Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson compete in the championship pairs short program during the 2019 Geico U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Jan. 24, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan.
Top U.S. figure skaters are gathered at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas for a Skate America that’s like no ISU Grand Prix event ever before.
No live audience. Few international competitors and officials. Isolation in what U.S. Figure Skating terms a “highly restrictive, campus-like environment” to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including tests, designated floors and elevators, and restricted meal service, in addition to strict adherence with CDC guidelines for face coverings and social distancing.
For the U.S. skaters, who won’t be able to compete in other Grand Prix events due to COVID restrictions, the protocols are worth it for the opportunity to compete this fall.
“When I arrive, I will be immediately tested from the airport and then isolated to my hotel room until I get my results,” pairs skater Mervin Tran, who will compete with partner Olivia Serafini, wrote on social media. “During the event, we will be in a social bubble quarantined from the population of the city of Las Vegas. It’s been made fully aware that we will not be given any warnings of misconduct. We will be ejected if we compromise the event in any way. Is this annoying? Yes. Is it necessary? Absolutely.”
With only a couple international entries, U.S. skaters will fight to impress home-country judges and position themselves for the 2021 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, scheduled for January in San Jose, California.
The competition in Vegas starts on Friday night with the short programs and wraps up Saturday with free skates. Here are key storylines to follow:
Nathan Chen Goes For The Four-Peat
Chen is undefeated since his fifth-place finish at the 2018 PyeongChang Games — and even there, he won the free skate. The 21-year-old has used quadruple jumps and maturing artistry to rack up four U.S., two world and three Grand Prix Final titles, all consecutively. He won U.S. Figure Skating’s recent virtual International Selection Pool (ISP) Points Challenge with 315.32 points, some 47 points over the field. His refined and contemplative new free skate to selections from Philip Glass is gaining near universal praise from figure skating fans, a notoriously critical bunch.
Last season, Chen notched just over 299 points to win his third straight Skate America, and it’s safe to say he is an overwhelming favorite to complete the four-peat. Jason Brown, the U.S. silver medalist who placed second in the ISP Points Challenge, will not compete in Las Vegas. Chen’s top challenger is Vincent Zhou, the world bronze medalist who sometimes feels like he’s been chasing Chen half his life.
“A lot of people have always tried to make a comparison between me and Nathan,” Zhou, who turns 20 on Oct. 25, said. “We’re both Chinese-Americans, we were both considered quadsters going into the Olympics. When I was younger he was miles ahead of me. He was something of a myth, a legend.”
Zhou caught up to Chen during the 2012-13 season, defeating him to win the U.S. junior title. Since then, Chen has had the edge, but Zhou no longer uses his rival as a yardstick.
“I really stopped putting him as the standard to reach,” Zhou said. “Everyone always asks me, ‘How do you feel about Nathan Chen? He can do this, that.’ I just try to develop myself as a completely different skater who has his own brand, not someone always trying to catch up to Nathan Chen.”
Although Zhou elected not to enter the ISP Points Challenge, he competed at a local event this summer and says he is fit and ready for Skate America, where he hopes to win something that has thus far eluded him: a Grand Prix medal, albeit one with something of an asterisk.
“I’ve always had slow starts my senior international seasons, because I’ve always had tough summers,” Zhou said. “I’ve gotten injuries, not from overtraining but from accidents …. (This season) staying active, working out at home and getting back on the ice to just build everything up from scratch, really paid off.”
Quads, Quads And More Quads
Both Chen and Zhou typically show off three or four different “quads” (four revolution jumps) in competition, including the jump considered most difficult: quad lutz. It’s an element Tomoki Hiwatashi, third in the U.S. last season, seeks to add to his arsenal. It’s possible he will try it in his free skate at Skate America.
“I’m able to pull it off in practices, but haven’t been able to do in competition,” Hiwatashi, 20, said. “I do want to try it but we’re still at the point we are thinking about it. It’s not consistent enough to put into competition, but it’s also a great time to do it because of the (unusual) season right now, so we are still thinking about it. It’s probably going to be a last-minute choice.”
While Zhou may be chasing Chen, Hiwatashi — who won the world junior title in 2019 — looks up to Zhou. Both skaters train in Colorado at Colorado Springs’ Broadmoor World Arena, as does Camden Pulkinen, who will also compete in Las Vegas.
“Vincent just gives me so much motivation to skate and get better, because he is doing all of these quads I can’t do,” Hiwatashi said. “Watching him skate gives me a visual idea of what it’s like to land quads, and I feel like that gives me a chance to get better at what I’m doing right now. Camden, he does all of those emotional programs, and I do learn a lot from him, as well.”
In addition to Pulkinen, seventh in the U.S. last season, Canada’s Keegan Messing and Israelis Alexei Bychenko and Daniel Samohin will challenge for medals.
Hubbell, Donohue Reprise “Hallelujah”
Many skaters have a signature program, set to music they want to explore again. For Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, it’s “Hallelujah,” the Leonard Cohen penned ballad that helped vault them to the top of the ice dance ranks five years ago. This season, it is their free dance.
“We sat down with our coaches and said, ‘We don’t know what the season is going to hold, could we use this season to prepare for the Olympics, rather than wait for the Games to be upon us?’” said Donohue, 29. “They said we should look at some of our old programs, (consider) which one to revive, maybe with different cuts of music.”
The song held special memories for the skaters, on and off the ice.
“Zach doesn’t show it to many people, I am one of the lucky few that gets to hear him sing on a regular basis,” Hubbell, 29, said. “It was actually in our first year of skating together (2011) that he would sing that song and it always had an amazing effect on me especially when I was nervous and stressed at competition.”
The free dance, choreographed by two-time Canadian Olympic champion Scott Moir and the team’s coach, Marie-France Dubreuil, uses both Jeff Buckley and k.d. lang’s version of the classic ballad.
“The soulfulness and the honesty in the way (Jeff Buckley) sings those lyrics, that’s what I was really attracted to,” Hubbell said. “And we wanted to end (the free dance) with a different interpretation, finding hope even in these tough times, and the way k.d. lang sings her last hallelujah is just absolutely breath taking.”
Defending U.S. champions Madison Chock and Evan Bates will not compete at Skate America, stating they prefer to focus on preparing for the 2021 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in January. Hubbell and Donohue’s biggest challenge will likely come from their Montreal training partners, U.S. bronze medalists Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker. Anthony Ponomarenko and Christina Carreira, fourth in the U.S. last season, will also fight for the podium.
Rejuvenated Karen Chen Set To Challenge Bell And Tennell
At first glance, Skate America’s women’s event looks to be a duel between Mariah Bell and Bradie Tennell, who placed first and second, respectively, in the ISP Points Challenge. But Karen Chen could surprise: the 2017 U.S. champion has taken a leave of absence from Cornell University to fully dedicate herself to training.
“Balancing school and skating, from how last year went — it was really tough,” Chen, 21, said. “I didn’t want to not skate well and have school to blame. I just wanted to focus on skating, with the Olympic year coming up. Additionally (with COVID-19), although students are allowed back on campus, I wouldn’t feel too comfortable with that and I might be a little paranoid, to be honest, if I were back on campus.”
Like Zhou, Hiwatashi and Pulkinen, Chen trains in Colorado Springs. Tennell, the 2018 U.S. champion, joined them there this summer, and Chen welcomes the chance to train alongside her longtime rival.
“I never thought I would be the kind of skater who would rely on their peers and that (group) environment; I used to skate in Riverside (California), where it was pretty much just me for a couple of years,” Chen said. “This training environment grew on me and I really like it. If we see each other do a great jump, we all clap for one another. It’s quite supportive, and we also push each other, as well.”
Like Bell and Tennell, Chen is working to acquire a triple axel, the three-and-a-half revolution jump Alysa Liu has used to win the last two U.S. titles. (At 15, Liu is not age eligible for Skate America.)
“I have been doing it every day on harness and off the harness a little,” Chen said. “It is definitely something I wanted to get, ever since I was little and I watched Mao Asada do it. … It’s my childhood dream and it’s still my dream now. I want to add it to my toolbox.”
The packed women’s field also features two-time U.S. champion Gracie Gold, who made an inspiring return to competition at the 2020 U.S. Championships, as well as 2014 U.S. junior champion Amber Glenn, who has recently landed triple axel in practices, and Starr Andrews, sixth in the U.S. last season.
Calalang, Johnson Seek To Cement Leadership Status
Entering their third season skating together, the pairs team of Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson arrive in Las Vegas in an unaccustomed position: they are favorites.
The Southern California pair performed a memorable free skate at the 2020 U.S. Championships to win the silver medal behind training partners Alexa and Chris Knierim, and then continued the momentum with a solid showing at 2020 Four Continents. With Chris Knierim retired, and Alexa Knierim newly teamed with Brandon Frazier, there is a vacancy at the top of U.S. pairs. Calalang and Johnson look ready to fill it.
“I don’t know if we’re really going into this (thinking about) first place, it’s more like we want to do what we do in practice and if we do that, then we know we are going to do well,” Johnson, 24, said.
“We are not necessarily results-oriented, we are performance-oriented,” Calalang, 25, added. “If we perform the way we know we can, we will get the results we want.”
You have to like their chances. The team placed atop the ISP Points Challenge, outpacing Knierim and Frazier by more than 15 points. Their new free skate, set to “Who Wants to Live Forever?” by the Tenors featuring Lindsey Stirling, showed exciting new lifts and more intricate choreography than last season
“When we were off the ice due to quarantine and what not, one of the things we could do a lot of were lifts,” Johnson said. “We went through a lot of different lift variations. We wanted to try to get some positions that were unique, stuff we hadn’t done. … Then, we worked with (choreographer) Cindy Stuart to try to get more intricate choreography, a little bit better expression to each other and difficulty to the steps.”
Knierim and Frazier, who like Calalang and Johnson train under three-time U.S. champions and two-time Olympians Jenni Meno and Todd Sand, teamed up six months ago. The skaters credit their fast progress to matching work ethics and a willingness to compromise.
“We are on the same page when it comes to a lot of elements, because we trust each other, so if one of us sees the other has better insight to an element or is more comfortable with it, we kind of let that person take the lead,” Knierim, 29, said. “There wasn’t anything we butted heads on so far as technique or timing, the focus was the end goal. We are going to do whatever it takes to make the element work.”
Chris Knierim, who now works full time coaching alongside Meno and Sand, helps out with many of the elements, especially the triple twist.
“Todd and Jenni are great with the technical (elements), but having someone like Chris, who is fresh off the scene and having one of the best twists in the world, to be able to kind of guide us is like having a secret weapon,” Frazier, 27, the 2017 U.S. champion with former partner Haven Denney, said. “He has played in Alexa and I gelling as fast as we have.”
Calalang and Johnson, and Knierim and Frazier, are by no means shoo-ins for silver and gold. Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, the 2019 U.S. champions, and 2016 U.S. champions Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea, pose strong challenges.