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.