Ashley Wagner

Skate America preview: U.S. champions to be tested in Grand Prix opener

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The Grand Prix figure skating season gets underway this weekend in Detroit with Skate America, which features all six reigning U.S. national champions.

Two-time world champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White lead the ice dancing field, and Max Aaron and Ashley Wagner will be in medal contention in singles.

While Americans are led by Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir in pairs, the reigning world champions Tatiana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov headline the field.

Aaron is the name to watch in men’s singles, which has suffered from two high-profile withdrawals. Last month, Olympic gold medalist Evan Lysacek pulled out of the event due to a hip injury, and Wednesday, Denis Ten, who won the silver medal at the 2013 World Championships, also withdrew, reportedly due to an illness.

It’s the first Grand Prix event for the 21-year-old Aaron, who was seventh at the World Championships following his national title in Omaha.

“I’m looking forward to skating with the best of them,” Aaron told reporters on a conference call last week. “I want to lay out these programs and compete with the best in the world. There’s no holding back for me.”

Aaron has three quadruple jumps planned for his free skate, as well as two triple axels for the second half of the program as he makes the leap — literally and figuratively — onto the international stage.

While he’s never skated against Lysacek, Aaron will get to compare himself to an Olympic medalist — Japan’s Daisuke Takahashi, who won bronze in Vancouver.

Aaron is joined by fellow Americans Adam Rippon and Jason Brown.

In women’s singles, the two-time reigning national champion Wagner will also face an Olympic medal winner from Japan in Mao Asada. Asada was second to Yuna Kim at the Vancouver Games and could factor in for one of the top three spots in Sochi.

Five-time French medalist Mae Berenice Meite will bring her athletic style to Detroit, and 14-year-old Elena Radionova, the reigning world junior champion, will also be in attendance. (Though, due to age-eligibility rules, she’s not able to compete in Sochi.) Samantha Cesario and Caroline Zhang will join Wagner as Americans in the field.

“I’m looking forward to Skate America to really get started,” said Wagner, who is working on a triple-triple combination for the season. “It helps establish me into another class of figure skaters, the elite of the elite. I want to be a part of that group.”

Davis and White start their Olympic campaign in the city they train. The Michigan natives were silver medalists at the Vancouver Games and are the favorites at Skate America in ice dancing, where Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the gold medalists in 2010, will not be in attendance.

Maia and Alex Shibutani, who also have Michigan ties (they’re both University of Michigan students), will open their season as well after missing the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic last month, where Davis and White were winners.

Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte of Italy, who were fourth at the World Championships this year, should also factor in ice dance. Americans Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue will also compete.

“We’re really where we want to be at this point in the season and just want to enjoy the process,” said Davis, who noted she and White hadn’t competed in Detroit in over 10 years. “It’s exciting for us to [skate at home] and both of us will have family and friends in the crowd and we want to put on a show for them.”

In pairs, reigning U.S. champs Castelli and Shnapir lead the American effort, which also figures in Caydee Denney and John Coughlin as well as Felicia Zhang and Nate Bartholomay.

Reigning world champions Volosozhar and Trankov will be the favorites in pairs. The duo is Russia’s strongest hope for a gold medal in figure skating come Sochi.

The event gets underway Friday evening, with the men’s and dance competitions. Saturday sees the conclusion of those two events as ladies and pairs begin, both of which will end on Sunday. NBC will broadcast live from Detroit on Sunday from 4-6 p.m. ET.

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Javier Fernandez rebounds to lead Grand Prix France

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Spain’s Javier Fernandez was back at his best, landing two quadruple jumps to top the Grand Prix France short program on Friday.

Fernandez, who was sixth at his opening Grand Prix two weeks ago with a reported stomach bug, tallied 107.86 points in Grenoble. It’s the second-best score of his career.

The 2015 and 2016 World champion goes into Saturday’s free skate with a 13.94-point lead over Shoma Uno of Japan. Uno fell on his opening quad flip attempt.

Uno went into France as the clear favorite, the only man to break 300 total points this season. He did it at both of his competitions this fall.

Earlier Friday, Canadian Kaetlyn Osmond led a group of favorites who topped the short programs for the women, pairs and ice dance. All of the free skates are Saturday.

GP FRANCE: Full Results | TV Schedule

Both U.S. men fell Friday, not helping their cases for the three-man Olympic team.

Max Aaron, the 2013 U.S. champion, fell on his opening jump combination. He failed to build on his personal-best free skate from his last competition, where he landed three quads to claim bronze at Cup of China.

U.S. silver medalist Vincent Zhou crashed on both quadruple jump attempts, two weeks after falling three times between two programs at his Grand Prix debut.

Zhou, 17 and the world junior champion, has the jumps to easily make the three-man U.S. Olympic team. But those big mistakes allow the likes of Jason Brown and Adam Rippon to pass him.

“To say the least, my performance was dismal,” was posted on Zhou’s Instagram. “It was not a representation of how I train or who I am. Smiling and waving while my heart is breaking is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I have been following my Olympic dream for as long as I can remember, fighting, being set back, conquering obstacles, and experiencing the ups and downs of striving to better myself every single day. I am capable of so much more. I am a fighter. I fully believe that I can and will draw on my spirit, inner strength, and faith to my words to perform much better in the future.”

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MORE: Figure skating season broadcast schedule

Internationaux de France
Men’s Short Program
1. Javier Fernandez (ESP) — 107.86
2. Shoma Uno (JPN) — 93.92
3. Alexander Samarin (RUS) — 91.51
8. Max Aaron (USA) — 78.64
10. Vincent Zhou (USA) — 66.12

Erin Hamlin nears end of historic U.S. luge career

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Erin Hamlin is looking forward to normalcy. She is getting married next summer in her hometown. She is thinking about career moves. She is trying to figure out the rest of her life.

It is probably her last luge season. It is definitely her last Olympic season.

As such, it would be easy to fall into the trap of saying that winning a gold medal at PyeongChang in February would be the only thing that makes this season a success.

It’s important, sure, but Hamlin is entering her 13th year of World Cup racing with a much broader view and insisting that she’s going to enjoy whatever time she has left on her sled.

“I’m not going to hyperfocus myself on one result or bust,” Hamlin said. “Very likely, it’s going to be my last time in a lot of places, sliding on a lot of tracks. So I think more so, it’s going to be a lot of soaking it all in.”

That process starts Saturday, when the World Cup season opens in Igls, Austria.

Hamlin, who turns 31 on Sunday, is coming off the finest year of her career — she won a gold medal and two silvers at the world championships for the biggest haul ever by an American luger, got two World Cup wins and finished fourth in world rankings.

She might be going out, and there’s a chance she can go out on top.

“We’re working hard to convince her to stay,” longtime U.S. teammate Emily Sweeney said.

Sweeney knows that’s probably futile.

Sliders always tend to cycle out after an Olympics, no matter if it’s bobsled, skeleton or luge, and the Americans will see plenty of veterans take their last rides this winter.

A few U.S. sliders already retired this fall, in part because they weren’t going to have a shot at an Olympic berth.

For her part, Hamlin hasn’t officially said this is the end.

“There’s never really as concrete of a plan as you hope there would be, because you never know what can happen,” Hamlin said. “But at the moment, what I’m excited to do is see what other opportunities are there and what other adventures await.”

Hamlin has been in the world’s top 10 in each of the past 11 seasons — the second-longest current streak of any woman in luge, one year behind German legend Tatjana Huefner.

She won a World Cup each of the past three years, took the world title in sprint last winter and became the first U.S. Olympic singles luge medalist in 2014 with a bronze.

A lesson learned that season: Not expecting much can work wonders. That’s one of the reasons why PyeongChang isn’t taking up all the bandwidth in her brain.

“That’s the nature of winter sports in a Winter Olympic year, there being so much focus on the Games,” Hamlin said. “How I went into the last Olympics taught me a lot. I had no expectation of walking away from the last Olympics with a medal. At this point, goal No. 1 is to make the team and beyond that, I know if I slide as I’m capable of I can be pretty fast and I can do well.”

The schedule this season is hectic.

This weekend’s stop in Austria starts a run of five races in five weekends, with the next two in Germany followed by another in Calgary, Alberta, and then on home ice in Lake Placid, N.Y., on Dec. 15-16.

When that Lake Placid World Cup is over, the U.S. Olympic team will be named.

So when Hamlin needs an escape from all that, the wedding is there to bring her back to reality.

It will be at her parents’ home in July. It will, without question, be the social event of the season in Remsen, N.Y., where the one-time high school soccer player has annually left her tiny hometown brimming with pride.

“Pretty exciting,” Hamlin said. “It’s definitely adding a whole new aspect to an Olympic year, planning a wedding, but it’s cool. It gives me a good distraction when I need to think about something other than sliding.”

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