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Inside The Las Vegas Bubble: What We Learned From Skate America

By Lynn Rutherford | Oct. 26, 2020, 5:58 p.m. (ET)

Mariah Bell competes in the Ladies Short Program during the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating on Oct. 23, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. 


The abbreviated 2020 ISU Grand Prix series stopped in Las Vegas over the weekend for a unique Skate America, one with cardboard cutouts in place of fans, a bubble environment for the athletes and a field that featured almost all American skaters.

Those who made it to Orleans Arena made it a memorable weekend, however, and several skaters stepped up with big performances.

With Skate America now in the books, most of the top U.S. skaters now look toward the 2021 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, scheduled for January in San Jose, California, as their next opportunity to shine on a big stage.

Before we leave the Vegas bubble completely behind, here are a few of the most notable takeaways:

Nathan Chen Is A Man On A Mission 
It’s doubtful whether we needed a reminder, but Skate America reinforced that Nathan Chen is the man to beat at the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022. The two-time world champion popped two jumps in his free skate but put out one of his best-ever short programs in winning the Skate America men’s title. In doing so the Salt Lake City native landed five quadruple jumps across his two routines. And, as he said after the free skate, he’s already making corrections.

“Of course, I’m a little disappointed about the jumps I missed,” he said. “I should not have done that. I think I know what I should have done, to make them happen.”

Quads are important; the four-revolution jumps fueled Chen’s rise. They wouldn’t necessarily be enough, though, to fend off top challengers in Beijing, including two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan. In Las Vegas, the skater showed two vastly different programs — a Latin American flavored, character-driven short to music from the 1995 movie “Desperado,” and a sensitive but powerful free to selections from minimalist composer Philip Glass — that pushed his boundaries artistically. 

The 21-year-old is clearly pointing to Beijing to cap his career. After two years of full-time study, he has taken a leave of absence from Yale University to devote himself to training under longtime coach Rafael Arutunian in Irvine, California; he plans to return to Yale after the Olympic season. When asked whether the postponement of this season’s Grand Prix Final, scheduled as an Olympic test event in Beijing this December, impacted his motivation, he replied, “I wouldn’t say so. Hopefully within the year we will hear when that will happen. It would be lovely to see what the situation is in Beijing. … As of now, I have a base to go back to and improve on.”

Team USA Has Young Talent On The Rise
With the Junior Grand Prix cancelled due to the pandemic — and international participation in Skate America severely restricted — U.S. Figure Skating gave up-and-comers a chance to shine in Las Vegas. Two stood out, including Audrey Shin, 16, who won bronze in her first major senior event. Although Shin won a U.S. junior silver medal in 2019, the teen from Northport, Long Island, did not even qualify for the 2020 U.S. championships. In Las Vegas, though, she landed triple-triple combinations in two near-clean programs to edge out more experienced skaters including 2017 U.S. champion Karen Chen, her training partner in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

In the men’s competition, Ilia Malinin didn’t win a medal, but the 15-year-old from Fairfax, Virginia, showed up with two newly acquired quadruple jumps: a toe loop and a salchow.

“After junior worlds last season, all the rinks shut down, so I did three hours a day off ice practicing jumps, spins and choreography, and that helped me a lot,” he said. “When I got back on the ice in summer, it started feeling really comfortable, and I went from there.”

Within three weeks, he was landing the quads. In recent seasons, U.S. men on the Junior Grand Prix circuit have been unable to match Russian and Japanese competitors jump for jump; had the JGP gone forward this season, Malinin likely would have been a contender. 

After Win, Mariah Bell Sees Opportunity To Kick It Up A Notch
The 24-year-old Mariah Bell, who trains alongside Chen in Irvine, won the women’s title on the strength of her winning short program as well as fine program component scores. Her “Mama Mia” free skate showed room for improvement, however. The Monument, Colorado, native did not include her toughest element — the triple flip-triple toe loop combination — and she fell on her final jump, an under rotated triple lutz. The mistake dropped Bell to fourth place in the free skate segment. With some international skaters including triple axels and quads in their free skates, it’s clear Bell must increase her technical element score in order to compete.

Bell acknowledged she needed more firepower, telling NBC Sports commentators: “(It was) a watered-down technical program, there will definitely be more technical elements moving forward and a stronger free skate.” Her strategy at Skate America was to focus on her strength and presentation, and leave the toughest jumps for later this season.

“This free skate is a little different for me, I’ve been trying to take time to get into character,” she said. “I’m used to the slower free skates.”

Alexa Knierim And Brandon Frazier Shake Up The Pair Scene
Soon after Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Brandon Frazier announced their partnership in early spring, the pandemic closed their rink in Irvine, and they scrambled for ice time. Still, the veteran pair skaters — Knierim won three U.S. titles with husband Chris, while Frazier is the 2017 U.S. champion with Haven Denney — surpassed all expectations at Skate America, showing impressive triple throws and twists and landing two different triple jumps, a relative rarity for U.S. pairs.

“I have faster timing on my toe loop and I’m trying each week to slowly make the adjustments to make it perfectly in sync (with Knierim’s),” Frazier said. “This is the first year I’m competing with the triple toe and the triple salchow, so I’m trying not to overdo it on the workload, but I do think we’ve made great strides from when we finally started our summer training and got back on the ice.”

Both are driven to compete in Beijing in 2022. Frazier, who has yet to make his Olympic debut, called it “his dream” since childhood. Knierim, a member of Team USA’s bronze medal team in PyeongChang, longs for another trip to the Olympics.

“I think about it every day and I know that skating with Brandon gives me the best chance of making that dream a reality again,” she said. “My passion, my love of the sport gets me up in the morning, but it’s that desire to go back to the Games and share that experience with Brandon that pushes me on the hardest days.”

Lynn Rutherford

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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