Skaters Rev Their Engines for Motor City

By Lois Elfman

JOSHUA LEVITT & ARIANA LOPINTO (Photo: Courtesy Joshua Levitt)

It is the site of skating’s most infamous moment — the whack heard round the world. Following a practice session at the 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit, Mich., an assailant attacked senior ladies competitor Nancy Kerrigan, thus establishing figure skating as one of the biggest stories of the day and a prime test for the newly established 24/7 news cycle.

In the 25 years since, Detroit has become a central point in the skating world as some of the best ice dancers have made it their training base. The city has hosted Skate America competitions and Stars on Ice shows, but this is the first time since 1994 that the city has held the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Skaters from all over the country will assemble in Detroit from Jan. 18 to Jan. 27 in hopes of showing their best, winning medals and earning precious berths for the World Figure Skating Championships and World Junior Championships.

This championship marks the end of an era. Starting in 2020, the U.S. Championships will no longer include competitions at the juvenile, intermediate and novice levels. So, for the competitors in those divisions it will be a special last dance. Some will return to Nationals in the junior and senior divisions, but for others this will be their last trip to the big show.

Nine skaters from the state of Virginia — most of who have trained in Northern Virginia at some point — will be competing in Detroit. It’s the first trip to the U.S. Championships for Joshua Levitt from Burke, who will compete in novice pairs with partner Ariana LoPinto.

“I’m really excited to see some of the other teams, higher level teams, skate and have a chance to see in person what we’re looking forward to,” said Levitt, 20, who has been skating pairs for three years. “My partner and I both worked really hard all year for this. We want to make the most out of our first Nationals as a team and try to compete the best we can.”

Levitt began skating at age 12 at the Fairfax Ice Arena. He and LoPinto now train in New Jersey with two-time Olympic bronze medalist and World Champion Isabelle Brasseur and her husband, U.S. Pairs Champion and Olympian Rocky Marval. He cites as his biggest inspirations the Canadian pair team of Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford.

Detroit will mark the sixth trip to Nationals for Molly Cesanek, 17, from Warrenton, who competes in junior dance with Yehor Yehorov. Cesanek began skating at age five at a rink in Reston and then trained in Ashburn for several years. She and Yehorov train at the Wheaton Ice Skating Academy in Maryland, and she thanks her mother for driving her round-trip each day.

“I truly love our programs this year,” said Cesanek, who said 2014 Olympic gold medalists and six-time U.S. Ice Dance Champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White are her inspirations. “Each year, I enjoy performing my programs, but this year there is a different excitement as I feel so fortunate to be able to have this opportunity with my partner to perform my favorite programs yet.”

It is a post-Olympic year, which always means some changing of the guard in senior events. In the men’s division, Olympic sweetheart Adam Rippon has retired. He now performs in shows, advocates for LGBTQ causes and enjoys a variety of opportunities in the entertainment world. The odds-on favorite to claim the crown is defending Men’s Champion Nathan Chen, who won his first World title in 2018 and gave stellar performances throughout the fall Grand Prix season.

“The fact that Nathan has moved away from his training center and is now going to school (Chen is a freshman at Yale University) is a huge change,” said Jennifer Don, a former U.S. competitor in ladies and pairs. While Chen’s artistry is progressing, Don said, “His quads are what people are going to talk about.”

Other skaters in the hunt for medals and World Championship berths are Olympian Vincent Zhou and 2015 U.S. Champion Jason Brown, who changed coaches following a disappointing 2018. He now trains in Toronto with Brian Orser, coach of two-Olympic men’s gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu.

MOLLY CESANEK & YEHOR YEHOROV (Photo: Courtesy Molly Cesanek)

Pairs, currently the weakest discipline in the U.S., has several good teams. It remains to be seen who’ll step up next week. The favorites are two-time champions Alexa and Chris Knierim, who represented the U.S. at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games and won bronze in the team event. Other teams to watch for are Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc, Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier and Deanna Stellato-Dudek and Nathan Bartholomay.

“There’s a camaraderie among all pair skaters — we really feel for each other,” said Don. “In pairs, they really do cheer each other on. … In these off Olympic years, we can see new people come in and take the gold. It’s kind of Alexa and Chris’ to lose. With struggles that they’ve had with the side-by-side jumps, I think it’s going to come down to if they land their jumps or not.”

Several past champions will not be in the mix for senior ladies. Ashley Wagner and Mirai Nagasu have stepped away from competition — although neither has said she’s retiring — and Karen Chen and Gracie Gold have both withdrawn, indicating their intentions to return in the future.

“It’s basically down to (defending champion) Bradie Tennell and Mariah Bell,” said Don, who coaches. “Then Alysa Liu, who I got to see at Pacific Coast sectionals. I think she’s kind of a wild card because she has the triple Axel. This is the post-Olympic season when anything can happen. I have a soft spot for Starr Andrews. She started at the rink where I used to coach in Culver City (California). I love how dynamic she is.”

In ice dancing, the obvious favorites are defending champions Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, who won the silver medal at the 2018 World Championships. They showed further progress during the fall Grand Prix circuit, winning both their events and the Grand Prix Final. Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker won gold at NHK Trophy and come into Nationals on an up note. The competition marks the return of 2015 U.S. Ice Dance Champions Madison Chock and Evan Bates, who sat out Grand Prix season as Chock recovered from ankle surgery.

Also in the senior dance field is Shiloh Judd from Keswick, who is making his Nationals debut. He and partner Alannah Binotto have only been skating together since May, and Judd passed 12 skating tests in order to be eligible to compete at the senior level. They train in Delaware.“I have always been inspired watching dance teams come up with such creative choreography,” said Judd, who has trained and coached in Richmond and Reston. “All I can ask for is to deliver a clean rhythm dance (music from Chicago) and free dance (‘Experience’ by Ludovico Einaudi and ‘Circles’ by Greta Svabo Bech) to gain experience for the next season.”