Sunday, 12 January 2014

The 2014 U.S. Figure Skating Championships


If the skating that we saw all week in Boston is any indication, the future may be bright in U.S. figure skating but the present is positively radiant. Like a perfectly simmered New England Clam Chowder, the skating was just delicious. The dust has finally settled and the endgame has been determined. After triumphant moments and crushing defeats, we now know who will be representing the U.S. at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia and who unfortunately won't. I want to preface my thoughts on the senior competitions first by congratulating the bright young stars and champions of the Juvenile and Intermediate divisions, Novice Champions Paolo Borromeo, Vivian Le, Ai Setoyama and David Botero, Gigi and Luca Becker and Junior Champions Nathan Chen, Amber Glenn, Madeline Aaron and Max Settlage and Kaitlyn Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker. Your accomplishments aren't merely stepping stones - they are beautiful accomplishments in themselves. I also want to encourage those of you who want to catch up on all of the Boston buzz you may have missed to check out Jackie Wong's Figure Skating Examiner. I follow a TON of blogs and skating news sites, and I have to applaud Jackie for always offering comprehensive coverage of eligible competitions free of bias and vitriol. Now for a few thoughts on show things went down in Boston:

PAIRS

The silver medal winning free skate from Zhang and Bartholomay that blew the roof off the rink!

Pairs skating in the U.S. has always had the ugly and largely undeserved reputation ladies skating earns in Canada. It's interesting having just interviewed Ken Shelley recently that you look back to that storied history of U.S. pairs skating you see Olympic medals in pairs skating in 1932, 1952, 1960, 1964, 1984 and 1988 but a drought ever since. That's not to say there hasn't been amazing skating - look at skaters like Todd Sand and both his partners Natasha Kuchiki and Jenni Meno and Kyoko Ina and her second partner John Zimmerman who won world medals since then. Whatever that stigma was, the pairs in Boston disproved. Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir led after the short program and despite errors in their free skate fought tooth and nail and even attempted (and rotated) a throw quad salchow. Caydee Denny and John Coughlin had a magical free skate but just weren't able to quite play catch up to Marissa and Simon overall. Felicia Zhang and Nate Bartholomay were outstanding in both their short program and "Les Miserables" free skate, fighting for every point and going clean, really giving the performance of the night in the opinion of most, finishing 2nd. While I think all of these teams really delivered and sent that message about the strength of pairs skating in the U.S., I gotta say - the 2nd place finish of Zhang and Bartholomay kind of brings home that message of how confusing this IJS system is to casual fans of the sport... when the "performance of the night" doesn't win, it confuses people and rightfully so but I really applaud U.S. Figure Skating by doing the right thing and sending them. I don't think anyone was screwed royally in the pairs judging OR Sochi team announcement. DeeDee Leng and Timothy LeDuc definitely win the award for most improved in my really gay opinion... the footwork is great and the throws look so much bigger. Also, I want to be Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim's triple twist when I grow up.

LADIES



The depth in U.S. ladies skating right now is simply unending. If you look at how many of these ladies were trying (and landing) triple/triple combinations in the short program, especially the fact many of them are really fresh faces, it was almost like watching Japanese Nationals and seeing a field of skaters that would rival ANY international competition. My heart went out to skaters like Agnes Zawadzki, Courtney Hicks and Rachael Flatt, who really lost the competition with mistakes in the short program that really buried them somewhat in the standings. Not the way you want to go out and not an indication of how talented any of these ladies are. Nice to see Hicks really recover the most of the 3 of them. It's clear to me Rachael (for example) just loves skating but the fire wasn't there - that popped lutz in the short program wasn't from the same skater who won gold at this event in 2010. It was the complete opposite with 2008 Champion Mirai Nagasu. She was NOT going down without a fight and that's something I think is so important, even if she did skate to a twinkly elevator music version of "The Man I Love" and music from James Bond, God love her. She didn't quit after she got shafted in that free skate last year and seriously, that alone deserves mad props. Her free skate was exemplary and it was great to see her rewarded with another medal. I see a lot of hope for the future in Polina Edwards - anyone who can reel of a triple lutz/triple toe combination like it's nothing at age 15 is a skater we want to be paying close attention to. As for the puddle problems and ice quality in the free skate, TV contracts aside for safety and performance issues that ice should have been resurfaced again. This is skating, not synchronized swimming. If Jem was here, she would have said that was "outrageous. Totally, totally, totally outrageous". Ashley's free skate just broke my heart. The pressure on her must have been just ridiculous and I think that can be said for everyone but I don't think the ice quality can't be blamed for ANYONE'S problems in the free skate. Although Sasha Cohen (a former Olympic Medallist) was excluded from the 2010 Olympic team after a 4th place finish that year in her comeback, I think a case for Ashley being included was absolutely there, especially given her impeccable competitive history and the soup she skated in. I don't know... she's an adult among girls and I'm just so happy that U.S. Figure Skating did the right thing and included her. So incredibly sad for Mirai! If it were up to me, I would have sent Gracie, Mirai and Ashley but I think with Polina's technical arsenal and fearlessness there's definitely a case for her going as well. Gracie Gold, in winning her first national title, really lived up to those insane expectations she was getting last year from the media (social and otherwise) and skating community and delivered when she needed to. She wasn't perfect in the free skate, but who was really? At any rate, the ladies event was certainly full of drama, intrigue, glory and gut wreching disappointment just as any good Olympic year Nationals free skate has been in the past and will be going forward.

ICE DANCE


You could have punched Meryl Davis and Charlie White's ticket to Sochi quite confidently with a big "Hey Girl Hey!" LONG before the competition in Massachusetts even started but the importance of Davis and White and Virtue and Moir competing at their respective Nationals had a lot more to do with a final run through/fine tuning before a showdown on former Soviet soil. With the temperatures in both Canada and the U.S. this winter and the way these two teams interactions are edited on Tessa and Scott's W reality show, you really could call it a 'cold war'. As always, Davis and White dazzled and laid down two "first rate, first rate" Dick Button performances that really exemplified their strengths. As much as many may disagree, I still don't get that "ooo"/"aaa" feeling from their "Scheherazade" free dance as much as I'd like to but it's certainly a masterpiece. I don't think it has anything to do with the program composition, components or the way its interpreted - to me it's just the music. What interested me more that their win was how the battles between the other teams played out. As much as I'm a huge supporter/fan of Lynn and Logan (who were just FANTASTIC in both the short and free dances), I really have to applaud ALL of the top 6 teams. Ice dancing in the U.S. has never had this depth to the field and if it were up to me (which I wish it would be) 6 Olympic spots would be just fabulous in my books. At the end of the day, to no one's shock OR dismay Davis and White handily won another U.S. title in sublime fashion with a score of 200.19, bringing down the house and edging out Madison Chock and Evan Bates, Maia and Alex Shibutani and Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue. These teams were just all so fantastic they all deserve hugs and/or Long Island Iced Teas... that's what I have to say about that... P.S. to Maia Shibutani - you only have to be 19 to enjoy a refreshing, healthy Long Island Iced Tea in Canada! Come do that Thriller face here girl! P.P.S. - I think they should include Hannah Miller as a special guest in that free dance: "Hannah Miller... In The Night! She Did A Double Axel On A Boot That Had A Knife!" No more Michael Jackson parodies, I promise. That would be just be criminal... SMOOTH criminal.

MEN


Jeremy Abbott's record breaking short program

The silver medal winning free skate from Jason Brown that had me in tears

I make no secret about my love for Jeremy Abbott's skating. He's really one of only a real handful of current skaters who seem to be able to deliver a meaningful performance with some meat and potatoes and true depth and performance quality with this IJS system that really stymies the choreographic process. Leading up to this competition, all I could think of was... 2 spots, Jeremy needs to be one of those 2 skaters. Among the rest of the men's field with that kind of depth, there were at least a dozen other skaters I would love to have seen in that second spot. Jeremy's short program was literally the stuff magic was made of. I haven't seen a performance under the IJS system that has inspired me that way in years... or ever. To come back and nail it like he did, blowing the roof off of the arena in Boston and skating lights out - almost hitting 100 points in the short - resonated such a positive message about how truly fantastic Jeremy is when he's on. He's really a class ahead of any competition you can throw his away. Sorry bout it. That performance to me was akin to watching Rudy Galindo at the 1996 Nationals - a magical breakthrough when it mattered most! At the end of the day, only 2 men are to earn golden tickets to the Sochi Olympics... and no, neither of them are Evan Lysacek or Johnny Weir, who I half expected to crash the ice halfway through someone's program for a photo op... you never know girl. Stranger things have happened, like the time the flasher went on the ice when Michelle Kwan was out there. Overall though, SO many impressive skaters and moments... Doug Mattis' Robbie, Sean Rabbit, Grant Hochstein, Josh Farris, Ricky Dornbush, Stephen Carriere, Tintin... I mean Ross Miner's "Boston Strong" tribute to the people of Boston and the Marathon Bombing victims... the list just goes on and on. I was a little heartbroken to see Adam Rippon have an off competition - the overall quality and elegance to his skating is just over the moon fantastic. I am in the throws of a mad love affair with Jason Brown's "Riverdance" free skate and to go out and deliver that kind of PERFORMANCE when it counted most and be received like that just speaks volumes about what kind of skating people really appreciate. Jason's not a legend in the making - he's the right here and right now and I can't say enough wonderful things about him. At my first Provincials here in Nova Scotia in 1997, I skated to the same exact same music for my artistic program choreographed by my coach Katy Leask (Martins). That music and program were really, really dear to my heart and to see someone take that music and do THAT with it quite honestly left me in tears today. The fact that it beat a quad jumping Max Aaron spoke a lot as well. Speaking of Max Aaron, he came back and couldn't have done anything MORE in his free skate - he's a jumping beast and his presentation has improved by split jumps and bounds. I have no words when it comes to Jeremy coming out and doing it AGAIN in the free skate when it counted more than anything. I've grown to be friends with Jeremy's Mom Allison and we've talked about so much and I really feel so much emotion over this victory. Just wow. So that was my secret cryfest of the day - Puffs should be sponsoring me, not U.S. Figure Skating. I'm tellin' ya girl! The big winners were Jeremy and Jason... and you know what, that couldn't have made me a happier person. If anyone deserved those moments, it was them and all of us watching. After watching both of them skate in Boston, my faith in "amateur" skating is restored. Just like that. For once, I'm speechless...

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