The US Figure Skating Championships were held in the freezing city of St Paul, Minnesota, from January 15 to 24. Though all of the skaters made it to St Paul safely, getting out again remained to be seen as of the writing of this recap, and some reporters and fans were still stuck in St Paul due to the aftermath of the rather large blizzard that struck the east coast of America in the past few days.
As always at US Nationals, there was plenty of action, starting with the younger divisions earlier in the week and culminating in a dramatic, controversial finish to the Senior Men's event. And the drama didn't even finish when the competition did, with the gala having one last nasty twist in store. With so much on the line, including a coveted berth at a rare home Worlds, the skaters gave it everything...and then some!
At every US Nationals, there is always one extremely controversial result. This year, it was the turn of the men to deliver it. When Max Aaron's score showed on the jumbotron at the end of his free skate and had him in first, everyone (including him, most likely) assumed he had won, and when Adam Rippon finished skating five minutes later, he had seemingly not done anything to challenge that assertion. But somehow, inexplicably, the judges went with Rippon, and the storm of discussion this result has set off will undoubtedly be revisited again and again during the next few months.
That's not to say Rippon skated poorly. No, at the age of twenty-six, having never won a National title, Rippon's free skate was one of the best of his career. Marred only by a fall on his under-rotated quad Lutz attempt, and a wobbly landing of his triple Lutz-triple toe combination, Rippon poured his heart into the performance, and was amply rewarded for it, and it was almost worth the controversy to see the expression of pure joy on his face.
Aaron, meanwhile, will be ruing a planned triple Salchow that was popped to a double in his free skate, which could have made the difference in the end, given the margin was less than a point and a half. His hard work on the second mark was more pronounced than ever at Nationals, and the quad Salchow-triple toe combination that he popped so often last year is now firmly in his control. Nevertheless, failing to secure the title that many thought he had sewn up will be a blow to his confidence, and it will be interesting to see how he responds at Four Continents.
But if the top two got the arena talking, it was bronze medallist Nathan Chen who got the world talking. At the age of just sixteen, the reigning Junior Grand Prix Final Champion landed two quads in the short program and four in the free skate, the most ever landed in the history of the US National Championships, an unbelievable feat and one that had plenty arguing he should have finished higher. Though the jumps are clearly present, however, at sixteen of course he is not yet polished, and it will be fascinating to see how he goes. Unfortunately for Chen, the joy of being the bronze medallist and named to both Junior and Senior Worlds teams was quickly extinguished; in the gala exhibition that follows two hours after the men's free skate, he landed awkwardly on a jump, and aggravated a pre-existing hip injury. I wish him all the very best for a full and swift recovery.
Four Continents: Rippon, Aaron, Hochstein (Alternates: Miner, Johnson, Dolensky)
Chen*, Zhou, Hiwatashi (Alt: Shum, Krasnozhon)
Worlds: Rippon, Aaron,
Chen,* Hochstein (Alt: Miner, Johnson)
*The full extent of Chen's injury is currently unknown. US Figure Skating's official twitter account reports that he will make "a full recovery" but does not give a time frame for such. EDIT: On 29/1 It was revealed that Chen had suffered an avulsion injury in his right hip, requiring surgery, and is out for the rest of the season. Get well soon, Nathan! He has been replaced at Senior Worlds by pewter medallist Grant Hochstein and at Junior Worlds by Junior National Champion Tomoki Hiwatashi.
The ladies' event started with arguably one of the worst ladies' short program segments in recent memory, with messy skates all through the field and a shockingly high number of invalid or incompleted elements. But the free skate more than made up for it, and when all was said and done, it was Gracie Gold who took home her second National title. Gold's short program had been difficult, singling her Lutz (an invalid element at the Senior level) and having to hastily tack a double toe on the end of her triple flip. But her free skate was absolutely inspiring, and she did not miss a moment, nailing every jump and earning the highest levels on every spin and step sequence in one of the great all-time Nationals performances. It wasn't the only memorable moment for the Gold family; Gracie's twin sister (and best friend) Carly made her debut as a competitor at Nationals, finishing nineteenth overall.
Polina Edmunds started the event well, the surprise leader after the short program with one of the few clean skates of the night. The jump problems that plagued her last season and at the beginning of this season appear to have been resolved, and her short program is a perfect showcase for her burgeoning performance talent. Her free skate, however, is another story, nowhere near as strong a package, and the damage on the component marks as well as an under-rotated triple loop was enough to relegate her to the silver. Nevertheless, for seventeen, she has come a remarkably long way, and has a promising future.
Ashley Wagner came into this competition as one of the favourites for gold, but like several others started poorly, falling on her combination, which also had the triple toe component of it downgraded. It was enough to see her in fourth after the short program, and she simply had too much ground to make up on the others. But Wagner's trademark is her ability to fight, and fight she did, turning in an almost flawless free skate - until she singled a Lutz at the very end. That single Lutz cost her the silver, but it will have her fired up ahead of the Championship events.
Four Continents: G. Gold, Edmunds, Nagasu* (Alt: Chen, Hicks)
Junior Worlds: Pierce, Tennell (Alt: Chan, Le, Wessenberg)
Worlds: G. Gold, Wagner, Edmunds (Alt: Nagasu, Chen, Hicks)
*Wagner was originally named to the Four Continents team but declined the place, promoting Nagasu from first alternate to team member.
One of the upsets of the event was the pairs competition, with Tarah Kayne and Daniel O'Shea toppling their more fancied rivals Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim. Kayne and O'Shea started promisingly with a strong short program that included a flawless throw triple Lutz, and converted their early lead into a stunning victory with an incredible free skate. The powerhouse performance included level four on all of their lifts, and given that they missed much of last season due to Kayne requiring surgery on a labral tear in her hip, their win was an extremely popular one.
Scimeca and Knierim were relegated to second, and as had been hurting them all season, their side-by-side jumps really let them down here. A fall on the side-by-side triple Salchow in the short program and the triple toe-triple toe combo in the long program - which meant they did not get credit for that combination - showed a problem that has been lurking for some time. Nevertheless, their other elements were superb, including a magnificent throw quad twist in the free skate, and if they can iron out that one issue, they will factor heavily at Four Continents and Worlds.
Marissa Castelli and Mervin Tran were third, an impressive effort in only their second full season together. They started off their short program well, but unfortunately doubled the planned side-by-side triple Salchows, which set them back almost immediately. Nevertheless, they rallied strongly, finishing the program with three level four elements after that. Their free skate was simply a case of fighting it out, and fight they did. Though the performance was marred by a fall on the side by side triple toe and the throw triple Salchow, this team has improved enormously and continues to grow even stronger.
It was another successful Nationals for the Aaron family, with Max's younger sister Maddie and her partner Max Settlage repeating as the National pewter medallists, an impressive feat given this was only their second competition of the season, after Settlage's back injury ruled them out of the Grand Prix.
Four Continents: Kayne/O'Shea, Scimeca/Knierim, Castelli/Tran (Alt: Aaron/Settlage, Calalang/Sidhu, Pfund/Santillan)
Junior Worlds: Liu/Johnson, Weinberg/Fernandez, Weinstein/Simon (Alt: Marvaldi/Dolkiewicz, Green/Newby-Estrella, Setoyama/Paradis)
Worlds: Kayne/O'Shea, Scimeca/Knierim (Alt: Castelli/Tran, Aaron/Settlage, Calalang/Sidhu)
It has been five long years since Maia and Alex Shibutani won the bronze medal at the 2011 World Championships in Moscow, and yet for all of that time, the big prize missing from their cabinet has been a US National title. But all that changed in Saint Paul, with the ShibSibs (as they call themselves) producing two stunning performances to claim their maiden title. From the six-keypoint pattern in the short dance to the unbelievable seven level four elements in the free dance - out of a possible seven! - they were absolutely flawless, and when their score for the free dance came up on that jumbotron and showed them in first, the crowd's roar of joy almost shook the building.
Madison Chock and Evan Bates had to settle for second, but they will be well aware of the loss of vital momentum to their nearest rivals at the most important time of the season. They missed one keypoint in their Ravensberger Waltz, and dropped levels on their diagonal step sequence and their pair spin in the free dance, tiny errors which nevertheless held them back. And yet with all that, they were still in spectacular form, and the showdown at Four Continents promises that spectators will need to bring the popcorn.
Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue came in in a quiet third place, their programs polished and well-executed, proving that if either of the top two teams should stumble, they are lying in wait. They too hit all six keypoints in the Ravensberger Waltz, but dropped a level on their partial step sequence in the short dance; their free dance earned them five level four elements, and they were well-rewarded by the judges for their quality. It will be no surprise to see all three US teams feature highly in the coming months as we march on to Boston.
Four Continents: Shibutani/Shibutani, Chock/Bates, Hubbell/Donohue (Alt: Cannuscio/McManus, Hawayek/Baker)
Junior Worlds: McNamara/Carpenter, Parsons/Parsons, Pogrebinsky/Benoit (Alt: Carreira/Ponomarenko, Biechler/Dodge, Lewis/Bye)
Worlds: Shibutani/Shibutani, Chock/Bates, Hubbell/Donohue (Alt: Cannuscio/McManus, Hawayek/Baker)