Saturday, January 13, 2018

US Nationals Recap, Part 2 – Men, Pairs and Dance

In my previous blog post on the Ladies, I mentioned that the body of work criteria played a larger role in the Olympic Men’s team selection.  In this case the silver medalist, Ross Miner, 26, was left off the Olympic team, and to add insult to injury, was named second alternate for the Olympics (Sixth place finisher Jason Brown was named first alternate).  

Miner was left off the team because he had not medaled in a major international competition since 2015 and placed fifth the previous two seasons at Nationals.  Compared with the international results of the three other men chosen for the team, I can understand US Figure Skating committee’s reasons but neither Miner, nor his coach Mark Mitchell were happy with the decision. 

Mitchell was especially bitter because he was also left off the Olympic team in 1992 when he won a bronze medal at Nationals in favor of another skater.  Still, nobody can take away the amazing free skate that Miner had in San Jose, where the entire audience was on its feet following his Queen medley.

As for the Olympic team that was selected, gold medalist Nathan Chen was the class of the field here, ahead of Miner by over 45 points.  Although Chen was getting over being ill, he still managed to land seven quadruple jumps overall and wow the audience with his technical prowess.  

I prefer Chen’s short program to Benjamin Clementine’s “Nemesis,” due to its amazing choreography over his “Mao’s Last Dancer” free program which is more of a jumping contest than a cohesive performance.  Chen also sported some new costumes here designed by Vera Wang (who was in San Jose) to mixed reviews.  As I mentioned in my Skate America recap, Chen is in the mix for a medal at the Olympics and could even grab the gold if top skaters like reigning Olympic champ, Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan don’t perform at their peak.  With his multiple quads and ever improving artistry, he’s bound to make waves.

2017 Junior World champion Vincent Zhou, 17, grabbed the bronze medal here and was selected for the team.  Zhou, who was last year’s silver medalist, had been struggling with consistency this season and was something of a wildcard coming into Nationals.  Like Chen, Zhou also has multiple quads in his programs but he is prone to under rotations, which lower his score. 

For example, in his free skate to “Moulin Rouge” he under rotated three quads and another was downgraded.  However, he also received over 20 points for a quad lutz- triple toe combination, one of the hardest jumps in men’s figure skating.  You can see why the USFS decided to send him since he’s a star on the rise with difficult technical content.

The final member of the Olympic team is Adam Rippon, who at 28, is attending his first Olympics after many years of heartbreak.  Rippon placed fourth here and there was some nail biting among his fans whether he would be selected.  His placement here was shocking to many after a very strong season where he received two silver medals in the Grand Prix series and made it to the final in December, where he placed fifth out of six.

Rippon had an amazing short program to “Let Me Think About It” where he received over 96 points and was predicted by many to win the silver medal behind his training mate, Nathan Chen.  However, a fall on his quad lutz attempt and two uncharacteristic popped triple jumps in his “Birds” Free Skate, left Rippon disappointed.  I had to wonder if his best friend Ashley Wagner’s fourth place finish was weighing on his mind.

Still, the committee voted overwhelmingly to put Rippon on the team due to his body of work the past couple of seasons.  Rippon is also the first openly gay wintergames athlete and gives good quotes, so he will certainly make a splash in Pyeongchang. As a fan of Rippon’s, I’m glad he’s going at this stage in his career.

Finally, an honorable mention to Jimmy Ma, 22, who placed 11th here.  Ma's short program to Lil Jon's "Turn Down for What" is getting lots of viral notice.  I got to talk to Ma, who hails from Great Neck, NY and now trains in Texas who told me that as a kid he trained at Iceland, which is the neighborhood skating rink near where I grew up.  Small world!

Pairs Podium
As I predicted, married pairs team Alexa Scimeca-Knierim, 26 and Chris Knierim, 30, were chosen for the Olympic team, despite some mistakes in their free program to “Ghost.”  The Knierims were very emotional with their win at Nationals after going through a lot of challenges the past two years.  After getting married in 2016, Alexa became very ill with a gastrointestinal disease that required surgery and months of recuperation.  Chris also lost his dad and uncle recently, so I really feel for the two of them and that they manage to keep training and performing is quite amazing.

The remaining podium here was silver medalists Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea, bronze medalists Deanna Stellato and Nate Bartholomay and pewter medalists Ashley Cain and Tim LeDuc.  Kayne and O’Shea will be competing at the World Championships in Milan, Italy alongside the Kneirims.

Ice Dance Podium
Although the Olympic Ice Dance team was pretty much set before the competition, it still wound up to be one of the more dramatic competitions in San Jose, due to a shake-up of the top 3.  For the past two seasons the sibling pair of Maia and Alex Shibutani (aka the Shibsibs) have been the top dance team in the US. In 2016, they won a silver medal at Worlds with their “Fix You” free dance and have been trying to build on that momentum ever since.

This year, they went back into the Coldplay playlist and chose “Paradise” as their free dance music.  The Shibsibs were leading after the short dance by about three points, the gold was in their reach.  However, during the free dance, Maia made an uncharacteristic stumble and they also lost a few levels on a few elements.

This left the door open for Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue, whose sensual and committed performances have been getting noticed internationally this season.  They managed to move in front of the Shibutanis by .19 points to grab the gold, even though they placed second in both of their programs.

Strangely enough, the winners of the free dance, Madison Chock and Evan Bates wound up in third place over all after their “Imagine” program.  Chock and Bates were visibly disappointed to find themselves with the bronze medal having been silver medalists the past two seasons and National champs in 2015.  Admittedly, I’m not a fan of their programs this season and feel that Chock’s skating skills have regressed a bit. 

It will be very interesting to watch these three teams battle it out for the bronze medal at the Olympics, behind the Canadians Virtue/Moir and the French team of Papadakis/Cizeron.

Honorable mention goes to Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, who were repeat pewter (fourth place) medalists, but had one their best free dances to “Liebestraum” after some unfortunate mistakes at last year’s Nationals.  

Hawayek and Baker also have one of the most entertaining gala programs to “Austin Powers.” 

So that's my take on US Nationals!  If you're a figure skating fan or just a casual, once in four years viewer, I'd love to know your thoughts below or reach out to me on Twitter @nydigitalmarket.

Andrea Goldstein is a digital marketing
professional with a passion for pop culture.
@nydigitalmarket on Twitter

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