The city of Los Angeles and the All Year Figure Skating Club hosted the U.S. Figure Skating Championships from January 6-13. Fields of up to 18 skaters vied for three Olympic berths in singles and two in pairs and dance. Following the competition, the United States Figure Skating Association named its team for the Olympic Games, the World Championships, the World Junior Championships, and the Four Continents Championships.
Tenley Albright. Peggy Fleming. Janet Lynn. Michelle Kwan moved ahead of all three by claiming her sixth U.S. title in front of a home crowd in Los Angeles. The twenty-one year old World Champion enters the Olympics bolstered by two perfect scores of 6.0s for her free skate to “Scheherazade.” Completing six triple jumps, Kwan nevertheless left room for improvement at the Olympics. Her planned triple toe-triple toe combination, which she has not landed cleanly all season, became a triple-double. The audience of 18,500 couldn’t have cared less, giving America’s best hope for Olympic gold a rousing ovation before she had even finished her program.
Thought to be battling for bronze at best, seventeen-year old sensation Sasha Cohen skated her way to a silver medal with near-flawless performances in the short and free programs. Rebellious by nature, Cohen skated a conservative free program that did not include an attempt at the quadruple salchow, a jump with which Cohen hopes to make history. No woman has ever landed a quadruple jump cleanly in competition, and since the retirement of Surya Bonaly, no woman has even been seriously trying. But Cohen’s goal at Nationals was simply to make the Olympic team, and after much discussion with coach John Nicks, the quad was put aside in order to increase her chances of skating a clean program. With six triple jumps and only a small flaw on an improvised seventh triple, Cohen skated perhaps her best performances to date to decisively earn a berth on the Olympic team.
World bronze medalist Sarah Hughes, renown for her strong competitive ability but notorious for her unorthodox technique on her toe jumps, demonstrated both in her free skate. After singling the back end of a planned triple-triple combination, Hughes threw in a seventh triple jump at the very end of her program. The gutsy move gave the sixteen-year old the most completed triples of any competitor in the event, but seven of the nine judges ranked her behind Cohen, who has purer technique and more refined presentation.
Angela Nikodinov, ranked fifth in the world and a member of the U.S. world team for the past three years, took herself out of contention for a berth on the Olympic team after unraveling following a fall on a triple loop jump. Doing only double jumps for the last two minutes of her program, Nikodinov essentially handed the third Olympic spot to Cohen on a silver platter. At a crossroads in her career, the twenty-one year old will have to decide whether to refocus and continue with the hopes of overcoming her tendency to choke at important events, or to move on to the less stressful world of professional skating.
The ladies field has incredible depth that promises great competition in the next Olympiad. Teenagers Jennifer Kirk and Ann Patrice McDonough have both been successful at the World Junior Championships, where top prospects Beatrisa Liang and Louann Donovan are expected to vie for medals in March.
Score one for the old guy. Thought to have virtually no chance at winning, thirty-year old Todd Eldredge became the oldest U.S. men’s champion since Roger Turner won in 1934. The much-hyped quadruple toe loop did not appear in either program- Eldredge elected to take it out of his short program, and he tripled an attempt in the free skate- but two clean performances were enough to give Eldredge his sixth U.S. title and third shot at the Olympic Games. First national champion at 1990, Eldredge finished tenth at the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, did not qualify for Lillehammer in 1994, and placed a disappointing fourth in Nagano in 1998. Now he gears up for one last chance.
Eldredge’s main rival for the bronze medal will likely be the man he defeated here, Timothy Goebel. The twenty-one year old reigning champion turned in two respectable performances in his attempt to defend his title and seemed elated when he finished. In both the short program and free skate, Goebel landed a quadruple-triple combination– the element that Eldredge has struggled so hard to master. After a decisive victory over Eldredge at the Grand Prix Final, Goebel was expected to sleepwalk his way through the national title, and perhaps that had an influence on his performances at some level. In the short program, Goebel tripped and fell during a footwork sequence after completing all of the required jumps. What was supposed to be a 0.3 deduction wasn’t reflected on all of the judges’ scorecards, and he ended up in a tie for first with Eldredge. The judges were less generous in the free skate after Goebel fell on his quadruple toe loop and reduced a planned quadruple salchow to a triple. While the difficulty of his other jumps kept him solidly ahead of Eldredge on the technical marks, the presentation marks were decisive. Eldredge won unanimously.
Former U.S. champion and world bronze medalist Michael Weiss won the third and final Olympic berth with the help of some controversial judging. Weiss went down on a quadruple toe loop in the short program and later stepped out of a triple Axel. His error-filled performance landed him in fifth place ahead of skaters like Derrick Delmore, who had fewer deductions and stronger overall performances. The problems continued in the free skate, where Weiss fell on one quadruple toe loop attempt, two-footed another, put his hand down on a triple Axel, struggled to land a triple lutz, and did not attempt a triple flip after improvising a large part of his routine. By a vote of seven judges to two, Weiss was able to pull up to third and earn his second Olympic berth. Improving on his seventh-place finish from 1998 will be tough if Weiss continues to skate as he did in Los Angeles.
The hard-luck kid for the fourth consecutive year was Peoria, Ill.’s Matt Savoie. If Savoie had placed just one spot higher or Weiss had placed just one spot lower in the short program, Savoie would be Olympic bound. Savoie had two critical strategy errors that likely impacted his standing. The first was his choice to perform just a triple flip-triple toe combination in the short program. Though Eldredge and Goebel weren’t quite as clean with their performances, the base difficulty of their respective combinations of triple Axel-triple toe (which Savoie is capable of doing) and quadruple salchow-triple toe kept them ahead in the eyes of the judges. The second strategic mistake was the absence of a triple Axel combination or quadruple toe loop attempt in the free skate. Savoie fell on his first triple Axel and later failed to put the second triple Axel in a combination or sequence, a 0.1 deduction for breaking the so-called “Zayak” rule. While Goebel, Eldredge, and Weiss walk in the opening ceremonies at the Olympics, Savoie will be at home taking the LSAT. However, there is a good chance that his season is not yet over. It is expected that at least one of the three Olympic-bound men will elect to skip the World Championships in Nagano, to which Savoie is first alternate.
Ironically, the one man who could have shaken up the standings was sitting in the wings, waiting for the ISU to approve his request to skate for Yugoslavia. Trifun Zivanovic, former U.S. silver medalist and fifth at Nationals last year, could have been the skater to push Weiss out of the top five in the short program, denying his Olympic berth. With Savoie’s subpar free skate, it would have been entirely possible for Zivanovic to earn himself a spot on the U.S. Olympic team- something that, based on his request to skate for Yugoslavia, he thought was out of reach.
Kyoko Ina and John Zimmerman had their worst competition of the season and still won the U.S. pairs title without losing so much as an ordinal. That says a lot about the competition, and also about Ina and Zimmerman. U.S. pairs is incredibly weak at the moment, with the number of falls in the short program exceeding the number of teams in the competition and few prospects on the horizon. In contrast, Ina and Zimmerman have been rock solid this season. Even a year ago, their performances here, with falls on the triple toe loops in both programs and a touch down on a throw jump in the free skate, would have been considered good for this team. However, Ina and Zimmerman have managed to significantly raise both their level of difficulty and level of consistency this season, taking three silver medals at the Grand Prix events with near-flawless programs every time out. After seriously challenging three-time and reigning world medalists Shen and Zhao at the Grand Prix Final, Ina and Zimmerman are considered to have an outside chance at a medal in Salt Lake City, an achievement that would be a huge boost to a struggling discipline in the U.S.
Delaware’s Tiffany Scott and Philip Dulebohn, silver medalists at the last two U.S. championships, entered the championships as a big question mark, having been unable to compete at any event since last year’s World Championships due to one nagging injury after another. Scott and Dulebohn managed to get through the tough elements in the short program, but a bobble on the lift and his fall on the death spiral exit left them in third place. Skating last in the free skate, Scott and Dulebohn began ominously with a fall on the side-by-side triple toe loops. They battled back to land every remaining element in the program, elating themselves and earning the second and final berth on the U.S. Olympic team by an 8-1 judging vote.
The brother-sister team who were thought to be Scott and Dulebohn’s biggest challengers, Danielle and Steve Hartsell, ended a hard-luck career in sad fashion. Beleaguered by a groin injury to Steve, the duo fought through the short program and finished fourth, good enough to leave them in contention for the second Olympic berth. It became apparent, however, on the warmup for the free skate that Steve Hartsell would be unable to skate. The team bowed to the audience and withdrew, likely ending a career highlighted by a U.S. title and tenth-place finish at Worlds in 1999.
Stephanie Kalesavich and Aaron Parchem, Detroit training mates of the Hartsells, finished third with impressive style. Although their short program showed promise, the duo lacks the technical content of the top pairs. Like the rest of the U.S. pairs, they too will need more ambitious programs if they hope to break on to the world stage in the next Olympiad.
Debuting their competitive programs for the first time after injury, Naomi Lang and Peter Tchernyshev won their fourth U.S. title, earning one perfect mark of 6.0 in the original dance and three more in the free dance. Not all is peaches and cream for this team, however. In the second compulsory dance and the free dance, they lost ordinals to up-and-comers Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto, who had mostly higher technical marks in the free dance as well. It remains to be seen how Lang and Tchernyshev, ninth at last year’s World Championships, will stack up internationally at the Olympics.
Belbin and Agosto finished an impressive second despite being ineligible to attend the Olympics due to Belbin’s Canadian citizenship. Although even the 2006 Olympics are not guaranteed for Belbin, who moved to the U.S. to skate with Agosto in 1999, the marks they received throughout these championships indicate that they will pose a serious threat to Lang and Tchernyshev during the next Olympiad.
In contrast to the speculation that the U.S. judges would hold up teams who were eligible for the Olympics in order to give them a “push” going into the Games, yet another ineligible team, Melissa Gregory and her new partner/husband Denis Petukhov squeaked in for third overall with an impressive national debut. Like Belbin and Agosto, their warm reception at this competition speaks more about the future than the present look for Gregory and Petukhov to be primed for premier Grand Prix events next season.
The second team that will represent the U.S. at the Olympics is Beata Handra and Charles Sinek, veterans who have never finished in the top three at U.S. Nationals or skated at the World Championships. The married couple was forced to sit out of their Grand Prix events due to injury and, like Lang and Tchernyshev, debuted their new programs in Los Angeles. The Olympics will likely be the last event for Handra and Sinek, whose six-season career involved a one-year “layoff” where they temporarily quit skating in order to find means to finance another season.