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Figure Skaters Head into a Bubble for a Unique U.S. Championships

By Lois Elfman

Molly Cesanek and Yehor Yehorov (Photo: Courtesy U.S. Figure Skating)

Originally scheduled to take place in San Jose, California, the 2021 United States Figure Skating Championships have relocated to the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada, where skaters will be in a bubble similar to what the NBA and WNBA did last summer.

The senior competition will begin on Jan. 14 and conclude on Jan. 17. Junior competition will take place on Jan. 20 and 21. There will be no spectators, but the seats will be filled with cardboard cutouts and fans were encouraged to submit their pictures for the cutouts. The sound of applause will be piped in.

U.S. Figure Skating held Skate America at Orleans Arena last October. First-year senior ice dancers Molly Cesanek and Yehor Yehorov competed at Skate America, so they’re familiar with the routine. They will arrive in Las Vegas on Jan. 11. 

“We arrive at the Orleans arena and we’ll go right into the rink where we’ll get tested, our temperatures checked, the symptoms checked and we’ll undergo all the screening,” said Cesanek, from Warrenton, who began skating at age five at a rink in Reston and then trained in Ashburn for several years. She and Yehorov train at the ION International Training Center in Leesburg. 

“Then we get escorted to our rooms, where we have to be isolated until we receive our test results the following day,” said Yehorov. Meals will be brought to their rooms.

Once their results are in, they’ll fully enter the bubble. Skaters, coaches, judges and officials will only be allowed to go from their rooms to the arena. All athletes are on the same level at the hotel. There is no maid service or room service. Fresh sheets and towels will be provided at a central location, and skaters are responsible for taking out their own trash. The dining room is at the rink. There is only one coach per skater or team and no family is allowed. 

JOSHUA LEVITT AND CARA MURPHY (Photo: Courtesy Joshua Levitt)

“They did a great job at Skate America,” said Cesanek. “It felt very safe,” said Yehorov. 

Over the past year, skaters have had to deal with time off the ice as rinks were shuttered to comply with quarantine rules prompted Covid-19. Upon reopening, there was limited training time. Cesanek and Yehorov were back on the ice in June, having spent the previous three months exercising, doing projects on Cesanek’s family’s home and property (including painting a barn), making dance videos and listening to music. 

“It was a forced halt for everyone,” Cesanek said. “We used that time wisely.”

The senior pairs competition is up first and will be quite interesting as the defending champions, Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim have ended their partnership (although not their marriage). Scimeca Knierim has teamed up with former U.S. Champion Brandon Frazier. The duo made an impressive debut last fall, winning Skate America.

Their main competition will likely come from 2019 U.S. Champions Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc. Also, in the senior pairs competition is the new team of Brynne McIsaac and Mark Sadusky. McIsaac grew up in Arlington, where her family still lives. She took up pairs skating in 2019 after attending a training and tryout camp. 

“I thought, ‘I’ll give it a shot because everyone seems to say that I’d be really good at it,’” said McIsaac, who previously competed at the U.S. Championships in junior and senior ladies. “A bunch of people came and asked me to try out and see if I’d make a good partner for them. That’s how I found my current partner and decided to go with it.”

She and Sadusky train in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He had previous pairs experience, but this is his senior debut. McIsaac is looking forward to the competition and being on the national stage.

“It’s really exciting,” said McIsaac. “It’s quite nice to have someone on the ice with me to go through all of the competition nerves and keep you grounded while you’re out there because you’re not alone. It’s going to be a different thing not having an audience there, but we’ll be surrounded by a bunch of our friends because the camaraderie is really good.

“It will be a ‘here we are moment’ to show all the hard work we’ve put in even though this year hasn’t been easy,” she added. “I think that’s true for a lot of the skaters coming into this competition.”

Brynne McIsaac and Mark Sadusky (Photo: Courtesy Brynne McIsaac)

The championship ladies competition should provide a fierce battle between two-time and defending champion Alysa Liu, 15, who is still too young to go to the World Championships (she will be eligible for next year’s Olympic Winter Games), 2018 Champion Bradie Tennell, 22, and three-time medalist Mariah Bell, 24. Liu’s been going through a growth spurt and had a coaching change, which may allow the more mature competitors, both of who have shown strong skating in recent months, a chance to gain the title.

The men’s competition will likely be another showcase for four-time U.S. Champion, two-time World Champion Nathan Chen, who continues to dominate. Chen won Skate America. The other top competitors will be four-time senior medalist and 2019 World bronze medalist Vincent Zhou, who placed second at Skate America, and 2015 U.S. Champion Jason Brown. 

The ice dance competition will be a battle between two-time and defending U.S. Champions Madison Chock and Evan Bates and two-time U.S. Champions Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue. Chock and Bates, who had a dazzling free dance in the 2019-20 season, withdrew from Skate America and have not competed this season. Hubbell and Donohue won Skate America.

The battle for third place will be between two-time bronze medalists Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, who finished second at Skate America, and 2020 pewter medalists Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko, third at Skate America. 

There will be several teams with connections to Northern Virginia in senior dance, including Joshua Levitt from Burke and Cara Murphy. They initially trained in Pittsburgh and periodically traveled to Michigan for additional coaching. When the rinks in Pittsburgh closed due to Covid-19, they headed to Michigan.

Nathan Chen (Photo: Courtesy U.S. Figure Skating)

Levitt previously competed at the U.S. Championships in 2019 in novice pairs, but he transitioned to ice dance shortly after. “I really feel dance suits me so much better, and I’m so happy that I switched. I’m having a great time,” said Levitt, who teamed with Murphy in February 2020. 

Although U.S. Figure Skating has made some allowances for competitors in terms of test levels, Levitt still had to pass 12 ice dance tests to be eligible to compete. “It’s been a massive learning experience,” said Levitt. “It’s so much more focused on the choreography, on expression and making every single step of the program as perfect as it can be. It’s very detail oriented, which I really find rewarding.”

Due to the cancellation of qualifying events, Nationals will be their first competition together. “We’re excited to put our programs out there and see what the judges think of us,” said Levitt. 

It’s a return to the U.S. Championships for seasoned competitors Cesanek and Yehorov, who previously competed in juniors. Despite the unprecedented circumstances, they’re enjoying the preparation.

“We are thankful and blessed for everything we’ve had this year,” said Yehorov. “We’re so much more mature in how we approach every day,” said Cesanek.

“The cut outs really do fill the space and it makes it feel more like an event,” said Cesanek. “At Skate America, whatever discipline wasn’t currently competing, the other athletes could come and support the competitors. The judges were there. It’s not empty. It’s cool seeing all the athletes together.”