Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc competing in the senior pairs free skate at the 2019 U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Jan. 26, 2019 in Detroit.
Eighteen Team USA figure skaters are set to roll the dice this weekend in Las Vegas, host of Skate America for the first time, the event kicking off the “regular season,” as two-time reigning world champion Nathan Chen puts it, as the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating kick-starts just a few miles from the famous strip.
“All the skaters prioritize the grand prix season... It’s the start of the regular season,” said Chen, who is also the two-time defending champ at Skate America. “It’s a chance to continue to learn, grow and put our best programs out there.”
For some skaters, Chen included, it will be the first time their programs are being seen this season, which began with lower-level ISU Challenger Series events in September and October. Fellow Americans and defending ice dance champions Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue are in that same camp, having not competed since the world championships in Japan this past spring, where they won bronze.
Joining Chen and Hubbell and Donohue are Olympians and former U.S. champs Jason Brown, Karen Chen and Bradie Tennell, as well as pairs teams Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc (2019 U.S. champs) and Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier (two-time Skate America medalists).
Brown, a crowd favorite, is coming off a concussion he suffered in a car accident in late August, on his way to the U.S. training camp. That set him out for much of the next few weeks and left him with headaches when practicing spins at home in Toronto.
“Going into Skate America, I’m going to be doing 80 percent of, hopefully, the finished program,” Brown said on Ice Talk, the figure skating podcast I co-host. “I’ve come in now with this appreciation that I’m here, I’m going to do what I’ve trained to do with where I’m at right now. It kind of grounds me. This is where I’m at and I’m proud of where I’m at. I feel good, I’m healthy.”
Brown, who was ninth at worlds last season, has continued to struggle to add a quadruple jump to his repertoire, and after his concussion setback, will use this event as a measuring stick for what he can do the rest of the fall.
Other Americans in action at the Orleans Arena on Friday and Saturday include 19-year-old singles skaters Amber Glenn and Alex Krasnozhon, both former U.S. junior champs, pairs team Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson, who are making their grand prix debut as a team, as well as ice dance duos Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko and Caroline Green and Michael Parsons, with the latter making their grand prix debut as a team as well.
All eyes, expectedly, will be on Chen as he looked to extend an unbeaten streak that stretches back to the 2018 world championships following his fifth-place finish at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018.
The 20-year-old is in his sophomore year at Yale, and while he says that his skating schedule and practice routine are down pat (with coach Rafael Arutunian checking in from across the country in Southern California), classes have become harder and more time-consuming.
Chen debuted his “Rocketman” free skate at the Japan Open a few weeks ago, and while said skate won him that event (which only includes the long program), Skate America will mark his first full competition since his worlds win in Japan.
Both his free and his “La Boheme” short were choreographed (for the second year in a row) by former ice dancers, Shae-Lynn Bourne doing his short and Marie-France Dubreuil doing his free. It’s an experience and process that the quad-jumping Chen thinks has made him only a more well-rounded skater.
“I love working with ice dance coaches for choreography,” he said. “They really understand the artistic side of skating, including ice quality and all the different nuances of choreography. I get to spend time with the best of the best ice dancers (in Montreal with Dubreuil). I get to see how they train, how they use their edges. I think it really elevates my skating.”
Chen will need that elevated skating at Skate America, as the men’s field might be the deepest of the four disciplines. Chen, Brown and Krasnozhon will contend with two-time world medalist Jin Boyang of China, European medalist Michal Brezina of Czech Republic, rising star Cha Jun-hwan of South Korea, Canada’s Keegan Messing and a host of other must-see competitors.
In the women’s field, Tennell will look for a spot on the podium against Russian teenager Anna Shcherbakova, just 15, as well as Russian triple Axel queen Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, two-time Skate America silver medalist Kaori Sakamoto of Japan and South Korea’s Lim Eun-soo.
Karen Chen, the 2017 U.S. champion, is making a comeback of her own after sitting out last season. She has started her freshman year at Cornell. Tennell, meanwhile, is coming off a broken foot this summer, forcing her out of a September Challenger Series stop in Canada.
In pairs, Cain-Gribble/LeDuc will look to win the U.S. its first gold at Skate America in that discipline since 2006, when Rena Inoue and John Baldwin conquered the field. Peng Cheng and Jin Yang of China will be their biggest foes, as well as Denney/Frazier and Russia’s Daria Pavliuchenko and Denis Khodykin.
In ice dance, defending champs Hubbell and Donohue are no doubt the favorites, but Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin of Russia were just one spot behind the Americans at worlds last year, less than two points off the podium in fourth.
They will chase the favored Americans, as will Carreira/Ponomarenko, an up-and-coming team on the U.S. scene, who have already won two medals at Challenger Series events this fall and a grand prix bronze last season. Other to-watch teams include Green/Parsons, Laurence Fournier Beaudry and Nikolaj Sorensen of Canada, Tiffani Zagorski and Jonathan Guerreiro of Russia and Spain’s Olivia Smart and Adrian Diaz.
When anyone is asked to be nearly perfect for seven minutes of spell-binding athleticism and artistry – as figure skaters are – sometimes a little luck can go a long way. That’s where Vegas could come into play this weekend. Let’s see who comes up aces.
Nick McCarvel is a video host and freelance reporter based in New York City, who has contributed to TeamUSA.org since 2014. He has covered three Olympic Games. You can watch him this weekend on the U.S. Figure Skating Facebook and YouTube channels as the host of Ice Desk.