Skaters Plan to Sizzle in Omaha

By Lois Elfman

Armin Mahbanoozadeh

When the 2013 U.S. Figure Skating Championships get underway on Sunday in Omaha, Nebraska, Northern Virginia will be well represented at the novice, junior and senior levels. There will be well known names like Ashley Wagner and Armin Mahbanoozadeh as well as newcomers vying for podium spots.

“U.S. Nationals is one of my favorite competitions,” said Wagner, 21, the defending champion in senior ladies. “I always look forward to it every year because no matter what you’re in the U.S. There’s not that animosity you can sometimes get from foreign audiences. I feel the fans are watching and supporting you the whole way.”

The field is wide open in senior pairs as the silver and bronze medalists from 2012 ended their partnerships and defending champions Caydee Denney and John Coughlin are currently sidelined as he recovers from hip surgery. Whoever wins will have a day to celebrate and then the realization that the best they can hope for at the 2013 World Championships is 12th place will set in. Unless Coughlin makes a speedy recovery, the new champions will carry the expectations of earning the U.S. two pairs berths for next year’s Olympic Winter Games.

At the start of the 2012-13 season, the senior men’s competition at nationals looked to be the hottest event of the week thanks to the return of three-time U.S. Men’s Champion Johnny Weir and reigning Olympic gold medalist Evan Lysacek. After a promising start to his comeback, Weir sustained a hip injury at Rostelecom Cup in Moscow in early November and on Dec. 7 announced he would not compete in Omaha. In late November, Lysacek had surgery to repair a sports hernia. At the time, he said his goal was to compete at the 2013 U.S. Championships and at press time his name remains on the list of competitors.

The favorite in senior men is three-time U.S. men’s champion Jeremy Abbott. Also, challenging for a spot on the podium is Mahbanoozadeh, who grew up in Alexandria and now trains in Colorado Springs, Colorado with coach Christy Krall.

“I don’t think there is any other place in the world that is as productive as Colorado Springs is for a skater,” said Mahbanoozadeh, 21, who finished a career high fourth at last year’s U.S. Championships and won a silver medal at an international competition in Salt Lake City last fall. “I get to practice every day with so many other accomplished skaters—some days we have five guys landing quads in one session.

Ashley Wagner
Ashley Wagner

“Christy has brought a lot of discipline and organization to my skating,” he added. “She’s fantastic technically and has so much wisdom and experience. Heading into Nationals I’ll know that I’ve done everything I can to be as prepared as possible. I’m keeping the quad toe in both programs and realize that it’s necessary to be competitive nationally and internationally. I don’t think whoever is champion this year will end up playing it safe.”

Barring illness or injury, in senior ice dance Meryl Davis and Charlie White will likely win a history-tying fifth title. Maia and Alex Shibutani will probably finish second for the third consecutive year. Third place could be a battle between last year’s bronze medalists Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, fourth-place finishers Lynn Kriengkrairut and Logan Giulietti-Schmitt and fifth-place finishers Madison Chock and Evan Bates.

After that, the field is wide open, and Alexandria native Ginna Hoptman and partner Pavel Filchenkov are eager to show their improvement.

“Goals for this season are to go out and enjoy the performances,” said Hoptman, 23, who trains in Aston, Penn. Last year they placed 11th. “We can’t control placement at all and there are so many good teams. We want to go out there and have no regrets as far as holding back. Hopefully, we can accomplish that.

“My passion for skating comes out when I perform,” she added. “That’s what keeps me motivated.”

After winning two Grand Prix events last autumn and finishing second at the Grand Prix Final, Wagner is the heavy favorite to repeat her title. If she holds off challengers like Alissa Czisny, Christina Gao and Gracie Gold, she’ll be the first U.S. senior lady to defend her title since Michelle Kwan in 2005. Although she bruised her hip at the Grand Prix Final in December, Wagner said she’s feeling good heading to Omaha.

“It’s an exciting position to be in. It’s a first for me,” said Wagner, who still names Alexandria as her hometown although her parents moved to Maryland a couple of years ago. She’s been training with legendary coach John Nicks in Southern California since June 2011.

“I’ve had a great season so far and I’d really like to continue building upon that,” she said. “I’m very competitive. Especially this season, I’m hungry for the gold and I want to defend my title.

“It’s definitely challenging because the U.S. has an amazing group of ladies, but I’m going to see what I can do.”