Skaters Head to Saint Paul to Stake Their Claims

Ice dancers Madison Chock and Evan Bates, seen dancing here, won silver at the Grand Prix Final. (Photo:U.S. Figure Skating/Jay Adeff)
Defending champions Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim qualified for the Grand Prix Final, the first U.S. team to do so in eight years. (Photo:U.S. Figure Skating/Jay Adeff)

by Lois Elfman

It’s that time of year again, when skaters from all over the country head to the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in hopes of earning some precious medal. This year the competition travels north to Saint Paul, Minnesota, where the action gets underway on Saturday with the juvenile and intermediate events.

The senior competitions commence next Thursday with championships pairs and conclude on Sunday with the men. When all is said and done, the U.S. team for the upcoming World Figure Skating Championships in Boston will be named. We enlisted some expert talent to provide insight into what to look for during the Nationals.

For the first time in more than a decade there is a U.S. pair making its presence known on the international scene. Defending champions Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim qualified for the Grand Prix Final, the first U.S. team to do so in eight years. While they probably won’t challenge for a podium spot at Worlds this year, the engaged duo have great potential.

“Something would have to go horribly wrong for them not to defend their title. They’re just so far ahead of the rest of the American teams right now. They’ve made a name for themselves on the international level,” said Ryan Bradley, 2011 U.S. Men’s Champion who will be in Saint Paul as part of the Icenetwork broadcast team.

“The big thing that plagues our American pairs is consistency,” said Bradley, who worked as a commentator for Universal Sports and Universal HD during the Grand Prix season, giving him the opportunity to analyze the top skaters in action. “No other team has stepped up as really relevant.”

Last year’s silver medalists Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier have missed all of this season so far due to injury. Although they are listed among the competitors for Nationals, it is unclear as to whether they will compete. The number two team is likely to be Tarah Kayne and Daniel O’Shea. Other teams to look for are Madeline Aaron (sister of 2013 U.S. Men’s Champion Max Aaron) and Max Settlage and Marissa Castelli and Mervin Tran.

In the ladies event, it will likely come down to a battle between three-time U.S. Ladies Champion Ashley Wagner, who still describes Northern Virginia as home although she trains in Southern California, and 2014 Champion Gracie Gold. Both women qualified for the Grand Prix Final, but cannot seem to defeat the Russian and Japanese competitors in World competition. Bradley expects them to be stellar in Saint Paul and hopefully get in the groove for Worlds.

“Our girls have what it takes,” said Bradley. “They’ve both gone out and been outstanding at the U.S. Championships. … Whatever they do at Nationals—as long as it doesn’t shake their confidence—they will be competitive at Worlds if they go and do two clean programs.”

Other skaters to look for are two-time bronze medalist Polina Edmunds and Courtney Hicks, silver medalist at NHK Trophy.

“Courtney is powerful, she’s working on improving herself every season. I would not be surprised to see Courtney slip in somewhere in the top three—even into the top two if one of those girls falters,” said Bradley.

Alexandria native Ginna Hoptman and ice dance partner Pavel Filchenkov have retired from competition, but we’ve asked Hoptman to provide her thoughts on the top ice dance teams who’ll be vying for the title at Nationals. While defending champions Madison Chock and Evan Bates have the edge—having won silver at the Grand Prix Final—Maia and Alex Shibutani and Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue cannot be overlooked as they also have had strong seasons to date and qualified for the Grand Prix Final.

After some coaching changes all of the top five teams from last year’s Nationals are with different coaches. Hoptman noted that this gives each couple a distinct and different look. She enjoys the modern edge to the music selections this year.

“I’ve really enjoyed watching Madi and Evan this year,” said Hoptman. “They’re already such good skaters, but I feel they’ve grown musically. Every year, they push the envelope, especially with their lifts. They have good edges and footwork. She is so versatile with expression. They’re one of my favorite teams to watch.”

The Shibutanis always have impeccable technique and continue to get stronger. Now training in Montreal with Marie France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon, Hubbell and Donohue have a greater sense of maturity and finesse. Hoptman said they’ve improved and progressed in their performance quality.

“Anytime you make a coaching change and it’s for the better, you kind of see a respark of energy, motivation and connection,” Hoptman said.

Other teams to watch out for are Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean‐Luc Baker and Anastasia Cannuscio and Colin McManus.

The men’s competition is wide open as two of last year’s top three are out due to injury. Defending men’s champion Jason Brown withdrew due to a back strain and bronze medalist Joshua Farris has been off the ice for several months in the aftermath of a concussion. This creates ripe opportunity for three-time medalist Ross Miner, defending silver medalist Adam Rippon and 2013 Champion Max Aaron.

Aaron, whose dream is that both he and his sister make the World team, had a strong autumn—winning Skate America and Tallinn Trophy. He had a poor short program at Trophee Bompard and didn’t have the chance to make up ground in the long program as the competition was cancelled after the shootings in Paris.

“He took major steps in the off-season,” said Bradley. Aaron is working with choreographer Phillip Mills and is sticking to the choreography, not watering down his programs as he has in the past. “That tells me that they’re still committed to trying to stay with his components, stay strong. … He has so much fire power in the free.

“He looks good,” he added. “He has the skill set. He has shown us he can consistently do two quads in the long.”

Bradley said he’s seen Rippon land quadruple lutzes in practice. If he can keep his consistency and bring a quad to competition, he’ll be in the thick of it. Miner is looking good, but consistency is also an issue. For an up-and-coming skater, Bradley said to look for 16-year-old Nathan Chen, who won the Junior Grand Prix Final with three quads.

“Because he’s been in junior, Chen has been under the radar,” Bradley said. “This is a kid who has everything. He’s a great jumper. As he continues to grow and mature, he is what looks to me to be our best bet for the next 10 years.”