Nathan Chen’s performance will be likely measure of U.S. figure skating results at 2022 Winter Olympics

2022 U.S. Figure Skating Championships - Day 4
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Four years ago, the U.S. figure skating team had its worst results ever at the Winter Olympics.

The 2022 team named after the U.S. Championships ended Sunday could do better than 2018 – although it may not be a substantial improvement, and the assessment of it will depend largely on Nathan Chen’s performance in men’s singles.

For purposes of long-term comparison, the team event isn’t a factor. It has been on the Olympic program only the past two Winter Games, and no more than three of the 10 qualified nations have been (and will be) strong medal contenders, with Team USA among them.

So here are the numbers from the four traditional disciplines in 2018:

*One medal, a bronze in ice dance. In the 12 Winter Games beginning when ice dance became a medal event in 1976 (and not counting the team event), the U.S. never had earned as little as a single bronze and earned a single medal only twice (1994, women’s silver; 2014, ice dance gold).

*In women’s singles, both the highest place (ninth) and the aggregate (9-10-11) from 2018 were the worst in the 17 Olympics where the U.S. has had three finishers. The United States now has gone three Olympics without a women’s medal, its longest drought ever.

*In men’s singles, the U.S. had no medal for the second straight time. Not since before World War II have U.S. men come up empty in three straight Winter Games.

*In pairs, where the U.S. qualified just one entry, its finish (15th) was lowest by the top couple in U.S. history – by five places.

Some of the U.S. results decline owes to the overwhelming recent dominance of Russia in women’s singles. Some owes to Japan’s becoming a consistent power in women’s and men’s singles over the past 12 years. General interest in the sport in those two countries has risen commensurately while dropping in the United States.

And the hopes for 2022? Realistically, a medal in men’s singles and in the team event and a chance for one in ice dance.

Caveat: the Covid pandemic, especially the Omicron variant, makes predictions harder than they always are for a sport held on a slippery surface.

Much can happen before skating is to begin in 23 days. Some athletes might miss the Games entirely because of a positive Covid test. Some might be forced out by a positive test in the middle of their two-phase event. Both situations arose at the U.S. Championships.

And some athletes may get to Beijing with diminished fitness if either having tested positive with asymptomatic Covid or having to deal with symptoms causes them to miss training time.

Taking all that into consideration, here is a look at U.S. prospects for Beijing in all five events:

 

Men

Most expect this to be a battle between Chen and Japan’s redoubtable Yuzuru Hanyu, one of the few global superstars in figure skating history, with Hanyu’s countrymen, Shoma Uno and Yuma Kagiyama, vying for the bronze.

Chen’s flop in the 2018 Olympic short program cleared the way for Hanyu to become the first men’s repeat champion since 1952. But Chen, fifth overall, won the free skate easily four years ago, and he has beaten Hanyu by 22 points or more in their only three meetings at individual events since – the 2019 and 2021 World Championships and 2019 Grand Prix Final.

Hanyu missed much of this season with injury, just as he had leading to the 2018 Olympics. At his first 2021-22 competition, the Japanese Championships in December, he did a brilliant short program and a strong, if less remarkable free skate, begun with a botched attempt to become the first to land a quadruple axel jump in competition.

Chen has won three straight world titles and was unbeaten for three seasons before placing third behind countryman Vincent Zhou and Uno at Skate America in October. Chen also followed an exceptional national championship short program with a less convincing free.

Chen’s included two falls, one on a quad and another on footwork, and his lowest free skate component scores since his first of six straight U.S. titles in 2017. They would have been the lowest had two of the nine judges not forgotten (or disregarded) the International Skating Union guidelines for scoring PCS when two falls are involved.

Some of Chen’s possible strategy against Hanyu came out at nationals.

Chen upped the value of his jump elements so that he can have an edge in maximum base value for both programs as compared to Hanyu’s from his national meet. In the short program, Chen’s base value was 49.87 to Hanyu’s 45.80; in the free, it was 101.24 to 92.90 (presuming a fully rotated quad axel for Hanyu).

The difference can quickly evaporate if Hanyu’s grades of execution and component scores are substantially higher – or if mistakes drop Chen’s base value.

“As competition goes, we always try to push ourselves,” Chen said Sunday. “That’s kind of where my mind is at.

“Clearly, today the program wasn’t perfect, so risk – reward, there’s always that game. As we get closer to the rest of the season, decisions will be made.”

 

Women

Simple numerical comparison reveals why the U.S. women would need one of the three top Russians to implode (and errors from non-Russians) to get near the medals.

In international competition, the three Russians likely to go to Beijing (and sweep the podium) have season-best scores of 272.71, 236.78 and 232.37. The top U.S. score, by recently named 2022 Olympian Alysa Liu, is 219.24.

That came in Liu’s first significant competition of the season. Her scores trended down in three internationals since, and she had to withdraw from nationals before the free skate after a positive test for Covid. She will need to demonstrate fitness before going to Beijing.

Karen Chen, who joins Liu and new national champion Mariah Bell on the Olympic team, managed fourth behind three Russians at the 2021 Worlds. But she finished 8-plus points from third, even though bronze medalist Aleksandra Trusova was 10 points behind Chen after the short program.

In a media teleconference before nationals, Chen frankly admitted women’s skating feels like a two-tier competition, with the Russian quad squad on one level and everyone else trying to be the best of the rest.

“I’m going to be honest: yes, I’ve had those thoughts,” she said. “I think any athlete in a similar position would have similar thoughts.

“I talk a lot about focusing on myself and doing everything to the best of my ability because it helps me stay motivated and keep all the distractions away. Maybe my best obviously isn’t comparable to the Russians, but I can only expect the best out of myself. That’s what I choose to think about.”

 

Pairs

A top eight finish for either U.S. entry would be a solid achievement in a discipline where the last U.S. medal was a bronze in 1988. Should Ashley Cain-Gribble/Timothy LeDuc and/or Alexa Knierim/Brandon Frazier skate flawlessly, it could be top six.

 

Ice Dance

An event in which the U.S. had won just one bronze medal (1976) before 2006 has become the standard-bearer, with three different teams winning medals in four straight Winter Games: silver in 2006 and 2010, gold in 2014, bronze in 2018.

Because dance has no jump or throw elements, when costly mistakes are most likely to happen, its results are the most predictable based on past performances.

For 2022, that means French couple Gabriella Papadakis/Guillaume Cizeron and Russians Viktoria Sinitsina/Nikita Katsalapov are likely to get gold and silver (the French are favored), with three couples contending for bronze: Madison Chock/Evan Bates and Madison Hubbell/Zachary Donohue of the United States and Piper Gilles/Paul Poirier of Canada, with the Canadians now seemingly the best bet.

Hubbell, whose team has been a medalist at the last three world championships, insists the die isn’t yet cast.

“While from the outside it might look like there are two teams that have podium finishes on lock, they still have to go out and perform their best,” Hubbell said after her team finished second to Chock and Bates Saturday at nationals. “We look forward to the opportunity to continue the (U.S.) legacy.”

 

Team

Russia should be a runaway winner, with the United States second and Japan likely to get its first Olympic team skating medal.

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

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Japanese pair edges Americans for historic Grand Prix Final figure skating title

Riku Miura, Ryuichi Kihara
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Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara won the biggest title ever for a Japanese figure skating pair, taking the Grand Prix Final and consolidating their status as the world’s top active team.

Miura and Kihara, last season’s world silver medalists, barely outscored world champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier in Turin, Italy, in both Thursday’s short program and Friday’s free skate to win the six-pair event that is a preview of March’s worlds.

The Japanese totaled 214.58 points, distancing the Americans by a mere 1.3 points after Frazier erred on both of their side-by-side jumping passes in the free skate. Italians Sara Conti and Niccolo Macii took bronze.

“We had a very late start to our season than initially planned, so as we have been performing at each event, I see us getting stronger, improving things,” said Frazier, who with Knierim had their best short program and free skate scores of the autumn.

Knierim and Frazier didn’t decide to continue competing together this season until July.

“I feel a little personally disappointed tonight just for myself for my jumps,” Frazier continued. “I was a little all over the place and, normally, I can execute better, so I feel a little bad, but I’m very proud of us overall. We’ve done a great job of improving each competition and looking forward to the second half of the season where we can start tapping into our best skating.”

GRAND PRIX FINAL: Results | Broadcast Schedule

Miura and Kihara, who partnered in June 2019 and train in Ontario, both waited with trepidation for their final score to be posted, worried that each’s separate mistake on jumps might cost them the title. When they learned they won, both burst into tears.

“This was the first time in eight years that I made a mistake with a Salchow, so I thought we might not get a good score, and it would be my fault,” Kihara said.

Miura and Kihara entered the competition ranked No. 1 in the world by best scores this season ahead of Knierim and Frazier, who in March became the first U.S. pair to win a world title since 1979.

Last season, Miura and Kihara became the second Japanese pair to make a Grand Prix podium and to earn a world championships medal. Their ascension helped Japan win its first Olympic figure skating team event medal in February (a bronze that could be upgraded to gold pending the Kamila Valiyeva case).

In Grand Prix Final history, Japan had won 11 gold medals and 40 total medals, all in singles, before this breakthrough.

Knierim and Frazier, already the first U.S. pair to compete in the Grand Prix Final since 2015, became the first U.S. pair to win a Grand Prix Final medal. The Final has been held annually since 1996, though it was canceled the last two seasons due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Miura and Kihara and Knierim and Frazier ascended to the top of the sport while the top five teams from the Olympics from Russia and China have not competed internationally since the Winter Games.

All Russian skaters are ineligible for international competition due to the war in Ukraine. China’s pairs, including Olympic champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, didn’t enter last March’s worlds and did not compete in the fall Grand Prix Series.

Later Friday, world champion Kaori Sakamoto of Japan led the women’s short program with 75.86 points, 1.28 ahead of countrywoman Mai Mihara. American Isabeau Levito, the 15-year-old world junior champion, was fifth of six skaters in her Grand Prix Final debut.

Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier topped the rhythm dance with 85.93 points, edging Americans Madison Chock and Evan Bates by .44. Both couples are bidding for the biggest international title of their careers. None of the Olympic medalists competed internationally this fall.

The Grand Prix Final ends Saturday with the men’s and women’s free skates and free dance, all live on Peacock.

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A Winter Olympic medal still being decided, 10 months later

Fanny Smith, Daniela Maier
It's still unknown whether Fanny Smith (green) or Daniela Maier (blue) is the Olympic ski cross bronze medalist. (Getty)
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There is a second Winter Olympic medal result still in question, 10 months after the Games.

While the figure skating team event results are still unknown due to the Kamila Valiyeva case, the bronze medal in women’s ski cross is also in dispute.

Originally, Swiss Fanny Smith crossed the finish line in third place in the four-woman final at the Winter Games in February. Upon review by the International Ski Federation (FIS) jury, she was minutes later demoted to fourth place after making contact with German Daniela Maier near the end of the course. Maier, who originally was fourth, was upgraded to bronze.

“I tried to be OK with the fourth place. I was very disappointed, I have to say, [then] the jury was like this,” Maier said then. “I am really sorry for Fanny that it’s like this right now. … The jury decided like this, so accept it and be happy with the medal.”

Smith and the Swiss ski federation appealed. FIS reinstated Smith as the bronze medalist nine days after the race and six days after the Closing Ceremony. A FIS appeals commission met four times and reviewed video and written documentation for several hours before deciding that “the close proximity of the racers at that moment resulted in action that was neither intentional or avoidable.”

But that wasn’t the end. The case ended up reportedly going to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), whose rulings are usually accepted as final. The CAS process is ongoing, European media reported this week.

CAS has not responded to a request for comment. A FIS contact said Friday, “There is currently no update to provide in regards to the bronze medal in ski cross. Should there be any update, we will inform you.”

Smith said there should be news soon regarding the case, according to Blick.

Maier still has the bronze medal at her home and enjoys looking at it, according to German media, which also reported that the German ski federation expects Maier to win the case and keep the medal. Smith and Maier spoke extensively about it in recent training sessions and cleared things up. Maier said the best outcome would be bronze medals for both of them, according to the report.

For now, FIS lists Smith as the bronze medalist. The IOC lists Maier as the bronze medalist.

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