by Anne Calder | Photos by Melanie Heaney

COVID-19 raised havoc with the 2019-2020 figure skating season. Rinks were closed, domestic and international competitions were canceled, and programs were choreographed via zoom. Coaches and students became creative in order to continue training.

After successfully hosting Skate America in October, the decision was made to move US Nationals to the same complex in Las Vegas. In order to facilitate a safe environment, the senior and junior divisions competed separately in two consecutive weeks.

The seniors competed January 9-17, before departing the Orleans Hotel & Arena complex. The juniors arrived on Monday the 18th, practiced Tuesday and competed Wednesday and Thursday. The skaters were again greeted by cardboard cutouts and pumped-in applause. Mask wearing was strictly enforced.

Ten junior ice dance teams participated. The top four included Junior World and international event medalists plus a team with just an eight-month partnership. The “faux” podium included: (1) Katarina Wolfkostin & Jeffrey Chen, (2) Oona Brown & Gage Brown, (3) Katarina DelCamp & Ian Somerville, and (4) Isabella Flores & Dimitry Tsarevski.  

Due to the training difficulties caused by the pandemic, the juniors were allowed to repeat last season’s Tea-time Foxtrot pattern and Musical theme, which the top three couples chose to do. All The teams were introduced at center ice in two groups of five prior to each warm-up.

Wolfkostin & Chen fought off Jeffrey’s knee injury to dance a top-spot performance to “Everything Old is New Again” from the musical The Boy From Oz. The twizzles, lift, and both pattern sets earned level 4. The program received 68.81 points, the team’s highest-ever rhythm dance score. During the non-competitive season, the 2020 silver medalists adjusted their training focus.

“We found inspiration on building toward next season. We stepped away from drilling programs and focused more on partnering, basic skills and small details that we didn’t get to perfect last season,” Wolfkostin said. “We were trying to find the silver lining in the current situation.”

Brown & Brown were second after also choosing selections from the Boy from Oz. All their elements but the midline step sequence were level 4. Their base values were the same as the leaders. However, the 66.20 segment score was less. The judges GOE and program component marks made the difference.

Since the domestic and international summer and fall competitions were canceled, the team was unsure about whether US Nationals would even be held.

Oona explained, “We pretended there would be a competition.”

Gage added,” We just trained as if we were going to compete in three weeks, trying to keep our heart rate up and our bodies moving. We did run-throughs of elements and parts to basically get the feel of it.”

DelCamp & Somerville danced to “City of Stars” and “Planetarium” from the La La Land film soundtrack. The twizzles and curve lift received level 4; both pattern sets and midline step sequence were level 3. The segment scored 60.26. The duo thought the program summed up their partnership.

“We’ve been doing it for two years straight,” Somerville said. “Knowing It was the last time competing it, let alone skating it, made it feel new again. It was a feeling of happiness.”

Flores & Tsarevski, in fourth place, but only .28 out of third, partnered up in May 2020. Flores competed at the 2020 Nationals with a different partner; Tsarevski won silver on the intermediate level in 2019.

The newbies scored 59.98 points dancing to selections from Funny Girl. The twizzles, lift and first pattern set earned level 4.

Flores shared their opening night thoughts. “We were definitely a little bit nervous. It was a surreal experience. Even the cardboard cutouts were really unique.”

Rounding out the top five, Angela Ling & Caleb Wein danced to “Up a Lazy River” and “I’m Sitting on Top of the World” from the musical, Bullets Over Broadway. The segment score was 56.27. The lift, twizzles and second pattern set were level 4.

Wein commented about getting psyched for Nationals without any major competitions.  “It was definitely a challenge. Luckily we had a couple of virtual competitions. We tried to train as normal, to build up with the same enthusiasm. Our new training site at ION has stadium seating around both arenas, so practicing there definitely helped create a competition type environment.”

The athletes returned to Orleans Arena the next evening to perform their Free Dances. The top three replaced their programs from last season. At night’s end, the teams remained in the same order as after the Rhythm Dance.

Wolfkostin & Chen scored 98.41 points for their ethereal performance to “Exogenesis Symphony Part III: Redemption” by Muse. The spin, lifts, both the one-foot step sequences and Jeffrey’s twizzle were level 4. The 167.22 total score earned them the gold medal.

The 2020 Winter Youth Olympics bronze medalists shared their thoughts on creating a new program during the pandemic.

“After Junior Worlds last March, our rink was closed for a couple of months, so we picked the music and began a little choreography off-ice,” noted Chen. “We created an outline, then tried it on ice and adjusted a few things,” added Wolfkostin. “All the patterns fit for competing, so we just went from there.”

Oona Brown & Gage Brown danced a silver medal performance to “Nothing Else Matters”. The choreography was a Team Brown collaboration, which included coaches Joel Dear and Inesa Bucevica plus input from the siblings. The lifts, spin and twizzles earned level 4. The 162.91 total score included a 96.71 free dance segment.

The New York based athletes explained what went into the creation of their program.

“At the start of the pandemic, we, along with our two coaches were trying to look at all our options,” Gage said. “We came across this Metallica song that we’ve both known for a very long time, but had never thought about putting it on the ice. It was a good idea, and we really love skating to it.”

Bronze medalists DelCamp & Somerville danced disco to music by Earth, Wind & Fire, the Bee Gees, and KC and the Sunshine Band. The spin, lifts, twizzles and Ian’s one-foot step sequence earned level 4.The music style was quite different from last year. They spoke about their new choice.

“I wanted to show we could do different genres,” DelCamp said. “Last year both of our programs were “getting together” programs,” added Somerville. “Disco is completely out of my comfort zone. The fact that we were able to pull it off like this was really challenging for me. We were pretty inspired by Kaitlin and Jean-Luc’s [Hawayek & Baker] Saturday Night Fever rhythm dance from last year.”

Flores & Tsarevski tangoed off with the pewter medal to the strains of “Sol otonal” by Aldo Maietti e la sua orchestra and “Oblivion”, by Gidon Kremer. In their National team debut the spin, lifts and Dmitry’s twizzle earned level 4. The program scored 86.42; the total was 146.40, just .90 out of third place.

“Today we focused more on the performance, so we left technical points on the table,” Tsarevski noted.

“I think today was a really great reminder of how far we’ve come in just a few months, and how far we still want to go,” Isabella said. “We have a really great team of people behind us. Elena [Dostatni] is building a dance school with some amazing coaches. Dima and I are really looking forward to capitalizing on their expertise as we shift our focus to next season.”

Ling & Wein danced to the captivating beat of “Pictures of Namibrand” by African Tribal Orchestra. Wein, influenced by the dance choreography of Ron K. Brown, chose the music to push ice dance as an art form. The twizzles, lifts, spin and Caleb’s one-foot step sequence earned level 4. The program scored 84.20. The team claimed fifth place with a 140.40 total.

As for lessons taken from this hybrid year, Wein said, “We learned how to keep motivated in a weird season. We also learned a lot about ourselves and what works best for us, so we can keep on having strong showings.”

There was no award ceremony – no opportunities for applauding the winners or playing a snippet of their music. The cardboard cutouts were silent.

The skaters donned their medals backstage and returned to the Kiss & Cry area where each team was photographed separately with masks, followed by a very quick one without them. All the while the Zamboni was nearby clearing the ice for the men’s competition.

The final curtain had fallen on the 2021 U.S. Nationals ice dance event.

Remaining Placement Order:

  1. (128.02) Leah Neset & Artem Markelov
  2. (124.55) Elizabeth Tkachenko & Alexei Kiliakov
  3. (109.73) Elliana Peal & Ethan Peal
  4. (109.66) Vanessa Pham & Jonathan Rogers
  5. (104.07) Gracie Vainik & Daniel Brykalov