Preview: Two former winning teams face off at U.S. Figure Skating Championships in pairs

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Two Olympic spots are at stake in pairs skating this weekend at the U.S. Championships in Boston and two top teams enter into the National Championships having won the event the last time they skated it.

For defending champions Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir, it was a year ago that they captured their first-ever national title, while the duo of Caydee Denney and John Coughlin won in 2012, sitting out the competition last year due to injury.

The pairs teams will face a host of competition for berths at the Sochi Olympics during the four-day event at the TD Garden which begins Thursday afternoon and concludes Saturday in the pairs event.

For Denney/Coughlin, the appearance at Nationals marks a continued comeback after a torn labrum in Coughlin’s hip (the same injury that put Evan Lysacek out of the Sochi Games) set the team out following a successful Grand Prix season in 2012.

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

The Colorado-based team could not defend their national title in Omaha in January and sat out the World Championships in March. But they’ve made marked improvements during the Grand Prix season in 2013, placing fourth at Skate America befor winning bronze at the Grand Prix of France.

“Our technical element score (TES) was at its highest in Paris, [but] we stay humble and continue to work,” Coughlin said on a conference call with reporters. “We’re honest with ourselves and focused on showing that we are an elite team. Our confidence is high after being the best American team on the Grand Prix [this season].”

Castelli/Shnapir would like to prove Coughlin wrong in front of a home crowd in Boston. The team – which has a height diffence of 16 inches (Marissa is 5’0” and Simon is 6’4”) – had a less convincing Grand Prix effort in 2013, missing the podium in both Detroit (sixth) and Tokyo (fourth).

“We’re thrilled that the Championships are here in our backyard,” Shnapir told journalists recently. “Training has been going well and we’ve been working hard going through our programs and sections every single day. We’ve just been drilling everything and feel ready to go.”

Shnapir would be making a return to a different backyard should he and Castelli qualify for the Winter Games: the 26-year-old was born in Moscow before moving to the U.S. with his family when he was just 18 months old, but speaks Russian and would have family members attend in Sochi.

While Denney/Coughlin and Castelli/Shnapir are the clear front-runners to earn the two allotted spots in pairs, there are a host of other teams that will try and throw a wrench in their compatriots’ Olympic plans.

Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim, who paired up less than two years ago, were second at Nationals a year ago and had two Grand Prix assignments during the Olympic season, placing fifth at the cup of China and then sixth in Moscow at the Cup of Russia.

Felicia Zhang and Nate Bartholomay, the bronze medalists from the 2013 Nationals, struggled during the Grand Prix season, placing seventh at Skate America and sixth at the Cup of China.

Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier could be the most competitive of the outliers, having placed fifth at both of their Grand Prix assignments. The duo began skating together in 2004 after switching to the ice from roller skating.

Haven is the younger sister to Caydee, meaning a little sibling rivalry could come alive at the TD Garden – or a duo of siblings might be headed to the Olympics not named Shibutani (Maia and Alex, ice dancers).

But the home-ice advantage is something that Castelli hopes to use her own family for in her and Shnapir’s advantage, even if it means a little added pressure during an Olympic season.

“Skating in our hometown is the best advantage that we could have,” Castelli said. “At first I was really nervous, it was really terrifying. But it’s such a blessing to have everyone who supports me come and cheer me on and share this moment with me; it’s going to be so much more motivating. We’re extremely excited.”

The pairs kick off the senior Nationals competition at 4:15 p.m. on Thursday in Boston. NBC will air live coverage of the pairs free skate Saturday afternoon from 3 to 6 p.m. Eastern, as well as host a livestream of the event on NBCOlympics.com.

Denney/Coughlin worked through injury together

Ashley Wagner ends ‘turbulent season’ as Yevgenia Medvedeva breaks record

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Russian Yevgenia Medvedeva beat her world-record free skate score by six points, while Japan won World Team Trophy to close the figure skating season in Tokyo on Saturday.

Americans Ashley Wagner and Karen Chen were sixth and ninth, respectively, in the free skate. The U.S., which had won the last two World Team Trophy titles, finished third in the this year’s standings behind Japan and Russia.

“This has been a turbulent season for me, so to finish with such a strong performance was really nice,” Wagner said, according to U.S. Figure Skating. “That wasn’t perfect, but I fought for every single thing. I’m very happy.”

The 17-year-old Medvedeva hasn’t lost an individual competition since November 2015, a run that includes the last two world titles.

She came into World Team Trophy having broken the women’s scoring record at her last two competitions (European and world championships). The mark was formerly held by Yuna Kim, set at the 2010 Olympics.

At World Team Trophy, Medvedeva became the first female skater to break 80 points in a short program and 160 points in a free skate. She won the free skate by a whopping 14 points over Japan’s Mai Mihara.

Wagner, 25, ended her least successful season since 2010-11 with her highest score of the campaign.

She followed up a breakout 2016 World Championships, where she won silver, by finishing seventh at worlds last month. She also was beaten by Chen at the U.S. Championships and failed to qualify for the Grand Prix Final for the first time in five seasons.

Chen, the surprise U.S. champion and fourth-place finisher at worlds, struggled at World Team Trophy. The 17-year-old totaled 168.95 points, 30 points fewer than her personal best at worlds. She fell twice in her free skate.

In eight competitions this season, Chen had poor results in six of them.

But she peaked for the two biggest events — nationals and worlds.

“It was a tough season for me, but I feel like I learned a lot,” Chen said Saturday, according to U.S. Figure Skating. “I’m going to use all of this experience to help me be more consistent next season.”

Chen remains a strong contender for the three-woman Olympic team, which will be named after the U.S. Championships in January.

As does Wagner.

Others in the running include U.S. bronze medalist Mariah Bell (12th at worlds) and Mirai Nagasu (fourth at the last two nationals). Plus, two-time U.S. champion Gracie Gold, who changed coaches after a dreadful season.

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Ashton Eaton competes on ‘American Ninja Warrior’

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Items on the to-do list for two-time Olympic decathlon champion Ashton Eaton now that he’s retired: Play with the puppy. Sharpen his snowboarding skills. Take a space shuttle to Mars.

That’s right, warp speed to the Red Planet.

Not tomorrow or anything, but it remains on the agenda. He’s also trying to get his wife, Canadian heptathlon bronze medalist Brianne Theisen-Eaton, on board with the futuristic excursion.

“Not as interested,” she laughed. “Too big of a lifestyle change.”

The first couple of multi-events have down-to-earth retirement plans as well. Here’s a sampling: Appearing on American Ninja Warrior (Ashton), starting a food-education website (Brianne), supporting a worldwide 6-kilometer walk for clean water and preparing for a move to San Francisco after spending a decade in Eugene, Oregon.

An urge to compete? No longer present, they insisted.

“I will always have a love for it. But missing it? That means I want to do [the decathlon],” said the 29-year-old Ashton, who won’t be going for his third straight world title crown in August. “I’m just fond of it.”

They’re still figuring this retirement thing out after announcing the surprising news in side-by-side essays in January. Ashton walked away after accomplishing all he wanted to accomplish — winning gold at the 2012 London Games and defending his title at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. He also exited with his world record standing at 9,045 points, which he amassed at the 2015 World Championships.

Brianne was ready to move on to Act II of their lives following a hard-earned bronze in Rio. She was emotionally and physically worn out.

“My parents were asking us, ‘Do you miss anything?'” the 28-year-old Brianne said. “I think the answer is no. It was a perfect time to retire. When we watch competitions, it’s relaxing and fun. There’s not a little bit that’s like, ‘We wish we were there competing.”‘

The Eatons recently expanded their family when they brought home Zora, who’s a cross between a Bernese mountain dog and a poodle. Now, there are puppy classes and walks on their plate.

“A change in lifestyle, for sure,” Brianne said.

On the horizon, an even bigger lifestyle transformation: Their move to the Bay Area this fall for more entrepreneurial opportunities. It’s bittersweet, because the couple met while competing at the University of Oregon as teenagers and married in July 2013. It’s home.

“We just need a change of environment,” Ashton said, “and this checks a lot of boxes.”

Memo to NASA: Ashton has space on his mind. The moon would be nice. So would a trip to the International Space Station. And that pledge to someday make it to Mars? It’s genuine.

“I like things that are really ambitious goals and being first person on Mars would be a good one,” Ashton said. “If in the future, things kind of come around and there’s an opportunity, I’ll take it.”

Recently, Ashton and Brianne were in Peru and staying at a hotel on the side of the cliff with a glass roof. Using a phone “app,” they located the stars and planets in the night’s sky.

“We saw Mars, clear as day,” Ashton said. “It was funny to imagine being there. Brianne was like, ‘Why go there? The earth would be a little green star in the sky.’ I was like, `Yeah, wouldn’t that be incredible? We could say that’s where we’re from, but we are way over here now.”‘

Earlier this month, Ashton helped stage a video-game and technology expo in Portland. He was nervous because, “it’s the first thing nonathletic thing I’ve done in my entire life. But it ended up really well.”

This was definitely more in his comfort zone: Competing in a celebrity edition of “American Ninja Warrior,” a contest that features athletes tackling a series of demanding obstacle courses. The episode is set to air next month.

“I was just as sore after that as after a decathlon,” Ashton said.

One of Brianne’s passions is cooking, leading her to launch a site that features healthy recipes and nutritional tips. It’s expected to go live in June.

They also took up snowboarding. Ashton fell hard for the sport — even after a few run-ins with trees.

“After every day of snowboarding, he’d be like, ‘Let’s go again this week!”‘ Brianne said. “I’d be like, ‘Ash, I need a couple of weeks to heal my tailbone.’ I would be so bruised.”

Of course, they’re still running, too, especially for a good cause. On May 6, the Eatons will participate in World Vision’s global 6-kilometer race, which is the average distance that people in the developing countries walk for water.

See, they’re quite busy.

“Retirement is good,” Brianne said. “We are enjoying our time, and just figuring out what we want to do with ourselves.

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