Spokane, WA

In 2007, skaters performed to record breaking, enthusiastic crowds with the energy levels reaching the rafters. Three years later, the U.S. National Championships return to Spokane, as the Washington community embraces the athletes, parents, fans, coaches, and officials once again.

It was in Spokane that for the first time, novice ice dancers competed their free dances in front of the audience at the main arena. Normally, their events took place at secondary locations. In St. Paul and Cleveland, the short programs and compulsory dance were moved out of the practice venues, too. For 2010, all competitions for all levels – novice, junior and senior – will be held at Spokane Arena.

Of the 12 teams competing in Spokane, only Joylyn Yang & Jean-Luc Baker competed at Cleveland Nationals in 2009, where they finished seventh. Yang & Baker, who already have two U.S. ice dance titles on their resume (juvenile in 2007 and intermediate in 2008), bested the field at Pacific Coast Sectionals by over 10 points. Yang & Baker are definitely in the medal hunt this week.

Three of the remaining 22 skaters from Cleveland are making a return appearance to the novice championships, although with new partners.

Daniel Eaton returns in 2010 with Alexandra Aldridge. Aldridge & Eaton posted the highest score across the sections with 116.69. Their “Man in the Iron Mask” free dance has been well received by the judges and audiences this season and makes them a serious podium threat.

Though Adam Munday started the season with MacKenzie Reid (with whom he competed in Cleveland), unforeseen circumstances ended the partnership. He regrouped quickly to skate with Lauren Mckernan and the new team finished third at the Midwestern Sectional Championship, earning a ticket to Spokane. Mckernan missed the cut by finishing fifth at Sectionals in 2006, 2007, and 2008 with previous partners. She will finally get to make her Nationals debut.

Samuel Rashba returns to fight for the novice championship with new partner, Amanda Bertsch. Bertsch, a double medalist in solo dance at the Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships this past summer and a former competitive synchronized skater, makes her national debut at the novice level.

An “intermediate invasion” comes to Spokane as six teams who placed among the top 10 at the 2009 U.S. Championships at the intermediate level have moved up to compete at “Big Nationals” for the first time. Four of the teams come from the Eastern Section. 

2009 U.S. intermediate champions, Danielle & Alexander Gamelin, lead this invasion. The twins are coached by Alexander Esman and Evgeny Platov and finished second at 2010 Eastern Sectionals by .05.

Siblings Danvi Pham & Vu Pham, the 2010 Eastern Sectional Champions, finished second to the Gamelins at the intermediate level in 2009. They lead a strong contingent of skaters from the Wheaton Ice Academy, including training mates Kristina Rexford & Michael Parsons. Rexford & Parsons won the bronze at 2010 Eastern Sectionals, trailing the leaders by less than a point in the tight race. Lorraine McNamara & Quinn Carpenter, who are also from Wheaton Ice Academy, qualified in fourth place. At only 10-years-old, McNamara is the youngest competitor in any discipline in Spokane.

Portland, Oregon’s Madeline Heritage & Nathaniel Fast finished second to Yang & Baker at Pacific Coast Sectionals. Heritage & Fast are in their first season as novices. They took the 2008 juvenile title and placed eighth last year as intermediates.

Hannah Rosinski & Paul Shapiro from the Cleveland Skating Club of Shaker Heights, are the sixth team from the “invasion,” finishing 10th at intermediate Nationals in 2009.

Kassy Kova & Justin Ross came back from injury earlier this season to claim the fourth and final Nationals berth at Pacific Coast Sectionals. They finished fifth at Sectionals last season and did not qualify for Nationals in 2009.

New team Nicholas Taylor and partner Heather Buckner finished second at Midwestern Sectionals and are coached by Andrew Newberry. They round out the dozen teams going for gold.

The novice dance competition opens early Wednesday morning with the compulsory dances (Starlight Waltz and Kilian) and concludes with the free dances on Wednesday. 

2009 U.S. and world junior silver medalists, Maia and Alex Shibutani, lead the field of 14 in the junior event. The siblings won both of their Junior Grand Prix events and earned a bronze medal at the JGP Final in December. This earned them a bye to the U.S. Championships for the second consecutive season. The Shibutanis are already two-time national champions (intermediate in 2006 and novice in 2007 here in Spokane) and this is their third attempt at the junior title, steadily climbing from a fourth place finish in 2008 to second in 2009. They look poised and ready to take the top step of the podium and the gold medal.

Also receiving a bye to Nationals are Isabella Cannuscio & Ian Lorello. In their third season on the Junior Grand Prix circuit, Cannuscio & Lorello won two bronze medals and finished sixth at the Final. In their fourth season together, their performances show the benefits of what is becoming a long-term partnership. They have a great shot at the podium in Spokane.

2009 U.S. junior bronze medalists, Piper Gilles & Zach Donohue, did not have the autumn that had been expected after winning a gold and silver on the 2008 JGP circuit and qualifying for the Final in 2008. In 2009, they settled for a bronze medal and a fourth place finish. In September, they left Gilles’ long-time coach Patti Gottwein to relocate to Detroit, Michigan to work with Pasquale Camerlengo, Anjelika Krylova, and Elizabeth Swallow.

Rachel Tibbetts & Collin Brubaker finished sixth at U.S. Nationals in 2009. After starting this season with a seventh place finish at JGP Lake Placid, Tibbetts & Brubaker rebounded by winning a silver medal in Belarus, and then upset Gilles & Donohue to win the gold at Midwestern Sectionals.

Anastasia Cannuscio & Colin McManus finished seventh at both of their JGP events this season and pulled an upset at Sectionals, winning the gold ahead of Lauri Bonacorsi & Travis Mager, the 2009 novice champions. Bonacorsi & Mager won a bronze medal at the JGP event in Lake Placid and finish 9th at JGP Dresden.

Gabrielle Friedenberg & Benjamin Nykiel were alternates to the JGP this season and qualified for Nationals with a third place finish at Eastern Sectionals. The 2009 U.S. novice pewter medalists are competing at the junior level for the first time.

Charlotte Lichtman & Dean Copely won Pacific Coast Sectionals by just under 7 points. Lichtman & Copely finished 8th at JGP Hungary and 4th at JGP Croatia, finishing third in the free dance phase of both events with a charming program to “Chaplin.” They changed their original dance in the middle of the JGP series, first skating to Georgian folk (in Hungary) and Mexican folk (in Croatia).

Anastasia Olson & Jordan Cowan, the 2009 novice silver medalists, could be a wild card in Spokane. Olson & Cowan missed the JGP series due to a practice injury Cowan sustained at the end of the summer when Olson’s blade severed multiple tendons in his hand. When the team competed at Pacific Coast Sectionals, they had lost valuable training time after Cowan’s surgery. Playing catch up since November could prove to be the difference.

Other competitors include: Janine Halstead & Robert Knopf (Easterns 4th), Kristen Nardozzi & Robert Cuthbertson (Midwesterns 3rd), Katie Donaldson & Brock Jacobs (Midwesterns 4th), Katherine Zeigler & Baxter Burbank (Pacifics 3rd) and Natalie Wojton & Michael Soyfer (Pacifics 4th).

For the second time in this Olympic cycle, Spokane, Washington, is hosting the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. While the race for the top spots in an Olympic year is always exciting, this year’s dance event has an extra bit of punch to it. After missing last season’s U.S. Championships, Tanith Belbin & Ben Agosto are back to face off against the new (and first American) Grand Prix Final champions, Meryl Davis & Charlie White. This is the first time that the United States has had two dance teams in the running for Olympic medals, so in a way, the U.S. Championships are a pre-Olympics showdown. 

Belbin & Agosto have five national titles and four world medals, and are the reigning Olympic silver medalists. They collected gold medals at both of their Grand Prix events, but were forced out of the Grand Prix Final when Belbin required emergency oral surgery. She was off the ice for a week, but the team has been training hard since then and have sounded confident heading into these championships. With spots in the Olympic promos airing on NBC, it is all but implied that they will represent the United States in their second Olympic Games, but they would love to regain their title and earn that record-breaking spot as the first six-time national ice dance champions. 

It is true that Davis & White faced a slightly depleted field at the Grand Prix Final, but they did have to get past training mates and two-time world medalists Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir to secure their GPF victory. Davis & White, the 2009 U.S. champions, have used their twelve years together to develop a dramatic and mature presence on ice. They last faced Belbin & Agosto 10 months ago at the 2009 World Championships. Davis & White barely missed a podium finish while Belbin & Agosto won the silver medal. This year, Davis & White have really stepped up their game, topping the 200-point mark in both of their Grand Prix events. If both teams skate cleanly this week, the judges will have quite a decision on their hands. 

The second major battle in dance is for the bronze medal, which will probably determine the third spot for the Olympic team. SKATING Magazine’s predictions this month had all sports writers filling the third podium spot with Emily Samuelson & Evan Bates, the 2009 U.S. silver medalists, and it seems like they have the advantage heading into the week. They have medaled at every U.S. Championships they’ve competed in, they are former U.S. and World Junior Champions, and they have impressed international panels with their strong technical ability. However, they faltered this season when they fell off the podium and into fifth place at Skate Canada, where many expected them to win the bronze medal. They also placed fourth at NHK Trophy this year, one place lower than they finished in 2008.  

Hoping to challenge the predictions are Kim Navarro & Brent Bommentre, the two-time U.S. bronze medalists from 2008 and 2009 who made their first step onto the podium with a pewter here in Spokane back in 2007. They have a personable, crowd-pleasing style that makes them an arena favorite, but they often struggle with difficulty levels on their elements. Navarro is expressive and edgy while Bommentre rarely puts a blade down wrong, and if they skate it like they can, their free dance to “One” by U2 and Mary J. Blige will bring the house down. In their head-to-head matchup at Trophée Eric Bompard this season, Samuelson & Bates bested Navarro & Bommentre by about eight points and two places. However, both teams hit their season’s best score at their second assignments and are nearly tied on that statistic. Navarro & Bommentre scored 160.89 at Skate America and, one week later, Samuelson & Bates scored 160.76 at Skate Canada. 

Siblings Madison Hubbell & Keiffer Hubbell, the 2009 U.S. pewter medalists, also have an outside shot at a podium finish and an Olympic team berth. A recent coaching change and relocation to work with Anjelika Krylova and Pasquale Camerlengo at the Detroit Skating Club could bring a new spark and a sense of renewal as they head into the U.S. Championships. The change occurred between their Grand Prix assignments, after an eighth-place finish at Trophée Eric Bompard, but before finishing sixth at Skate Canada. It will be exciting to see how their skating has been affected, now that they have had some time in their new training environment. 

Madison Chock & Greg Zuerlein are the reigning U.S. and World champions on the junior level. This will be their senior debut at the U.S. Championships and many have predicted they could be a dark horse this year. Their artistry and intensity has given them some recognition internationally, but their first senior season has not yielded breakthrough results just yet. They were eighth at Cup of China and sixth at Skate America. Chock & Zuerlein train alongside Davis & White under Igor Shpilband and Marina Zoueva in Canton, Michigan. 

Jane Summersett & Todd Gilles have also made a coaching change this season, relocating from the Broadmoor Skating Club in Colorado Springs to the Detroit Skating Club. Summersett & Gilles have had a disappointing season on the international circuit, finishing fifth at Finlandia Trophy and tenth at NHK Trophy, but they have an opportunity to make a fresh start at their third U.S. Championships as a team.  

Trina Pratt & Chris Obzansky are returning to their second U.S. Championships after a strong seventh-place finish in their debut last year. Their energetic, American country original dance could really get the crowd going this week.  

Since teaming up in 2006, Lynn Kriengkrairut & Logan Giulietti-Schmitt have proven that they can hold their own in a talented field. After winning the bronze medal on the junior level at the 2007 U.S. Championships, Kriengkrairut & Giulietti-Schmitt have climbed the ranks at the senior level, finishing ninth in 2008 and eighth in 2009.  

Lauren Corry & Alexander Lorello jumped over the junior level when they paired up in 2008 and qualified for last year’s U.S. Championships on the senior level, where they finished 12th. 

There are five teams that come to Spokane as new challengers to the established field. 

Although Shannon Wingle and Tim McKernan are making their debut as seniors at this competition, they are both veterans in dancing at the national level. Before winning the pewter medal at the junior level last year in their first season as a team, they were both international competitors with their former partners. 

Katie Wyble & Justin Morrow made the jump from junior to senior this year after placing 12th at last year’s U.S. Championships on the junior level. The compulsory dance is usually one of their strengths. 

Stephanie Zastrow & Michael Lueck made the bold move to senior this year from novice. They have been together since 2007, and this is their first trip to the U.S. Championships. 

Grace Cho & Dmitry Ponomarev and Elizabeth Chan & Jason Deveikis are both heading into the U.S. Championships in the first season of their partnerships. 

The ice dance event promises to be a nail-biter this year and fortunately, no matter how the week ends, the United States will be sending a strong team to the Olympic Games. Competition begins Thursday with the Golden Waltz and continues on Friday with the original dance. The free dance, shown live on NBC, will be on Saturday evening.