Jimmy Ma isn’t letting thoughts of the Olympics go to his head.
“I don’t want to be playing those games,” said Ma of being called an Olympic contender. “I just really want to go out there and do my job. I want to do what I love.”
It might not be something Ma, 26, who trains at Norwood’s Skating Club of Boston, wants to think about. But after years of inconsistency, he has some of the best international results of any US skater this season, making him one of the most intriguing athletes to watch as the US Figure Skating Championships begin this week in Nashville.
“I feel like if I skated for [an Olympic spot], I wouldn’t be skating for myself,” said Ma. “Right now, going to Nationals, I just want to skate for myself. Wherever that brings me — you know, a spot on a team, a medal, if it makes me president, that’s great.”
The Queens-born Ma moved to Boston in 2020, following his coaches Aleksey Letov and Olga Ganicheva, who came from Texas to work at the new Skating Club of Boston facility. It took Ma a few months to feel comfortable in his new home.
“I had to really grow and adapt to a new setting again,” said Ma. “I got really comfortable in Dallas, but then coming here, everything’s a little different.”
Once Ma was settled, his skating started to reach new levels. Before 2021, he had only one senior-level international medal and never finished in the senior top 10 at the US Championships. January brought the first sign of change, when he finished sixth in the nation.
This fall showed more growth. He broke out at the new Cranberry Cup International event in Norwood, earning the silver medal and defeating several domestic and international skaters who had beaten him previously.
“At that point in time, I really had a chip on my shoulder,” said Ma. “It was a moment of relief to know that it paid off. But then I knew that because of that my season would possibly be even more difficult and there would be more expectations, so it was like one evening of relief.”
He repeated the result a few weeks later at the US International Classic, earning a berth to another international, Skate America, where he skated a career-best short program and finished fifth after consecutive years of placing in the bottom half of the event. Ma faltered at the Warsaw Cup, finishing 16th, but bounced back against a deep roster at December’s Golden Spin of Zagreb, placing third and earning a career-best score in the long program, the facet of the competition that has long been his nemesis.
Both Ma and his coaches point to changes in environment and mind-set as to why skating’s Mr. Inconsistent has earned some of the best international results of the season.
“I think he has become very mature as a skater,” said Ganicheva. “He has a huge drive. I feel like he respects himself now as an elite athlete.”
Moving to Boston, said Ma, “made me really lock onto what I wanted to do. What I had seen before as setbacks now really motivated me to work even harder — go to sleep early, wake up earlier, cook better food, and work out harder.”
Because of his past, an Olympic bid for Ma would be considered a long shot. While the rest of figure skating in the US is faltering, the men’s field is deep and showcases a variety of approaches to the sport.
Three-time world champion Nathan Chen, who is the favorite to win his sixth national title this week, is the jumper. 2014 Olympian Jason Brown is the artist, his spins so well done that they can outscore jumps, and his modern dance choreography takes one’s breath away. 2019 World bronze medalist and 2018 Olympian Vincent Zhou tries to strike a balance of both.
”They’re all so unique,” said 1984 Olympic gold medalist and longtime commentator Scott Hamilton. “It’s exciting to see just the quality of the US men just continue to rise and rise.”
But this season has been full of surprises. Zhou upset Chen at Skate America, his first defeat since the 2018 Olympics. Brown finally landed a quadruple jump after years of attempts. Add to that Ma’s surprising international performances and injuries to the two skaters who finished ahead of him at last year’s championships (one of whom is fellow Boston-based skater Maxim Naumov, who has withdrawn from Nationals).
Ma is now in a spot that no one could have expected two years ago: in that top flight of men aiming for the Olympics.
What is most realistic for Ma is an Olympic alternate spot, a position that becomes more important than ever during COVID. He will take the ice in the men’s competition Saturday and Sunday with that as a possibility but not his or his coach’s focus.
”Every coach hopes that their skaters skate their best, because that is what we can control,” said Ganicheva. “That is our hope and that is our dream.”
”I want to wear my heart on my sleeve this time,” said Ma. “I want to show them that this is Jimmy Ma.”
As the US Championships get underway, Ma isn’t the only local skater in contention. With a surprising win at the Golden Spin of Zagreb in mid-December, pairs skaters Audrey Lu and Misha Mitrofanov, who are from Texas but train at the Skating Club of Boston, have made a case for an Olympic bid. Their improved speed and elements are scoring well internationally.
Brighton’s Gabriella Izzo might be the best short-program skater in the US this season, and she could emerge out of a very uneven women’s field for an Olympic alternate spot. Defending national champion and 2018 Olympian Bradie Tennell is out of Nationals with a foot injury. While two-time national champion Alysa Liu had a solid international season, a recent coaching change has resulted in discontent in her camp. Karen Chen, Mariah Bell, and young upstart Lindsay Thorngren will be Izzo’s biggest challengers.
US Figure Skating Championships
When: Senior-level competition runs Thursday-Sunday.
TV: Peacock, NBC, and USA Network.