The US Figure Skating Championships were supposed to take place this week in San Jose in front of 17,000 spectators. Instead they’ll be staged inside a COVID bubble in Las Vegas with competitors performing in front of cardboard fans with piped-in applause at Orleans Arena. No standing ovations, no flowers or stuffed animals scattered around the ice. And no guarantee that there will be a World Championships for the medalists to attend.
“Competition is competition, and there is always a new variable that you don’t predict,” said Nathan Chen, the defending men’s titlist. Yet not since the nationals first were held in 1914 has there been a season with so many variables and so much uncertainty.
“A lot of us opted not to compete early in the year, or some people’s rinks were closed and they haven’t been able to train,” said Brighton resident Gabriella Izzo. “Some people are injured. People were off the ice for different amounts of time. It will definitely be a Nationals like no other.”
Yet the favorites haven’t changed. Chen, who won last year’s event by a whopping 37 points, will be bidding to become the first man to win five consecutive crowns since Dick Button claimed his seventh in 1952.
“Dick has been a name that’s been around forever,” said the 21-year-old Chen, who is unbeaten since the 2018 Olympics. “He definitely was a big source of inspiration growing up as a kid. That would be something that I could cherish dearly for the rest of my life if that was able to happen.”
Alysa Liu will be going after her third straight women’s title, last achieved by Michelle Kwan, who collected her eighth in a row in 2005. The 15-year-old Liu, who still isn’t old enough to compete in the world event, won by 10 points last time, landing two triple axels in her free skate.
“Alysa was incredible,” said runner-up Mariah Bell, who won last fall’s Skate America. “Her technical content was crazy.”
Last year’s top five finishers received byes this time. Everyone else had to qualify virtually after the in-person competitions were scrubbed, skating their programs in their own rinks and uploading the videos to a panel of national judges for scoring.
“It was weird and way more stressful than a normal competition,” said Izzo, who earned her return ticket by placing ninth in the US Championship Series. “We didn’t know who was signed up, how anyone did, whether everyone followed the rules.
“From the time you submitted until the time you found out was three or four weeks. It was very stressful having very little information for a very long time. We had literally no idea.”
When the results were posted last month, Izzo had made it along with Heidi Munger, her clubmate at the Academy at Mitchell Johansson Method in Revere. So did eight representatives of the Skating Club of Boston: Alex Krasnozhon, Maxim Naumov, Jimmy Ma, Hanna Harrell, and pairs Audrey Lu-Misha Mitrofanov and Emily Chan-Spencer Howe.
“They give me a benchmark of how it’s going to be, the programs and the energy they have,” said Naumov, last year’s junior champion. “It’s been motivating to train with them every day. They bring the best out of me.”
Naumov, Krasnozhon, and Ma all competed at Skate America and since have had uninterrupted training at the club’s new facility in Norwood.
“Not everyone had the same circumstances,” observed Naumov.
Which is why the form sheet for these Nationals is decidedly more unpredictable than usual.
“There’s definitely a chance for a lot of us to sneak up there,” reckoned Naumov. “It’s going to give us a chance to get a higher placement.”
While Liu still is the one to beat on the women’s side — which includes former champions Bradie Tennell, Gracie Gold, and Karen Chen — she is adjusting to a growth spurt and new coaches and is planning a less ambitious technical program. That could put her within range of Bell, Tennell, and Amber Glenn, all of whom outscored Liu at September’s virtual International Selection Pool Points Challenge.
The top two (other than Liu) will claim spots for the March World Championships in Stockholm, where they’ll both need to place among the top seven to earn a third entry for the US at next year’s Olympics in Beijing. But after last year’s global event in Montreal abruptly was canceled, nobody is assuming that it won’t happen again, particularly since Sweden is considering a lockdown amid a soaring coronavirus death toll.
“I would love to have Worlds,” said Chen, who’d be pursuing his third straight title. “But before every competition, I’m expecting that they’re going to cancel it.”
That’s how it has gone all season. Last month’s Grand Prix final in Beijing was scrubbed, as were this month’s European Championships in Croatia (for the first time since World War II), next month’s Four Continents Championships in Sydney, and the March Junior World Championships in China.
“It’s so up in the air,” said Bell, who placed ninth at the last Worlds. “Last year I thought, if Worlds can be canceled, anything can be canceled, even the Olympic Games.”
So the skaters are grateful to have a national championship this week anywhere under any conditions.
“It’ll be almost like for your own personal vindication,” said Izzo. “You went through everything and you made it here.”