U.S. Figure Skating Championships mark start of new era

Ilia Malinin
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Before a single jump, throw or twizzle, the U.S. Figure Skating Championships that begin Thursday are already guaranteed to be unlike any nationals in the last three decades.

The post-Olympic season always brings changes, but a conveyor belt of athlete retirements and indefinite breaks accelerated a generational shift across disciplines. For the first time since 1993, the U.S. Championships bring back a reigning national champion in just one of the four events. (In 1999, just Michelle Kwan, plus pairs’ skater Kyoko Ina, with a different partner, returned.)

New leaders emerged this past fall.

Ilia Malinin, an 18-year-old left off the Olympic team due to inexperience despite a second-place finish at last January’s nationals, became the first skater to land a quadruple Axel. Then he landed it again and again and again.

Isabeau Levito, a 15-year-old who was third in her senior nationals debut last January, placed second at the most prestigious international competition so far this season, December’s Grand Prix Final. It was the best U.S. women’s singles finish at that event in a decade, though it of course came without any Russians in the field.

While veterans continued to pace the U.S. in pairs (world champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier) and ice dance (Madison Chock and Evan Bates), younger duos hit milestones on the fall Grand Prix circuit, too.

Opportunity hasn’t been this great since the professionalization of the sport in the early 1990s, which gave athletes more incentive to stick around for multiple Olympic cycles.

Openings abound because the U.S. qualified the maximum three entries in all four disciplines for the world championships for the first time since 1982. A committee chooses the roster for March’s worlds after nationals.

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Broadcast Schedule

The skaters who filled those spots in the recent past have, for the most part, left competitive ice. A timeline:

March 26, 2022: Ice dancers Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue follow their Olympic bronze with world championships silver in their long-planned final competition.

April 9: Alysa Liu, the top U.S. woman at the Olympics in seventh place, announces her retirement at age 16, two weeks after winning a world championships bronze medal.

June 13: U.S. pairs’ champions Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc announce they’re finished with competitive skating.

July 22: The International Skating Union publishes fields for the fall Grand Prix Series. None of the six U.S. Olympic singles skaters are on the list, indicating they do not plan to compete the rest of the year, at least. That includes Olympic gold medalist Nathan Chen, world bronze medalist Vincent Zhou and two-time Olympians Karen Chen and Jason Brown. Brown does plan to compete for the first time in 11 months at nationals this week.

Oct. 12: Mariah Bell, who in January became the oldest U.S. women’s figure skating champion in 95 years, announces her retirement at 25.

A week after Bell’s news, the figure skating season began in earnest at Skate America.

Malinin seized it by landing a quad Axel in his free skate, jumping from fourth place to become the youngest men’s champion in the event’s history. He succeeded Nathan Chen, who is not expected to compete again but has not ruled it out, as the face of U.S. figure skating, a role he seems comfortable with, noting his breakout at last year’s nationals.

“There was a lot of pressure,” said the son of Russian-born, Uzbek Olympic figure skaters who moved to Virginia in 1998. “But I was able to compete under pressure.”

Over the course of the six-event Grand Prix Series, other Americans had moments, too.

Starr Andrews performed the free skate of her international career to take runner-up at Skate Canada.

The U.S. had its best-ever results in pairs. Knierim and Frazier won both of their starts. Emily Chan and Spencer Howe, who ranked 24th in the world last season by best total score, placed second in their two events.

In ice dance, Chock and Bates earned their first Grand Prix title in seven years. Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, who finished between third and fifth at the last eight U.S. Championships, had their best Grand Prix Series with a pair of runners-up. (Hawayek and Baker are skipping nationals to prioritize mental health but plan to petition for a world team spot.)

Those roads led to December’s Grand Prix Final, where the U.S. was represented on all four podiums for the first time in competition history. Levito was the standout there, becoming the third-youngest American to win a Grand Prix Final medal after Tara Lipinski and Kwan  and cementing herself as the new leading U.S. woman.

Before the Final, Levito looked ahead to nationals with a thought that others can carry this week.

“I’m not concerned about the attention from being a favorite,” she said. “I’m just really excited to hopefully do better than last year.”

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Scotty James wins fifth X Games snowboard halfpipe title

Scotty James
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Scotty James doesn’t have Olympic gold, but he remains king of the X Games halfpipe.

James, the Australian snowboarder who took bronze and silver at the last two Olympics, earned his fifth Aspen gold, repeating as champ of the biggest annual contest under falling snow in the Colorado Rockies. Only the retired Shaun White has more X Games men’s snowboard halfpipe titles with eight.

Nobody on Friday night attempted a triple cork, which was first done in competition by Japan’s Ayumu Hirano last season en route to the Olympic title. Hirano placed sixth Friday.

“It was a tough night, pretty interesting conditions,” James said. “Had to adjust the game plan. The show goes on.”

In a format introduced three years ago, athletes were ranked on overall impression over the course of a three-run jam session for the entire field rather than scoring individual runs.

Earlier, Olympic gold medalist Zoi Sadowski-Synnott of New Zealand repeated as women’s snowboard slopestyle champion, passing Olympic bronze medalist Tess Coady of Australia on the final run of the competition. Sadowski-Synnott, the only snowboarder or skier to win Olympic, world and X Games slopestyle titles, capped her finale with back-to-back 900s.

The competition lacked 2014 and 2018 Olympic champion Jamie Anderson, who announced her pregnancy last month.

Canada’s Megan Oldham landed the first triple cork in women’s ski big air competition history to beat Olympic silver medalist Tess Ledeux of France, according to commentators. Oldham, a 21-year-old ex-gymnast, was fourth at the Olympics.

Eileen Gu, the Olympic champion from China, did not compete but is entered in halfpipe and slopestyle later this weekend.

ON HER TURF: U.S. freeskier Maggie Voisin on grief, loss, finding motivation

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Isabeau Levito wins U.S. figure skating title at age 15, followed by comeback stories

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Isabeau Levito won her first U.S. figure skating title at age 15, cementing her status as the new leading American woman to open the new Olympic cycle.

Levito, the world junior champion, tallied 223.33 points between two strong programs in San Jose, California. She distanced two-time U.S. champion Bradie Tennell, who went 19 months between competitions due to foot and ankle injuries in 2021 and 2022 and scored 213.12.

Tennell was just two hundredths behind Levito after Thursday’s short but had multiple jumping errors in the free skate.

Levito followed her as last to go in the free and nailed the most pressure-packed performance of her young career, including the hardest jump combination done of the entire field. She didn’t receive a single negative mark from a judge for her 19 technical elements in her two programs.

Moments later, she was in tears backstage.

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Full Scores | Broadcast Schedule

“I was just so proud of myself for staying so calm and staying so focused, doing exactly what I aimed to do,” Levito, who hasn’t finished off the podium in more than 20 events dating to November 2016, said on NBC. “I’m ready to start bouncing off the walls.”

Amber Glenn, 23, placed third and will likely become the oldest U.S. women’s singles skater to make her world championships debut in at least 45 years. Glenn botched her 11th attempt to join the list of U.S. women to land a clean triple Axel (tally according to Skatingscores.com) but still moved up from fourth after the short program, passing Starr Andrews.

Last year, Glenn entered nationals as the fourth-ranked U.S. woman and a hopeful for the three-woman Olympic team. She placed 14th in the short program, competing unknowingly with COVID-19, then tested positive and withdrew before the free skate.

In 2021, Glenn was the U.S. silver medalist, yet passed over for a spot on the two-woman world team in favor of the more experienced Karen Chen, who finished 35 hundredths behind Glenn at those nationals.

Levito, Tennell and Glenn are expected to make up the team for March’s world championships, decided by a committee.

Gracie Gold, a two-time U.S. champion who was fifth after the short program, popped a pair of planned triple Lutzes and dropped to eighth.

None of the three 2022 U.S. Olympians competed. Alysa Liu and Mariah Bell retired. Chen is a student at Cornell and might not return.

Nationals continue Saturday with the free dance and pairs’ free skate, live on NBC Sports and Peacock.

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