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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer Skating: Men’s Roundup

Image via Johnny Weir’s Instagram.

The summer skating deluge continues, and like everyone else, I’m not remotely caught up. Canada held a series of summer regional meets, with most of the country’s top athletes showing up at one or more. There was a significant club competition in the United States every weekend from mid-July through mid-August. The season’s first senior B internationals, the Asian Open and Philadelphia Summer International, attracted athletes from a wider range of countries than ever before. South Korea held a qualifying event, showcasing its growing depth of talent and creating a pecking order of top contenders. Russia and China have both held test skates, too, although video wasn’t permitted at those events, perhaps in a quest to save fans’ sanity.

Meanwhile, some of us have jobs and families, not to mention new episodes of Game of Thrones to watch.

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6 More Things I Learned from the 2017 US National Figure Skating Championships

Madison Chock and Evan Bates perform their free dance at Nationals.

What’s a blogger to do when she wants to say everything about Nationals? Someone with more restraint – or an editor – might just skip stuff, but skating fans hate it when you skip stuff. As it does almost every year, NBC blacked out the live performances of a number of ladies and ice dancers in the earlier warm-up groups, and Twitter threw a fit. So I’m going to indulge my completist tendencies and cover everything I have an opinion about. If you haven’t read the first part of my Nationals recap, start there. This is a continuation of that post, not a stand-alone sequel.

It’s been an ugly couple of weeks in the United States, and watching figure skating has given me some emotional relief from current events. At the same time, Nationals have reminded me that America’s strength comes from the diversity of its citizens and residents, and that my country has a long track record of undermining that strength. From the 1880’s until the end of World War II, Chinese-Americans like Nathan Chen, Karen Chen, and Vincent Zhou endured laws that restricted immigration, curtailed civil rights, and stoked anti-Chinese sentiment, using rhetoric that will sound familiar to anyone following the news lately. In the 1940’s, Japanese-Americans like Mirai Nagasu, Maia Shibutani, and Alex Shibutani were stripped of their livelihoods and property and forced to live in internment camps, while European Jews, like Jason Brown’s ancestors (and my own), were turned away from American borders despite facing almost certain death in their countries of origin. In the 1950’s, Americans of many backgrounds were targeted in anti-Communist inquisitions, but Russian immigrants and their descendants – people like Alex Krasnozhon and Anthony Ponomarenko – became particularly vulnerable to interrogation, imprisonment, and professional blacklisting. In retrospect, none of these violations of civil and human rights made America safer, and several harmed the United States economically. In this, as in most things, sports are a microcosm of society, and an illustration of what we have to lose through ignorance, paranoia, and bullying.

Anyway. Also there was skating.

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2017 US Nationals Field Guide: Championship Men Part 2

Nathan Chen in his free skate at the 2016 Grand Prix Final.

2017 Nationals have begun! While juvenile and intermediate champions earn the first medals of the year, I’m hustling to finish guides to the top-level skaters who will compete next weekend. Since there are 21 men in this year’s senior field, I’ve split my men’s field guide into two posts. The first half of the alphabet is over here. For this guide only, I’m alphabetizing by first name, to spread out the top contenders more evenly between the two. If you’re interested in reading about juniors and/or ice dance, I also have the following guides ready to go:

  • Junior Ladies, with some of the biggest jumps you’ll see in any ladies’ event, performed by some of the smallest humans
  • Junior Men, with 11 new reasons to mix a cocktail and watch through your fingers (one of the dark horse competitors, William Hubbart, has unfortunately withdrawn)
  • Junior Ice Dance, with most of last season’s World Junior podium angling for a repeat
  • Championship Ice Dance, with most of last season’s World podium in a hip hop dance-off

I’m more invested in the men’s event than any other, so I have lots to say about all of these guys, from those at the top of the field to the ones who will be proud to not place last. Although I recognize that some are quite young, senior-level skaters should be able to handle brutal honesty, especially since it’s all delivered with a heavy dose of admiration for what they’re capable of. I don’t do predictions, but I’m willing to divide the competitors into five categories that reflect where I think they stand. The Front Runners are those most likely to win; Dark Horses have a strong shot at a medal, maybe even a gold one. Skaters On the Rise are looking to build for future seasons and get their moment on NBC, while the Just Happy to Be Here crowd are fulfilling their season goals just by qualifying to Nationals. The last group are the ones who are too unpredictable or too far outside the conventional order to predict. They are why I love this sport, but also Why I Drink.

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