Figure skating expert Hannah Robbins discusses the shocking finishes in the United States National Championships and the firsts that skaters achieved.
In recent years, the U.S. Nationals has become the competition that determines how the rest of the calendar year goes for a skater. Depending on the year, a skater’s Nationals results will send them the Four Continents Competition, a Junior/Senior World Championships berth or even an Olympic spot. In addition, this competition is one of the significant factors in Grand Prix placing for the next season. With all this pressure, some skaters sink and others swim, and Nationals is a way to see how skaters will fare on the international scene.
In years past, the results for this competition have not been the only thing determining spots, and those selections have caused drama and led to cries of outrage for most casual skating fans. After the rules for the Olympic Selection Committee changed in 2014 so that the current year’s Nationals result, international results for the past year and the previous year’s National result were all considered, Ashley Wagner earned an Olympic spot despite finishing Nationals in fourth place. Four years later Adam Rippon did the same thing, with Jason Brown (who placed sixth) earning the first alternate spot over second place finisher Ross Miner.
The ladies’ competition this year is full of new faces. While most Nationals require a certain age limit before competing at the senior level, U.S. Nationals only requires competitors to take a test that determines if they can compete at an appropriate level. This opens the door for significant portions of the field who compete as a junior internationally to compete as a senior in U.S. Nationals. This year, there are many juniors coming up the ranks and filling the spaces left by injuries and (possible) retirements.
Notable absences from Nationals this year include Gracie Gold, who made a comeback this year at the Grand Prix Russia but withdrew after a rough short program and decided to to sit the rest of the season out to prepare for next season. Other skaters missing include 2017 National Champion Karen Chen, who was plagued with injuries and competed in a mere two competitions all year, and Mirai Nagasu, the 2018 U.S. Nationals bronze medalist who stated she might return to competition after an injury sidelined her this season. Ashley Wagner, the 2012, 2013 and 2015 U.S. National Champion, retired after missing a bid to the Olympics last year.
The national title for U.S. ladies is notoriously difficult to defend, with four different winners in the past four years. The field is always picking up new skills and consistency is a rarity in U.S. ladies figure skating, but this year, it was Bradie Tennell, the announcer-crowned “queen of consistency,” who returned to claim her title again. She was challenged by Mariah Bell, the 2017 Nationals bronze medalist who has struggled with clean programs after that competition and Alysa Liu, the 13-year-old who is the only U.S. lady with a triple axel in her bag.
Tennell produced a strong short program, but after stepping out of a combination and falling on the first part of a combination jump, she ended in second place. While Bell made a solid effort to pass Tennell, a fall during the free had her end a mere point behind Tennell, claiming the bronze. It was Liu who came out on top. She was edged out by Tennell in the short but remained error-free during the free skate, earning her the title of U.S. National champion at 13, the youngest in U.S. history.
On the pairs side, it was up to Alexa Scimeca-Knierim/Chris Knierim to reclaim their title, but their rough Grand Prix season that left them outside the Grand Prix Final raised the question: is their head in the game? On the other hand, Ashley Cain/Timothy LeDuc finished above the Knierims at Skate America — would they best them again?
After struggling with serious errors in the short program, the Knierims ended in seventh. An aborted lift and major mistakes on two jumping passes gave them the their lowest placing ever less than a year after their Olympic bronze medal. Instead, it was Cain/Leduc who ended on top, with 2017 Champions Haven Denny/Brandon Fraizer finishing in second and 2018 bronze medalists Deanna Stellato-Dudek/Nathan Bartholomay reprising their bronze medal result.
On the ice dancing side, the loss of Alex and Maia Shibutani (who took this season off) was barely felt. Madison Hubbell/Zachary Donohue have dominated this season with a victory on both their Grand Prix assignments and the Grand Prix Final seemed poised to take the Nationals crown. But Madison Chock/Evan Bates, the 2015 national champions and silver medalists last year, who missed their Grand Prix assignments due to Chock’s injured ankle, emerged as a medal threat after the rhythm dance. Other significant contenders included Kaitlin Hawayek/Jean-Luc Baker, who placed sixth at the Grand Prix Final and third in the rhythm. After strong performances by all three, Hubbell/Donohue ended on top with Chock/Bates in second and Hawayek/Baker in third.
On the men’s side, only Adam Rippon, the Twitter sensation who placed fourth at Nationals last year, has retired. New juniors are coming up the ranks, including Tomoki Hiwatashi, the sixth-place finisher at the Junior Grand Prix Final. Nathan Chen came back this year to claim the title for the third time, and despite his rough Olympics last year, has been dominating this Grand Prix season and is currently undefeated since Worlds last year.
At the time of reporting, only the short program had been completed, but the competition has been eventful. After a rough last year for Brown, he surged to second with a clean program with his characteristic artistry and clean elements. Chen skated cleanly, landing in first, while Vincent Zhou recovered from his rough season filled with under-rotations to end in third. If things continue as they did in the short, Nathan Chen will repeat as national champion.