Sunday, January 24, 2016

This Will Restore Your Faith in Figure Skating: Part 6: Nathan Chen's "Symphony No.3" by Camille Saint-Saens

Skating fans watched history tonight as 16-year-old Nathan Chen landed four massive quadruple jumps, two in combination, in a program that sent a clear message to his competitors that he is not only the future, he is the now.

Four quadruple jumps in one program is the most completed by any man in the world, and with two quads in the short program (though one wasn't perfect), Nathan's overall competition quad-count was six, another world record.

Skating to "Symphony No. 3" by Camille Saint-Saens,a piece skating fans will remember when Jeremy Abbott used it en route to his second national title in 2010, Nathan was much more fluid and comfortable than in the short program. Amidst the stunning array of quadruple jumps, Nathan skated with speed and utilized the tension and power of the music to create a championship moment that brought the crowd to its feet. How can I say this in layman's terms? He pretty much rocked it.

Finishing third overall, Nathan came up just short of capturing the title, but was arguably the most impressive skater in the entire event.

With the World Figure Skating Championships in Boston looming, and the Winter Olympic Games only two years away, Nathan Chen has just catapulted himself into the world-contender discussion. In the last six years, the U.S. men have only been on the periphery of world prominence. All that is about to change.

Congratulations on making history, Nathan. This is just the beginning!

My faith in figure skating has been restored!

Blurred Lines: Musings on the Men's Free Skate at the U.S. National Championships

The men's event at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships is one that we won't soon forget. Even now, hours later, I'm not sure what the heck I witnessed. Let's Review:

1.) Amazing artist skating from the second-to-last group: Grant Hochstein and Alexander Johnson. Both skaters understand how to package musicality and performance quality with technical precision. Johnson's choreography was unique and intricate, his control over the blade first-rate. Hochstein delivered what may have been my favorite performance of the night. Skating to "Les Miserables," the 25-year-old rose to the level of grandeur that the music created with an inspired free skate that built momentum throughout and culminated in a standing-ovation.

2.) Fifteen-year-old Vincent Zhao made his case in the quad-conversation with a strong free skate to "The Godfather," establishing himself as a podium-contender in the near future.

3.) A very strange and uninspired skate from the leader, Max Aaaron, who apparently was ahead of his music for most of the program. To get back on pace, he had several awkward pauses (Scott Hamilton called them "choreographic breaks") that made it appear as if he was resting, or skating in a practice, rather than competing for national gold. Don't get me wrong, Max was very good technically, with two standout quads, one in combination with a triple combination, and I like his speed and power, but I couldn't help but feel that he looked dead inside. There was absolutely no spark or energy in that performance. I'm not sure if he was holding back in order to focus on his elements, but unfortunately, his competitive strategy severely limited the impact of his program.

4.) An unbelievable effort from 16-year-old Nathan Chen, who threw down FOUR (yes, four) quadruple jumps in his free skate, becoming the first man to ever land four quads in one program, and six over the course of a competition. Not just in the U.S. In the WORLD. Incredible athletic fireworks. My sister and I knew we were watching history, when we noticed that we were at the halfway point in the program, and the only jumps we had seen so far were quads! Nathan Chen made a major statement here. He's going to win many national titles and will soon be in contention for world titles. With the Olympics two years away, anything is possible.

5.) And then there was Adam Rippon, the 26-year-old veteran, who has been so close to winning so many times before. He fell on his only quad attempt (abeit, it was a quad Lutz, the hardest quad attempt in the competition), and though he landed 8 other clean triples, I was perplexed with his technical scores, which was higher than skaters who had landed multiple quads. Adam is a wonderful artist with beautiful spins, footwork, and a performance quality that is far superior than most of his competitors, but how triples beat quads on the first mark, I'm not sure? The long and short of it is that he won his first U.S. National title in what was a huge statement by the judges: the overall package of both jumps and artistry is more valuable than jumps alone.

I have loved Adam's skating for a number of years, and I actually thought that he was robbed of the gold medal last year, but with this year's victory, the lines are a little more blurred. How was his technical score boosted so much? I'm not begrudging Adam the title, and I don't necessarily think those behind him should have won, it was definitely just a victory that leaves people wondering what the heck goes on inside the judges' heads. Figure skating is anything but transparent, and that's what leaves viewers changing the channel.

Overall, a wonderful, yet strange, frustrating, yet satisfying men's final. In other words, it was a typical Nationals. And I loved it!

This Will Restore Your Faith in Figure Skating: Part 5: Tarah Kayne and Danny O'Shea's "Music of the Night"

Yesterday in St. Paul, MN, Tarah Kayne and Danny O'Shea dazzled audiences en route to a convincing win at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Skating to "Music of the Night," from Phantom of the Opera, the team made an overdone skating "warhorse," feel fresh and vibrant with a performance that brought the audience to its feet.

Coming off the heels of a stellar short program to "Take Me to Church," by Hozier, Tarah and Danny proved that they are the best in the U.S. by delivering the technical goods and a performance that was smooth, soaring, genuine, and free. My sister and I can't say enough good things about Danny's skating--he skates with big sweeping movements, secure edges, and an abandon that we haven't seen from anyone in years.

We love how this team's choreography perfectly uses the accents of the music to feature highlights and movements that reach out to the audience and pull us into their performance. I commented to my sister that they "look up," and they "reach out,"--they embrace us with their joy. They even smile when they skate. In an event where the pressure is palpable, it's refreshing to see a team rise above that and show authentic emotion.

When this performance ended, my sister and I clapped, and she said, "This gives me hope."

The judges thought so, too, rewarding Tarah and Danny with the highest total ever achieved in U.S. pairs skating under the new scoring system.

This team, and this performance, has renewed my faith in U.S. pairs skating. They created a moment for all of us that reminds us of why we should do anything: because we love it. Tarah and Danny's love for skating translated brilliantly Saturday afternoon, and the world of skating is grateful for it.

To Tarah and Danny: thank you, and congratulations!

My faith in figure skating has been restored.

This Will Renew Your Faith in Figure Skating: Part 4: Gracie Gold's "Firebird"

When I saw Gracie Gold capture the gold at the U.S. National Championship in Boston in 2014, I thought she'd be unbeatable for years to come.

But then she wasn't.

Crumbling under the pressure at critical moments in the last two years, both on the international and national scene, I'm pretty sure I wasn't alone in having doubts about Gracie's competitive focus. Her performance in the short program, where she performed a gaping single-Lutz, in lieu of her marquis triple-triple combination, gave credence to these doubts.

And then, she showed up.

Last night, skating last in a powerhouse group of women's competitors at the U.S. National Championships in St. Paul, MN., Gracie Gold finally lived up to her name. She embodied the character of Stravinsky's "Firebird," with a performance that was full of athletic firepower and artistic sparkle.

Though I'd still love to see Gracie exude more and become a more genuine artist, what she put out on the ice last night was impressive, and from an athletic standpoint, pretty awesome. It was great to see her come back from a devastating performance and throw down the gauntlet on a night when her closest competitors skated lights-out. Gracie finally did her job, and she did it really damn well.

Bravo, Gracie! Congratulations on showing everyone what you already knew about yourself: you are the skater to beat.

My faith in skating has been restored!

This Will Restore Your Faith in Figure Skating: Part 3: Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani's "Fix You" by Coldplay

This program has given me chills all season. What has also given me chills is that this team has been grossly under-marked all season (and throughout their careers), always coming up short to their U.S. compatriots--a team who is strong, but whose superiority, is often in question. After finishing second at three U.S. Championships, and third at two, the Shibutanis were primed to earn the one title that they knew in their hearts that they truly deserved.

Finally, yesterday at the U.S. National Championships in St. Paul, MN., the brother and sister team of Maia and Alex Shibutani, rose out of the ashes like a pair of majestic phoenixes and flew across the ice with prowess, conviction, and a raw emotional energy that pulsed through the arena with the undulating beat of Coldplay's masterful composition.

When they hit their ending pose, facing the audience, it was a culmination of their greatest national skate, and one that seemed to say:
" We have arrived."

To be fair, the Shibutanis arrived years ago, but this is the first year that their true selves have emerged. This Coldplay program is a genuine reflection of the struggle of their careers: being so technically perfect, yet being denied, being "almost," but not quite. All the frustration and criticism fueled them to face their demons and silence their doubters. Throughout the years, the Shibutanis have never lost sight of who they are and what they are capable of doing. Last night, everyone else finally saw that, too, with a program that left the audience on its feet, and tears in the eyes of those watching at home.

In a discipline where so much of the performances are "put on," featuring caked-on make-up, forced smiles, and campy-rehearsed routines, Maia and Alex delivered something that was stunningly unique; something that was as organic as it comes, a seeming natural extension of themselves. And it was damn brilliant.

Nothing made me happier than seeing the judges award the title to the best in show, when so often, other factors are at play. As my brother-in-law says, "Figure Skating: where the judges make shit up." In a sport that earns that reputation from the average viewer (and he's absolutely correct,) I love, love, love when the judges get it right.

Congratulations, Maia and Alex. You truly deserve all of your success!

My faith in figure skating has been restored!

This Will Restore your Faith in Skating: Part 2: Polina Edmunds' "Moonlight Sonata"

Thursday evening at the U.S. National Championships in St. Paul MN., Polina Edmunds schooled the top contenders with this stunner of a short program to "Moonlight Sonata." Formerly bare-faced, donning braids and beads in her hair, the teenager from California seemingly transformed overnight from fresh-faced teen to a sleek and sophisticated woman, ready to take on the world. Polina looked so mature that my sister and I did not recognize her in the ladies short program recap photo that appeared on the Ice Network homepage.

This is the best short program I've seen from Polina, but also one of the best short programs I've seen from anyone in a long, long time. It had polish, it had precision, it had power, it had command. It had everything. This is a short program! This. is. how. it's. done.

My faith in figure skating has been restored!

This Will Restore Your Faith in Skating: Part 1: Tarah Kayne and Danny O'Shea's "Take Me to Church" by Hozier

Tarah Kayne and Danny O'Shea's new short program "Take Me to Church" by Hozier brought down the house at the 2016 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in St. Paul, MN., launching them into a commanding lead.

This is a perfect example of how the new rule allowing music lyrics can be used to make figure skating accessible to the average person flipping through the channels. I mean, why skate to "Carmen," when you can skate to Hozier?

Not only was the music an incredible vehicle for this team, the program itself was so well choreographed. My sister and I were raving over the use of "highlight" moves by Danny: a leap into the air on the accent of the music, a perfectly placed "butterfly" that soared along with the vocals. Danny's skating is big, open, and free, and together, the team emanates a genuine feeling of joy.

Loved this. My faith in figure skating has been restored.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Todd Eldredge: Comeback Kid

After a three-year absence from the World Championships, Todd Eldredge returned to the 1995 Worlds in Birmingham, England, with a newfound determination.

How do you successfully stage a comeback? Watch, and learn.

Eldredge finished with the silver medal and the respect of everyone. This kind of courage and fight under pressure would define Eldredge throughout his career.

The following year, he was World Champion.

In 2001, Eldredge would finish his Worlds career with 6-podium finishes. This courageous performance at the 1995 Worlds stands out as the one that started the momentum that would propel Eldredge to World prominence. To this day, he is one of the most-decorated and well-respected American champions.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Elizabeth Punsalan and Jerod Swallow's 1998 Olympic Free Dance

First post of the new year. And it's a good one.

Elizabeth Punsalan and Jerod Swallow arrived at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano Japan with something to prove. Not to the judges, but to themselves.

After being unhappy with their material that season, the 5-time U.S. ice dance champions, scrapped their free dance and created a new program in the month between Nationals and the Olympics. They worked on choreography late at night into the wee hours of the morning. The end result was stunning. This piece, a variety of tangos by Astor Piazolla, is the best work of their career. Subtle and intricate, yet passionate and flowing, this program is a perfect example of why ice dancing is a showcase of masterful skating skills, beautiful movement, and the silent story that is told between partners.

Punsalan and Swallow were always under-marked, and this competition is no exception. Now many years removed from this event, the marks and placements simply don't matter. Brilliant skating always withstands the test of time.