Top Skaters Head to Kansas City to Vie for Top Spots

Defending ice dance champions Maia and Alex Shibutani. (Photo: Courtesy of U.S. Figure Skating)
Defending ice dance champions Maia and Alex Shibutani. (Photo: Courtesy of U.S. Figure Skating)

By Lois Elfman

The 2017 U.S. Figure Skating Championships take place in Kansas City, Missouri, Jan. 14–22. The top skaters in the country from the juvenile level through senior are competing for podium spots, international assignments and highly sought after World Championship berths. As the championship ladies, men, pairs and ice dancers take to the ice; we look at some of the top contenders.

Before we dive into the championship/senior events, there will be a Northern Virginia presence in the junior ladies event, as Brynne McIsaac of Alexandria tries to build on her 11th-place finish in 2016. She is looking forward to seeing all her hard work pay off. The large number of skaters and excitement make Nationals special.

“Having skaters all the way from juvenile up to senior competing at the same competition, it’s so thrilling and so nerve-wracking at same time. Being able to compete in a big arena in front of so many people pays off all the hard work you’ve put in throughout the season,” said McIsaac, who is coached by Shirley Hughes.

“I’m looking forward to the events as a whole because there are so many good skaters,” McIsaac said. “[For myself], my hopes for this Nationals are to skate my best, put together two really strong programs and have fun with it.”

Championship pairs lead off the senior division. In recent years, pairs have been the weakest discipline for the United States in international competition. Defending champions Tarah Kayne and Daniel O’Shea made little impact internationally thus far this season. In 2016, their cleverly choreographed programs and the mistakes of others carried them to the title, but unless other teams falter, they’re not likely to repeat.

With newlyweds Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim withdrawing, the frontrunners are probably Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier, who had some good showings on the Grand Prix circuit after missing last year’s Nationals due to injury. Also, look for last year’s bronze medalists Marissa Castelli and Mervin Tran, who continue to show promise on which they may finally deliver.

The ladies event will be exciting, partly because there is no clear favorite going into the competition. Two-time champion Gracie Gold has had a rough go of it since winning her second U.S. title in 2016. A disastrous free skate at Worlds in Boston kept her off the medal podium and she admitted to a crisis of confidence after weak performances last fall. She comes to Kansas City seeking to return to the passionate skating she displayed last year at Nationals in Saint Paul.

Three-time U.S. Ladies Champion Ashley Wagner, who trains in Southern California but still considers Northern Virginia home, is also looking for a bit of redemption. After a mediocre performance at the 2016 Nationals, Wagner won the silver medal at 2016 Worlds, the first medal for a U.S. lady in a decade. She started off her 2016–17 season with a win at Skate America, but plummeted to sixth at Cup of China, failing to qualify for the Grand Prix Final for the first time in five years. She appears determined to do well at Nationals. Competition will come from Mariah Bell, silver medalist at Skate America, who since changing coaches last year seems to have reached a new level in her skating.

With three teams at the Grand Prix Final and two teams on last year’s World podium, ice dancing is unquestionably the strongest event at the U.S. Championships. The favorites are defending champions Maia and Alex Shibutani, who won Skate America and Cup of China and took bronze at the Grand Prix Final. Two-time World medalists and 2015 U.S. Ice Dance Champions Madison Chock and Evan Bates will pose a challenge as will Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue. Unlikely any other teams will shake up the podium, but one fall in ice dance can change the course of the competition.

The final event of the 2017 U.S. Figure Skating Championships will be the senior men’s competition. It looks to be a thrilling battle even though defending champion Adam Rippon, who earned his first trip to the Grand Prix Final this year, withdrew due to a foot injury.

That leaves 2015 champion Jason Brown, who is returning from injury, quadruple jumping wonder Nathan Chen and 2013 champion Max Aaron to go for the gold. At the 2016 Nationals, Chen made history by being the first U.S. skater to land two quadruple jumps in the short program and made more history in the free skate with four quads. Sadly, injury kept him out of 2016 Worlds, but he came back in fine form. At the Grand Prix Final, he finished second overall and won the free skate over reigning Olympic gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu.

Unfortunately, the U.S. men only have two berths for Worlds, which will likely leave veteran competitors Grant Hochstein and Ross Miner out in the cold.

Although a podium finish is probably beyond his grasp, Northern Virginia will be represented in the senior men’s event by Reston’s Oleksiy Melnyk, making his national senior debut. His choreographer is Tommy Steenberg, who frequently appeared in the Falls Church News-Press during his competitive career. Since leaving competition, Steenberg earned a B.A. in dance at George Mason University and is now a rising coach and choreographer.

“Senior level, you have a higher level you have to skate at. It’s a lot of work to get to that level,” said Melnyk, who finished fifth in junior men at the 2016 U.S. Championships. He qualified for Nationals by placing fourth at the Eastern sectional.

In selecting music for this year’s programs, Steenberg tried to find entertaining and interesting pieces. Melnyk, 19, who trains at SkateQuest, will skate his short program to music from the movie “Ocean’s Eleven.”

“I’m able to pretend I’m George Clooney on the ice,” said Melnyk, who names Olympic gold medalists Alexei Yagudin and Evan Lysacek as some of his favorite skaters. “It makes the program a little more fun and laid-back, which helps with being able to go with that senior level expectation of presentation.”

In addition to skating, Melnyk is a freshman at George Mason majoring in biology and pursuing a pre-med curriculum.

“So far, I’ve felt that skating has had a positive effect on my education—how I study, how I work. You learn to do everything quickly and efficiently. That’s why I was able to do pretty well my first semester,” Melnyk said.

At Nationals, Melnyk is focused on achievable goals. “I want to do two clean programs, and then see where I end up,” he said. “There are some fantastic skaters out there. I just want to be able to do my best and show that I’m able to compete at the senior level.”