The 2021 US Figure Skating Championships took place in Las Vegas, Nevada from January 14th to 17th. The event was originally slated to take place in San Jose, but was moved due to COVID, and before the event even got started, we already had several withdrawals due to the coronavirus. Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko withdrew before travelling to Vegas after learning of a close contact who tested positive and Paige Rydberg withdrew after testing positive upon arrival. The latter became more concerning when her coach, Tom Zakrajsek, announced that he had also been diagnosed with COVID-19 on January 4th. Several of his skaters, including Bradie Tennell and Vincent Zhou, tested negative and competed at the event despite probable close contact. As of writing, there have been no further cases announced as a result of this competition, and hopefully that will continue to be the case despite a seeming gap in health and safety protocols.
On a more positive note, the event itself ran very smoothly and was generally fun to watch despite the weirdness of this year. A particular highlight was the Kiss & Cry screen, which this year featured the skaters’ family and friends cheering live via Zoom. It was incredibly positive and wholesome and would be a welcome feature at any future event, even after live audiences are allowed back in the stands. The stands at this event once again featured cardboard cutouts pre-purchased by fans, as well as my favorite mascot from Skate America, a six-foot cutout of the Geico gecko, much more prominently placed this time around.
In terms of actual results, these championships were used to decide the US team for the World Championships, which are scheduled to take place in March, but are very under risk of postponement or cancellation. But since they’re still on the calendar and a team has been named, we’ll talk about it as though the event is still happening and will be used as the Olympic qualifying per usual. In reality, US Nationals was probably the last major event of the season, which is extremely weird and sad, and we might now already technically be in the Olympic season, which is extremely weird and terrifying. But let’s stick to the present moment and run through how things went down in Las Vegas.
The expected close battle between Mariah Bell and Bradie Tennell didn’t quite materialize, with Tennell having two very strong skates to win her second national title and Bell struggling in both segments to finish a disappointing fifth. In between was a super close battle between Karen Chen, Amber Glenn, and Alysa Liu, silencing all of the critics with two solid programs, showcasing noticeably improved skating skills without a triple axel or quad attempt. Liu finished fourth, Chen third, and Glenn second, all within two points of each other in total score. Glenn attempted a triple Axel in the short program which wasn’t fully rotated, but she stayed on her feet and had several very solid attempts in practice, so hopefully we’ll see her land one in competition next season.
For the Worlds team, the US only has two women’s spots and named Bradie Tennell and Karen Chen as their representatives. Tennell was a given after her dominant win, and despite finishing lower than Glenn at nationals, Chen’s selection makes sense as well. Chen and Glenn were separated at this event by less than half a point and Chen has the stronger international record, so if the US wants the best shot at getting three spots for the Olympics, then it’s reasonable to pick the more proven athlete. However, it’ll still be a big task to get those three spots given the level of talent in the women’s field right now. They’ll need to finish in positions that add up to thirteen or less (ex. 6th and 7th, 5th and 8th, etc.) in order to secure that extra spot. Amber Glenn was named first alternate, with Mariah Bell and Audrey Shin second and third alt.
One other positive takeaway from this event was Gracie Gold fully rotating all of her jumps in both segments. There were still plenty of issues and she is clearly still working back to full competitive shape, but there was notable progress from the last few events we’ve seen her at where she popped jumps and struggled to commit mentally after making mistakes. Just fighting for every jump is a huge step, so hopefully there’s even more upward trajectory to come.
Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier skated very strongly and were heavily rewarded by the judges, which resulted in their winning the event by over twenty points. They still haven’t gelled fully as a team yet, but they landed all of their elements and had some very impressive throw jumps, so clearly have lots of potential. Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson struggled with side-by-side jumps in both segments and had a scary lift exit in the free skate which saw them finish second, seemingly struggling with the pressure of being potential champions. On a positive note, their triple twist received unanimous +5 GOE in both segments, which is extremely impressive. No one else was super clean at the event either, but Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc took bronze and Audrey Lu and Misha Mitrofanov finished fourth.
For the Worlds team, Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson will take one spot and Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier the other, assuming US Figure Skating can get special dispensation to send them despite not having achieved the required technical minimums. In order to attend Worlds, there is a minimum technical score skates must have achieved in an international event beforehand. Knierim and Frazier are a brand-new team, meaning they don’t have any international results from previous seasons, and since this year’s Grand Prix was composed of domestic events, their scores from Skate America won’t count either. US Figure Skating will reportedly ask the ISU to allow Skate America’s scores to be used, but this would be a major reversal since it was specifically stated that Grand Prix scores this season would not count towards international minimums, season’s bests, or world records. If Knierim and Frazier are not allowed to attend, Cain-Gribble and LeDuc would be sent as first alternates.
In the closest gold medal fight of the weekend, Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue won their third national title, edging out Madison Chock and Evan Bates by about a point and a half. The two teams were so closely matched that a tiny stumble by Bates on the twizzles in their free skate probably made the difference between gold and silver. Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker took the bronze as expected but had two very strong skates and were actually much closer in score than expected, being the only team to receive all level fours in the free dance. With Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko’s withdrawal, Caroline Green and Michael Parsons slotted into fourth with more than ten points clearance on either end. The relatively new team skated very well here, but their sexually charged Prince program is still a bit uncomfortable to watch given the fact that Green is 17 and Parsons is 25.
Unsurprisingly, the Worlds team is exactly the same as last year with the top three nationals finishers taking the three spots available. Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko were named as first alternates, which is a good move from US Figure Skating considering they had to withdraw through no fault of their own and were closely following COVID guidelines.
The top three were in a class of their own during the short program but all had some stumbles in the free skate. Nathan Chen won his fifth national title, as expected, with Vincent Zhou finishing second and Jason Brown taking the bronze. Also unsurprisingly, all three were once again selected to represent the US at Worlds. However, Zhou also needs to rely on some rule-bending from the ISU since he did not achieve the required technical minimums last season. He previously had the minimums, not to mention he is the reigning World bronze medalist, so will likely be able to attend given the lack of international events available this season.
Outside of the podium, one of the major highlights of the whole weekend were breakout skates from 2020 National Junior Champion Maxim Naumov and recent Ukranian transfer Yaroslav Paniot. Paniot still hasn’t been released by the Ukranian skating federation, despite his last competition under their flag being almost two years ago, so he won’t be able to represent the US internationally for some time, but seems poised to move onto the top ranks when he has the chance.
On the other hand, many men who were expected to place well here had varying degrees of difficulty that left them well off of the podium. Camden Pulkinen and Tomoki Hiwatashi both popped planned quad toe loops in their short programs into doubles and Alexei Krasnozhon fell on every jumping pass in his short, and none could fully rally in the free skate. Hiwatashi and Pulkinen were both still named as alternates for Worlds on the back of better performances in previous events, but won’t be thrilled with the way their season has ended.
Now we return to a strange state of limbo as we, once again, wait for a decision from the ISU that will probably come at the last possible minute. If this does end up being the final event of the season, it was a pretty good one to end on. Hopefully the powers that be can make a quick decision about the World Championships so that skaters aren’t training with that uncertainty hanging over their heads for long. Come back here soon for an explanation of the factors that make holding the World Championships so difficult right now and why they probably shouldn’t happen.