Reality check: Audrey Shin is what’s happening in U.S. women’s skating

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The first thing Audrey Shin asked her parents in Colorado when they spoke by phone after she skated the short program at Skate America in Las Vegas was, “Did this actually happen?”

The “this” in question was the near flawless, self-assured performance that had put Shin in third place, beginning two days in late October that ended with her as the surprising star of her first senior Grand Prix event. But even her parents’ reassurance that they saw how well their 16-year-old daughter had skated could not assuage all of Shin’s desire to pinch herself.

“It was already on YouTube, so I watched it a few times in a row right after we talked because I was really proud of what I did,” she said in an interview last week. “After a while, it kind of finally sunk in.”

The disconnect between what had happened – and how well Shin would do again in the free skate to win the bronze medal – and what she had envisioned was understandable.

She had expected, pre-pandemic, to be competing on the Junior Grand Prix this season, but the Junior Grand Prix series was cancelled because of Covid-19. With the senior circuit turned into essentially domestic events for health reasons, there was a place for Shin at Skate America despite her unremarkable results internationally as a junior, having had last season compromised by surgery for a ganglion cyst on her right ankle.

“I really just wanted to put out two decent programs and fit into the senior group of ladies,” she said. “I didn’t expect to medal but I knew if I did two good programs, maybe there was a chance.”

She also thought if she skated well, there was a chance to dream of getting one of the six women’s spots in the Las Vegas Invitational team event taped on the down low two days after Skate America ended. That became reality for Shin as well, and NBC will air the event Sunday at 4 p.m. ET.

It’s that kind of quiet but visible confidence that leads Shin to talk of going after one of the U.S. women’s spots on the 2022 Olympic team. (The number of U.S. Olympic women’s spots, likely two or three, is to be based on results of the 2021 World Championships, which still are scheduled for March in Stockholm.) Another strong showing at January’s U.S. Championships will prove she has burst into contention.

“I was really glad I had the chance to compete at Skate America and show my skating to the world,” Shin said. “I really want to make a name for myself at nationals as well and prove I can be on that (Olympic) team.”

Her coach, Tammy Gambill, insisted she was not surprised by what Shin did at Skate America, where she was just 6.58 points behind winner Mariah Bell.

“I did see it coming,” Gambill said. “She was doing clean program after clean program after clean program in training. There was maybe a little mistake here and there, but you could see her skyrocketing and gaining more and more confidence.”

Said NBC Sports commentator Johnny Weir during Skate America: “She has a very mature presence.”

“Outrageously good…absolutely brilliant…she’s the real deal,” said Chris Howarth, commentating on the free skate for the International Skating Union broadcast. “Six triples. Gorgeous choreography. Love the way the routine builds.”

In both programs, Shin scored substantially higher than her previous personal bests. She was excited rather than rattled by suddenly finding herself in third after the short program.

Shin, originally from Long Island, New York, had moved to California some four years ago to work with Rafael Arutunian, who coaches Bell and two-time reigning world champion Nathan Chen. After about two years with Arutunian, she was looking for a change.

She did one tryout with Gambill and then switched to her in August 2018, a month after Gambill had moved from California to The Broadmoor World Arena in Colorado Springs.

“We clicked right away,” Gambill said. “I had seen her in competitions in California, and I knew she had potential, but we needed to fix some technical things on all her jumps. Her air position was very open, her legs were very wrappy, and there were a lot of cheated jumps.”

By January 2019, Shin had made enough progress to rally from sixth after the short program to win the free skate and finish second overall in juniors at the U.S. Championships. But the cyst developing in her foot soon got so large and painful that surgery was recommended. It was done May 24, 2019.

“The cyst was humongous,’’ Gambill said. “I don’t know how she was skating on it.”

Subsequent boot and blade problems affected her the rest of 2019. Shin finished 12th in her Junior Grand Prix appearance and was sixth in Eastern Sectionals at the senior level, failing to qualify for 2020 nationals.

Not going to nationals left her with the chance to go to the 2020 Winter Youth Olympic Games, which became an inflection point in her career.

Her seventh-place performance was encouraging, especially from a physical standpoint. And the Olympic-related atmosphere at the event in Lausanne, Switzerland, was motivating to someone who already had a relentless work ethic.

Bradie Tennell, the 2018 Olympian and U.S. champion who has trained at World Arena since this summer, frequently will see Shin repeating full program run-throughs and jokingly ask, “Why aren’t you tired?”

With two-time defending national champion Alysa Liu, 15, struggling so far his season as she goes through physical and coaching changes, twentysomethings Bell and Tennell have assumed leadership among U.S. women. Shin beat Bell in the free skate at Skate America and was just 1.4 points behind Tennell.

“The whole experience of the Youth Olympic Games got me dreaming every day of getting to the Olympic Games,” she said. “I know I can do clean programs. I have all these triple jumps and triple-triple combinations, and looking at the senior ladies in the U.S., there is no reason I can’t make that team. So I’m really trying to push myself every day.”

That is the attitude Gambill wants Shin to take with her to nationals, where she unexpectedly will be back in the environment in which she had success at Skate America. U.S. Figure Skating announced this week the 2021 U.S. Championships have been moved from San Jose, California, to Las Vegas because it is possible to create a protective bubble there for the participants.

“I have told her, ‘Why not you?’” Gambill said. “She’s up and coming. She was supposed to be going for the junior world team this season but now she will be trying to be on the senior team.”

Shin, an online high school junior, hopes to improve her 2022 Olympic team chances by adding a triple Axel and/or a quadruple toe loop to her jump repertoire. She felt close to mastering the triple Axel before the foot surgery. Gambill thinks she is closer to getting the quad toe now.

“The good thing is she is not afraid of them,” Gambill said. “Will she try one (in competition) this season? Who knows?”

With Audrey Shin, anything can happen.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Olympic Winter Games, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.