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Figure Skating Nationals Brings Some Familiar Names, But Many Rising Stars

by Lynn Rutherford

Ilia Malinin competes during the 2022 ISU Grand Prix on Nov. 26, 2022 in Espoo, Finland.

 

For the past six years, Nathan Chen’s name has been etched on the U.S. Figure Skating Championships 40-plus pound, sterling silver trophy. On Jan. 29, at the SAP Center in San Jose, California, the torch will be passed.
Chen, the reigning Olympic men’s champion, is focusing now on his studies at Yale University.
Ilia Malinin will be the odds-on favorite to succeed to the crown.
The 18-year-old Malinin trains mainly in Reston, Virginia, but regularly travels to Chen’s rink in Irvine, California, to work with Rafael Arutunian, the coach that led Chen to gold at the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022. He has watched Chen prepare for some of his biggest events, and he’s taken notes. 
“I’ve seen how much (Chen) was putting into practice — he was doing a lot of programs, just working as hard as possible to perfect every little detail,” Malinin told reporters on a media call on Thursday. “I’m feeling like I took inspiration from him. I’m trying to focus that on myself, especially with these next years, even just to making sure that I’m picking every detail that I need to work on and just making sure that everything is as comfortable and as (good) as possible.”
Malinin, the 2022 junior world champion, soared his first full season as a senior, winning three international competitions and qualifying for the Grand Prix Final, where he took bronze. Second to Chen at the U.S. Championships last season, Malinin recently spent a week training in Irvine with Arutunian and Shae-Lynn Bourne, the choreographer who created many of Chen’s signature routines. 
“My main focus in California was to sort of look at the programs just to see if everything is working out,” Malinin, whose primary coaches are parents Tatiana Malinina and Roman Skorniakov, said. “With Shae-Lynn, we did a lot, some corrections in the programs just to make everything feel a lot more fluid and a lot more comfortable for me. With Rafael (it was) a lot of focus on jumps and a lot of mental training, I guess, to be prepared for nationals.”
With five quadruple jumps — including the four-and-a-half revolution quad axel — and a bevy of spectacular combinations in his arsenal, the self-anointed “quad god” has more than earned his moniker. The most pressing task for the seasons leading into the Olympic Winter Games Milano Cortina 2026 is improving his presentation and artistry, to compete with the likes of Japan’s world champion Shoma Uno and other top international rivals.
“The PCS (program components) the past couple of years weren’t the highest,” Malinin admitted, adding that his team is “really focusing on the artistry and the creativity, all those little details that will come with skating. … I think I’ve made a huge step, and there (are) years to come before the Olympics, and I’m hoping that I’ll have both jumps and the choreography and all the artistry and the PCS to as high of a level as possible.”
For now, though, Malinin’s biggest claim to fame is the quad axel, a jump only he has landed in competition. He has landed it well in his free skate three times this season, most recently at the Grand Prix Final in Torino, Italy, last month. The plan is to see it in San Jose as well.
“I am planning to attempt it there, but it all depends on the situation,” he said. “It’s always a huge risk to try to go for when I’m not feeling as best, so I think my main focus is to prioritize the rest of the program, stick with making sure that everything else is consistent and clean as possible. And then we’ll see how I feel during all the practices, and we’ll hope that I’ll be feeling pretty confident going to the free skate.”

Jason Brown reacts during the men's short program at the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 on Feb. 8, 2022 in Beijing.

 

Several men will vie for other spots on the San Jose podium. Two-time Olympian Jason Brown, who did not compete on the fall Grand Prix circuit, returns to competition in San Jose. He placed sixth at the Beijing Games, his most recent individual competition.
“Coming back was not in my mind in the summer, but after finishing the shows I felt great,” Brown, 28, told NBC Sports in November. “I have more energy than ever. … and my body is holding up.”
Camden Pulkinen, fifth in the world last season, combines training with full-time studies at Columbia University in New York City. Like Malinin, he recently traveled to Irvine to work with Arutunian and Bourne in the run-up to San Jose. Early last month, he won Golden Spin of Zagreb in Croatia.
“It was really nice to be able to dedicate everything to skating over the (academic) break,” the 22-year-old, who also trains with Alexander Johnson in Manhattan, said. “Where Rafael shines is really (jumping) technique, and I want to develop that for the next few years leading up to the Olympics. He can look at every single jump and identify where I need to improve that technique.”
Other contenders include veteran crowd favorite Jimmy Ma, sixth in the U.S. last season, and Liam Kapeikis, an 18-year-old who won his first international title in Austria in November. 

Teen Isabeau Levito Leads Women’s Field

Isabeau Levito, a 15-year-old from Mt. Holly, New Jersey, arrives in San Jose favored for the women’s title. Like Malinin, she is the reigning junior world champion; also like Malinin, she impressed this fall, winning two Grand Prix silver medals and a silver medal at the Grand Prix Final, the first U.S. woman to land on the Final podium since 2014.
Levito, who combines consistent triple-triple jump combinations with a light, elegant style, has also proven herself a tough competitor.
“I focus on making every step and arm movement have a purpose,” she said earlier this season. “I want to take the time on the choreography to make sure everything comes together as a whole.” 
Starr Andrews, 21, had her best Grand Prix season ever, winning silver at Skate Canada with two sterling programs.
“I’ve gone into this year with a different mindset, trying to not be so caught up in my head,” Andrews said at Skate Canada. “It helps a lot when I don’t think so much. It’s definitely paid off.” 
Many other skaters are in contention for medals. Two other New Jersey teenagers — Lindsay Thorngren, the 17-year-old junior world bronze medalist, and Ava Ziegler, the 16-year-old winner of an international event in Budapest this fall — think they are in top shape heading into San Jose.
“Placing in the top three is definitely something I think about, but my main goal is to skate two clean programs and perform my best,” Thorngren said. “Practices have been going well.”
“We’re going for everything at nationals, the same (jump) content including triple lutz-triple toe, she did at Golden Spin, where she won,” Julia Lautowa, Thorngren’s coach, said. “She is absolutely improving throughout the season, every month. She grew a lot and needed a little time adjusting, but she is coping very well.”
Ziegler, who like Thorngren trains in Hackensack, takes a similar tact.
“I’m focusing on skating clean, both programs,” Ziegler said. “Practices have been successful and consistent, so I’m happy about that. … I feel very prepared. There’s nothing to do but maintain and stay confident.”
“Ava had really bad shin splints and couldn’t jump for about three weeks after Eastern (Sectionals) in November,” Ziegler’s coach, Steven Rice, said. “It was good to work on other things. She started jumping the second week in December and things are right on track.”
If she regains the form she showed winning U.S. titles in 2018 and 2021, Bradie Tennell will challenge the teenagers. The 24-year-old missed almost all of last season due to a recurring foot injury, but showed significant improvement at Golden Spin, where she won silver behind Thorngren. Amber Glenn, 23, won a bronze medal at Skate America in October and is in the running for the podium, especially if she lands her triple axel. So to is 18-year-old Audrey Shin, who gained fifth and fourth places at her fall Grand Prix events.

(L-R) Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier compete during the pairs short program at the 2022 ISU Grand Prix on Dec. 8, 2022 in Turin, Italy.

 

Veteran Pair Knierim, Frazier Building On “Rather New” Partnership

After withdrawing from the U.S. Championships last season due to a positive COVID-19 test, Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier went on to finish sixth in Beijing and then win a world title shortly after. They enter San Jose as favorites to win their second U.S. title. The Irvine-based skaters won both of their Grand Prix events as well as silver at the Grand Prix Final, where they were edged out by Japanese rivals Kihara Ryuichi and Riku Miura.
“We feel very confident where our training is right now,” Frazier, 30, said on a media teleconference this week. “Our season is moving in an upward trajectory.”
After Knierim and Frazier won the United States’ first world pairs title since 1979, many expected the veteran skaters to retire from competition and pursue coaching and performing opportunities full time. But Knierim and Frazier think they have a lot left to give.
“Our partnership is still rather new,” Frazier said. “There was a lot of emotional and personal reasons why we wanted to continue; we wanted to have a season we could enjoy. When you have that season after the Olympic season, there is a little less stress to it. We wanted to see what a season would be like to go out and just be able to push ourselves in ways that we can still be able to reflect and enjoy our careers.”
“(After touring) we grew as a partnership, in a sense of being able to perform and connect with one another,” Knierim, 31, said. “I think we’ve been able to do that more in our programs this season, than last year. That’s something I think we’ve grown in and pushed ourselves with.”
While the rest of the pairs podium is unpredictable, Emily Chan and Spencer Akira Howe stand out from the pack. The Boston-based skaters won silver medals at both of their Grand Prix events and placed sixth at the Final. They arrive in San Jose recovered from overuse injuries that limited their training earlier this season, to Howe’s right shoulder and Chan’s heel.
“Between the Final and nationals, I’ve increased the amount of training on my jumps, we’ve been working on that, and it’s improved a lot,” Chan, 25, said. “Each competition this season was a learning experience for us. The ups and downs together have really prepared us for nationals.”
“We want to take control out there and do everything we can in practice leading up to this event,” Howe, 26, said. “These past few weeks have been instrumental for me in recovering from that shoulder injury I suffered in July. Our PT has been beneficial. I’ve gained new levels of strength, I’m able to train more in the gym. It’s all coming together for me and I hope we’re able to show that at nationals.”
Many other teams will scramble for medals, including Anastasiia Smirnova and Danil Siianytsia, winners at Golden Spin; the new partnership of Ellie Kam and 2016 U.S. champion Danny O’Shea, who won silver at that event; and Valentina Plazas and Max Fernandez, sixth in the U.S. last season.
“This is a great opportunity, but we’re trying not to place too many expectations on the podium,” Fernandez, 27, said. “Our main goal is to put out the programs we do every day (in practice) and skate as clean as we can, and really perform that second mark. … We’re emphasizing that theatrical aspect and going out and performing in sync as a team.”
Dark horses include Sophia Baram and Daniel Tioumentsev, the Junior Grand Prix Final silver medalists who train alongside Knierim and Frazier in Irvine.

Chock And Bates Are Still Dancing

Madison Chock and Evan Bates made their nationals’ debut as a team in San Jose in 2012, after successful careers with other partners. Barring disaster, the three-time Olympians (2014, 2018, 2022; Bates also competed in 2010) will return to San Jose and win a fourth U.S. ice dance title, to go along with their 2015, 2020 and 2022 crowns. 
The three-time world medalists had a late start this season, skipping a preliminary event before launching their campaign at Skate America, where they won gold in a tight battle over Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker. They seemed far more comfortable at last month’s Grand Prix Final, narrowly placing second to Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier.
“We are right back into it, training at our peak performance,” Chock, 30, said. “We are exactly where we want to be and where we need to be leading into the second half of the season. We learned a lot through the Grand Prix series and it was great to have this training time before nationals, to really accomplish some goals we set for ourselves, and make sure our programs keep evolving the way we want them to.”
“I think early in the season, we weren’t quite as organized as we normally would be at the start, but we do feel that we’ve found a lane for (our free dance) and we’ve really dived into that over the past six to eight weeks,” Bates, 33, said.
Hawayek and Baker, the four-time U.S. bronze medalists, withdrew from San Jose, saying in a statement, “Over the past 18 months, our team has dealt with significant physical injuries that have led to challenges in our mental health and we feel it is in our best interest to prioritize this currently.” They plan to petition U.S. Figure Skating for a spot on the 2023 world championships team.
Reigning Four Continents champions Caroline Green and Michael Parsons, winners of a bronze medal at NHK Trophy this fall, look strong to place in the U.S. top three for the first time. Their biggest challenge may come from Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko, who arrive in San Jose hot off a win at Golden Spin.


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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