Although the Prudential 2013 U.S. Figure Skating Championships began this past weekend in Omaha, Neb., the heavy hitters of the event won’t hit the ice for competition until the pairs and women’s short programs begin Thursday.
The national championships are always a big event, but the looming Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games put extra importance on this year’s event. The skaters who do well this week will qualify for the 2013 ISU World Figure Skating Championships in March in London, Ont., and that event determines how many skaters the United States will send to Sochi.
Headlining the women’s competition is defending U.S. champion Ashley Wagner. She has had a phenomenal run since winning the national crown last year in San Jose, Calif., and, despite some injuries of late, is still the heavy favorite for the title this year.
In the men’s event, Jeremy Abbott is hoping to win his fourth national title. Ross Miner, a two-time U.S. bronze medalist, and Adam Rippon, who once trained with Abbott, are among those who will put the pressure on Abbott in Omaha.
Ice dancing is led by 2010 Olympic silver medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who are coming off a victory at the ISU Grand Prix Final last month. That event featured the top six teams in the world this season, including the 2010 Olympic champions (Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada) and was held in Sochi.
The pairs event is wide open as the 2012 champions Caydee Denney (a 2010 Olympian) and John Coughlin are sidelined while he recovers from hip surgery.
Here are eight story lines to follow this week:
ASHLEY WAGNER, THE ‘IT’ GIRL
A year ago, Ashley Wagner shed the “almost girl” label. How will she fare now that she is the defending champion? Leading up to the 2012 U.S. championships, Wagner had been known more for her misses than her hits — including missing out on the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games by one spot. But since she won the U.S. crown, Wagner has won the 2012 Four Continents Championships, two Grand Prix titles and placed second at the ISU Grand Prix Final. She also was the highest American woman finisher at last year’s worlds in fourth. But Wagner claims she is not done yet. “I’m hungry for the gold,” she said recently. And Sochi, she added, “is now so close it’s really on the back of my mind anymore.” Wagner recently got some advice from some Olympic champions when she performed at a show in Cleveland honoring Scott Hamilton and all 12 U.S. Olympic gold medalists. Evan Lysacek asked her if the stress is overwhelming yet. Wagner said, “I think I have gray hairs.”
FOLLOWING WAGNER’S FOOTSTEPS
Wagner is the clear favorite to win the women’s title. Who will earn the second spot? The frontrunners seem to be Gracie Gold, who is making her senior debut at nationals after winning the junior title last year, and Christina Gao, a freshman at Harvard who has had a surprisingly strong season this year. Mirai Nagasu, who placed fourth at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, might also figure in the mix, but she has been erratic of late. Gold has been much ballyhooed but struggled in her first Grand Prix event in Canada where she placed seventh. She rebounded with a silver medal at the Rostelecom Cup in Russia, however. Gao, meanwhile, wound up joining Wagner at the Grand Prix Final. When asked about Gao’s ability to juggle Harvard and elite skating, Wagner said, “She probably has more brainpower than I do.” Rachael Flatt, who competed in the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, and two-time U.S. champion Alissa Czisny both withdrew with injuries.
Will Jeremy Abbott win a fourth title? The men’s field is not quite as strong as it was when Abbott was duking it out with 2010 Olympic champion Evan Lysacek and Johnny Weir, a fan favorite, reality show star and two-time Olympian. Both Lysacek and Weir withdrew citing injuries. Abbott has been the top U.S. man, but he finished eighth at worlds last year and did not qualify for the Grand Prix Final this year. Still, he has a quad in his free skate for nationals (he hopes to have it in short at worlds) and when he skates his best, he can be sensational to watch. Abbott’s free skate is to music from “Les Miserables,” the movie that is in the running for best picture at the Academy Awards this year. Abbott, who saw the movie when it opened on Christmas Day and once more, hopes he (like Hugh Jackman) can come up big this year.
Who are the top men in the field after Abbott? Ross Miner is a two-time U.S. bronze medalist and Adam Rippon claimed the U.S. silver medal in 2012. Others to watch are Joshua Farris, the 2012 world junior silver medalist and the Junior Grand Prix Final runner-up, and Jason Brown, the 2012 world junior bronze medalist and one of the more interesting stylists on ice.
Something really crazy would have to happen for Meryl Davis and Charlie White not to win their fifth U.S. title this week. They are far and away the top American team and one of the best in the world. Who will join them at worlds? Four teams will be vying for the remaining two spots on the world team: siblings Maia and Alex Shibutani, Madison Chock and Evan Bates (a 2010 Olympian), Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue and Lynn Kriengkrairut and Logan Giulietti‐Schmitt.
NEW PAIRS CHAMPIONS TO EMERGE
One thing is certain in the pairs competition: There will not be a repeat winner this year. The last time a U.S. pairs team defended its title was in 2009, and 2013 is not going to be any different. In the absence of Denney and Coughlin, yet another pairs team will be crowned the national title. The team of Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir, who last year placed fifth at nationals, are considered the team to beat. The 2012 runners-up (Mary Beth Marley and Rockne Brubaker) split, as did bronze medalists Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig. Ladwig, a 2010 Olympian, is now skating with partner Lindsay Davis, but the duo finished sixth and seventh in their two Grand Prix events this season.
THE MAGIC ICE OF OMAHA
What is Omaha’s connection to skating? Aside from the cold, Omaha has not been known as a destination for this winter sport. However, the city did play host to nationals in 1967, when Peggy Fleming won the fourth of her five U.S. titles. Interestingly, that year, the U.S. champions in women’s, men’s, pairs and ice dancing all went on to reach the podium at the world championships — a feat that has not been accomplished since.
Will these be the last nationals for coach John Nicks? The 83-year-old coach, who hails from England but has spent much of his life in Southern California, has said that this could be his final trip to his “favorite event.” Nicks, who has guided a Who’s Who of Skaters from Jojo Starbuck and Ken Shelley to Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner to Sasha Cohen, currently is coaching Ashley Wagner.Amy Rosewater is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.