by Jacquelyn Thayer | Photos by Daphne Backman
The U.S. National Skating Championships return to Greensboro, N.C., where they were first held in 2011. That post-Olympic season event saw new podium achievements for young teams who, together or in new partnerships, would help lead the U.S. on the way to Sochi. This year, new champions will be crowned in both senior and junior, perhaps shaping a path towards Pyeongchang. While a field of 17 teams at senior shows a slight decline in number from last season’s rosters, the contest suggests ice dance’s American success is likely to stay.
The senior event in Greensboro will mark a changing of the guard with six-time champions Meryl Davis & Charlie White currently off the competitive scene. But with much of the field otherwise remaining unchanged since last year, competition here for seniors may be more about cementing a role going forward, and with strong international results for several couples this fall, the showdown will be worth a watch.
With two Grand Prix golds and a silver at the Grand Prix Final, 2013 and 2014 national silver medalists Madison Chock & Evan Bates seem the likely frontrunners to receive their first national title. Despite error in a few outings, including a non-element fall at the Grand Prix Final, the team established new personal bests in the short dance at Skate America and in the free dance and overall at Rostelecom Cup. Their An American in Paris free dance, taking an abstract approach to the musical selection, has been scoring particularly well as compared with last year’s Les Miserables program, earning up to almost six points more than last season’s best, and may be the larger factor in their results here.
Providing the closest competition will be Maia & Alex Shibutani, national medalists in each of the first four years of their senior career, including silver in 2011 and 2012. The season to date has been the duo’s most consistently successful internationally, with silver at both Skate America and Cup of China along with victories at their two Challenger Series events of Ondrej Nepela Trophy and Ice Challenge, while their traditional Strauss waltz free dance has been especially well-received by judging panels. At the Grand Prix Final, however, low levels—an issue for the team throughout the fall—meant a sixth-place finish in the free dance for a fourth-place result overall. While the podium is a very likely bet for the siblings, they will need a solid technical performance to ensure their best placement.
Working to make their return to the top three will be Madison Hubbell & Zachary Donohue, who made a splash with bronze in their debut outing in 2012, but missed the subsequent two world teams, finishing a close fourth in both 2013 and 2014 and declining their first alternate spot for 2014 Worlds due to Hubbell’s hip injury and surgery. This season, those setbacks have been little in evidence as the team picked up bronze at both Skate Canada International and Trophee Eric Bompard, capping their autumn with new ISU personal bests in a win at December’s Golden Spin of Zagreb. The couple have made a strong effort this season to stand out with an original Great Gatsby-themed free dance exploring diverse dance styles, including hip hop, which could see a positive reception from the home crowd.
Their younger Detroit Skating Club training mates, 2014 junior national and World Junior champions Kaitlin Hawayek & Jean-Luc Baker, have made a good showing so far on the senior circuit, picking up a bronze medal at their second Grand Prix event of NHK Trophy. While the two are still developing their power and presence, their programs, including a free dance to Abel Korzeniowski’s Romeo & Juliet score, effectively showcase their elegance on the ice and refinement as skaters. Grand Prix scores from different events suggest the possibility of an additional breakthrough for the team here, with their best only 1.82 back of Hubbell & Donohue’s lower mark, but the duos’ first head-to-head competition will tell the ultimate story.
Fifth place finishers at 2014’s event, Alexandra Aldridge & Daniel Eaton moved this summer from the Detroit Skating Club to train with Marina Zueva at Arctic Edge. While the switch was made with an eye towards growing their performance qualities—a goal also underpinning their dramatic Gone With the Wind free dance—results have so far been mixed; a win at September’s U.S. International Figure Skating Classic marked their first senior victory, but scores in a sixth place finish at Skate Canada International and seventh at Rostelecom Cup indicated minimal growth over last year’s Grand Prix marks. Last season, the duo earned bronze at Four Continents and made a trip to Worlds as second alternates, but may have a tougher road to spring competition this year.
This season has so far been the most successful internationally for Anastasia Cannuscio & Colin McManus, who last year finished seventh nationally. Their year began with two Challenger Series medals, bronze at both the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic and Finlandia Trophy, before a fifth-place finish at Skate America, their first appearance on the Grand Prix since 2012. Although the field here is close, their international scores were comparable with those of Aldridge & Eaton, and a top five placement here with their theatrical Danse Macabre free is not out of reach.
Also coming in with international experience are Anastasia Olson & Ian Lorello, who competed at October’s Autumn Classic International in Barrie, Ontario, where they finished seventh overall, and won Midwestern Sectionals to qualify for Nationals. In their first Nationals together in 2014, the team placed eighth, and certainly have an opportunity to move up this year.
Additionally qualifying with a Sectionals victory are Danielle & Alexander Gamelin, who won Eastern Sectionals. After a twelfth-place finish in 2014, the siblings moved from Wheaton Ice Skating Academy to train with Igor Shpilband at Novi.
Missing from competition here will be Alissandra Aronow & Collin Brubaker, who finished twelfth at Autumn Classic and ninth at 2014 Nationals. After qualifying with a win at Pacific Coast Sectionals, the couple withdrew, reportedly due to injury.
The junior competition is, at top, likely to be a battle of Wheaton Ice Skating Academy training mates.
2014 junior silver medalists Lorraine McNamara & Quinn Carpenter followed a strong Junior Grand Prix series, which brought silver at JGP Germany and bronze at JGP Czech Skate, with gold at Eastern Sectionals and Mentor Nestle Nesquik Torun Cup earlier this month. Siblings and 2014 junior bronze medalists Rachel & Michael Parsons, in turn, picked up silver at JGP Croatia Cup and bronze at JGP Japan—along with silver at Eastern Sectionals and in Torun, only 0.64 and 1.52 points, respectively, behind McNamara & Carpenter.
Eastern Sectionals saw the teams swapping placements between segments, with the Parsons winning the short dance. Their JGP scores, though never achieved in competition with one another, also point to a race that’s too close to call, with the Parsons’ higher total of 140.33 just a point above McNamara & Carpenter’s series best 139.35, and their lower totals equally similar. Both duos are taking a narrative approach to this year’s free dance, McNamara & Carpenter with Phantom of the Opera and the Parsons with Notre Dame de Paris, and have seen equivalent technical marks; the outcome here will truly be decided on the day.
Holly Moore & Daniel Klaber, pewter medalists at 2014’s junior event, relocated to Igor Shpilband’s school at Novi in the off-season. In a bronze-medal performance at JGP Slovenia, the team did set new personal bests in both total and free dance with their whimsical Addams Family program; however, low levels at JGP Tallinn Cup contributed to a sixth-place finish at that event. The two, however, qualified for Nationals with a silver medal at Midwestern Sectionals, and their experience makes them solid contenders for another national medal.
The Midwestern victors were Novi training mates and new team Elliana Pogrebinsky & Alex Benoit, who also finished fifth at JGP Japan—fourth in the free dance with their interpretation of Swan Lake—and eighth at JGP Croatia Cup due to a fall on twizzles in the short dance. At 2014 Nationals, Pogrebinsky placed fifth with Ross Gudis and Benoit eleventh with Olivia Di Iorio, but their quick success together suggests they’re ready to make a podium run here.
Also among the young stable at Novi are Chloe Lewis & Logan Bye, winners of Pacific Coast Sectionals and sixth place at 2014 Nationals. In their second season on the JGP circuit, the team finished fifth at JGP Courchevel, setting new personal bests with their Chopin free dance and in total score. Training mates and new team Christina Carreira & Anthony Ponomarenko picked up Pacific Coast bronze after a successful debut JGP series, finishing fourth at Tallinn Cup and fifth at Czech Skate. This marks the first season at junior for both partners, with Ponomarenko taking novice bronze with Sarah Feng in 2014.
Rounding out the slate of internationally-competing couples are Julia Biechler & Damian Dodge (pictured, left), bronze medalists at the competitive Eastern Sectionals. They finished seventh at 2014 Nationals and saw good results in their debut JGP circuit, placing fifth at JGP Slovenia and sixth at JGP Germany. Pacific Coast silver medalists Emily Day & Kevin Leahy, tenth place at 2014 Nationals, finished eighth in their first JGP event at Courchevel.
Last year’s novice champions, Gigi & Luca Becker, make their junior national debut here. The siblings, who train at Wheaton, finished fourth at Eastern Sectionals, and are currently too young to compete internationally.
The junior dance event begins Wednesday, January 21, with the short dance and wraps with the free dance on Friday afternoon. The senior short dance starts shortly after, and concludes with the free dance Saturday, January 24, with competitor groups once again split into blocks to accommodate broadcast coverage.