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Column: Elite figure skaters embracing tried and tested programs for U.S. championships

Three-time world champion Nathan Chen performs during the free skate at Skate America in October.
Three-time world champion Nathan Chen is among the favorites to win gold for the U.S. in men’s figure skating at the Beijing Olympics next month.
(David Becker / Associated Press)

In these uncertain COVID-shadowed times and with so much at stake, it makes sense that several elite figure skaters chose to revive familiar programs at the U.S. championships, where senior level competition begins Thursday in Nashville.

Think of skating to an old favorite program as the equivalent of turning to comfort food as skaters pursue the confidence their familiar music and choreography gave them. Inhabiting a program rather than merely performing a bunch of moves can make the difference between earning a berth at the Olympics next month in Beijing or waiting to see what the world will look like in 2026, when the Winter Games are scheduled to be held in Milano and Cortina, Italy.

Three-time world champion Nathan Chen is the overwhelming favorite to win his sixth U.S. men’s title and second Olympic spot, which would allow him to improve on his fifth-place finish at the 2018 Pyeongchang Games. But even Chen wanted something familiar and was leaning toward scrapping his recent programs in favor of his “La Boheme” short program and Elton John medley free skate from 2019-20. He set a personal-best score with that short program and set a record for total score with those programs at that season’s Grand Prix Final.

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Beijing seemed like the right Olympic choice to most people at the time the country was awarded the 2022 Games, but claims of genocide and the strange case of Peng Shuai have led to diplomatic boycotts against China.

“Just the connection,” Chen, who trains at Great Park Ice in Irvine, said of his decision. “Every time you get the opportunity to perform a program you know whether or not it makes sense or where it just feels right.”

Jason Brown, who’s expected to join Vincent Zhou in earning the two other U.S. men’s Olympic spots, also went to his archives. Brown, a 2014 Olympian, plans to skate to “Sinnerman” by Nina Simone in his short program and to music from “Schindler’s List” in the free skate. He debuted “Sinnerman” last season with the plan of using it leading up to the Olympics but had put that long program aside.

“I didn’t feel finished with ‘Schindler’s List,’” Brown said during a webinar. “Did not want for a second to go into this season with any sort of doubts in the programs I was doing and how they would be received and how I would feel performing them.”

Karen Chen, who won the 2017 U.S. women’s title and placed 11th at the 2018 Games, brought back her “Butterfly Lovers’ Violin Concerto” long program from last season. She nearly quit the sport after the Olympics but didn’t want that to be her final competitive experience. “I know that it is within my grasp, and I know I am super capable of getting a spot on the team,” said Chen, who was fourth behind a stunning Russian trio at the 2021 world championships.

Under orders not to leave home unless necessary, residents of the Chinese city of Xian are adjusting to a lockdown imposed after a coronavirus spike.

The U.S. team will be chosen by a selection committee that will evaluate skaters’ performances in Nashville, at international events this season, and at the 2021 U.S. and world championships. The U.S. can send three men and three women in each of the singles events, three ice dance duos, and two pairs. The women’s Olympic nominees will be announced Saturday, the pairs and ice dance choices Sunday morning, and the men Sunday after their finale.

Although the COVID resurgence scrambled skaters’ training and led to the cancellation of the Grand Prix Final, competition in Nashville won’t take place in a bubble. Fans can enter Bridgestone Arena if they provide proof of vaccination or a negative test within three days of the session they attend, and they must wear masks. Some skaters took the precaution of securing their own accommodations to avoid possible contamination from guests at the host hotel. The U.S. long track speedskating trials will be held in Milwaukee without spectators or media, and the Canadian women’s hockey team entered a bubble this week.

“It is really challenging going into these different areas, different arenas, and dealing with state policy and arena policy and all of that,” said Madison Hubbell, who has won three U.S. ice dance titles with Zachary Donohue. “Would it be better if everyone in the whole world was vaccinated with a booster and followed every protocol? Yes, I believe so, but I can’t live in that dream world yet.”

Hubbell and Donohue, who were fourth at the 2018 Olympics, won two events this season and placed second in another. They’ve long battled Madison Chock of Redondo Beach and Evan Bates, who were eighth in the 2014 Games and ninth in 2018 and won the U.S. title in 2020. Both duos are Beijing medal contenders.

Skaters Madison Chock and Evan Bates perform on the ice.
Madison Chock, right, and Evan Bates perform during the rhythm dance program at Skate America in Las Vegas in October.
(David Becker / Associated Press)

American pairs lack the skills and technique to contend for an Olympic medal, and a top-10 finish in Beijing would have been a best-case scenario. Even that became unlikely when Irvine-based defending champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier withdrew from the competition on Thursday because Frazier tested positive for COVID-19. That clears the way for two-time runners-up Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson and 2019 champions Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc to claim the two Olympic berths.

The women’s field took a hit when defending champion Bradie Tennell withdrew because of a chronic ankle injury. Two-time champion Alysa Liu, now eligible for the Olympics at 16, is favored but she has underrotated her jumps this season, and she shook things up by switching coaches and moving to Colorado Springs in November. She said she has matured and feels better than before past U.S. championships, including her fourth-place finish last year.

“I’ve started to care less about the expectations, so it feels good to not really have pressure,” she said. “And now skating is more fun and I’m skating with friends, so that makes it better.”

Hilary Knight is set to play in her fourth Winter Olympics as part of a U.S. women’s hockey team looking to defend its gold-medal win in Beijing.

Mariah Bell, who trains in Irvine, brought back the “Hallelujah” long program that fueled her second-place finish at the 2020 U.S. championships. She likely will need a clean triple-triple jump combination for a top-three finish. Bell, Liu and Karen Chen could be pressed by Amber Glenn, who has a triple axel in her repertoire, and 2020 U.S. junior champion Lindsay Thorngren, who is 16.

Nathan Chen’s post-Pyeongchang win streak ended when he stumbled to a third-place finish at Skate America behind Zhou and Japan’s Shoma Uno, but he rebounded for a 47-point win at Skate Canada a week later. He’s the closest to a sure thing this week, but Zhou isn’t conceding.

“There’s no real point in going to nationals thinking the best I can do is second place. That’s not a helpful mindset,” Zhou said. “Having a great and difficult national competition is always super exciting.”


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