So here it is. The last U.S. National Championships of the 20th century. The championships mid-way through the Olympiad where we will see if the hold-overs from the 1998 Olympics can stay on top and improve, or if the young bucks will push them aside and become the new stars of 2002.
In the ladies event Michelle Kwan is the favorite. A place some people say it is difficult for her to be. More than a few observers recently have noticed that over the past few years in nearly every major competition in which she was the favorite she ended up second. Her main competition here will be Sarah Hughes, who has continued to improve since last year, and who has had a strong international season. Next in line are Naomi Nari Nam and Angela Nikodinov, and not far behind the up-and-coming Sasha Cohen. There are three places open on the U.S. World Team and neither Hughes or Nam are age-eligible. A recent ruling from the ISU, however, says that Hughes is eligible by virtue of her World Junior medal from 1999. If Nam, however, places in the top three she will have to medal at World Juniors next month in order to compete at the World Championships two weeks later.
The favorite in the men's event is Michael Weiss, but barely so. A large contingent is pulling for Tim Goebel to steal the title from him this year. As the U.S.'s current king of the quad Goebel has the technical ammunition to blow Weiss out of the arena but on the artistic side he still has a ways to go. Only two U.S. men will be going to Worlds this years, and it looks like Goebel and Weiss will be the two. Fighting for third we expect will be Trifun Zivanovic, Matt Savoie and Damon Allen. Savoie and Allen placed fourth and sixth, respectively, last year. Shepherd Clark, who placed fifth last year, is being much hyped for a gem encrusted long program costume, reportedly valued at $100,000, but we do not expect him to be a serious contender for the bronze.
Pairs is probably the weakest event at this year's Nationals. The gold and bronze medalists from 1999 are out due to injury. Danielle Hartsell is recovering from a broken knee cap and Paul Binebose is recovering from a head-injury that nearly cost him his life last September. The favorites here are last year's silver medalists Kyoko Ina & John Zimmerman. For the silver and the bronze however the field is wide open. The U.S. gets to send two teams to Worlds this year so the goal of the top teams remaining from last year is to try and move up to second place. The most likely candidates are Tiffany & Johnnie Stiegler who were fourth in 1999 and fourth at the 1999 World Junior Championships, followed by Tiffany Scott & Paul Dulebohn who were fifth in 1999. Overall, however, we are not expecting a particularly high level of competition.
In dance Naomi Lang & Peter Tchernyshev should have an easy time repeating as National Champions. The dance event should not be quite a dismal as last year with some new blood entering from the junior ranks. Last year's junior champions, Jamie Silverstein & Justin Pekarek are expected to contend for a medal along with the third and fourth place teams from 1999, Deborah Koegel & Oleg Fediukov and Beata Handra & Charles Sinek. Only the top two teams will make the U.S. World Team.
Competitive events finished up today with the senior ladies and men's free skating. In the men's event Michael Weiss held of Timothy Goebel to repeat as men's champion. It was a challenging competition for Weiss who had to deal with a stress fracture in the past few months, a fall in his first practice that resulted in four stitches on his chin, and the undisputed U.S. king of the quad, Timothy Goebel. Goebel jumped into the history books as the first skater to land a quad at U.S. Nationals, as well as the first quad combination at Nationals, and the first to land three quads in one program. Weiss achieved his own personal piece of history be earning his first 6.0 at a U.S. Nationals (in the second mark).
Michelle Kwan had a strong skate to recapture the ladies title. Newcomer Sasha Cohen also skated strongly to win the silver medal. Cohen will have to medal at World Juniors next month in order to be eligible to compete at Worlds as she is three month shy of the age eligibility requirement. Sara Hughes placed third and will be off to her second Worlds next month.
The junior men's event finished up this afternoon and proved to be a bit of a carnival ride. With one skater left to compete Parker Pennington was the leader and Evan Lysacek was third overall. The final skater, Johnny Weir, who had won the short program, ended up fifth in the long, but because one judge placed Weir first, Lysacek ended up winning the long program and Pennington placed second. In addition, because Weir dropped so far in the long, Lysacek who had placed fifth in the short program moved all the way up to first overall and take the junior men's title.
The ladies short program also held surprise with newcomer Sasha Cohen winning the short program in spectacular style and Sarah Hughes giving a nearly equally strong performance to place second. A fall on triple toe loop cost Michelle Kwan dearly, putting her into third place going into the long program.
In senior pairs, the free skating was completed this evening to finish up the event. Kyoko Ina & John Zimmerman had the best skate of their partnership to win their first national championship together.
The men's competition began with the short program. It was a hard fought event with first place ordinals evenly split among the top three skaters, Michael Weiss, Timothy Goebel, and Matt Savoie. Shepherd Clark was forced to withdraw due to a back injury. His back had been bothering him prior to his time to skate and a bad fall on a triple Axel attempt knocked him out of the competition.
The senior dance event was completed with the skating of the free dance. Naomi Lang & Peter Tchernyshev won the gold and in the process earned the first 6.0 of their career.
The competition began to ramp-up today with the skating of the senior dance OD and the senior pairs short program.
Michelle Kwan gave a press conference to plug her new endorsement contract with Chevrolette. It is a three-year, seven-figure deal. We also got to hear the same broken-record comments about how she is working on the triple-triples, and feels she is capable of improving between now and the Salt Lake Olympics. This week, however, her long program is scheduled to include triple toe loop - triple toe loop, a combination she has had off-and-on in her program since 1996, and her short program still relies on the triple toe loop where other ladies use the more difficult triple flip. Sarah Hughes, on the other hand, is reportedly going to try triple Salchow - triple loop and triple loop - triple loop in her long program at this competition. Many observers of the sport are becoming sceptical of Kwan's claims that she will be increasing the difficulty of her programs and will be looking closely at events this week to see if she is crying wolf yet again.
During the opening ceremony this evening Scott Hamilton unveiled to the public his CARES Initiative to promote cancer research and education, and a number of local skating champions and Olympians were presented to the audience. Also present was Paul Binebose. Binebose suffered a sever head injury in a fall while practicing lifts on September 9, 1999. A large portion of the front right portion of his skull was removed (and frozen) to relieve pressure on his brain and he was in a coma for several weeks (partially medically induced). Later the removed portion of his skull was reinserted. During the coma his weight dropped from 182 to 133 pounds. His weight is currently back up to 161 pounds. The right side of his face is paralyzed, he has permanently lost his sense of smell, and still has double vision. He has been in physical and speech therapy since getting out of the hospital and has also spent a little time on the ice. He met briefly with the press before the opening ceremony, speaking clearly and coherently, with flshes of his well known sense of humor. He said that he is committed to coming back and the only thing that will stop him is if previous back problems act up which would cause him to feel he would be putting his partner in jeopardy by skating. He said that his physical conditioning as an athlete was the only thing that allowed him to survive the coma by providing the reserves that allowed him to lose so much weight and strength. He also added that he now favors the use of helmets by pair skaters when practicing. [Recently the USFSA executive committee approved an initiative to study implementing a requirement for the use of helmets in practice.]
The Novice events were completed today with the skating of the long programs for all four events. The short programs and compulsory dances were held yesterday. The Novice events were held at the Winterhurst arena, a facility that was two small, cramped, and cold for a National competition. On Sunday approximately 1500 people attempted to crowd into a space adequate for only half that number, and today the situation was only slightly better.
Overall the level a skating was a disappointment. Only a handful of the ladies looked even remotely ready to move up to juniors, though the champion, Colette Irving gave a free skating performance worthy of the title. The men's event was even weaker than the ladies - and a lot messier too. The first boy skating the long-program threw up on the ice about a quarter of the way through the program. In pairs the top four teams all showed some promise as did the top two dance teams, but at the novice level it is still too early to predict what that says for the future with growth spurts and partner changes the norm for these skaters over the next few years.
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