New U.S. Figure Skating Champion Crowned and Ready to Lead Ladies to the Olympics

7 years ago

Last night, the top American ladies took competitive ice for the last time before the Olympics. With only two spots available on this year's team and arguably at least six skaters who could place in the top ten in Vancouver, it was all about who would skate cleanly, perform her best and rack up the most points. And as always, the unpredictability kept the audience on their feet.

I was glad to see Dick Button and his descriptors back on TV. In his first couple minutes, he used the words 'effervescence' and 'buttercup.' Scott Hamilton was also on the air sharing his thoughts on the performances. NBC always brings the Olympic champs back to be commentators every four years, which I like. Unfortunately they delay the TV coverage, so we get all of the event results online hours - if not days - before we see them on TV. I can only hope they don't try to pull that stunt from Vancouver or things could get ugly.

On the ice, Caroline Zhang, who finished 10th in the Short Program made characteristic errors on both her initial jumps with a telegraphing leg going almost into a spiral position before toeing into the ice, giving her unstable leverage when vaulting up to rotate. Bebe Liang skated well, but missed her highest point jump. Last year's national champion, Alissa Czisny looked tired and just didn't have the energy for her tough jumps. Veteran Emily Hughes fell on two of her triples. The event didn't begin well for the ladies.

In the final group of skaters, Amanda Dobbs skated well for her first time at the senior level, but she missed several jumps. For Sochi 2014 though, look for Christina Gao to make that team. She sparkled in her first visit to U.S. Nationals, finishing fifth after landing a beautiful triple-triple and a triple-double-double. (It might be worth noting that she trains with Brian Orser along with Yu-Na Kim.) She did miss two jumps toward the end, but the rest of her program was excellent for a fifteen year-old.

Ashley Wagner took the ice looking determined and she skated a perfect program. Lacking the artistry of the three remaining skaters, her jumps were powerful and she seemed happy with her performance. It as enough to win her the bronze medal, but she'll be the alternate on the Olympic and World team. She looked disappointed at the end - she held onto hope until the last skater's scores came in, but it wasn't enough to make it onto the Olympic team.

Finally Sasha Cohen took the ice looking exquisite (that word chosen in honor of Dick Button), but she two-footed her first three jumps, pretty much ending her chances right there for making the Olympic team. Then she followed with a fall on another jump. Still, as wobbly as she was, her program was elegant and captivating. And she smiled genuinely at the end, without any pouting or frustration shown. Clearly she was disappointed, but she definitely had fun out there and her score was respectable at 174. She put the lady in ladies figure skating for the event - elegant and graceful. She did what she came to do and proved she's still one of the best in the sport.

Next up, Rachel Flatt took the ice. She had a little trouble on the second jump in her triple-triple combination, but she pulled it out. Her combination spin was also a bit slow and weak on the positions, as was her spiral in comparison with some of the other ladies, showing room for improvement. But her jumps were huge and her final spin looked good. She earned a standing ovation and looked really happy with how she skated. Overall, she scored over 200 points due to loading jumps toward the end of the program and she looked ecstatic. Really, it cannot be emphasized enough how giant that score was compared with the other top contenders at the world level.

Mirai Nagasu followed with an excellent start to her program including a fine triple-double-double. She traveled a bit on her first spin, but her layback combination was very good, as was her extension on her spiral sequence (okay, more than good.) She really had a spectacular performance and landed all of her jumps, but at least one wasn't fully rotated. Her music was inspiring and she completed the details needed to polish it off beautifully. On the artistic side, I would've put her above Flatt, but the judges felt otherwise. Still, she looked happy with her performance.

I've been saying for over a year now that Flatt's got what it takes. She peaked at Nationals, just in time to be ready for Vancouver. And given that she's the only lady who has beat Yu-Na Kim in an event (Free Skate in Skate America but not the entire competition), she has a shot at a podium spot at the Olympics if she skates as well as she did in Spokane. Congratulations Rachel!

All in all, I think the two who made the team are the two who should have made the team. Had Czisny or Cohen skated their best at Nationals, their nerves could have been problematic in Vancouver, a difficult risk for the U.S. team. I do wish we would have had three spots though, because Ashley Wagner would have been great to have in Vancouver as well, but she's still got a bright future.

In the Pairs event last week, several big name American teams all came together to compete for two spots to the 2010 Games. After reigning champions McLaughlin & Brubaker faltered in both the short and long programs, they placed a disappointing fifth, leaving room for last year's silver medalists, Denney & Barrett to capture gold and secure a spot on the team. Then in an incredibly close race for the other spot, Evora & Ladwig edged out Inoue & Baldwin in what was most likely their final performance at the U.S. Nationals after over ten years competing together. Inoue & Baldwin skated a performance to remember, but Evora & Ladwig will be in Vancouver representing the next generation of pairs teams from the U.S.

The men, who earned three Olympic berths in Vancouver, also put on an incredible show in Spokane. Ryan Bradley performed well, amusing the crowd and putting forth powerful jumps, but it just wasn't enough in the competition with such strong men. Evan Lysacek, Jeremy Abbott and Johnny Weir all skated intense programs, but Weir and Lysacek both made mistakes. Abbott, last year's champion, skated flawlessly, winning his second title and scoring 263.66, one of the best combination scores ever in the mens' event.

In ice dance, Davis & White and Belbin & Agosto fought neck and neck but Davis & White, who had been scoring well all season edged out Belbin & Agosto for gold by 4 points. However, due to both teams doing so well the past year, the U.S. earned 3 spots to the Olympics in Ice Dance. Taking the bronze in Spokane was Samuelson & Bates. The other dance team contending for the podium, Navarro & Bommentre, fell into fourth.

So the Olympic team includes, officially:
Ladies - Rachel Flatt, Mirai Nagasu
Men - Jeremy Abbott, Evan Lysacek, Johnny Weir
Pairs - Denney & Barrett, Evora & Ladwig
Dance - Davis & White, Belbin & Agosto, Samuelson & Bates

In Vancouver. It's very possible Americans could medal in each of the 4 disciplines - most likely in Ice Dance and least likely in Pairs. Check here for the Olympic figure skating schedule, beginning with the Pairs on Valentine's Day.

Sarah Granger did not win the trip to blog live from the Olympics, but she'll be glued to the TV through February, blogging the skating events here at BlogHer and tweeting from @segsk8.

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