(L-R) Spencer Howe and Emily Chan compete during the pairs free skate at the 2023 Toyota U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Jan. 28, 2023 in San Jose, Calif.
Fresh Start For Former U.S. Champion
It is no surprise that Chan and Howe, who qualified for this season’s Grand Prix Final, sit second behind Knierim and Frazier heading into the pairs free skate. But Ellie Kam and Danny O’Shea, who notched 65.75 in the short program for third place, are defying the odds.
The Colorado Springs, Colorado-based skaters teamed up in mid-September, giving them a scant four months to train for San Jose. O’Shea, who will be 32 next month, won the 2016 U.S. title with Tarah Kayne; last season, he trained in Irvine and skated with Chelsea Liu. Kam, 18, competed in the junior ranks with Ian Meyh.
“This is Ellie’s first senior nationals, and I’m very proud of the work we’ve put together in a short time,” O’Shea said. “There’s a lot of opportunity for growth still there.”
“It’s all been crazy exciting, and we get to be here at senior nationals, my very first one, and I get to experience it with a great new friend,” Kam said. “I’m super blessed for this opportunity.”
The skaters train at World Arena Skating Academy — “WASA Pairs” — under Drew Meekins, the 2006 junior world pairs champion, and Natalia Mishkutionok, who won the 1992 Olympic pairs gold medal with partner Artur Dmitriev while representing the Unified Team. WASA brought three other teams to San Jose, including two medal-winning junior pairs as well as seniors Nica Digerness and Mark Sadusky.
“My dream is really to take pairs skating into the next century, so to speak,” Meekins said. “I’m very inspired by what’s happened with U.S. ice dancing, the way it has grown and changed over the last two decades has been so wonderful to watch. I think pairs skating is ready for something similar.”
O’Shea’s dream is to continue his competitive career, and in Kam, he thinks he has found the right partner.
“When I was done last season in California, I moved back to Colorado Springs, where I have a home,” O’Shea said. “I spoke with Drew, and he gave me the opportunity to help out with his amazing pairs program there. I was working with a lot of the girls who didn’t have partners, helping out a little with the pair teams, keeping myself in shape. The opportunity to skate with Ellie came and we jumped on it.”
The team debuted at a small international event in Graz, Austria, in early November, and went on to win silver at Golden Spin in Zagreb, Croatia, last month.
“I feel like all of the experiences and competitions we’ve done together, have been amazing learning experiences,” Cam said.
“There is a lot of passion for me to show what I still have left for this sport,” O’Shea said. “With Elie, I have the opportunity to do that, and I’m very excited.”
(L-R) Valentina Plazas and Maximiliano Fernandez compete during the pairs short program at the 2023 Toyota U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Jan. 26, 2023 in San Jose, Calif.
Plazas, Fernandez Put Their Hispanic Heritage On The Ice
Fellow pair Valentina “Val” Plazas and Maximiliano “Max” Fernandez are a rarity in U.S. figure skating: a teaming of two Hispanic athletes.
Plazas was born in Bogota, Colombia, to Colombian parents 22 years ago. The family immigrated to the U.S. when Plazas was 6, eventually settling in Pembroke Pines, Florida.
The 27-year-old Fernandez was born in Hialeah, Florida, to a Peruvian mother and Cuban father.
“It means a lot to us, being recognized for our Hispanic heritage, because we come from immigrant families,” Plazas said.
Hispanic figure skaters have had success on the ice. At the 1956 Games in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, two-time U.S. bronze medalist Catherine Machado became the first Latina to represent Team USA at a Winter Olympics. And then there is San Jose’s own Rudy Galindo, the 1996 world championships men’s bronze medalist, who has Mexican heritage on his father’s side.
“The person (in skating) that (people) recognize, who represents the Hispanic culture, is Rudy,” Fernandez said. “He has been awesome, he’s been a supporter of us. His being a (U.S.) men’s champion (in 1996) and also (the 1989, 1990) pair champion with Kristi Yamaguchi, it’s something to take in.”
When the time came to select this season’s short program music, the team’s coaches, Jim Peterson and Amanda Evora, turned to West Side Story’s famous love duet, “Maria” — specifically, the version featured in director Steven Spielberg’s 2021 film.
“With both skaters members of immigrant families, West Side Story and especially the Spielberg movie, connected with both Val and Max,” Peterson said. “They know firsthand how hard their parents have worked to make their way in this country and become successful. It has given them a very strong work ethic, and a passion for their skating.”
“It really hits home with us,” Plazas said. “We went to watch the movie with Jim. And it means a lot to us in terms of the storyline being similar to ours.”
The skaters, who competed at five international events last fall, said they had no expectations coming into San Jose. Still, they are in fourth place after a solid short program on Thursday, just 2.30 points out of bronze-medal position.
“We were happy with the way we skated,” Plazas said. “I two footed the (triple) toe loop, but I know I can fix that for the (free skate on) Saturday.”
When the two teamed up in February 2020, Peterson and Evora trained them in Ellenton, Florida. In December 2020, the group — now including the skaters’ Corgi Cattle Dog, Axl Rose — moved to Canton, Michigan’s Arctic Edge. There, they share the two-sheet facility with Michigan Ice Dance Academy, the school founded by Charlie White, the 2014 Olympic champion with Meryl Davis; Tanith Belbin White, winner of the 2006 Olympic silver with Ben Agosto; and former world junior ice dance champion Greg Zuerlein.
Watching world-class ice dancers train each day encourages the pair to be a bit more theatrical on the ice and reach out to audiences.
“It’s just inspiring to watch them — their facial (expressions) and body movement,” Fernandez said. “They work from morning to night. It’s a good vision to have.”
“And we live with (ice dancer) Michael Parsons,” Plazas added. “We like to hear his point of view. Sometimes we like to show him our footwork and say, ‘Michael, you be the judge.’”
(L-R) Madison Chock and Evan Bates celebrate in the "kiss and cry" after the ice dance at the 2023 Toyota U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Jan. 28, 2023 in San Jose, Calif.
Chock And Bates Come Full Circle
Madison Chock and Evan Bates’ storied career — three Olympic Games, three world championships medals and a string of 10 consecutive U.S. medals, three of them gold — began in earnest in San Jose, where the couple made their U.S. Championships’ debut in 2012.
It’s fitting, then, that the ice dancers, who stepped out to a 15-point lead over Caroline Green and Michael Parsons with a sizzling samba and rhumba rhythm dance on Friday, are now in position to win their fourth U.S. crown in the same city on Saturday.
“(2012) seems like a whole lifetime ago. We’ve gone through so much change and evolution, personally and in our careers,” Chock, 30, said. “It’s been truly an incredible journey. I feel so grateful that we’ve been able to have this longevity and go through so many of these experiences that I will cherish for the rest of my life. It’s really been so special.”
The skaters’ “incredible journey” includes its share of storybook moments, but Chock and Bates had to fight all the way. After winning back-to-back world championships medals in 2015 and 2016, they didn’t regain the world podium until last season. Their first U.S. title, and their second, happened five years apart. An ankle injury, which required surgery, plagued Chock during the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons.
‘We’re still here because we love it,” Bates, 33, said. “Obviously, we’re a couple off the ice, and that has forged us together in a really special and unique way. As a couple that’s been together (romantically) for six years, it feels like we’ve been together for a lifetime. We’ve gone through a lifetime of experiences together, many of (them) because of figure skating, and the fact that it’s still an ongoing story for us is something that we cherish.”
They can also cherish their short dance here. The polished, sophisticated routine, set to a remix of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance,” included crisp, perfectly synchronized twizzles (series of fast turns) as well as a glorious lift. It earned 91.90 points.
It also proved that, despite delayed preparation for the season due to heavy touring commitments last summer, the Montreal-based couple has regained the form they need to fight for the world title in Saitama, Japan, in March.
“I’d say we’re right on track,” Chock said. “We’re exactly where we need to be going into the second half of the season, we’ve put in a lot of great work back home between the final and now and still have a good stretch of time before worlds and to make some more gains.”