Arts & Entertainment

Western Gold Rush: Vying for National Titles, Skaters Head to California

By Lois Elfman

The year after an Olympic Winter Games is typically a time of new names and fresh ambitions in the sport of figure skating. There are a few 2022 Olympians competing at the 2023 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, taking place January 23–29 in San Jose, California, but much of the action will revolve around new young talent eager to become the faces of U.S. skating.

Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier (Photo Credit: U.S. Figure Skating)

The centerpiece will be the senior men’s event. Olympic gold medalist Nathan Chen and World bronze medalist Vincent Zhou are concentrating on their education, with Chen at Yale and Zhou at Brown. Two-time Olympian Jason Brown, 28, has decided to return to competition. While his elegance and musicality are undisputed, he lacks the jumping power required to dominate. The spotlight will be firmly on Northern Virginia native Ilia Malinin, 18, who made history during the fall ISU Grand Prix circuit, landing the quadruple Axel.

“It’s absolutely incredible what Malinin can do,” said Michael Chack, U.S. medalist in junior and senior men and now a well-known coach and choreographer. “He’s got a long way to go to develop as far as skating components, but the jumps are just amazing. I thought Nathan Chen was a robot, but this kid is a robot. Obviously, Ilia is the top favorite. Jason has such joy and he does it because he loves it. He’s a joy to watch.” Third will likely be Camden Pulkinen, 22, fifth at the 2022 World Championships. 

All three ladies from the 2022 U.S. Olympic team are not competing. Karen Chen has returned to Cornell, Mariah Bell has retired from competition and is focusing on show skating, and Alysa Liu retired from skating. Unless Bradie Tennell’s return after an injury gains some serious steam, a new U.S. Ladies Champion will be crowned. The likely candidate is 15-year-old Isabeau Levito, who earned three silver medals on the ISU Grand Prix circuit, including at the highly competitive final.

Chack said Levito has a European style of skating. He also said to look out for 2021 U.S. Ladies silver medalist Amber Glenn, 23, who won the bronze medal at Skate America. “She’s in incredible shape,” Chack said. “My thoughts for senior ladies is it’s going to be between Isabeau and Amber. Isabeau, I like her determination. I think she’s beautiful.”

Other skaters to look out for are Lindsay Thorngren, 17, and Starr Andrews, 21, won a silver medal at Skate Canada, but doesn’t have a strong triple/triple combination in her arsenal. “Whoever skates the best that day and has that moment in time will win,” Chack said. 

Ilia Malinin (Photo Credit: U.S. Figure Skating)

Olympic medalists in the team event—although the medal has not yet been awarded due to a complex doping investigation of a skater on the Russian team—Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier, who in March 2022 became the first U.S. pair team to win a World title since 1979, are the heavy favorites. Knierim, 31, and Frazier, 30, won two ISU Grand Prix events and took the silver at the Grand Prix Final, the best-ever finish for a U.S. pair team. The young team of Emily Chan, 25, and Spencer Howe, 26, won two silver medals on the Grand Prix circuit and also qualified for the Final. 

“When Knierim and Frazier won Worlds, they were wonderful,” said Chack. “I’m assuming they’ll win Nationals.”

In addition to Malinin, there will be other skaters at the U.S. Championships connected to NoVa. Ice dancers Lorraine McNamara, 23, and Anton Spiridonov, 24, have close ties to the area, having grown up and trained nearby. 

Another team with NoVa roots is Kristina Bland, 18, and Matthew Sperry, 20, who will compete in junior dance. They teamed up in May 2021 and finished eighth in junior dance at the 2022 U.S. Championships. Sperry was born and raised in Falls Church, and moved to Michigan for training after high school. 

Kristina Bland and Matthew Sperry (Photo Credit: Kristina Bland)

Sperry started skating at age five and playing hockey in Reston for about eight years. During his last years in hockey, he began figure skating. He competed in singles, but didn’t really like jumping. 

“I was always more into the turns and the footwork sequences,” Sperry said. “At the time I switched from hockey to figure skating, I started ice theater (performance groups), Virginia Ice Theater (in Fairfax). I competed nationally and internationally with them. My footwork and theater side—ice theater has a lot of acting and performing—ice dance is the perfect combination of those two.”

He joined the ice dance academy in Maryland, skating there for five years. After high school he was seeking a way to combine college and skating, so he sought out a university that would enable him to do both. Attending the University of Michigan, which Bland also attends, and training in Novi, Michigan, enables him to follow his dreams.

“It has the best combination of strong engineering, great coaches, awesome partner,” said Sperry, who is a sophomore. 

This fall, they got to compete at an ISU Junior Grand Prix event in Poland, which inspired them to keep pushing to improve. It also gave them a sense of how to be prepared for different things that arise at competitions. “One of the things at international competitions is there are so many new things in the environment,” said Sperry. “There’s a time difference, language difference, different culture. Being able to arrive there and adapt quickly to all of those different circumstances and still skate well definitely builds skills.” 

They admire three-time U.S. Champions Madison Chock and Evan Bates, who are the heavy favorites to win the senior dance title. “They came up with some really creative programs this year,” said Bland. “They chose really different music. Their rhythm dance is to David Bowie, which is so interesting. I haven’t seen anyone else do that for Latin [dance].”

Four-time U.S. bronze medalists and 2022 Olympians Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker will also push for a spot on the podium. Both Chock, 30, and Bates, 33, and Hawayek, 26, and Baker, 29, qualified for the Grand Prix Final. While this was a huge accomplishment for Hawayek and Baker, who last qualified for the Final in the 2018-19 season, it was somewhat disappointing for Chock and Bates, who were favored to win but finished second behind Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier.

Bland said Hawayek and Baker had coached her a bit when they trained in Michigan. “I love their edges and their flow,” Bland said. “They were a big inspiration early on in my ice dance career. I definitely love their free dance this year.”