Olympic Berths at Stake at U.S. Championships

Meryl Davis and Charlie White (Photo: U.S. Figure Skating)
Meryl Davis and Charlie White (Photo: U.S. Figure Skating)

By Lois Elfman

The best in U.S. figure skating head to Boston for the 2014 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, which get underway on Sunday. The senior events—where Olympic berths will be decided—begin Thursday, Jan. 9. Boston is a town rich with skating history.

The pairs event probably won’t garner too much attention as 2012 Champions Caydee Denney and John Coughlin, who missed 2013 Nationals due his hip surgery, will attempt to reassert their position atop U.S. pair skating. Challengers will include defending champions Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir, who will try to use their hometown advantage, and Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim, the top U.S. finishers at last year’s World Championships.

In the men’s event, defending champion Max Aaron will try to prove he’s not a one-hit wonder. After disappointing results in his fall competitions, Aaron has made some changes in his free skate, reducing the number of quadruple jumps from three to two, both of which will be salchows.

Max Aaron (Photo: U.S. Figure Skating)
Max Aaron (Photo: U.S. Figure Skating)

“[The decision] came after NHK Trophy. To be honest, that was a pretty poor skate of a long program,” said Aaron. He discussed with his coaches and sports psychologist how he could best compete and perform. Aaron had planned to work with choreographer Lori Nichol prior to the U.S. Championships, so he used the time to have her retool the free program, including incorporating new music selections from Carmen.

“I wanted something fresh and new, so that the audience, officials and anyone watching would kind of think it’s a new program and a new sort of Max,” said Aaron. “Component-wise, this program is set out a lot better and it’s more fluid and more comfortable.

“The big goal is defending the title and making the Olympic team,” he added.

The men’s competition will be without two-time Olympians Evan Lysacek and Johnny Weir, both of whom ended their comeback pursuits due to injury. Other competitors vying for the two U.S. men’s spots are Ross Miner, Adam Rippon, three-time champion Jeremy Abbott and rapidly rising talent Jason Brown.

Ashley Wagner, who trains in Southern California, but lists Alexandria as her hometown, will attempt to make it three in a row. While the pressure is on to defend her title, at last year’s World Championships she and last year’s silver medalist Gracie Gold eased the pressure of making the Olympic team by earning U.S. ladies three spots.

“This is obviously such an important year, and I’ve been doing everything I possibly can to make sure that I go into the event prepared,” said Wagner. “I know going into Nationals, it’s not going to be easy. It’s a very overwhelming competition mentally.”

Bitterly disappointed by not making the Olympic team in 2010, Wagner has focused on becoming stronger mentally. For the past few months she’s been training with coach Rafael Arutyunyan, who along with his coaching team has helped hone all aspects of her skating.

“He does an incredible job of reading me and figuring out what I need on a day-to-day basis,” Wagner said. “We’re able to communicate with each other well, so that helps me get the most out of my training.”

Ashley Wagner (Photo: U.S. Figure Skating)

In addition to Gold, other skaters to look for are Agnes Zawadzki, Samantha Cesario and Harvard student Christina Gao.

The undisputed stars of U.S. figure skating are ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White, two-time World Champions and reigning Olympic silver medalists, who are aiming for an unprecedented sixth title (they are currently tied with four other couples at five titles). They recently won their fifth consecutive Grand Prix Final, edging out reigning Olympic gold medalists and two-time World Champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada.

“This intense rivalry makes us hungrier, it makes us want to achieve more in terms of our skating,” said Davis. “We’re feeling really confident. I don’t think we’ve left any room to push harder.”

“Heading into the U.S. Championships, I think we’ve continued to grow our programs and try to gain more speed and add more charisma and everything,” said White.

To give their short dance authenticity, the duo worked with five-time Dancing with the Stars champion Derek Hough, whose creative touch and attention to detail can be seen in the program.

“Derek is clearly a genius at what he does. Being able to experience firsthand his creativity and his ability to move in how he approached the steps was really a treat,” White said. “Especially for me, being the guy it’s so important to be able to show Meryl off the right way. He certainly was able to do that.

“Being able to get a feel for his zest for dance, he really got into our music, into our program, that was a great way to start the season and a great way to kick off the choreography for the program,” he added. “It’s continued to grow a lot, but definitely his input had a huge effect on how we looked at the program itself and what went into it.”

Alexandria native Ginna Hoptman and partner Pavel Filchenkov will also be in the ice dance field. Heading into their third U.S. Championships, the duo, winners of the Eastern Championships, are in a competitive groove.

“It’s been a really good year for us so far,” said Hoptman. “Both our short dance and our free dance are probably my favorites out of everything we’ve done.”

They began preparations for the short dance almost immediately after last year’s Nationals, working off-ice with a ballroom instructor on the quickstep section. Their free dance is set to music from the Russian film Snow Storm, and showcases the lyrical quality that suits Hoptman and Filchenkov.

“This is definitely the largest nationals I’ve been to,” said Hoptman in reference to the 18 teams entered in senior dance. “I’m really excited to go to Nationals in an Olympic year. It’s a different vibe.”

Other ice dance teams vying for Olympic berths are Madison Chock and Evan Bates, Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue and Maia and Alex Shibutani.