Breaking Down The Field At The U.S. Figure Skating Championships

By Karen Price | Jan. 02, 2018, 1:08 p.m. (ET)

For years, figure skaters such as Ashley Wagner and Jason Brown have worked to return to the Olympics, while up-and-comers such as reigning national champions Nathan Chen and Karen Chen have dreamed of making their debuts.

While the U.S. championships aren’t the Olympic trials in the strictest sense — team selections are based on a body of work rather than one event — it is the last time the country’s best skaters will have to impress the powers that be before the 2018 U.S. Olympic Figure Skating Team is announced.

The U.S. will send 14 figure skaters to the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 and those athletes are among the field taking the ice beginning Wednesday with the senior women’s short program in San Jose, California. But who will make the cut?

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TeamUSA.org breaks down the hopefuls and takes a look at those most likely to be wearing the red, white and blue in PyeongChang next month:

 

The Men

Three different men have been crowned national champion the past three years, and they’re all competing this week in San Jose. Of them, defending champion Nathan Chen, 18, is considered to be Team USA’s best chance for an individual medal in PyeongChang. 

The teenager originally from Salt Lake City is the only undefeated men’s figure skater in the world this season, having won the Grand Prix Final last month. Since joining the senior men’s circuit in 2016, he became the youngest American man to medal at the Grand Prix Final when he won silver last year, and when it comes to the all-important quadruple jumps, no American does them as often or as consistently as Chen, who became the first man ever to land five quads in one performance en route to the gold medal at last year’s national championships.

Also looking strong to make the Olympic team, where the men have three slots, will be 28-year-old Adam Rippon, the 2016 national champion from South Abington, Pennsylvania, who is competing in his third Olympic quadrennial for a spot on his first team. Rippon missed last year’s nationals due to an injury to his ankle and foot, but has won silver at both his grand prix assignments this season.

2014 Olympian Jason Brown, who won the U.S. title in 2015, is the only Olympian in the men’s field and looks to return to the Games after earning second- and fourth-place grand prix finishes this fall.

All three men qualified for the Grand Prix Final last month, where they finished first (Chen), fifth (Rippon) and sixth (Brown).

Also favorites to contend for Olympic spots are Max Aaron, the 2013 U.S. champion who is in top form this season after earning bronze at Cup of China; Grant Hochstein, who competed at the last two Four Continents and was 10th at worlds two seasons ago; and Vincent Zhou, last year’s U.S. silver medalist and world junior champion.

 

The Women

The U.S. women also have three slots, and 2014 Olympian and 2016 world silver medalist Ashley Wagner is a near lock to take one of them. The 26-year-old from California hasn’t had the best season so far, finishing third at Skate Canada before withdrawing from Skate America during her free skate because of an ankle infection, but the three-time national champion and 2017 silver medalist helped Team USA win the team bronze in 2014 and has been the country’s most consistent women’s skater this quad.

With Gracie Gold not competing this season, the other two slots could go to several different skaters, including 2010 Olympian Mirai Nagasu, 24, who became the second U.S. woman to land a triple axel in international competition earlier this season when she won the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic.

Bradie Tennell is a favorite to make her Olympic debut after earning bronze at Skate America in November. The competition in Lake Placid, New York, marked her grand prix debut. The 19-year-old won the 2015 junior national title but was then plagued by stress fractures to her lower back for two years. Her personal-best scores in Lake Placid showed she is healthy and ready for a spot on the Olympic team.

Others to watch include 2017 national champion Karen Chen and 2017 national bronze medalist Mariah Bell. Chen, 18, was fourth at the world championships in 2017 and finished third at the U.S. International Classic, seventh at Skate Canada and eighth at Skate America this fall. Bell was second at Skate American and sixth at Four Continents last season but this year has not finished higher than fifth at any of her three international events. Olympian Polina Edmunds, who competed in Sochi four years ago at age 15 and finished ninth overall, also looks to return to the Games.

 

The Ice Dance Teams

Ice dancing has been Team USA’s strongest discipline in recent years thanks to duos including siblings Maia and Alex Shibutani, Madison Chock and Evan Bates, and Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue following in the highly-decorated footsteps of Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto and Meryl Davis and Charlie White.

And it is expected that those three teams will be selected to the Olympic team.

The Shibutanis have won the past two national titles and also took the bronze medal at the Grand Prix Final the past two seasons, making them strong contenders to continue Team USA’s streak of reaching the podium in the past three Olympic Winter Games. They are also three-time world medalists, including bronze in 2017 and silver in 2016.

They will likely be joined by their 2014 Olympic teammates Chock and Bates, who won the U.S. title and the world silver medal in 2015. Chock and Bates also qualified for the Grand Prix Final this season and finished fifth after a pair of silver medals at the Cup of China and Internationaux de France.

Hubbell and Donohue have proven themselves contenders for the U.S. this season as well, with a fourth-place finish at the Grand Prix Final, a silver at NHK Trophy and bronze at Skate Canada. They finished third in the short dance at last year’s world championships.

 

The Pairs

Neither of the two U.S. pairs that competed in Sochi in 2014 are still competing together, but there are a number of duos looking to claim the lone slot for Team USA in PyeongChang. 

Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier are the reigning U.S. champions, but last year’s competition saw a number of the top teams out of the running because of illness or injury. Denney and Frazier had a pair of seventh-place finishes this season at Skate Canada and Skate America.

The strong married duo of Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim will certainly be looking to make a statement and earn their spot on the Olympic team. Scimeca Knierim was still recovering from stomach surgery at this time last year, but the 2013 and 2016 U.S. silver medalists were second at the U.S. Classic this season and finished fifth at both Skate America and the NHK Trophy. They have the strongest international resume in the San Jose field with sixth- and 10th-place finishes at last season’s Four Continents and worlds.

Also looking to show they deserve the slot in PyeongChang will be Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea, who won the 2016 U.S. title but had to withdraw from last year’s nationals due to injury; and Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc, who were third last year in their first season together. 

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.