ST. PAUL — It was slightly strange to watch Boston-based Ross Miner skate to Billy Joel's "New York State of Mind" on Friday night in the men's short program at the 2016 US Figure Skating Championships.
But Miner looked more than comfortable with the music choice and choreography, skating a strong program that put him atop the leaderboard for much of the night. He finished second behind Max Aaron (91.83 points).
"I'm doing whatever it takes to be an artist, to be the best technical jumper I can be, the best spinner I can be," said Aaron. "Nothing's easy about that, but I'm doing whatever I can to be the best. I get these opportunities and everytime I get them, I'm going to come out here swinging as hard as I can."
While known for his jumping ability, Aaron has become a more artistic skater. That helped him take the top spot for the night. Adam Rippon (88.01) currently stands in third and 16-year-old Nathan Chen (86.33) is fourth.
But the biggest surprise of the night was Miner's second place in the standing.
"It was really fun," said Miner, moments after he scored a 90.90 with his performance. "I did a good job of staying patient and being tough."
Mark Mitchell, his coach from the Skating Club of Boston, added: "It's the best short program he's ever done at Nationals."
And that includes the performance that helped Miner win a silver medal at the 2013 US Championships.
Miner said the prospect of competing at TD Garden in Worlds in two months provided a lot of motivation, but he was focused on preparations for his long program. The men's competition will conclude Sunday, which is also Miner's 25th birthday.
"Hopefully, I can give myself a good birthday present," said Miner.
Before Miner took the ice, Chen thrilled the crowd with Michael Jackson-inspired short program that included two quad jumps. The performance was a good look at the future of men's skating in the US.
"This is the first time I've ever tried two quads in the short program," said Chen. "Honestly, it was a big risk for me, but I thought this would be the best time to do it. I'm trying to set myself up as a senior skater and I think this is a good step for me."
Work to do
Will Ashley Wagner or Gracie Gold win the ladies title? That was the big question before the 2016 US championships started. Now, halfway through the event, intrigue and drama still surround Wagner and Gold, but for much different reasons. The new big question: Will Wagner and Gold both make the podium?
The answer will come Saturday night when the ladies' free skate takes place at the Xcel Energy Center. Gold enters the free skate in second, while Wagner sits in fourth, though points-wise only fractions separate Gold (62.50), Tyler Pierce (62.45) in third, and Wagner (62.41).
Before Wagner and Gold made major mistakes in their short programs Thursday night, Polina Edmunds (70.19) separated herself from the pack with a clean, confident program to "Moonlight Sonata." Edmunds, 17, appears poised to win her first US title.
"I have confidence in myself and a belief in myself that when I step onto the ice I am able do what I do in practice," said Edmunds, a teammate of Wagner and Gold at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. "I am totally confident that I can go out there and put what I just did out. I think I have been at this long enough to be comfortable, I've been doing these jumps for six years now, so there really is no excuse not to land it."
Oddly, the more experienced Gold and Wagner could not muster the same confidence and comfort level in their short programs. Maybe they'll find it before their free skates. Then again, Gold has long struggled with the mental side of skating, especially in big competitions.
"I have done a fair amount of work with a sports psychologist," said Gold. "I am just by nature what you would call a perfectionist and a bit of a nervous competitor, because I want it so much I could strangle myself."
Even if Gold or Wagner perform flawed free skates and finish off the podium, it's unlikely they'll be left off the US team for the World Championships in Boston. The winner will automatically qualify for Worlds, while the other team members will be chosen by committee.
With their extensive international résumés, Gold and Wagner should fill those two slots.
Only major mistakes in their long programs and spectacular performances by other skaters could put a trip to the Worlds in jeopardy.
But there might be a situation reminiscent of what happened in at the 2014 Nationals held at TD Garden. In that competition, an error-filled free skate left Wagner fourth, but US Figure Skating officials named her to that year's Olympic team. She was selected over third-place finisher Mirai Nagasu.
It's well known that Boston-born Alex Shibutani is a big fan of the Patriots, Bruins, Red Sox, and Celtics. So, when asked what made him more nervous, the Patriots-Broncos game or Saturday's free dance with his partner and sister Maia, Alex said it was the Patriots contest.
"I have no control over that," said Alex. "We've been working really hard and we're prepared for this competition. So, I know that we're just going to go out there and do our best and really enjoy the experience. I have no idea what the injury report looks like going into this weekend's game. There are so many Broncos fans here I feel really uncomfortable. But it will be nice to be in Boston back with my own kind."
A large number of top skaters train in Colorado so that explains why Alex keeps bumping into Broncos fans in Minnesota.
If all goes as expected Saturday afternoon, the Shibutanis will head back to Boston for the Worlds. They may even return as US champions. Entering the free dance, the team of Madison Chock and Evan Bates (75.14 points) are in first, while the Shibutanis (74.67) stand close behind in second. Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue (71.10) finished the short dance in third.
The Shibutanis will skate to Coldplay's "Fix You" in the free skate.
And if they execute it the way they have in other competitions, the program can be a showstopper.
"Every time that we've gone out and performed the free dance it's been very special for us and the audience, and we're hoping that we can do that tomorrow," said Alex. "We've really taken it to another level in our training leaving Barcelona [after the Grand Prix Final], so [Saturday] is going to be about me and Maia, and that's what we are going to focus on."
Meanwhile, Chock and Bates have dealt with program changes and Bates said, "This has been the most challenging season for us." The duo made a lot of changes to their free dance during the Grand Prix circuit, then took a break after the Grand Prix Final.
"Coming back to the rink after the holidays we felt refreshed and rejuvenated," said Bates. "We knew we'd pushed really hard to survive through the Grand Prix [Series]. We've never been in that kind of situation before with so much change. Coming in this week we were both relieved that we've had the programs set for more than a few weeks, and we're really thrilled with how it went today. We turned a page after Grand Prix Final. I think we're set up well for the rest of the season."