US Nationals begins Saturday, February 8th, in Nashville, TN. This year Nationals spans a record 9 days from the opening novice events to the closing exhibition on Sunday the 16th. Thank goodness the Monday after is a holiday, since we will need it to recover from our "vacation".
Taking the trend in scheduling in the past few years one step further, Nationals will make use of three arenas and dispose of the novice and figure events first. These events will be held the first Saturday and Sunday to get them out of the way. Monday will be a day of practice, and then the junior and senior events will start up on Tuesday. In effect Nationals is now scheduled as two competitions held one after the other, with the novices and figure skaters up first, and junior and senior Nationals held in the traditional Tuesday through Sunday time frame. As was the case last year, the novices and figure skaters will again be banished from the main arena. Their events will be held in a small skating rink on the outskirts of town and in a mid-sized auditorium down town, with the pairs and dance in the tiny arena and the singles and figure skaters in the auditorium.
To the last minute surprise of many all event ticket holders, who only received their tickets recently, the "all-event" tickets are not. The novice and figure events were not included and must now be purchased separately. It appears that because more all-event tickets were sold than there are seats in the two smaller arenas, tickets to these events were withheld from the all-event package. Quite a surprise to fans who paid up to $450 for an all-event ticket which now isn't.
Since official schedules and lists of participants can be found on the USFSA site we will not repeat that information here. Instead we will jump directly into our look in to the ISIO crystal ball to assess our picks for the top skaters in the senior events.
The ladies looks to be all Michelle. She has skated great all year, and has the whole package now - except maybe bigger jumps would be nice. The same three ladies as last year then get to duke it out for the next two places on the World Team. Tonia Kwiatkowski looks to be a favorite for the silver, and though she hasn't improved much in the last two years, she hasn't declined either, her biggest weaknesses being her inconsistency and a style that sometimes is a tad too aggressive. Then we have Tara Lipinski and Sydne Vogel competing for the third spot. We see little chance of both of these ladies knocking of Kwiatkowski unless she totally self destructs. Her greater maturity and stronger presence on the ice are two major obstacle which will be difficult for Lipinski and Vogel to overcome.
Tonia's strengths, of course, are Lipinski's weaknesses. Tara has the technique, and great speed over the ice, but her jumps remain too small and her speed does not compensate for her lack of presence. These weaknesses also make her vulnerable to being beaten by Vogel. Sydne's assets are her greater strength and maturity, but her presentation - while improved - still needs to come up a notch. With her bronze medal from last year and good results internationally this season, Lipinski has the definite edge between the two, but Vogel is close enough that Tara cannot afford any major errors if she wants to keep her spot on the World Team. Both Lipinski and Vogel are still "works in progress" and, given the time, we feel both of them will pass Kwiatkowski by, but probably not this year.
Eldredge started out this season strongly but later ran into trouble, pulling out of NHK after placing fifth in the short, and then turning in a lack-luster result in the Tokyo ISU ProAm. Nevertheless, despite these problems he is unlikely to be seriously challenged in the men's event at Nationals. Returning to Nationals this year as the reigning World Champion after losing the National title last year to Rudy Galindo, Eldredge's goal is not simply to win, but to win in commanding form. While rumors of a quad have been floating around for several months, it is unclear whether this is a serious possibility or simply part of head games in preparation for Worlds where at least four other men are likely to attempt one. We anticipate Eldredge will go for a dominating clean program at Nationals, and not risk that by experimenting with a quad. A better place to tinker might be the Champions Series final.
After Eldredge, there are four men competing for the next two places on the podium and the World team. There are no strong favorites among the four for these two spots, and anything could happen, with each them having their own strengths and weaknesses.
Michael Chack has been skating well this season and is in a serious position to make a comeback after three disappointing years. Most of his experience this season, however, has been in lesser shows and competitions and this puts him at a disadvantage compared to the others. With two clean programs, however, he could take the silver this year.
Scott Davis has shown gradual but steady improvement this season, and took the bronze at Skate Canada. It is not clear, though, if he has fully exorcised the demons that have plagued his skating since losing the National title in 1995 and falling out of the medals in 1996. Certainly the potential is there.
With the bronze medal last year, you would expect Danny Hollander to be a favorite for a medal again this year, but his performances this season have been undistinguished. He certainly has the equipment to medal this year, but it will not be handed to him on a plate, and he will need two solid performances to medal.
Of the four men we see fighting for the number two and three spots, Michael Weiss has perhaps the strongest technique. He has all the tricks up through triple Axel - triple toe loop and lands them fairly consistently. In presentation, however, we feel he is the weakest, finding his style a one-note-song that quickly becomes tedious.
The pairs event looks to be a repeat of last year. Again we have Meno and Sand the strongest team in terms of presentation, and Ina and Dungjen with the most difficult program. If both teams skate their best, with Meno and Sand having the better record this season and in a good position to repeat for a medal at Worlds (and perhaps even move up from last year), we expect then to again take the top spot.
For the bronze Lyons and Wells look likely to repeat again this year also. Even with their inconsistency on the triple jumps, there are few teams in a position to technically challenge them for the bronze. The only team we see having an outside chance is Steigler and Zimmerman, and then only if Lyons and Wells helps them out by wiping up the ice in the long program, primarily because Steigler and Zimmerman have been obsessively focused on choreography at the expense of technical development for the past year. More likely we expect Steigler and Zimmerman to repeat in fourth place, and see them at risk of dropping a place if they do not present clean programs. Their long simply does not have the technically difficulty needed by a top senior team today.
With Roca and Sur having turned pro, Punsalan and Swallow have no competition to speak
of this year and should win handily (remember, this is ice dancing now), and then both by
virtue of the natural order of things in ice dancing, and the quality of their skating
this season, Chalom and Gates should move up to the silver. That leaves Webster and
Kravette and Robinson and Breen to fight for the bronze but not for a place on the World
team (only two dance teams get to go this year); unless, we can only hope, a new team
knocks them off. Given both their dismal efforts internationally this year it would
probably be in the better interests of US ice dancing if the latter turned out to be the
case and some younger blood was given the international experience next season.
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