Nathan Chen performs at the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating Internationaux de France on Nov. 03, 2019 in Grenoble, France.
While the world championships in late March are the pinnacle of each figure skating season, the most exclusive event is actually the Grand Prix Final, set for early December, when the top six skaters in each discipline go head-to-head in one weekend.
This year, six American skaters will head to Torino, Italy, for the Dec. 5-8 event, including defending men’s champion Nathan Chen and defending ice dance champions Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue. They’ll be joined by Madison Chock and Evan Bates in dance, as well as Bradie Tennell, who is making her Grand Prix Final debut in women’s singles.
“I'm very excited to be going to the Grand Prix Final,” Tennell told TeamUSA.org. “I'm so thankful for all the support and love throughout this grand prix season and I can't wait to compete.”
It was a razor-thin qualification for Tennell, the 2018 U.S. champion, following a silver medal at Skate America and fourth-place finish at Skate Canada in weeks one and two of the grand prix season. She tied with three other skaters in cumulative points, including American Mariah Bell, but won the sixth and final spot at the Final because of that silver medal, as well as her combined total scores.
Alena Kostornaia leads four Russian women in the six-skater field, which also includes Japan’s Rika Kihira. The current women’s field is seen as one of the most competitive and technically demanding of all time.
“We are watching ladies’ figure skating go through this massive transition right now,” said Ashley Wagner, the 2014 Olympian who qualified for the Final five times in her career. “What Bradie has on her side is the ability to establish some longevity internationally. (Quadruple jumps) are the ‘it factor’ right now, but we are yet to see athletes of that caliber stick around for more than two or three seasons. Bradie is established. She can become a reliable, technically competitive athlete. Her approach should just be establishing herself as the U.S. top lady internationally."
Tennell is the first U.S. woman to qualify for the Final since Wagner last did in 2015.
While the previously mentioned Bell won two bronzes this season on the grand prix, 14-year-old Alysa Liu still looms large as the current U.S. champion. She’ll be in Torino in the junior event, as she is not yet age-eligible to skate seniors internationally.
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Nathan Chen is not only the defending champion but the two-time reigning Final winner, dating back to 2017. After gold medal efforts at Skate America and the grand prix stop in France, the Yale sophomore will go head-to-head with two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu for the first time since worlds earlier this year, when Chen beat (an admittedly injured) Hanyu in Japan.
“Yuzuru has looked like he’s on a mission this season,” said Wagner, who has been doing skating commentary on the Olympic Channel. “I’m curious to see how that goes against Nathan, who I feel like has been a bit more present on the ice. He looks like a completely different athlete: His performing abilities… it’s really exciting to see because he’s become a much more well-rounded skater. Going head-to-head, I can’t quite call it.”
Wagner doesn’t place too much stock in the scores from Chen and Hanyu’s respective grand prix stops: Hanyu has registered a 322 and 305 in his two wins, while Chen has scored a 299 and 297. It’s their first regular season meeting since Rostelecom Cup in 2017.
The Chen-Hanyu showdown is far and away the headline of the men’s event, with three of the other four men making their debut at the Final.
While Hubbell and Donohue are the defending champs, the French team of Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron are the heavy favorites in ice dance. Hubbell/Donohue will go head-to-head against Chock and Bates, who are in the Final for a fifth time, but first since 2017 after missing last season’s grand prix season due to recovery from Chock’s ankle injury.
“We’re excited to be heading to the Final again, especially after missing last year’s grand prix circuit while Madi recovered,” Bates wrote in a text. “We had great grand prix appearances and we’re looking forward to showing the improvements we’ve made since our last skate at Cup of China.”
Chock and Bates’ Montreal-based training partners Hubbell and Donohue will look to show off their own improvements, as well, having not skated competitively since late October, when they were second at Skate Canada. Their loss to Canada’s Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier came as a minor surprise as they had not lost on the grand prix since 2017.
As the American teams, Gilles/Poirier and two Russian duos will chase Papadakis/Cizeron in a race for silver, the battle between the top two U.S. teams could have implications for the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in late January, where Hubbell/Donohue are two-time reigning champs, while Chock/Bates are the 2015 winners and have five silvers to their name.
“I think it’s really hard to say you’re not paying attention to how you’re stacking up against your domestic rivals internationally,” Wagner said of the two American teams. “It’s really important to know how your programs are being received internationally. You can’t deny that the U.S. federation is watching what’s happening and that’s taken into account going into nationals. It’s an important competition for both of these teams to show how competitive they are internationally.”
Regardless of how any of the Americans finish, it’s their chance to showcase their skating after a successful grand prix series. The six U.S. skaters going is the most since 2017, when eight Americans competed at the Final.
Wagner, a three-time medalist at the event, said there’s nothing quite like the Grand Prix Final. Not even worlds itself.
“It’s harder to go to the Grand Prix Final than it is to go to worlds,” she said. “It speaks to as how elite it is. For higher-level athletes, you use it as a test for what we can expect of ourselves for worlds. This part of the season can be really tough. You have to go out and be at the top of your game while other athletes who didn’t qualify get a bit of a rest (before nationals). You have to be in top shape.”
Nick McCarvel is a video host and freelance reporter based in New York City. He has covered three Olympic Games, including Rio 2016 for TeamUSA.org You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @nickmccarvel.