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Five Team USA Storylines To Watch At World Figure Skating Championships

by Lynn Rutherford

Bradie Tennell performs at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships at the Orleans Arena on Jan. 17, 2021 in Las Vegas.

 

Quadruple Lutzes, triple Axels, twizzles and, if we’re lucky, a healthy dose of drama returns next week, when 192 athletes from 40 nations take part in the 2021 World Figure Skating Championships, held at the Ericsson Globe in Stockholm, Sweden.
With COVID-19 still a grave concern, the International Skating Union (ISU) and local organizers have created a tight bubble environment, similar to that used by U.S. Figure Skating at the 2021 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. That means no spectators, little media and a restricted number of coaches and officials.
“The biggest thing is, all of the athletes need to be conscious of being socially distant and not mingle too much,” Evan Bates said. “Things like having meals together, hanging out together outside of the rink, are out.” 
Testing and masking protocols will be strictly enforced. Participants are restricted to controlled areas, including the official hotel and arena.
“We have already had one PCR test; we have another on Thursday, we have another one when we arrive, and then we have one a few days later,” Jenni Meno, coach of Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier, said. “I’ve been wearing an N95 mask, I will continue to do that. I think we just have to be as safe as we can, and as smart as we can, and that’s all we can really control.”
The overwhelming sentiment, expressed by all four U.S. champions on media teleconferences, is gratitude at being able to compete. The 2020 world championships, scheduled to be held in Montreal, Quebec, last March, were canceled.
“Last Wednesday, it was exactly one year ago worlds was cancelled, and it brought back all of those feelings,” Bradie Tennell said. “I’m so excited and I feel really ready. I can’t wait to get there.”
"I miss the audience, I miss having the energy of having a live event,” Nathan Chen said. “It feels different when people are there, engaging in the event. But that being said, it is what it is. At least we're able to compete and have a worlds."
Here’s what to expect in Stockholm:
Chen vs. Hanyu Showdown
The last time a U.S. man won three world figure skating titles in a row, “M*A*S*H” had just ended its 11-year network television run, Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” was climbing the charts and Ronald Reagan was in the White House. The year was 1983: the skater, Scott Hamilton. He would capture Olympic gold and a fourth world crown the following year.
Chen is favored for a three-peat in Stockholm, but a significant obstacle stands in his path: two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan. While Chen has won their last two matchups, most recently at the 2018-2019 Grand Prix Final, Hanyu showed top form winning his fifth Japanese title in December, combining his elegant, fluid style and intricate steps with six quadruple jumps in two programs.
“He's really the benchmark, or the standard, of what skating looks like, and he has been for many, many years,” Chen said. 
“He is an idol I watched while growing up (Chen is 21; Hanyu, 26). It's always an honor for me to compete against him. I'm super excited to push myself to catch up to what he is."
Asked what he thought of his rival’s recent performances, Chen noted that despite training in Japan, away from his Toronto-based coach Brian Orser, Hanyu looked in peak form.
"I know how difficult it is to not train at your traditional training base,” said Chen, who spent portions of the last two seasons attending Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, away from his Irvine, California, rink and longtime coach Rafael Arutunian. He is now on leave from Yale, with plans to return following the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022.
“For (Hanyu) to look this strong, this clean, this well put together is really impressive,” he added. “I don’t think he has lost anything (during the pandemic). If anything, he's gotten better…. His jump content is solid. His skating skills are strong. He seems sharper, everything seems fine-tuned. … He's looking great."
Still, Chen may have an edge. His programs at the 2021 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Las Vegas in January, while not completely clean, had a higher technical base value (points) than Hanyu’s, including quadruple Lutz and flip in his short program.
“I don’t think I need to change too much, since nationals,” said Chen, who often changes his planned jump content the day of events. “(I will) probably run a similar (layout).”
If a man other than Chen or Hanyu wins gold in Stockholm, it will be considered an upset. Still, many will challenge for the podium, including U.S. silver medalist Vincent Zhou, the reigning world bronze medalist who, like Chen and Hanyu, routinely includes four quadruple jumps in his free skate. Japan’s Shoma Uno, the 2018 Olympic silver medalist, is also a strong candidate. Russian national champion Mikhail Kolyada and Boyang Jin of China, a two-time world medalist, are not as consistent as the top skaters, but bear watching.
While he lacks quad firepower, Jason Brown’s compelling skating and performance skills could create some of the week’s most memorable moments. His short program, set to Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman,” was a special highlight of the national championships.


Two U.S. Teams Vie For Ice Dance Gold

U.S. ice dancers have earned medals at the last five world championships, but none have claimed gold since Meryl Davis and Charlie White in 2013. With four-time world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France not competing, Stockholm offers the best chance yet for either Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, or Madison Chock and Evan Bates, to stand atop the world podium.
To Hubbell, though, Papadakis and Cizeron’s absence is immaterial.
“It seems impossible until it’s done, to knock off the reigning world champions,” she said. “It would have been our goal regardless. We’ve had a really great year, we’ve been training incredibly hard. I think it would be a disservice to anyone who wins the world championships to put it as, they won because Gabby and Guillaume weren’t there.”
In a combined 13 worlds appearances, both U.S. teams have won silver and bronze medals. Chock and Bates are two-time U.S. champions (2015, 2020) while Hubbell and Donohue own three U.S. crowns (2018, 2019 and 2021), most recently edging out their longtime rivals at nationals.
“Since then, we’ve been healthy and injury free, just really training a lot of repetitions, (doing) a lot of cardio, making sure we are in peak physical condition,” Hubbell said. 
Unlike last season, when they struggled to become comfortable with their programs, the couple made few changes to either their racy “Burlesque” rhythm dance or their soulful free dance to “Hallelujah.”
“I think this year, both programs equally did a really great job of creating a solid base to build upon,” Donohue said. “There are a few things we want to tweak, based on the feel we want to provide or what we feel is going to add to the performance. But for the most part you are going to be looking at a well-repeated choreography.”
Not so for Chock and Bates, who like their longtime rivals train at the Ice Academy of Montreal. Chock suffered a concussion in an off-ice fall last summer, limiting their training time and forcing them to withdraw from Skate America. Other factors, too, complicated their preparations for the national championships.
“It was like, it rains it pours, at the end of 2020,” Bates said. “The second half of the year was really challenging for us.”
The skaters made changes to both of their programs, particularly their “Snake and Snake Charmer” free dance, for nationals, but have restored the original choreography for worlds.
“We feel the programs are in a fantastic place, better than they have been,” Chock said. “We feel the flow, the energy, everything is really gelling.”
“If we can perform at worlds the way we’ve been training, we are going to be in a very good position,” Bates said.
Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, the U.S. bronze medalists who also train in Montreal, have what many consider their finest programs ever, and look strong for a top-ten finish.
The U.S. teams’ biggest competition will likely come from two Figure Skating Association of Russia (FSR) couples, Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov, the 2019 world silver medalists, and Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin, four-time European medalists who placed fourth in the world in 2019.

Tennell Faces Teenage Quadsters
In the weeks since Bradie Tennell won her second U.S. title, she and coach Tom Zakrajsek have worked to, as Tennell puts it, “squeeze every point possible” out of her programs.
“I’m really finetuning everything,” the 23-year-old skater said. “It’s fair to say that I’ve looked at the program as a whole, and picked it apart, to try to see what little things I can make better. I just want to go out there and make everything perfect, honestly.”
It will likely take near perfection, and some luck, for Tennell to land on the podium in Stockholm. While the U.S. champion is known for her consistent triple jumps, including a strong triple Lutz-triple toe loop combination, the international women’s ranks have been dominated by teenagers armed with quadruple jumps and triple Axels. 
Case in point: At 2019 Skate America, Anna Shcherbakova, then just 15, landed two quad Lutzes in the opening moments of her free skate, racking up some 33 points. The Russian defeated Tennell by more than 20 points, despite Tennell’s winning short program.
But while reporters remind Tennell of the value of quads, it’s something she prefers not to dwell on.
“I can only go out there and skate to the best of my ability, the way I am training every day,” Tennell said. “If I am so worried about what everyone else is doing, it’s not a good mental strategy for me. I am just going to go there and lay down both of my programs to the best of my ability.”
“I would be lying if I said I didn’t want a spot on the podium,” she added. “I have no control over that outcome, because I have no control over what the others do. I can only control myself.”
Zakrajsek, who coaches Tennell in Colorado Springs, Colorado, adds that the skater is shooting for the highest possible grades of execution, plus-4 or plus-5, on each element in her programs.
“It really is about taking it to that next level,” Zakrajsek said. “It has been fun to dissect every element, every movement on video. … I describe it as survival practice sessions, meaning you put yourself under the kind of scrutiny and pressure where you only settle for the highest of the highest.”
Although Tennell is working on a triple Axel, the skater does not plan on trying it next week. 
“She has not done (triple Axel) the last two weeks,” he said. “She was rotating them really close to fully clean. It was tough; we talked about whether or not she would throw some at practice (in Stockholm), and we decided to take a little break from it and come back to it as soon as worlds is over.”
One advantage Tennell arguably has over her younger rivals is mature, nuanced presentation, something she and her choreographer, Benoit Richaud, have worked hard to achieve.
“It’s something I’m very proud of, because it definitely did not come naturally to me,” she said. “Of course, I find jumping the most exciting thing about the sport, but it’s not all about the jumping. I’m so excited that all of my work and all of my efforts, and Benoit’s efforts, are coming through now.”
Shcherbakova, the three-time Russian champion who will turn 17 on March 28th, and two-time world junior champion Alexandra Trusova, a 16-year-old Russian who also possesses several quadruple jumps, are favored for medals in Stockholm. Japan’s 18-year-old champion Rika Kihira has a consistent triple Axel, recently added a quadruple Salchow to her arsenal and is also capable of winning gold.


Knierim, Frazier Make Worlds Debut

Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier, who teamed up last April after long careers with other partners, have already won their first Skate America and U.S. titles. Now, they may be poised to deliver the best U.S. pair result at worlds in more than a decade. No U.S. pair has won a world medal since Kyoko Ina and John Zimmerman in 2002.
That the skaters were able to develop their elements — triple twist, triple throws, lifts — in less than a year did not surprise them; their vast experience, and matching strong work ethics, worked in their favor. Less expected was how well, and how quickly, they gelled in competitive settings.
“There was anticipation to see how we would perform under pressure together,” Knierim said. “Performing well and skating great programs was not necessarily surprising, because we were training very well going in (to our competitions), but as a new team with different variables, we were testing the waters to see how we would do in different scenarios. That was surprising to us, that we feed off each other in the competition environment.”
“We trust everything we are doing day-to-day; we’re not changing anything when we’re under pressure,” Frazier said. 
Since returning to their training base in Irvine, California, after the national championships, the skaters have made no changes or additions to their programs. Rather, they’ve turned their attention to the details — matching arm movements, synchronized triple jumps, a deeper bond with their music.
“We’ve been working a lot on details,” said Todd Sand, who coaches the pair with his wife, Jenni Meno. “We’ve been working on their presentation, unison and connection to one another in their programs, and trying to emphasize that.”
“We video their programs, we do a lot of sections of their programs and pick apart each little the details,” Meno said. “Fortunately, Alexa and Brandon are very consistent, so we have time to finetune every finger and leg extension. We’re at that point this season, which is really nice.”
The pandemic prevented Knierim and Frazier from competing at an ISU international event this season. As a new team, they needed to post minimum technical scores (TES) for a short program and free skate, in order to compete in Stockholm. With in-person competition off the table, video was sent to the ISU last month to be reviewed by an international panel of judges.
The results: 41.67 TES for the short, and 71.85 TES for the free — numbers that could put them among the top five pairs in the world.
“I did look at the roster of people who qualified, and I saw where our scores sat in comparison to others, and I was pleased,” Knierim said.
“Every time we receive marks, I get more and more motivated,” Frazier said. “I’m very pleased to see where our progress is going.”
Knierim and Frazier’s training partners Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson won silver at the national championships but withdrew from worlds due to personal reasons. Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, who placed in the top ten at the 2019 world championships, will join Knierim and Frazier in Stockholm.
Two-time world champions Wenjing Sui and Cong Han of China, the 2018 Olympic silver medalists, would normally be considered favorites for gold, but the skaters withdrew from the Cup of China earlier this season due to Han’s ongoing recovery from hip surgery and arrive in Stockholm as question marks. They will be challenged by three strong FSR pairs, including Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov, who won their third national title in December.


Olympic Spots Up For Grabs

In order to gain three entries to the 2022 Beijing Olympics, the results of a country’s top two finishers at the 2021 world championships cannot total more than 13.

Team USA is almost assured of three spots for the men’s and ice dance events in Beijing. It will be tougher, but not impossible, to earn three spots in pairs and women’s. 
Tennell is joined in Stockholm by Karen Chen, who placed a career-high fourth in the world in 2017, the same year she won the U.S. title. If both Tennell and Chen skate their best, three spots are within their grasp — depending, of course, on how other competitors perform.


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