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Celebrating The U.S. Figure Skaters Who Would Have Been Competing This Week At World Championships

By Lynn Rutherford | March 18, 2020, 5:37 p.m. (ET)

Nathan Chen skates at the 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Jan. 25, 2020 in Greensboro, N.C.

The 2020 World Figure Skating Championships were scheduled to open March 18 in Montreal. Last week, the event joined the list of most sporting events around the world in being postponed or cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Madison Chock was having physical therapy when her ice dance partner, Evan Bates, relayed the news. Bates heard it at the gym.

Mariah Bell received word via text. Nathan Chen read about it on Twitter.

“Obviously, this is an upsetting decision. All of us athletes have prepared long and hard for the competition,” Chen said the day of the cancellation.

“However, given how much and how quickly (COVID-19) has spread across the world, it was definitely the right move for the populace as a whole.”

Chen, Bell, and Chock and Bates are four of the 15 Team USA skaters that were set to compete in Montreal. Arguably, they are among those who have the greatest reasons to regret the unavoidable cancellation.

For Chen, Montreal was a chance to win a third consecutive world title, something no U.S. skater has achieved since Scott Hamilton (1981-1984). Undefeated since placing fifth at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, the 20-year-old Yale sophomore was preparing for another face-off with two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan. The two skaters have separated themselves from the field the past few seasons, with Chen defeating Hanyu by wide margins at both December’s Grand Prix Final and the 2019 World Figure Skating Championships.

But Hanyu, a fierce competitor, returned to his 2018 Olympic programs for the 2020 Four Continents Figure Skating Championships in Seoul, South Korea, last month, and with four quadruple jumps in his arsenal — as well as two triple Axel jumps in the second half of his free skate — he is a formidable rival.

“Of course, worlds is the competition we’ve all been training for, but at the same time, we can be proud of the seasons we’ve had,” Chen said.

Jason Brown, second to Chen at the 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, was also in a strong position heading into Montreal. His sensitive and elegant free skate to music from “Schindler’s List” moved audiences around the world and won him a silver medal at Four Continents with his highest-ever international total score. 

“I think I was rewarded for what I did, so I’m really excited heading into the world championships, because I left a good 12 points on the table that I hope to get in Montreal,” Brown said in Seoul.

It’s been a challenging time for Vincent Zhou, who took time off from Brown University to compete for a spot on the world team. In December, the 19-year-old moved to Toronto to train under new coaches and prepare for the 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, held in Greensboro, North Carolina, in January. There, he placed fourth, but earned a ticket to Montreal as the defending world bronze medalist. Next season, Zhou plans to extend his break from college to train full-time.

Ice Dance Teams On A High
This season’s ice dance event looked to be far more open than in recent years. Four-time champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France were defeated by Russians Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov at the European championships, their first loss since the PyeongChang Games. And with a silver medal behind the French at the Grand Prix Final, as well as victories at the U.S. championships and Four Continents, Madison Chock and Evan Bates had built momentum. 

“We really feel it’s anybody’s game,” Bates said just prior to the cancellation.

The duo was set to perform their “Egyptian Snake Dance” program in competition for the final time, and felt confident it would be better than ever.

“As the season has gone on, we’ve really found more nuances in the music and as we’ve become more comfortable, we’ve been able to add more layers and really season the program, so it’s looking its best,” Chock said. 

Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, too, had high hopes. The two-time U.S. champions were shooting for their third consecutive world medal after winning silver and bronze medals in 2018 and 2019, respectively. The skaters had made considerable changes to their programs, including their “A Star is Born” free dance, with an eye toward peaking in Montreal. The third U.S. team, Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, were set to fight for their second straight top-10 finish.

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Personal-Best Seasons For Bell, Tennell
With quad and triple Axel jumping Russian teenagers dominating the women’s ranks, Mariah Bell and teammate Bradie Tennell were not medal favorites in Montreal. Still, each skater had the potential for a best-ever world finish.

The 22-year-old Tennell, a 2018 U.S. Olympian, was second at Skate America in October and qualified for the Grand Prix Final for the first time. She went on to take bronze at Four Continents, her first ISU Championships medal.

Bell won the Nebelhorn Trophy in late September as well as two bronze medals on the grand prix circuit. Her moving free skate to “Hallelujah” was a highlight of the U.S. championships; she placed second – a career-high placement – to Alysa Liu, who at 14 is too young to compete at the senior-level world championships. 

At age 23, her jumps — including her triple-triple combinations — are more consistent than ever before, something she attributes to tougher training habits instilled by Adam Rippon, the 2018 Olympic team bronze medalist who joined her coaching team this season. Ninth in the world last year, she was a good bet to move up the ranks in Montreal. 

“Looking back, this was by far the best season of my career, so I’m very proud,” Bell said. “I’m really looking forward to building on that next season.”

Worlds Debut Deferred For Calalang And Johnson
The cancellation is another twist in a wild few months for Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson. The Southern California-based pair placed second behind Alexa and Chris Knierim at the U.S. championships, with their clean and stirring performance winning the free skate segment and bringing the Greensboro audience to its feet. 

Still, the skaters were not initially chosen for the world team; selections are based on career results, and the pair had yet to build an international resume.

“This was our second year together,” Calalang told NBC Sports. “We weren’t skating perfect at every competition, but we were training really hard, day in and day out. It all paid off to have that moment. No one can take that moment away from us.”

Just two weeks after Greensboro, Calalang and Johnson skated two solid programs to place fourth at Four Continents. Then, Chris Knierim announced his retirement, opening up a spot on the world team for them. (Alexa, who is also his wife, plans to continue her career with a new to-be-determined partner.)

We want to prove we belong,” Calalang said just prior to the cancellation. “We are learning how to compete with each other … slowly learning how to work together to get the best possible outcome.”

After placing a disappointing fourth in Greensboro, 2019 U.S. champions Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc amped up their training with Nina Mozer, the renowned coach of Russian Olympic and world champion pairs, targeting a second consecutive top-10 finish at worlds. While they won’t get to show the results in Montreal, the week-long camp helps give them a leg up on their training for next season.

“Every day I saw athletes exhausted after giving everything that they had into every run through they did, so that they could be their best at Worlds,” Cain-Gribble wrote in an Instagram message. “Although the World Championships will not happen, I feel grateful that we were able to be surrounded by all of these teams when we heard the news and that we have the opportunity to train with this group.”

Lynn Rutherford is a sportswriter based out of New York. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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