Mariah Bell skates in the Ladies Short Program during the 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Jan. 23, 2020 in Greensboro, North Carolina
It is a Skate America like no other, taking place in a bubble. But in Friday’s short program events, form held: as expected, Nathan Chen opened up a big lead in the men’s event, and the women’s competition is shaping up to be a duel between longtime rivals Mariah Bell and Bradie Tennell.
Placements after night one are about the only thing predictable at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, the venue hosting this event for the second year in a row. Apart from Chen’s brilliance, nothing is the same as last season.
There are no spectators, just cardboard cutouts that two-time U.S. champion Gracie Gold called “weird, to be honest.” Applause is pre-recorded and piped in. Coaches, choreographers and team leaders do not flank skaters in the kiss-and-cry.
Most notably, there are no international stars like Japan’s two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu, four-time world ice dance champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France or any of the bevy of Russian teenagers that dominate the women’s event.
“So much is different,” said Tennell, the 2018 U.S. champion. “It’s been great to be back in a competitive atmosphere. Of course, it’s not quite the same. We all have to keep to ourselves. We’re in a bubble, we’re not able to go out anywhere. There’s a designated area where we can sit and eat. We have to wear masks all of the time. Obviously, we can’t talk to (outside) people.”
Almost to a skater, all of the athletes emphasized how happy they were to return to competition, even under these restrictive conditions. Many expressed gratitude to U.S. Figure Skating, which has moved forward with its ISU Grand Prix event while federations in Canada and France cancelled theirs.
“I am very honored to carry the flag for Canada here,” Canada’s Keegan Messing, one of just three non-U.S. men, said. “I’m so sad my (Canadian) teammates were not given an opportunity to compete. At the same time, though, we all have to be mindful and keep a safe environment. U.S. Figure Skating is doing a great job of that here.”
Desperado Chen Shines In Spanish-Themed Short
Certainly, Chen seemed as cool and relaxed as he’s ever been. The two-time and reigning world champion made a four and one-half hour drive from his training home in Southern California to arrive in Las Vegas on Sunday night, holing up in his room on Monday. By Tuesday, he had tested negative for COVID-19 and was on the ice for unofficial practice.
“I didn’t want to spend much time in airports,” Chen said. “There was no traffic. It’s just a new way to get to competition.”
Contributing to Chen’s zen-like attitude: the 21-year-old, who has combined skating with studies at Yale University the past two seasons, has taken a leave of absence from school, although his is auditing a few online classes offered by other colleges. He plans to return to Yale after the 2021-22 Olympic season.
“The lack of shows, lack of travel, lack of other obligations, made me be able to go on a daily basis and train with Raf (Arutunian),” he said. “I was able to stay with him all summer.”
The focused training showed in Chen’s clean, electric performance to a medley of “Asturias” by Frida Lopez and “Cancion del Mariachi” by Los Lobos, created with longtime choreographer Shae-Lynn Bourne. It is Chen’s first foray into Latin American music, and he called the genre “challenging.
“I’ve never done this style of program before. … There is a lot of work and improvement to do,” Chen said. “That being said, this program — although it is oriented in Latin American music and Spanish music — I’m not trying to hit the exact movements of those dances, but to really bring out the feeling of the movie ‘Desperado,’ which (some) of the music is from, and embrace the character of El Mariachi.”
He opened with a quadruple toe loop, triple toe loop combination, going on to land triple axel and quad flip with ease. Wearing a simple black bolero and white shirt, his crisp steps and movements — punctuated by a wild leap — were perfectly in time with the music.
Chen earned 111.72 points, his highest short program tally ever, but since this Skate America features almost all U.S. athletes and judging panels, scores are not eligible for establishing new international personal bests.
“Given the circumstances, I’m happy where I am this season, happy where the program is,” Chen said.
Chen elected not to include his most difficult jump, the quad lutz, in his short, although he may change that plan later this season.
“Early in the season, I play around with different elements,” he said. “The lutz, I typically leave for later in the season. The flip is here and read to go, so I put it in.”
Zhou, the reigning world bronze medalist, had miserable practices in Las Vegas, suffering two bad falls on Friday and unable to consistently land his quads. But the world bronze medalist shook off his demons during his short to Josh Groban’s rendition of “Vincent,” landing a quad lutz-triple toe combination as well as a quad salchow and triple axel. He earned 99.36 points for second place.
“I’ve had my fair share of ups and downs the past few weeks,” Zhou, who turns 20 on Sunday, said. “I’ve been trying to find my grove, my center of balance. It has felt a little off sometimes. A fall in the practice this morning was definitely a little nerve-shaking.”
Zhou, who trains in Colorado Springs, Colorado, did not participate in U.S. Figure Skating’s recent International Selection Pool Points Challenge, a competition with virtual judging that offered prize money and a chance to gain feedback on programs prior to Skate America. Minor injuries limited his training for several weeks in September, and he elected to skip the event.
“I’ve never had too much success in the Grand Prix (events), because I’ve always had rough summers,” he said. “I’m hoping this year will be an exception. … I wanted to take care of those little (injuries) now, rather than later.”
Messing, a two-time Canadian medalist who competed for the U.S. until the 2014-15 season, had a solid program including a quad toe-triple toe combination. He sits third with 92.40 points. U.S. bronze medalist Tomoki Hiwatashi also had a strong showing, hitting a quad toe, but lost ground on his spins. He is fourth with 87.17 points.
“I feel like I could have done a lot better,” Hiwatashi, 20 said. “I need to be able to think about each spin I go into, and focus on it, rather than just think about the program as a whole.”
Bell, Tennell Just 3.19 Points Apart
True to the lyrics of her short program music, Pink’s “Glitter in the Air” — “Have you ever looked fear in the face, and said I just don’t care?” — Bell glided to first place with a lyrical performance featuring stunning spins and a clean triple flip, triple toe loop combination. Her 76.48 points put her some 3.19 points ahead of Tennell, who lost ground when her triple-triple combination was judged under rotated.
So confident and secure was the U.S. silver medalist that even a last-minute costume disaster — her short program dress proved so uncomfortable, she elected to swap it out for her free skate costume — failed to faze her.
“With age comes experience,” Bell, 24, said. “I’ve been through quite a few things in my career. You just switch the dress out. … Things like that, you realize they are just little. You learn how to take them in stride.”
Bell, who trains alongside Chen under Arutunian in Southern California, had one slight scare: her jump combination required a mid-air correction.
“The ending of the flip wasn’t great,” she said. “But when you’re in competition, adrenaline can be your superpower. Raf always says, ‘Don’t hold the hand brake going in.’ He’s an amazing coach. He’s not the easiest to work with, he demands a lot from his skaters. … He acts like a big, scary guy, but he’s not.”
Tennell’s first practice in the Orleans Arena on Thursday was inauspicious, to say the least.
During her program run-through, she fell on a triple lutz, popped another jump into a single and turned out of a third. She didn’t get her triple-triple combination done.
“The last time I skated like that, I had a warped boot,” Tennell said afterwards. “I nail pretty much everything in practice. I have that kind of run-through rarely, maybe twice in the last three months. … I practice the way I want to compete.”
Tom Zakrajsek, Tennell’s coach since the 21-year-old moved from the Chicago area to Colorado Springs this summer, told her, “It’s an outlier. Forget it happened.”
She did, and her upbeat, edgy program to “Moderation” by Florence and the Machine was clean and engaging, save for the small error on her triple lutz-triple toe loop combination.
“(This program) shows more of my fun side,” Tennell said. “I’m a study in contrasts. I love the girlie stuff, and I also love the strength. It’s fun to explore both sides. … I feel like I am able to perform this fiery (style) better than when I was younger.”
In a surprise, Audrey Shin, just 16, sits in third place after a clean, stylish short that included a triple lutz, triple toe loop combination. The Long Island native won the 2019 U.S. junior silver medal, but did not qualify for the U.S. championships last season.
“I’ve been really working on my program (performance), making sure my components catch up to my technical elements,” said Shin, who scored 69.77. “I’ve focused more on my skating skills, making sure I have difficult entries to my jumps.”
Like Tennell and Zhou, Shin trains in Colorado Springs, and loves the competitive environment.
“They are all great skaters, Olympians, and they really motivate me,” she said. “Every day is like a competition. We all line up for run-throughs and do them back-to-back.”
Like Tennell, 2017 U.S. champion Karen Chen under rotated a jump. She sits fourth with 68.13 points. Amber Glenn is fifth with 67.85 points.
In a surprise, the new team of Alexa Scimeca-Knierim and Brandon Frazier, who teamed up just six months ago, won the pairs short program with 74.19 points. Their Southern California training partners, U.S. silver medalists Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson, sit second with 71.08 points. Audrey Lu and Misha Mitrofanov are third with 67.52 points.
Ice dance wrapped up the competition, which ran into the morning hours on the east coast, with U.S. Olympians Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue the favorites, while U.S. bronze medalists Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker could also be contenders.