Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier performing during the pairs short program at 2019 Skate America on Oct. 18, 2019 in Las Vegas.
LAS VEGAS – For most Team USA figure skaters at Skate America this past weekend in Las Vegas, their hope is that what happened in Vegas… is only indicative of what’s to come this grand prix season.
Though some would like the “stays in Vegas” age-old saying to stick, too.
It was the most successful Skate America for the host nation since 2016, as five medals were won by U.S. skaters inside Orleans Arena, in what was the mark of a start of a two-month swing of major international events in the lead-up to U.S. Figure Skating Championships in late January.
Here are five takeaways from 48 hours of skating drama in the city of glitz and glam… and the impact of Skate America on the season to come.
U.S. Pairs Scene: All Shook Up
Perhaps no skaters will look back at Vegas with more fondness than pairs team Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier, who returned to the grand prix podium for the first time in three years with a spectacular (and spectacularly clean) “Lion King” free skate, a revisited and revamped program from their past.
The 2017 U.S. champions jumped from fourth after the short program to win bronze. This off-season, they moved their training base back to coaches John Zimmerman and Silvia Fontana in the Tampa area, who they had previously worked with from 2012 to 2016.
“Emotionally, it’s been a tough process,” Frazier told reporters after the free skate, where the Americans placed second. “I told Haven a week ago that sometimes it just feels more stress(ful) than it really needs to be when we compete. We just want to enjoy it again.”
They’ll enjoy this: They finished No. 1 out of the three U.S. teams in attendance, beating reigning national champs Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, who had an error-strewn free skate. Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson, who train alongside Alexa and Chris Knierim in Southern California, also beat Cain-Gribble/LeDuc. The two teams finished 4-5.
Four different teams have won the U.S. pairs title in the last four years – all of which are still competing – and this year two world championships spots are up for grabs for Montreal, Quebec. The four aforementioned teams, as well as Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea, will factor into that conversation.
Let the race begin.
Nathan Chen Picks Up Where He Left Off
Now a sophomore at Yale, Chen says school is “much harder” this year, but that’s not hurting his skating. The two-time reigning world champion picked up this season right where he left off last, winning by a Skate America record 44 points over second-place finisher Jason Brown.
Chen is the first man to win three Skate Americas in a row since Todd Eldredge (1994-97) and still has not lost any competition he’s entered since finishing fifth at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, collecting seven individual gold medals since then.
Perhaps nothing was as spellbinding as his hip-hop step sequence in his Elton John-themed “Rocketman” free skate, which has skating fans’ jaws on the proverbial floor around the world.
Brown, for his part, was rocked in the worst way by a car accident in late August that left him with concussion symptoms for much of September. He shook off those as well as a popped triple axel in the short program to win his seventh grand prix medal from his seven seasons at that level.
Even with the likes of Vincent Zhou, Tomoki Hiwatashi, Alexei Krasnozhon, Camden Pulkinen, Andrew Torgashev and others knocking on the door, this is an early indication to me: Chen and Brown want to go 1-2 at nationals in January.
Broken Foot? No Problem, Says Tennell
A broken foot this summer disrupted 2018 U.S. champ Bradie Tennell’s pivotal training and fine-tuning block, but that didn’t seem to matter to a more mature, confident 21-year-old. Skating after a knockout performance by Japan’s Wakaba Higuchi in the short program, Tennell marched onto the ice and launched herself into first, scoring a career-best 75.10.
She’d finish with her first-ever grand prix silver at the end of the weekend, and a reminder to skating fans all over the country: She’s not going anywhere.
While the fanfare continues to follow 14-year-old Alysa Liu (more on her in a minute), Tennell has been Team USA’s most reliable international presence the last two seasons, alongside Mariah Bell.
A second-place finish in a stacked field at Skate America? That only emboldens her further.
“I think that last year was a very good learning year for me,” she said after the free skate. “Going into this season I’m being able to take my experiences from last year and draw from them to better myself.”
The most notable result from last season? That second-place finish to Liu at nationals, clearly a rematch the elder skater is ready for.
And her internal goal? “I want to be more free… I want to skate free.” She did just that in Vegas.
Hubbell/Donohue Get Clean Start To Season
The Achilles’ heel for reigning U.S. ice dance champions Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue over the years has been left-field errors, including a miscued lift last year at Four Continents that dropped them off the podium all together.
So, when the current world bronze medalists chose not to skate a pre-grand prix event this fall, ice dance fans held their collective breath at Skate America through their programs, hoping/wanting/praying that nothing would go wrong.
And you know what? It didn’t.
Instead, they debuted a Marilyn Monroe-themed rhythm dance and a free dance set to “A Star is Born” that both received solid marks from the judges, and set the Americans up for what could be a second consecutive season of grand prix golds.
But when you look at the American scene in dance, it’s Montreal training mates Madison Chock and Evan Bates who might be the most dangerous, yet Hubbell and Donohue don’t pay any attention to such things. Truly.
“Honestly, we don’t know what expectations are on us,” she told me in an interview. “Maybe externally people expect things, but we don’t do that to ourselves. Our job is to skate. That’s what we do.”
And dang they do it well.
Alysa Liu Waiting In The Wings
It’s hard to believe the year that Alysa Liu has had. Since bursting on the scene and becoming the youngest U.S. women’s senior champ in competition history, she’s been a guest on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” gone to the Nickelodeon Kid’s Choice Awards, been named a Barbie ambassador and landed a quadruple Lutz in competition.
The Bay Area teen was in attendance this past weekend, watching from the stands as Russia’s Anna Shcherbakova became the first senior woman to hit two quads in international competition in the free skate (Shcherbakova beat Tennell for gold), before Liu took to the ice herself in Sunday’s exhibition show, skating her short program.
Liu will compete again in December at the Junior Grand Prix Final, having won her two junior grand prix events this season, including in Lake Placid, New York, in August, when she landed that now-famous quad Lutz.
“I was really happy,” Liu recalled of her landed Lutz. “Going into it, I was just telling myself, ‘Do it. Just do it.’ … I did a lot of off- and on-ice training for it. It’s hard work. When it’s close (in practice), my friends really push me to do it.”
Will she do it at nationals? Right now, the signs point to yes, but regardless, a Tennell-Liu showdown is impending. It’s a rivalry that would span generations and styles. And one I’d love to see.
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 as he goes on-site this weekend for Skate Canada in Kelowna, British Columbia.