A Last Look Inside The Vegas Bubble: What We Learned At The U.S. Figure Skating Championships

by Lynn Rutherford

Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier compete in the pairs free skate program during the U.S. Figure Skating Championships at the Orleans Arena on Jan. 16, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada.


The 2021 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, which took place in a protective COVID-19 bubble last week, has crowned its champions, written its stories and piped in its last bit of taped applause.
Before we leave the Vegas bubble completely behind, here are a few of the most notable takeaways from the event, which was part of the Team USA Champions Series, presented by Xfinity:
1. Nathan Chen Is A Favorite For Gold In Beijing, But Not The Only Favorite
Barring injury or equipment trouble there was little doubt Chen would win his fifth straight U.S. title in Las Vegas. The bigger question was, how strong did he look for the 2021 world championships, still scheduled to take place in March in Stockholm? And for the 2022 Olympic Winter Games in Beijing, some 13 months from now?
Strong, but perhaps not unbeatable.
Chen challenged himself with five quadruple jumps in his free skate, the most he has tried in one program since the 2018 world championships. Four were clean; only the first quad lutz had a step out on the landing. 
The two-time world champion is wise to continue improving. Two-time Olympic champ Yuzuru Hanyu won his fifth Japanese title last month in fine style, landing four quads in his free skate. He intends to compete in Stockholm, telling reporters, “I took part in (the Japanese championships) in order to be able to participate in the world championships. If I don’t take this step, it will be difficult in the future.” 
Chen defeated Hanyu the last two times they competed, but there were press reports Hanyu planned a quadruple axel, a jump never landed in competition, at the 2020 world championships, which were cancelled due to the pandemic. With two Olympic gold medals already in his pocket, as well as countless lucrative professional possibilities, the Japanese superstar still very much wants to be the man in the arena.
Chen is made of cooler stuff.
“Of course I would love to win the next Olympics (but) if that doesn’t happen, it doesn’t diminish my legacy,” he said last week.
Hanyu already has an Olympic legacy, two-fold, and openly admits he wants more. Chen will need every quad in his arsenal to overcome such desire.
2. Bradie Tennell Stands Alone Atop The U.S. Women’s Field
Tennell was no teenage phenom. Back injuries delayed her breakout season until 2017-18, when she won the U.S. title, qualified for the PyeongChang Games and placed sixth at the world championships. Her consistency and competitive mettle have always been acknowledged; other skaters — Mariah Bell, Alysa Liu — grabbed more headlines.
By winning her second U.S. title by 17 points over the field, Tennell put a rest to that. Not only are her jumps, including her triple-triple combinations, the most consistent in the U.S., she and choreographer Benoit Richaud have carved out a unique style, discarding both the “pretty princess” image and feel-good popular songs for edgier, sophisticated fare.
“I don’t think there is another American (woman) skater who can do what I ask Bradie to do,” Richaud said in an interview last summer. “It takes a mature talent and a lot of hard work.” 
Tom Zakrajsek, who coaches Tennell in Colorado Springs, Colorado, says the skater has plenty of ways to add to her technical score, including difficult triple-triple combinations in addition to her triple lutz, triple toe loop and a triple axel.
“Bradie has built up her stamina to where she works on the axel every day,” Zakrajsek said. “She’s in the stage where she is able to land it on one foot, with an under-rotation. It’s not pie-in-the-sky talk.”
The last U.S. woman to land a triple axel in international senior competition was Mirai Nagasu, also a Zakrajsek student, in the PyeongChang Olympic team event. Amber Glenn, who placed second in Las Vegas, landed the jump in practices and during her six-minute free skate warm-up last week.
3. Don’t Count Alysa Liu Out
While Liu, 15, arrived in Las Vegas as a two-time reigning U.S. champion, she was also an underdog. A three-inch growth spurt and several months off-ice during the pandemic negatively impacted her performances at U.S. Figure Skating’s virtual ISP Points Challenge competition last fall. At the Las Vegas Invitational, a free skate-only event held after Skate America, she showed mostly double jumps; it was later revealed she had suffered a hip injury.
It was quite a shock when Liu, now coached by Massimo Scali, a six-time Italian ice dance champion, and four-time U.S. champion Jeremy Abbott, showed up in Las Vegas fit and competitive, with improved skating skills and more mature style. She placed second to Tennell in the short program, showing a clean triple lutz-triple toe loop combination; while she dropped to fourth place overall, her free skate also had a clean triple-triple as well as another difficult combination.
“The whole year (was) struggling to find ice and not skating as much, and not training as much,” Liu said. “The whole injury and then me growing, it was difficult, a big challenge, but I’m up for any challenge and I will just keep pushing for it.”
According to Scali, Liu is already landing triple axels, the jump she used to win her two U.S. titles, in practice. 
“We came here from the beginning saying the result didn’t matter for this nationals,” he said. “So we are going back proud of what she did, and we’re going back excited to start the project of next season.”
4. It Is Still The Golden Age Of U.S. Ice Dance
Team USA ice dancers have won individual medals in the last four Olympics, dating back to 2006. Last week Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, and Madison Chock and Evan Bates, gave strong reason to think the streak will extend to five in Beijing.
With their “Hallelujah” free dance this season, Hubbell and Donohue found their footing artistically, feeling comfortable enough to let their technical strengths — power, speed, secure edges — match their on-ice connection. Defending champs Chock and Bates, consummate performers with arguably the best lifts in the world, shone in their “Egyptian Snake Dance” free dance.
Hubbell and Donohue did enough in Las Vegas to earn their third U.S. title, unseating the defending champs in Chock and Bates. Already Olympians and world medalists, both couples have the pedigree. Now with several seasons of training under Marie-France Dubreuil, Patrice Lauzon and Romain Haguenauer at Ice Academy of Montreal, they are only getting better.
5. Alexa Knierim And Brandon Frazier Are The Real Deal
The veteran pair skaters, who teamed up last spring after many seasons with other partners, opened eyes at Skate America in October with their big pair elements and successful side-by-side triple jumps. They easily won the title, defeating training partners Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson by more than seven points. 
Last week in Las Vegas, Knierim and Frazier were better, gaining a Level 4 on their triple twist and more height and power to their throw triple jumps. They won their first U.S. title together by nearly 23 points over the field. And, as both of the skaters and their coaches acknowledge, there is a lot of room for improvement.
“We have so, so, so much to work on,” Knierim said after their winning free skate. Tops on the agenda: greater unison on their side-by-side jumps, as well as regularly earning Level 4s for maximum points on their triple twist and several other elements.
“And on top of it all, our skating skills, our performance, our connection,” Frazier said. “Those are the big things that we really tried to zone in on and increase.”
6. Thanks You, U.S. Figure Skating
Finally, kudos to U.S. Figure Skating — it built on the lessons learned from its first safety “bubble,” created for Skate America in October, also at Las Vegas’ Orleans Arena, to hold the U.S. championships in the safest possible way for athletes, coaches and officials. With events including the European championships, the Canadian championships and many other national and international events cancelled, the U.S. championships was the major figure skating competition on the calendar in January.

Lynn Rutherford is a sportswriter based out of New York. She is a freelance contributor to on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.
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