Ashley Wagner

Preview: Ashley Wagner, Gracie Gold headline Ladies’ field at U.S. Figure Skating Championships

Leave a comment

Four years after they represented the U.S. at the Vancouver Games, Rachael Flatt and Mirai Nagasu return to the U.S. Championships this week in Boston for another shot at the Olympics, but they aren’t the headliners in the chase for the team’s three spots in Sochi.

Instead, such distinction belongs to reigning and two-time national champion Ashley Wagner, who just missed out on the Vancouver team by placing third in 2010, and teenager Gracie Gold, who vaulted to a second-place finish at Nationals a year ago in her senior debut.

The ladies skate Thursday and Saturday nights at TD Garden with the Olympic selections being announced Sunday at a noon press conference.

“I’ve been training really hard going into Nationals, which is obviously such an important event this year,” said Wagner, who at age 22 is the favorite for a third straight U.S. title. “I want to do everything that I can do make sure I’m ready.”

U.S. Figure Skating Championships Previews: Men | Women | Ice Dance | Pairs | Schedule

Gold will look to do the same after her first season on the senior Grand Prix circuit. A year ago at Nationals she was ninth after the short program – beset by nerves – before she won the free skate, launching her to a silver-medal finish.

“The senior ladies – this is a big event,” Gold told reporters last week on a conference call. “I just need to trust my training in order to have a steadier Nationals this year, but with the same great outcome.”

Any color of medal for the girl called Gold would put Gracie in a strong position to be named to one of the three spots on the U.S. team this year after she won bronze at Skate Canada and placed fourth at the Grand Prix stop in Tokyo.

But nothing is certain for Wagner or Gold as a flurry of talented skater nip at their boots for the chance to head to Russia.

Agnes Zawadzki is one of them, the 19-year-old Chicago native having placed third at the last two U.S. Championships.

Zawadzki had struggles through the Grand Prix season, however, placing sixth and seventh at two events after changing back to her old coach, Tom Zakrajsek, in October, who also works with reigning U.S. men’s champion Max Aaron.

“I felt like that definitely was not what I wanted to present for the season, especially with the Olympics approaching,” Zawadzki said in an interview with NBCOlympics.com. “But I sat I’ve felt more consistent and confident with Tom and he’s kicking my butt. We’re working so hard.”

Boston-based Christina Gao also had difficulty at her Grand Prix assignments, placing fourth at Skate Canada and eighth in Paris. She’s taken the year off from Harvard to focus on her Olympic quest, but will need to snap a streak of four straight fifth-place finishes at Nationals in order to have a chance to make the team.

“[The Boston skaters] have such great programs this year that when we’re training together it’s such a good energy prior to the Olympics,” Gao said. “I can only imagine what it will feel like inside TD Garden. I’m really excited because I have a ton of friends at Harvard who I’ve told need to come and get tickets so they can come and watch.”

But there are other skaters for fans – and competitors – to watch, as well. Nagasu is perhaps the most notable, having been fourth at the 2010 Olympics and recently placing third at the Cup of Russia in November, the season’s final Grand Prix stop. Like Gao, she’ll need to up a string of two-straight seventh-place finishes to earn a shot at Sochi.

Injuries have derailed Flatt’s efforts, the 2010 national champion now making a comeback of sorts at 21 years old. The Stanford junior qualified via regional and sectional events and – always known as a steady skater – will look to deliver two reliable programs in Boston.

Courtney Hicks, fourth at Nationals a year ago, is coming off a solid season in which she won two Senior B events, just a step below the Grand Prix level. The 18-year-old beat Gold at the season-opening U.S. Figure Skating Classic in September in Salt Lake City and was fifth at Skate Canada.

Samantha Cesario, 20, aims to build off of two top-five finishes on the Grand Prix circuit from the year while Polina Edmunds, the reigning U.S. junior champion, won two junior Grand Prix gold medals this season and looks to make a splash at the age of 15.

Two-time U.S. champion Alissa Czisny ended her Olympic bid earlier this season with an ongoing injury, while two-time U.S. medalist Caroline Zhang struggled to a 10th-place finish at Skate America in October.

Wagner, who has placed fourth (2012) and fifth (2013) at the last two World Championships, says that the third-place finish that left her off the team in 2010 at Nationals has certainly motivated her.

“2010 absolutely still drives me,” she told reporters last week. “I owe it to myself for everything that I’ve given up – the sacrifices, the struggles – to make it onto this Olympic team and to do everything that I possibly can to make it onto the podium.”

NBC will air live coverage of the Ladies’ free skate Saturday night from 8 to 11 p.m. Eastern, as well as host a livestream of the event on NBCOlympics.com.

U.S. Figure Skating Championships men’s preview

Leave a comment

The stage is set for Nathan Chen in Kansas City this week.

The 17-year-old is arguably the biggest favorite of any senior discipline at the U.S. Championships, looking to become the youngest U.S. men’s champion since 1966.

Chen, who boasts six quadruple jumps between his two programs, broke out at the Grand Prix Final in December by taking a silver medal. That propelled him to the top of U.S. men’s skating.

He outscored the reigning Olympic and world champions in the free skate at the Grand Prix Final in the best U.S. men’s international performance since Evan Lysacek won Olympic gold in 2010.

Chen’s chances for gold this week were boosted by the withdrawal of 2016 U.S. champion and training partner Adam Rippon due to a broken foot. And by 2015 U.S. champion Jason Brown‘s recent right leg injury.

Brown is still in the field, though, as is 2013 U.S. champion Max Aaron. Chen, Brown and Aaron are vying for two spots on the team for the world championships in two months in Helsinki.

“Those are the very clear top three,” NBC Olympics analyst Johnny Weir said. “It’ll take a disaster or a performance of a lifetime for anybody else to get into that top three.”

Friday
Men’s short program — 8:30 p.m.-midnight ET, Universal HD
Sunday
Men’s free skate — 4-6 p.m., NBC

MORE: U.S. Championships broadcast schedule
PREVIEWS: Men | Women | Pairs | Ice Dance

Nathan Chen
Age: 17
Hometown: Salt Lake City
2016 Grand Prix Final silver medalist
2016 U.S. bronze medalist
Two-time U.S. junior and novice champion

Chen came back strong this season following the first major injury of his career suffered at least year’s nationals exhibition. Hip surgery kept Chen from making his world championships debut in 2016, but he’s now poised to lead the U.S. men into Helsinki, trying to earn three Olympic berths. First, Chen goes for his first senior national title.

Tara Lipinski’s Take: Nathan is the star of the show this year. The type of talent he has doesn’t come along every day. He possibly could be on the Olympic podium next year with the technical skating he’s giving us. Artistically, his component scores, if you look at him from last nationals to this nationals, he’s a different skater. He may not be [Olympic champion Yuzuru] Hanyu yet, but he has all the makings of a great, artistic male skater. I think he’s already giving us enough, to be honest.

Jason Brown
Age: 22
Hometown: Colorado Springs
2015 U.S. champion
Fourth at 2015 World Championships

Don’t forget that Brown was one spot off the podium at the 2015 Worlds. It’s been mostly a nightmare since for the 2014 Olympic sensation. Brown missed the 2016 U.S. Championships with a back strain and revealed last week that he was off the ice for the last two weeks of December with a stress fracture in his right fibula. Brown is the only man in this week’s field who has been within 40 points of Chen’s best total score this season.

Johnny Weir’s Take: Now that Adam Rippon is out, the artistic challenger, if he can land a quad, is Jason Brown. He’s won the national title before. He knows what it takes and what that kind of pressure feels like. That is an advantage he has over Nathan Chen. If he lands the quad and creates that artistic moment, he is very favored in the U.S. by the judging panel. He will need a quad toe loop if he’s going to hold off Nathan Chen.

Max Aaron
Age: 24
Hometown: Colorado Springs
2013 U.S. champion
2015 Skate America champion

Aaron may be the best pure athlete in the field. He has finished in the top four at nationals each of the last four years, but it’ll probably take top two this week to earn a world championships spot. He’ll likely have to beat the injured Brown.

Johnny Weir’s Take: He has great skating skills. He’s a wonderful athlete. But I don’t think his free program especially is strong enough choreographically to challenge either Nathan Chen or Jason Brown.

Grant Hochstein
Age: 26
Hometown: Artesia, Calif.
Fourth at 2016 U.S. Championships
10th at 2016 World Championships

Hochstein was placed on the 2016 World Championships team after Chen withdrew due to that hip injury. He finished a respectable 10th in his worlds debut but dropped to 11th in each of his fall Grand Prix starts. Hochstein ranks seventh this season among men in the U.S. Championships field.

Tim Dolensky
Age: 24
Hometown: Kennesaw, Ga.
Seventh at 2016 U.S. Championships

Dolensky had his best U.S. Championships finish last season and ranks behind only Chen, Brown, Rippon and Aaron among U.S. skaters’ top scores this season.

Vincent Zhou
Age: 16
Hometown: Riverside, Calif.
2013 U.S. junior champion
Fifth at 2016 World Junior Championships

Zhou would be a bigger threat if he hadn’t pulled out of his last event in December with a leg injury. Still, he has the jumping firepower, when he lands them, to contend for the podium when healthy.

MORE: Wagner, Chen share training ice, favorite status at nationals

U.S. Figure Skating Championships ice dance preview

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 23:  Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani of the U.S. perform at the Smucker's Skating Spectacular at 2016 Progressive Skate America at Sears Centre Arena on October 23, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)
Getty Images
Leave a comment

There is little doubt who are the top three U.S. ice dance couples. The mystery is the order they’ll finish at the U.S. Championships this week.

In its deepest figure skating discipline, the U.S. put three in the top six at the 2016 World Championships. All of them return to Kansas City for nationals — Maia and Alex ShibutaniMadison Chock and Evan Bates and Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue.

The U.S. ice dance order of finish used to be very predictable — Meryl Davis and Charlie White followed by Chock and Bates, then the Shibutani siblings and then Hubbell and Donohue.

When Davis and White took a break after winning Sochi Olympic gold (still on that break), everybody moved up one place. But things started changing last season.

The Shibutanis jumped past Chock and Bates at the 2016 U.S. Championships, then earned silver at worlds, one spot ahead of Chock and Bates.

Then last month, Hubbell and Donohue edged past Chock and Bates at the Grand Prix Final by .27 of a point. Will the tide continue to shift in Kansas City?

“Dance is always so predictable, but it’s getting less and less each year,” NBC Olympics analyst Tara Lipinski said.

MORE: U.S. Championships broadcast schedule
PREVIEWS: Men | Women | Pairs | Ice Dance

Friday
Short dance — 6-8 p.m. ET, NBCSN
Saturday
Pairs free skate; free dance — 3-6 p.m. ET, NBC

Maia Shibutani/Alex Shibutani
Ages: 22/25
Hometown: Canton, Mich.
2016 World silver medalists
2011 World bronze medalists
2016 U.S. champions

The Shibutani siblings went five years between world championships podiums, a jaw-dropping achievement in ice dance. They’re chasing the top Canadian and French couples internationally, but they haven’t been outscored by a U.S. couple since December 2015.

Johnny Weir’s Take: In ice dancing, there aren’t a lot of successful stories that include a brother and a sister. It’s definitely a testament to them and their personalities that they are so accepted all over the world, given the fact that ice dance is so political, they are brother and sister and they can’t do romantic themes, which is something that is so prevalent in ice dance.

Madison Chock/Evan Bates
Ages: 24/27
Hometown: Novi, Mich.
2015 World silver medalists
2016 World bronze medalists
2015 U.S. champions

Chock and Bates have trickled down since leading the 2015 World Championships after the short dance. First, the French Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron snatched the world title. Then the Shibutanis topped them for the 2016 U.S. title. Then Hubbell and Donohue relegated Chock and Bates to last place at the Grand Prix Final last month.

Johnny Weir’s Take: Tara and I disagree on this, but Chock and Bates are still trying to find themselves musically. I think that their programs this year, they don’t feel quite them. They feel a little bit more rehearsed than a natural, flowing emotion. But, technically, they are the strongest team in the U.S. Their skills are sublime, their edge quality and their lifts.

Madison Hubbell/Zachary Donohue
Ages: 25/26
Hometown: Montreal
Three-time U.S. bronze medalists
2016 Skate America silver medalists

Can they beat one of the two 2016 World medalists again? If not, Hubbell and Donohue will be hoping more than anybody else that the Olympic champions Davis and White do not return to competition. The U.S. can qualify no more than three ice dance couples for the 2018 Olympics.

Johnny Weir’s Take: They really believe their artistry. They are so emotional when they skate. They take it so seriously. Technically, they have big hurdles to cross, looking at Chock and Bates and the Shibutanis. But the artistic side, they can create a moment when you’re least expecting it.

Kaitlin Hawayek/Jean-Luc Baker
Ages: 20/23
Hometown: Bloomfield Hills, Mich.
2014 World junior champions

Hard to believe the best junior couple in the world three years ago has little chance of making the senior worlds, but that’s how strong U.S. ice dance is at the moment. However, Hawayek and Baker’s top score this season is only 2.23 points fewer than the best from Hubbell and Donohue.

Elliana Pogrebinsky/Alex Benoit
Ages: 18/21
Hometown: Novi, Mich.
Fourth at 2016 World Junior Championships

They finished third at junior nationals the last two years but rank No. 5 among U.S. senior scores this season, their first on the senior scene. A couple to watch for the future.

MORE: The latest on future thoughts for Davis, White