Cleveland, OH

Only three teams from the 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Championships return to compete at the novice level in 2009. Just one year ago, Una Donegan & Andrew Korda were the surprise bronze medalists in a hotly-contested novice dance event. Also returning are Anastasia Olson & Jordan Cowan, who finished just .7 behind Donegan & Korda, settling for the pewter medal. Grace Lee Sells & Robert Cuthbertson finished 10th in 2008. In Cleveland this year, all three of these teams should be fighting for podium spots.

Donegan & Korda won the Eastern Sectional Championship in November. Their victory margin of 3.22 points was smaller compared to other sections, where the champions were at least nine points ahead of the field. Since all three sectional champions scored over 100 points, this is perhaps a testament to the current depth in the Eastern section. Donegan & Korda should fight for the top spots with Olson & Cowan, the winners at Midwestern Sectionals, and the Pacific Coast champions, Lauri Bonacorsi & Travis Mager.

Donegan & Korda and Olson & Cowan are both very strong novice teams with excellent chances at making repeat trips to the podium, but they show contrasting sides of ice dance. Olson & Cowan are a dynamic and energetic team with a sassy Latin free dance that shows off a youthful side, but Donegan & Korda have chosen a lyrical program to “My Sweet and Tender Beast” that highlights a maturity not often found at the novice level. While they have different looks, both teams have really accentuated their strengths this year, and if there are not any mistakes, the judges will have a tough job.

Bonacorsi & Mager teamed up earlier this year and have been steadily improving in placements and scores since their debut at the Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships last August. This is Bonacorsi’s first trip to “Big Nationals,” but Mager has experience — he finished eighth at the event in 2008 with Lauren Ely. When Ely decided to leave competitive ice dance in order to focus on school, Bonacorsi relocated to Maryland to train with Mager under coach Greg Maddalone. The result was a success: Mager repeated as Pacific Coast champion with a new partner, and the team posted the highest novice dance score across the sections.

However, final results do not always tell the whole story. Sells & Cuthbertson finished fourth in a close race at Midwestern Sectionals, repeating their placement from 2008. They were only .18 behind Olson & Cowan after the compulsories, but errors in the free dance dropped them to fifth in that phase and fourth overall. Although it was not the finish that they had wanted, it was enough to earn them a trip to Cleveland. If Sells & Cuthbertson skate their dramatic “Sadeness” free dance with no mistakes, it could get tight at the top.

At the past two U.S. Championships, intermediate champions have fared well: Maia Shibutani & Alex Shibutani won intermediate in 2006 and novice in 2007, and Donegan & Korda won novice bronze last year after winning the intermediate title in 2007. Joylyn Yang & Jean-Luc Baker are coming off back-to-back championships seasons, winning the juvenile dance title in 2007 and the intermediate title in 2008. Though the team finished third at Pacific Coast Sectionals, they were second in the free dance and could still be among the top teams in Cleveland. At the very least, they should make a splash.

Regardless of the outcome, the twelve teams competing in Cleveland will have the opportunity to skate their compulsories and free dances in front of the audience at the Quicken Loans Arena for a moment in the spotlight. Since the free dances at the 2007 U.S. Championships in Spokane, novice teams have had this opportunity. In prior years, the novice dance events were held in the smaller secondary arenas. Let’s hope this tradition continues.