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Who To Watch At This Week’s U.S. Figure Skating Championships

By Karen Price | Jan. 18, 2017, 2:16 p.m. (ET)

The 2017 U.S. Figure Skating Championships get underway Thursday in Kansas City, Missouri, and by Sunday night the winners will all have been crowned. 

With a little more than a year to go before the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games, storylines abound heading into the competition.

Will the women’s competition once again come down to three-time champion Ashley Wagner and defending champion Gracie Gold? Will teenage phenom Nathan Chen dazzle and jump his way to his first men’s title? Can Tarah Kayne and Daniel O’Shea defend their first pairs title? And will the sibling team of Maia and Alex Shibutani move one step closer to becoming the United States’ next ice dance dynasty?

Here’s a look at the skaters expected to vie for titles over the coming week. 

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Will The Women’s Competition Be Another Gold-Wagner Showdown?

This year’s nationals will see two very familiar faces in Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold, who between them have won the last five U.S. titles. Wagner, however, has to be considered the favorite this year despite Gold’s status as the reigning champ.

Wagner, last year’s national bronze medalist, went on to earn a silver medal at the world championships, becoming the first U.S. woman to stand on the podium at either the Olympic Winter Games or world championships in 10 years.

Despite mixed results recently — Wagner won Skate America but failed to make the Grand Prix Final after finishing sixth at Cup of China, her worst grand prix result ever — Wagner says she’s confident going into Kansas City. She spent the past two months preparing for the second half of the season and believes she’s found the fix to issues she was having with under-rotated jumps and stamina through her long program.

Gold, on the other hand, has had somewhat of a difficult year since winning the national title in 2016. She finished fourth in the world championships despite leading after the short program, and struggled throughout the grand prix series and competitions in the fall. However, she spent the two weeks after Christmas training with her former coach, Alex Ouriashev, and said she’s ready to defend her title.

Last year’s silver medalist, 2014 U.S. Olympian Polina Edmunds, is out of the competition with a foot injury; however Skate America silver medalist Mariah Bell and last year’s pewter medalist, 2010 U.S. Olympian Mirai Nagasu, will be competing.

Short Program: Thursday 9:30 pm-midnight ET, NBCSN

Free Skate: Saturday 8-11 p.m. ET, NBC

With Rippon Out, The Window Is Open For Nathan Chen’s Ascension

Nathan Chen burst on the national scene last year, when he became the first American skater to land two quad jumps in the short program and four quads in the free skate to win the U.S. bronze medal — and he was only 16 years old. However, he injured his hip in a post-nationals exhibition and missed the next five months, including the world championships.

The injury didn’t slow him too much. This season Chen became the youngest U.S. man to medal at a grand prix event when he took second at the NHK Trophy in Japan, and in December he became the second-youngest man to medal in the 22-year history of the Grand Prix Final. Only 2014 Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan beat him.

With an arsenal of quad jumps, Chen has made a name for himself, but will face competition from Jason Brown, who in 2015 at 20 years old became the youngest U.S. champion since Johnny Weir in 2004. Brown had to withdraw from last year’s nationals because he was recovering from a back strain and missed the chance to defend his title. However, Brown isn’t going in at 100 percent. He was off the ice for several weeks in December with a stress fracture in his right fibula, and so far this season had a second-place finish at Skate America but finished seventh at the NHK Trophy and failed to qualify for the Grand Prix Final. He was diagnosed with the injury shortly after.

The 2013 national title winner, Max Aaron, will also be competing, but last year’s champion will not. Defending champion Adam Rippon withdrew from nationals last week after breaking his foot during off-ice warmups. 

Short Program: Friday 8:30 p.m.-midnight ET, Universal HD

Free Skate: Sunday 4-6 p.m. ET, NBC

Kayne And O’Shea Look To Build On Pairs Momentum

Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea established themselves not only as up-and-comers but also the U.S. team to beat when they won their first national title last year. But defending their title won’t be easy. Kayne has been battling tendinopathy, and the pair’s best finish so far this season has been fourth place in the NHK Trophy.

However, they won’t have any competition from 2015 champions and 2016 silver medalists Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim, who haven’t competed yet this season and withdrew from the event. Scimeca Knierim is recovering from unspecified surgery in September.

Two other pairs also withdrew in the last week: Jessica Calalang and Zack Sidhu and Caitlin Fields and Ernie Utah Stevens. Last year’s bronze medalists, 2014 Olympian Marissa Castelli and Mervin Tran, are scheduled to compete, but the fourth-place finishers the past two years, Madeline Aaron and Max Settlage, announced their split in August after competing together for the past seven years. Also favored to reach the podium are two-time Skate America silver medalists Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier, who finished fifth at the U.S. championships in 2015 but were out last season as Denney recovered from a knee injury.

Another 2014 Olympian, Nathan Bartholomay, is also competing with Deanna Stellato, who returned from the sport from a 16-year retirement last year.

Short Program: Thursday 5:30-7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN

Free Skate: Saturday 3-6 p.m. ET, NBC

Shib Sibs Look To Cement Their Place In Ice Dance

Siblings Maia and Alex Shibutani had the breakthrough performance they were looking for in 2016, when they unseated defending champions Madison Chock and Evan Bates to win their first national title since they began competing as seniors in 2011. It was also the first time since 1995 that a U.S. ice dance team failed to defend its national title. Now the Shibutanis look to defend, as Chock and Bates will try to make it two years in a row that a defending champion falls.

Since last year, however, the “Shib Sibs” have won a silver medal at the world championships and their first Grand Prix Final medal, earning the bronze after winning both Skate America and Cup of China. Also competing in ice dance will be three-time U.S. bronze medalists Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue.

Short Dance: Friday 6-8 p.m. ET, NBCSN

Free Dance: Saturday 3-6 p.m. ET, NBC

Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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