Arts & Entertainment

No. Virginia Skaters Have National Ambitions in 2007

Johnny Weir (Photo: Paul/Michelle Harvath)The 2007 U.S. Figure Skating Championships (commonly referred to as Nationals) start on Jan. 21 in Spokane, Washington. In a post-Olympic year, competition is always fierce as up-and-comers look to make their marks. There are 12 events, with ladies, men, pairs and ice dancers competing at the novice, junior and senior divisions. And Northern Virginia will be well represented.

Three skaters with roots in the area will look to unseat three-time and defending senior Men’s Champion Johnny Weir. Craig Ratterree hails from Alexandria, while Derrick Delmore grew up in Alexandria and now lives in Washington, D.C. Tommy Steenberg is from Annandale. Delmore, 28, is making his 11th appearance in the senior men’s event, with his highest finish a fifth-place showing in 1998. This may be the final competition for the former World Junior Champion.

“He’s enjoying skating and he’s training harder than I’ve ever known him to train. We’re going to see,” his longtime coach, Shirley Hughes, said.

Tommy Steenberg (Photo: J. Barry Mittan)Ratterree, 20, is making his senior debut, and qualified for Nationals by placing third at both the South Atlantic regionals and the Eastern sectionals. Although only 18, this is the second year in seniors for Steenberg, who placed 13th in 2006. He is coming off a hectic autumn, during which he competed on the International Skating Union Junior Grand Prix circuit — internationally junior is defined by age — winning two competitions and placing sixth at the Junior Grand Prix Final. He’s adding the triple axel to his short program for Nationals and reworking his free skate to accommodate the four-minute, 30-second length for seniors, versus four minutes for juniors.

“I’ve made a couple of changes to where the jumps are in the program to move them further in, so I get the bonus for them being in the second half of the program,” said Steenberg, noting one of the intricacies of the Code of Points judging system now used.

With three-time Men’s Champion Michael Weiss (from Fairfax) now skating professionally, last year’s bronze medalist Matt Savoie off to law school and both Weir and two-time World medalist Evan Lysacek on the mend from injuries, the men’s field is wide open.

“I don’t know what to expect,” Steenberg said. “It would be great with a clean short to make the top six for the free skate. It would be really exciting to skate in the final group for the long program.” The men’s free skate will be televised live on ESPN2 at 11 p.m. on Jan. 27.

In the novice men’s event Armin Mahbanoozadeh of Great Falls is in the hunt for gold. Last autumn he received a boost when the Michael Weiss Foundation awarded him a training grant.

“After posting the highest scores at sectionals, I’m aiming to do well at Nationals,” said Mahbanoozadeh, 15, who trains in Reston with coach Traci Coleman. “We plan goals at the beginning of each season to decide where we’re heading and where we want to be.”

One dream is that at the end of a great program everyone would cheer his name and pronounce it correctly.

“That would be awesome.”

In all seriousness, at the end of a clean program “it feels like I haven’t even skated at all. I want to go out there and do it again.”

Two senior ice dance teams from Ashburn will be at Nationals. Last year’s fourth-place finishers Morgan Matthews & Maxim Zavozin are looking for a repeat trip to the World Championships (they placed 16th in ’06). New senior team Elizabeth Miosi & Dmitry Ponomarev are working for an impressive debut. Senior free dance will be on ESPN2 on Jan. 26 at 11:30 p.m. In novice ice dance, Megan Evans & Nathan Truesdell are hoping to establish themselves and put themselves in line for next year’s Junior Grand Prix circuit.

One of the most hotly contested events is likely to be junior ladies, where Ashley Wagner of Alexandria will try to overtake Caroline Zhang, who defeated her at the Junior Grand Prix Final. “I’m really excited to go against Caroline again, because she is such a strong skater. Competing against her helps me set my goals in terms of what I need to improve,” said Wagner, 15, who prior to settling in Alexandria five years ago had lived in eight different locations, including Alaska. Her father, Eric Wagner, is a retired Army lieutenant colonel. A great performance in Spokane may earn her a trip to the World Junior Championships in the country in which she was born, Germany. Now a seasoned international competitor, having won gold medals in France and the Netherlands prior to the silver in Bulgaria, she is ready.

“Competing internationally has given me a lot of confidence,” said Wagner, who trains at the Mount Vernon Ice Arena and represents the Washington Figure Skating Club. The often-unpredictable conditions at international competitions have taught her to be prepared. “It’s not about the environment or how the ice is. You have to focus on your skating.”

Settling in one location has improved Wagner’s skating, as it allowed her to forge a bond with a coach. She has a particularly good fit in Hughes, who always values the importance of education. She continued to coach Delmore long-distance when he attended Stanford University in the late 90s. Now she fully supports Wagner’s desire to attend a regular high school, rather than follow the popular trend in figure skating of home schooling.

“I tried home school for a few months and the next year I was back in public school,” said Wagner, who attends West Potomac High School. “I missed the people. You have skating friends and I wanted school friends too. Regular school makes my life not completely about skating.”