Sports

Skaters Head to Music City with Olympic Berths at Stake

By Lois Elfman

With the Olympic Winter Games opening on Feb. 4, the 2022 U.S. Figure Skating Championships will take place Jan. 3–9 in Nashville, Tennessee, giving those skaters who make the U.S. team time to train and finetune their programs before heading to Beijing. 

The U.S. will have three women, three men, two pairs and three ice dance teams competing in Beijing. To help us assess some of the top contenders in the senior division, we’ve called on Brynne McIsaac, who grew up in Alexandria and trained locally for many years. She has previously competed at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in both the junior and senior women’s divisions. McIsaac currently trains in Southern California and hopes to find a pairs partner.

“For the ladies, everyone has had their good and bad performances. It’s normal,” said McIsaac, who is currently pursuing a college education online. “Notable names include Alysa Liu, she’s been going strong for quite some time. She’s had some issues since she’s been growing up and developing. She’s not a little girl anymore, but even so she’s been doing pretty well.”

Liu, 16, is a two-time U.S. Champion, but due to age requirements this is her first year competing internationally at the senior level. She won Nebelhorn Trophy, which secured the U.S. the third women’s Olympic spot, but finished off the podium at both her Grand Prix events. Another 16-year-old to watch for is Lindsay Thorngren, who won medals at both of her Junior Grand Prix events.

Karen Chen, 22, the 2017 U.S. Champion and an Olympian in 2018, placed fourth at the 2021 World Championship, but did not skate well at her Grand Prix competitions this past fall. “Karen is a beautiful skater,” said McIsaac. “As long as she’s consistent, she could secure herself a spot. There are maybe four or five people vying for spots.” 

McIsaac said Mariah Bell, at 25 the oldest of the top contenders, is a beautiful skater who is reviving one of her best free skating programs. “She doesn’t have the same technical value as some of the girls doing triple/triples,” said McIsaac. “She will make up for it with really good, mature components. That is something to look for.”

Two-time and defending U.S. Women’s Champion Bradie Tennell, 23, who competed at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games and won bronze in the team event as a member Team USA, has been dealing with an injury. Last year’s silver medalist Amber Glenn, 22, recently placed second at Golden Spin. “Amber’s very driven,” McIsaac said. “The only thing is even though she can put out such amazing performances, sometimes she has moments with nervousness.”

The men’s event will likely be a showdown between five-time U.S. Champion Nathan Chen, 22, and five-time medalist Vincent Zhou, 21. Both competed at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games, finishing fifth and sixth. Following those Games, Chen went undefeated until October 2021, when he finished third at Skate America, which Zhou won. 

“They’ve been really competing well,” said McIsaac. “I’ve watched them motivating each other through competitions, which is really kind of cool. It’s awesome to see them stepping up.”

Jason Brown, 27, the 2015 U.S. Champion and a 2014 Olympian will not challenge Chen and Zhou technically, but he is the most artistic and musical skater. Brown landed his first quad this past fall. “Jason is beautiful to watch,” said McIsaac. “He’s got amazing components.”

In the pairs event, the frontrunners are defending champions Alexa Knierim, 30, and Brandon Frazier, 29. Knierim competed at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games with her husband, Chris Knierim, winning a bronze medal in the team event. After Chris Knierim retired due to injury, she teamed up with Frazier, 2017 U.S. Champion with Haven Denney. Knierim and Frazier performed fairly well at their Grand Prix events. 

“They’re training, working hard,” said McIsaac, who trains at the same rink as Knierim and Frazier. “They look good.”

Other contenders in the pairs event are Ashley Cain Gribble, 26, and Timothy Leduc, 31, the 2019 U.S. Champions, and Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson, both 26. 

At the 2018 Olympic Winter Games the only individual skating medal came in ice dancing. It seems very likely that one of the top two U.S. ice dance teams will be on the Olympic podium, and a victory at the U.S. Championships will put the team in prime position. The teams to watch are three-time U.S. Champions and three-time World medalists Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, both 30, and two-time U.S. Champions and two-time World medalists Madison Chock, 29, and Evan Bates, 32. Both teams competed at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games and Chock and Bates also competed in 2014. Both teams skated well during the autumn international competitions. 

Also, looking for a podium placement and a trip to Beijing are three-time U.S. bronze medalists Kaitlin Hawayek, 25, and Jean-Luc Baker, 28, who have placed in the top 10 at the World Champions three times. Baker is looking to continue his family’s legacy as his mother, Sharon Jones Baker, is a 1988 Olympian in ice dance representing Great Britain. 

There will be a definite Northern Virginia presence in the senior ice dance event with several teams either having grown up in the area or training in the area. The highest ranked team is Caroline Green, 18, and Michael Parsons, 26, who train in Leesburg. They were fourth at the 2021 U.S. Championships. A rising young team is Lorraine McNamara, 22, and Anton Spiridonov, 23, who also train in Leesburg. Spiridonov grew up in Northern Virginia, where his parents were prominent coaches. There is also Joshua Levitt from Burke and Cara Murphy. 

Also vying for a podium finish are Molly Cesanek, 20, and Yehor Yehorov, 22, who finished fifth at the 2021 U.S. Championships. Cesanek grew up and began skating in Northern Virginia, where her family still resides. She and Yehorov, who have skated together for about four years and train in Leesburg, have an emotional free dance they’ve titled “The Passionate Love I Can’t Live Without,” which was choreographed by Canadian Ice Dance Champion, two-time Olympian and three-time World medalist Kaitlyn Weaver.

“It’s an Olympic year, which is always exciting for the audience,” said Yehorov. “We’re really excited for our first more normal and typical U.S. Championships as seniors where the fans will be there and we’ll have an audience,” said Cesanek, who is excited that her parents and other family members will be in attendance. Yehorov’s family will watch online via live stream.

The duo made their senior national debut at the 2021 U.S. Championships, which were done without spectators. Rather, there were cutouts in the seats and taped applause was played. At press time, it is not known what revisions will be made to health protocols at the upcoming championships due to the Omicron variant.

They’re excited to share their programs, particularly the free dance, which has received positive feedback. Thanks to not being off the ice due to pandemic-driven rink closures (they missed several months of training in 2020), they had the time to create what Cesanek called “possibly the most special programs that we have had.” They chose to work with Weaver on the free dance because they admired how she and long-time ice dance partner Andrew Poje connect on the ice.

“That ability to bring people to their happy place and what makes them feel love, is such a treasure,” said Cesanek. “We are so thankful that we had this year to create this free dance.

“Kaitlyn really has a lot of innovative ideas and she’s so passionate and…brings a great energy,” she added. “She created a great program that can grow over time.”

Their partnership is something special, both said, and has also grown over time. “We feel like together we can achieve anything,” said Yehorov. “We feel very motivated and we’re so excited to keep going.”