2009 U.S. National Championships – Cleveland, OH

When 14 teams take the ice for the U.S. Championships at the junior level this week, three spots for the World Junior Team are on the line. This will be an easy decision, right? The three spots will probably go to the three U.S. teams that qualified for the Junior Grand Prix final.

Wait.

Madison Hubbell & Keiffer Hubbell won both of their JGP events, but faltered in the original dance in the JGP Final, which was won by Madison Chock & Greg Zuerlein. Besides, the Hubbells, last year’s U.S. junior champions, are skating at the senior level this year. And Piper Gilles & Zachary Donohue, who were one of the most successful new junior partnerships in the world this season, had to withdraw from the JGP Final because of injury from which Gilles has since recovered. Do not forget about Maia Shibutani & Alex Shibutani, the youngsters that have had a buzz circulating around them for years. They were fourth at the JGPF. So actually, four American teams qualified for the JGPF, only three are competing head-to-head at the U.S. Championships this week, there are three places on the Junior World Team, ice is slippery, and it is not like the rest of the field is just going to step aside and let the favorites take home the medals without a fight.

This is going to get complicated.

As JGPF champions, Chock & Zuerlein could be considered the favorite for gold. Last year, they were the U.S. junior bronze medalists, but they did win the original dance in a tight race for the podium. This year, they earned two gold medals on the JGP circuit and qualified second for the JGPF. With an elegant style and a beautiful flow, Chock & Zuerlein are sure to captivate the audience if they skate their “Phantom of the Opera” free dance without errors, and they have certainly also captivated the judging panel with it this season. The team has the benefit of training every day with some of the best in the world at Arctic Edge Ice Arena in Canton, Mich.

Shibutani & Shibutani brought home a gold and a silver from the JGP series and qualified third for the Final, where they ultimately finished fourth. With last year’s pewter medal in their first year on the junior level, they kept a tradition going — they have never not finished on the podium at the U.S. Championships or U.S. Junior Championships. With titles at the intermediate and novice levels, it seems inevitable that the Shibutanis will someday at the junior title to their resume. Will this year be the year, though? It could. Though not the favorites, they skate well under pressure and they know exactly what it will take to beat Chock & Zuerlein, since the teams train together under coaches Igor Shpilband and Marina Zoueva.

Because of her injury that kept them out of the JGPF, Gilles & Donohue are the question mark among the JGPF-qualified teams. They have already made a huge splash this year, beginning with their incredible performances at the Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships in August after just over two months of training together. Their programs are strong, and Gilles is a proven champion on the national stage. Donohue will be making his debut at “Big Nationals.”

Gilles’ former partner with whom she won the silver medal last year and the intermediate title in 2005 is Tim McKernan, and he will be competing in Cleveland with Shannon Wingle. Wingle & McKernan skated impressively at the Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships, despite only having been together a few weeks. With half a year together now under their belts, the team could certainly play spoiler.

So that’s it, right? Well, not exactly.

Isabella Cannuscio & Ian Lorello made two appearances on the JGP circuit this season, finishing in the top five both times. Cleveland marks their third trip to the U.S. Championships, and they say that third time’s the charm…

Trainingmates Sara Bailey & Kyle Herring can never be counted out. Bailey & Herring earned two trips to the JGP this autumn and have one of the most charming original dances this season.

Also earning two trips on the JGP were Rachel Tibbetts & Collin Brubaker. The duo certainly has the goods to stand on a podium, but major mistakes nag them. Mistakes have also dogged Katie Wyble & Justin Morrow, but they are another team with the talent to earn a medal.

Last year’s novice champions, Chloe Wolf & Rhys Ainsworth, have strong programs this season and would certainly love to climb on the podium once again. Elyse Matsumoto & Patrick Mays had a strong showing at LPIDC and won both the free dance and original dance at Thornhill.

The new team of Anastasia Cannuscio & Colin McManus, both national champions at the juvenile level with their former partners, look to make their mark on the national scene. Third at the hotly contested Eastern Sectional Championships, Cannuscio & McManus are ones to watch, especially in the original dance.

Anastasia Cannuscio’s partner last season, Dean Copely, competes in Cleveland with his new partner, Charlotte Lichtman. Another new team, Alison Carey & Daniel Donigan, are making their debut at “Big Nationals.” The final new team on the roster is Brittany Marshall & Ashley Deavers.