Article & Photos by Melanie Heaney
Over the next ten days, champions will be crowned at the 2018 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships in San Jose. While much of the commotion throughout the week will revolve around the nomination of the Olympic team, plenty of excitement lies ahead for many of the other competitors. Spots for the Four Continents Championships and World Junior Championships are on the line, and it is possible that the first Olympic alternate may end up at the World Championships.
Given U.S. Figure Skatings “body of work” guidelines, the Olympic team has been all but named in ice dance. With three teams that all finished in the top ten at the last World Championships and qualified for the last two Grand Prix Finals, it is hard to imagine that Maia Shibutani & Alex Shibutani, Madison Hubbell & Zachary Donohue, and Madison Chock & Evan Bates are not well on their way to punching their tickets for the Pyeongchang Games.
The Shibutani siblings still have the edge, but the gap that emerged last season between them and the next two teams has closed quite a bit this year. They showed weakness in their free dance at the Grand Prix Final and hung onto the bronze medal, but only stayed ahead of the other American teams by a fraction of a point. So much of this competition will depend on levels; if the Shibutanis can hit level 4s in their short dance that has scored so well this season, they could establish the lead early on and run with it to take home a third title.
Hubbell & Donohue were fourth at the Grand Prix Final, just .60 behind the Shibutanis. They have made big strides over the past two seasons and are certainly the American team with the most power and ice coverage. When they are on, their edge quality is world-class. Hubbell & Donohue have been quite consistent this year, but mistakes at inopportune times have plagued them in seasons past. If they can keep the focus on their own performance, though, they have their best shot yet at their first title.
Chock & Bates, the 2015 U.S. champions, looked like they would be the successors to Meryl Davis & Charlie White this quadrennial, but they have been a step behind the Shibutanis since the 2016 U.S. Championships. They have kept pace with the Shibutanis, though, and they are still within striking distance. Their fifth-place finish at the Grand Prix Final was only .85 behind the Shibutanis and .25 behind Hubbell & Donohue, and their free dance was actually ranked third. The free dance, rumored to be the third one that they tried this year, is set to “Imagine” and should play well at its first outing in the U.S. this season.
Beyond the battle for the top three medals, four teams are expected to be in the race for the pewter medal, the first alternate spot, and the three spots on the Four Continents team. Kaitlin Hawayek & Jean-Luc Baker won pewter in 2016 and Elliana Pogrebinsky & Alex Benoit were pewter medalists in 2017, while Lorraine McNamara & Quinn Carpenter and Rachel Parsons & Michael Parsons are new to the senior level this year.
Hawayek & Baker had a rough outing last year at the U.S. Championships, but are back on form this season, and have even chosen to keep using the same free dance, their classic take on Liszt’s “Liebestraume.” This season, they have won two international medals—silver at the U.S. International Classic and bronze at Golden Spin of Zagreb—and finished fourth and fifth at their Grand Prix events. The short dance has been an issue for them this year and it is more difficult for them to hit the Rhumba key points than it is for taller teams. If they can hit their levels in San Jose, they have a great shot at getting back to the podium.
It is a homecoming for Pogrebinsky & Benoit—she grew up outside of San Jose and has plenty of family and friends in the area, so expect big cheers for this team as they compete this week. In their second year as seniors, they held steady, finishing seventh in both of their Grand Prix events. They also picked up two international bronze medals, at the Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships and Tallinn Trophy. Score-wise, they were finishing in the 150-155-point range at their Grand Prix events, about ten points back from Hawayek & Baker, though they have not yet competed head-to-head this year.
McNamara & Carpenter have had some ups and downs in their first senior season, as can be expected. They won every event they entered in the 2015-2016 season, including the world junior title and a second U.S. junior title, but struggled last season, falling behind training partners Parsons & Parsons and slipping to seventh at the World Junior Championships. They bounced back at their first senior event to kick off this season, the Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships, where they won gold ahead of Parsons & Parsons and Pogrebinsky & Benoit. McNamara & Carpenter looked a bit rough at Finlandia Trophy, where they were only eighth, but they seemed to hit their stride after that with a fifth-place finish at Cup of China and a silver medal at Warsaw Cup.
Parsons & Parsons won every event that they entered last season, picking up titles at the U.S. Championships on the junior level, as well as the World Junior Championships. This year’s crop of new seniors have all struggled with the transition, though, and the Parsons siblings have been no exception. They finished seventh and ninth at their Grand Prix events. They did win a pair of silver international medals this year, though, at Lake Placid and Ondrej Nepela Trophy, but were far less sharp a few weeks ago at Golden Spin, where they finished eighth, five places below Hawayek & Baker.
Wild cards at this event include the Karina Manta & Joseph Johnson and the newly-reformed team of Alexandra Aldridge & Daniel Eaton.
Manta & Johnson’s difficult choreography by Christopher Dean had not quite gelled when they were sent out to an early international at Nebelhorn Trophy. They have crowd-pleasing programs with big tricks, and with a few more months behind them, they are capable of making a splash this week.
Aldridge & Eaton skated together from 2009 to 2015 and their partnership was highlighted by a U.S. novice title, two U.S. junior titles, two world junior bronze medals, and a trip to the post-Olympic World Championships in 2014. They just got back together this fall and are likely not expecting anything too extraordinary this week, but solid performances should set them up well for next year.
On the junior level, Christina Carreira & Anthony Ponomarenko are poised to win the title, barring any major mistakes. The 2017 world junior bronze medalists were the only U.S. team to qualify for the Junior Grand Prix Final this year, where they won silver. Their performance this week should set them up for another trip to the World Junior Championships, where they certainly have their eyes set on an upgrade.
The U.S. has two more spots for the World Junior Championships, and after winning two bronze medals on the Junior Grand Prix circuit, Caroline Green & Gordon Green are among the favorites. The Green siblings won four consecutive U.S. titles from 2013 to 2016—juvenile, intermediate, and twice at novice—and were fifth in their junior debut last year, despite being not yet age-eligible to compete on the junior level internationally.
The Greens’ training mates, Eliana Gropman & Ian Somerville, have a shot at a trip to their first Junior Worlds in their fourth season on the junior level. They took fourth at both of their JGP events this season, including finishing ahead of Chloe Lewis & Logan Bye at JGP Brisbane.
Lewis & Bye won a bronze medal on the JGP circuit in 2016, but were fifth at both of their JGP events this year. They won the pewter medal at the 2017 U.S. Championships and will be fighting to move up on the podium this year. Small mistakes have added up for them this year, but they were strong at Pacific Coast Sectionals and they still have a shot to take one of the top three spots in San Jose.
In their first season together, Avonley Nguyen & Vadym Kolesnik were assigned to two JGP events, where they finished fifth and sixth, and won Midwestern Sectionals. They are a young team to watch and could be ready to leap straight to the podium if one of the more established teams falters.
Emma Gunter & Caleb Wein, Isabella Amoia & Luca Becker, and Sophia Elder & Christopher Elder all have JGP experience and should be fighting for spots in the top half of the field. Last year’s novice champions, Jocelyn Haines & James Koszuta, did not compete internationally this year, but they have a different look from the other teams, and they could make a splash this year as well.