Event Previews

US Nationals preview – Background

An event that usually kicks off the back half of the skating season with a bang, it now seems very possible that the US National Championships could be the final major event of the 2020-2021 season. If you’re new to skating, new to US Nationals, or just want to remember what this event is all about, here’s a little bit of background info.

COVID restrictions

After the debacle of Rostelecom Cup becoming a mini-superspreader event for Russian skaters, the health and safety protocols at US Nationals are under even more scrutiny. Originally set to take place in San Jose, the event has been moved to Las Vegas and will follow the same bubble system as Skate America back in October, which resulted in zero positive COVID tests. The Orleans Arena is part of the Orleans Hotel and Casino, so participants can be confined to essentially one building and are not allowed into the arena before passing a negative test. Skaters must stay in their hotel rooms at all times unless on an official ice session, and US Figure Skating has said they are adopting a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to breaking the rules, with no warnings given. All signs suggest that event organizers are taking COVID protocols very seriously, which is certainly welcome news.

Organizers can also breathe a sigh of relief that lacking an audience isn’t a bad thing this year. US Nationals sees smaller crowds every year as the popularity of American figure skating dwindles, but this year the stands will be full of purchased cardboard cutouts, possibly supplemented by photos of USFSA mascot Snowplow Sam and the Geico gecko, if Skate America is anything to go by.

The federation is also hoping to encourage fan support through a “Virtual Fan Experience,” which will apparently include skating bingo and some fantasy activities. If you’re under quarantine like me, maybe that can help pass the time.

The points don’t matter!

Overscoring is common at most national championships, but the US is one of the most egregious examples every year. It’s important to keep in mind that domestic scores do not count for international placements or world records; high scores can potentially boost a skater in the eyes of international judges and “shift the needle,” but don’t expect many of the scores here to be replicated in an international event. Will commentators still compare scores at this event to international competitors? Oh yes, they certainly will. Feel free to ignore them.

Potato medal

Just about every sporting event around the world can agree that the podium places are first, second, and third. But not at US Nationals! This event also gives out a fourth place, pewter medal for some reason. (That reason is to give the federation more options for picking their Worlds and Olympic teams without looking as shady, like sending Ashley Wagner to the 2014 Olympics even though Mirai Nagasu won the bronze at Nationals.)

In figure skating circles, fourth place is also called the “potato medal,” an expression which comes from the Czech expression, “bramborová medaile” (literally, potato medal). The phrase gained notoriety in skating after an article on Czech skater Michal Brezina’s old website referring to how he always placed 4th at competitions was translated into English as, “Can Brezina break his potato’s damnation?” “Potato” is also informally used as a verb, meaning, “to finish fourth,” which is simply excellent and should be adopted by all sports, please and thank you.

What’s on the line?

Being named national champion is nice, but there’s more on the table than just the gold medal. Usually these championships would determine the US team for Worlds, and while US Figure Skating will still name a Worlds team based on these results, the fate of the World Championships in March is still unclear, and concerns continue to rise about whether it should be held at all. But even if Worlds aren’t held, there’s still a lot of pride and acclaim that comes with being named to the Worlds team, so many skaters will have that as a goal, even if the top step of the podium is out of reach.

For exactly that reason, all of my event previews will talk about the Worlds team as though the event is happening, unless it gets cancelled during the competition, in which case there will be a whole lot more to discuss. Stay tuned for some chaos, one way or another!

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