For the world’s top figure skaters, the road to PyeongChang cuts through Nagoya, Japan, which hosts the 2017 ISU Grand Prix Final in figure skating beginning Thursday.
The crowning event of the International Skating Union’s six-leg grand prix series, the Grand Prix Final is the last major international before the 2018 Olympic Winter Games.
Half the finalists in men’s and ice dance in Nagoya represent Team USA, having earned the right to compete in Nagoya via their performances on the grand prix circuit earlier this season.
Here’s a look at the American contenders:
This season marks the first time since 2009 that the U.S. has advanced three men to the Grand Prix Final, which was also the last time it was won by an American, future Olympic champion Evan Lysacek. The ringleader of this year’s group is Chen, the smooth-jumping sensation who usually cranks quads like a machine. The 18-year-old clinched the victory at last month’s Skate America in Lake Placid, New York, despite a rough free skate, which he wrote off as a learning experience. He also won the Rostelecom Cup in October in Russia, where he beat reigning Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan. Chen came up short of Hanyu at last year’s Grand Prix Final, where he became the second-youngest man to medal at a Final, but sails into this year as the top seeded skater ahead of Japan’s Shoma Uno and Russia’s Mikhail Kolyada.
The veteran of the U.S. team at 28, Rippon hasn’t let a shoulder injury stop him from delivering his signature detail-oriented performances this season. The 2016 U.S. champion finished second at the NHK Trophy last month in Japan. Then he relied on his warrior mentality as he dislocated his shoulder (and then popped it back in) during his free skate at Skate America, where he nevertheless finished second to Chen. Even having to dispose of dead insects on the ice before he could begin his long program in Lake Placid didn’t faze him. “You can throw rocks and bricks and put bugs on the ice — it doesn’t matter,” he said after the event. “I’m going to do my job.” Rippon finished sixth at his first Grand Prix Final last season.
Nagoya will be Brown’s first time skating in a Grand Prix Final, where he was called up to replace world bronze medalist Jin Boyang, who has withdrawn with two sprained ankles. Though technically behind his teammates — he has yet to land a clean quad in competition — Brown’s strength lies in his capacity to move judges and audiences with his musical interpretation, which he used to finish second in October’s Skate Canada and fourth at NHK Trophy in Japan. His memorable “Riverdance” program, which put him on the map four years ago, still resonates. This season, Brown skates his short program to “The Room Where It Happens” from the popular musical “Hamilton.”
Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani
The three-time world medalists are back at the Grand Prix Final and — if their golden performance in Lake Placid is anything to go by — looking better than ever. In Japan, the brother-sister pair will be trying to better career best scores in the short dance and overall from Skate America. The process-oriented duo, who have a penchant for performing to Coldplay songs, are using “Paradise” for their free dance this season as they work toward their golden dreams in PyeongChang. They also won the Rostelecom Cup. This is their fifth appearance in the Final and they are seeking their second medal after earning bronze last season.
Madison Chock and Evan Bates
Two-time world medalists Chock and Bates began their Olympic season at the Cup of China in Beijing last month, a late start engineered to make a splash and give the pair time to perfect the details before going public with their Olympic season programs. The risk has paid off: In the difficult position of skating after France’s celebrated two-time world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, the pair won the silver medal. Two weeks later they were second again at the Internationaux de France, qualifying them for Nagoya. The music makes the difference for this pair, who will skate to a medley of John Lennon’s “Imagine” as they aim for another podium finish in Japan. Chock and Bates earned silver at the Grand Prix Final in both 2014 and 2015, but finished sixth last year.
Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue
The bronze medalists at the last three U.S. championships, Hubbell and Donohue shone as they skated to silver at November’s NHK Trophy behind Vancouver Olympic champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada. This outing, an improvement from their bronze-medal finish at Skate Canada, represented a step forward for a team that is still “learning how to compete consistently,” as Hubbell put it after the competition. This is the third straight season Hubbell and Donohue qualified for the Final, where they look to improve on their fifth- and sixth-place finishes.