve seen Ma skate. He’s not in contention for anything more than fifteen minutes of well-deserved fame, but I’m delighting in the joy he brought to the casuals.

As the last group warmed up, I noted to Shadowcat that all of them except Scott Dyer were former Junior National Champions. That ended up putting too much pressure on both Andrew Torgashev and Tomoki Hiwatashi. Torgashev was solid enough, held back only by a stumble on his triple lutz-triple toe loop and by generally modest grades of execution and components scores. Hiwatashi was one of the night’s most disappointing bombs; he had to skate last, to the echo of Adam Rippon and Jason Brown’s screaming fans, and he tumbled on his quad attempt.

Nathan Chen skated first in the group, and it was a good place for him: all he had to do was outscore Hochstein, and he’d reinforce his status as the top American man. He did that, and then some, despite swapping his planned quad lutz for a more conservative quad toe loop and bungling his triple Axel. More than the high-flying jumps, his short program stood out to me for how thoroughly he sold it. Chen shines brightest when he has a strong beat behind him, and the driving rhythms of Benjamin Clementine’s “Nemesis” propel him into the character and narrative of the song. If there’s a story that Chen knows how to tell, it’s conquering his demons – injuries, a natural shyness, that pesky Axel – and rising to a massive lead after the short program with 104.45.

In real time, there were two skaters between Chen and Adam Rippon, but in my memory – and therefore in this blog post – there is no space between them. They train together, and Rippon’s mentorship of Chen provides a great contrast narrative: Chen a teenage prodigy who approaches his sport with a quiet professionalism beyond his years, Rippon a veteran who’s missed out on two Olympic teams and has approached the final act of his competitive career with zero F-bombs left to give.  Rippon stuck to triple jumps in his short program, but he made them look as effortless as a playful finger wag to the judges. He’s also gradually built intricacy into his choreography, to the point where there’s no longer a wasted moment in the program. The result was a master class in how to get to 96.52 and second place without a quad.

For all intents and purposes, Jason Brown closed out the night. That put a lot on his shoulders, especially with the army of fans strolling the SAP Center in chocolate-colored Team Brown t-shirts. There’s been a lot of derisive screaming on the internet about Brown’s triple Axel, for which he received a negative grade of execution but full rotation credit – or maybe it’s just Shadowcat, who’s been breezing through the kitchen of our AirBnB all morning reminding me to watch it again in slow motion now that I’m fully sober. The landing was definitely two-footed, with a spray of ice from the toe pick of his free leg, but replays show just enough rotation to receive full credit. Everything else was beyond reproach, from the triple lutz to the astronomical grades of execution on his non-jump elements to the punishing transitions. With only a point’s advantage over Hochstein going into the free skate, Brown has no room for errors, but like Rippon, he’s reaffirmed that he belongs in the top tier despite his technical limitations.

I’m off to watch the short dance. Shadowcat is calling an Uber as I type. May it be as exciting as the men’s short.

Statistics, Scoring Changes, and Last Weekend’s Men’s Highlights

The Challenger Series kicked off this week with two simultaneous events – the Lombardia Trophy in Bergamo, Italy, and the US International Classic in Salt Lake City – and we are officially in peak skating season. It feels weird to say that with a few days of summer left in the Northern Hemisphere, as the program music on the live streams compete with my air conditioner humming in the background. But the majority of top skaters now begin their seasons with a Senior B or two, making the calendar more crowded for determined fans in September than in December. This is not great for those of us whose jobs finally get quiet when the weather gets cold.

Maybe this is why, rather than attempting to recap my favorite highlights from Lombardia and the US Classic, I am sticking my nose in a flame war about proposed ISU scoring changes that, if they are ever enacted, will be drastically watered down. It’s definitely why this post has graphs in it. (I considered running linear regressions but stopped myself short of true insanity.)

The proposed changes, as detailed in this IceNetwork article, range from reasonable and necessary to abjectly ridiculous. Here’s an overly reductive rundown:

  • Reduce the base values of the most difficult jumps – especially jumps like quad flips and quad lutzes, which had never been attempted when they were assigned point values.
  • Reduce the length of the men’s and pairs free skates to four minutes, and reduce the number of permitted jumping passes in a men’s free skate from eight to seven. This change has already been approved, and I am shaking my tiny fist at it, as are Kori Ade and Brian Orser. Top coaches are frustrated that these new policies are being touted as ways to improve artistry, because making programs shorter decreases the opportunities to build musicality and storytelling into choreography. I agree with this, and I’m also annoyed because stamina is, and should always be, one of the abilities that makes an athlete successful in the free skate. My inference is that the motivations are financial and logistical: shortening the programs is a way of making competitions shorter and therefore cheaper to run. Men’s and pairs events do tend to drag late into the night, but that doesn’t stop me from opposing how these changes are likely to impact the sport.
  • Create more granularity in the grades of execution, so it’s possible to earn as much as +5 GOE, or lose as much as -5 GOE, for a technical element. This is the change I’m happiest about, because I have seen Maia and Alex Shibutani do twizzles, and because I am a statistics nerd who prefers appropriately sensitive rating scales.
  • Award separate Olympic medals (and, likely, also separate medals at ISU championship events) for short “athletic” programs and long “artistic” programs, in addition to an all-around medal. Possibly, there would be gradual movement toward treating these as separate disciplines. I don’t think this is likely to happen – at least not as proposed – but it’s a reminder that there’s a vocal contingent that would rather just sign up for a jumping contest. I’m all for a jumping contest as a separate competitive event, perhaps with a format similar to the Aerial Challenge that the Broadmoor Skating Club has been hosting for the past few years.

As a fan, my first instinct is to trust my personal feelings on these matters. But I’ve spent the past couple of weeks learning how to get my statistics software to make elegant box plots and legible frequency tables, and dipping into Edward R. Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, which apparently is a book you read in college if you are not an English major. As a result, my second instinct is to throw a bunch of math at this, partially to discuss what kinds of scoring changes really would have a positive impact on figure skating, and partially to balance out the fact that I’ve already devoted plenty of blog space to the men’s skaters whose performances I most want to write about this week.

What I took away from most of my statistical wrangling is, revaluing jumps won’t change much. I recalibrated the scores for a number of athletes who competed this weekend, and the results remained the same. Deniss Vasiljevs tends to earn higher PCS than Brendan Kerry, but even with Kerry earning a couple of points less for his more difficult jumps, he would have beat Vasiljevs handily for bronze at the Lombardia Trophy.

I think Timothy Dolensky is a more aesthetically pleasing skater than Max Aaron or even Nathan Chen, but Dolensky’s multitude of technical errors dragged down his components score. A slightly fairer accounting on the PCS side wouldn’t have rescued him from a 6th-place finish under the circumstances, and his technical totals still didn’t come close to those of the athletes who placed ahead of him. My overall appraisal of the scoring changes – and again, I’m thinking as a professional stats nerd here, more than as a fan – is that their effect on the sport will be modest.

To illustrate this, I compared Shoma Uno’s and Jason Brown’s free skate scores at the Lombardia Trophy, both under the current scoring system and using the revised jump values. I left everything else the same: grades of execution, values for non-jump elements and double jumps, and program components scores. (It would have been nice to be able to test how the 11-point GOE scale will impact scores, but that would have required me to read the judges’ minds, so the current 7-point system stays.) It should come as no surprise that Uno still beats Brown by an enormous margin in the free skate, even with his quads worth slightly less. Under the current system, Uno earned 214.97 in the free skate, and Brown earned 176.87. Adjusted for the lower jump values, both of their free skate scores go down: Uno gets 208.22, and Brown gets 175.30. That’s still a blowout, but the margin is smaller: Uno now beats Brown in the free skate by 32.95 instead of by 38.10.

Where things do get interesting is in the ratios of how much their different strengths impact their scores. With the new, lower technical values, Uno’s high PCS do matter a bit more: they’re now 44.2% of his score instead of 42.8%. If the goal is to create better parity between technical and components scores, the re-valuing will accomplish that, albeit modestly. It’s possible that for a well-rounded athlete like Uno, who already earns high components scores (and, in my opinion, deserves them), the percentage difference would be statistically insignificant, but I’ll need more scores from more competitions to run the kind of significance tests that will confirm that hunch.

Things get more interesting when we look at how the proposed scoring changes will affect Brown, an athlete known for earning high scores on the strength of his components and execution. Uno, like most top skaters, earns almost half of his points from jumps alone, whereas at Lombardia, Brown’s jumps accounted for only about a third of his free skate point total. What’s remarkable is that with the new scoring in place, not only does Brown’s free skate total hardly budge – it goes down only 1.57 points, a reduction of less than 1%, as opposed to Uno’s change of about 3% – but the ratio of components to jumps doesn’t change much. This seems to be what the ISU intended: athletes like Brown, who rely on artistry, are rewarded for this approach.

Brown is a player in the one major change to this weekend’s results that the jump revaluation would bring about. At the US Classic, two American men earned higher overall scores than Brown did at Lombardia, and both of them did it with a quiver full of quads. Like Uno, Nathan Chen won easily, although unlike Uno, he skated conservatively, attempting only one quad in his short program and two in his free skate. Revalued jumps would have brought Chen’s score down a few points, but they wouldn’t have stopped him from winning the event by a tidy margin, or from becoming far and away the highest-scoring American man of the weekend. And deservedly so – a couple of technical errors didn’t detract from Chen’s most engaging artistic performance to date, with high components scores that reflected his growth.

Max Aaron, however, is another story. His overall score beat Brown’s, but by a slim margin of 1.68. I recalculated both skaters’ scores with the new, lower jump values, and in this case, it’s enough for Brown to pull ahead. Since the revaluation doesn’t impact Brown’s score as much, his new total becomes 257.60. Aaron – who landed five quads at the US Classic, three of them beautifully – takes a much bigger hit under the revaluation, especially because his PCS were far lower than Brown’s. Aaron’s overall score shrinks from 261.56 to 255.42, enough for Brown to pull ahead as the weekend’s second-best American. Brown beat Aaron by more than 11 PCS points in the free skate, a reflection of Brown’s superior interpretation and skating skills as well as Brown’s far more taxing choreography. If the goal of the revaluation is to give artistically adept athletes like Brown the edge over big jumpers like Aaron on a day when all other things are more or less equal, then it does its job.

The most interesting math problem arising from this weekend’s men’s events, however, centered around the two highest program components scores. Shoma Uno beat Jason Brown by almost 40 points in the free skate, and nearly all of that difference was in technical elements. On the components end, Uno edged out Brown by only 0.30, and both earned more than 90 points for components, a rare achievement at this point in the season. For all intents and purposes, the Lombardia Trophy judges threw up their hands and called it an artistic draw. Nobody else came close there; Deniss Vasiljevs’ components score was the third highest, and almost 12 points behind Brown. Chen, whose PCS were highest at the US Classic, trailed behind both Uno and Brown by about four points on his second mark.

At first, I questioned whether the two skaters really had tied, from a performance standpoint. When I’d watched the event live, Brown had stood out to me as the more accomplished artist. He’s had a few more years than Uno to develop his style and presence, and he has a preternatural gift for adapting to the mood and narrative of his music. Brown also navigates one of the most challenging pieces of choreography we’re likely to see this season, packed with sweeping flexibility moves and tricky turns that force him to maintain his momentum and balance when he’d rather be setting up for his next jump. This program has a little more breathing room than some of Brown’s past free skates, with more built-in opportunities for him to recover his speed. He also had to patch over a couple of wonky jump landings. The real irony is, this wasn’t Brown’s best showcase of his skating skills or interpretation, but Brown on a so-so artistry day is better than almost anyone else in the sport.

The problem with Uno, in terms of components, is that his finest qualities don’t come across on video. The tight frame of the camera makes his speed and ice coverage look less impressive, and it erases the impact of this small, shy man’s talent for filling a rink with his presence. Therefore, I have to assume that what comes off as a cautious and subdued performance was far more dynamic in person. What doesn’t disappear is Uno’s growing confidence in responding to his music with his face and upper body, as well as choreography that gives him more chances to show off his edges and core control than ever before. Next to Brown, he looks like an emerging artist rather than an established one, so I watched him again right after re-watching Nathan Chen. From that vantage point, it’s clear that compared to the other big jumpers of his generation, Uno is the most sophisticated performer. Chen is catching up in that respect, so Uno needs to watch his back. But for now, Uno has the advantage, and the ISU has all but assured that his performance ability will matter even more in the future than it does now.

 

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”

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.

Continue reading “2017 US Nationals Field Guide: Championship Men Part 1”