Fifteen figure skaters — three women, two men, three ice dance teams and two pairs — will represent the United States at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games, and decisions on which ones will be selected are based primarily on finishes at the 2014 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships taking place in Boston right now. Here are some storylines to watch in the most glamorous of winter Olympic sports.
Can Wagner three-peat?
Before she won her first U.S. title in 2012, Ashley Wagner told reporters, “I’m so tired of being the ‘Almost Girl.’” Now, the 22-year-old who trains in Southern California has a chance to be the “It Girl” in Sochi.
For a while, though, the self-created moniker fit. Wagner placed third at the 2010 U.S. championships, just missing at spot on the U.S. Olympic Team in Vancouver. She was sixth in the United States in 2011.
Then she re-charged her career, relocating from Delaware to California to train under veteran coach John Nicks. The move sharpened her technique and changed her outlook, leading her to two national titles. When the 84-year-old Nicks retired from full-time coaching last spring, Wagner teamed up with Rafael Arutyunyan, a former coach of nine-time U.S. champion Michelle Kwan who is renowned for his ability as a “jump whisperer.” Wagner has become more solid with her triple-triple combinations.
“I feel like I’m a totally different skater from four years ago,” the skater said in a pre-U.S. championships’ media teleconference. “I was a girl on the outside hoping maybe my dream would come true. Now, I’m approaching it much more realistically.”
Arutyunyan says there’s no big secret to the change.
“There was some technical issue (in the triple-triple combination) I corrected, the rest was just training,” he said. “Sometimes they think they’re practicing but they’re not. I teach the way to train.”
Wagner’s biggest challenge may come from Gracie Gold, an 18-year-old who relocated to Southern California this fall, moving from Chicago to train under Frank Carroll, who guided Evan Lysacek to 2010 Olympic gold. Known for her athleticism, the teen’s greatest challenge has been harnessing her nerves at big competitions.
“I have to relax, take a breath, bend my knees and trust my training,” Gold said. “Frank is teaching me to take one thing at a time.”
While Wagner and Gold are considered strong bets for Sochi team, there are plenty of others in the hunt:
Agnes Zawadzki: Third in the U.S. the last two seasons, she must control her nerves in the event’s four-minute free skate. The 19-year-old from Colorado Springs, Colo., has previously led the U.S. championships after the short program only to falter at the finish.
Courtney Hicks: This Southern Californian could shake things up with her big jumps, but will judges reward her skating skills and artistry?
Christina Gao: The 19-year-old has taken a year off her studies at Harvard. After placing fifth in the United States in each of the last four seasons, she has strong artistry but needs to have a strong skate to make the team.
Mirai Nagasu: Once a golden girl, now an underdog, the 20-year-old had a bronze-medal winning performance at an international competition in Russia this fall. Can the 2008 U.S. champion, who placed fourth at the 2010 Winter Games, rise again?
Dark horses abound, from 15-year-old Polina Edmunds, who has impressed on the junior circuit, to 20-year-old Samantha Cesario, a glamorous New Yorker known for her flashy costumes and sexy style. Women’s figure skating isn’t the Olympic marquee event for nothing.
Sure thing in dance
There’s an old saying — “ice is slippery” — but if there is one thing fans can count on, it’s Meryl Davis and Charlie White winning their sixth U.S. title to become the winningest dance team in U.S. championships’ history.
The 2010 Olympic silver medalists, who began skating together about 16 years ago, have every medal — including world titles — on their resume, save one: Olympic gold. The Michiganders are taking nothing for granted, still working to perfect their programs.
“Our ability to live in the moment and do what we can do to improve our scores has allowed us to grow,” said White, 26. “We’re not getting away from that now, despite the Olympics. We’re enjoying the process.”
Every nuance of every turn, step and lift in ice dance programs is analyzed and rehearsed to the point of polished diamonds, and no one works harder than Davis and White.
“We feel we can always take a step up,” Davis, 27, said. “There are things we can learn, things we can improve upon.”
With the top spot almost assured, the remaining U.S. ice dance teams competing in Sochi will likely be chosen from the following skaters, all of whom train in the Detroit area:
Madison Chock and Evan Bates: Second to Davis and White last season, this team capitalizes on their height difference — Chock is 5-foot-4, to Bates’ 6 feet 2 inches — to create dramatic lifts.
Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani: Like their training partners Davis and White, the siblings are known for technical excellence and devotion to detail. To create their free dance to Michael Jackson hits, the “Shib Sibs” worked with two of the King of Pop’s own choreographers.
Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue: A couple on and off the ice, Hubbell and Donohue spark a special connection in their programs.
It’s a wide open men’s field
There is no clear favorite among the men, largely due to “quads,” four-revolution jumps that are high-risk/high-reward and often make or break programs.
The “Quad King” of current U.S. skating, defending U.S. champion Max Aaron, announced on his media teleconference he would take a quad out of his free skate. The intense 21-year-old had an up-and-down fall, winning medals at two international events but placing a disappointing seventh at another.
Aaron will still try two quads in his free skate — likely one more than any other man in Boston — and has also back-loaded his program with difficult triple jumps and combinations to gain bonus points.
“I’m looking forward to putting out performances (in Boston) I haven’t done all season,” Aaron said. “I’m so frustrated with myself, honestly. I changed my style, I’m more artistic…I did not mesh (my technical elements and artistry) yet. I knew it would take some time, and time is not what I have this season.”
Adam Rippon, a 24-year-old student of Arutyunyan, has defeated Aaron twice this season at events in the United States and Japan. He sought out Arutyunyan to sharpen his jumps; in this case, to master a consistent quad. Rippon plans to do one in each of his programs in Boston.
“It changes the dynamic of the entire performance,” Rippon, a two-time world junior champion, said. “I feel it brings the excitement of the program up…It’s the full package of all the elements together, but the quad can really set you apart.”
Aaron and Rippon will have to contend with many challengers in the wide-open field:
Jeremy Abbott: The 28-year-old, who has won the U.S. title three times (2009, 2010, 2012), has announced this will be his final season. When he is on, he has the technique and artistry to contend with best in the world. Inconsistency is his nemesis.
Jason Brown: Just 18, Brown is coming off his first fall senior international season with solid performances. He doesn’t have a quad but compensates with fine spins, superb footwork and pure showmanship.
Ross Miner: A sprained ankle limited the defending U.S. silver medalist this fall. Skating in his hometown, he could have a big finish: His free skate, which he’s entitled “Boston Strong,” is a tribute to victims of the Boston marathon bombing.
U.S. champions square off in pairs
Reigning U.S. champions Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir and 2012 U.S. champions Caydee Denney and John Coughlin are set to face-off in Boston.
Both pairs are known for big elements, including strong lifts and solid throw jumps. Denney and Coughlin, who missed the 2013 U.S. championships due to Coughlin’s hip surgery, are more consistent on their side-by-side jumps. Castelli and Shnapir have an extra weapon: a throw quad Salchow, a move no other U.S. pair, and few international pairs, attempt.
“It’s been going well in practice,” Castelli, 23, said on the pair’s teleconference. “It’s definitely part of our free skate.”
The team also announced they will include two different triple jumps in their program, another difficult move that — if successful — could rack up points. The biggest advantage the Boston-based skaters have, though, could be performing on home ice.
“To have everyone I love and everyone that has watched me grow come cheer me on and to watch me … It’s going to be so much more motivational and so much energy between Simon and I and the fans,” Castelli said.
Denney and Coughlin, who train in Colorado Springs, are the country’s most successful pair internationally, having placed eighth at the 2012 World Figure Skating Championships. The 20-year-old Denney is the only one of the quartet with Olympic experience: she placed 13th at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games with former partner Jeremy Barrett.
Other pairs to watch:
Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim: The 2013 U.S. silver medalists train alongside Denney and Coughlin in Colorado Springs. They, too, have huge elements, including big triple twist. Knierim suffered a right foot injury that limited their training this fall, but now they say they are back on track.
Felicia Zhang and Nate Bartholomay: Third in the U.S. last season, this Florida pair has all the tools they need for success. If they skate clean, they could surprise.
Gretchen Donlan and Andrew Speroff: Castelli and Shnapir’s training partners bring elegance and sophistication to the ice, and have worked to improve individual jumps.
Lynn Rutherford is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.