Megan Wessenberg

AP

U.S. Championships reporters’ notebook: Ladies’ free skate on Day 2

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Our figure skating team is on the ground in Detroit to cover the U.S. Championships. This is our behind-the-scenes look at the competition on the second day.

Wessenberg just gets better with age

Don’t tell Megan Wessenberg what to do.

She will cover half the rink with a few strokes and glide into her jumps at breakneck speed, if she wants to. At age 20, she can admit there is more to her life than skating, including coaching and studying biology at Northeastern University.

If it takes her a few extra seasons to get her triple Lutz, so be it. She will still make the 2018-19 season her best ever, with a solid Grand Prix debut at Skate America and a career-high sixth-place finish at the U.S. Championships here in Detroit.

“I’ve always been a late bloomer,” Wessenberg said. “If you love what you do, age doesn’t matter.”

That’s practically heresy in the youth-obsessed ranks of elite singles’ skaters, where it sometimes seems you need to make it by the time you’re 18, or move on. Newly-crowned U.S. champion Alysa Liu is just 13, some seven years Wessenberg’s junior.

But Wessenberg moves to her own beat. For the past two seasons, she’s used Breanna Whitaker’s version of the late Leslie Gore’s pop hit “You Don’t Own Me,” a 1962 ode to female independence and strength that some cultural historians think helped spark the early feminist movement. Its lyrics – “You don’t own me, don’t try to change me in any way… You don’t own me, don’t tie me down ’cause I’d never stay” – still resonate with young women today.

“My coach [Mark Mitchell] was the one who found it,” Wessenberg said. “I have very powerful skating, that’s probably my biggest attribute. I needed a piece that would stand up to my skating.”

“When I looked at Megan, I thought, ‘What is she really good at?” Mitchell, who trains his skaters with longtime partner Peter Johansson, said. “She’s really strong. She’s powerful. She’s tough.”

Wessenberg’s icon, Sasha Cohen, was fiery and charismatic, but known more for her balletic positions and flexibility than the height of her jumps. The Boston-based skater is cut from different cloth.

“I’m definitely more of an athletic skater,” she said. “My skating is exciting, because I move very fast and I have big jumps and flow. That’s the look I’m going for, and I like to play to my strengths.”

She counts her balanced lifestyle as another plus. Every morning, she skates; afternoons, she either attends Northeastern or assists Mitchell and Johansson with some of their younger students.

“She tried online school for a while, and it didn’t work,” Mitchell said. “She doesn’t like having all of her eggs in one basket.”

“It’s good to bring outside experience into your skating, because then it’s more real, and that comes across to the audience,” Wessenberg said. “I definitely think independence is a great quality to have, and I want to express that through my skating.”

Her determination is an inspiration to her fellow skaters.

“She worked on double Axel for years,” Mitchell said. “She worked, worked and worked, until she got it. And shortly after that, she got the triple Salchow. And the next year, she got triple toe, and then triple loop. She kept plugging away until she got them all. We’ve used that example a lot with kids.”

“I don’t think, necessarily, you have to get all of your triples in one year, or you won’t get them,” Wessenberg said. “People progress at different rates. It took me years and years to get all of my jumps. And now I have them.”

MORE: Mirai Nagasu makes commentary debut

Ice sweepers do the ‘Cupid Shuffle’

This season NFL players have staged end zone celebrations ranging from simulated MMA fights to the “Fusion Dance” from Dragon Ball Z. But running backs and receivers ain’t got nothing on the flower sweepers here in Detroit.

All week, some 54 young skaters aged 8 to 12 from nearby skating clubs are doing the important work of clearing the ice of the wrapped flowers and stuffed animals that hit the ice between performances. On Thursday, the evening shift of “sweepers” just itched to make it on to the big-screen arena monitor.

“I told them, I bet if you stood up and started to dance to the music, you would get to be on the camera,” Rachel Bauld-Lee, a Detroit Skating Club (DSC) resident coach and director of DSC’s Learn to Skate program, said.

Gabe Woodruff, another DSC resident coach, sprang into action when the arena deejay played the “Cupid Shuffle,” doing the timeless line dance so favored at your favorite cousins’ weddings.

“And then the girls did it for a few runs, and then suddenly they were on the camera,” Bauld-Lee said. “And once they saw that, they just continued to do it.”

It wasn’t hard for the sweepers to follow Woodruff, because not only is the dance pretty easy, the song is often played during rink warmups.

“I didn’t expect (sweeping) to be this much fun, but I had a great time, especially when we did the shuffle dance and I saw myself dancing on the big screen,” Sierra San Agustin, a 10-year-old from Onyx Skating Academy, said.

It wasn’t all fun and games.

“Seeing all the skaters tonight inspired me to be a better skater,” San Augustin said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I am so proud to be a part of it.”

Many area youngsters from DSC and other clubs are taking part in this U.S. Championships. Some 80 higher-level skaters are performing a salute to Detroit’s sports teams in the opening ceremony, and 92 children from Learn-to-Skate programs are featured in the closing.

Stories compiled by Lynn Rutherford.

MORE: Nathan Chen’s imminent three-peat quest begins Saturday

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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U.S. Championships reporters’ notebook: Day 1

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Our figure skating team is on the ground in Detroit to cover the U.S. Championships. This is our behind-the-scenes look at the competition on the first day.

Biechler trades Rhumbas for Lutzes

When Julia Biechler competed at the U.S. Championships last season, her biggest challenge was hitting the key points in the Rhumba pattern of her short dance.

In Detroit, the 20-year-old skater is grappling with triple Lutz combinations.

“I fell out of love with ice dance, personally,” Biechler, who sits 17th after Thursday’s ladies’ short program, said. “I always wanted to do freestyle, just by myself.”

It’s not uncommon for singles’ skaters to take up pairs later in their careers; occasionally, they switch to ice dance. But ice dancers who convert to singles are a rare breed.

“I was a senior-level international ice dancer with Damian Dodge for seven years, competing on the Junior Grand Prix and at B-level senior internationals,” said Biechler. “Then we didn’t see eye-to-eye on some things anymore, and I decided to give singles my full focus.”

Biechler began training singles only in February 2018. She admits she has some catch-up work to do on jumps, including triple-triple combinations, but also thinks competing ice dance all those years has its advantages.

“A lot of the girls at this level have all of the jumps, and now they work on getting flow into the jumps, and the transitions, more of the second mark,” Biechler said. “I don’t have to work on that as much as they do, because of my ice dance background. For me, it’s just jump repetition, jump repetition, jump repetition.”

Viktor Pfeifer, who coaches Biechler in Wilmington, Delaware, thinks her story is inspiring.

“It helps the kids around her to have a freestyle skater understand the artistry and the edges at a very high level,” he said. “They all look up to her for her work ethic. She is now 20 years old, and she’s improving and improving. It’s nice to see for other athletes that even if you can’t do all your triples at 13 or 14, it’s not all over.”

Spreading the message

Figure Skating in Detroit held a private event on Thursday at Little Caesars Arena that featured a series of speakers and showcased the organization in front of donors, local skaters and several prominent skaters in the realm of figure skating.

The organization, a spinoff of Figure Skating in Harlem, which gives girls of color the combination of education and access to the artistic discipline of figure skating, was founded in 2017 and is the first chapter of FSH.

Among the speakers were 2014 Olympic gold medalist Meryl Davis, Founder and CEO of FSD Sharon Cohen and FSH alumna Florence Ngala.

Figure skating icon Scott Hamilton, a 1984 Olympic gold medalist, was also in attendance.

MORE: Scott Hamilton CARES Foundation brings skating stars to Detroit ahead of U.S. Championships

“I, Tonya”

Heidi Munger is used to performing in front of highly-experienced judges and skaters.

But in 2017, Munger spent a part of that year skating for a collection of producers, directors and actors who had no extensive knowledge of figure skating.

Munger, a sophomore biology major at Boston University, was given the opportunity to be a stunt double for actress Margot Robbie in the film “I, Tonya,” which centered around disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding.

“It was very nerve-wracking,” Munger said. “I would always get butterflies while competing, but I never got really nervous or anything. And then, all of a sudden, they’re like, ‘Go do a double Axel.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, my God.’”

Munger, 22, said the pressure she experienced during the filming of the movie gave her the motivation to continue to skate and compete.

“If I could do that and handle that,” Munger said, “skating competitively would be easier and I would enjoy it more.”

Munger finished 15th in the ladies’ short program at the U.S. Championships on Thursday night in what was her second-ever appearance at nationals.

The Worcester, Mass., native will be back on the ice Friday night for the ladies’ free skate.

MORE: Remembering the attack on Nancy Kerrigan at the figure skating national championships 25 years ago

Lego replica

Detroit’s LEGOLAND created a life-size Lego replica of the championship trophy throughout December and January. It was displayed at Little Caesars Arena, the site of the U.S. Championships. Check out the video of how it was made:

Stories compiled by Lynn Rutherford, Rachel Lutz, and Colton Wood.

MORE: Mariah Bell keeps getting better, but if you ask her, it’s just the start

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.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!