Barb Caffrey's Blog

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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.)

In Olympic Long Program, U.S. Figure Skater Jeremy Abbott Silences Critics

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Yesterday’s blog discussed U.S. figure skater Jeremy Abbott, who took a particularly nasty fall, laying stunned on the ice for nearly twenty seconds due to the pain, but got back up and finished his heart-felt short program to finish fifteenth.

Finishing that far back meant it would be nearly impossible for Abbott to pull up into the top ten. And indeed, he didn’t, finishing twelfth.

But what he did today was still quite impressive, as despite being in obvious pain, Abbott skated a clean long program.

After that, Abbott had a message for his critics, according to Dan Wetzel of Yahoo Sports:

Asked what he had to say to those who say he chokes, he first exhaled loudly, put his head back and said, “Ahhhh … I would just love…”

He turned to Barb Reichert of U.S. Figure Skating public relations.

“Sorry Barb, you’re going to kill me,” he said.

“No,” she said. “I’m not. Bring it. Bring it.”

Abbott brought it.

“I would just hold my middle finger in the air and say a big ‘F you’ to everyone who has ever said that to me because they have never stood in my shoes,” he said, the kind of direct language not commonly found in the skating hall.

Now, why did Abbott say this? Well, not every commentator is as polite as I am, not by a mile. Twitter yesterday was particularly unforgiving, and half (if not more) of the commentators never once took a look at what Abbott did after he took that hard fall.

Figure skating is one of the most difficult athletic pursuits around. Even though I can’t do it — I don’t have the balance, the strength, or the stamina, and never have — I understand skating and I understand the skater’s mentality, mostly because I’m a musician and I performed at many music competitions. And having to do your best when your reed isn’t working, or your keys are sticking, or you know you’re competing against someone who’s won the competition several times and you’re a newcomer — well, those nerves are hard to deal with.

That’s why I never faulted Abbott for having nerves, or being willing to acknowledge them. But as a commentator — even an armchair one like myself — I have to be honest about what I see.

Yesterday, I said that Abbott’s story of falling hard but getting up and finishing when he could’ve walked away without fault was inspiring. And it was.

Today, going out there when he knew he had no realistic chance for a medal and giving it his all, then skating a clean program despite being in pain from yesterday’s fall, was even more so.

Life is about how hard you try after you’ve been knocked down. It’s all about how you get up, or don’t. And that’s why I’d rather talk about Jeremy Abbott, who’s competed now in two Olympics, finishing ninth  and twelfth, than talk about 2014 Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu, who’s only nineteen and has not faced significant adversity on the ice as of yet (off the ice, yes, due to the tsunami a few years ago). And I definitely don’t want to talk about Olympic silver medalist Patrick Chan, who apparently felt he deserved the gold medal despite taking three falls, because that young man has way too much publicity already.

For today, this Valentine’s Day, I want you to consider the courage of a young man who’s about to retire from the sport he loves — Jeremy Abbott — at the young age of twenty-eight, because the sport is so difficult, so demanding, requires so much dedication, that his legs and back and body and mind just cannot keep doing it at the high level required to attain the Olympics.

Then consider how difficult it was for him to take that fall — look at the program in context (I’m sure it’s available on YouTube by now, or at NBC.com), and see what Abbott did to get up again, then skate the rest of his program with vigor and panache.

That’s what we all need to do, in this life.

I have a lot of sympathy for Abbott.  I had it in 2010 at Vancouver, when he finished ninth by skating a brilliant program to pull way up in the standings. And I have it again today.

Because what makes an Olympic champion is not the medals.

It’s the heart.

That’s why Jeremy Abbott will forever be an Olympic champion.

Written by Barb Caffrey

February 14, 2014 at 4:59 pm

U.S. Figure Skater Jeremy Abbott Falls Hard, Wins Big (at Life)

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Today, I witnessed something I’ve never before seen in my many years of watching figure skating. Reigning United States men’s champion Jeremy Abbott, who’s had his share of troubles in the Olympics already, took a very hard fall in the Olympic men’s short program at Sochi, lay on the ice for nearly twenty seconds . . . then got up and skated the rest of his program cleanly and with energy.

This was a big win for Abbott, even though it wasn’t reflected in the score column overmuch.

You see, Abbott, over the years, has had many problems with his nerves. They are well-documented, they are pervasive, and while they are also completely understandable (I doubt many of us would do well under so much scrutiny), they’ve kept him from attaining his immense potential — at least at the international level.

Martin Rogers of Yahoo Sports quoted Abbott afterward as saying:

“First thing, I was in a lot of pain and I was laying there kind of shocked and I didn’t know what to think,” Abbott said. “I was waiting for the music to stop. The audience was screaming, and I was, like, ‘Forget it all, I am going to finish this program.’

“As much of a disappointment as this is, I am not in the least bit ashamed. I stood up and finished this program, and I am proud of what I did in the circumstances.”

Abbott scored a 72.58, good for fifteenth place out of thirty, but what he achieved goes far beyond any scorecard.

No.

What Abbott achieved was the ultimate triumph of dedication, focus, and persistence. He refused to let a terrible fall — one that could still, potentially, knock him out of the competition — stop him from completing his short program. And in so doing, he won the respect of his competitors and the Russian crowd’s vociferous support, which wasn’t altogether easy as their lone entrant into the men’s program, Evgeny Plushenko, had abruptly retired directly before he was supposed to skate in the short.

I don’t doubt that Plushenko was injured — he clutched his back and looked like he could barely stand upright when he skated over to the judges in order to withdraw — and I also don’t doubt that Plushenko did the right thing in withdrawing, no matter how abrupt it turned out to be.

But what Abbott did in getting up from one of the worst falls I’ve ever seen and skating the rest of his program with vigor, energy, and even brilliance was as inspirational an effort as I’ve ever seen.

As Rogers put it in his headline, “Jeremy Abbott Loses Marks for Ugly Fall, Wins Hearts for Finishing Short Program.”

As I’ve been critical over the years of Abbott — much though I adore his skating — I felt it imperative to point this out: Jeremy Abbott has the heart of a true champion.

Whether he can skate the long program after a night of stiffening up and soreness, and possibly some bone breaks as well (as a hairline fracture can be hard to spot, especially right after an injury due to the inflammation incurred) is immaterial.

What Abbott did today in refusing to give up on himself is far, far more important than any marks could ever be. In or out of the Olympics.

You see, Jeremy Abbott proved today why he’s as big a winner at life as anyone I’ve ever seen.

And that, my friends, is extremely impressive.

United States Team Advances to Team Figure Skating Final

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Folks, after a rough skate by United States men’s champion Jeremy Abbott two days ago, it was unclear whether or not the U.S. would advance in the new figure skating team event.

You see, in this event, all four types of figure skating are on display. You must field an ice dance team and a pairs team plus one female skater and one male skater. You get one point for tenth place, ten points for first, and the points aggregate. And you’re allowed two substitutions after the short program.

Anyway, in the first night of the team event, Abbott skated disastrously and landed in seventh place, gaining only four points, while the pairs team of Marissa Castelli and Simon Shapnir came in fifth — about what was expected — gaining six points. Which meant after the first two disciplines skated, the U.S. had only ten points and was tied for fifth place with two other teams.

This may sound good, but as there were only ten entries in this inaugural team event, it’s really not what was expected.

Earlier today, the dance team of Meryl Davis and Charlie White took the ice and delivered an excellent short dance (the dance version of the short program), finishing in first place and gaining all ten points. Which meant that Ashley Wagner, who was next (and last) to skate for the United States, had to finish in the top five or the United States not qualify for the final round.

Fortunately, Ashley Wagner delivered a solid performance and landed in fourth place. This allowed the United States to qualify along with Russia, Japan, Italy, and Canada for the medal round.

What to watch in the finals? Well, the top Russian team of Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov have dropped out of the team event, allowing the second Russian pairs team to take over (probably Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov, the current Russian champions, will be substituted in their place). And Patrick Chan, the reigning World Champion (despite last year’s disastrous free skate), has also dropped out, allowing Kevin Reynolds to skate in his place.

This makes it a little easier for the United States to perhaps move up and take a silver, depending on how well they do from here on out.

A few more things to keep an eye on:

Japan does not have much help coming from their ice dance and pairs skaters, and will no doubt finish fifth in both of those (the pairs team is particularly weak). Their male and female skaters must finish either first or second in order for them to make up for this weakness.

Italy also has a weak pairs team, but a decent-to-better ice dance team that’s actually in contention for a bronze individual medal by most accounts. Their strength is in the women’s competition, where Carolina Kostner has medaled at Worlds several times, winning a gold, two silvers and two bronzes over the years; their male skaters are not among the top twenty in the world, and may not even be in the top fifty.

Canada has an excellent pairs team, an excellent dance team, a decent-to-better female skater in Kaetlyn Osmond and their second-best man, Kevin Reynolds. Hard to say how well they can do overall, but I’d be shocked if they didn’t win a silver.

Russia is the odds-on favorite to win the gold, as they have strong competitors in all four disciplines and a huge lead going into the finals (as the points apparently carry over).

The final round starts off with the pairs again, and will take place later this evening in Sochi. (It may be underway as we speak, in fact.) I plan to come back later and discuss this here at my blog, and give you my own assessment.

All I know right now is this: It’s good the United States made it this far. But the U.S. team had best replace Abbott with Jason Brown — I’ve heard it’s likely they’ll do this (Abbott himself surely seemed to think so, at any rate, from the interviews I’ve seen on NBC and its related networks) — if it wants any chance at a medal.

Written by Barb Caffrey

February 8, 2014 at 2:05 pm

Quick US Figure Skating Update (Men’s and Women’s 2012 Worlds)

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Folks, it annoys me severely when I can’t watch the United States Figure Skating Team compete, especially when they go to the World Figure Skating Championship — this year’s venue was in Nice, France.  That makes it tough to comment on what happened, because all I know is what I can read about online, or when I’m able to see YouTube videos after the fact.  And this can’t convey the energy in the arena or the circumstances of the event, as they’re just a snapshot of one person’s skating, without the context necessary in which to judge the event.

So all I can tell you is the bare facts.  Which aren’t pretty.

Here goes:

The United States men’s team, comprised of the talented duo of Jeremy Abbott and Adam Rippon, did not do very well in France.  This was Rippon’s first time at Worlds, so for him to finish 13th isn’t terrible — other people who’ve gone to Worlds for the first time have finished lower than that.  But it also wasn’t very good, and I haven’t a clue about why except that Rippon apparently was a bit rattled (nerves, most likely) and fell on his opening jump in the free skate.  This threw him off enough that he wasn’t able to get back on his game.

But while nerves can perhaps be blamed for Rippon’s 13th place finish, I really don’t know what happened with U.S. Champ Jeremy Abbott, who finished 8th.  I know he battles severe problems with nerves, because he sees a sports psychologist (something I admire him for doing).  And I know that when he went to the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver as the 2010 U.S. Champ, he finished 9th.  This sounds a lot better than it was, as Abbott had to work hard to move up to get into the top ten, as he had a disastrous short program; apparently something similar happened in France, which is a shame.

Both of these men are lyrical, elegant skaters with excellent skating skills and technique.  When they’re on, they can light up the room in a similar manner to my favorite U.S. skater, Johnny Weir; because of this, they are fan favorites (perhaps not as much as Weir, who’s attempting a comeback).  That’s why it hurts so much to have to report such results.

Here’s an article from the Chicago Tribune online that describes what happened to the men, and how disappointing it is:

http://www.chicagotribune.com/sports/globetrotting/chi-the-truth-hurts-us-men-dismal-at-world-skate-20120331,0,1277841.column

And the women did no better; U.S. champ Ashley Wagner finished fourth only because she worked her heart out in the free skate, pulling way up.  And poor Alissa Czisny — I ache for this woman — finished a dismal 22nd after falling in the free skate five times.  Czisny also fell twice in the short program, which begs the question: was she injured?  And if so, why did she go and skate, especially as she has had trouble with her nerves before, and something like this would not help her at all?

Here’s the article, again from the Chicago Tribune, that explains this:

http://www.chicagotribune.com/sports/globetrotting/chi-no-bad-just-good-and-ugly-for-us-women-at-world-skate-20120331,0,3166346.column

Here’s writer Philip Hersh’s assessment of what happened to Czisny:

Czisny, U.S. champion in 2009 and 2011 and second this year, wound up 22nd after what may have been the worst free skate ever by a skater with her talent and record. (emphasis mine: BC)

She fell five times in four minutes.  She landed no clean triple jumps.

She had fallen twice in the short program and finished 16th.  Seven falls in a competition must be some kind of record.

Czisny has so much talent that a result like this is unfathomable.  I’ve written posts before about her persistence and her elegance and grace; this woman always gives it her best effort, has rallied back from huge defeats, and has apparently battled nerves throughout.  When Czisny is on — and she’s on far more than she’s off — she lights up the room, especially when she spins as she’s one of the best spinners, male or female, in the world.  And she’d improved her jumping technique — her only real weakness — very much in the past few years, which is why I really don’t understand how Czisny didn’t land a single triple jump.

My only guess is that Czisny was injured, but if she was injured, why was she in France at all?  Why not withdraw rather than “take one for the team” and finish 22nd?

I’m well aware that the others who could’ve been sent — Caroline Zhang, Mirai Nagasu, and Agnes Zawadski — would’ve had a tough time at Worlds, too.  But they’d probably have done better than 22nd as this was the lowest finish ever for an American woman — much less someone with top talent like Czisny (she finished a strong fifth last year, for pity’s sake!).

My hope for all of these skaters is that they keep at it.  Abbott has tons of talent; so does Czisny.  Rippon has barely scratched the surface of what he can do.  Wagner has improved so much, she could be our next Olympic gold medalist — but of these four, she’s the only one who appears to be on an even keel.  (Though it’s quite possible Rippon is, too.  It’s not unknown to go to Worlds for the first time and finish under where your ability should put you; in fact, it’s odd when something like that doesn’t happen.)

Abbott and Czisny are both in their mid-twenties; that’s old for the sport.  That makes getting a handle on whatever went wrong for them more time-sensitive than it is for Rippon or Wagner (especially as Wagner did have an excellent free skate).  I sincerely hope for both of their sakes they will realize that this was just one bad day (very bad in Czisny’s case), and that the talent they embody continues, undimished.  They must shake this off, and keep trying; that’s the best way to win in the only way that truly counts: being your best self, and using your talents accordingly.

Written by Barb Caffrey

April 1, 2012 at 8:40 pm

United States Men’s 2012 Championships: Abbott Wins, Rippon 2nd

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Folks, I am a figure skating junkie despite never learning to skate.  (I tried roller skating.  I had poor balance.  I knew better than to try ice skating.)  I’ve studied the jumps, the spins, the choreography, and of course as a musician I enjoy figure skating programs that actually go with their music.

That’s one reason why I like contemporary men’s figure skaters Jeremy Abbott and Adam Rippon so much.  Like my all-time favorite Johnny Weir (who’s preparing for a comeback), these are men who spin well, jump well, and most importantly to my mind, are musical, lyrical performers who can actually create art on the ice.

Granted, most of the time, what’s talked about with regards to Abbott is his past inconsistency.  Abbott, 26, has persisted, and has proven his resilience under pressure; while his 2011 season was one to forget (much like Weir’s 2009 season), he’s come back stronger than ever and had two fine performances (a brilliant short program, and a very good and musical long program) to easily win the United States 2012 men’s championship.  This was his third win at the United States National Championships, as he’d previously won in both 2009 and 2010.

Adam Rippon, 22, who came in second after a great short program and a so-so long program that was long on artistry and a bit short on jump technique, is another of those skaters I can’t help but root for.  Rippon has such wonderful flow over the ice; his spins are perfectly centered 99.9% of the time (all that any human being can do, in short), his footwork is inventive and elegant, and his musicality is impressive.  Rippon has everything a figure skater could ever want at his fingertips, but he has to learn to control his nerves.

Abbott and Rippon train together in Michigan as they have the same coaches, former World Champion Yuka Sato and former US National pairs champion Jason Dungjen (a married couple, who also coach two-time US National Champion Alissa Czisny).  So it seemed especially fitting for these particular two men to go one-two during Sunday afternoon’s men’s figure skating competition; that they have cemented their place on the 2012 World Team is an additional benefit that both men will assuredly appreciate, considering that it’s never been a lock for either man to make the World Team due to a variety of factors.

Congratulations, gentlemen!  And best of luck at Worlds!

Written by Barb Caffrey

January 30, 2012 at 9:48 pm