US Nationals the Craziest Event Yet
Chen wins men’s competition that gives selection committee a headache; Tennell tops ladies field where Wagner fails to qualify under odd scoring; Knierims get one berth by winning messy pairs event; Hubbell & Donohue edge out their inevitable Olympic dance teammates for surprise win.
The U.S. National Championships, with its five levels of competitions and four medals in each event, has always been the main decider for who goes to the big events that take place after it. In San Jose this year, that meant it would determine the three ladies, men, and dance teams and one pairs team that will go to the 2018 Olympics in a month’s time. Though for the first time this year, the federation published specific “body of work” criteria that would also be taken into consideration, and might cause them to deviate from the results, as they did in the ladies in 2014.
But the competition itself went a little crazy. Everything happened. The men’s competition was bad, and chaotic. The pairs competition wasn’t much better. The judging in various places was dodgy, including in the results that determined the third Olympic ladies’ berth. High-profile skaters failed to qualify. There was a deviation from the results in the Olympic team. There was another, far dodgier one, in selecting the Four Continents Championships team.
A bunch of people at the competition got sick. A significant withdrawal happened that wasn’t even caused by illness. There was an earthquake in the vicinity. There were weird concerts in the middle of events. One of the gates onto the ice got jammed at the start of the free dance. All in all, it was a very memorable week. It may have been so more for bad reasons than good, though good reasons weren’t non-existent.
The trend of awful men’s competitions has officially continued right into Nationals season. Although Nathan Chen escaped it this time. Arriving in San Jose sick, he decided to water down his quadruple jump content, and not try the quad lutz. Instead in the short he successfully combination a quad flip-triple toe combination with a much easier solo quad toe loop, as well as a stumble on his triple axel, and a divine step sequence he got the highest possible score on. In his free he held on to both quads solo, combined them with triples, and also landed a quad salchow. Then he popped the axel, but by then that hardly mattered. He won his second straight title by over forty points.
The only other man in the top seven to deliver a decent free was the shock silver medalist that started Olympic selection committee’s dilemma. In recent years, Ross Miner hasn’t skated very well very often, so wasn’t even considered a serious contender. But this week, he delivered the goods in two crowd-pleasing programs where he landed everything, including a quad salchow in his free skate, though he really had to hang on it, and to a couple of his other jumps. He ultimately only had enough to take silver by less than a point over Vincent Zhou, but he still took it.
It says everything about how awful the rest of the men were that Zhou won bronze when he didn’t skate much better than he had on the Grand Prix. This time, he main problem was his failure to rotate his many quads. He did manage the opening quad lutz-triple toe to open both programs. But his short program triple axel and four of his five other quads were underrotated. The fifth, which he fell on, was fully downgraded to a triple. He’d actually been fifth after the short, a point above Miner, and was lucky the three men between him and Chen all skated badly, and with much less technical content.
Adam Rippon came in saying he was viewing this competition as merely his “coronation” as an Olympian. Until the last minute of his free program, he looked right. His short was flawless. He underrotated and fallen on the quad lutz at the start of his free, but he was doing enough to survive that. Then, after another underrotation, he suddenly popped his last two jumps. That was enough to crash him down to fourth, even though it wasn’t by much, and throw everything into doubt. With it having been a year to the day after he’d broken his foot, he later declared he would never again attempt anything important on January 6.
Between him and Zhou, there was initially controversy when Jason Brown had edged out Grant Hochstein for third, because he got credit for rotating a visible underrotated triple axel. Hochstein, dedicating his romantic short to fiancée Caroline Zhang, had one of his best performances, and with a quad-triple; Brown tried no quads. But in the free, when Brown fell and stumbled on quad and triple axel, the former was fully downgraded and the latter also called underrotated, as was his loop. He topped it off by singling a pair of doubles. Maxing out most of the non-jump elements in both programs wasn’t quite enough to keep him even ahead of Hochstein, who finished fifth. He himself, going back to his 2016 free, doubled his quad, stumbled on an axel, and also popped a toe, but proved much stronger in the second half of his free.
Thus when the competition was over, while Chen was certainly safe for the Olympic team, nobody was sure who would join him. It apparently took them three and a half hours to decide. Even Zhou had to worry about his Grand Prix record. But it seems likely actually making the top three here plus his results leading up to that easily made up for it and got him in. In what was revealed afterwards as being an 11-1 vote, the selection committee also decided that pewter along with his record from the fall was enough to qualify Rippon. Miner’s bad international results cost him dearly. He didn’t even get first alternate, only second. Brown’s results from last year were enough to get him that.
Third alternate, even more surprisingly, was Max Aaron. He’d come in hoping to make the team, but that ended when he stumbled out of both his quads in the short. All three quad attempts went even more wrong in the free. Even when he landed the rest of his jumps, he didn’t have enough left for higher than ninth, behind two more men whom U.S. officials passed over to give him the nod. Not only that, they even gave him a place on the Four Continents Championships team over not only them, but even Hochstein, who got nothing. One asks if his “body of work” was nearly good enough to justify that.
Camden Pulkinen was a level above the rest of the junior men, to the point he led by a sliver even when his short program went horrible wrong. When he skated a far better free program, his winning margin proved much larger. Dinh Tran skated two programs close to clean, and had a large margin for silver. This was partly because bronze medalist Maxim Naumov, who might have matched him otherwise, struggled with most of his jumps throughout the competition, and the men right behind him after the short did likewise. Pewter instead went to Ryan Dunk, who came back from tenth after the short with a cleaner program.
Between the start of this season and the start of the competition, Bradie Tennell had gone from unknown to favorite. She made good on it, skating perfectly but for one underrotated axel. With her triple lutz-triples toes she was one of three skaters to land difficult triple-triples in both her programs, and had the second-high technical content. There was a little dispute on how high her resulting presentation scores were, because they got kind of ridiculous. But they weren’t without some basis in fact; her program had a lot in it, and she’s engaging to watch. She got scores that broke the National records, and the first National title.
The highest technical content in both programs, however, was done by Mirai Nagasu. Four years after having the misfortune to finish third above an Ashley Wagner they really couldn’t not send to the Olympics, she left nothing to chance. She was one of the other two ladies with the difficult triple-triples, and she combined her triple flip-triple toe with a triple axel-triple toe-double toe in the free. She rotated the triple axel in both programs, though neither had a clean landing. The rest of her short was good, and most of her free was, though that had one underrotation. There’s a real argument she should’ve won. As it was, she went to bed with the silver medal, her fans’ indignation she hadn’t won, and the knowledge that this time, she was definitely going to the Olympics.
It was a rougher night and week for Karen Chen. She got through the short program with an underrotated triple lutz-triple toe, then got sick and wasn’t even able to practice on the interim day. She managed to stand up on everything in the free, but she had three underrotations, including on the triple-triple again, and one full downgrade. Still, she did just enough to win bronze by two points over Ashley Wagner. The track records their criteria for the team were officially based off of favored her too, and Wagner no longer has the status she had four years ago. Still, people were uncertain if she’d be named to the team at such a highly accomplish skater’s expense. But after half an hour’s discussion, according to USFSA president Sam Auxier, they ultimately decided to.
The question remains, however, whether she should’ve beaten Wagner. Wagner did have some technical issues, starting with underrotating her triple flip-triple toe in the short. She landed it in the free, but had another underrotation and a single. But the real shock was the presentation scores she got, much lower than usual. That doesn’t really reflect how good she still remains, in her heartfelt and dreamy free skate especially. She openly expressed her anger backstage afterwards. She had good reason to be upset, since this mysterious disfavor cost her the Olympics almost as much as her mistakes did. Denied the competitive triumph, however, her free skate still remains a commemoration of the career she’s had and the dreams she’s fought for and achieved, even if this last one was denied her:
The third skater to land the triple-triples was Angela Wang. She skated the best short program she’s ever done, and the first half of her free was equally good. Then she had an underrotation and a double, and dropped to seventh behind Mariah Bell and Starr Andrews. Bell started her competition by stepping out on her triple-triple and ended by falling on her axel. In between those two mistakes she was great, but they cost her a chance at the Olympics. Andrews had a breakthrough event. Leaving out her more ambitious technical content, she did nothing harder than a triple toe-triple toe. But she managed all her jumps, and everything about her free program was perfect, including her impressive vocal work on it.
Other contenders took themselves out further. Polina Edmunds actually had a clean short with an easier triple-triple, but then her foot started acting up, and she withdrew. Thankfully the other known and much more infamous Trumpite, Courtney Hicks, struggled in both programs and finished ninth. Poor Caroline Zhang wasn’t a contender anymore, reduced to being a muse for her fiancee’s short program. Her free program went especially badly. She finished eleventh.
Young Alysa Liu distanced the rest of the junior ladies field with two strong skates and the highest technical content. She was one of two ladies to land difficult triple-triple combinations in both programs. Silver medalist Pooja Kalyan landed easier ones and pulled up from fourth with a third place clean free skate. Second in the segment was Ting Cui, who short had left her down in eleventh, but also had a clean free skate to pull all the way up to third. Hannah Harrell was the other lady to land the difficult triple-triples, though a fall in her short and two in her free left her with pewter.
The pairs competition was the story of a pair of comebacks. Alexa Scimeca Knierim & Chris Knierim capped off the one they made last year by winning their second title to make the Olympics. After the scores came up, she promptly had the kind of breakdown the hell she’s been through to get there warranted. Meanwhile, after concussions and surgery and their only competition since withdrawing from last year’s Nationals going terribly, Tarah Kayne & Danny O’Shea pulled off a comeback of their own to win silver and join the Knierims at Worlds.
It would have been nicer, though, if the winners had skated better. They had only minor glitches going into their throw triple flip and coming out of their side by side triple salchows in the short. But in the free, both salchows and side by side combination went far more wrong. The free also saw the long awaited return of their split quadruple twist, which was gorgeous enough in the air the judges overlooked the two-footed landing. They landed both throws, and their throw flips in both programs were two of only three more difficult throws landed in the competition.
Lucky for them it was a messy competition. Kayne & O’Shea were the cleanest skating of the top teams. They were the only team to land the salchows in both programs, and they were close to clean in the short. But elsewhere in the free, they only went for a relatively easy sequence of axels, didn’t rotate both, and went down on a throw triple lutz. Behind them Deanna Stellato-Dudek & Nathan Bartholomay went back to their old short from last year. In that they managed to hold on to easier jumps for a good skate. They went for the salchows in the long, which they both botched, as well as the ambitious throw quad salchow, which she fell on. Their combo was only a triple-double, which they still underrotated. They won bronze because the other big three teams skated even worse.
Haven Denney & Brandon Frazier and Marissa Castelli & Mervin Tran both made major errors on all their side by side jump elements. They landed the throws, and Castelli & Tran’s free even had the other throw triple flip, but she had to fight for it. Denney & Frazier finished fifth, Castelli & Tran sixth. Ashley Cain & Timothy LeDuc fared worse in the short. They nearly pulled off the throw flip, but had a hand down, and then he went down on underrotated loops. They wouldn’t rotate those ambitious jumps in the free either, but didn’t fall. Again she put her hand down on the throw flip, fighting to keep everything else off the ice. But they pulled off their difficult three-jump with the triple salchow. Combined with a fun performance, that got them up to claim the pewter. Cain was another one in tears afterwards.
Audrey Lu & Misha Mitrofanov won the junior pairs title by nearly twenty points. Their short was very close to clean, and though their free had a fall, it also had the competition’s most technical content and only successful three-jump. Silver medalists Sarah Feng & TJ Nyman lost theirs to one of two falls, but did pull off salchows. The only other team to pull off clean side by side triples were newly formed team Nadine Wang & Spencer Howe, who did salchows in combination for the pewter. They went for side by side lutzes too, but those were fully downgraded, and they had enough errors to cede bronze to Laiken Lockley & Keenan Prochnow, even when they didn’t have a clean jump element in their free.
Here, at least, there was never any suspense about who would go to the Olympics. They almost certainly would’ve named the U.S.’s acknowledged top three teams even if any of them had somehow failed to be in the top three here. And barring injury, that was always extremely unlikely. Really, the only question was which order the three teams would finish in.
Maia & Alex Shibutani took the lead in the short, getting straight level fours on their elements and highlighting their performance with wonderfully musical twizzles and steps, which they got the highest possible score for. They continued that through most of a free dance altered quite a bit. It now has an odd sample from “Fix You,” a nod to the first program in their trilogy, and after that the final musical buildup has been enhanced to be stronger-except when Maia took a stumble in their climatic step sequence, and it was only by a quick grab from Alex that she didn’t fall. It cost them enough points that suddenly the door was wide open for them to be upset.
Madison Hubbell & Zachary Donohue’s opening short dance steps had been even better than the Shibutanis. They too had maxed their score out for them. It was the start of a program aching smooth enough to come in three points behind the leaders, and take about a point and a half’s lead over Madison Chock & Evan Bates, even when the latter got a technical tariff a tenth higher. Chock & Bates themselves had done an excellent skate, maxing out their lift. But they were still over four and a half points behind the leaders.
Both teams gave their all to make the gaps up. Again Chock & Bates got the higher tariff, and when Hubbell & Donohue got hit with a level two on their spin, it was a two point difference. But Hubbell & Donohue performed with more attack and aggression, and had the stronger impact. They maxed out five of their elements; Chock & Bates only maxed out three. They also got the highest presentation scores. Chock & Bates still won the segment. But they came in .33 behind the Shibutanis, and ended up with the bronze. Hubbell & Donohue, meanwhile, needed only the second highest free dance score to inch out the Shibutanis by .19 for their first ever national title.
In the segment, the Shibutanis barely beat Kaitlin Hawayek & Jean-Luc Baker. After two years after disappointingly failing to win the pewter, they turned out two of the best programs they’ve ever done. The free dance they fell in twice last year especially was more beautiful than ever. It also got the highest technical tariff anyone got. In the short they were tailed closely by Rachel & Michael Parsons. The two teams there tied for the second-highest tariff, and the Parsonses actually outskated them technically. But the younger team didn’t skate as well in the free. He put his foot down too soon to cost them heavily in the twizzles, leaving them with the lowest tariff of the top seven, and that wasn’t their only tiny error.
It nearly knocked them behind their training mates and longtime rivals Lorraine McNamara & Quinn Carpenter. They’d had a significantly lower tariff in the short dance, which had left them further behind in sixth. But they outskated the Parsonses in the free dance, where everything was exquisitely done with a new level of emotional maturity. But they didn’t quite beat them by enough; the Parsonses held onto fifth overall by a little less than a point.
The junior dance gold was never in question either. None of the other teams could match Christina Carreira & Anthony Ponomarenko, especially when things went well for them. Between the three teams below them things were much closer. In the end, Caroline & Gordon Green were better enough than the other two teams to outskate them for silver, even when they got the lowest tariff of the top four in both segments. Chloe Lewis & Logan Bye and Eliana Gropman & Ian Somerville matched tariffs. The latter were the technically superior in the short, but lowest on presentation scores. Then they fell twice in the free, and as a result were lucky to hold onto pewter. Lewis & Bye took the bronze.
View full results here.
Some wondered if officials might make different choices for the Olympic and World teams. But the only difference there is the second pair. Even the alternates for the men are the same.
However, none of the Olympic-bound skaters are going to the Four Continents Championships in Taipei. Ross Miner and Jason Brown will join Max Aaron. The senior men’s competition, which included two of the three Junior Grand Prix Finalists, also ended up affecting the Junior World team. Between winning the Final and finishing tenth, Alexei Krasnozhon got in, and winning the junior competition also got Camden Pulkinen in. But when the far less consistent Andrew Torgashev finished third, even though he was within half a point of JGP medalist Tomoki Hiwatashi in twelfth, the latter’s going instead.
Ashley Wagner, Mariah Bell, and Starr Andrews are also named to the Four Continents team, though right now noone’s sure if the first will want to go. After that, Andrews heads to Junior Worlds with junior bronze medalist Ting Cui. Silver medalist Pooja Kalyan has never gotten the chance to earn the required international technical minimums, and champion Alysa Liu isn’t even old enough.
Since only one pair goes to the Olympics, Tarah Kayne & Danny O’Shea will be the only world team members at Four Continents. Getting to the podium also got Deanna Stellato-Dudek & Nathan Bartholomay and Ashley Cain & Timothy LeDuc there as well. For the Junior World team they went with the junior results, naming Audrey Lu & Misha Mitrofanov and Sarah Feng & TJ Nyman.
Kaitlin Hawayek & Jean-Luc Baker might just be the favorites for the dance gold at Four Continents, depending on who Canada sends. Rachel & Michael Parsons & Lorraine McNamara & Quin Carpenter will likewise get a chance to make a mark. The battle in the junior dance competition was known to be a battle for Junior Worlds; the dance teams are almost always taken from those results. So Christina Carreira & Anthony Ponomarenko will be joined by Caroline & Gordon Green and Chloe Lewis & Logan Bye.
Nationals season ends next week in Canada. It *probably* won be as crazy as this one.