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…)

 

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!