The Olympic figure skating kicks off in earnest in Salt Lake City this week, at the 2017 U.S. Figure Skating Classic. The event, part of the ISU Challenger Series, is a great opportunity for skaters to perform their programs in front of an international panel of judges and gain feedback prior to the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating events this fall.
This season has added urgency, as U.S. athletes are anxious to stake their claims to spots on the 2018 U.S. Olympic Team: Three men, women and ice dance couples — but only one pair — will make the trip to PyeongChang, South Korea. Selections will be made by U.S. Figure Skating following the 2018 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, and a skater or team’s results over the past several seasons may be considered.
Salt Lake City features intriguing match-ups. Nathan Chen is favored to win the men’s event, and his U.S. teammate Max Aaron; Israeli Daniel Samohin, the 2016 world junior champion; and Japan’s Takahito Mura will also contend. Karen Chen squares off against Japan’s Marin Honda, one of the sport’s brightest up-and-coming stars. Americans Mariah Bell and Mirai Nagasu are also good bets for the podium.
In ice dance, Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue are favored. Their biggest competition may come from training partners Nikolaj Sorensen and Laurence Fournier Beaudry of Denmark, as well as Americans Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker. The pairs title is up for grabs: Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim, and U.S. teammates Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier, will face tough competition from Canadians Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro.
Here’s a look at all of the U.S. competitors:
Chen is one of the best two or three leapers in the men’s game, with four different types of quadruple (four-revolution) jumps, and he owns the highest U.S. score ever recorded (307.46 points) in international competition. The U.S. champion defeated world and Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu at 2017 Four Continents Championship before boot problems helped limit him to a sixth-place finish at the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships. Watch for: Big jumps, combined with artistry. The 18-year-old Chen has a 10-year background in ballet and is dedicated to enhancing his performance quality.
The 2013 U.S. champion comes off a disappointing season, dropping from second to ninth place at the 2017 U.S. championships and missing the U.S. world team. His comeback starts in Salt Lake City, an event he won in 2015. Watch for: Even more technical difficulty: Aaron is adding more quads to his programs.
At 25, Dolensky may just be coming into his own after moving to Texas to train with a new coaching team and working to add a quadruple jump to his repertoire. Watch for: Musicality, along with some of the finest spins in the event.
The veteran competitor was eighth in Salt Lake City last season and seventh at the U.S. championships. Watch for: Tequila bottles. The entertaining Rabbitt is popular wherever he skates, and his program to the 1961 classic samba tune “Tequila” inspired fans to gift him the liquors.
After a slow start last fall, the 18-year-old (no relation to Nathan) came into her own the second half of last season, winning her first U.S. title and placing fourth at the 2017 world championships to help ensure three U.S. women’s spots in PyeongChang. Watch for: Big triple jumps and superb spins, paired with intensity and drama. Her programs, set to “El Tango de Roxanne” and Bizet’s Carmen, are bold and demanding.
Fan favorite Nagasu won the U.S. title in 2008, placed fourth at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games and was famously (and controversially) left off the 2014 Olympic team in favor of Ashley Wagner. Fourth in the U.S. last season, she longs for a second shot at Olympic competition. Watch for: A three-and-a-half revolution triple axel jump. Only one U.S. woman, Tonya Harding, has landed the triple axel in international competition, and that was back in 1991. Nagasu wants to do it this season.
2016-17 was Bell’s breakout season: second in Salt Lake City, second at Skate America, third at the U.S. championships and 12th in the world. She could be even better this season, after working for a full year with coach Rafael Arutunian, one of figure skating’s most noted technical magicians. Watch for: Lots of personality. The sparkling Bell is one of the sport’s charmers.
The Colorado Springs, Colorado-based skater placed fifth in Salt Lake City last season and 11th at the 2017 U.S. championships. Watch for: Rydberg is a good all-around competitor who seeks to add more difficult jump combinations this season.
Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue
The four-time U.S. bronze medalists, sixth in the world in 2016, were on track for a possible world medal last season before a fall late in their free dance dropped them from third after the short dance to ninth place overall. Watch for: Passion on ice. There is buzz that their programs, including a sultry rhumba and soulful free dance, could be their best ever.
Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker
This talented team won the world junior title in 2014 and placed fourth in the U.S. in 2015. After placing a disappointing fifth in the U.S. last season, they seek to regain momentum. Watch for: Smooth style and superior skating skills, especially in their lyrical free dance to Franz Liszt’s masterful piano work “Liebesträume.”
Julia Biechler and Damian Dodge
These ice dancers make their international senior debut in Salt Lake City. They placed seventh in the U.S. last season. Watch for: Speed and dynamism. This team is known for its exciting style.
Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim
The 2015 U.S. champions have four world top-10 finishes, including 10th place last season. Married in June 2016, the couple missed much of last season due to Alexa’s gastrointestinal illness, which eventually required three abdominal surgeries. Watch for: A big triple twist. This move — which has the man toss his partner into the air and catch her after she rotates three times — is the most exciting in pairs, and the Knierims have one of the best in the business.
Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier
The reigning U.S. champions won the world junior title in 2013 and captured their second Skate America silver medal last fall. Watch for: The battle for the single U.S. pair spot in PyeongChang starts in Salt Lake City, and Denney and Frazier are considered one of the Knierims’ top rivals.
Deanna Stellato and Nathan Bartholomay
Stellato, 34, returned to skating some 15 years after she won a world junior silver medal in singles to team up with Bartholomay, a 2014 Olympian. The team placed fourth at the 2017 U.S. championships. Watch for: Insane difficulty. The pair tries tough single triple jumps and a throw quadruple jump.
Chelsea Liu and Brian Johnson
After three top-10 finishes at the junior world championships, this California-based pair, sixth in the U.S. last season, is stepping up to senior international competition. Watch for: Lots of flair, especially from the high-voltage Liu, who acts, models and dances in her spare time.