Usually, the dance event is the least unpredictable of the disciplines- the scores tend to fluctuate less than the other events and the politics/rankings of skaters is much more constant. For most placements in the top five in St. Paul, that should still hold true. However, a bit of drama has developed over the Grand Prix season as Maia and Alex Shibutani have made stunning steps forward in their skating. The biggest question is- will that be enough to best past champions Madison Chock and Evan Bates, and (perhaps harder to overcome) the incredibly tough national politics of ice dance?
Chock and Bates have had a bit of a bumpy ride so far this season, going through three short dances before settling into their current one just before Skate America. However, they easily won that event, and then placed second at Cup of China and at the Grand Prix Final. None of their performances this season have been perfect, bobbles here and there, and the overall flow of the programs seems disjointed, understandably due to the major changes they went through at the beginning of the season. Despite a mistake on their twizzles at the Final, Chock and Bates still scored high on that element, perhaps evidence that they still firmly hold the U.S.’s number one dance spot internationally.
The Shibs come to Nationals with the best chance they’ve ever had of winning a national title. Five-time U.S. medallists, the Shibs have three silvers (including last year) and two bronzes to their credit. Their “Coldplay” free skate has brought every audience to their feet this season, and given a new, fresh energy to their skating. You can’t tell me that the Shibs’ twizzles are not one of the very best in the world, either. Many fans (me included) feel that the Shibs are often underscored to keep them under the umbrella of the “U.S. Number 2” and those politics are hard to overcome. To force the judges to give them their due, it will take a performance of a lifetime to prove that they cannot be ignored any longer. I, for one, cannot wait to be in the arena for that free dance.
Also having a bit of a breakthrough this season, Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donahue come to St. Paul after attending their first Grand Prix Final. Competing there was a huge step for them, although they did not skate perfectly there. A coaching change and a beautiful short program have given new momentum to this team, and they should solidly grab the bronze medal for another trip to the World Championships. They’ve had a few mistakes this season, but I hope they’ve cleaned those up since the Final and that they skate very well here.
Kaitlyn Hawayek and Jean Luc-Baker have had some road bumps in the preseason- a fall at a Challenger event, and having to withdraw from their second Grand Prix assignment due to illness. This team has a ton of potential, but they are most likely out of the non-pewter medal race. They’ve had more time to rest, recuperate, and train than the top three teams who competed at the Final, so I hope to see them skating with confidence and energy this week.
At Skate America, I was really impressed with Anastasia Cannuscio and Colin McManus. They posted very solid scores and were able to compete twice on the senior Grand Prix, which was a great opportunity for them. I expect them to be a solid again in St. Paul
"Predictions": Numbers wise, third through fifth is somewhat of an easy guess, with Hubbell/Donahue, Hawayek/Baker and Cannuscio and McManus. Now for the top two….I fully expect a cleaner set of performances from Chock and Bates in St. Paul, as they have had more time with their programs. While I like them as a team, I do not think that their content is as exciting or impactful as the Shibs. We’ve seen some mistakes from Chock/Bates this season, and I think that’s what it will take to propel the Shibs to gold, politically. On the NBC preview show, Tara said perhaps the most telling thing of all while talking about the Shibutani’s free dance- “The Shibutani’s will definitely be the people’s favorite in St. Paul”. The people, not the judges. I think I’ve made my point. My heart says the Shibs, and my head says Chock and Bates, so that’s about as big of a prediction as I can make : )
Pairs is the only U.S. discipline to have only two spots for the World team heading to Boston in March, which dials up the drama a notch as these teams take to the ice in St. Paul. Outside of the favorites, a good rivalry is brewing for second place and that coveted spot on the World team. (In what is perhaps the easiest event to call this season, I’m gonna shorten up my preview format for pairs.)
Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knieirm (Season Average 185.78) should easily win a second U.S. title in St. Paul. The quality of their elements is above the rest of the field and I expect them to bounce back well from their Grand Prix Final disappointment. They confirmed via teleconference that they’ve added a slower section of music to their freeskate to provide variety in music tempo and allow them to better focus on the side-by-side jumps in that section. I expect to see them skating much more confidently here than we’ve seen all season.
The battle for the silver medal is most definitely the hottest storyline in pairs, with two up-and-coming teams capable of grabbing the silver medal. Castelli/Tran and Kayne/OShea are very close in terms of scores for the early part of the season and any mistakes by either team can easily open the door for the other.
I am picking Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea (Season Average 173.12) to win silver based on two things: their stronger scores over the beginning of the season (barely, but still stronger) and the fact that they are coming to St. Paul with a brand new short program set to “Take Me to Church”. I can see that program being received well by the audience and I can see the change bringing an exciting freshness to their performance here.
I love the new team of Marissa Castelli and Mervin Tran (Season Average: 172.93), but I just don’t think they are *quite* there yet. I think they have a star quality to them that will develop more strongly over the next few seasons, but they are still smoothing out their technical elements at this point in their partnership. I hope to see them landing their SBS (please, Mervin) and skating well to grab their first U.S. Championships medal-bronze.
Jessica Calalang and Zach Sidhu (Season Average:150.61) skated very consistently in their two preseason events, a Challenger event and the NHK Trophy. If they can continue their consistency in St. Paul, that season average looks good for a pewter medal.
I was very impressed with Jessica Pfund and Joshua Santillan (Season Average: 144.50) when I saw them at Skate America. I love their “Gravity” short program, and they really showed mental toughness at such a big event. Their elements aren’t technically as difficult as some of the other competitors but their grace under pressure could result in a great top five finish for them.
Coming in as a bit of a question mark, Madeline Aaron and Max Settlage could easily play spoiler here in St. Paul. They competed only once this season (143.48) due to injury, but coach Dalilah Sappenfield says these two are coming in prepared. It’s just hard to know where to place them at this point, but don’t count them out.
In the marquee event of the championship, the ladies field promises lots of drama, highlighted by the heated rivalry of past champions Gracie Gold (2014) and Ashley Wagner (2012, 2013, 2015). Outside of the top two, the battle for bronze and for the top five is really wide open, with several ladies capable of making a splash.
Gracie Gold Season Average: 198.80 Season Best: 202.80 On paper, Gold is the clear favorite for the title: she has stronger technical elements and average GOE than Wagner and gets rewarded with high PCS. Overall, the programs she competed this season are stronger than past ones, in terms of content and execution. In reality, Gracie struggles with confidence and can fall apart under pressure. In recent years, we’ve rarely seen her compete two clean programs at the same event and she’s coming off a big disappointment at the Grand Prix Final. Her competitive issues all seem to be mental. I believe she knows she can beat Wagner in technical elements, but she fails to capture an audience like her rival. Will see her competing with confidence-- or with nerves?
Ashley Wagner Season Average: 193.89 Season Best: 202.52 Reigning champion Ashley Wagner is entering Nationals much as she did last year, coming off a great performance at the Grand Prix Final, and with better chances of winning another title than many would’ve given her earlier in the year. Even a later stage in her career, Ashley has made big improvements in her skating since the Sochi Olympics and posted personal bests in all three categories (SP, LP, Total) in competition this season. However, Ashley can easily take herself out of the gold medal race if she cannot complete a 3-3 in her programs, which she has struggled with this season. She must be technically close to perfect to keep herself near what Gold can score in TES. A completed 3-3 (3 of them, to be exact) is what Ashley will need to grab that third title.
Polina Edmunds Season Average: 175.95 Season Best: 183.2 Perhaps at an “growing pains” point in her career, Polina has struggled to get the placements she wants on the Grand Prix this year. The international judges seem to be unimpressed with what Polina is putting on the ice, but she tends to score better in the U.S. than overseas. What she has going for her is consistency under pressure, but she suffered from jump calls in the Grand Prix that cost major points. In my opinion, the content of her programs are lacking in performance value and she’s still struggling with connecting to her music on the ice. Last year, she was lucky enough to go to Worlds after a fourth place finish because Karen Chen went to junior Worlds, but Polina can’t count on that this season. This is a big year for her, as she looks to solidify her spot as the U.S.’s third lady looking towards 2018.
Karen Chen Season Average:170.75 Season Best: 175.93 Karen Chen had a rough start this season, with a 159.18 at the U.S. Classic and reported issues with several pairs of skating boots. I feel Karen gets underscored internationally, but she may be better rewarded at home. Technically, Karen can struggle on the jumps at times and let mistakes pile up. Karen earned two top five finishes in her first year on the Grand Prix circuit and a medal at Golden Spin. Please note that if you take the low U.S. Classic score out of her season average equation, it ends up being much closer to Edmunds’ at 174.61. The quality of her spins and spiral should not be overlooked, nor her great facial expression and connection to her music. By this point in the season, I would think her boot issues have been resolved and you know she’s hungry to repeat her podium finish from last year.
Courtney Hicks Season Average:170.66 Season Best: 183.12 Also not to be counted out, Courtney Hicks won a breakthrough medal on the Grand Prix this season and enters Nationals on a high note. Courtney is known for her powerful jumps, though at times her power gets the best of her consistency on the ice. After experimenting with the triple axel unsuccessfully early in the season, I don’t think we’ll see her attempt it in St. Paul. Courtney did share we would be seeing a new free skate costume though : ) Her jumps can stand out amongst the field, but Courtney’s other technical elements and PCS are lacking in quality for me. She can certainly take advantage of other’s mistakes though, if she can contain those jumps.
Mirai Nagasu Season Average: 168.23 Season Best: 175.64 Mirai Nagasu seems to be skating with a renewed freedom and joy this season. Her jumps are looking improved and she had a top five finish at her Grand Prix event and won an international Challenger event. She’s coming into Nationals with a bit of momentum and with a strong set of skates behind her. Her spins and spirals are also at the top of the field. Mirai tends to be underscored and is judged harshly on her jump rotations. Technically, she can let a performance get away from her if too many mistakes pile up. Mirai needs to have a *moment* at Nationals to insert herself back onto the Worlds team and in the international conversation.
Predictions: Okay, it’s really a toss up between the top two for the gold medal and I can really see it going either way. Ashley is going to need to stay on her feet for all 3 of her planned 3-3s to stay close to Gracie’s technical score. In addition, I think Ashley needs Gracie to make a mistake (which isn’t really all that unlikely IMO) or to create *A MOMENT* like she did at Nationals last year to win again. Considering that Ashley is scoring higher than she ever has in her career, my gut tells me Ashley Wagner will be the one to have the grit to pull out good performances under pressure. I expect Gracie Gold to skate well, perhaps very well, in one segment of the competition but I don’t trust her to put two great skates together.
Chen, Hicks and Nagasu are my picks for the rest of the top five. It’s a tight race between these three, and I’m really struggling to pick amongst them. Intuition is telling me that Karen and Mirai will have a good event and their season best scores are separated by less than a point. Because of everything she has been through, I can see an audience really rallying behind Mirai Nagasu and her fresh start this season. I think she’ll have a moment and edge Karen Chen for third. Like Gold, I don’t expect Courtney Hicks to put down two clean skates, but be consistent enough for a top five finish.
It seems harsh to put Polina Edmunds all the way in sixth, considering her past placements, but I feel like her programs this season don’t have the spark she needs to stand out in the field. I think she will be consistent but unmemorable and get a few jump calls. I am excited to see Angela Wang compete and I would love to see her skate well for 7th. Hannah Miller, Tyler Pierce and Mariah Bell should round out your top ten.
Looking over the mens field for this year’s event, of course it is missing Jason Brown, Joshua Farris and Richard Dornbush, but don't be fooled- there is still no shortage of interesting storylines to watch. In a field as wide open as this, exciting surprises are sure to happen. Here's a look at our competitors:
Max Aaron Season Average: 244.68 Season Best 258.95 (Skate America) Max’s competitive advantage comes in the form of quadruple jumps. Of this field, he is perhaps the most powerful jumper and can easily accumulate enough technical points to beat the competition. Many are praising the improved artistry in his programs this year, but I still feel the overall quality of his performances still needs work. He won over the crowd and the judges at Skate America and he could very easily do that again with a clean skate here.
Adam Rippon Season Average: 237.59 Season Best: 248.63 (Rostelecom Cup) What Adam may lack at times in jumping prowess, he makes up for in intricate footwork and the best spins of the competition. Adam’s programs have scored well this season (two 4ths in the Grand Prix) and he’s an audience favorite. He has only one quad in his repertoire,the quad lutz, which he has struggled with. Here, jump landings are key for his bid for the title- he has to stay as close as he possibly can in the technical mark to allow his PCS to carry him to gold.
Nathan Chen Season Average: 232.72 Season Best: 236.76 (JGP Colorado) Nathan competed this season on the junior circuit and is coming to St. Paul with the Junior Grand Prix Final championship title. He has three quads in his free skate to amp up his technical score, but lacks the PCS that some of his more experienced competitors will get. Perhaps the most important thing he has going for him is his consistency under pressure- he’s been great this season in competition and it sets him up well for a shot at the podium.
Ross Miner Season Average: 224.65 Season Best: 248.92 (Rostelecom Cup) Ross comes to this event on a high note after an up and down early season. He won the short program at the US Classic and finished third overall but placed seventh at Skate America before winning bronze at Rostelecom Cup. Ross has competed this season with one quad in his free skate, which is technically less difficult than some of the other men but can land him in good standing when others make mistakes on higher risk elements.
Grant Hochstein Season Average: 217.75 Season Best: 235.63 (NHK Trophy) With two fourth place finishes on the Grand Prix this season (Cup of China and NHK), Grant had good results in deep fields to start his year. He competes with a quad toe in both programs, but has a tendency to get low GOE on that element. The quality of his programs are great to watch and he could make a statement here if he can jump cleanly.
Tim Dolensky Season Average: 212.88 Season Best: 219.06 (Skate Canada) Tim Dolensky had a wonderful moment at Skate Canada, with a beautiful freeskate that rebounded him from a disappointing short. New to the senior grand prix, Tim is still growing into the senior level but he has a really graceful quality to his skating and I’m looking forward to seeing him compete here. He did compete with a quad the last time we saw him in Canada.
Vincent Zhao Season Average: 209.82 Season Best: 221.92 (Sectionals) Like Nathan Chen, Vincent competed as a junior in the Grand Prix and made a trip to the Grand Prix Final, where he placed fourth. Vincent competed this season with one quad in his free program.
PREDICTIONS: Alright, I am going #straightfromtheheart with this pick- Adam Rippon will win the crowd over with a fantastic performance and grab his first national title. Of the field, I feel like Adam has the best combination of technical elements (don't forget those spins and footwork!) AND components, plus he was consistent in the Grand Prix. While Max Aaron has made huge strides in the performance area, it's still not up to par. I think he'll make a mistake or two, but score enough to get him silver and back to the World team. I think Nathan Chen will quad his way onto the podium with his consistency under pressure. It will be interesting to see if the USFSA will send him to senior worlds and/or junior worlds, depending on his placement here. I was impressed with Ross Miner at Rostelecom Cup this year, and I want to see him put down some great skates here for fourth. I was also very impressed by Grant Hochstein in the Grand Prix, and I think he will finish in the top five, with a continuation of that consistency. I'd like to see Tim Dolensky get in the last group for the free skate and put down a solid skate to land in sixth place. Alexander Johnson, Vincent Zhao and Sean Rabbit should place in the top ten.
About the Blog:
Reviews, predictions and opinions in the magical, sparkly and dramatic field of figure skating.