U.S. men’s skating is in good hands with Nathan Chen, Jason Brown and Vincent Zhou. Chen dominated Saturday’s short program at the 2019 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit, Michigan, earning a whopping 113.42 points. Brown and Zhou, just a few tenths of a point apart, sit more than 16 points ahead of the field.
Included in that field are a group of up-and-comers that have world and Olympic assignments in their sights – if they up their technical ante and mature their skating skills. This group isn’t yet competing with the likes of Chen, Brown and Zhou. They’re competing with each other.
“(The top three) have always been there, ever since I was juvenile,” Tomoki Hiwatashi, the 2016 U.S. junior champion who sat fourth after the short program in Detroit, said. “When I got first (place) in juvenile, Vincent got first in intermediate. Jason was already junior or senior, Nathan was novice first place.”
“They have always been ahead of me – more than a step or two, like 100 steps,” the 19-year-old added. “I’m just taking longer. I don’t think I should try too hard to catch up. Right now, I should let it go with the flow and catch up whenever I can.”
Hiwatashi, along with Alex Krasnozhon, Camden Pulkinen and Andrew Torgashev, have had the best U.S. results in international junior competition the last few seasons – except for Chen and Zhou, of course.
Tim Goebel, the 2002 Olympic bronze medalist and one of the first men to execute multiple quadruple jumps in his programs, thinks the quartet must continue to make their mark internationally before they can even think of challenging for medals at future U.S. Championships.
“For a lot of these guys on the threshold of making it, the senior ‘B’s (including Challenger Series events) are really important,” Goebel said. “Winning a medal at junior worlds this year would be great.”
“I think they all just need to figure out what are the quick wins and what are the big picture (elements)?” he added. “What can they improve between now and junior worlds, or a spring international? What is their two-year plan? You have to do the quads. You also have to do everything else, choreography, other jumps, spins. You have to be excellent at everything.”
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For Hiwatashi, who trains in Colorado Springs under Christy Krall and Damon Allen, consistency is the challenge. He won bronze at the 2016 World Junior Figure Skating Championships and qualified for the Junior Grand Prix Final in December, but placed sixth after popping his triple Axel in the short program.
“When I was young I got every jump every time, easy,” he said. “When I came up to junior, it became harder for me to skate consistent. I feel like it’s mental. I’ve grown up, I’ve gotten more mature but I’ve also gotten more sensitive about what others say, how others look at me.”
The skater thinks he may have overthought things at the Junior Grand Prix Final. So in Detroit, he played it close to the vest, holing up in his hotel room and listening to anime music.
“Before the Junior Grand Prix Final, I was trying to get my mind ready and get everything in the right place,” Hiwatashi said. “I feel like that kind of made it worse for me. Now I’m just going in, skating and sleeping.”
Krasnozhon, who succeeded Hiwatoshi as U.S. junior champion and won the 2017 Junior Grand Prix Final, had a solid short in Detroit and sits fifth going into Sunday’s free skate. The 18-year-old, who trains in Plano, Texas under Aleksey Letov and Olga Ganicheva, is playing it conservative. He didn’t try his quad toe in the short and may not include it in his free skate.
“Right now the goal is placement, to make some kind of U.S. team, maybe Four Continents,” Krasnozhon said. “It’s not about landing more quads, it’s about doing the rest of the program clean, too. A quad may be worth only about 10 points and if you want to be competitive in the long program you need 80 or 90 technical points. So (you have to) focus on the big picture, do the triple Axels and all the triples well.”
Krasnozhon’s progress has been slowed by injuries. He won the short program at the 2018 World Junior Figure Skating Championships, but withdrew from the free skate after spraining three ligaments in his right ankle while attempting a quad Salchow. Soon after, he made a coaching change, moving to Letov and Ganicheva because, he said, they force him to be disciplined.
“I’m not the easiest athlete to work with,” he said. “I was with my other coaches (Darlene and Peter Cain) so long. It was hard, because I would take everything personally. Aleksey is able to keep me in a box, where I don’t get to say ‘no.’ He tells me what to do and where I’m headed.”
The skater landed quad toes and Salchows in practice in Detroit, and knows he will have to add them to both his short program and free skate eventually.
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“The biggest thing is, once you get one, you are set up for the others,” he said. “It’s a matter of getting the right quad. I was working on loop, then the Salchow got closer, and this year the toe happened. Finding that first quad and landing it clean and getting used to the rotations helps you with the others.”
Like Hiwatashi, Pulkinen and Torgashev train at Colorado Springs’ World Arena. Pulkinen, the 2018 U.S. champion who made his U.S. senior debut in Detroit, loves the intensely competitive environment.
“There is no day that’s easy, you’re always going to have someone who is going to lay it down,” the 18-year-old, who placed fifth at December’s Junior Grand Prix Final, said. “If you are not the one, then Vincent, Andrew, Timoki is going to lay it down. You never get a time to say, ‘I’ll take a breather at the boards.’”
Thus far, Pulkinen has been known more for his artistry and musical interpretation than for his quadruple jumps. He’s working with coaches Tom Zakrajsek and Tammy Gambill to add quads to his repertoire next season.
“I have a lot of goals,” he said. “I would love to go to Junior Worlds and medal, maybe win. I want a Grand Prix assignment (next season). I need better spins, improved choreography, so many things.”
At 17, Torgashev made his first mark in the junior ranks before the others. His impressive skating skills led him to the 2015 U.S. junior title, but in June 2015 he fractured his right ankle while practicing a quad toe loop.
Torgashev qualified for the Junior Grand Prix Final this season, but a fractured right toe forced him to withdraw. He spent eight weeks off of the ice, some of it in a walking boot, before resuming training around mid-November.
“I didn’t want to repeat mistakes of the past and let ego get in the way,” said Torgashev, who believes overtraining contributed to his 2015 ankle fracture.
“I’ve matured as a person, as a skater,” he added. “The best choice for my body and career was to sit that one out and let myself fully heal.”
Torgashev, who moved to Colorado Springs at the end of last season, has landed quad toes in competition. The challenge has been landing his triple Axel and quad in the same program.
“I’ve been working a lot on it, and Christy (Krall) has been working a lot with me to make sure I get the Axel and toe back-to-back,” he said. “I’ve put in a lot of work. I can do it, now it’s time to show people I can.”
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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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