The 2019 U.S. Figure Skating world team will compete March 20-24 at the 2019 ISU World Figure Skating Championships in Saitama, Japan.
With Yale University still on spring break this week, students have dispersed for the typical time on the beach or a service trip abroad. But only one of them is in Saitama, Japan, taking to his practice session Monday morning as if it were akin to his abnormal psychology lecture hall.
That student is reigning world champion figure skater (and college freshman) Nathan Chen, 6,700 miles away from the campus he's come to know this past year and back to where the sporting world has gotten to know him: the ice.
Chen is looking to defend his world title this coming week at the 2019 ISU World Figure Skating Championships, in a field that is expected to include two-time Olympic gold medalist and home favorite Yuzuru Hanyu.
For Chen, 19, it will be his first competition since winning a third straight U.S. title in Detroit in late January, having skipped the Four Continents Championships last month to focus on school.
“It was a little bit nice for me to just focus on school,” Chen told reporters this last week, spending spring break nursing a cold and training on his own in New Haven, Connecticut. “I had mid-terms during Four Continents. It was nice not having to worry about balancing a competition and school. In terms of training, nothing has changed that much. I’m still following a general plan, a general structure.”
That general plan is to try and defend his aforementioned title against Hanyu, who himself hasn’t competed since mid-November due to an ankle injury. Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno is also almost certain to compete, as are Americans Vincent Zhou and Jason Brown, who will both look for top-six finishes – if not higher.
A total of 13 Team USA athletes will compete for world medals over the coming days in the Tokyo suburb, a 40-minute drive from the city center. Massive crowds are expected in the figure skating-mad nation, with high expectations heaped on the likes of Hanyu, Uno and Rika Kihira, who at 16 has had a breakout season armed with her triple axel.
It’s the first worlds Japan has hosted in five years.
While all eyes will be on Chen and his quest for gold again, the U.S. women – Bradie Tennell and Mariah Bell – have a tall order at hand, too: Try and earn back a third spot for worlds in 2020. To do so, they’ll need to finish a combined 13th or less (say 5th and 8th, or 6th and 7th, or better).
With a women’s field that features Kihira, two other strong Japanese skaters, as well as Olympic champion Alina Zagitova and two-time world champion Evgenia Medvedeva, both of Russia, it won’t be easy. Tennell was sixth last year in Milan, Italy, at worlds. Bell was 12th.
Trying to earn back that third spot is something Tennell and Bell are aware of, but – rightfully so – not focused on.
“It doesn’t change the job I have to do,” a straight-forward Tennell said. “I’m not even thinking (about) that. It doesn’t change what I have to do while I’m on the ice.”
What both she and Bell will need is close-to-perfect programs. The same goes for Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc, the lone U.S. team in the pairs event. To gain a second spot back in pairs, Cain and LeDuc will need to finish in the top 10 in a strong field. It’s the Dallas-based team’s first world championships.
“We were given this opportunity,” said Cain, who suffered a concussion in December before recovering to team up with LeDuc for their first U.S. title. “We are strong enough and capable of getting those spots back. We know that’s going to take two perfect performances.”
Perfect will also be the name of the game in ice dance, where the U.S. has excelled in recent years. Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, the reigning world silver medalists and two-time reigning U.S. champions, will factor into the podium race, as will Madison Chock and Evan Bates, the duo having made a late start to their season after Chock underwent ankle surgery last summer.
While Hubbell/Donohue went through the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating Series undefeated internationally, a miscalculation on a lift in their free dance plummeted them from first to fourth at Four Continents in mid-February, helping Chock/Bates climb to the top of the podium.
The Montreal-based team (actually, all three U.S. teams, Hubbell/Donohue, Chock/Bates and Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, are based in Montreal) said the botched stationary lift (in which Donohue moved across the ice in an element where he was supposed to stay in one place) that gave them trouble in the free dance in Anaheim, California, won’t serve as a factor for frustration – or distraction – in Saitama.
How do they fix that mistake?
“Just don’t move,” Donohue joked with reporters last week. He then turned more serious: “(That mistake) helped accelerate us into a mental place where we are really focused on our technique and trusting in our strengths as a team in what we do naturally instead of trying to force things,” he said. “We’re drawing in all of that work and training we have put in and are falling back and relying on it.”
Three-time world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France are the favorites in ice dance, but Hubbell/Donohue and Chock/Bates most certainly will factor into the podium race. As many as five to six teams could be part of that conversation, however, so perfection will be the ask of every duo in the discipline.
Neither Tennell nor Bell were perfect in the free skate at the U.S. championships, when the judges left the door ajar for one of them to sneak past 13-year-old triple axel wonderkid, Alysa Liu. The two twenty-somethings both fell in their long programs, however, dropping them to second and third, respectively.
Due to international age-eligibility rules, Liu cannot compete at this world championships. In fact, her first official senior-level major international event will be the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022, should she qualify.
So, it’s up to the technically-sound Tennell and effervescent Bell to fight for that third worlds spot. The Chicago-based Tennell was called for three under-rotations in her free skate at Four Continents, a rarity for a skater who prides herself on being so strong in that department. It was a wake-up call of sorts.
“The jumps just weren’t there for me that day, but I’ve been working on them really hard,” she said. “I’m much more confident heading into worlds. I want to show the world what I can do.”
Both Tennell and Bell would be considered longshot contenders for the podium, though top six is more attainable. Bell, who was fifth at the Japan-based NHK Trophy this past fall in a loaded women’s field, feels as though she’s approaching some of the best skating in her career at 22.
“(Worlds) is what I’ve been wanting to go to all year,” she said. “I’m really excited. But in the grand scheme of things, this is just another competition ahead of the Olympics in 2022.”
Bell missed out on the Olympic team last season, as did 2014 Olympian Jason Brown. Since then, Brown made a big move to Toronto, Ontario, to train with 1988 Olympic champion Brian Orser and his team, which also includes Hanyu, Medvedeva, Korea’s Junhwan Cha and a host of other world-class skaters.
It’s been a season full of changes for Brown, who was third at the U.S. championships behind Chen and Zhou. He is learning new skills, and – in a lot of cases – trying to alter the way he has skated from the past.
“All the changes take time,” said Brown, who has been working to include a quadruple Salchow in his free skate. “I can’t expect myself to be the best I’ve ever been at the world championships, (but) I just need to know what I can do in the moment and go with that.”
Brown was fourth at worlds in 2015 and then seventh in 2017. The Chicago native is a crowd favorite wherever he goes, but particularly in Japan, where he is greeted with roaring applause. Nearly all his social media posts include both written English and Japanese, and Brown continues to learn how to speak the language, posting videos with full sentences of appreciation for his fans in Japan.
Eighteen-year-old Zhou skated to a bronze medal at Four Continents last month after needing to change into a new pair of skates just days before the competition. While he does three different quad jumps in his programs (Lutz, toe and Salchow) he has been hampered by under-rotation calls this season, leaving big points on the table.
“What calls go down are out of control,” he told reporters. “I’m just going to try and go out there and do my job. I’ve been working hard on my landings.”
The final marks, really, are out of all the skaters’ hands when they take to the ice in the coming days. It’s midterms, finals and a year-long (individual or group) project all rolled into one if you compare it to Yale, only in this version world medals – and much more – are on the line.
Needless to say, Team USA would like straight A’s to finish the season.
A New York-based freelance journalist, Nick McCarvel covers figure skating, tennis and a host of other sports for TeamUSA.org and other outlets. Follow him on Twitter, @NickMcCarvel, for coverage of #WorldFigure and more.