Ten short months ago in Calgary, U.S. skating dominated the World Championships with four medals, fourth place or better in every discipline, and top eleven finishes for nine of the 10 entrants. The story is very different, however, as Americans compete at the National Championships from January 21-27 in Spokane, Washington.
Top American skaters have had mixed or downright rough seasons, with few Grand Prix medals, zero medals at the Grand Prix Final, and losing records against the rising talent they will battle against at Worlds.
Suddenly, 2007 has become a rebuilding year. Nine-time champion Michelle Kwan will not be in Spokane; neither will defending champion Sasha Cohen. All of the reigning world medalists – Kimmie Meissner, Evan Lysacek, and even Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto – are vulnerable.
A new, younger generation will compete at the senior level for the first time. Names like Rachael Flatt and Stephen Carriere could become household names far sooner than most would have predicted. Technical risk, such as Tiffany Vise and Derek Trent’s throw quadruple salchow or Meryl Davis and Charlie White’s level-four everything, could propel these up-and-comers onto the podium in a season of mostly mediocre skating from the top-ranked Americans.
No one is safe in Spokane as the United States begins this new Olympic cycle, which will bring about new winners and losers leading up to the Vancouver games in 2010.
In Calgary, Kimmie Meissner did not ascend to the throne of great American World Champions – she catapulted to it, leap-frogging over a myriad of veterans including countrywoman Sasha Cohen, who folded under pressure. Meissner, seemingly immune to pressure, showed an ability to deliver perfect performances in the most nerve-wracking situations reminiscent of a young Michelle Kwan. This season, however, Meissner has skated more like Cohen with mistakes in the short program, falls in the long program, and signature triple-triple combinations deserting her in crucial moments. This has resulted in losses in her Grand Prix events that left her completely out of the Grand Prix Final.
Meissner needs to rediscover her competitive fire and deadly-accurate technical precision in Spokane. While she will almost surely make the World team – and quite likely as U.S. Champion – she runs the danger of falling out of the top five at Worlds as quickly as she got there.
Second-ranking American Emily Hughes also skated relatively weak programs in her two Grand Prix events; however, a slow start is more typical for Hughes, sister of Olympic Champion Sarah Hughes. Hughes’s programs and choreography garnered rave reviews, and she nearly won the Cup of China except for controversial downgraded jumps. With power and amplitude to distinguish her from her national and international peers, Hughes has an outside chance to dethrone Meissner and an excellent chance of maintaining her spot on the world team.
The third spot on the ladies world team is completely up-for-grabs. Those next in line, Alissa Czisny of Ohio, Katy Taylor of Texas, Beatrisa Liang of Los Angeles, and Christine Zukowski of Delaware, have spent as much time on their rear end as they have on their feet this season. All have the “iffy” ability to land the triple flip and Lutz – the two most difficult jumps in their repertoires – and could find themselves in insurmountable holes after the short program if they cannot deliver these jumps.
The door is wide open for any number of young skaters who have shown technical prowess at the junior level. Rachael Flatt of Colorado was forced to withdraw from the Junior Grand Prix with a back injury, but dazzled audiences at summer club competitions with rare seven-triple performances. Required to skate at the Midwestern Sectionals to qualify at Nationals, Flatt demonstrated a high level of skating that bodes well for a return to excellence in Spokane. Flatt is too young to go to the World Championships (until 2009), but could set herself up well for next year with a medal.
Junior Grand Prix medalist Melissa Bulanhagui of Delaware could also challenge. With some of the biggest jumps since Tonya Harding, Bulanhagui has made good attempts at triple Axels in exhibitions and has an exuberant, athletic style differentiating her from many of her competitors. Boston’s Juliana Cannarozzo, skating double for the Ice Princess movie and two-time winner on the Junior Grand Prix, is also poised for a strong debut at her first senior Nationals.
And, even if the senior ladies end up being depressing, never fear. Junior Caroline Zhang of Los Angeles has been delivering performances worthy of senior world medals in her junior events and should take the junior title in a landslide. Virginia’s Ashley Wagner also shows promise with excellent jump combinations and sequences.
For all of the controversy surrounding Johnny Weir in general, there has been surprisingly little at Nationals. Weir has walked away with the national title for three consecutive years. In Spokane, he competes for a fourth consecutive title, something that has not been done since Brian Boitano. Despite his successes at the national level, Weir has had little success at the world level, dropping in the world standings in every year with odd falls, poorly planned programs, and no quadruple jump. In Spokane, Weir battles not only for his title, but also to prove that time has not passed him by. Two years ago, it was nearly inconceivable that Weir would not be on the podium with perfect programs. Now, with the likes of Daisuke Takashi and Nobunari Oda of Japan, France’s Brian Joubert, and countryman Evan Lysacek, it’s questionable whether Weir could medal at the world level even with his very best skate.
Lysacek, the two-time and reigning world bronze medalist, has defeated Weir internationally at the past two World Championships and the Olympics. After winning Cup of China, Lysacek would have been the favorite to win the National title except for a freak fall in practice at the Grand Prix Final that kept him off the ice entirely for two weeks. Lysacek’s readiness is questionable, and like Weir, he has problems delivering the quadruple jump. However, Lysacek’s excellent program planning and delivery (even with mistakes) is an inherent advantage that could push him to the top in a contest where both he and Weir make mistakes.
As in the ladies event, the third men’s world team berth is a crap-shoot due to the retirements of veterans Matt Savoie, Michael Weiss, and Tim Goebel. Unlike the ladies, the heirs apparent have been skating fairly well this season. Scott Smith, fourth at Cup of China, is considered the favorite provided he can land his triple Axels and make a creditable attempt at the quadruple salchow.
Smith is not the only man with momentum, however. Training mate Stephen Carriere, reigning U.S. junior champ, won the Junior Grand Prix Final and both of his JGP events this season. Though no U.S. junior champion has finished in the top five in his first appearance in seniors for at least fifteen years, Carriere could buck that trend if he skates well.
Four men from the highly competitive Midwestern sectional – Jeremy Abbott, Parker Pennington, Ryan Bradley, and Braden Overett – all have the talent and technical goods to challenge as well. Veteran Derrick Delmore, who has competed at the senior level since 1996, also has an outside shot at a medal in what could be his final competitive skate.
Two-time national champions Rena Inoue and John Baldwin return heavily favored to defend their title after a successful season – at least on paper. Though Inoue and Baldwin won three Grand Prix medals and placed fourth at the Grand Prix Final, their side-by-side triple toe loops are conspicuously absent, and their trademark throw triple Axel has been problematic. Though the duo will most likely retain their U.S. title, improving on their fourth-place finish at the World Championships will be nearly impossible without technical improvement.
Beyond Inoue and Baldwin, the pairs event is wide open. Last year’s silver medalists, Olympians Marcy Hinzmann and Aaron Parchem, have retired from competitive skating to pursue other interests. Bronze medalists and former U.S. Champions Kathryn Orscher and Garrett Lucash have split, and neither will appear at the U.S. Championships this year. Pewter medalists Tiffany Scott and Rusty Fein have also split and retired from competitive skating.
In the absence of last year’s medalists, rising stars Naomi Nari Nam and Themistocles Leftheris, training mates of Inoue and Baldwin, are favored for the second and final world team berth. Since last year, they have acquired a second throw triple jump and perform all of the difficulty expected of a world-class team. In their lone Grand Prix appearance, Nam and Leftheris won a bronze medal and would have had a decent shot at qualifying for the Final with a second assignment. Their biggest challenge in Spokane will be performing under the pressure of being the great hope of American pairs.
Tiffany Vise and Derek Trent of Colorado, who have rotated (but not yet successfully landed) a throw quadruple salchow in competition, could challenge for a berth at the World Championships if they skate cleanly and others falter.
Kendra Moyle and Andy Seitz of Michigan are another team to watch. The 2006 Junior World silver medalists and Junior National Champions will be making their national senior debut together as a team.
,Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig of Florida, Bridget Namiotka and John Coughlin of Delaware, Julia Vlassov and Drew Meekins of Massachusetts, and Brooke Castile and Ben Okolski of Michigan are others to watch in this inexperienced but not altogether weak field.
Last year, it took an act of Congress to get Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto to the Olympics, where they won the silver medal, the first Olympic ice dance medal for the U.S. in 30 years. This year, it would seemingly take an act of God for Belbin and Agosto to reach the same heights. The three-time U.S. champions and odds-on favorites to defend in Spokane received a lukewarm response in the Grand Prix. They lost to Russia’s Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, just the sixth-ranked team in the world, at Cup of China. They nearly lost to the Russians again at Cup of Russia; only a freak fall by Shabalin saved Belbin and Agosto. And, though they beat French rivals Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder, the French – like the Russians – received higher program components scores, a sign of judges’ favorability. Much of Belbin and Agosto’s fate later in the season will depend on the programs they show at U.S. Nationals.
Melissa Gregory and Denis Petukhov started off the season well, with a silver medal at Skate America. Ranked ninth in the world, it appeared that Gregory and Petukhov were moving up in the standings when they qualified for the Grand Prix Final. However, a last-place finish – and two losses to Russia’s Jana Khokhlova and Sergei Novitski, a lower ranked team – make their progress less certain. Provided there are no withdrawals or freak falls, Gregory and Petukhov should retain their silver medals and get another chance at Worlds.
The third and final world berth in ice dancing will involve a heated battle between former Junior World Champions Morgan Matthews and Maxim Zavozin and current Junior Worlds silver medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White. Matthews and Zavozin were nearly Olympic-bound last year but lost out to Jamie Silverstein and Ryan O’Meara (who have since retired) after falls in both the original free dances. They will need to stay on their feet this year to fend off Davis and White, whose showmanship and level-four everything earned strong showings at Skate Canada and NHK. If all goes according to plan, Matthews and Zavozin are favored to be victors in this year’s battle, but as last year proved, ice dance rankings are no longer as static as they once were.