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2014 U.S. National Championships


by Geraldine Walbert

Making the U.S. Olympic Team is every figure skater’s dream. Winning a medal is the icing on the cake. This week the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Boston is the doorway to making a trip to Sochi, Russia for the 2014 Olympic Winter Games. Skaters work most of their lives, toiling day after day in cold, damp ice rinks at early morning practices, then on to ballet, or cardio workouts in the hopes of making their dreams come true. The pressure to make the Olympic Team is immense because spots are limited. Only Ladies and Ice Dance qualified for three competitors, while Men and Pairs can only send two competitors each.

THE LADIES – For decades the Ladies competition has been the highlight of the Winter Games. Names like Tenley Albright, Carol Heiss, Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, Kristi Yamaguchi, Tara Lipinski, Sarah Hughes, and Michelle Kwan are forever etched in US skating history as famous Olympians. This year (21) hopefuls will aim to fill their Olympic dreams.

Two-time US Ladies champion, Ashley Wagner, 22, is the leading contender to not only make the Olympic Team but to win her third national title. Memories of a failed attempt to make the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Team, (missing the spot by one placement); have spurred her on in the four years since.

“I’m a totally different skater than I was in 2010,” she stated confidently in a recent teleconference. “I have had four years to grow up and I feel like I am an adult now, whereas before I was just kind of like, a little girl on the outside looking in at my dream.

“I can make this happen; I’m in control of getting onto the team. It makes a huge difference on how I approach it.”

Winning a silver medal at the prestigious international competition, the Grand Prix Final in December has fueled her confidence.

Aptly named, Gracie Gold, 18, a former U.S, Junior Ladies champion, is another Olympic hopeful. She has big triple jumps but a lack of consistency has often been her nemesis. Several months ago she made a coaching change, moving to Los Angeles to work with famed skating instructor, Frank Carroll, who coached Michelle Kwan for most of her successful career. Gold says she has worked on her consistency and now rarely misses her triple Lutz/triple toe loop combination. “I learned a lot this year,” she admitted to changing her Short Program music and choreography, to put more trust in her training.

Another former U.S. Junior Ladies champion, and two-time senior bronze medalist, Agnes Zawadzki, 19, says she is ready to make the team. “You don’t go into a competition hoping for the third spot. I don’t want to just make it; I want to make a big impact at Nationals.”

She, too, has big jumps with consistency issues and last October went back to jump specialist coach Tom Zakrajsek to hone her talent. “I needed to go back to my younger days when no matter what happened, I was always smiling. I always had a lot of fun.

“The real skater, the one that really shined when I was in Juniors. I feel that one is coming out again.”

There are several other competitors who have a shot at making the team, including Boston’s own Christina Gao, 19, Mirai Nagasu, 20, Samantha Cesario, 20, Courtney Hicks, 18, and former U.S ladies champion, now Stanford U. undergrad, Rachael Flatt, 21.

THE MEN – Only two spots are open to make the men’s Olympic Team and there are roughly 8-10 potential candidates for those two spots, which make this event one of the most hotly contested in the entire competition.

Max Aaron, 21, is the returning U.S. champion but is by no means guaranteed to make the team. Known as a prodigious jumper, he is one of a handful of American men who have planned more than one quadruple jump in his programs, but those quads are often iffy happenings. Aaron said he has reduced the number of quads in his Freeskate to two instead of the previously planned three quad jumps for better consistency, and he completely reworked his Carmen program to emphasize a more artistic impression, an aspect often criticized in his performances.

“We’ve really been going over how to compete under pressure and certain key points before the performance,” he said. “It’s about keeping the timing the same, the legs warm and making sure my mental game is tough.

“I’m looking forward to defending my title and making the U.S. [Olympic] Team.”

A veteran of many national and international competitions, Jeremy Abbott, 28, is the lone Olympian in the men’s competition in Boston. He is a three-time U.S. men’s champion (2009,’10, ’12) and made the 2010 Olympic Team. However his performance in Vancouver was disappointing, eventually placing 9th behind Johnny Weir and Olympic gold medalist Evan Lysacek.  This time Abbott is looking to end his career with a win in Boston and a medal in Sochi.

Injuries and boot problems have plagued him these past several years and he has struggled with the quad but his artistry is well known and appreciated by many in the skating world. If he is able to conquer the quad and his confidence issues to bring his best performances to Boston, he should secure that valuable spot on the 2014 Olympic Team.

Twenty-four year old Adam Rippon has been waiting in the wings to bring his best performances to Boston to try and win the men’s overall title along with a trip to Sochi, and this may be the year he does it. He won back-to-back Junior World titles (2008-09), was the 2010 Four Continents champion and the 2012 U.S. men’s silver medalist, but he has struggled with the quad the past two seasons and said he is now landing the jump confidently in both his Short and Long Programs. A strong international season has given him more confidence even when a short battle with the flu a few weeks ago shorted a full training schedule. Going into Boston he is trying to make every element in his program look effortless.

“I definitely think confidence in sports is what makes success. The changes to my training and what I have done (this year), I feel like I put myself in a good position to win the U.S. title.”

Boston’s Ross Miner is also considered a favorite to make the Olympic Team. Boston Strong is his theme in his Freeskate, commemorating those lost and injured in the Boston Marathon bombing. The 23-year old is the only man who has made the U.S. podium the past three years, winning silver last year and bronze medals in 2011 and 2012. Although he sprained his ankle earlier this season, he says he is ready to compete and looking forward to hearing his hometown crowd cheering him on, hopefully to the podium and making the Olympic Team.

“It really is a wonderful opportunity for the Skating Club of Boston (of which he is a member), a special time to remember. I’m really excited for this.”

Up and coming 19 year-olds Jason Brown and Joshua Farris are long shots for the Olympic Team, but either skater could manage a podium spot if they can give their best performances in Boston. Brown doesn’t have a quad but has wonderful skating skills and great audience appeal, while Farris’ classical style augmented with a solid quad could also be podium worthy.

Still California’s Richard Dornbush, Alaska’s Keegan Messing and Boston’s Stephen Carriere could surprise as well.

THE PAIRS – Two pair teams will make the Olympic Team, but there is no prohibitive favorite for the national title since two of the 13 teams in Boston have each won a previous U.S. title. Caydee Denney, 20, & John Coughlin, 27, were the 2012 champions, but a hip injury to Coughlin later that year caused them to miss the opportunity to defend their title.

“We were alternates for the Grand Prix Final and really had all the momentum in the world,” Coughlin recalled. “As we were training full run-throughs I noticed a little bit of discomfort, so over the weekend we went to the Olympic training center. Thankfully, they accurately diagnosed it as a torn labrum. I had surgery quickly - at the Steadman Clinic in Vail that same day, so it was kind of a whirlwind process.

“It, of course, destroyed our hopes of keeping our national title and doing better at Worlds. I had time to do some thinking. ‘We realized that we want to go to the Olympics together, so we took care of the injury, so we could go full steam ahead for the Olympic year."

This season they competed internationally finishing with a bronze medal in the French Grand Prix, 4th at Skate America and 2nd at the International Figure Skating Classic in Salt Lake City.

Their main competition is the defending national champions Marissa Castelli, 23, & Simon Shnapir, 26, who have been skating together since 2006. Although born in Moscow, Shnapir calls Sudbury, Mass., his hometown and is excited to compete in nearby Boston.

“It’s a blessing,” Shnapir commented about his upcoming Boston appearance. “I’m extremely thrilled to have Nationals in Boston. It’s a special moment for both of us.”

Castelli & Shnapir do have a rare quad throw element in their Freeskate, which could seal their claim to the national title if they land it. So far, they say it is one of their more consistent elements, along with two sets of triple jumps (triple toe loop and triple Salchow), but none in combination.

While both Denney & Coughlin and Castelli & Shnapir are likely to make the podium in Boston in some fashion, they do have some competition for an Olympic spot with up-and-comers including Boston’s Gretchen Donlan & Andrew Speroff, Colorado Springs’ Alexa Scimeca & Chris Knierim, Florida’s Felicia Zhang & Nathan Bartholomay and newly teamed Lindsay Davis and former U.S. pairs champion Rockne Brubaker, who train in the Los Angeles area.

THE DANCERS – An Olympic Team spot is guaranteed for five-time U.S. champions Meryl Davis, 27, & Charlie White, 26, unless they don’t show up – and probably even should that unfortunate happenstance occur (due to bad weather). The 2010 Olympic silver medalists are considered to be a lock for a record-breaking 6th national title, topping five other great American dance teams. Their entire career has been of record-breaking firsts, becoming the first American dancers to win a world title and do it twice.

But as usual, the duo takes nothing for granted despite their successes. “We have been fortunate to have an amazing career and we’re just relishing the opportunity to skate,” White commented in a recent conference call. “We’ve been lucky to have this opportunity to win a 6th National Championship but right now we’re just focused on our ability to live in the moment and what we can do to improve our score.”

Last season’s Nationals saw them win their 5th title with a record breaking score and their win at the Grand Prix Final in December also cemented another record-breaking score for that event.

Who will join them on the Olympic Team is the question that will be answered in Boston.  There are at least four teams, who hope to join Davis & White in Sochi, but only two slots are open and the battle will be fierce.

Madison Chock, 21, & Evan Bates, 24, a recent University of Michigan graduate, are the defending silver medalists and won bronze medals in the most recent Grand Prix international events in Russia and China. Bates is already an Olympian having competed with his previous partner Emily Samuelson in the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver.  He suffered an injury later that year and was off the ice for the following season when the partnership split. He and Chock, a former World Junior champion with Greg Zuerlein, (who since retired), teamed in 2011 and promptly moved into medal territory.

They moved to the Novi, MI rink when Igor Shpilband split with Marina Zoueva in Canton and say he is their number one supporter and feel their training is going great. They are looking forward to the momentum they feel they have created with their medal-winning performances this season.

Probably one of the most decorated dance teams for their ages, siblings Maia, 19, and Alex Shibutani, 22 have won national ice dance titles at the Intermediate level (2006), Novice level (2007) and Junior level (2010), and are the first U.S. team to win a world medal (bronze - 2011) in their first senior World Championships. This is their 10th year competing together and they hope to make their first Olympic Team this week in Boston.

To date they have won bronze medals at the Grand Prix events at the NHK Trophy in Japan and at Skate America and are the defending national bronze medalists.

“Our programs are structurally sound,” Alex affirmed, adding that changes to the music in the middle section of their Michael Jackson Free Dance and corresponding choreography have made the program more fluid. “It’s a different style from what we have ever done and it’s been challenging, but we want to have fun with this program.”

Also hunting for an Olympic spot are Madison Hubbell, 23, & Zachary Donahue, 24. Hubbell previously competed with her brother Keiffer for a number of years, but he decided to retire from competition and Hubbell found Donahue in 2011. They met instant success internationally which led to national recognition and a bronze medal in 2012. They had a successful early 2013 season with a win at the Nebelhorn Trophy and a bronze medal at Skate Canada.

A recent injury to Hubbell has hampered their training but they say they are ready to compete in Boston and have two strong programs to challenge for that all important Olympic spot.

Another contender,  Lynn Kriengkrairut, 25, & Logan Giuletti-Schmitt, 28, are both university graduates. Kriengkrairut got her degree at the University of Michigan in pre-med and Giuletti-Schmitt has a degree in geology from Eastern Michigan University. In what may be their final competitive season, the duo moved from their long-time coaching team to train with Igor Shpilband in the hopes of making the podium and the Olympic Team. They have continually been in the running for the podium with 4th and 5th placements at Nationals.