Figure Skating: From the Boards

National Treasures: Ave Maria + Eleanor Rigby January 31, 2013

The men’s event in Omaha was truly inspiring to watch as it unfolded, from the short programs all the way through the free skates. Certainly, there were the more obvious highlights. There was magic built on quadruple jumps; there were dreams come true in National-Title form. But, there were moments of a lifetime created long before the NBC broadcast kicked in.

Early in the afternoon, the first groups of men took to the ice. Now, these weren’t the medal contenders, per se. There wouldn’t be the same tension as would fill the building later, as Jeremy Abbott tried to fend off his challengers. But, no one told the skaters that.

See, once again the beauty of the U.S. Championships was on display, as one by one, men took to the ice with only one thing to prove: they could live up to their own childhood dreams. These guys may not have the international experience, or, in some cases, the technical difficulty to rank them near the top of the leader board. But, their dreams are just as big, their determination just as strong as any one else in the field.

And the crowd at the CenturyLink Center that had been admirably supportive all week was given a few more magical moments to tuck away in their memories from Omaha.

Allow me to back track for a moment… Practice Ice

I had the privilege of seeing a number of practice sessions throughout the week. The interesting thing about attending practices is that you see these skaters in a very different light that you do on competition day. They’re in control. They’re in their element. Their triple jumps are routine, the footwork is simply muscle-memory. It’s easy to see the raw talent on a practice session, because even with people watching, this is the world they live in every day. Training. Repetition. Perfecting each moment. But, all too often, that comfort you see on the practice ice, stays on the practice ice.

Sometimes, though, the lights come on, the opening pose is struck, and the practice success is history, because magic happens in the moment.

Wesley Campbell, skating in his fourth U.S. Championships, stopped at center ice, took a breath, and for the next four and a half minutes, it was as if he was painting the perfect picture to compliment each note of Ave Maria as it filled the arena. It was as if no one dared breath, for fear of breaking the spell. No one dared blink, for fear of missing a second of the magic.

He checked off triple jumps like they were as natural as breathing. He drew on the years of training to move without thinking. Instead, he appeared to be thinking only of the story he was telling on the ice.

That’s when you know it’s good — when the technique kicks in and makes the physically exhausting look easy, so that the artistry, the unique element of the sport, can shine.

It was a moment so brilliant it brought the crowd to its feet. Everyone in the building knew they had witnessed the fulfilling of a dream. Medals and scores were irrelevant. The satisfaction of living up to the potential of the moment was more than enough. (more…)

 

National Treasures: Davis and White January 29, 2013

What an incredible week it has been. I was so thrilled to have the opportunity to be in Omaha with the Icenetwork team, but I was even more thrilled to have the chance to witness the magic that is the U.S. Championships.

There’s something so very special about Nationals; something that can’t be replicated. The week provides moments that you can’t find anywhere else. There is magic in the air from the very first day, and it continues on through the moments the skaters create — both for themselves, and for those of us fortunate enough to witness them.

As I think back on this week, there are several such memories that I will treasure, and I will, no doubt, recount many of them here. But the moment that stands out most — more than the Gracie Gold comeback, or the Max Aaron shocker, more than the unpredictable or the dramatic — is, perhaps, the most predictable moment of all.

DSCN0171When Meryl Davis and Charlie White took to the ice for their Free Dance on Saturday, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that they were about to earn their fifth straight U.S. title.

No doubt. Not even a glimmer. The rest of the final group, though exceptional in their own right, didn’t stand a chance. Not for gold, anyway.

Meryl and Charlie could have bought into that; they could have gone through the motions, saving their energy and effort for their World Championship skate. They still would have been great. They still would have won. But that afternoon, we witnessed what makes great skaters great champions.

This Notre Dame de Paris program was a bit of a risk, taking the teammates — talented as anyone in the world — across uncharted waters emotionally. “They don’t evoke any romance,” the doubters said. “There’s no connection between the two of them, no chemistry.”

I beg to differ. (more…)

 

From Omaha: Breakfast and Blogging, day three January 25, 2013

Filed under: 2012-2013 Season News — Tara Wellman @ 10:57 am

Good morning from Omaha!

It’s my third day here, and the first time I’ve had a chance to type up some notes from the first few days … over breakfast, of course, and just before I have to be back at the rink for some morning practice sessions! There’s never a dull moment at an event like this, and especially not at Nationals. So many skaters, so many practices, so many adoring parents, and sparkly dresses!

But, that’s part of the beauty of the U.S. Championships — it’s so big, and so noteworthy, that everyone is excited, and everyone wants that chance to steal the show! There’s a lot on the line, so the tension is thick at time. But, there’s a great atmosphere of support and encouragement, too. I love it.

Anyway, back to those notes.

Wednesday was all about hitting as many senior practices as possible. The standouts for the  men were Ross Miner, Douglas Razzano (who hit a GORGEOUS quad toe), and Jason Brown. Talk about stealing the show! The kid has figured out the triple axel, and the rest of his skating is just superb. What a joy to watch! I’m curious to see how that plays out in the actual competition, because we’ve known for years that once he got his triple axel, he’d rival the best.

Gracie Gold caused quite the stir with her stellar practices this week. but, she wasn’t alone. Mirai Nagasu, Christina Gao, Courtney Hicks, Agnes Zawadzki … they all through down some impressive run throughs. Ashley Wagner was a little off much of the week, although her “off” is still very good!

Of course, the competition kicked off yesterday with the pairs and ladies, but I’ll get there in a minute.

Before I go into all that, I have to mention — the set up here in Omaha? FABULOUS. The hotel is directly across from the CenturyLink Arena, which you can get to by a skywalk bridge connecting the two buildings. Then, the practice rink is in the convention center connected to the main arena. So, you quite literally never have to even set foot outside in the well-below-freezing Omaha temps.

Plus, it’s just super convenient. Anywhere you need to be, you can get there fast and directly. The skaters, coaches, parents, and media alike have all been raving about it. And the event staff have all been wonderful. So, thank you, Omaha, for being such a great host!

Okay. The event.

For those of you watching on icenetwork, hopefully you caught some of the free “B-stream” action yesterday. What a great cast of characters we have working that side of things, from Tanith Belbin, to Ryan Bradley, Sarah Hughes, and Michael Weiss. They all bring a great perspective to the show.

Unfortunately, the first day is always a little sketchy. So goes life in the TV business! We were all set to do a great live Ice Desk to set up the ladies event … and Tanith’s mic didn’t work all of a sudden. Not only that, but it broke. And they couldn’t get it working. Or the replacement mic. And, to top it all off, Tanith had to be back downstairs to be ready for her backstage interviews with the ladies as they came off the ice!

What a crazy mess. Fortunately, Sarah, Ryan, and Michael were there to go on with the segment … even if it was shorter and later than planned!

As we like to say, it’s always something!

But the skating itself was great. The pairs really came out with a lot to prove, and we saw clean skate after clean skate after clean skate. It was fantastic! Of course, Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir easily lead. But, how ’bout little Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier?! They were sensational. I’m really anxious to see who steps it up in the free skate to challenge the leaders.

The ladies event was bound to have some fireworks. All the top ladies were pretty spread out in the start order, so while Mirai kicked it off with a brilliant short, we had to wait most of the night to see the other top hopefuls. Courtney Hicks, by the way, is a little fireball! And having such great jump content certainly doesn’t hurt. What does hurt? Feeling so ready, so confident, and almost expecting to win … and falling on your bread and butter element. Gracie looked like the moment completely overwhelmed her. I have a hunch she may have been a tad over confident coming in here. She was so enjoying the spotlight that even in practices she’d occasionally forget to keep skating through each element. It was a rough night for he, but she’s still within striking distance.

She’ll need some help, though. And with the top three? I’m not sure she’ll get it.

Mirai, Agnes, and Ashley were all wonderful. And, they all feel like they have something to prove.

Ashley said in the press conference that she was exceptionally nervous because no one can prepare you for the pressure of trying to defend a title. It has showed this week. But, after a short program that did exactly what she wanted it to, she’s totally in control of the outcome.

Mirai and Agnes? Well, we have a battle for that second world spot on our hands! They’ve both looked great all week. So, we’ll see who makes the most of the moment!

Okay, I’ve got to run. Pairs practice now, then the short dance and men’s short later today!

Good luck to everyone!

 

 

 

Omaha or Bust: Dance party, anyone? January 23, 2013

PrintLet’s just go ahead and start here: Meryl Davis and Charlie White should leave Omaha with yet another National title.

As good as U.S. ice dance has become, as deep as this field is, as many ways as the rest of the podium could shape up, there is still no one near Davis and White, technically or artistically. It’s as simple as that.

That’s not to say the rest of the field isn’t improving, too. In fact, some of the U.S. teams are in the running for “most improved,” even internationally speaking. It’s just that Davis and White keep pushing the envelope, not for anyone else, but just to push themselves one step closer to a shot at Olympic gold.

They’ve done it this season, going undefeated so far. In fact, they haven’t stood anywhere but the top of the podium since losing the World Title to training mates Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir last March.

I could talk about Meryl and Charlie all day, but the fact remains: they’re the class of the field. I can’t wait to see them throw down two more electrifying skates.

But, I’m equally as excited to see what the rest of the field does.

Lynn Kriengkrairut and Logan Giulietti-Schmitt are one of those teams in the “most improved” category. They’ve been on the brink of breaking through before, and last year’s Nationals gave them a chance to do just that.

Everyone loved them at Skate America, and they took gold at the Ice Challenge Graz. They don’t quite have the speed and the flow of the world’s top teams, but there’s one thing they do as well as anyone else: entertain. Audiences buy what they’re selling from the moment they step on the ice. That makes for great fun, and combined with challenging technical elements, great scores.

Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue would love to repeat their Nationals performances from a year ago. Those performances validated their new partnership, and gave them a spot on the World Team. But, their path to the podium won’t be easy. Not with Madison Chock and Evan Bates hungry for a shot of their own.

Chock and Bates have an ethereal quality to their skating. Plus, they are so committed to the characters of their programs that it’s nearly impossible not to get sucked into the story they create! They built slowly as the season progressed, starting with an unsatisfying performance at the US International Classic in Salt Lake, but finishing with a much better Cup of China competition. They’re scores put them right in the medal hunt, and in fact, only one team not named Davis/White has a higher season’s best than they do: Maia and Alex Shibutani.

The Shibs have had to deal with some significant physical limitations this season. Alex, dealing with a left leg injury, struggled through the competition in Russia. After treating that, though, their NHK Trophy performance was much stronger. They finished third with a 154+.

Since then, they’ve made improvements to the overall polish of their programs, and especially to the Short Dance. Technically, they’re right up there. Still young, they don’t always pull in the component marks. But, they are still, at least on paper, the second-best team in America.

They just have to prove it.

The battle for the podium will be fierce, no doubt. With five teams capable of earning a trip to Worlds, and only three spots available, there will be fireworks. And it’s going to be awesome.

Who would you like to see on the podium?

Here are my picks.

Gold: Davis/White
Silver: Shibutani/Shibutani
Bronze: Chock/Bates
Pewter: Kriengkrairut/Giulietti-Schmitt

 

Don’t forget to follow me on twitter (@FromTheBoards) for updates from Omaha. And, if you’re an instagramer, follow me @TaraBethW for pictures throughout the week!

 

Omaha or Bust: Bring on the boys!

PrintBased on name recognition and resume, the mens title would seem to be easily in the hands of reigning champ, Jeremy Abbott. He has the pedigree. He has the experience. He’s won the title not once, not even just twice, but three times already. He comes to Omaha armed with extraordinarily complex choreography, emotionally engaging music, and the jumps, steps, and spins to rank him one of the world’s best.

But, he’s battled some physical setbacks this year that made those technical things quite difficult.

Meanwhile, Ross Miner made good strides on the international circuit, scoring the highest totals of any U.S. man in a Grand Prix event when he took bronze at NHK Trophy.

There’s also Richard Dornbush and Adam Rippon. Both have had their struggles. Both have had their moments to shine. Both would love to be on the World Team again. But, their path to a world spot isn’t simple.

Not only do they have to get past Abbott or Miner, but they have to hold off challengers like Armin Mahbanoozadeh, Brandon Mroz, Douglas Razzano, and young stars like Joshua Farris, Jason Brown, and perhaps the stiffest competition, Max Aaron.

Max presents a potentially large road block. His score of 231.27 at the Senior B event in Salt Lake City to start the year is higher than Abbott’s best Grand Prix score. That carries some weight.

Understand, though — that was a very well executed competition for Aaron. It was not Abbott’s best competition. Not by a long shot.

All that means is, Max Aaron is in play for a medal. But, he’ll have to be GREAT, while others have room for error.

Likewise, Mahbanoozadeh has a chance to make a splash. He was dealing with an ankle injury at Skate America (where he was a last minute replacement for Evan Lysacek), but is always a potential spoiler.

Razzano was 5th at Nationals last season after pulling up from 8th in the short to 4th in the long. Could he be this year’s upset?

Not that it means anything now, but, just for kicks, how different would this competition be if Evan Lysacek and Johnny Weir had, indeed, come back and been able to compete?

Johnny attempted the comeback. His Grand Prix experiment didn’t go so well. Not that he didn’t make a valiant effort, but it appeared that he sorely underestimated how far he was from being a contender.

If he’d stuck it out, trained as hard as ever, and been scheduled to skate in Omaha, how would he have fared? It’s hard to say, of course, but based on what we saw out of him earlier this fall, he would have been a long shot.

And Evan? He couldn’t have been counted out, that’s for certain. If he’d been healthy enough to compete internationally earlier in the year, and if he was truly back in “fighting shape,” you’d be hard pressed to deny his chances.

Lysacek provided consistency for the American men for many years. Many hoped he’d be able to come back and help earn back that third World Team spot. Instead, he stares down a potential comeback during the Olympic season, instead of before it. That’s no easy task, to say the least.

Meanwhile, though, we have a handful of contenders who will be in Omaha. And I have a feeling they’re going to put on quite a show!

Who do you think makes the World Team? Who will fare the best against Evgeyni Plushenko, Patrick Chan, and the Japanese superstars?

Here are my predictions.

Gold: Abbott
Silver: Miner
Bronze: Aaron
Pewter: Dornbush

Don’t forget to follow me on twitter (@FromTheBoards) for updates from Omaha. And, if you’re an instagramer, follow me @TaraBethW for pictures throughout the week!

 

Omaha or Bust: Just another day in “Pair”adise January 22, 2013

It’s no secret that I am often frustrated by the U.S. pairs landscape. Not because we don’t have talented pairs to choose from, but because more Printoften than not, the game of “musical partners” is more intriguing than their actual competition results!

This year, there were the usual swaps. Caitlin Yankowskas finally found herself a partner in Joshua Reagan (who skated at last year’s Nationals with Ashley Cain).

Alexa Scimeca and Christopher Knierim paired up, and surprised everyone with exceptional scores in Nice and at NHK — they’re senior Grand Prix debut.

Meanwhile, Mark Ladwig, who skated for so many years with Amanda Evora, found a new partner in Lindsay Davis (who formerly skated with Themi Leftheris and Alex Merritt). They started the season at the Senior B in Salt Lake and … well, they had a lot of work to do. To their credit, they were much improved by their second GP event.

At least Gretchen Donlan and Andrew Speroff and Tiffany Vise and Don Baldwin are still together … though neither team has had the kind of success this season they’d hoped for. Both teams are, though, in the running for a medal in Omaha.

And if all the new partnerships aren’t enough for you, let’s make absolutely sure that there’s no chance for a repeat National Champ — John Coughlin? Done for the season after having surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left hip. For him and Caydee Denney to not be able to finish the season is such a shame; they were having a fabulous year.

But, what that does mean is, the pairs competition is the one event in Omaha that will not feature a reigning champ. In fact, there isn’t a national champion in the field.

But, despite all the turnover among U.S. teams, the new headliners of the event seem to stand alone.

Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir have been skating together since 2006. That’s ancient history in pairs years! And, to top it all off, they’ve been having a career year. A strong start at Skate America led to a convincing Ice Challenge Graz victory, which they followed up with bronze at the NHK Trophy.

The only team to post scores anywhere close to Castelli/Shnapir’s (except Denney/Coughlin, mind you) is that of Scimeca and Knierim.

This is Marissa and Simon’s year, it seems. The question is, will they live up to the moment?

Here’s how I see it.

Gold: Castelli/Shnapir
Silver: Scimeca/Knierim
Bronze: Vise/Baldwin
Pewter: Davis/Ladwig

Don’t forget to follow me on twitter (@FromTheBoards) for updates from Omaha. And, if you’re an instagramer, follow me @TaraBethW for pictures throughout the week!

 

Omaha or bust: Let’s go, ladies

PrintNo lady has defended her U.S. title since Michelle Kwan last did it … in 2005. There were a few who could have. But, pressure, injuries, and rising young stars have kept the roller coaster going strong.

Once again, though, the current ladies champion is in prime position to be the first back-to-back champion in seven years. But, we’ll get to Ms. Wagner in a moment.

The rest of the field provides some seriously interesting possibilities.

With Alissa Czisny forced to withdraw after dislocating her hip in her late-season debut, Mirai Nagasu becomes one of the most notable “veterans” in the field. And yet, her own personal roller coaster has been no secret. After parting ways with Frank Carroll after last season’s disappointing end, she has taken on more responsibility in her skating, it seems. And, she’s happy again.

But, happy and mature are only part of the equation — she still has to prove she can put down back-to-back clean (read: no underrotations!) programs that are filled with elite-level transitions and in-betweens. Her average scores on spins this season top the field of U.S. ladies, and her program component scores keep her in the hunt.

Technically, Christina Gao can put up a good fight. We saw it at Skate America, where she took home silver behind Ashley Wagner. As Gao’s season progressed, she struggled more and more. But, she is averaging the highest free skate base value of the American girls … even if only by less than a point over Wagner.

For Gao, her program components go as the technical elements do — when she’s on, she’s glorious. But when she’s not, things fall apart across the board.

Then there’s the battle between the girl still trying to claim her elite spot and the girl with the potential to snatch it all away.

That would be Agnes Zawadzki — last year’s bronze medalist — and newcomer Gracie Gold, the future of American ladies skating.

Zawadzki is another skater with all the talent in the world. She has jumps that are larger than life, but all too often she misses in just enough ways to take herself out of the running. Meanwhile, Gold has no doubts about where she sees herself in the national mix. Despite missing the Grand Prix podium in her first senior season, she believes, according to her comments to reporters last week, that she’ll “fit right in” with the country’s best senior ladies.

It may not be quite that easy, though. She’s struggled mightily in her long programs this season, changing the content as she goes sometimes in order to make up for a miss earlier in the skate. The one thing that hasn’t changed? Her triple lutz-triple toe combination. She’s raking in more than 11 points on average for that element alone in the free skate.

But, then there’s Wagner.

Gold at Skate America. Gold at Trophee Eric Bompard. Silver — despite a nasty fall in the free skate — at the Grand Prix Final.

In a world of inconsistencies, she’s been as consistent as anyone. In fact, her short program scores actually went up by roughly three points each event. Her free skate totals have been within a few points of each other (except for the Final …).

Despite the fact that she’s only doing a triple-double combination in the short, she still has the highest average score on that element in the short, compared to the other top U.S. ladies who are doing triple-triple combinations. Her grade of execution scores, coupled with much improved program components, make everything she does, even if it’s not as technically difficult, extremely valuable.

The reality is, this title is hers for the taking.

Now, she has to go out and do her job. That hasn’t changed. But if she does, one of the World Team spots is as good as hers. A more interesting story, perhaps, is the other spot.

Is this the year Mirai makes her comeback? Does Agnes avoid the little bobbles? Can Christina regain her early-season form? Or will Gracie prove she belongs on the world stage?

What do you think?

Here’s my prediction:

Gold: Wagner
Silver: Zawadzki
Bronze: Nagasu
Pewter: Gold

Be sure to follow me on twitter (@FromTheBoards) for updates from Omaha. And, if you’re an instagramer, give me a follow at tarabethw for photos from the week.