Skaters have hardly had time to recover from the 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships late last month in Greensboro, North Carolina, but it’s already time for the 2020 Four Continents Figure Skating Championships in Seoul, South Korea.
Starting with the rhythm dance on Thursday and concluding with the men’s free skate on Sunday, Four Continents will showcase some of the best skaters from the Americas, Asia and Australia as many tune up for the 2020 World Figure Skating Championships, to be held in March in Montreal.
Here are six storylines to follow.
1) The Hottest U.S. Rivalry On Ice
Madison Chock and Evan Bates react to their scores after their free dance at the 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Jan. 25, 2020 in Greensboro, N.C.
Ice dancers Madison Chock and Evan Bates, and Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, have squared off at the U.S. championships nine times; each has won the event twice, with Hubbell and Donohue prevailing in 2018 and 2019, and Chock and Bates in 2015 and last month in Greensboro. The couples have also won two world medals apiece, and each owns a Four Continents title.
There are no jumps and few falls in ice dance. Momentum — that indefinable “buzz” — counts for far more than it does in the other three figure skating disciplines. Since moving to Montreal to train alongside their rivals last season, Chock and Bates have built momentum, starting with their win at Four Continents last February. This season’s free dance, nicknamed “The Snake Charmer,” has grabbed judges’ attention, and they also defeated their rivals at the Grand Prix Final in December.
“We’re in a very good place, we could not be happier with the way the season has been going,” Chock said. “We’ve worked so hard to get to this point in our career and to feel strong and confident, like there’s so much more room for growth.”
Don’t count Hubbell and Donohue out. Heading into the U.S. championships, the skaters made substantial changes to their “A Star is Born” free dance, but a “wrong way” turn out of their first element, a dance spin, prevented them from showing the program to its full potential.
“Certainly we create our elements to look a certain way,” Hubbell said. “Some of the connection was lost for the judges. On some of the accents, the eye contact was lost.
Stakes at Four Continents are high for both teams, especially Hubbell and Donohue: a third consecutive loss to their rivals might dampen judges’ enthusiasm at the world championships. The top two U.S. teams will be challenged by Canadian champions Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier, as well as their Montreal training partners U.S. bronze medalists Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker. Hawayek and Baker won gold at Four Continents in 2018.
2) Jason Brown’s Quadruple Jump Pursuit
Jason Brown skates at the 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Jan. 26, 2020 in Greensboro, N.C.
When it comes to showmanship, skating skills and plain old audience appeal, few skaters can compete with Brown. At his best, the U.S. silver medalist gains some of the world’s highest Program Component Scores (PCS). Still, his quest for international titles has long been hampered by lack of a four-revolution jump.
At age 25, Brown is still trying. In Greensboro, he stood up on a quad toe loop in his “Schindler’s List” free skate, but the technical panel determined it was a half-turn short of rotation. Nevertheless, the stirring program was one of his finest ever and the emotional highlight of the event.
“I worked so hard the last 18 months, really after the 2018 U.S. championships, to really put myself out there again and figure out what kind of went wrong and how I can grow from that experience,” said Brown, who moved to Toronto in the spring of 2018 after missing the 2018 Olympic squad. There, he trains under Canadian Olympic medalists Tracy Wilson and Brian Orser.
"It’s probably the best skating I’ve done,” he added. “I think I have a long way to go, as far as the technical aspect …. but as far as feeling strong and confident, I really, really felt things coming together.”
After a few rough performances earlier this season, Brown seems to have found the sweet spot between his former training habits, and the regimen developed by Wilson and Orser, which is designed to help him more quickly rotate his jumps.
“Leading into this event, I actually went back to Chicago for a few days and trained with (choreographer and former coach) Rohene Ward and I think there was a little bit of an old training method,” he said. “Then I went back to Toronto and it was a little bit of a jumpstart for me. We were able to implement things the Toronto team’s way, mixed with old methods, and I think that was really helpful.”
This will be Brown’s fourth appearance at Four Continents; he won a bronze medal in 2018. With two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan in the field, winning is unlikely. But a clean quad and the confidence it brings could set Brown up for his best finish at the world championships since 2015, when he placed fourth.
3) A Medal For Tennell?
Bradie Tennell skates in the women's short program at the 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Jan. 23, 2020 in Greensboro, N.C.
Although Alysa Liu won her second straight U.S. title in Greensboro, the 14-year-old is too young to compete at international senior events. Bradie Tennell, the 2018 U.S. champion who placed third behind Liu and Mariah Bell at the U.S. championships, will be the top U.S. woman in Seoul.
Tennell had her finest grand prix results this season, qualifying for the Final for the first time. After winning the short program in Greensboro, she made an uncharacteristic error in her free skate, falling on a triple loop. Later, she revealed that an infected elbow hematoma had flared up at the U.S. championships.
“This thing with my arm threw me off, more than ever before … I only felt like myself yesterday afternoon (the day before the free),” Tennell said. “Of course, no one wants to fall on their best jump.”
A formidable trio of Japanese skaters, led by the triple-axel wielding Rika Kihira, will be in Seoul, as will Young You of South Korea, who has also landed the triple axel. But if a fit Tennell can skate two clean programs, a medal is possible.
2018 Olympian Karen Chen, now a full-time student at Cornell who placed fourth at nationals, and Amber Glenn, making her Four Continents debut after placing fifth in Greensboro, join Tennell in Seoul.
4) The Knierims’ Jumps
Alexa Knierim and Chris Knierim compete at the 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Jan. 23, 2020 in Greensboro, N.C.
Alexa and Chris Knierim won their third U.S. title largely on the strength of their clean short program, including side-by-side triple toe loops. In their otherwise superb free skate, Chris Knierim fell on the jump, and the couple elected to double planned triple salchows.
While the skaters possess a superior triple twist and other fine pairs elements, individual jumps are a challenge. In Greensboro, they discussed how working with technical wizard Rafael Arutunian, coach of two-time world champion Nathan Chen, has improved their technique and confidence.
“It’s not perfect yet,” Chris Knierim said. “But I think throughout the season we’ve been going in a good direction. … (Arutunian) knows this year is going to be a bit of a struggle up-and-down with old technique and old habits rearing their head throughout the season. But he’s very confident next season we will be more consistent competition to competition with the jumps.”
The couple, who are married, have twice won medals at Four Continents, but a strong pairs field — including two-time world champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong of China — is slated to compete in Seoul. Still, if they can add a clean free skate to the clean short they did in Greensboro, the Knierims should place in the top five.
Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea will also seek a return to the Four Continents podium. The 2019 U.S. bronze medalists won gold at Four Continents in 2018 and silver in 2014.
5) Newcomers Seek To Make Their Marks
Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson skate at the 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Jan. 25, 2020 in Greensboro, N.C.
Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson had one of Greensboro’s most memorable moments, winning the pairs free skate with a clean, exciting performance. Their silver medal wasn’t enough, though, to gain one of the two available pairs spots at the 2020 world championships; U.S. Figure Skating considers past results as well as national placements, and 2019-20 is only Calalang and Johnson’s second season skating together. Four Continents is a chance to post strong international scores and build their resume to prepare for a shot at the 2022 Olympic team.
The same applies to Tomoki Hiwatashi, who won bronze in Greensboro but was edged out for a world team spot by fourth-place finisher Vincent Zhou, the reigning world bronze medalist. Hiwatashi, the 2019 world junior champion, competed on the international senior circuit for the first time this season and needs strong international results to compete with the likes of Chen, Brown and Zhou for a shot at the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022. Camden Pulkinen also makes his Four Continents debut, after placing seventh at nationals but having a strong international season that included fourth at Skate Canada.
6) The Hanyu Factor
One major storyline concerns a skater who won’t be competing in Seoul: Chen, who won his fourth U.S. crown in Greensboro.
To win a third world title in Montreal, Chen must defeat archrival Hanyu, something he has done twice since the 2018 Winter Games. But the Japanese is a fierce competitor, always working to up his technical game. His programs at Four Continents could help predict what we’ll see in Montreal in March.
At the Grand Prix Final in December, Hanyu landed five quadruple jumps in his free skate for the first time, including a quad lutz. He may wish to repeat that feat at Four Continents. Hanyu has also practiced the quad axel, a jump that includes four-and-a-half revolutions, and his coach Ghislain Briand is quoted in Kyodo News as saying he plans to include the jump in his free skate at the world championships. It’s a long shot, but we could see the quad axel in practices in Seoul.