Five thoughts following the world figure skating championships, looking toward the Olympics …
1. Reality check for Nathan Chen
When Nathan Chen beat Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu at the Four Continents Championships in February, he scored 307.46 points, the highest in the world this season to that point. It instantly made him a medal favorite at worlds, and arguably the gold-medal favorite.
While Chen failed to deliver on those expectations, finishing sixth in Helsinki, he is still very much an Olympic medal contender given the surrounding circumstances of the world championships.
For one, his eye-popping score at Four Continents would have earned bronze in Helsinki. It would have taken 12 more points than his Four Continents total to unseat Shoma Uno for silver.
That’s a large improvement to ask of a 17-year-old, younger than any previous men’s world champion, even with Chen adding a record sixth quadruple jump attempt to his free skate. He fell three times between two programs in Helsinki and still managed 290.72 points, higher than four of his other five international events this season.
That Chen was considered a gold-medal threat in perhaps the greatest men’s field ever assembled was a testament to his unprecedented rise the last several months.
Chen came into this season with a personal best of 236.76 points in international competition and no senior international experience. And coming off hip surgery that kept him off the ice for nearly half of 2016.
He ended it by upping his personal best by nearly 71 points, becoming the first man to land five quadruple jumps in a free skate (doing so twice) and beating Hanyu, Uno, two-time world champion Javier Fernandez and three-time world champion Patrick Chan at various competitions.
Chen was the only man in the top 13 at worlds younger than age 19. He admitted to nerves, causing a lack of sleep, and boot discomfort in Helsinki. Common problems for skaters, and ones that tend to lessen with experience.
Hanyu was seventh in the short program at his first worlds in 2012, despite landing a quad and a triple Axel. He singled a Lutz. Uno was seventh overall at his first worlds last season. Chen could very well be following their trend.
2. Three U.S. men vying for last two Olympic spots
With Chen placing sixth and Jason Brown seventh, the U.S. qualified the maximum three spots for PyeongChang without any margin for error.
Brown, often criticized for his inability to land a quadruple jump, deserves credit here. The top six in men’s skating is clearly defined — Hanyu, Uno, Jin Boyang, Fernandez, Chan and Chen — and Brown managed to beat the rest of the field despite attempting only one quad in Helsinki (and falling on it).
Brown’s component scores — the artistic marks — were higher than Jin and Chen in both the short and free.
Which will make for a captivating 2017-18 season for the U.S. men.
Chen is already a near-lock for PyeongChang, given it’s expected a selection committee will choose the trio based on results from the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons. Chen can boast his U.S. and Four Continents titles from this season, plus a Grand Prix Final silver medal.
Brown might look like a favorite to make his second straight Olympic team, too, but that could quickly change in the fall.
Remember, 16-year-old Vincent Zhou beat Brown by nine points for silver at the U.S. Championships in January but was left off the worlds team largely for his lack of experience. Zhou went on to win the world junior title with the highest score ever in junior international competition by nearly 11 points, landing three quads in his free skate.
Then there is 2016 U.S. champion Adam Rippon, who missed nationals with a broken left foot. Rippon, 27, was stronger than Brown in the fall season, qualifying into the six-skater Grand Prix Final in December with Hanyu, Uno, Fernandez, Chan and Chen.
There is a clear dropoff after that. No other U.S. men’s skater was within 15 points of that quartet’s bests internationally this season, and they combined to post the 16 highest international scores among Americans this season.
3. U.S. women’s Olympic picture less clear
This season provided the biggest shake-up in U.S. women’s skating in several years. The Ashley Wagner–Gracie Gold teeter-totter at the top is no longer the overriding storyline.
With three Olympic spots available, Karen Chen ends the season with the best early Olympic selection credentials — a national title and a fourth-place finish at worlds.
Wagner followed the best result of her career — silver at the 2016 Worlds — with her worst season since 2011. She failed to qualify for the Grand Prix Final for the first time since 2012 and was seventh at worlds, her lowest result there since 2014.
Still, Wagner was the strongest American woman over the course of the season. It would be a shock if she doesn’t make a second Olympic team.
Everyone else is more of a wild card. There is Mariah Bell, who finished 12th in her worlds debut but outscored training partner in the free skate. Bell was the second-best U.S. skater in the fall behind Wagner.
There is Mirai Nagasu, whose 194.95 points at Four Continents in February was more than Wagner and Bell’s totals at worlds. The 2010 Olympian was fourth at the U.S. Championships, though, and will likely need to break into the top three next January to return to the Olympics.
Two Sochi Olympians are mysteries at this point. Polina Edmunds, the youngest U.S. competitor across all sports in Sochi at age 15, hasn’t competed since the January 2016 U.S. Championships due to a foot injury.
Finally, Gold. Her disastrous season was well-documented, but it would not take that much of an improvement to get into the Olympic team picture. Gold changed coaches after finishing sixth at nationals in January, moving from California to Michigan. She remains the last woman to beat Russian Yevgenia Medvedeva in a program.
4. U.S. dance, pairs continue down different paths
Siblings Maia and Alex Shibutani salvaged a bronze for the U.S. in the final worlds event, keeping the Americans from going medal-less at a pre-Olympic worlds for the first time since 1993.
By results, U.S. dance took a step back from 2016, when it put three couples in the top six at worlds for the first time since 1955.
This year, the Shibutanis were third, followed by Madison Chock and Evan Bates in seventh and Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue in ninth.
A silver lining? Hubbell and Donohue were third after the short dance, one year after the Shibutanis and Chock and Bates both made the world podium. They plummeted due to Donohue’s fluke fall on a twizzle.
The U.S. has three ice dance couples capable of earning a medal in PyeongChang, though bronze may be the ceiling given the abilities of Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and France’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron.
Conversely, the U.S. hit a nadir in pairs. By virtue of weak worlds results, the U.S. will send one pairs team to an Olympics for the first time since the first Winter Games in 1924. Pairs is the U.S.’ weakest discipline — no Olympic medals since 1988.
The top U.S. pair at worlds — Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim — finished 10th. The Knierims performed admirably, given Scimeca Knierim’s comeback from a life-threatening abdominal condition.
However, U.S. pairs champions Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier had a disastrous short program, placing 20th. If they had been top 16, the U.S. would have qualified two pairs for PyeongChang.
5. Olympic team event is Canada’s to lose
Russia is not favored to repeat as Olympic champion in the team event. The Russians lack a men’s star and trail the medalists in ice dance.
Instead, Canada looks likely to upgrade on its silver medal from the event’s debut in Sochi. In 2014, Canada’s weakness came in the women’s discipline, but now it is a strength after Kaetlyn Osmond and Gabrielle Daleman both made the podium in Helsinki.
It looks like the Canadians can count on Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir in both the short and free dance and Patrick Chan in both men’s programs.
Though 2015 and 2016 World champions in pairs Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford struggled to seventh place in Helsinki, another Canadian pair, Lyubov Ilyushechkina and Dylan Moscovitch, took sixth, giving the nation some flexibility. (Assuming Ilyushechkina gains Canadian citizenship.
In Sochi, the team event required each nation to sub out skaters in two of the four disciplines between the short and long programs. The Canadians can do this in PyeongChang without much drop-off in the women’s and pairs events.
Russia would take silver in the team event in PyeongChang if skaters repeat their worlds results. The U.S. would earn a second straight bronze, with China its biggest threat.
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