U.S. Figure Skating Championships 2018: Full Preview and Olympic Predictions

Beau Dure@duresportFeatured ColumnistJanuary 2, 2018

U.S. Figure Skating Championships 2018: Full Preview and Olympic Predictions

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    Tonya Harding and the actor who played her (Margot Robbie)
    Tonya Harding and the actor who played her (Margot Robbie)Associated Press

    From Peggy Fleming and Dorothy Hamill to Michelle Kwan and Sarah Hughes, American female figure skaters have always boosted the medal count and the TV ratings.

    This year, if you want to see something about Olympic medal-favorite U.S. women, go to the theater and watch I, Tonya, a film reliving the drama between Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan (the latter, a two-time medalist). No American woman has been on the medal stand since Sasha Cohen took silver in 2006.

    Instead, Team USA has a wide-open competition for the women's qualifying spots. The up-and-down U.S. men are up again, and a country that once barely knew what ice dancing was is now a juggernaut that keeps turning out dance phenoms.

    We're not overhyping here. One skater and one pair of skaters set world junior records last year, and they're not likely to make this team.

    The U.S. Championships don't strictly determine the Olympic team. But they are the last chance to make a good or bad impression before punching a ticket to the Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, next month.

    Here's how, what and why to watch...

How to Make the Team

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    GEOFF ROBINS/Getty Images

    In 2014, the top three women at the U.S. Championships were Gracie Gold, Polina Edmunds and Mirai Nagasu.

    The team selected to go to the Sochi Games: Gold, Edmunds and Ashley Wagner.

    U.S. Figure Skating chose Wagner because she had been better than Nagasu in international competition. The decision was controversial but somewhat vindicated down the road. Wagner had a so-so Sochi performance, helping the U.S. take bronze in the team event and placing seventh individually, but the experience propelled her to silver in the 2016 World Championships. No U.S. woman had medaled at the World Championships since Kimmie Meissner and Cohen took gold and bronze, respectively, in 2006.

    Officially, the selection criteria will weigh the following events in order of priority, according to U.S. Figure Skating (via NBCOlympics.com):

    2018 U.S. Championships
    2017 Grand Prix Final
    2017 World Championships
    2017 Grand Prix Series
    2017 Four Continents Championships
    2017 U.S. Championships
    2017 World Junior Championships
    2017 Junior Grand Prix Final

    You'll see references to these results throughout these slides.

    But the selectors don't use a points system. They can't. No one skater is likely to be involved in all eight of those events.

    So you're going to see two judgments this week. The first will be judges using the points system figure skating has used for a decade and change, giving points per jump or spin in addition to some overall scores. The second will be a committee deciding who gets to go to the Games.

When and How to Watch

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    Diane Bondareff/Associated Press

    If you're tuning into figure skating for the first time, you're in for a treat. NBC's broadcasts feature the wonderful duo of Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir, who bring three key elements to the airwaves:

    1. They know their stuff. Lipinski won the 1998 Olympic gold at age 15. Weir has a World Championship medal along with two Olympic appearances and three U.S. titles.

    2. They can explain their stuff. If a skater does something that will or will not impress the judges, you'll hear about it instantly. Alongside veteran broadcaster Terry Gannon, they guide the audience through an often-befuddling sport.

    3. They're charming and entertaining. Aside from figure skating, they've done event coverage on the Super Bowl, the Kentucky Derby, at least one dog show and the Academy Awards. They've even commented on people skating at Rockefeller Center.

    Each discipline has a short program and a free program. Here's the full schedule from NBC's site (all times ET):

    Wednesday, 11 p.m.-1 a.m.: Women's short program (NBCSN)

    Thursday, 4-6:30 p.m.: Pairs short program (starting on Olympic Channel; shifting to NBCSN at 5)

    Thursday, 8:30 p.m.-midnight: Men's short program (NBCSN)

    Friday, 4-6:30 p.m.: Ice dancing short program (NBCSN)

    Friday, 8-11 p.m.: Women's free program (NBC)

    Saturday, 4-6 p.m.: Pairs free program (NBC)

    Saturday, 8-11 p.m.: Men's free program (NBCSN)

    Sunday, 3-6 p.m.: Ice dancing free program (NBC)

Women's Competition

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    Tim Bradbury/Getty Images

    Karen Chen is the defending champion, and her fourth-place finish at the 2017 World Championships clinched a third spot for the U.S. in this year's Olympics. She's still just 18. The bad news: Neither she nor any other U.S. woman had a good Grand Prix season.

    Gracie Gold, who finished fourth in the 2014 Olympics and two World Championships after that, ended her 2017-18 season to seek treatment for depression, anxiety and an eating disorder. That leaves the holdovers from 2014, along with a couple of young skaters on the upswing.

    Other events may have skaters who'll make the squad even if they're not in the top three in San Jose, California. This one isn't certain. Wagner has the resume, but would she get another call with another fourth-place finish? That might depend on who finishes in front of her. If an upstart skater barely edges her for third, sure. If she finishes fifth behind at least three skaters whose performances in the last 18 months equal or better Wagner's? Probably not.

    Surely in with a podium finish:

    Chen: (see above)

    Ashley Wagner: Aside from 2014, she has been on the U.S. Championships podium for the past six years, winning three. Last year was eventful, to say the least: She revealed her history of concussions, posted a photo of an intruder, withdrew from Skate America in mid-skate because of an ankle infection and changed her free skate.

    Mirai Nagasu: A 16-year-old Olympian in 2010, finishing fourth, then controversially omitted in favor of Wagner in 2014. The last three years have not been great: no better than fourth in the U.S. Championships, no Grand Prix Finals and only one World Championship appearance (10th).

    Mariah Bell: Breakthrough season last year for the 21-year-old.

    Bradie Tennell: The only U.S. woman to break the 200-point mark this season (at Skate America), and she won't turn 20 until the end of the month.

    These skaters might need some help, even with a podium finish:

    Polina Edmunds: Followed up her stunning second-place finish (at age 15) at the 2014 U.S. Championships with a ninth-place finish in the Olympics, two straight eighth-place finishes at Worlds and a win at the 2015 Four Continents. But since taking second again in the 2016 U.S. Championships, she has struggled with a foot injury, missing a season-and-a-half before returning this season with lackluster results.

    Caroline Zhang: Any award for sheer perseverance? Her career high was in her only Grand Prix Final...in 2007.

    Courtney Hicks: Has two Grand Prix event medals but has trended downward in the U.S. Championships from fourth in 2013 to 12th last year.

    Angela Wang: Good score of 183.85 in October's Finlandia Trophy.

         

    Relevant Results from 2017 (Grand Prix events in fall; other events last spring; * not participating in this week's U.S. Championships)

    • Grand Prix Final: none

    • World Championships: Chen fourth, Wagner seventh, Bell 12th

    • Grand Prix events: Tennell third (USA), Wagner third (Canada), Nagasu fourth (Japan), Hicks fourth (Canada), Bell sixth (Russia), Chen seventh (Canada)/eighth (USA), Edmunds 10th (France), Amber Glenn 10th (China)

    • Four Continents: Nagasu third, Bell sixth, Chen 12th

    • U.S. Championships: Chen, Wagner, Bell, Nagasu, Zhang

    • World Junior Championships: Tennell seventh

    • Junior Grand Prix Final: none

         

    2017-18 Season-Best Scores

    • 204.10 Tennell

    • 194.46 Nagasu

    • 188.56 Bell

    • 183.94 Wagner

    • 183.85 Wang

    • 182.80 Chen

    • 182.57 Hicks

         

    Career-Best Scores (2017-18 season unless noted)

    • 215.39 Wagner (2015-16)

    • 204.10 Tennell

    • 199.29 Chen (2016-17)

    • 194.95 Nagasu (2016-17)

    • 191.59 Bell (2016-17)

    • 187.50 Edmunds (2013-14)

    • 183.85 Wang

    • 183.60 Glenn (2016-17)

    • 183.12 Hicks (2015-16)

    • 176.48 Zhang (2007-08)

Pairs Competition

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    KAZUHIRO NOGI/Getty Images

    Pairs isn't exactly this country's strong suit. In fact, the U.S. earned only one spot in the Olympics.

    In with a win:

    Alexa Scimeca Knierim/Chris Knierim: Four top-10 finishes at Worlds and scores that are well ahead of the pack. And it's tough to top this comeback story last year: She was ill on their wedding day in June 2016 and for months afterward. They were named to the World Championship team in 2017 despite missing the U.S. Championships and went on to smash the 200-point barrier for the second time. No other U.S. pair has done so.

    Likely in with a win:

    Haven Denney/Brandon Frazier: Won the U.S. title in the Knierims' absence last year, bouncing back from missing a season through Denney's knee injury.

    Need to dazzle:

    Chelsea Liu/Brian Johnson: The great young hopes were seventh in last year's World Junior Championships, down from fifth the year before.

    Marissa Castelli/Mervin Tran: Castelli was ninth in the 2014 Olympics with Simon Shnapir.

    Tarah Kayne/Danny O'Shea: Great year in 2015-16—won the U.S. title, finished 13th in Worlds and set a career high of 182.02 at Four Continents. Withdrew from last year's U.S. Championships when Kayne suffered a concussion in the short program.

    Ashley Cain/Timothy LeDuc: Set a career best of 176.35 this season.

         

    Relevant Results from 2017 (Grand Prix events in fall; other events last spring)

    • Grand Prix Final: none

    • World Championships: Knierim/Knierim 10th, Denney/Frazier 20th

    • Grand Prix events: Knierim/Knierim fifth/fifth (Japan/USA), Castelli/Tran sixth (France), Cain/LeDuc sixth (China), Denney/Frazier seventh/seventh (Canada/USA), Deanna Stellato/Nathan Bartholomay eighth (USA)

    • Four Continents: Knierim/Knierim sixth, Denney/Frazier eighth, Cain/LeDuc ninth

    • U.S. Championships: Denney/Frazier, Castelli/Tran, Cain/LeDuc, Stellato/Bartholomay, Jessica Pfund/Joshua Santillan

    • World Junior Championships: Chelsea Liu/Brian Johnson seventh

    • Junior Grand Prix Final: none

         

    2017-18 Season-Best Scores

    • 192.51 Knierim/Knierim

    • 181.40 Liu/Johnson

    • 177.15 Castelli/Tran

    • 176.35 Cain/LeDuc

    • 172.95 Denney/Frazier

         

    Career-Best Scores (2017-18 unless noted)

    • 207.96 Knierim/Knierim (2015-16)

    • 192.65 Denney/Frazier (2016-17)

    • 182.02 Kayne/O'Shea (2015-16)

    • 181.40 Liu/Johnson

    • 177.15 Castelli/Tran

Men's Competition

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    TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/Getty Images

    Don't believe the U.S. men are contenders? Consider this: Only six skaters qualify for each year's Grand Prix Final, and this season, the U.S. had half of them.

    And there's a name you definitely need to know...

    Virtual lock, even if disaster strikes:

    Nathan Chen: The U.S. men's best by any measure—highest scorer ever, defending champion, Four Continents champion and second in the Grand Prix Final last season, then won both Grand Prix starts and the Grand Prix Final this season. He made his World Championship debut last season (missed 2016 event after suffering an injury in the U.S. Championships' exhibition gala) and finished sixth. And he's only 18.

    Surely in with a podium finish:

    Adam Rippon: The two-time World Junior champion (2008 and 2009) won the Four Continents and finished sixth in the World Championships back in 2010. The next few seasons weren't as strong, though he matched that sixth-place finish in 2016. His career resurgence continued with two Grand Prix Final appearances.

    Jason Brown: The returning Olympian (part of the bronze medal team and ninth individually in 2014) followed up with two World Championship appearances—fourth in 2015, seventh in 2017. He was a first-time Grand Prix finalist in December, finishing sixth.

    Likely in with a podium finish:

    Max Aaron: Earned one of each of the top four places in U.S. Championships from 2013 to 2016—first, third, fourth, second—then dropped to ninth last year. Finished seventh, eighth and eighth in three World Championship appearances. Set his career best this season.

    Vincent Zhou: 2017 World Junior champion (with the best score ever by a junior) and U.S. runner-up wasn't great in his first Grand Prix season, but this is a sport that loves emerging juniors, and the 17-year-old's scores are competitive with everyone but Chen.

    Needs to dazzle:

    Ross Miner: Three-time U.S. Championship medalist but not since 2013.

    Alexei Krasnozhon: Moved from Russia to the U.S. in 2014 and is still just 17 years old. U.S. junior champion last year and Junior Grand Prix Final champion in December.

    Grant Hochstein: Two-time national collegiate champion for Wayne State in 2010 and 2011 and then very little at the top level until 2015-16, when he posted the first of two straight fourth-place finishes at the U.S. Championships and placed 10th at the 2016 World Championships.

         

    Relevant Results from 2017 (Grand Prix events in fall; other events last spring; * participating in juniors rather than seniors in this week's U.S. Championships)

    • Grand Prix Final: Chen first, Rippon fifth, Brown sixth

    • World Championships: Chen sixth, Brown seventh

    • Grand Prix events: Chen first/first (Russia/USA), Rippon second/second (Japan/USA), Brown second/fourth (Canada/Japan), Aaron third/seventh (China/France), Zhou fourth (China), Miner sixth (USA), Hochstein 11th/ninth (Russia/China)

    • U.S. Championships: Chen, Zhou, Brown, Hochstein, Miner, Alexander Johnson, Timothy Dolensky, Sean Rabbitt, Aaron, Jordan Moeller

    • World Junior Championships: Zhou first, Krasnozhon eighth, Andrew Torgashev 25th

    • Junior Grand Prix Final: Krasnozhon first, *Camden Pulkinen second, Torgashev sixth

         

    2017-18 Season-Best Scores

    • 293.79 Chen

    • 266.45 Rippon
    • 261.56 Aaron

    • 261.14 Brown

    • 256.66 Zhou

    • 236.35 Krasnozhon

    • 233.72 Miner

         

    Career-Best Scores (2017-18 unless noted)

    • 307.46 Chen (2016-17)

    • 273.67 Brown (2016-17)

    • 267.53 Rippon (2016-17)

    • 261.56 Aaron

    • 258.11 Zhou (2016-17)

    • 248.92 Miner (2015-16)

    • 237.25 Hochstein (2015-16)

    • 236.35 Krasnozhon

Ice Dancing Competition

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    TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/Getty Images

    It's hard to remember the days when the U.S. was a non-factor in this event. Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto took silver in the 2006 Games along with a bunch of World Championship medals, and then they barely missed a second medal in 2010, while Meryl Davis and Charlie White kept the U.S. in silver. Davis and White came in 2014 for gold. Now there's hardly a podium without an American, and three teams are legit medal threats.

    (You may see Tanith Belbin White doing some commentary on figure skating and the occasional other Olympic event. Yes, she married Charlie White.)

    Virtual lock, even if disaster strikes:

    Maia Shibutani/Alex Shibutani: You've seen the "Shib Sibs" in ad campaigns, and they're not just a marketer's dream. From ninth in the 2014 Games, they've moved up to second and third in the last two World Championships, and they have the second-best all-time U.S. score behind Davis and White.

    Surely in with a podium finish:

    Madison Chock/Evan Bates: Slipping a bit in the World Championships—second in 2015, third in 2016, seventh last year—but their career best was set in April.

    Madison Hubbell/Zachary Donohue: Never higher than sixth in the World Championships but fourth in this year's Grand Prix Final.

    Need to dazzle:

    Kaitlin Hawayek/Jean-Luc Baker: The 2014 World Junior champions would probably make the Olympics from almost any country outside North America.

    Elliana Pogrebinsky/Alex Benoit: Fourth-place finishers in last year's U.S. Championships, this will be their first year out of juniors.

    Rachel Parsons/Michael Parsons: Won last year's World Junior Championship with the best junior score ever—164.83. This year's best of 163.14 is close.

    Lorraine McNamara/Quinn Carpenter: 2016 World Junior champions slipped to seventh last year.

         

    Relevant Results from 2017 (Grand Prix events in fall; other events last spring; * participating in juniors rather than seniors in this week's U.S. Championships)

    • Grand Prix Final: Shibutani/Shibutani third, Hubbell/Donohue fourth, Chock/Bates fifth

    • World Championships: Shibutani/Shibutani third, Chock/Bates seventh, Hubbell/Donohue ninth

    • Grand Prix events: Shibutani/Shibutani first/first (Russia/USA), Chock/Bates second/second (China/France), Hubbell/Donohue third/second (Canada/Japan), Hawayek/Baker fourth/fifth (Canada/USA), McNamara/Carpenter fifth (China), Pogrebinsky/Benoit seventh/seventh (China/France), Parsons/Parsons seventh/ninth (Russia/USA)

    • Four Continents: Shibutani/Shibutani second, Chock/Bates third, Hubbell/Donohue fourth

    • U.S. Championships: Shibutani/Shibutani, Chock/Bates, Hubbell/Donohue, Pogrebinsky/Benoit, Hawayek/Baker

    • World Junior Championships: Parsons/Parsons first, *Christina Carreira/Anthony Ponomarenko third, McNamara/Carpenter seventh

    • Junior Grand Prix Final: *Carreira/Ponomarenko second

         

    2017-18 Season-Best Scores

    • 194.25 Shibutani/Shibutani

    • 189.43 Hubbell/Donohue

    • 187.15 Chock/Bates

    • 165.20 Hawayek/Baker

    • 163.14 Parsons/Parsons

    • 160.51 McNamara/Carpenter

    • 154.14 Pogrebinsky/Benoit

         

    Career-Best Scores (2017-18 unless noted)

    • 194.25 Shibutani/Shibutani

    • 189.43 Hubbell/Donohue

    • 189.01 Chock/Bates (2016-17)

    • 177.36 Hawayek/Baker (2016-17)

    • 167.81 Pogrebinsky/Benoit (2016-17)

    • 164.83 Parsons/Parsons (2016-17)

    • 163.65 McNamara/Carpenter (2015-16)

Lights, Camera...Music!

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    Gill Allen/Associated Press

    The same International Skating Union database that gives us the top scores in each event also tells us each skater's current musical selections. Yes, it's a hefty dose of classical music and the occasional Broadway or film score (Max Aaron has Les Miserables for his short program and Phantom of the Opera for his free skate, and brace yourself for a lot of Moulin Rouge!), but if you like a bit of Top 40 or even some classic rock, keep an ear out for these selections:

         

    Men

    Jason Brown, short program: The Room Where It Happens (from Hamilton)

    Vincent Zhou, short program: Chasing Cars by Snow Patrol

    Timothy Dolensky, short program: Awake My Soul by Mumford and Sons

    Adam Rippon, free skate: O by Coldplay

    Ross Miner, free skate: Queen medley (hence the Freddie Mercury photo above)

         

    Women

    Starr Andrews, short program: Fever by Beyonce

    Starr Andrews, free skate: One Moment in Time by Whitney Houston

         

    Pairs

    Haven Denney/Brandon Frazier, short program: All of Me performed by John Legend

    Tarah Kayne/Danny O'Shea, short program: Take Me to Church by Hozier

    Chelsea Liu/Brian Johnson, short program: The Way You Make Me Feel and Black or White, both by Michael Jackson

    Marissa Castelli/Mervin Tran, short program: Fallin' by Alicia Keys

    Haven Denney/Brandon Frazier, free skate: Who Wants to Live Forever performed by Queen

    Marissa Castelli/Mervin Tran, free skate: Women by Shawn Phillips

         

    Ice Dance

    Kaitlin Hawayek/Jean-Luc Baker, short program: includes Sean Paul and Pitbull

    Maia Shibutani/Alex Shibutani, free skate: Paradise by Coldplay

    Madison Hubbell/Zachary Donohue, free skate: Across the Sky (instrumental) by Rag'n'Bone Man

    Madison Chock/Evan Bates, free skate: Imagine by John Lennon

Olympic Outlook

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    Ivan Sekretarev/Associated Press

    Whatever happens in San Jose, the U.S. will send a strong team to the Olympics. But how will it stack up globally?

         

    Team Event: According to the ISU's convoluted points system, the best overall team right now is Canada, closely followed by the athletes not representing Russia. The U.S. is third, a considerable distance ahead of Japan. If the Russian athletes are at all shaken by their country's Olympic ban, perhaps the U.S. can grab silver. Beating Canada for gold would be quite the upset, and it wouldn't be a shock if Japan takes bronze away from the U.S.

    Projection: Canada, Olympic Athletes of Russia, U.S.

         

    Men: Japan is dominant here, with defending world and Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu (who trains in Canada with the legendary Brian Orser) far ahead of the pack with a career best of 330.43. But Hanyu has had injury problems this season, and Nathan Chen beat Japan's Shoma Uno to win the Grand Prix Final by exactly 0.5 points. Russia's Mikhail Kolyada was a close third.

    Projection: Uno, Chen, Hanyu

         

    Women: Russia's Alina Zagitova (age 15, world junior champion) and Maria Sotskova were 1-2 in the Grand Prix Final ahead of Canada's Kaetlyn Osmond and Italian veteran Carolina Kostner. The only American whose career best would have been competitive in that competition (third place, barely) is Ashley Wagner. The best-ever score in this event belongs to yet another Russian, Evgenia Medvedeva, whose participation next month is uncertain because of injury and the whole "Russian ban" thing. Japan also has two legit contenders in Satoko Miyahara and Kaori Sakamoto.

    Projection: Zagitova, Osmond, Kostner

         

    Pairs: The Knierims lead the way for the U.S. this season at an uninspiring 16th on the season's scoring list. Even their career best would only place them eighth this season.

    Projection: Aljona Savchenko/Bruno Massot (Germany, Grand Prix Final winners), Sui Wenjing/Han Cong (China, world champions), Meagan Duhamel/Eric Radford (Canada)

         

    Ice Dance: For nearly a generation, Canada's Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir have battled the great Americans for the top place on the podium. They won gold in 2010, took two years off after taking silver in 2014 and then merely came back to win the World Championships and set their career best (199.86) at Skate Canada in October. But someone finally broke the 200-point mark, and it was the French couple of Gabriella Papadakis/Guillaume Cizeron, the world champions in Virtue/Moir's two-year absence and the Grand Prix Final winners ahead of the Canadians. The Shib Sibs have an outside chance of getting into the top two, and two more American duos are set to pounce if someone should stumble.

    Projection: Virtue/Moir, Papadakis/Cizeron, Shibutani/Shibutani

         

    So that's three medals for the USA if things go reasonably well. Four would be difficult. Two should be reasonably certain.