2018 Olympics Figure Skating Preview: Ladies Part 1

The 2018 Winter Olympic Games are upon us! I mean, they’re soon. Really soon. For figure skating fans, there’s no way to feel truly prepared. World Championships and Grand Prix Finals might be more accurate tests of which skaters are the best in the world from year to year, but the Olympics are special. They’re also subject to one of the most complicated, and often nonsensical, qualification processes in sports, which means that a number of big names will be stuck at home, while several athletes you’ve never heard of will be making things awkward in the short program – or rising to the occasion. And everyone will be watching.

There are 30 ladies on the list for Pyeongchang, and this post will cover the first 15 of them in alphabetical order. I’ll go over some basic information about each athlete, and I’ll provide overviews of both their major career accomplishments to date and their seasons so far. Building on those, I’ll analyze how I think each skater will perform at the Olympics. I won’t make any podium predictions – that’s not my style – but I’ll place each athlete in one of four broad categories:

  • Front Runners are the athletes most likely to win an individual medal in Pyeongchang.
  • Dark Horses are less likely to make it to the podium, but they’re talented enough to pull off a surprise.
  • Just Happy to Be Here describes the majority of competitors, for whom the Olympic Games have been a lifelong dream. There’s no shame in being assigned to the JHBH squad, and there’s plenty of opportunity for enduring fame, especially in this age of the viral video.
  • Why I Drink is a special category reserved for athletes who are just too hard to categorize. Their prior resumes are so full of inconsistencies or contradictions that they don’t fit within the standard pecking order. In some ways, they’re the most fun part of watching figure skating. And in the high-pressure environment of the Olympics, they have the potential to massively upset the status quo. Of the four women who have won Olympic gold in ladies’ singles in this century, three would have made my Why I Drink list if I’d had a blog then.

With no further ado, here’s the first half of the alphabet.

Larkyn Austman

The Basics: Austman is 19 years old and represents Canada. She comes from the Vancouver area, where she continues to live and train, with Zdenek Pazdirek as her primary coach.

Career Highlights: Austman first drew attention in 2013, when she won a junior national title. She struggled to translate that success to the international stage, placing only 16th at her sole World Junior Championships appearance in 2014. After that, she faded from view a bit, but a fourth-place finish at 2017 Nationals put her back on the map, and soon afterward, she won her first international medal, a bronze, at the Challenge Cup.

Season So Far: The autumn was rough going for Austman. She placed a lackluster 12th at the Ondrej Nepela Trophy, then finished dead last at her Grand Prix debut, Skate Canada. When she took bronze at Nationals, it came as a surprise – and a revelation.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: Austman benefited, more than anything, from Canada’s shallow bench. Canada boasts two standout talents in ladies, who earned space for three Canadian ladies at these Olympics.  Nationals became a battle for bronze, and Austman came out on top. But she wasn’t great in her career-making free skate, just better than everyone else: she fell on her most difficult jumping pass and struggled with several other landings. She hasn’t found a way to shake her competitive inconsistency, and she doesn’t have a triple-triple combination. As a result, she’s Just Happy to Be Here.

Karen Chen

The Basics: Chen is 18 years old and represents the United States of America. She’s originally from Fremont, California, in the Bay Area, but has moved south to train in Riverside, CA, with Tammy Gambill.

Career Highlights: Dedicated skating fans have known about Chen since she was a child, when she excelled domestically at lower competitive levels, and then internationally as a junior. In her senior Nationals debut, in 2015, she took a surprise bronze medal; two years later, in 2017, she skated back-to-back career-best programs and became US National Champion. She followed that by overachieving again at the 2017 World Championships, where she held steady to take 4th place.

Season So Far: Chen’s season got off to a promising start, with a strong short program and an overall bronze medal at the U. S. Classic. On the Grand Prix circuit, however, she struggled, managing only 7th at Skate Canada and 8th at Skate America. At Nationals, she performed beautifully, with a pair of apparently clean programs that suffered from deductions for underrotated jumps. Still, she did enough for a bronze medal and a place on the Olympic team.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: The best moments of Chen’s career make her look like a contender, and her strongest performances and scores – as well as her difficult technical content – put her on par with the best of the field. In reality, however, Chen’s inconsistency makes her one of the biggest wildcards in the sport, and a perennial headache for the many internet fans who adore her. Even when she looks great to the naked eye, she’s often a mess on paper, as she tends to cut her rotations short when she’s under pressure. As a result, she’s never won a medal at a senior Grand Prix or ISU championship. On the other hand, she’s made a habit over the past few years of peaking late in the season. Chen also tends to skate her best when she has nothing to lose, and that’s actually the case in Pyeongchang: her two American teammates are under much more pressure to deliver. Chen has been Why I Drink for the entirety of her senior-level career, and a lot of us will be raising a glass to her as she takes the ice in Pyeongchang.

Dabin Choi

The Basics: Choi is 18 years old and skates for South Korea. She’s from Seoul, where she still lives and trains. Her primary coach is Eun-Hee Lee.

Career Highlights: In the race to become the next Yu-Na Kim, Choi has long been a front runner, reaching the senior-level podium domestically before her 12th birthday. Although she’s never achieved national gold, she’s always near the top, with two bronze medals and three silver on her resume. She first made an impact internationally in 2015, with a strong 9th-place finish at Junior Worlds in the spring and bronze medals at both of her Junior Grand Prix events in the fall. The greater artistic and stamina demands of senior-level competition held her back last season, although she pulled off a triumphant surprise win at the 2017 Asian Games. Her solid 10th-place finish at the 2017 World Championships earned two spots for South Korea at the Olympics.

Season So Far: While Choi remains on the radar, she hasn’t quite broken through this season in the way that her fans might have hoped. She looked solid at the Ondrej Nepela Trophy in the fall, where she placed 4th, but unsteady at the Finlandia Trophy and Cup of China, finishing a disappointing 9th at both. She seemed set to redeem herself at Skate America but had to withdraw at the last minute due to illness. At Nationals, however, she was back on form, earning her third national silver medal. Her performance at the Four Continents Championships last week confirmed that she’s back at the top of her game; she placed fourth, her strongest finish at an ISU championship to date.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: In an increasingly crowded field of young Korean ladies, Choi has emerged as one of the standout talents, not only for her jumping ability but also for creative programs that bring out her bubbly personality. At her best – as at the Asian Games last season – she’s knocking on the door of the top tier of international skaters, but she’s not as polished or as consistent as she needs to be. She’s the Dark Horse least likely to succeed in Pyeongchang, but keep an eye on her, especially since she’s the hometown favorite.

Kailani Craine

The Basics: Craine is 19 years old and represents Australia. She’s a native of Newcastle, New South Wales, but like most top Australian skaters, she trains abroad – in her case, it’s Los Angeles, with Tiffany Chin as her coach.

Career Highlights: Craine has emerged as the top Australian talent of her generation, and as one of the faces of a growing program for figure skating in her country. She’s a four-time senior national champion, and holds five more national titles at lower levels. She’s placed as high as 16th at Junior Worlds, and qualified for the free skate at a crowded 2017 World Championships, finishing 24th. She’s earned a number of medals at smaller international competitions throughout her career, most notably a silver at the Challenger Series Warsaw Cup in 2016.

Season So Far: Many of Craine’s achievements this season look modest, but in context, they’re more impressive. She was only 8th at the Ondrej Nepela Trophy, but that field was stacked; she actually held her own against several of the best ladies in the sport. She finished only 10th at Skate Canada, but that’s a respectable feat for a lesser-known athlete at her Grand Prix debut. Craine also had no trouble winning a fourth consecutive national title. But her biggest moment came at the Nebelhorn Trophy, the final qualifying event for the Olympics, where she was tasked with earning a spot in Pyeongchang for Australia. She delivered, and then some, giving back-to-back performances of her life to take a high-profile, high-stakes gold medal.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: I’d love to consider Craine a long shot, because she’s an animated and versatile performer with one of my favorite ladies’ short programs of the season. However, even when she’s skating her lights-out best, her technical difficulty and fundamental skating skills don’t put her on par with the many strong contenders. She doesn’t compete a triple-triple jump combination, and when the judges get picky, as they did at Skate Canada, she loses points for underrotated jumps. Let’s call her the captain of the Just Happy to Be Here squad.

Gabrielle Daleman

The Basics: Daleman is 20 years old and represents Canada. She’s originally from Toronto, and continues to train in that part of the country, with Lee Barkell as her primary coach.

Career Highlights: Daleman first made her mark as the 2012 junior national champion, and she’s stood on the senior podium in Canada every year since: she’s won gold twice, and silver four times. She placed a strong 6th at 2013 Junior Worlds, and a year later, competed at her first Olympics, where she finished 17th. In the years that followed, a combination of injuries and nerves held her back, and she has never won a medal on the Grand Prix circuit. But in 2017, Daleman stormed the post-season, taking silver at the Four Continents Championships and a career-defining, prediction-destroying bronze at the World Championships.

Season So Far: Daleman has been battling a series of illnesses since Worlds, and her international results in the fall reflected that. Competing far below her full strength, six was Daleman’s lucky number, and her placement at the Finlandia Trophy, Cup of China, and Skate America. She came to Nationals recovering from pneumonia, but you never would have guessed it from her two poised and clean programs. She earned massive scores on her way to her second Canadian title.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: The good news is, it looks like Daleman will finally be healthy in time for the Olympics. However, it’s hard to say where she’ll be technically, in a season when her health has so frequently interrupted her training. Daleman’s jump technique is some of the best in the sport, with such height off the ice that she gets hang time in the air. She’s also returned to her signature “Rhapsody in Blue” free skate from last season, a crowd-pleaser that shows off her strengths as a performer. Under most circumstances, a reigning world bronze medalist would be a top contender, but with so many question marks surrounding Daleman, she’s more of a Dark Horse.

Loena Hendrickx

The Basics: Hendrickx is 18 years old and represents Belgium. She’s from Turnhout. She trains mostly in Oberstdorf, Germany, alongside her brother, Jorik, who will compete for Belgium in the men’s event. Carine Herrygers is her coach.

Career Highlights: Hendrickx is a two-time Belgian champion. She got off to a slow start at the junior level, but she’s made her mark as a senior with medals at a number of smaller internationals, most notably gold at the 2017 Challenge Cup. She’s also risen to the occasion at several ISU championships, placing an impressive 7th at the 2017 European Championships and reserving a place for herself at the Olympics by finishing 15th at last year’s World Championships.

Season So Far: We haven’t seen much of Hendrickx this season, as she’s been recovering from a knee injury that forced her to withdraw from most of her fall events. She seemed to come out of nowhere at the 2018 European Championships, where an intense and confident free skate carried her to fifth place, the best Euros finish in history for a Belgian lady.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: Hendrickx is a trailblazer for Belgian ladies’ skating, and her free skate at 2018 Euros was a revelation. She seems to have spent her recovery period working on her musical interpretation and her skating skills, and she’s a whole new skater now, mature and refined. A couple of crucial popped jumps revealed that she still has trouble with her timing, though, and her relatively low base technical difficulty limits her. Her program components scores haven’t caught up with her big improvements in artistry and fundamentals, either. Hendrickx might be a factor in 2022, but this time, she’s Just Happy to Be Here.

Anna Khnychenkova

The Basics: Khnychenkova is 23 years old and represents Ukraine. She’s from Dnipro, where she trains with Viacheslav Tkachenko.

Career Highlights: Khnychenkova focused on pairs skating during her teenage years, which makes her a bit of a late bloomer in the ladies’ field. She’s a six-time Ukrainian national medalist and the 2017 national champion. In 2016, she competed at both Euros and Worlds for the first time, and achieved her highest placements to date at both: 21st and 19th, respectively. Later the same year, she achieved her first international gold medal, at Ice Star in Minsk.

Season So Far: Khnychenkova has been a fixture at Challenger Series competitions and other “senior B” events this season, with solid results at most of them. Her strongest outing was at Cup of Nice, where she took bronze after landing a massive triple toe loop-triple toe loop in her short program. At the Nebelhorn Trophy, she had some trouble but got the job done, earning an Olympic spot for Ukraine with her seventh-place finish. She was a so-so second at Nationals, but the athlete who beat her is too young to compete at the Olympics. She’d surely hoped to establish herself as a contender with a strong European Championships, but she unraveled instead, following an excellent short program with a free skate meltdown that left her only 23rd overall.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: Khnychenkova’s name is one of the least known in the ladies’ field at these Olympics, and it’s a shame, because she’s a pleasure to watch when she’s at her best. While she’s never attempted a triple flip-triple toe loop in competition, her current free skate layout suggests she might give it a shot here, and that difficulty boost would launch her into long shot territory. However, she’s also inconsistent, and her straightforward choreography limits her program components potential. It’s exciting that this underrated athlete made the cut for an Olympic Games, and that achievement should make her Just Happy to Be Here.

Hanul Kim

The Basics: Kim is 15 years old and represents South Korea. She comes from Anyang and trains in nearby Gwacheon with Ji-Yeon Oh.

Career Highlights: Kim emerged as a rising star in junior international competition, placing as high as 5th at the Junior Grand Prix Czech Republic in 2016. She’s competed as a senior at Korean Nationals five times, moving steadily through the ranks as she matures and improves.

Season So Far: Kim moved up to the senior level internationally this season, and has experienced her greatest competitive success so far. She began with a fabulous debut at a small meet, the Philadelphia Summer International, where she rallied from a rough short program to win the free skate and take overall bronze. She placed 4th at Nationals, the best finish of her career, ahead of several bigger names. At the Four Continents Championships, she proved herself worthy of an Olympic spot by nailing a triple lutz-triple toe loop in her short program and placing a surprise 6th.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: Kim has benefited from the fact that many of the best Korean ladies are too young to compete at the Olympics; born in April 2002, she just makes the cut. Nonetheless, she’s risen to the occasion this season, demonstrating her ability to land difficult jumps with control and panache. She lacks consistency, though, especially under pressure, and while she has a lot of natural on-ice presence, her choreography is fairly simple. Kim could overachieve at the Olympics – and the hometown crowd would love it – but at this point in her career, she’s Just Happy to Be Here.

Carolina Kostner

The Basics: At 30, Kostner is the oldest competitor in the ladies’ event; she represents Italy. She comes from Urtijei, in far northern Italy, and trains in Oberstdorf, Germany. Her coaches are Alexei Mishin and Michael Huth.

Career Highlights: Where does one even start with an athlete who has been competing internationally for longer than many of her rivals have been alive? She debuted as a junior in 2000-01, and became junior national champion that season. Since then, she’s earned nine senior national titles and has never done worse than silver at Nationals. Kostner has been a Grand Prix mainstay since 2003, with 14 medals at Grand Prix events, four of them gold. She’s medaled at four of her five Grand Prix Final appearances, and she won in 2011. She’s stood on the podium at the European Championships every year since 2006 and is a five-time European Champion. Kostner has won six medals at the World Championships and was the 2012 World Champion. This will be her fourth Olympic Games – and she arrives as the reigning bronze medalist.

Season So Far: Kostner has had an impressive season by any standard, but one that leaves her with something to prove. She began with strong but flawed performances at two Challenger Series events, taking bronze at the Lombardia Trophy and silver at the Finlandia Trophy. Her silver streak continued at the Grand Prix, with second-place finishes at the Rostelecom Cup and NHK Trophy, taking her to a fourth-place result at the Grand Prix Final. After stopping to pick up her ninth career Italian championship, Kostner brought home European bronze.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: At an age when most women have long since stopped training triple jumps, Kostner has upgraded, premiering a perfect triple flip-triple toe loop combination in her short program at Europeans. That jumping pass puts her difficulty on par with the best. But Kostner’s advantage has always been her second mark. She skates with speed, edge depth, and ice coverage seldom seen outside of ice dance, and her maturity and self-awareness make her an extraordinary artist. Kostner will have a hard time reaching the top of the Olympic podium, but she’s a Front Runner for a second bronze, if not better.

Xiangning Li

The Basics: Li is 17 years old and represents China. She lives and trains in her hometown of Qiqihar, coached by Ming Xu.

Career Highlights: Li has been rising through the ranks domestically for a number of years. She earned her first national medal, a bronze, in 2014, and has reached the podium at Nationals every year since. She emerged internationally in 2015 with a pair of sixth-place finishes at Junior Grand Prix events. Last season, she followed an 11th-place result at Junior Worlds with her World Championships debut. There, she placed only 14th, but set new personal best scores and established herself as a skater to watch.

Season So Far: Li has developed quickly over the past year, and this season was a breakout for her. She began with a phenomenal free skate at the Cup of Nice, earning her first international medal, a silver. She struggled under the pressure of her two Grand Prix assignments, placing low in the rankings at both, but she rallied at the Chinese Championships, winning her first national title by an impressive 10-point margin. At the Four Continents Championships, she placed a solid tenth.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: It’s not Li’s fault, per se, that China will send only one lady to the Olympics in figure skating this year. Nonetheless, it reflects the fact that China lacks a true star in ladies’ singles. Li is lovely and graceful but a bit mechanical in her presentation, which hurts her components scores, and she doesn’t compete difficult enough jumps to make up for that. With consistency and focus, she’ll stay in the middle of the pack, but it’s hard to imagine her aiming higher than Just Happy to Be Here.

Aiza Mambekova

The Basics: Mambekova is 18 years old and represents Kazakhstan. She’s from Almaty, and she splits her training time between her hometown and St. Petersburg, Russia. She’s coached primarily by Kuralai Uzurova.

Career Highlights: Mambekova is a three-time Kazakh silver medalist. She achieved only modest results in her first two Junior Grand Prix seasons, but had more success in 2016, reaching the top 10 at both JGP France and JGP Estonia.

Season So Far: Mambekova lost most of this season to a foot injury but returned in January for her first international medal, a bronze at the FBMA Trophy. She went on to perform a clean free skate at the Four Continents Championships, where she placed 20th.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: Mambekova’s presence at the Olympics is mostly a reflection of how spots on the roster are allocated to countries. Kazakhstan boasts one certified star in ladies’ singles, and that athlete placed well enough at Worlds in 2017 to secure a slot for a second Kazakh skater. Mambekova is a lovely performer, with terrific musicality and charisma, but she has the lowest planned base difficulty in the field. She competes only one type of triple jump, a salchow, and her low placement at Four Continents reflects that even when she skates her best, she can’t keep up. Of everyone headed to Pyeongchang, Mambekova might be the most Just Happy to Be Here.

Evgenia Medvedeva

The Basics: Medvedeva is 18 years old and will compete as an Olympic athlete from Russia. She lives and trains in her hometown of Moscow, with Eteri Tutberidze as her coach.

Career Highlights: Medvedeva first drew international attention in 2013, when she came seemingly out of nowhere to win both of her Junior Grand Prix events, then take bronze at both the Junior Grand Prix Final and Junior Worlds. She was even more dominant in juniors the following season, winning every international competition she entered, including the JGP Final and Junior Worlds – plus a junior national title and a bronze medal at senior Nationals. She moved up to seniors in 2015 and established her reign over ladies’ figure skating, settling for silver at the Rostelecom Cup but skating home with gold everywhere else, including the Grand Prix Final, European Championships, World Championships, and Russian Nationals. In 2016-17, Medvedeva went entirely undefeated, becoming the first lady since Michelle Kwan to win back-to-back World titles and, during the course of the season, setting new world records for the highest scores ever recorded in a short program, free skate, and overall.

Season So Far: Medvedeva has hit a speed bump this season, as a foot fracture has forced her to sit out several competitions and put a dent in her consistency and stamina. The injury didn’t stop her from taking gold at the Ondrej Nepela Trophy, Rostelecom Cup, and NHK Trophy. It did, however, become serious enough that she withdrew from the Grand Prix Final and National Championships in order to recover. She returned for the European Championships and delivered a pair of strong performances, but her two-year undefeated streak ended there, as she took silver.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: At the start of the 2017-18 season, even Medvedeva’s detractors would have called her a lock for Olympic gold. More than almost anyone else in the sport, Medvedeva is capable of executing extremely difficult jumps in tricky configurations, and of making it look easy. Her programs are meticulously constructed to squeeze every point out of the scoring system – to the frustration of some fans. But the fact is, the bonuses and point-earning features are in place to reward difficulty. While a few other ladies can push the technical limits of the sport as far as Medvedeva does, none can do it as consistently, or with such effortless grace and musicality. Medvedeva’s foot injury has cut into her training time, and that’s opened the door for a handful of others to threaten her claim to a gold medal. Still, if anyone in the field is a guaranteed Front Runner, it’s Medvedeva.

Mae Berenice Meite

The Basics: Meite is 23 years old and represents France. She comes from Paris and the surrounding area, and currently trains in Paris with coach Shanetta Folle.

Career Highlights: Meite has reached the podium at French Nationals every year since 2009, and she’s a four-time national champion. While she’s never earned a medal at a Grand Prix event or ISU championship, she’s a fixture in international competition. She’s placed as high as fifth at the European Championships, in 2014, and 10th at the World Championships, in 2015. She represented France at the 2014 Olympic Games and came in tenth.

Season So Far: Meite looked shaky in the fall, placing a disappointing 8th at the Autumn Classic and next to last at the Rostelecom Cup. Things looked up a bit at the Trophee de France, where she finished 8th, and way up at Nationals, where she regained her national title. She made some errors at Europeans, but her performances were good enough for a respectable 8th place.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: Meite is going to be so much fun to watch at these Olympics that her placement almost doesn’t matter. Skating to pop music that captures her personality and masks some of the flaws in her technique, she’s likely to rack up the YouTube hits even if she doesn’t earn the point totals to match. Meite’s inability to perform under pressure is especially frustrating because her technical difficulty is high enough that if she could skate clean, she’d put herself in the conversation. Unfortunately, she’s most likely to alternate explosive jumps and sassy dance breaks with devastating falls, and that’s Why I Drink.

Satoko Miyahara

The Basics: Miyahara is 19 years old and represents Japan. A Kyoto native, she lives and trains in Osaka, and is coached by Mie Hamada.

Career Highlights: Miyahara first turned heads as a junior, winning back-to-back junior national titles in 2011 and 2012 and just missing the podium twice at Junior Worlds. It was as a senior that she really came into her own, though, taking silver at Four Continents in 2014, her debut season. Since then, Miyahara has earned seven Grand Prix medals, two of them gold, and twice finished second at the Grand Prix Final. She is the 2016 Four Continents champion and has stood on the podium every time she’s competed at the event. In 2015, she gave an inspired performance to take silver at the World Championships. On the national level, she’s been challenged but rarely bested; despite strong competition, she’s won Nationals four years in a row.

Season So Far: A hip injury brought Miyahara’s 2016-17 season to an early end, and she began the current season still nursing inflammation. Her troubles showed in a disappointing 5th-place finish at the NHK Trophy, but she was back at the top of her game a few weeks later at Skate America, where she won gold. Facing a tough field at the Grand Prix Final, she placed only fifth despite a solid performance. At the Japan Championships, however, Miyahara was on fire, sailing to her fourth consecutive title with a near-perfect free skate. She was a little below her best at the Four Continents Championships, though, and she settled for bronze behind two of her Japanese teammates.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: I had Miyahara marked as a front runner in my outline for this post, but looking over her season, I have to reassess. It’s not for the usual reasons, either. Like many international judges, I’ve been critical in the past of Miyahara’s jump technique, which relies on fast rotation rather than height. When she’s confident, as at Nationals or Skate America, that approach is no longer an issue. Unfortunately, she’s been giving in to either nerves or the pain of lingering injuries this season, and that’s when the mistakes creep in. I fear that her beautiful programs, which show a captivating range of emotion and storytelling, will look great until the judges rip them apart. If she keeps her head – or performs with such exquisite grace that the technical caller lets the small stuff go – she could pull an upset and skate away with gold. The greater likelihood of disappointment is Why I Drink. 

Mirai Nagasu

The Basics: Nagasu is 24 years old and represents the United States of America. A native of the Los Angeles area, she now lives in Colorado Springs, where she trains with Tom Zakrajsek.

Career Highlights: Nagasu seemed to burst out of nowhere when she won a junior national title in 2007, then took silver at Junior Worlds shortly afterward. She followed that by sweeping the Junior Grand Prix, then winning her first and only senior-level US national championship at the age of 14 in 2008. Since then, she’s reached the national podium four more times, but she’s also placed as low as 10th. Internationally, Nagasu has won three Challenger Series events, brought home medals from four Grand Prix competitions, and stood on three Four Continents podiums. At the World Championships, she’s never done better than 7th, but she came in 4th at the 2010 Olympic Games.

Season So Far: It’s been a typical season for Nagasu, which is to say, she’s been all over the place. She started with a solid outing at the US Classic, landing two triple Axels and earning a silver medal. Nagasu was a disaster at the Rostelecom Cup, placing only 9th, but she looked strong again at the NHK Trophy, where she finished 4th. At Nationals, she gave some of the most confident performances of her career, earning a triumphant silver medal.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: Under most circumstances, hearing Nagasu’s name announced for warm-up is a reminder to refill my glass. This time, however, she’s armed with a technical weapon powerful enough that even if she melts down, it will be a glorious disaster. Nagasu is the only lady at these Olympics who will attempt a triple Axel, and the way things have been going lately, she’ll probably stand up on the landings. She hasn’t completely resolved the jump technique problems that have cost her deductions throughout her career, but she’s improved in that respect, too. And it’s hard to argue with her performance quality. It’s possible that calling Nagasu a Dark Horse is overly optimistic, but it would be far more foolish to count her out.


Next on The Finer Sports: the rest of the ladies, followed by the other three disciplines!

14 Great Ladies’ Performances of the 2016-17 Figure Skating Season

I pretend to be more invested in men and dance than ladies, but tell me I have to narrow things down to ten great performances, and I turn into a gesticulating mass of feelings. I enlisted my friends to help me whittle things down, but they left me to my own devices for too long afterward. The “Wait! What about…?” list grew and grew. I decided to leave them all on the list, because what skating fan doesn’t want to watch 14 stellar ladies’ performances from throughout the season, and then subtweet me about how I am so obviously wrong?

Here they are, more or less alphabetically, with consideration taken for athleticism, artistry, and how much it hurt when I tried to convince myself to take them off the list.

Continue reading “14 Great Ladies’ Performances of the 2016-17 Figure Skating Season”

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

Nathan Chen skates his short program at 2017 Nationals.

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

1. The Teen Titans Are Taking Over.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. The Potato Class of 2017 Is Phenomenal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Some Ladies Get Better with Age.

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

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

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

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


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

2017 US Nationals Field Guide: Championship Ladies Part 2

Ashley Wagner competes in the free skate at 2016 Skate America.

The senior ladies skate their short program tonight, and I’m here right under the wire with the second part of my field guide. If you’re looking for the first half of the alphabet, here’s part 1 of my Championship Ladies’ Guide. And if you’re really just joining us, I’ve written a full set of field guides for junior and senior ladies, men, and ice dance:

  • Championship Men Part 1 and Part 2, beginning their quad-off on Friday night
  • Championship Ice Dance, America’s best figure skating discipline, kicking off Friday afternoon
  • Junior Ice Dance, almost as good as the seniors, skating their free dance Friday morning
  • Junior Men, already full of surprises in the short program, and competing in the free skate Friday afternoon
  • Junior Ladies, with more promise at this level than we’ve seen in a few years and a free skate battle on Friday morning

Of the 19 ladies scheduled to compete at Nationals this year, this field guide covers the 10 in the second half of the alphabet. At the senior level, skaters are accustomed to a certain level of scrutiny (or need to learn to be), so I’m not shy with the sarcasm – but it always comes from a place of love. This year’s ladies’ field is especially volatile, so I don’t see any point in making predictions. Still, I’ve divided the skaters into five categories that give a sense of where they stand. Front Runners are the most likely to contend for a gold medal. Dark Horses are aiming for the podium and have a chance at stealing gold. Skaters On the Rise will push for a top 10 finish, a live free skate on NBC, and international competition assignments in the fall. Beyond that, there are plenty of athletes who worked hard to qualify to Nationals and are Just Happy to Be Here. The fifth category is for the skaters too difficult to rank: the inconsistent and unconventional, and the ones having uncharacteristic seasons. Those skaters are a big part of the fun of figure skating, and they’re Why I Drink.

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