COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – Seven months after Team USA’s skaters finished competition in Sochi, Russia, many of them were readying for the upcoming season and some were already talking about competing in PyeongChang, South Korea, in 2018.
Rohene Ward, who choreographed Jason Brown’s masterful Riverdance–inspired free skate last season, said he already knows what music he wants the skater to use less than four years from now should Brown skate in South Korea. Of course, he wouldn’t reveal the music choice so we’ll just have to wait and see.
Team USA’s elite skaters — including 10 Olympians who competed in Sochi back in February — convened late last month in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where they had their programs evaluated by officials.
The skaters bunked in the U.S. Olympic Training Center, where they mingled with the likes of three-time Olympic skeleton racer Katie Uhlaender in the dining hall, and also attended seminars on everything from nutrition to sports psychology.
The international season for many of the top-level skaters kicks off Wednesday with the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic in Salt Lake City. Polina Edmunds, 16, the U.S. silver medalist who placed ninth in Sochi, headlines the women’s competition.
Here are some of the big storylines to follow as we approach the start of a new season and new Olympic quadrennium.
1) Life after Meryl Davis and Charlie White
Ice dance certainly will be a bit different in the absence of Meryl Davis and Charlie White this season. They capped off their 17-year competitive career by becoming the first Americans to win an ice dancing Olympic gold medal in Sochi and then both skaters took their dance moves to the ballroom floor on “Dancing with the Stars.”
Davis and White won six national championships in a row and this season will mark the first time since 2008 that a new U.S. ice dance champion will be crowned. The top two American teams are Madison Chock and Evan Bates, who were runners-up to Davis and White at the 2014 nationals, and Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani, the sister-brother team that placed third. Both Chock and Bates and the Shibutanis represented Team USA in Sochi and will face each other in the season-opening grand prix event, Hilton HHonors Skate America, Oct. 24-26 outside of Chicago.
Chock and Bates know the competition will be tough even with Davis and White out of the picture this season. “I don’t want people to think that we’re assuming anything this season,” said Bates, who also skated in the Winter Games in Vancouver, British Columbia. “We have to put out our best performances at the national championships to be the national champions and that’s the way it should be. We’re working harder than ever.”
2) Abbott changes mind about retirement
Jeremy Abbott continually said that he was not returning to nationals after the 2014 competition in Boston, but he decided after the Winter Games and worlds that he still has some gas left in his competition tank.
“When the season started last year, I knew it was going to be grueling and long,” said Abbott, who turned 29 in June. “I put 100 percent into the last Olympics, and I was just done. I was exhausted. But after the Olympics, I felt a burst of energy, a renewed sense of enthusiasm and I went to worlds and I said, ‘Wow, I love this.’ I learned so much from last season and how to compete.
“I had some epic mistakes,” he added, laughing at his own misfortune from Sochi, where he crashed into the boards during the short program. “But I still found joy from competing. I want to test myself again.”
Abbott, a two-time Olympian and four-time U.S. champion, will make his season debut at Skate America. He will use his short program from last season, “Lilies of the Valley,” (although this could change later in the season) and will skate to “Adagio for Strings” in the long program.
3) Wagner seeks return to top of the podium
On the women’s side, Ashley Wagner also is returning this season. A two-time national champion who made her Olympic debut in Sochi, Wagner is 23 but has set her sights on another trip to the Winter Games in 2018.
“I can still go and fight and show those babies I can still show them a thing or two,” Wagner said.
Wagner has an impressive resume but finished fourth at nationals in 2014. She hopes she can prove she is still a force to be reckoned with at nationals in Greensboro, North Carolina, in January.
4) What’s next after Riverdance?
Jason Brown’s riveting performance to “Reel Around the Sun” from Riverdance at nationals generated millions of views on YouTube. The program, filled with intricate, crowd-pleasing footwork as well as dynamic triples and spins, was such a hit that Brown even performed it on the post-Sochi skating tour, Stars on Ice. Brown, who became so popular his ponytail acquired its own Twitter handle, now has the daunting task of providing fans with a sequel this season. No, he will not be performing to Irish dance again this season and he even plans to wear his hair down in his short program (Brown showed off a new do with two braids in the back at Champs Camp) but fans can expect the U.S. silver medalist to perform with the same attention to detail as he did in the past. His short program is a blues number and his free skate will be to “Tristan and Iseult,” which is based on a French medieval poem. “I love that people are like, ‘What’s going to be next?’” Brown said. “I want all of my programs to be in another category.” The programs once again are being choreographed by Rohene Ward and Brown said they might not be as fast-paced as Riverdance, but they that doesn’t mean they’re any easier. Further challenging himself this season, he hopes to add a quadruple jump to his arsenal. “I love the process,” Brown said. “Every year it’s different and every year I never do the same spins or combination of spins,” Brown said. “Now it’s time for me to figure out how I’m going to rock this one and hopefully make it memorable.”
5) How will Gracie Gold fare with Frank Carroll for a full year?
Gracie Gold pulled off one of the most remarkable turnarounds last season when she decided to uproot her life and move to Southern California to work with coach Frank Carroll less than six months before Sochi. Carroll, who guided Evan Lysacek to the Olympic gold medal in Vancouver and molded Michelle Kwan into a world champion, got Gold mentally and physically ready for the toughest season of her career. Gold ended the season with a national title, an Olympic bronze medal in the team event and she placed fourth in the women’s event in Sochi.
He’s been her full-time coach now for nearly a year, and Gold is a much more confident competitor. Carroll recently was tabbed by U.S. Figure Skating to mentor American coaches and said he is not taking on any more skaters than the ones currently in his stable. Looks like Gold got in just in time.
6) Polina Part II
Polina Edmunds provided the biggest surprise at nationals last season when, at the age of 15, she skated to the silver medal. It was her first senior-level showing at nationals and it launched her into a spot at the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, where she placed ninth. The finish was strong, especially considering it was her international debut at the senior level. Now 16, Edmunds is hoping to build on her success. She recently obtained her driver’s permit and her coach, David Glynn, has such confidence in the teenager’s abilities that he let her take his Audi for a ride to Jamba Juice. “I did a lot of directing,” Glynn said with a laugh. This season, in addition to working with Glynn and Edmunds’ mother, Nina, (a former skater who competed in Russia), Edmunds has enlisted former national champion Rudy Galindo as a choreographer. No longer a surprise, Edmunds is hoping to contend for the title.
7) New pairs teams on the block
A lot has changed in the U.S. pairs landscape since Sochi. Two U.S. teams competed in the 2014 Winter Games and neither team is still skating together now. Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir split after an eight-year career that included two U.S. championships. And Felicia Zhang decided to pursue her academic career and end her skating partnership with Nathan Bartholomay. Castelli is now training with Mervin Tran, a Canadian skater, and they potentially can skate at nationals, just not international competitions. Shnapir, meanwhile, has teamed up with DeeDee Leng and they plan to skate at the Rostelecom Cup in Moscow and the NHK Trophy in Japan this season. Bartholomay, meanwhile, is now training with Gretchen Donlan in Florida.
Leng and Shnapir seemed excited to begin their new campaign together while at Champs Camp. Shnapir and Castelli had very publicly discussed their discontent over the years, and the fact that Shnapir was smiling a lot at Champs Camp signaled optimism. Said Shanpir, “I knew that if I was going to do this again I was not going to be miserable.” So far, it seems, so good. Leng and Shnapir appear to be a good athletic match, coach Bobby Martin said, and they seem compatible off it. When Shanpir went to Indianapolis to try out, they said they knew in about 10 minutes it was a good match. Then they went to dinner. “We sat outside and talked for about four hours,” Shnapir said. “I had a good feeling then that it was going to work out.”
One team that has stuck together is Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim. The Colorado Springs-based couple had missed a shot at competing in Sochi, placing fourth at nationals. They have moved on from the disappointment and in April announced their engagement. They will make their season debut at Skate America, which is being held in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, not far from where Scimeca began her skating career. Another team to watch is that of Haven Denney (whose sister Caydee is a 2010 Olympian) and Brandon Frazier. They, too, will compete at Skate America.
Amy Rosewater is a freelance writer and editor for TeamUSA.org. A former sports reporter for The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, she covered her fifth Olympic Games in Sochi. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and USA Today.