Sunday, January 24, 2016

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!

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