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Who To Watch At The U.S. Figure Skating Championships

By Lynn Rutherford | Jan. 19, 2016, 4:05 p.m. (ET)

(L-R) Madison Chock and Evan Bates, Ashley Wagner, Adam Rippon and Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim are among the top competitors at the 2016 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Saint Paul, Minn.

Top skaters descend on Saint Paul, Minnesota, this week for the 2016 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships, and storylines abound.

Will the leading lady be Ashley Wagner, or Gracie Gold? What will be more rewarded in the men’s event — artistry or quadruple jumps? Will form hold in the talent-packed ice dance event? Here’s a look:

Another Wagner-Gold Showdown

Saint Paul plays host to another faceoff between three-time and defending U.S. champion Ashley Wagner and 2014 U.S. champion Gracie Gold, and at this point, it’s a pick ‘em.

Wagner, 24, arrives with the hotter skates. At the Grand Prix Final in Barcelona, Spain, last month, her free skate earned 139.77 points, the highest international score ever recorded by a U.S. woman. But a sub-par short program, including a fall on a jump combination, kept her off the podium in fourth place.

“The biggest test for me is when I put out a solid short program — what am I going to do with that long program, am I going to be able to keep the momentum?” the always-honest Wagner said on a media teleconference last week. “It’s never really the same feeling going out there. I can try and learn as much as I can from my experiences, but at the same time it never gets any easier.”

After a strong early season, Gold placed a disappointing fifth in Barcelona, doubling out of the triple flip jump in her short program and missing it again in her free skate. The 20-year-old has all the technical goods plus sophisticated choreography, but nerves can get the best of her at big competitions.

“I’m tired of going down without a fight, like, by doing doubles,” Gold told reporters on her teleconference. “I want to at least go down guns blazing.”

Three U.S. women’s slots are on the line for the 2016 World Figure Skating Championships in Boston (March 28-April 3). There is no shortage of contenders. Courtney Hicks, a big-jumping California skater, has added more artistic nuance to her skating this season and won a silver medal at NHK Trophy in November. Polina Edmunds, a 2014 Olympian, and reigning U.S. bronze medalist Karen Chen both have the goods to contend. Mirai Nagasu, the 2008 U.S. champion and a 2010 Olympian who is still only 22 years old, is a fan favorite with the ability to bring audiences to their feet.

Close Contest In Ice Dance

Ice dance is, by far, the strongest discipline in the United States. This season, the United States fielded three couples at the Grand Prix Final, a first for any country.

Defending U.S. champions Madison Chock and Evan Bates, the reigning world silver medalists, had a successful but challenging fall season. Feedback from officials at a “B” level event in September prompted them to create a new short dance. After winning Skate America and placing second at Cup of China, they re-choreographed a large portion of their free dance, set to a Rachmaninoff piano concerto.

“This season so far we’ve been really open, saying we haven’t quite nailed the free dance the way we really want to,” Bates said. “There is still a lot of season left. The way we skate in practice has really improved. We’re finally settling into it after more than a month without changing steps or changing choreography.”

Siblings Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani re-invented themselves this season. Always strong technical skaters, they have amped up their personalities on the ice, enjoying tremendous audience response to their free dance, set to Coldplay’s “Fix You.” With five U.S. silver and bronze medals to their credit, they would dearly love to win their first U.S. title in Saint Paul.

“We’re the most prepared we’ve even been,” Alex Shibutani said. “There’s not a doubt in my mind we will skate our hearts out.”

Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, the 2015 U.S. bronze medalists who also qualified for Barcelona, have reinvigorated their careers with a move to a new training center in Quebec. They, too, look strong for a spot on the U.S. world team.

Depleted Men’s Field

Jason Brown, the 2015 U.S. champion, and bronze medalist Joshua Farris withdrew from the U.S. championships with injuries. (Brown has back strain; Farris is recovering from a concussion.) That leaves U.S. silver medalist Adam Rippon and 2013 champion Max Aaron, fourth last season, as favorites.

At first glance, Rippon vs. Aaron looks like a classic battle between artist and athlete. But Aaron, the only U.S. senior man to routinely land multiple clean quadruple (four revolution) jumps in international events, has worked hard to improve his artistry and performance scores. The popular Rippon, an exciting performer known for his musical interpretation, will likely attempt the most difficult jump in Saint Paul: a quadruple lutz. If he hits it cleanly, he could score 13.6 points or more.

Aaron had a more impressive fall season. He won Skate America in October, but a poor short program at Trophee Eric Bompard in France kept him out of the Grand Prix Final. He bounced back the next week with good programs at a “B” level event in Estonia.

“Going straight to Estonia with no break and really testing myself and my ability again was a great opportunity,” Aaron said. “I have a process and I know how to do it. I had to get back to it and not get too far ahead of myself, stay in the moment.”

There are three men’s spots on the line for Boston, and 16-year-old Nathan Chen could well figure into the conversation. He won the Junior Grand Prix Final with three quadruple jumps in his free skate, although not all were landed cleanly. All bets are off if he hits them in Saint Paul.

Scimeca, Knierim Look Strong To Repeat

U.S. champions Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim are strongly favored to win their second U.S. title in Saint Paul. The Colorado Springs skaters, who are engaged to be married on June 26, 2016, qualified for the Grand Prix Final, the first U.S. pair since 2007 to do so. They come armed with a weapon no other U.S. team has: a quadruple twist, an exciting maneuver that carries a base value of 8.10 points. It’s usually their best element, but they’ve missed it twice this season, including an unusual fall at the Grand Prix Final.

“It is our strongest element, and it kind of got away from us at NHK and even worse at the Final,” Knierim said. “So we did hundreds of twists to make sure we got our timing and tracking and everything right. Now it’s back on track with no issues.”

Two U.S. pairs will go to Boston. Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea, a Florida team with solid throw triple jumps and side-by-side jumps, are strong contenders for the silver medal. They will be challenged by two-time U.S. champion Marissa Castelli, a 2014 Olympian (with Simon Shnapir) who now skates with Canadian Mervin Tran, a former world bronze medalist.

Lynn Rutherford is a sportswriter based out of New York. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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