Timoki Hiwatashi

10 takeaways from the U.S. Figure Skating Championships

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GREENSBORO, N.C. — Here, the NBC Sports figure skating contributors reflect on the standout moments of the 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Nathan Chen and Alysa Liu of course come to mind, though there were plenty of other moments to remark upon along the way. 

Women

1. Alysa Liu proved that she could do it again. She validated her insistence that there was no more pressure in successfully defending a title compared to winning her first title. 

Plus, the amusement of seeing the 4-foot-10 14-year-old needing help ascending the top step of the awards podium doesn’t get old either. Mariah Bell and Bradie Tennell helped hoist her for the second year in a row. Liu next competes at world juniors, where she will take on a formidable pair of Russian “K’s”: Kamila Valieva and Ksenia Sinitsyna, both of whom outscored her on the Junior Grand Prix circuit. To win the crown, Liu may need a fully rotated quadruple Lutz, something that eluded her in Greensboro.

2. Speaking of Bell, she comes out of the championships with her already-improving confidence another notch higher after the free skate of her life and her best nationals finish ever, a silver medal. In tears before she even hit her final pose, she deservedly got an overwhelming standing ovation.

When asked how she felt about being the No. 1 senior U.S. woman, she said, “It’s a very special feeling. I haven’t had that before in my career, so that was awesome. The coolest thing about it was how into it the crowd was.” 

Now, let the calculations begin: can Bell and Tennell gain three U.S. women’s spots for next season’s world championships? To do so, the sum of their placements at the 2020 World Figure Skating Championships cannot be greater than 13 (for example, sixth and seventh).

3. Rounding out the memorable moments of the women’s event were the returns of Olympians Karen Chen and Gracie Gold. Chen, the 2017 national champion, missed the entirety of last season with a right foot stress fracture, and now is a freshman at Cornell. She finished fourth, and gained an assignment at the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships early next month. With her competitive juices flowing again, Chen told reporters she was considering taking a gap year from college.

Two-time U.S. champion Gold, of course, triumphed simply by qualifying for her first national championships since 2017 after time away from the sport for treatment for depression, anxiety and an eating disorder. After a mediocre short program, Gold did a respectable free skate, and the crowd gave her a standing ovation, an emotional reward that left her with grateful tears. It moved Gold, who finished 12th, to vow she would continue her comeback for at least another season.

Men

4. Nathan Chen’s fourth straight U.S. title puts him in the company of five men since World War II, all of whom won Olympic gold medals, with Brian Boitano (85-88) the most recent. Chen, a Yale sophomore, was the first to do it in the IJS and quadruple jump eras (he went six-for-six in quads in the two programs), and the fourth came after a case of the flu bad enough he could practice only intermittently the first two weeks of January. “I don’t know anybody who could recover and do what he did after that sickness,” coach Rafael Arutunian said of Chen.

5. Tomoki Hiwatashi’s continued improvement: two clean programs with three clean quads for the bronze medal. His showmanship, including Russian split jumps, are to die for. Last season, Hiwatashi finished a surprise fourth at nationals but had disappointing 10th and fifth places in his debut competitions on the senior Grand Prix debut. The 2019 world junior champion has put himself into the mix for a 2022 Olympic team spot — if he can improve his consistency. 

6. Except for that pesky quad, Jason Brown put it all together at nationals for the first time since 2014. If he can execute all the elements as brilliantly as he did in Greensboro, a clean quad might put him in bronze medal contention at the 2020 World Championships, given the consistent inconsistency of all the top men after Chen and Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu.

7. In the past month, Vincent Zhou turned his life inside out, taking a leave from Brown University to focus on skating after completing the first semester of his freshman year and switching coaches to Lee Barkell and Lori Nichol in Toronto. Despite that upheaval and little intense training, the reigning world bronze medalist and 2019 U.S. silver medalist had two solid performances to finish fourth, strategically limiting his quads to one in each program. Although Zhou had skipped the Grand Prix season, his choice as a world team member over Hiwatashi was totally justified under the selection criteria in use.

Ice dance

8. Madison Chock and Evan Bates made ice dance — and figure skating — history when they became the first U.S. skater, couple or pair team to go five years between national titles since the 1920s. They topped two duos they train with, Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue, and Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, to win their first title since 2015, also won in Greensboro. Their widely acclaimed slithering “Snake Charmer” free dance likely sets them up to glide to the world championship podium, but another showdown with Hubbell and Donohue awaits at Four Continents.

Pairs

9. Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson had a breakthrough moment in the pairs’ event with one of the most memorable free skates in the last 20 years. Calalang’s joyous disbelief was palpable when she and Johnson got their score (146.01, the highest ever at nationals) for a program that had the crowd out of its seats before it even ended

“In my head, I’m like, ‘We got 119 at Skate Canada. We got 120-something at Warsaw.’ So, I was like, ‘Okay, we did both jumps… maybe 130,” she said, recalling her mental play-by-play. “Then it’s 140. Ohmigod, I’ve never dreamed of getting this score. I didn’t think it was possible.” 

Added Johnson: “No one can take that moment away from us.” 

Especially poignant words as Calalang and Johnson were passed over in favor of Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc for the world championships teams. Calalang and Johnson are slated to participate at Four Continents, where they can continue to build a body of work that will impress U.S. Figure Skating’s International Selection Committee next time around.

10. Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim won their third U.S. pair title in Greensboro, joining such company as John Zimmerman and Kyoko Ina, Jenni Meno and Todd Sand, and Jill Watson and Peter Oppegard. The couple skated a clean and memorable short program to “At Last,” including side-by-side triple toe loops. In the free skate, though, Knierim fell on his triple toe and the skaters doubled their planned triple Salchows. Despite their superior triple twist and lifts, in order to crack the top five in the world, Scimeca Knierim and Knierim need to get consistent on their jumps, and the California-based skaters are working with Arutunian to do so.

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U.S. FIGURE SKATING CHAMPIONSHIPS: Full Results | Women’s | Ice dance | Pairs | Men’s | Worlds roster

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season 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.

Figure skating Grand Prix series: Eight matchups to watch

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Now that the Grand Prix figure skating assignments have been announced, a look at eight of the most exciting head-to-heads this fall …

Men
Skate America – Nathan Chen vs. Jason Brown
Two of the U.S. men are showcased at the Grand Prix opener in October. What makes this so special? The last time these two competed at the same Grand Prix, in France last November, Brown actually led Chen after the short program. In the end, though, Chen rallied to keep his undefeated season intact.

Also notable in the field: South Korea’s Cha Jun-Hwan, who trains with Brown in Toronto.

Internationaux de France – Nathan Chen vs. Shoma Uno
Chen and Uno have shared world podiums, most recently in 2018 when Chen took gold and Uno the silver. Uno’s coaching change should only spice things up; however, he has not announced where he will train.

Also notable in the field: world junior champion Tomoki Hiwatashi makes his senior Grand Prix debut. He was fourth at the U.S. Championships in January.

Rostelecom Cup – Shoma Uno vs. Vincent Zhou
After competing in France, Uno gets a week to rest before facing another top American in Vincent Zhou. Zhou had a breakthrough end of last season, claiming his first, top-level senior international medals — bronze at Four Continents and worlds.

MORE: Nathan Chen learns from chaos of balancing Yale, skating

Women
Skate America – Anna Shcherbakova, Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, and Yelizabet Tursynbaeva
All are known for jumps: Shcherbakova, the 15-year-old Russian champion, for a quadruple Lutz, Tuktamysheva, the 2015 World champion, for her triple Axel and the Kazakh Tursynbaeva for a quad Salchow in taking silver at worlds.

Also notable in the field: 2017 U.S. champion Karen Chen returns to competition for the first time since the PyeongChang Olympics; 2018 U.S. champion Bradie Tennell, Chen’s Olympic teammate.

NHK Trophy – Rika Kihira vs. Alina Zagitova
Kihira, who swept her Grand Prix starts last fall, will likely show off her triple Axel on home ice, but Olympic and world champion Zagitova is also beloved in Japan.

Also notable in the field: Russian Sofia Samodurova, who defeated Zagitova at January’s European Championships.

MORE: Bradie Tennell on self-doubt, lessons learned in 2019

Pairs
NHK Trophy – Sui Wenjing and Han Cong vs. Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres
We have to wait a while for it, but China’s Sui and Han facing off against France’s James and Cipres should be a real treat.

Sui and Han own two world titles, including from March despite a series of injuries that kept them out most of the season. James and Cipres had been undefeated last season before a short program error at worlds, where they finished fifth.

Also notable in the field: The two U.S. pairs, Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea and Alexa Scimeca-Knierim and Chris Knierim, should be pretty evenly matched. It could be a preview of January’s nationals.

Ice dance
Skate America – Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue vs. Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin
The Americans earned world champs bronze ahead of the Russians by a slim 1.88 points in March. Similar to last season, Hubbell and Donohue will get their Grand Prix starts out of the way in the first two weeks and likely become the first qualifiers for December’s Grand Prix Final.

Also notable in the field: Spain’s Olivia Smart and Adrian Diaz train in Montreal alongside Hubbell and Donohue and a number of other teams that will be at Skate America.

MORE: Hubbell, Donohue already eyeing 2020 World Championships

Internationaux de France – Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron vs. Madison Chock and Evan Bates
Four-time world champions Papadakis and Cizeron will face stiff competition from training mates Chock and Bates. Chock and Bates had an abbreviated season last year, as Chock was away from competition for nearly 10 months after ankle surgery. Nevertheless, they won Four Continents and placed sixth at worlds.

Also notable in the field: European bronze medalists Charlene Guignard and Marco Fabbri from Italy, who earned bronze at their first Grand Prix Final last season.

MORE: Chen, Zagitova among top takeaways from last season

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Takeaways and top moments from the World Figure Skating Championships

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The 2019 World Figure Skating Championships are in the books with all of their highs and lows, triumphs and heartbreaks. The Japan-hosted event was lauded as well-organized by the skaters and was said to have featured sold-out crowds.

For the Americans, these championships seem to be a net positive, while other countries, like Japan, may still be reeling from their results on home ice.

Let’s take a look at the takeaways from the World Championships and the top moments.

Nathan Chen’s incredible title defense over home favorite Yuzuru Hanyu

NBCSports.com/figure-skating contributor Phil Hersh described Chen’s performance in Saitama, Japan during the student-athlete’s spring break from Yale University as transcendent, unblemished, and artistically compelling.

We’re running out of adjectives.

Chen stepped on the ice to warm up as the sweepers cleared a shower of Winnie the Pooh stuffed animals off the ice, thrown for hometown favorite, two-time Olympic champion and two-time world champion Yuzuru Hanyu. The pressure could not have been higher for Chen, nor the environment more tense.

His floaty quad Lutz to open his free skate set the tone for the rest of the program, which was unparalleled in its marriage of artistic and technical content. Combined with his lead from the short program, Chen defeated Hanyu in their first head-to-head since the PyeongChang Olympics by more than 20 points to win his second straight world title.

Neither Hanyu (who has a lingering ankle injury but didn’t skate like it on Saturday) nor his teammate in the crowded field, reigning Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno, got the results they were hoping for. Uno finished fourth.

“I lost, that is about it. To tell the truth, it is like death to me,” Hanyu told media after the free skate. “I really want to win. I think I did my best, but the problem is that in figure skating, competition consists of two days, and I am losing in both. It means that I simply do not have enough strength to win.”

“If I recall, there are more competitions that I got disappointed over joyful ones in this season,” Uno said after his performance. “I really admire Yuzuru Hanyu who always seeks high scores and good results, which made me realize I am still immature. Overall, I am still disappointed in myself. I need to become much stronger mentally. I want to skate better next year so that when I look back this Worlds in the future, this would be a good lesson for my skating career.”

Another top moment: Chen’s American teammate Vincent Zhou rose from fourth after the short program to claim the bronze – his second major international medal in as many months. It marks the first time the U.S. put two men on a World podium since 1996, when Todd Eldredge (gold) and Rudy Galindo (bronze) stood on the podium in Edmonton, Alberta.

What does this mean for U.S. men?

Chen, Zhou and Jason Brown show no signs of slowing down. They’re solidly the triumvirate of the U.S. field, though newly-crowned junior world champion Tomoki Hiwatashi was hot on their heels in fourth at the national championships in January.

MORE: Who else is on their way up behind Chen, Zhou and Brown? More names to know as U.S. men’s skating is on the upswell.

Redemption for the Russians; Americans miss the mark

Olympic champion Alina Zagitova floundered this season looking to find her footing. A bad skate in a weak field helped her earn a silver medal at Europeans in January behind Sofia Samodurova, who also joined her in Saitama. She won her first world title in the country that gave her a dog named Masaru (“Victory”) after her Olympic win.

Redemption of a different sort came for the third Russian in the field, Olympic silver medalist Yevgenia Medvedeva. While it might not track that the top two ladies from the Olympics even needed to redeem themselves this year, Medvedeva struggled in her own way this season. She split from her longtime Moscow-based coach, Eteri Tutberidze, where she trained with Zagitova, and moved to around the world to Toronto to train with Brian Orser. She ditched her short program halfway through the season, wasn’t named to the European team, and was in danger of missing the World team, too. At one point, Orser said they were on “stand-by” for the spot.

But the two-time world champion has an impressive resume for a reason. She skated lights-out at Worlds, sitting fourth after the short and winning what – believe it or not – is the first major international bronze medal of her career.

MORE: A deep dive into Yevgenia Medvedeva’s move to Toronto

Moment to learn from: Japanese women placed fourth, fifth and six at a home World Championships. Grand Prix Final medalist Rika Kihira, largely seen as a favorite coming in, was a long shot for a medal after she sat seventh in the short program due to a popped triple Axel attempt. She typically is able to make up some ground in the free skate by the virtue of her two triple Axel attempts, but when she missed one on Friday, her medal hopes were dashed.

Kaori Sakamoto, sixth in PyeongChang and the reigning Japanese national champion, skated well but it wasn’t enough.

And Satoko Miyahara owns two World medals but was dinged by under-rotation calls in 2019, which seem to follow her from competition to competition.

MORE: Rika Kihira wants to be more than Miss New Triple Axel

Bradie Tennell and Mariah Bell were the two ladies in the field for the U.S., looking to earn back a third quota spot for the 2020 World Championships. It would have taken a combined finish of 13th or lower, such as sixth and seventh place finishes.

In Saitama, Tennell finished seventh and Bell finished ninth. Tennell notched new best short program and total scores, while Bell improved on two consecutive years of 12th-place finishes at Worlds.

While this has no bearing (yet) on the spots at the 2022 Winter Olympics, their inability to get the job done this year puts the U.S. ladies’ growth on the world stage in a holding pattern. That’s probably frustrating, especially for active skaters other than Tennell and Bell who want the experience of a major international championship. For example, Hanna Harrell (fourth at nationals in January, then seventh at Junior Worlds) and Ting Cui (fifth at Nationals, then 11th at Four Continents and bronze medalist at World Juniors). Plus, there’s U.S. champion Alysa Liu to consider; she won’t be age-eligible for a senior World Championships until 2022 – after the next Olympic Winter Games.

MORE: How consistent is Bradie Tennell, really?

One more moment: Yelizabet Tursynbayeva of Kazakhstan landed the first-ever clean quadruple jump in senior ladies’ international competition, a Salchow. She moved from Toronto to Moscow this season (going from Orser to Tutberidze) and had never finished better than ninth at Worlds. In 2019, she earned silver. (Creating the opposite of the U.S. problem – Kazakhstan now has three ladies’ spots for next year’s worlds and, as of right now, not enough skaters to fill them.)

Sui and Han take back the title in shortened season

China’s 2017 world champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong had an abbreviated season this year due to Sui’s longstanding ankle and foot injuries. The 2018 Olympic silver medalists came into the World Championships as question marks; they won February’s Four Continents Championships but were not clean in either the short or the free there.

But at Worlds, they were at their best, rising from second after the short to top the Russians, Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov, by 6.37 points for their second World gold. Of course, Sui and Han are eyeing a home Olympics in Beijing in 2022.

The Russians now have three World medals but have never stood on the top spot. Pairs from Russia or the Soviet Union have won 33 World titles since 1965, but only one in the last 14 years.

Heartbreak for James and Cipres: Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres of France came to Worlds undefeated and first-time European and Grand Prix Final champions this season. They were widely expected to vie for the title, possibly even take it, but they buckled under what must’ve been enormous and unfamiliar pressure. A seventh-place finish in the short program combined with a just-not-enough free skate left them in fifth overall.

“I already knew during the short program that getting a medal was almost impossible, but I think we did our job today and we are never giving up,” Cipres said. “We won’t give up until we get the world title.”

American pair’s success: Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc had said all season it would be the job of the U.S. pair named to the World Championships team to win back two pair quota spots for the U.S. for the following year, requiring a top-10 finish. They wanted to be the team to do it.

Then, in December, the team’s plans were nearly derailed as Cain and LeDuc had a bad fall at a small competition in Croatia in December, resulting in a concussion for Cain. But they rallied stronger than ever to win their first national title in January, finished fourth at Four Continents in February and placed ninth at the World Championships. The U.S. will have two pair spots to fill at the 2020 World Championships.

MORE: Cain, LeDuc discuss foundation of their partnership and pressure on them for Worlds

Not just the status quo in ice dance

Sure, the French couple of Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron won their fourth world title.

But Russians Viktoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov won the country’s first medal since 2013, a silver. A second Russian team, Aleksandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin, were fourth. Russia missed the ice dance medals in PyeongChang – it was the first time in Olympic history that a team from Russia or the Soviet Union did not stand on the podium.

American dance still strong: An American team got on the podium for the 13th time in the past 15 years: Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue won bronze. The two-time and reigning U.S. champions won their second world medal in as many years after finishing fourth in PyeongChang.

Two U.S. teams moved to Montreal to train at the same school as Hubbell and Donohue ahead of this season, Madison Chock and Evan Bates, and Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker.

Chock and Bates, the 2015 U.S. champions and two-time world medalists, finished sixth in Saitama and have said repeatedly they’re refreshed and re-invigorated headed into their third Olympic cycle as a team. It shows in their programs this season. The couple also just won their first-ever major international gold medals at February’s Four Continents Championships.

Hawayek and Baker also had their best season ever. They won their first-ever Grand Prix series gold medal and qualified for the Grand Prix Final for the first time. They reached a new high at nationals, claiming bronze. They placed fifth at Four Continents and went onto finish ninth at Worlds, improving from 10th in 2018.

They’re especially looking forward to next season, when the required rhythm dance will be Broadway/operettas for teams. They shine in character-driven programs, and Baker told NBCSports.com/figure-skating he sees the team being able to flourish in that style while training in Montreal.

Oh, Canada: Canadian ice dance may forever be synonymous with Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the most decorated figure skaters in Olympic history, but the country’s other teams are impressive, too. Two-time Olympians Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje have finished inside the top five at Worlds each year for the past nine years, including fifth place this year and three World medals. Fan favorites Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier have finished a handful of times at sixth and eighth place at Worlds, and were seventh in Saitama.

Canada has three spots in dance at their home World Championships in Montreal in 2020, though only one men’s spot (Keegan Messing finished 15th in Saitama and teammate Nam Nguyen finished 16th), two ladies’ spots (Gabrielle Daleman finished 11th, while Alaine Chartrand finished 23rd and Aurora Cotop didn’t qualify for the free skate), and two pair spots (Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marino finished seventh).

U.S. spots for Worlds in 2020

The U.S. will be able to send two ladies, three men, two pairs and three ice dance teams to the 2020 World Championships in Montreal, Canada. The 2019 team will grow from 13 to 15 athletes with the addition of the pair spot.

MORE: World medalists Nathan Chen, Vincent Zhou, Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue headed back to Japan for World Team Trophy

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2018-19 figure skating season 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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