Last week, I made a trip to see the US Figure Skating Championships at the SAP Center in San Jose, California (escaping the deep freeze in NY). Also known as Nationals or #USChamps18, this annual skating competition is very exciting as the results determine a skater’s fate as to what competitions they will be assigned to finish out the skating season.
Being an Olympic year made Nationals especially dramatic, with the team being announced following the competition. The criteria for choosing the team is based on a body of international competitive work of the skaters for the past couple of seasons, which means that sometimes the top 3 finishers aren’t automatically sent, as with other sports. This came into play during the selection of the men’s team, which I will go into in my next blog post. But first up, the Ladies!
In my Skate America recap, I wrote about Bradie Tennell, 19, who medaled with two clean programs and set expectations that she would make the Nationals podium. Last week, Tennell lived up to her promise by skating clean and landing herself on top of the podium with an overall score of 219 points (scores over 200 are considered excellent). While Tennell isn’t the most charismatic, her consistency in landing her jumps has made her US Figure Skating’s newest sweetheart and was easily selected for the Olympic team.
Behind Tennell with an overall score of 213 points was silver medalist Mirai Nagasu. Skating fans will remember that Nagasu finished fourth at the 2010 Olympics but struggled with consistency over the past eight years and was left off the Olympic team in 2014 when she placed third at Nationals. Now a veteran at age 24, she is going to her second Olympic games thanks to her dedicated work ethic the past couple of seasons and her near mastery of the triple axel (3A), the hardest jump in the Ladies’ discipline.
Nagasu had one of the big moments of the week, in my opinion, following her free skate to “Miss Saigon” which had a couple of mistakes, including a messy landing on her 3A and an under rotated triple lutz, but was otherwise clean and expressive. Nagasu burst into tears of relief following her skate and the crowd was on their feet for a good minute while she took her bows. Being her fan, this was an amazing moment to witness!
The bronze medalist at Nationals, Karen Chen, 18, was also selected for the Olympic team. She was the 2017 Senior Ladies champ and placed fourth at last year’s World Championships. However, she has been struggling all season in competition and was a wildcard going into Nationals. On top of this, Chen also got sick the day in between her competitions, so expectations for her free skate were low. Although Chen had a few underrotated jumps in her free skate, her short program score was enough to pull her ahead of Ashley Wagner, who finished fourth.
Wagner, a three-time US champion and a World silver medalist in 2016 was the headlining story in San Jose due to her failure to be selected for the Olympic team. Wagner, 26, is partnered with Olympic sponsors such as Bridgestone Tires, and heavily featured in NBC’s promotional spots for the Games. Many remember she was selected in 2014 to go to the Sochi Olympics over Mirai Nagasu, even though she placed fourth. This time her body of work could not save her since she has also struggled with consistency the past two seasons.
Following her free skate, Wagner spoke out that she felt the judges had undermarked her in program components. In previous seasons, judges had always scored Wagner high in her program components and here it appeared they dumped her in favor of Bradie Tennell, whose artistic expression is no match for Ashley’s on ice charisma and performance quality.
But Wagner also needs to take responsibility for not making the team. She decided to debut her “La La Land” free skate for Nationals after dumping it early in the season for her old stand-by “Moulin Rouge” which she had performed in two prior seasons. Many argue that the new program didn't have enough mileage.
She also withdrew from Skate America in November with a topical ankle infection which caused her pain. Many felt she should’ve fought through but Ashley rightly put her health first. Still, it did not win her any favors with skating officials. Most importantly, Wagner botched her triple-triple combination in her short program. Then in her free skate, she missed some spin levels and popped an important jump on her second triple- triple combination, costing her valuable points.
As a fan of Wagner’s, I feel her frustration and heartbreak, but don’t think she should’ve made the team based on her performance here. Still, it was unfortunate that the judges lowered her components without warning. After all, it was only about 2.5 points between her and Chen. If Wagner hadn't relied on her program components and didn't lose those valuable tech points, she would be on the team.
I want to give honorable mention to Starr Andrews, a 16-year-old African American skater who placed sixth here. She got a huge standing ovation for her clean skate to Whitney Houston's "One Moment in Time" which featured Andrews partly on vocals (skating karaoke, anyone?) Andrews is a young talent on the rise and it's also refreshing to see more diversity in skating. I hope to see her make it to the 2022 Olympics!
I will be cheering on our US ladies in PyeongChang starting Feb 11th in the team event. The US team is favored for a bronze medal, behind Russia and Canada. My next blog post will cover the remaining disciplines – Senior Men, Senior Pairs and Senior Dance.
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