Monday, January 1, 2018

2018 U.S. Championships: Preview

It's almost here!  The most pressure-filled event any U.S. skater will attend this year--yes, that includes the Olympics.  I expect this to be a dramatic event, especially in the women's field.  No one is a lock.  Some may have a better chance than others, but no one's ticket is stamped yet.  I'll take a look at where the competitors stand coming in and give them a bottom line for these championships.

There can only be 3...

Ashley Wagner
Go out with a bang!

Coming In:  This has not been a good year for Ashley.  She placed a distant 3rd at her first Grand Prix event and withdrew from her second event due to an injury.  After going with "Moulin Rogue" for the third time in four years, Ashley finally decided to retire it.  She's hoping a new free skate to "La La Land" will refresh her skating and help to lead her to a title.  Programs aside, under-rotations have been the biggest hurdle for Ashley over the past two seasons.  She's an undeniably amazing performer but without the jumps, she can't be competitive.  Ashley doesn't have a good track record at this event in Olympic years and unlike in years past, she doesn't have as strong of a case to be put on the team if she misses the podium this time.  If she wants to be on that Olympic team, she's going to have to prove to the judges she's still one of the best.

Bottom Line:  This may be your last nationals...give it everything you've got

Bradie Tennell
Your time is now

Coming In:  Bradie made her Grand Prix debut at Skate America and left a huge impression on the judges.  She delivered her difficult content cleanly, earned a bronze medal, and posted the highest total score for a U.S. woman since Ashley Wagner's silver medal at Worlds in 2016.  Bradie's senior career is incredibly brief next to the others on this list (only two competitions), but her accomplishments at Skate America are so impressive that she's coming into these championships as a favorite for the podium.  However, she will need to prove that she can handle the spotlight without crumbling under the pressure.  A Grand Prix event is one thing; nationals in an Olympic year is a totally different kind of monster.  If she can deliver even half as well as she did at Skate America, she's got an excellent chance of making the team.

Bottom Line:  Block out the media hype, stay calm and focused, and do your job

Mirai Nagasu
Leave it all on the ice

Coming In:  Mirai has been on the radar for the U.S. women all season long thanks to her triple axel.  She placed 9th at her first Grand Prix event but skated much better at her second event and placed 4th.  All season long she has looked very determined and focused and she's managed to get stronger competition to competition.  A major plus for Mirai is the fact that she seems to thrive at this event in Olympic years.  In 2014 she turned in two very strong performances and placed 3rd...of course, everyone knows she was left off of the team despite her placement.  This time around Mirai has built a very strong case for herself to get a spot on the team if she places top 3.  Her programs are packed with content and have the added bonus of a triple axel as a kicker.  If Mirai can hit the jumps and the axel, she has a great shot at winning the title this year.

Bottom Line:  Leave no doubt in anyone's mind you deserve a spot on this team

Karen Chen
Time to put it all together

Coming In:  Karen had a rough year on the Grand Prix, placing 7th and 8th at her events.  There was a lack of focus in her camp as she and her team struggled to find the right programs for her this season.  After several changes Karen has gone back to both of her programs from last season.  The hope is that the familiarity with the choreography will allow her to focus on the jumps, which have always been the issue.  Karen comes in as the defending champion this year which carries its own kind of pressure that she'll have to deal with.  Her brilliant performances are few and far between, but all of them seem to happen at nationals.  When she's on, she's amazing.  If Karen can deliver the way she did last year, it would be very tough for her not to make the team.

Bottom Line:  Forget about defending the title and just skate 

Mariah Bell
This year's underdog?

Coming In:  Mariah had an up-and-down season on the Grand Prix this year.  She performed well at her first event but had a rough time at her second.  Things have been rather quiet with Mariah since then.  She's the defending bronze medalist but, unlike some of the others on this list, there isn't much buzz surrounding her as we come into this event.  If she's smart she will use that to her advantage.  The judges know she can skate brilliantly which means she doesn't have to prove she can; she can just do it and shock everyone.  The spotlight will be on Ashley and her new program, Bradie the newcomer, Karen the defending champ, and Mirai and her triple axel...Mariah can stay under the radar, away from all of the distractions and just focus on delivering her best.  If she can manage to do that, she may be the surprise of the event.

Bottom Line:  Embrace the underdog role, stay focused and surprise everyone

Courtney Hicks
My dark horse pick

Coming In:  Courtney only had one event on the Grand Prix this year but she used it to her advantage.  She skated decently and placed a very close 4th behind Ashley Wagner at Skate Canada.  In the past, Courtney has performed well on the Grand Prix and set herself up nicely as a podium contender for nationals.  Unfortunately she tanks in the short program, effectively killing any chance at a decent finish.  It has happened the past three years in a row...  This year Courtney has strong programs and difficult content that, if she nails it, can make her highly competitive with the favorites.  She's my pick for the dark horse of this event.  If Courtney can get through the SP cleanly and deliver a strong performance in the FS, she could really shake up the standings.

Bottom Line:  Get through the short program cleanly to give yourself a chance in the free

There are a number of other skaters we'll see at the competition this year including Polina Edmunds, Starr Andrews, Emmy Ma, Angela Wang, Tessa Hong, Caroline Zhang, Hannah Miller, Emily Chan, Kaitlyn Nguyen, Katie McBeath, Ashley Lin, Franchesca Chiera, Brynne McIssac, Vivian Le, Amber Glenn and Megan Wessenberg.  As always I'm hoping to see one of the lesser known skaters step up and shine.  We're heading into a new quadrennial after this season.  It's time for the new talent to step up and get ready to take over.  No better place to do it than at a pre-Olympic nationals!

The women will take the ice for the short program on January 3rd at 9:35pm.  I'll be tweeting live (@NakedIceBlog) so make sure to follow me and tweet along.  Ta for now!

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