Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships Recap: All Aboard the Rhumba Train

Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter perform their free dance.
Photo via ice-dance.com.

Skating fans are used to busy weekends, especially in the era of live streams and YouTube. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a weekend in July so crammed with skating, though. Between July 27 and 30, fans had to choose among the Glacier Falls Classic, a high-profile American club competition; a South Korean test event that determined assignments to the Junior Grand Prix and Olympics qualifiers; and Minto Summer Skate, a Canadian pre-season event with an impressive roster, especially in men’s singles. I’m working my way through videos of those events, and if I get through them before the Challenger Series begins, you can count me as one very determined and sleep-deprived skating fan.

What kept me away from that wealth of attractive choices was my favorite summer skating event, the Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships. Why do I love it so much? For one thing, as the name implies, it’s nothing but ice dance. That makes it a more manageable and focused event than most, and it gives me a chance, early in the summer, to hone my eye for pattern dance checkpoints and clever attempts to respond to ice dance’s ever-changing rules. For the past few years, it’s featured the most competitive ice dance fields of the pre-season, making the Challenger Series look like the bush league in comparison. This year was stronger than ever before, not only because the international portion of the event is drawing more and more prestigious competitors from abroad, but because there are so many incredible American teams. It’s a USFSA test event in an Olympic year, in the United States’ most stacked discipline, and everyone was trying to rhumba their way into the national federation’s good graces. Before last weekend, the reigning top three American teams looked like they had their tickets to Pyeongchang booked, but several young teams brought skills and scores that could make American ice dance far more interesting than expected. Meanwhile, the top juniors proved that the four-year cycle to come will be both crowded and unpredictable. And that’s just the Americans; there were plenty of strong statements from the international competitors as well, including a Russian surprise.

I’m just covering the most notable routines in this post, but I live tweeted the heck out of this thing. If you missed it and now want my mostly accurate play by play (with brief digressions about laundry and Cabaret), I Storified the whole thing.

Elliana Pogrebinsky and Alex Benoit weren’t the first to skate, but their short dance is a useful example of where I see the required Latin themes going this season. My knowledge of Latin ballroom dance is 10% classes I took in junior high and 90% devoted So You Think You Can Dance viewership, but apparently, that puts me ahead of a fair number of ice dance coaches. Throughout the weekend, teams with lovely, lyrical styles proceeded stiffly through their Rhumba patterns, either struggling with or not bothering with the hip and butt movements that make Latin dance look Latin. I wouldn’t have pegged Pogrebinsky and Benoit for Salsa King and Queen, but their musical interpretation was among the best of the weekend. It helps that Benoit is an un-self-conscious showman, and that Pogrebinsky moves with a natural shimmy. They skated like they’d been paying attention in dance class, picking up the nuances of posture and timing, but also like they’ve embraced the style. At this point in the season, their performance quality is way ahead of their technical precision, though. The judges rightly docked them on both levels and grades of execution for their pattern dance and step sequences: they often drifted from their intended edges, and their free legs didn’t always match. Their curve lift, however, is magnificent, a floating spiral that has the makings of a signature move.

Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter are definitely back. Eagle-eyed ice dance fans knew it after their pattern dance, which they executed perfectly – they were the only senior team to earn a level 4 – and with stunning speed and ice coverage. I was initially perplexed that they lost a level for what looked like a spectacular pass of twizzles, although they might need one more position to earn full credit. That, plus a little slide out of line on the second set, took away from what is normally one of their strongest elements. They didn’t even try for traditional Latin ballroom, but they were loose and engaged, a variation that worked for me. The judges, however, weren’t as enthusiastic, and placed them a few tenths of a point below both Parsons & Parsons and Pogrebinsky & Benoit in components. The gap wasn’t huge, but it suggests that their unconventional style might hinder them this season, especially since judges are often disinclined to reward first-year seniors for artistry. Their chemistry has always come off more as intense friendship than smoldering romance, and they’d be wise to figure out how to adapt that to the Rhumba before autumn rolls around.

As a sibling team, Rachel and Michael Parsons have a tougher row to hoe than most of their competitors this season. It’s hard to stay on the right side of the line between sassy and creepy, but Rachel in particular is an expert at conveying sex appeal without looking like she’s directing it at her brother. She’s like a girl at a family wedding who dances with her brother to get the groomsmen’s attention. I’m also a fan of their unusual middle section, which features a blues-rock song that happens to have a Rhumba beat; I wish they’d matched it with a similar song for their beginning and end, since there’s a bit of a disconnect between their music selections. Michael’s unfortunate stumble and tumble during their non-touching step sequence took away from the overall effect of the program, but their twizzles at the end were perfect. The transition to their final spinning motion – one of the weekend’s most authentic Latin ballroom moves – is the kind of ending that judges remember, and it will be rewarded even more handsomely when they skate this clean.

This video contains the entire first warm-up group; Carreira and Ponomarenko are first to skate.

For my money, the most successful Latin ballroom number of the weekend was in juniors. Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko were the first to skate in a large junior field, and nobody else came close to their score – or their energy level. During their step sequences, Ponomarenko did most of the heavy shimmying, but Carreira’s in-character choreography during their lift was a delight. Latin dance styles look better if you’re willing to stick out your butt and arch your back, and Carreira and Ponomarenko committed to those curvy body shapes. Their height probably helps them here; their lines stay long and elegant when they stick their chests out. They also whipped through one of the best twizzle passes all day, maintaining strong edge control and synchronization through difficult positions. They’re practically guaranteed the junior title at Nationals this winter, and if they keep skating like this, it’s hard to imagine anyone keeping up with them internationally, either.

The junior events were strong overall, and also interminable. Lake Placid features both an international competition and a club competition; both American and foreign competitors are permitted in both, and the difference lies mostly in how the scores figure into international records and federation monitoring. In other words, it’s a meaningful distinction for skaters and coaches, but not so much for spectators. Only three senior teams participated in the club competition, but the field was far deeper for juniors, since they don’t have an Olympic Games on the line. I’m skipping a number of strong junior performances, particularly those by Caroline & Gordon Green and by Avonley Nguyen & Vadym Kolesnik, because the United States is simply awash in up-and-coming teams.

The star Americans of the club competition were Chloe Lewis and Logan Bye – or, at least, they were supposed to be. But neither of their programs have made it to YouTube, and a week after the fact, I realize that I can hardly remember them. Eliana Gropman and Ian Somerville made a bigger artistic impact with a flamenco free dance that seems designed to convince the judges that these two have grown up a lot. Somerville no longer looks like a little boy with man-sized upper body strength, and Gropman’s flirtatiousness feels age-appropriate. Their edges and speed aren’t where they need to be, especially in such a deep domestic junior field. Their lifts are extraordinary, though, and they have an easygoing, appealing chemistry. Gropman and Somerville practically tied Lewis and Bye in the free dance, and only Carreira and Ponomarenko earned a higher score in the international division. That places them more solidly in the hunt for a junior medal at Nationals than I would have predicted, and strongly in the conversation at the Junior Grand Prix as well.

The other stars of the junior club competition were a surprise Russian entry. Someone on Twitter tipped me off to their presence, and after checking the roster for the international event, I said they must have been mistaken. But Sofia Polishchuk and Alexander Vakhnov appeared, as rumored, and they brought their tutu. While it was thematically appropriate for a Black Swan routine, it became a visual distraction and prevented them from executing close dance holds. When I managed to stop looking at Polishchuk’s costume, however, their performance was impressive, like a miniature Russian ballet on ice. I wanted more speed in their steps but couldn’t argue with their precision or edge depth. Their twizzles gained speed as they went, and the arm variations both suited the music and increased their difficulty. They outscored every junior team in the free dance, across both divisions, except Carreira and Ponomarenko, which is good news for those who want to see Russia have a prayer against the American ice dance juggernaut.

At the international event, nobody came close to the caliber of Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko. Only three senior teams beat their overall score, and that’s despite fewer required elements in the junior free dance and lower potential scoring value in the junior short – and despite a mistake in their final pose that counted as a fall. Up until those last seconds, this was nearly perfect. Their twizzles, in particular, were extraordinary, moving from one difficult position to the next while maintaining uncanny synchronization. They also got an impressive amount of interpretive mileage out of this music, although I hope they don’t make a career out of breathing life into bland, heavy selections that suck all the youthful energy out of them. Choices like this make it harder for them to showcase their emotional versatility and amazing speed.

The senior international competition reflected an equally deep American field at the top level, especially since four of the top five finishers at 2017 Nationals didn’t participate. That makes it hard to guess how the younger teams in attendance will stack up against the veterans, although scores like these – especially in July and with significant technical errors – signify the possibility of big shake-ups in the established order. Lake Placid was also a reminder of the tough road for teams like Karina Manta & Joe Johnson and Julia Biechler & Damian Dodge, who finished far ahead of most of the non-American field. They’d be stars in almost any other country, but as long as they represent the United States, they’ll struggle even to secure international assignments.

Manta and Johnson got a lot of love from fans last weekend, and it’s about time. They finished a respectable fifth overall, with scores that would easily put them in the top 20 at a World Championships, and yet significantly behind at least half a dozen of their fellow Americans. Their technical deficiencies are clear in comparison with the top teams: they’re slower, with more limited transitions, and their steps lack the precision and momentum that the very best ice dancers achieve. But if Manta and Johnson came from anywhere else, they’d have a lot more visibility and opportunity. As tired as I am of Moulin Rouge, I can admit they brought some freshness to it, along with a warm and natural chemistry. The judges agreed, awarding them relatively high components scores in both programs. That’s a great sign for them, along with high marks for interesting lifts that make their short stature look like an advantage.

Teams from abroad didn’t make much of a mark at the senior level, at least in terms of their scores, but it was fun to see how several young teams from small federations are progressing. Nicole Kuzmich and Alexandr Sinicyn, who represent the Czech Republic, caught my eye during last season’s Junior Grand Prix with their quirky flair. The judges aren’t always on board with their performance style, and their components scores were all over the map, with marks for Interpretation ranging from a respectable 7.00 to a downright nasty 5.50. As a devotee of Kander & Ebb, I’m offended, because Kuzmich and Sinicyn’s choreography captures the ugly magic of recent Cabaret revivals. Like Manta and Johnson, their strengths are big lifts and big personalities, and their step sequences tend to drag. They’re the kind of team that makes me wish I knew less about ice dance, so I could stop grumbling about levels and just enjoy them.

The only non-American team to threaten the top of the senior ranks was German duo Katharina Müller and Tim Dieck, and they also win my award for most improved since last season. Their flow across the ice is lovely, and they’ve figured out how to maintain speed through their steps and transitions. They’ve also developed a dance spin and a twizzle sequence that show off their lines and core strength. But what I’m most excited about is that they’ve finally given me the Whitney Houston number I’ve been waiting for. It’s hard to think of a ’90s movie more ripe for an ice dance tribute than The Bodyguard, and they’ve nailed the mood and story. I wanted to see more fire from them in the faster sections, and they seemed to get lost in their upgraded lifts. If they can iron out the kinks, though, they have a shot at an unexpected trip to the Olympics.

You know I’m all about keeping ice dance weird, but I don’t know how I’m going to deal with the Parsons’ free dance theme this season. Chilean folk music is about as far out of my musical wheelhouse as one can go, so part of it is just a distaste for the unfamiliar. But I feel like there’s a missed opportunity here, to fully blend in the character of the folk dance traditions that go along with this music, or to more directly address the tragic history that coincided with the Nueva Canción Chilena movement. (I knew nothing about this until I looked up their music, but here’s a brief explanation of how Latin American folk music revivals intersected with politics in the ’60s and ’70s, and here’s some information on Victor Jara specifically.) I can’t expect ice dance to provide us all with valuable lectures on 20th-century South American history, but I can spend three sentences grumbling about divorcing music from its cultural context.

Technically, the Parsons siblings were exceptional in the free dance. They have amazing control in their turns; their twizzles seemed to stop time, because they glided during the transitions rather than moving frantically to maintain their speed. The choreographic lift at the end of this program is likely to remain one of my favorite ice dance moves of the season, not only because it makes such a beautiful shape on the ice, but also because it requires so much strength from both skaters. And as usual, Parsons and Parsons express the unique emotions of a sibling bond in a way that’s endearing and familiar to anyone who’s close with a brother or sister.

Pogrebinsky and Benoit’s free dance was almost too rough and unready to assess fairly. It’s one of those programs where the second viewing brings out all the little problems: the places where they struggled to maintain unison or shuffled out of a difficult element instead of making a clean transition. Of course, the big disaster struck near the end, when they fumbled the entrance to their planned straight line lift and had to scrap the entire element. The program has good bones, though. It’s refreshingly upbeat, with lots of emotional range, and it gives them all kinds of opportunities to skate close together and show off the full range of their flexible cores and long legs. One of my favorite things about it is how much of the performance work it loads onto Benoit, whose bold on-ice personality should never be wasted. He gets to chase after Pogrebinsky like an eager puppy. Conservative ice dance judges don’t always take to programs that let the male partner shine this much, but maybe Pogrebinsky’s red dress will distract them. In any case, it’s promising that they scored as high as they did despite losing all credit for a high-value lift, and this seems destined to become a very cool program once it’s debugged.

Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter were the team I was most worried about, coming into the event. Literally unbeatable during their 2015-16 junior season, they looked like shadows of their former selves a year later. Even if they hadn’t spent a season burning off a lot of their good will with the judges, I would have had reservations: their quirky, sinister style differentiated them from the pack in juniors, but I feared that senior-level judges might interpret it as immature or too narrow. This must have occurred to McNamara, Carpenter, and their coaches, because they centered their free dance around a classic ice dance theme. McNamara and Carpenter have done brilliant work with reinvented classics before – their 2015-16 free dance was the most innovative Carmen in at least a decade – and they’ve brought a similar originality to the tango.

The team’s chemistry has always been intense, but never exactly romantic. At their best, they approach that chemistry as a strength rather than a liability, and that’s definitely what’s going on here. They’re like a pair of rival assassins, each waiting for the other to let down their guard so they can slip the knife in. Last weekend, they never wavered from that narrative, even as they showcased a full set of lift upgrades. Their twizzles blended into the music so naturally, they felt more like a choreographic move than one of the most challenging technical elements of the program. McNamara and Carpenter’s lack of senior-level experience did show through their step sequences, though. They left points on the table with rushed and unsynchronized steps and turns. Lifts and twizzles are the signature elements of ice dance, but step sequences bring the big points. Nonetheless, not many teams are capable of crossing the 100-point threshold in the free dance in midsummer, or posting an overall score that would have had them knocking on a top ten finish at the most recent World Championships. In that context, it’s almost better that they have obvious areas where they need to grow. They can only move up from here.


Next on The Finer Sports: a round-up of notable performances from other recent skating events, and maybe a brief digression into Broadway divas.

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 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”

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.

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