After a short break post-Christmas to allow everyone to recover from the frantic excitement of Russian and Japanese Nationals, the race to Boston heats up again as the North American countries host their National Championships. As in some former years, the US and Canadian National Champions are once again being held concurrently, and with Worlds in the USA this year, the battles will be more intense than usual.
The US National Championships are being held in St Paul, Minnesota, fro January 15-24, with the Championship events taking place from 21-24 January. In former years, the US held their Nationals separately, with the Juvenile and Intermediate levels being held at a different "Junior Nationals" event, but more recently they have held the event as one week-long festival of skating.
US Nationals also has one other unique component. Due to the way qualifying is conducted through the Sectional and Regional competitions, the US hands out not three, but four medals on their National podiums. The fourth-placed skater will win the pewter medal, unlike anywhere else they will compete.
For the US skaters, much is on the line, and the rare chance to compete at the World Championships in front of a home crowd in Boston will be the ultimate motivator for some powerful performances...
The season had barely started before the US Men's field started the decimation; four-time National Champion Jeremy Abbott announced he was sitting out the season, and last year's bronze medallist and Four Continents silver medallist Joshua Farris suffered a concussion in practice which would force him out for the season. Reigning National Champion Jason Brown strained his back in November and hasn't made it back yet, and just the week before Nationals Richard Dornbush suffered a herniated disc and withdrew.
While it would be easy to focus on the talent that will not be there, the focus really should be on the talent that will be competing in St Paul. Max Aaron has won twice this season, first at Skate America and then at the Tallinn Trophy, and his hunger for improvement will make him a formidable foe here. Adam Rippon is the reigning silver medallist at this event and finished fourth at both Grand Prix events this season; if he does not persist with leaving in his attempt at the quad Lutz, he could spring quite the upset. Ross Miner has rebounded strongly after a couple of quiet seasons, snatching the bronze medal at Rostelecom Cup and looking in better form than ever - and he will have an additional motivation, being a native Bostonian.
There is plenty of hype around sixteen-year-old Nathan Chen, but this will be his first Senior event of the season after spending all of it competing as a Junior, and that transition is not always easy. Grant Hochstein impressed at the Cup of China and NHK Trophy with two fourth places, while Timothy Dolensky caught plenty of attention with his impressive turnaround at Skate Canada. Anything could happen here, and it almost certainly will.
Predictions: Aaron, Rippon, Miner, Chen
This is a much more stable event, with the main battle between Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold, and everyone else fighting it out for bronze, barring any major disaster. For Wagner, it would be her fourth title; for Gold, it would be her second. They have both been in good form so far this season: Gold won silver at Skate America and led the truncated Trophee Eric Bompard, while Wagner won Skate Canada and was fourth at the NHK Trophy.
Their only head-to-head matchup this season has been at the Grand Prix Final, where Wagner was fourth and Gold fifth; both struggled heavily in their short programs. Their battle will be well worth the watch at US Nationals; never yet when head to head have both skaters had two clean programs, and the fans who are braving the frozen tundra of St Paul will be hoping that it happens here.
Of course, they are not the only two ladies at the event. Last year's bronze medallist Karen Chen has had a solid start to her Senior Grand Prix career, finishing fifth at both events, and promises to repeat her medal-winning performance from last year. Last year's pewter medallist and Four Continents champion Polina Edmunds has struggled with her jumps this season but looked to be turning a corner at Rostelecom Cup, where she was fourth. Courtney Hicks shocked everyone when she won the silver medal at NHK Trophy, ahead of many more experienced and fancied competitors, and will be riding a confidence high coming into the event. And there is much more talent down the field yet to be seen.
Predictions: Wagner, Gold, Chen, Edmunds
The soon-to-be-married Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim are the reigning National Champions in this division, and started the season in impressive form, taking silver at Skate America and bronze at the NHK Trophy, but they struggled a little at the Grand Prix Final and will be hoping to recover their form and reclaim their authority as the dominant pairs team in the USA.
Tarah Kayne and Daniel O'Shea have had a promising season so far, finishing sixth at Skate America and then an excellent fourth at Rostelecom Cup, and will be hoping to improve upon last year's bronze medal here. They will be boosted by winning the bronze at Golden Spin, and are in good form. Marissa Castelli and Mervin Tran have had a solid second season together so far, picking up a fourth place at Skate Canada, though they were one of the pairs that was disadvantaged by the truncated Trophee Eric Bompard, and as they become more comfortable with each other, they could well be a force to be reckoned with.
Madeline Aaron and Max Settlage have had a difficult season so far, with Settlage struggling with a back injury, forcing them to miss their Grand Prix assignments. Their only outing this year was a troubled fifth place at the Tallinn Trophy, but with more recovery time under their belts and more training time ahead of Nationals, they will be looking to recapture the spark that saw them take the pewter medal last year.
Predictions: Scimeca/Knierim, Kayne/O'Shea, Castelli/Tran, Aaron/Settlage
As with the ladies, this is a battle of big guns. In one corner stand Madison Chock and Evan Bates, the reigning National Champions and World silver medallists, in superb form already this season and looking to repeat. In the other corner are the perennial fan-favourites Maia and Alex Shibutani, looking for their first National title and armed with one of the best free dances ice dance has seen in years. Who wins this battle will be entirely down to who holds their nerve best under pressure. Both couples are in excellent form, with Chock and Bates winning Skate America and picking up a silver at Cup of China, while the Shibutanis won Skate Canada and were second at the NHK Trophy. Chock and Bates took the advantage at the Grand Prix Final, where they won silver, while the Shibutanis finished fourth, and it will be a thrilling fight.
That's not, however, to discount the rest of the talent in this ever-deepening Dance field. Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue won the shortened Trophee Eric Bompard and were third at the NHK Trophy, and were sixth at the Grand Prix Final, an excellent result given their upheaval over the summer with their coaching change. Kaitlyn Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker were impressive at their only outing on the Grand Prix, finishing fourth at Skate America, and an upturn in form saw them take silver at the Golden Spin. And there are plenty of younger couples all down the field with plenty of talent.
Predictions: Shibutani/Shibutani, Chock/Bates, Hubbell/Donahue, Hawayek/Baker
All times AEDT.
Short Program: Saturday January 23 - 12:30pm - 3:40pm
Long Program: Monday January 25 - 6:00am - 9:50am
Short Program: Friday January 22 - 1:00pm - 3:55pm
Long Program: Sunday January 24 - 11:00am - 2:55pm
Short Program: Friday January 22 - 7:45am - 10:10am
Group 1 + 2 - Sunday January 24 - 2:00am - 3:30am
Group 3 + 4 - Sunday January 24 - 6:30am - 8:10am
Short Dance: Saturday January 23 - 7:30am - 9:30am
Free Dance: Sunday January 24 - 8:25am - 10:00am