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Thoughts After Watching 2015 U.S. Figure Skating Championships

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The last few days have been challenging ones around Chez Caffrey, as I’ve been battling some health issues. That, and only that, is the reason I didn’t write something sooner about the 2015 United States Figure Skating Championships, held in Greensboro, North Carolina, this past weekend.

There’s a great many things I wish to say, both about the men’s and women’s competitions. They showcased persistence and heart as Adam Rippon won the free skate event and nearly walked off with the United States men’s title, and they also showcased the fighting spirit of Mirai Nagasu, who finished her long program after suffering a devastating freak injury by skating into the boards.

First, let’s talk about the men’s event, which was completed on Sunday afternoon.

  • Adam Rippon’s long program was a complete delight from beginning to end. It was lyrical, it was athletic, and it was brilliant. Rippon, who attempted a quadruple Lutz jump (by far the toughest quadruple jump ever attempted) and landed it (albeit with an under-rotation), deserved to win the men’s event, hands-down, as he was graded much more harshly in the short program than he should’ve been. But he did win the free skate, as he deserved…he’s my odds-on favorite for a World medal in Shanghai whether he lands the quad Lutz or not. (But if he does, watch out — Rippon could shock the world and win gold. Shades of Rudy Galindo, indeed!)
  • Jason Brown won the overall event with a good and solid performance that, three-quarters of the way in, I’d have called “robotic.” However, in his final minute, his footwork caught fire and he again became the showman I knew he could be. Brown’s spins and jumps are solid and beautiful, but he does not have a quadruple jump planned for World’s. He is likely to place somewhere between fifth and seventh even if he skates lights-out at World’s because of this.
  • Joshua Farris came in third with an introspective program that showcased his artistry along with a quadruple jump attempt. Farris has more chance at a medal than Brown, but probably less than Rippon, who has the most international experience of the lot. However, Farris reminds me the most of retired World Champion Jeremy Buttle of Canada…if Farris hits his quad and does everything else at the same level as he did in Greensboro, he has a fighting chance for a medal.

Those are the top three medalists, and all are both artists and good, solid jumpers. But what about the rest of the field?

Some quick hits:

  • Max Aaron tried two quads, landing one cleanly and the other two-footed and possibly a tad under-rotated. Still, he has guts and moxie, and I enjoyed his program (skated to the music from the “Gladiator” movie) immensely. Aaron has a similar style to Maxim Kovtun of Russia, yet Aaron never gets the same sort of PCS marks Kovtun gets from the judges (PCS means artistic impression, more or less). Aaron came in a strong fourth, and is the first alternate to the World team.
  • Jeremy Abbott skated a quiet and lyrical program, but fell twice; he did attempt a quad toe loop. His father passed away last week of Parkinson’s disease, and as such I felt Jeremy’s performance showed a great deal of grit and heart. As always, I enjoyed his musicianship and style. He finished fifth, but any other year, he’d have won a bronze.
  • I appreciated Ross Miner’s program. It was quiet, elegant, a little reserved, but seemed to fit him admirably. He was a bit under the radar due to being in the final flight of skaters with Abbott, Aaron, Rippon, etc. Miner skated as well as I’ve ever seen him; some years, what he did would’ve been enough for a bronze.
  • Douglas Razzano skated in the second flight of skaters, but I was impressed with his energetic performance. He has a wonderful sense of timing and rhythm. He attempted a quad toe loop and finished seventh; many other years, he’d have been in the top five.
  • Loved, loved, loved Sean Rabbit’s fire and showmanship. He doesn’t have a quad, doesn’t have a solid triple Axel, but man does he have talent. Truly enjoyed his performance.
  • Felt terrible for Richard Dornbush. He’s had boot and skate problems all season, and they came back to haunt him in Greensboro. He finished in tenth place, mostly because of equipment issues.

Now it’s on to the ladies’ event, which had its own share of drama and excitement.

I’ve been tough on Ashley Wagner in the past. I didn’t think she deserved to go to the Olympics last year, and I let everyone know it. But this year — ah, what a difference a year makes!

This year, she showed moxie, class, and confidence in adding a Triple lutz-triple toe loop combination — the toughest jump combo any woman attemped at the U.S. Nationals — very late in the game. She was easily the class of the field, and has an excellent chance to win a medal at World’s.

Quick hits regarding the other competitors who caught my eye:

  • Gracie Gold may not be hurt right now, but she skated tentatively and cautiously to a silver medal performance. She looked beautiful, as always, and I loved her layback spin and presentation. But if she skates like that at World’s, she’s probably going to be ranked somewhere between fifth and eighth.
  • Karen Chen’s delightful, effervescent performance deservedly won the bronze medal. She’s young, she’s fresh, she’s outspoken in the same way Ashley Wagner is — I look forward to much more from her. But because she is too young to go to World’s, she’ll be going to Junior World’s instead. (I fully expect her to dominate Junior World’s, too, if she skates anything close to what she did at the U.S. Nationals.)
  • Polina Edmunds’ fourth-place performance looked gawky and awkward, possibly because of some growing pains. (She’s just turned sixteen.) She has a boatload of talent; once she gets fully acclimated to her adult height (whatever it turns out to be), she’s going to be formidable. She’s been named to the World team; because of her “puberty issues,” it’s impossible for me to predict how she’ll do — she’s the ultimate wild card.

Longer takes:

  • I felt terrible for Courtney Hicks in the long program. She is a jumper, and is a strong presence on the ice. Her long program was conceptualized (according to what I found at Ice Network and via some Twitter conversations with other figure skating fans) as a woman slowly going insane, which makes sense in retrospect as her performance looked herky-jerky and as if she’d woken up with stiffness and soreness. Her jumps were solid, as ever, and her spins were good. But the program itself did not seem to showcase her good qualities. To my mind, Ms. Hicks needs to study skaters like the now-disgraced Tonya Harding, Elizabeth Manley, and Midori Ito — the powerful jumpers, in short. (Others to consider: Elaine Zayak, Kimmie Meissner, Emily Hughes, even Nicole Bobek — another disgraced skater, granted, but one who combined powerful jumps with an effervescent style at her best.) Hicks is never going to be a ballerina and should not try; her coaches did so well with her this year in the short program with something that truly suited her style. Now they need to find out whether or not Hicks can master the triple Axel — because if she can, that’s her ticket to a World medal, not to mention fame and fortune.
  • Finally, poor Mirai Nagasu. That woman cannot catch a break to save her life. She started off her long program with a strong triple flip-triple toeloop-double toeloop combination, landing it solidly (albeit with some underrotations called by the judges), and followed that up with another solid double Axel-triple toeloop combination. But then, she skated too close to the boards and fell down — shades of what happened to Jeremy Abbott last year during his Olympic short program — and injured her knee. Bravely, she finished her program despite being in obvious pain, and finished 10th overall. She deserves a medal for her strong spirit, fortitude in the face of adversity, and as many shoutouts as possible because no one — not the judges, not her own coach, not even the medical staff — seemed to realize how badly she was hurt, forcing her to go out and take bows even though she’d immediately skated to the side to get off the ice and rest her knee. Ms. Nagasu is a fighter of the first water, and showed her resilience and strength in full measure; what I saw from her on Saturday night was not just a portrait in courage, but a superbly trained athlete doing her all after becoming injured in the pursuit. I’m very impressed with Ms. Nagasu, and hope that whatever nonsense she may hear due to her 10th place finish will go straight out the window; I also hope her own coach, Tom Zakrajsek, will give her major “props” for finishing.

Anyway, these were my thoughts. I’m sure I’ll have more in the coming days…but until then, I hope that anyone who may come across this blog will remember one, final thing:

Do your best. Providing you’ve done that, nothing else matters. (I had to learn this as a musician when I competed in various events, and it still applies.)

Olympic Thoughts: Dance, Ladies Short Program

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Folks, the last few days have been hectic. So I’ve not had much time to discuss the latest doings in the world of Olympic figure skating.

But since I had a request from a friend to discuss a bit of the ice dancing, I thought I’d talk about that.

But wait — there’s more.

Because I managed to see every single one of the ladies perform their Olympic short programs yesterday, I thought I’d discuss a little bit about that competition as well.

First, let’s talk about the ice dancing. United States figure skaters Charlie White and Meryl Davis excelled in their short program, and skated a solid long program to a beautiful piece of music (Scheherezade by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov) with technical brilliance and a great deal of speed to win the first-ever gold medal for the U.S. in ice dance. (Note that Davis and White won silver in 2010, while Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto also won silver in 2006.)

I enjoyed White and Davis’ skating, and felt they were worthy of a gold medal.

However, in some ways I responded a whole lot more to Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. They, too, are excellent skaters with the whole repertoire of moves . . . they won gold in Vancouver, though, so it’s hard to feel like they’ve been cheated.

As for the women’s short program, here’s my take:

  1. The American women are in good shape, with Gracie Gold in fourth place, Ashley Wagner in sixth and Polina Edmunds in seventh. All skated credibly or better; Gold has a real chance to win a silver or bronze if she skates a clean long program.
  2. There’s no way in the world Adelina Sotnikova belongs among the top six. Her scores were wildly inflated.
  3. What a shame that Mao Asada wasn’t able to complete her triple axel or her combination jump. Her program was lovely except for the fall, but missing those required elements dropped her all the way to sixteenth place. She’d need several miracles to get within striking distance of the podium.
  4. My overall winner of the short program? Carolina Kostner of Italy. She skated beautifully to “Ave Maria,” and was every bit as good as Yuna Kim.

In case you’re wondering what I’m looking for in Friday’s long program from the ladies, here goes:

  1. Russian ladies’ scores will continue to be wildly inflated, but none will medal (as if they did, an international judging controversy would no doubt ensue).
  2. Mao Asada will land at least one triple axel and a three-jump combo (probably triple-triple-double).
  3. Gracie Gold will skate clean and medal.
  4. Podium (who I think should win): Carolina Kostner, gold; Yuna Kim, silver; Gracie Gold, bronze.
  5. Podium (who the judges will inexplicably pick): Yuna Kim, gold; Carolina Kostner, silver; probably still Gracie Gold, bronze, unless Mao Asada lands two triple axels cleanly (if so, she’ll win the bronze somehow, and deserve it).

Written by Barb Caffrey

February 20, 2014 at 5:20 am

United States Wins Olympic Bronze Medal in Team Figure Skating

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Well, folks, it’s official — the United States won the bronze medal in the inaugural Olympic team figure skating event.

Now that it’s all over, it’s time to reflect on the skaters from the United States, and discuss their overall impact.

Ice dance — Meryl Davis and Charlie White skated two fine routines, winning their segment of the team event handily in both cases. Davis and White are the odds-on favorites to win the gold in the individual ice dance event later this week.

Pairs — Marissa Castelli and Simon Shapnir skated two good performances, coming in fifth in the first segment (with ten teams) and fourth in the second (with five teams). They did as well as could be expected, and nearly landed their signature throw quadruple Salchow.

Men’s — What more can be said about Jeremy Abbott? I’ve watched him skate for years, he’s a great guy and a fine artistic skater who actually has a fairly solid quad, and yet his nerves continue to get the best of him. His dismal performance in the men’s short program (he finished seventh out of ten) was one reason it was iffy until the final performance of Davis and White that the United States would medal at all.

Jason Brown was substituted for Abbott in the long program, and Brown delivered a solid, fun performance of his signature “Riverdance” program. Brown wasn’t quite as good here as he was at the U.S. Nationals a month ago, but he was still good enough to hold onto fourth place and keep the U.S. in medal contention.

Women’s — Ashley Wagner came in fourth during the short program, doing exactly what she needed to do to get the U.S. into the medal round. Gracie Gold was substituted for her and delivered an excellent long program, finishing second out of the remaining five skaters to help the U.S. save their medal chances.

Overall, I liked the team figure skating event. But if I were running the International Olympic Committee or had anything whatsoever to do with figure skating, I’d try to get the scores from the first round thrown out once everyone gets into the medal round.

Why?

Well, what I saw in this team event was two teams — Russia and Canada — racking up so many points in the preliminary round that it was nearly impossible to catch them. That’s not a good thing, not for the fans — who saw excellent skaters like Carolina Kostner of Italy and Mao Asada of Japan substituted for with lesser skaters (presumably to save Kostner and Asada’s legs a bit as both are favorites to medal in the ladies individual figure skating event), not for the teams themselves (Italy and Japan had no chance for any medal except the bronze, and decided early on not to make a serious run at it, while the United States’ only realistic shot was for the bronze rather than the silver, and the gold was completely out of reach; even Canada, which did exceptionally well, didn’t have hardly any chance to catch Russia in the standings for the gold medal), and certainly not for the Olympic spirit of tough but fair competition.

In future Olympics, it would behoove them to be a little more like hockey or soccer, where points are discarded once you get to the medal round, as that would allow all five teams a realistic chance at a team medal rather than only three of them.

At any rate, hats off to Teams USA, Canada, and Russia for their medal-winning efforts . . . it was fun to watch.

Written by Barb Caffrey

February 10, 2014 at 5:55 am

U.S. Figure Skating Assn. Places Ashley Wagner on 2014 Olympic Team Despite Dismal 4th Place Finish at Nationals

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Folks, right now I’m glad I write a blog where headline length is flexible. Because as you see, what just happened a few, short hours ago would strain the limits of most normal newspaper headlines — former United States champion Ashley Wagner, who finished way behind the top three finishers last night at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, was placed on the Olympic Team anyway and is going to Sochi.

Here’s what happened last night during the Ladies Long Program at the United States Figure Skating Championships in Boston — 18-year-old Gracie Gold won the gold medal with a technically challenging routine, 15-year-old Polina Edmunds won the silver medal with perhaps the most difficult routine, and 20-year-old Mirai Nagasu won the bronze medal in a complete upset. Heavily favored Ashley Wagner, a two-time national champion, finished fourth due to two major falls and under-rotating two other triple jumps instead.**

Usually, when there are three spots on the Olympic Team, the top three at the U.S. Nationals are the people who end up going. However, in this case, that did not happen.

Take a look at the point totals for these four women:

  1. Gracie Gold — 211.69
  2. Polina Edmunds — 193.63
  3. Mirai Nagasu — 190.74
  4. Ashley Wagner — 182.74

In particular, the difference between Edmunds in second place and Nagasu in third was only about three points. Edmunds competed in her very first senior-level event last night in Boston, and while she was impressive, it’s hard to believe she can duplicate her efforts in Sochi. (Mind you, I’d like her to do so — I felt she was light on her feet and had a good, musical style, to boot. But the reason Tara Lipinski’s 1998 Olympic gold medal is still celebrated so many years later is because what Lipinski did at the age of fifteen is rare.)

The U.S. Figure Skating Association thus had a choice: Were they going to name Wagner, who has been heavily promoted in NBC TV advertising? Were they going to name Nagasu, who despite not having a coach (an extreme rarity in elite figure skating) did exceptionally well? Were they going to confirm Edmunds despite her lack of international experience at the senior level?

In other words, the only lock here was Gracie Gold. She won the national championships, fair and square. She has international experience. She was going to Sochi, but everyone else was in doubt.

So when the USFSA decided to name Gold, Edmunds, and Wagner, at least a few eyebrows were raised.

Take a look at this article from Yahoo Sportswriter Martin Rogers:

Ashley Wagner was controversially named to the United States women’s Olympic team on Sunday despite her disappointing fourth-place finish at the U.S. Championships this weekend.

Wagner, the two-time U.S. champion and fifth-place finisher in the World Championships, was awarded the third spot on the roster just hours after being highly critical of her own effort at TD Garden, where the Nationals typically serve as the de facto Olympic trials.

Vancouver Olympian Mirai Nagasu finished third here but will miss out on Sochi, as Gracie Gold, 18, and Polina Edmunds, 15, were awarded the first two spots.

In previous years, the finishing order at the Nationals has generally been used to select the squad, with the only changes coming as a result of injury.

Rogers’ point is that Wagner finished fourth, so she doesn’t deserve to go.

Here’s an opposing view from internationally respected sportswriter Christine Brennan in an article written for USA Today last evening before the official selections were announced:

Ashley Wagner did not skate well Thursday night in the women’s short program at the U.S. figure skating Olympic trials, and she was even worse Saturday night, falling twice.

Still, U.S. Figure Skating should send her to the Sochi Olympic Games . . . One competition, even as big an event as the U.S. nationals, should not mar the best international resume among U.S. women over the past two years . . .

Here’s why the 22-year-old Wagner deserves to go even though she performed poorly here:

She was the two-time defending national champion who has by far the most impressive resume of the bunch. She won the silver medal at the 2012 Grand Prix Final and the bronze at last month’s 2013 Grand Prix Final. These are prestigious, important international events. She has finished fourth and fifth, respectively, at the last two world championships — the best of any American. New national champion Gracie Gold was sixth, right behind Wagner, at the 2013 worlds.

It should be noted that Wagner’s and Gold’s placements there earned the United States the third spot for the Olympic Games, the spot Wagner presumably would fill.

(Note: Ellipses and emphasis added by BC)

So Brennan’s contention is that Wagner is the most consistent of the U.S. ladies — something I firmly agree with — and that as Wagner was part of the reason why the U.S. got three spots in the first place, Wagner should represent the U.S.

My point is a little different, though. I’m not saying Wagner shouldn’t go. I’m saying Edmunds shouldn’t go, mostly because Edmunds has never before skated in a senior event. She may be the next Tara Lipinski, as she herself alluded to last night in NBC’s figure skating coverage — or she could be a huge bust.

Whereas Nagasu finished fourth in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, has proven herself as a figure skater despite all her recent inconsistency (much less her volatility in not currently having a coach), and more to the point is a bit older, besides.

So if you must pick between these four women — a strong supposition — you have consistent skaters in Gold and Wagner, and the biggest wild card extant in either Edmunds or Nagasu.

The USFSA picked Edmunds due to her youth. They figure she will improve. She also speaks Russian, has Russian family members, and probably will get more out of the trip on a personal level than Nagasu — all good.

But I still don’t like what the USFSA did. I think if they were bound and determined to pick Edmunds, they should’ve picked Nagasu as well even though it would’ve really upset the apple cart with NBC (not to mention Wagner, who’s highly regarded in the figure skating community) because logically, it doesn’t scan well any other way.

Because of what the USFSA did today — and the way in which they did it — has reminded me yet again that in figure skating, it’s not what you do so much as who you know that determines our Olympic Team.

And that’s sad.

————–

**Under-rotating jumps, for non-figure skating fans, basically means this — the jumps looked like triples to the naked eye. Wagner attempted to jump cleanly, but instead of the jump grading out as a triple (with three rotations in the air), it instead was a gussied-up double (meaning it was an over-rotated double or an under-rotated triple). Jumps such as these are counted as double jumps rather than triple jumps and get less credit from the judges thereby; further, such under-rotated jumps often get downgraded on the second mark (what used to be called artistic impression) as well in something called “grade of execution.” (Clear as mud, right?)