As Figure Skaters Prepare For PyeongChang, Added Challenge Of Olympic Team Event Looms

By Chrös McDougall | Dec. 06, 2017, 12:37 p.m. (ET)
(L-R) Bronze medalists Gracie Gold, Ashley Wagner, Jeremy Abbott, Jason Brown, Marissa Castelli, Simon Shnapir, Meryl Davis and Charlie White celebrate during the medal ceremony for the figure skating team event at the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014 in the Olympic Park on Feb. 10, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.

 

Four years ago in Sochi, ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White closed out the Olympic figure skating team event as they often did: with a superb performance, this one clinching the bronze medal for Team USA.

Their training partners, siblings Maia and Alex Shibutani, were watching.

“They were the anchors of that team,” Alex Shibutani recalled, “and we hope to be the anchors of this team.”

Team figure skating debuted on the Olympic program in Sochi, borrowing a similar format from the World Team Trophy competition and providing athletes in a fiercely individual sport an opportunity to experience the Games as part of a team.

Importantly, the event also introduced another medal opportunity.

Team USA’s bronze medal in Sochi gave Davis and White a third medal to hang next to the gold they won a few days later in ice dance and their silver from Vancouver four years prior.

For the other six U.S. skaters, however, the team bronze medal was the only hardware they brought home from Russia.

“Sochi was so exciting and so cool to be part of that team event,” said Jason Brown, who skated the men’s free skate for the American team. “I loved representing Team USA with my teammates. Honestly, I view myself as this team player in an individual sport so to have the opportunity to be part of the team event, that was so special and such an incredible experience.”

Brown and the Shibutanis are among many U.S. figure skaters who have said they’d like to compete in the team event in February at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018.

With more than two months to go, however, the team event still remains back of mind.

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In the meantime, three U.S. men and three ice dance teams are competing this week at the ISU Grand Prix Final in Nagoya, Japan. For the rest, right now is all about fine-tuning those performances for the U.S. championships in January, which will lead into the Winter Games a little over a month later.

After all, without top performances at the U.S. championships in San Jose, California, there will be no Olympics.

Plus, skaters in the Olympic team competition use the same programs as they do in the individual competitions.

“I’m going out and competing with a team, but if I’m training any differently I think it would change what I know about figure skating,” said Ashley Wagner, who skated the women’s short program in Sochi and is aiming for PyeongChang. “So for me, I’m training as if it’s an individual event, and it just happens to have a couple other peoples’ lives at stake.”

In the team event, each country performs a short and long program in the four figure skating disciplines: men’s, women’s, pairs and ice dance. Countries are allowed two substitutions, meaning that for two of those disciplines a different skater or team can be used in the short and long program.

Skaters are judged as usual, but teams are scored based on placements within their discipline. So a first-place performance would earn a country 10 points, a second-place performance would earn nine points, and so on.

The top five teams after the short programs advance to the free skate or dance, and the scores from both programs are combined to determine the final standings.

In Sochi, Davis and White performed in both the short and long programs, as did the pairs team of Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir. For the singles events, Wagner (short) and Gracie Gold (long) split duties for the women, while Jeremy Abbott (short) and Brown (long) did so for the men.

Adding another Olympic performance or two can change the dynamic, several skaters said, but the challenge is more about timing than conditioning.

“I think it’s not so much fitness to perform twice in a competition,” Wagner said. “It’s timing, so you know where your peaks and valleys are and you’re ready to peak at the right time, have a little bit of a break, and then work right back into the next event.” 

This year’s Olympic figure skating program is almost identical to that from Sochi.

In PyeongChang, the team event will be held over four days, with the men’s and pairs short programs on Feb. 9, the ice dance and women's short programs, plus the pairs free skate, on Feb. 11, and then men's, women's and ice dance long programs on Feb. 12, with medals being awarded afterward.

From there the sport will take one day off before jumping into pairs on Feb. 14-15, men’s on Feb. 16-17, dance on Feb. 19-20 and women’s on Feb. 21 and 23. The only difference with the Sochi schedule is that in 2014 there was a one-day break between dance and women’s, and no break between the two women’s programs.

Nathan Chen, the defending U.S. men’s champion who is among those competing this week in Nagoya, took part in the 2017 World Team Trophy, a biennial team event held in Japan. He is eager to replicate that team experience in PyeongChang, but doesn’t expect to start training for it until much closer to the Games.

“For guys its like compete, compete, a few days (off), compete, compete,” he said. “So I’ll definitely need to make sure to implement that into my actual training routine. But otherwise it will just be like any other (year).”

The Shibutanis are also competing in the Grand Prix Final. After making their Olympic debut in Sochi but not competing in the team event, they’re eager to take part this time.

“We’re excited for the opportunity to have another two performances on Olympic ice,” said Alex Shibutani. “I mean the first two times we (performed in the Olympics) in 2014, it was awesome. So that’s my enthusiastic response to having more opportunities to skate and represent our country and another chance to win a medal. And definitely the team atmosphere and the environment of that competition is different for our sport, and it’s very special.”

Brown, who is known for his infectious enthusiasm on and off the ice, seconds that last part.

“Nothing motivates me more than to see my teammates in the box or where they all sit and be like, 'OK, I'm skating for you guys. Here I go,’” he said. “I love that (team) aspect of our sport. When I have the opportunity to compete for our team, on a team, I will take it in a heartbeat.”

Chrös McDougall has covered the Olympic movement for TeamUSA.org since 2009 on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul. Karen Price contributed to this report.