Skating’s Bright Lights Head South for the U.S. Championships

By Lois Elfman

VIRGINIAN MOLLY CESANEK and her partner, Yehor Yehorov. (Courtesy Photo)

For some, this is the crescendo of the skating season for some and the midpoint for others. Whether a skater is gearing up for more competitions or going on break and pondering the future will be determined at the 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, which take place on Jan. 21 in Greensboro, North Carolina.

The competition will be smaller this year, as the Nationals only include junior and senior level skaters. Greensboro is a familiar location for many of the competitors, having previously hosted the championships in 2011 and ’15.

Junior competitions kick things off, which means action for the only Virginian competing this year, ice dancer Molly Cesanek from Warrenton, who began skating at age five at a rink in Reston and subsequently trained in Ashburn. She and partner Yehor Yehorov currently train in Maryland. They are looking forward to a return trip to Nationals as they’ve gained valuable experience since last year’s fifth-place finish.

“We hope to perform and execute our best programs of the season, and hopefully they’ll be programs that qualify us for Junior Worlds,” said Cesanek. “We treat every competition the same — sheet of ice and we try to perform like we do in practice. From last season, we learned that and it’s a technique we’ve used this season.”

During the autumn, the couple competed at two ISU Junior Grand Prix events, Croatia and Latvia. They said being part of a U.S. team and getting to support other skaters was cool. These experiences helped them bond as a partnership and they bring that sense of unity to the ice. They’ve also worked with acting and dance coaches to enhance their performance level.

In the days heading into their trip to Greensboro, they’re keeping things consistent. “We’re checking all the elements in our programs and trying to be in the best shape,” said Yehorov. “We’re planning to enjoy our programs, enjoy each other and let everyone enjoy our performances.”

The senior events begin on Jan. 23, with the pairs event. Olympic pairs silver medalist and World Professional Champion Elena Betchke, now a coach in Garner, North Carolina, gave her thoughts on the top four teams.

Defending champions Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc display strength, power and style. “They have very strong singles skills and are very good jumpers,” said Betchke. “They have great pairs technique. Ashley is pretty tall, and they don’t have the typical difference in height. Their lifts and the split twist, all those elements, look strong.”

In Betchke’s opinion, Cain-Gribble and LeDuc’s closest rivals for the title are two-time champions Alexa and Chris Knierim, a married pair now training in California. “Beautiful, elegant style and they’re experienced, which is to their advantage,” said Betchke. “They’re married and they’re probably inspired by their relationship. When they skate, it shows that they really care for each other. They’re constantly connected as a couple.” On the downside, they struggle with the side-by-side jumps and have been inconsistent.

The other two teams to watch for are Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier, the 2017 U.S. Champions, and Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea, the 2016 U.S. Champions. Betchke said Denney and Frazier are physically well matched and have very creative lifts, but need greater consistency on jumps and throws. Kayne and O’Shea are creative and powerful, but also lack consistency.

Despite only modest success on the international scene in recent years, senior ladies is usually the most popular event at the U.S. Championships. For the singles events, we consulted Boston area coach Matthew Lind, the 2001 U.S. Novice Men’s Champion. The battle for first place will likely come down to youth vs experience. At 14, defending champion Alysa Liu is too young to go to the World Championships, but her jumping ability exceeds all other U.S. competitors.

“Alysa Liu is kind of in a class by herself,” said Lind. “Her programs this season are maybe not the most natural for her, but she’s pushing herself with the long program. [Choreographer] Lori Nichol did a really nice job with it. … I see things lining up for her going forward.”

Two former champions are making comebacks, Karen Chen and Gracie Gold. Chen, a 2018 Olympian, missed last Nationals due to injury. In addition to training, she’s a freshman at Cornell University. “It’s really hard to manage that kind of workload and competitive skating,” Lind said. “She’s very capable, it’s a matter of if she has had the time to commit to training to be competitive at this level.”

This will be two-time champion Gold’s first trip to Nationals since 2017. “She loves to skate and she wants to get back to it,” said Lind of Gold, who has been honest about her battle with depression. “I give her a lot of credit for being so outspoken about the difficulties that she’s had, facing them and coming back.”

NATHAN CHEN. (Photo: USFS/Jay Adeff)

Bradie Tennell, 2018 Ladies Champion and last year’s silver medalist, is trying to up her technical ante. “She’s doing the right thing by trying more technical difficulty,” said Lind. “It’s critical for her to keep up. … I think her artistry has improved. I like that Bradie brings some experience and consistency. The fact that she made the Grand Prix Final shows she’s a competitor.”

Lind said don’t overlook two-time bronze medalist Mariah Bell. “She has everything — she’s mature, she skates like a lady, and when she hits her elements, she’s one of the best in the world,” said Lind.

After decades of struggling for respect, ice dancing has been the most consistent event for the U.S. on the World and Olympic stage. This year, the battle for the title will be fierce between two-time and defending champions Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue and 2015 champions Madison Chock and Evan Bates. In December, Chock and Bates defeated Hubbell and Donohue at the ISU Grand Prix Final in December. Giving insight into ice dance is 1981 U.S. Junior Ice Dance Champion and former national coach Keith Lichtman.

“This year, I predict it’s going to be especially interesting and maybe the tightest battle yet between the two teams,” said Lichtman, who noted the intensity in the free dance will be palpable. “First and foremost, I always ask if the program is effective and captivating. This year, Chock and Bates, their free dance has taken a departure from anything they’ve done previously.”

Set to a Middle Eastern theme, Lichtman finds Chock and Bates’ free dance to be stellar. “This program hits the sweet spot,” said Lichtman. “There’s never a dull moment and there’s always something innovative happening. It’s the best fit of music and character. The effectiveness of this program is as good as you can get…I think there’s some genius to the choreography. Even their costumes add to the allure.”

Throughout their partnership, Hubbell and Donohue have most gravitated toward edgy vocal music or pop. This year’s free dance is set to music from the film “A Star Is Born,” and for Lichtman it doesn’t hit the mark.

“They’re great skaters, very commanding,” said Lichtman, who said his comments are based on the overall effectiveness of the program and how it’s delivered. “The theory of this program could work, but in reality it felt kind of off-putting. The electric guitars are a bit jarring…I thought the choreography had some fantastic moments, so it’s not the choreography. It’s the combination of everything. Perhaps, they’re changing things before Nationals.”

The battle for bronze and the third spot on the World team will be between reigning bronze medalists Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko and Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter.

The senior men’s event should be another showcase for three-time and defending champion Nathan Chen, who is somehow balancing his studies at Yale University, where he’s a sophomore, with dominating men’s skating.

Three-time medalist and reigning World men’s bronze medalist Vincent Zhou has not yet competed this season as he focused on his freshman year at Brown University. He recently announced a coaching change, so it’s unknown how prepared he is for Nationals. On the other hand, 2015 champion Jason Brown is skating at a new level since moving to Canada in 2018 to train with Brian Orser.

Lind thinks Brown is “due to hit.” He’s been gaining consistency on landing a quad and Lind said Nationals may be the time to land it. That couple propel him to, at the least, the silver medal. “He’s in a separate league components (presentation) wise,” said Lind.

If things go as they have over the past two seasons, Chen will triumph. Lind marvels at Chen’s ability to do it all. “To not just be competing, but revolutionizing the sport,” said Lind. “He’s from another planet.”