The Liberty Figure Skating 2011 Competition took place this past week at IceWorks in Aston, Penn., with more than 200 entries coming from all over the globe including Korea, Brazil, and Poland. The competition is one of the biggest of the summer due to the early season critiques that the skaters receive from national and international level judges and technical specialists. Golden Skate’s Elvin Walker attended the competition for two days, and caught up with several of the entries.
Nathan Chen, 2010-11 U.S. Novice Men’s Champion
Twelve year-old Nathan Chen continued to charm the pants off audiences, winning each competition he entered at Skate Liberty (Junior men’s short program, free skate, and free skate final) with much improved technical content. Earlier this year, Chen told Golden Skate that he was working on tacking a triple toe loop to the end of every triple jump he had, and that strategy has paid off for him. In each of his programs, he managed a clean triple-triple combination.
“I have been focusing on making sure that my triple combinations are really good,” he said. “I have put the triple Axel on hold for now, though I do work on it here and there. I want to take things step by step this season and not get too far ahead of myself, so I am focusing on the triple combinations for now.”
Like many skaters have experienced in their careers, Chen’s mother Hetty Wang reported that her son is having boot problems this season.
“He has gone through boots in about a month, and they have not been comfortable for him,” she explained. “Usually he can wear them for about three months, but they are breaking down much faster. We are trying to come up with a solution, but we are still searching.”
Since winning his record second novice title, Chen has been a hot commodity in the skating world, skating in shows all over the world. Later this summer, the soon-to-be 7th grader will travel to Thailand to guest star in such a show. But Chen does still have time to relax on his summer vacation even with his busy skating schedule, and has been riding his bike on trails with his brothers as much as he can.
“Nathan has a lot of fun in skating, and that’s what is important to me as his mother,” Wang explained. “I have a son who was a very competitive chess player, and it stopped being fun for him after a while. He decided that he didn’t want to do it anymore, and that was fine. As long as he is enjoying it, we will keep going.”
Lauren Dinh, 2011 U.S. Junior silver medalist
Dinh decided to compete at Liberty to get early feedback in preparation for possible international competition opportunities this fall. The 15 year-old will attempt to juggle her full course load at Cheyenne Mountain High School in Colorado Springs, Colo., with her first season of international assignments.
“I’ve been working really hard on my presentation and skating skills,” said Dinh, who recently tested up to senior for national competitions. “I really want to make a big impression my first season as a senior, but first I hope to get a junior Grand Prix assignment or two.”
Over the summer, Dinh has started landing triple flip-triple toe loop combinations as well as double Axel-triple toe loop combinations, though neither went well for the Colorado native in Aston. Outside of the rink, Dinh has been hanging out with friends all summer, and was also fortunate enough to take a vacation with her family to Las Vegas, Nev. to kick off her summer break.
“We did a lot of site seeing – we walked through a lot of the hotel and saw a bunch of shows,” Dinh said. “We saw Cirque du Soleil Kà, a water show called Le Rêve, and Cirque du Soleil Mystère.”
Dinh competed as a senior lady in Aston, and had shaky performances. In her Fumando Espero (Carlos Garcia) short program, she made several errors and had to settle for sixth place in her group. Her Scheherazade freeskate looks promising, but she is still settling into the jumps. With four pops in the program, Dinh was fortunate to finish in third place in her group.
Leah Keiser, 2010 U.S. Novice Ladies Champion
The star of the senior ladies short program in Aston was 13 year-old Leah Keiser, who after missing the 2011 U.S. Championships skated with a fire in her belly. Skating to Rondo Capriccioso, Keiser opened with a clean as a whistle triple Lutz-triple toe loop combination, silencing any demons that she might have had after failing to qualify for Greensboro.
“I’ve been working hard to come back strong,” said the honor roll student. “I lost focus after winning novice (in 2010), and I wasn’t training in the best environment. So I made some changes, and have been training well.”
Originally from the Pittsburgh, Penn., area, Keiser, her mother, and sister live in Cerritos, Calif. Keiser’s father, who stayed behind in Pennsylvania in the family home, makes twice monthly visits to join the family and was able to see his daughter compete in Aston.
Keiser is still trying to figure out which level she will skate on this season in national competitions, and was testing the senior lady waters in Aston. Numerous trips to the beach in southern California keep Keiser busy when she isn’t training.
Coach Frank Carroll did not make the trip to Aston, so famed University of Delaware coach Ron Luddington put Keiser on the ice. Another southern California coach, former U.S. Junior Champion Jere Michael, kept an eye on her as well.
Though she didn’t perform as well in her Doctor Zhivago free skate, Keiser still managed to win her group. She received the second highest senior ladies total of the competition.
Joelle Forte, 9th place, 2011 U.S. National Championships
Joelle Forte is the epitome of late bloomer. At 25 years old, the recent Fordham University graduate earned her first international assignment as a senior lady earlier this spring. It is rare for a skater to pick up new jumps so late in her career, but Forte is breaking the rules.
“I put the flip in my short program for the first time here, and I am really happy it was successful,” she said. “I am working on a triple toe loop-triple toe loop as well, and it has been clean in practices. I definitely want to put it in my program this season.”
Forte earned a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology in the spring, and is contemplating graduate school. For now, she is planning to continue focusing her energy on skating.
“I love the sport, and I just love being out there,” she said with a smile. “I think that I am still improving, and I realize that if I skate well, I will be considered for international competitions.”
Forte has her eye on a TBA spot for October’s Skate America competition, but her major goal is to improve upon last year’s finish at nationals.
“I would like to crack the top six, and see where things go from there.”
Marissa Castelli, 5th place, 2011 U.S. Nationals, Senior Pairs
Marissa Castelli had a busy week in Aston, competing in senior pairs with her partner Simon Shnapir and in singles as a senior lady.
“I felt like I was missing something in skating,” Castelli admitted. “The singles elements have always been weaker for me, so I decided that I would try to improve by training again. This is the year when Simon and I have to break through in pairs, and I am doing whatever I can to make that happen.”
Castelli’s outing in singles—she placed 9th in her group, maybe wasn’t as successful as some would have expected, but she was upbeat nevertheless.
“I get a little nervous sometimes, and making mistakes is fine,” she said. “I’m glad that I went for it, and for me, I feel accomplished.”
Castelli, 20, plans to compete at the New England Regionals this fall, and see what happens.
“Singles is so different than pairs, and obviously it isn’t my focus. I am just having a good time.”
Castelli and Shnapir showcased some of the best lifts in the world in their free skate, where they finished in 2nd place behind the new Canadian team of Jessica Dubé and Sebestien Wolfe.
“We’ve been taking it slow this season,” Castelli admitted. “We don’t want to peak too early—we don’t want to be perfect too soon. We are competing in the Indy competition and then in the Cranberry Open.”
Yasmin Siraj, 8th place, 2011 U.S. Nationals
Few people accomplish as much as 14 year-old Yasmin Siraj has in her young career. The 2010 U.S. junior ladies silver medalist made the Junior Grand Prix Final in her first season on the circuit last year, and then made a strong debut at nationals on the senior level later in the season. But Siraj has been building quite an impressive resume off ice as well, keeping the straight-A student busy throughout the summer.
“I have been playing piano for two hours a day, and I recently played for the second time at Carnegie Hall,” she shared. “I also have an internship at The Cloud Place in Boston, and I am currently working on the ArtScience Prize.”
Siraj is busy preparing for a second season on the Junior Grand Prix, and hopes that her hard work since nationals sets her up for a great season.
“I am now landing a triple toe loop-triple toe loop in practice about 90 percent of the time,” said the full time high school sophomore who landed the combination in the short program. “I also think that my skating has matured since last year. I want to do well at nationals this year, and I would love to go back to the Junior Grand Prix Final and make the Junior Worlds team.”
When she has free time, Siraj likes to explore other areas of interest.
“Right now I am taking a jewelry making class,” Siraj said. “It’s been a lot of fun.”
Samantha Cesario, 14th place, 2010 U.S. Nationals
The star of the senior ladies free skate was 17 year-old Samantha Cesario. On the verge of breaking through last season, Cesario was forced to withdraw from the U.S. Championships with a back injury after winning the Eastern Sectional Championships.
“After the injury, I began working with a physical therapist for the first time in my career,” Cesario said. “I think that it made me a lot stronger. It was nice to see that when I was returning to the ice that everything was still there.”
Cesario won both the short program and free skate in her group, and finished with more than 160 points in the competition. The feat was more impressive given that Cesario has been back to training at full strength for about a month now.
“After I injured my back, I had another injury. Then I got sick for a while that took me off the ice as well,” she said. “Since then, I’ve been training a lot of programs.”
Given her impressive skating in Aston, Cesario has modest goals for the fall season.
“I would like to compete on the Junior Grand Prix again,” she said.
Keegan Messing, 8th place, 2011 U.S. Nationals
After finishing in 4th place at the 2011 Junior World Championships, Alaska native Keegan Messing did something that he had never done before.
“I took a whole month off of skating,” the 19 year-old said. “It was getting so difficult to keep going the way that I was. It had been two years straight without a break, and I felt like I lost myself.”
In his time off Messing went back to his adventurer roots, and lived life to its fullest.
“My dad and I went on a winter camping trip and I went skiing,” Messing explained. “My coach just told me not to do anything stupid.”
Though his trademark quadruple jump escaped Messing in the competition, he was nailing them in warm ups.
“He’s not as fit as he needs to be,” said Messing’s coach Ralph Burghart. “We’re working on that, but he is here to fight as best as he can.”
Even though he was far from perfect, Messing won the free skate in his group, and hopes that his performances in Aston made a strong case for international assignments.
“I want to get the maximum amount of international events,” he said. “I’m competing at Skate Detroit next week, too. Hopefully my performances are good enough so that I can get on the Grand Prix.”
Burghart believes that his pupil is ready to compete.
“I think that he is good enough to compete with anyone on the Grand Prix.”
Cynthia Phaneuf, 2011 Canadian National Champion
Canadian champion Cynthia Phaneuf is approaching the season with one goal in mind—to be happy.
“I don’t want to be depressed like I was after Skate Canada or Worlds last season,” she said. “I have no number and no podiums in mind. I just want to be a better skater, and I want to enjoy what I do.
Phaneuf fell on her Lutz attempt, and was surprised by the crowd reaction to her step sequence in her new short program.
“I didn’t expect that kind of reaction,” Phaneuf said. “It was nice to feel that kind of support even though I made a mistake.”
The very tanned Phaneuf only competed in the short program, and finished in second place behind Cesario in their group.
“I want to take advantage of as many competition opportunities as possible,” she said. “I have been assigned to Japan and Canada on the Grand Prix, and I just want to be ready to skate well.”
Ashley Cain, 2011 U.S. Junior Pairs Champion with Joshua Reagan
It has been a busy summer for Ashley Cain. Not only is she continuing to skate both singles and pairs, but she and her partner, Joshua Reagan tested up to compete as a senior team on the national level this season. Oh, and she has a birthday this week—her Sweet 16th.
“I haven’t had a lot of time to relax this summer,” Cain said. “When I do, I just hang out with friends.”
Scheduling a vacation has been a challenge for the Cain family—Cain’s parents Darlene and Peter are both part of her coaching team, while her brother Brendan has been preparing for a big international competition.
“He will be going to Sweden to compete in a hockey tournament as part of Team Texas,” Darlene Cain shared. “We’ve been trying to schedule a break, but one of us always has a conflict. We’re looking at Labor Day for a family vacation, but we’ll see.”
Cain competed in the junior ladies competition and finished in 2nd place in her group, qualifying for a spot in the final. After a rough skate where she cut her hand on a fall, Cain finished in 2nd place.
Cain and Reagan will compete at the Indy Challenge later this summer, and she is excited for what lies ahead for them this season.
“We have two new programs that are going really well,” she said. “We are working on making our levels more difficult. We will go to Champs Camp in Colorado Springs before we make our debut on the Grand Prix.”
Cain was at home sick when she learned of she and Reagan’s assignment to Cup of Russia.
“I got a text message on my phone that (pairs skater) Tim LeDuc posted a message on my Facebook,” she recalled. “He said ‘Congratulations’, and I rushed to US Figure Skating’s website and saw that we got Cup of Russia. I called my parents at the rink and we were all excited.”
Cain and Reagan are no longer the only pairs team training in Texas as Australian up and comers Callum Ballard and Veera Kestlia recently started training in Dallas as well. American junior team Sarah Maron and Anthony Evans are also training there as well.
“It’s nice because we now have someone there who knows what we are going through,” she said. “And it makes us all more competitive. We’re all having a great time.”
Sean Rabbitt, 20th, 2011 U.S. Championships
Southern California native Sean Rabbitt was brought to the attention of the skating world last season with his entertaining Michael Jackson short program. The Fullerton College student has always had a strong interest in Japanese culture, and when the earthquake and tsunami disaster ravaged Japan earlier this year, he knew that he had to do something.
“A group of us started a charity called Skaters Care, and we held a show in Ontario, Calif., to benefit the victims of the disaster,” he said. “The show was very successful, and we’re thinking about ways that we can help other people in need.”
One idea that Rabbitt has is to conduct a toy drive at Christmas.
“Skaters get a lot of stuffed animals and other gifts thrown to them on the ice. Maybe we could collect them and give them as gifts to children who might not otherwise get a gift.”
The Skaters Care event raised $25,000 for the victims in Japan, according to Rabbitt’s father, Don. They are finalizing a video from the event, and are hoping to find a way to make it available for sale in order to increase that total.
“Right now we are looking into the feasibility of selling the DVD, but we have to look into music rights,” Don Rabbitt said.
The younger Rabbitt, who is becoming quite popular in Japan, recently received an interesting package from a fan from there.
“When I went to the rink one day, the receptionist said that I had a package,” he shared. “I had no clue why I was receiving a package, and when I picked it up, it was a Hello Kitty shoebox. Inside the box was a pair of flip flops with a silhouette of me etched into the flip flops along with my name and the saying ‘Every day thank you’.”
Rabbitt was taken aback by his fan’s generosity.
“There was a note inside that said that (the fan) was always a huge fan of my skating, and when she heard what I did for Japan, it made her a bigger fan,” he said. “I am thinking about wearing the sandals, but I don’t want to mess them up. I was thinking about framing them, but maybe if I get to skate at nationals again, I will wear them there.”
The fan also sent a keychain with an exact replication of his Michael Jackson program costume.
“She got everything right. There wasn’t a single thing that wasn’t exactly perfect,” he said of the mini costume.
A member of the Screen Actor’s Guild who has appeared on the television show “That’s So Raven” Rabbitt hopes to continue to improve on his skating.
“My skating is so much stronger this year, and I feel really comfortable,” Rabbitt said. “I’m a tall skater, so I have a tendency to hunch over at the back, so I am really working on fixing that. It sometimes hinders my jumps, so it’s important that I fix it. I hope to qualify for nationals again this year, and just keep improving.”
Polina Edmunds, 7th place, 2011 U.S. Championships, Junior Ladies
Polina Edmunds looks like a Russian, skates like a Russian, and gets her choreography from Russians. But make no mistake, this 13 year-old pixy is 100 per cent American.
“I have a lot of Russian culture at home,” said Edmunds, whose mother is a former Russian figure skater. “But when I skate, I feel completely American. I was born in San Jose, Calif., and my father is American. I have always lived here.”
Edmunds has a strong team of characters behind her including head coach David Glynn.
“Polina’s mother Nina makes her costumes and selects her music,” he said. “I set the program elements, and then Marina Klimova choreographs the programs. It’s a team effort.”
Edmunds, who loves doing the triple flip jump, is excited about the prospect of skating at the national championships in her hometown.
“I would love to qualify to skate there, and see what it is like to skate at home,” she said with wonder in her voice.
Edmunds recently watched video of San Jose hero Rudy Galindo’s winning performances from 1996, and was inspired. Galindo is a coach at her rink, and the shy teenager said that she would like to seek out his advice should she qualify for the 2012 competition.
“Maybe I could ask him what it is like and how to handle the pressure of having so many people there to watch,” Edmunds said.
Edmunds won her group to advance to the junior ladies final on Saturday where she finished in 1st place by more than 13 points over her closest competitor. When she returns home, she hopes to go to the amusement park Great America for a little rest and recreation.