Olympic Berths up for Grabs at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships

By Lois Elfman

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

The tale over the next 10 days will be how the West was won as figure skaters descend on San Jose, California for the 2018 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Of course, the marquee events are in the senior division, where the best skaters will vie for berths on the U.S. Olympic team that will compete in PyeongChang, South Korea in February.

Before the senior events get underway, juvenile, intermediate, novice and junior skaters will take the ice. For some, it will be the first time on the national stage. Two girls from Northern Virginia, Clara Kim and Hannah Byers, will be in the mix.

“I’m very excited and I’m super grateful for this opportunity. I’ve worked very hard all year to make it to nationals,” said Byers, 12, whose main coach is Tommy Steenberg, whose own competitive days were featured in the Falls Church News-Press.

Byers, who has her own website, has handled adversity en route to this accomplishment. She had a growth spurt and had to relearn her jumps and also had some health issues. Hearing her scores at the Eastern Championships left her ecstatic when she realized she would be going to San Jose. After she’s done competing, she’ll attend a special U.S. Figure Skating camp on Jan. 1 for juvenile and intermediate skaters.

To break down the senior events, we asked three-time U.S. Men’s Champion, two-time Olympian Michael Weiss to provide some insights. The Northern Virginia native will be at the U.S. Championships as a broadcaster with He will also be inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame during the championships.

“It’s certainly a great honor,” said Weiss. “I never thought when I first started skating that I would even be a figure skater as a career. As I continued to work and get better and better, I realized that it could be a career. From there, to think that at some point I could be in the Hall of Fame is something I never actually dreamed of. Now, after a skating career with so many fantastic moments and memories, to have this honor is very special to me.”

There are three Olympic berths at stake for the men. The leading name in men’s skating during the recently concluded Grand Prix season was defending U.S. Men’s Champion Nathan Chen. In a sport defined by quadruple jumps, Chen, 18, has a loaded arsenal. The other leading contenders for the U.S. men’s podium are 2015 U.S. Champion Jason Brown and 2016 U.S. Champion Adam Rippon.

“Nathan is by far the frontrunner,” Weiss said. “He’s been in a league of his own all season. Even not having skated his best, he’s undefeated. Watching him continue to grow and develop…has been pretty special.”

Originally known as just a jumper, Chen has upped his style and presentation as he’s matured. Weiss said Chen has gone about it the right way — establishing his quads and then focusing on artistry. He also appreciates that Chen isn’t complacent and continues to challenge himself.

While their styles are different, Weiss said Rippon and Brown have similar strengths. Both struggle with quads, but have stellar artistry and presentation.

“They’re both very good spinners, very good performers, very well balanced skaters, but struggle with the quad,” said Weiss. “Both of them are going to skate well at Nationals; they always do. I always find myself with both of them loving their detail with their footwork, their music, their choreography—all those things they focus on and they shine at. But it’s really going to be who’s going to hit the jumps, and Adam was the hotter of the two in the Grand Prix series.”

Other names to watch for are World Junior Champion and reigning U.S. Men’s silver medalist Vincent Zhou and 2013 U.S. Champion Max Aaron.

There is only one Olympic spot for a U.S. pair and three or four teams going after it. The favorites are the married duo of Alexa Scimeca-Knierim and Christopher Knierim, the most successful U.S. pair in recent years.

“It will be fun watching them all battle it out,” said Weiss.

Three U.S. ice dance teams will go to PyeongChang. The most likely podium contenders in San Jose are defending champions Maia and Alex Shibutani, but two-time World medalists Madison Chock and Evan Bates cannot be discounted. Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, who also competed at the Grand Prix Final, will likely also make the podium at Nationals.

“Ice dance is going to be one of the most exciting events to watch,” Weiss said. “Everybody is going to skate well. It’s going to be who has a little more energy to create a standing ovation. You’ve got to perform really well and create one of those big skating moments that draws emotion out of the crowd.”

Although no U.S. ladies have recently shown the ability to vie for a medal at the Olympics, there are three Olympic spots and stake and several likely contenders. The reigning U.S. Ladies Champion Karen Chen has struggled since winning her title. Three-time Champion Ashley Wagner, who still considers Northern Virginia home, had an injury that took her out of her second Grand Prix event, but she has been practicing well.

“In my opinion it’s going to be because of having been at the top and battling for the National Championship consistently, Ashley,” said Weiss. “I know she’s kind of struggled, but I think her experience having performed and competed at this level is going to shine through.”

Giving Wagner a run for the title is Mirai Nagasu, who after early success in her career, including a spot at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, has gone through some rough times. She actually finished above Wagner at the 2014 U.S. Championships, but Wagner was given the spot on the Olympic team based on her record in international competition.

“Mirai’s definitely hot and cold, but she’s in great shape right now,” said Weiss. “She’s planning to do a triple Axel in the short and long programs. If she can get a big technical score, her spins and her programs are generally right up there.”

Other names to look for are Mariah Bell, Courtney Hicks, Chen and Bradie Tennell.

There will also be a Northern Virginia skater in the mix. Brynne McIsaac of Alexandria will be making her senior debut. Earlier this year, she decided to postpone college and focus on training. She moved to Colorado Springs, where she’s working with coach Tom Zakrajsek.

“I’m excited—first year senior and being able to experience it during an Olympic season. That’s pretty amazing and inspirational,” said McIsaac, who will carefully watch and learn from the top skaters.

Making the move to Colorado was huge for McIsaac, 18, who misses her family, but has settled into her independence. The family environment at the rink helps.

“We’ve put a lot of focus on the technical elements of my skating,” said McIsaac. “That’s really improved in this past year. We’ve also been working on that maturity for being a senior skater. I want to be able to perform to the nosebleed section in an arena and connect with the audience members.”