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U.S. Championships ladies’ preview: Tennell, Bell dueling for top placement with 13-year-old Liu

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Bradie Tennell is looking to defend her title at the U.S. Championships this weekend in Detroit. Tennell faces challenges from another national medalist, Mariah Bell, as well as a 13-year-old with triple Axels in her arsenal.

Together, Ashley Wagner, Gracie Gold, Mirai Nagasu and Karen Chen won seven of the last 11 U.S. Championship titles; none are competing in Detroit. That being said, here’s a closer look at who might land on the podium.

The ladies’ short program is Thursday and the free skate is Friday. Check out the full schedule and live streaming information here.

Tennell tries to defend first title

Tennell was known for her consistency as she rose from relative unknown to U.S. Champion to Olympic team event bronze medalist in the span of a few months last year. These days, she has lost some of that consistency – though she has bettered her technical content to keep up with the best in the world. She’s looking for her improved artistry to show at this year’s championships and could win her second national title in Detroit.

MORE: 3 questions with Bradie Tennell

Mariah Bell hunting for first title

Bell has been on the national championships podium before, but never in the top spot. Since moving to train with Rafael Arutunian in California in 2016, Bell has been third and fifth at nationals. Her short program to Celine Dion’s “To Love You More,” choreographed by friend Adam Rippon, is one to keep an eye one. Bell figures to be one of Tennell’s biggest threats for gold in Detroit.

MORE: Mariah Bell just keeps getting better

Alysa Liu could play spoiler

The 13-year-old isn’t eligible for any senior – let alone any junior – events this season. Nevertheless, she could stand atop the podium with gold, especially with her triple Axel prowess. Liu could be the third-ever lady to land a triple Axel at nationals, behind Tonya Harding and Kimmie Meissner. (Mirai Nagasu landed a triple Axel at the Olympics, but not nationals, in 2018.) Should Liu win, she’d be the youngest U.S. champion ever. Tara Lipinski won at age 14 in 1997.

MORE: Alysa Liu with a “real chance” to win nationals

Others to watch

Starr Andrews has attempted triple Axels in the past, too. She gained game at last year’s nationals for skating to Whitney Houston’s “One Moment In Time,” in which Andrews recorded her own vocals.

Ting Cui is making her senior national debut and is known for her artistry on ice. She’s even working on a couple of quads, but we don’t expect to see them in Detroit.

Veterans like Courtney Hicks, Hannah Miller and Amber Glenn also make reappearance at the Championships. Hicks and Miller have been top-10 in the past, but not on the podium. For the past two years, Glenn finished eighth, and is looking to advance.

MORE: One spot on the line for U.S. pairs at the world championships

As a reminder, you can watch the U.S. Championships live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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Ashley Wagner on competitive future, role as coach, and upcoming shows

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When Ashley Wagner finished the 2018 season, she made a promise to herself that she would live a little bit more of life. She moved across the country, from Los Angeles to Boston, and while she’s still on the ice every day skating and participating in a slate of upcoming shows, she’s now added to her resume as a coach.

We caught up with the three-time national champion and World silver medalist. (Questions and answers lightly edited for clarity.)

How did you get involved in the Scott Hamilton CARES Foundation show, Scott Hamilton & Friends

I have actually performed in Scott’s show a couple of times but it’s always during the Grand Prix season, so I haven’t been able to skate in it for the past few years because I needed to focus on my training. It was one of those things where I feel like he heard that I was taking the Grand Prix season off and he reached out to me and asked if I wanted to take part. It was such an easy yes. It’s a really great show. He does a fantastic job at putting together the golden era of figure skating shows. This is how figure skating shows are meant to be. You always know that you’re going to be skating in something that is quality.

The last time I spoke to Scott, he said that even though he says this every year, this show is gonna be the best ever.

I mean, yeah, ‘cause I’m skating in it! [laughing] No, it’s gonna be great. I’m really excited. He passed along my music to me and he sent me an email. He’s like, I heard this song and I thought it was just made for you right away. It’s nice to know that he goes through all of the music selections and really caters it to his show. I think that’s a detail that makes this show so much different than anything else. The music is selected for each athlete so you know that’s it’s a cohesive show. It should be great. We have a couple Olympic medalists. This is the best show you’re gonna see, no joke.

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Working on something new today!🎵🎶

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What’s different about skating to live music compared to a track?

Live music is a lot harder to skate to because you can have an artist up on the stage and maybe they’re feeling a note and you’re in a spiral. All of a sudden you’re like, okay you need to end this note! You’re singing it a lot longer than I’m used to! There are a lot more variables.

It’s like watching skating live versus watching it on TV. When you’re in the arena and the skater is in front of you, you can feel the emotion and the energy that they’re putting out in a performance. I think that skating to live music, you get that same kind of sense. You really get to experience all of the heart that a performer is putting into their music. And that combined with live skating I think it just makes for such a magical recipe. You just really get to experience skating, and experience the music.

How’s life in Boston?

I love it here! This was the best decision that I could’ve made. I’m so happy here. I promised myself after 2018 that I was going to give myself the opportunity to live a little bit of life. I’m still on the ice and skating every single day. But this city just has so much to offer and I feel like I’m really getting to experience a lot more than I was able to in LA. I’m so happy here.

Have you caught yourself adopting any of your coach Rafael Arutunian’s mannerisms when you’re coaching?

Raf is such a loud coach, and he gets away with it because he’s a big Russian man. But as soon as I raise my voice I look ridiculous. It’s been a balance, because it’s a different level of skating here than I’m used to. I’m used to professional, high-level skating and coming here it’s a bunch of kids who are on their way up. Which is really exciting, but it’s definitely been an adjustment for me just to kind of reel back a little bit and not turn into Rafael.

It’s a different phase in their careers.

Exactly. They’re not quite at the level where I can just scream at them to skate a long program. Because they’re 12 years old and I can’t scream at kids.

And they have parents.

And parents! I have to deal with parents. That’s the scariest part of figure skating. I haven’t had to deal with parents since I was 18. That’s been a big change for me.

You did some commentary work for NHK Trophy in Japan. How was that?

It was so much fun and also terrifying. The first event that I covered was the pairs’ short program, so it was definitely a sink or swim moment. I think pairs skating is like the moon. I don’t understand it. It’s so different from anything that I do in my skating life. It was terrifying. I spent the first warm up in a blackout. And then finally was like, ‘okay, I can do this!’ I’m really glad that I got to see what it’s like on the other side. It’s way harder than it sounds.

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Adulting with Andrea

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Did you have a lot of homework?

I did. It was tough because I didn’t really know what I was walking into. I was working with Andrea Joyce so it was like how communication was gonna go, what her role was going to be, what I was responsible for. Once I experienced that I knew how to prepare myself a lot more.

You already mentioned you’re taking the Grand Prix season off. Can you say anything else about your competitive future?

Right now, to be completely honest, I’m not entirely sure what I want to do. Watching the ladies’ event [at NHK Trophy] in Japan, it was one of those situations where definitely maybe take a step back and think, okay, in order to even be competitive on the scene right now, you need to be throwing out technically perfect programs with two triple-triples, and if you’re not even thinking about a triple Axel, then maybe you should step aside.

It’s one of those things where sometimes it’s best to just take a step back and let skating progress the way it’s going to. I watched Carolina Kostner and what she was able to do toward the later part of her career and I really admire that. I think that there’s something to be said about coming out and putting out quality and still being able to perform that doesn’t entirely write off someone who’s not trying the technically most difficult program. But it’s a lot of work. It’s one of those things where I have to start considering whether or not it’s worth it.

As a reminder, you can watch the ISU Grand Prix Series live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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MORE: Karen Chen out of Grand Prix Series

Ashley Wagner details ‘severe depression’ after nationals

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Ashley Wagner went into “a very severe depression” and received professional help after finishing fourth at January’s U.S. Figure Skating Championships and missing the PyeongChang Olympic team.

“I could barely get out of bed. I could barely function,” Wagner said on her Instagram Story on World Mental Health Day on Wednesday. “The day-to-day was such a struggle for me. At first I was just really disappointed in myself for letting one event in my life derail everything that I thought I knew was true about myself and how I saw my place in the world and how I felt about my own sense of worth and value.

“I think, as an athlete, it’s really easy to tie in your sense of self-worth with how successful you are in competition. I opened up to friends and family about that and about how I was feeling and how low I was. Anyway, because I was so open with people about how I was feeling, they were able to kind of push me in a direction where I felt comfortable seeking out professional help to help me figure out how to deal with these emotions. So, long story short, never discredit how you’re feeling and the fact that something can be done about that and steps need to be taken for you to get better. I am in a completely different place now than I was then because I had a professional help me. I’m definitely not 100 percent better, but it’s one of those things where it’s a work in progress and it’s day by day. Because I was able to eventually get myself to a point where I sought out help, I’m finally gaining tools to help myself get better.”

Wagner, 27 and a Sochi Olympic team event bronze medalist, is taking her first competitive break after 11 seasons as a senior skater, sitting out the fall Grand Prix series. It’s unknown if or when she will return to competition.

“After the craziness of last season, I decided to take a breather and sit out of this Grand Prix season,” was posted on Wagner’s Instagram in June. “My passion for the sport burns very bright, but after 11 seasons on the circuit I am ready for a bit of a break! I am continuing to train and take this day by day, but I’m allowing myself the opportunity to open up the definition of what skating means to me!”

Wagner is more decorated than any other active U.S. female singles skater — the only U.S. woman to earn an Olympic or world championships singles medal in 12 years, taking silver at the 2016 Worlds in Boston. She is a three-time U.S. champion and owns three Grand Prix Final medals and five Grand Prix event titles.

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MORE: Gracie Gold details ‘mental health crisis,’ return to skating