SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) – With a mixture of veterans and teens, the United States has its Olympic figure skating team. Are there any medals to be found among the 14 members?
Probably, with Nathan Chen leading the men’s contingent and the Shibutanis ice dancing their way to PyeongChang. A team medal is not out of reach, either.
For now, the winners at nationals are basking in the glow of that achievement rather than considering their chances under the scorching spotlight of an Olympic Games.
“I know you hear it all the time and it’s a cliche,” Chen says, “but it truly has to be one step at a time. The Olympics are that next step now.”
Brian Boitano, the 1988 Olympic champion, expects that next step for Chen to be a huge leap.
“This is a kid who can step up to the plate,” Boitano says, “and knock it out of the park!”
For all three men and two of the women in singles, it’s something very new to go to the Olympics. Only women’s runner-up Mirai Nagasu has been to an Olympics, placing fourth in 2010 in Vancouver.
Pairs champions Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim also head to their first Games. The Shibutanis were in Sochi, finishing ninth, one spot behind Madison Chock and Evan Bates. The other ice dance duo, Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, are Olympic newbies, but U.S. champs.
“The last two competitions were very intense,” Hubbell said of the Grand Prix Final and nationals. “I think we all know the ones who skate best on that day is going to win, we are that close to each other.
Here’s how the U.S. team stacks up for PyeongChang:
Chen is the clubhouse leader, if you will, after acing his first 18. Yes, there are holes in his program, particularly the triple Axel that he popped in Saturday’s free skate. But there also are five quads, improved artistry – if viewers stop concentrating on his rotations in the air, look and listen for Chen’s connection with his music – and a track record for an 18-year-old man that is almost unparalleled.
Adam Rippon, at 28 the veteran of the singles skaters, was added to the team at the expense of Ross Miner after Rippon finished fourth here. His body of work – of the three U.S. men his program is most built on creativity and flair – earned him the spot one year after he broke his foot.
Vincent Zhou, 17 and the youngest member of the squad, is that rare guy who can jump with Chen, but isn’t nearly as polished or accomplished. His time near the top is more likely in 2022.
The heartwarming story belongs to Nagasu, 24, quite possibly the only woman who will try a triple axel in South Korea. Her career hit some rough patches, and when she rallied to finish third at nationals four years ago, she was bumped off the Olympic team by the federation’s committee in favor of Ashley Wagner.
No bumping this time after Nagasu put out a career-best free skate.
“That’s a great story for me, because most people have a hardship in their life and they blame and they point fingers and they say I was screwed over, blah, blah blah,” says coach Tom Zakrajsek. “Mirai could have said that, right? And she could have been bitter. I’ve never heard her say that. And to hear that maturity in her; even in this moment she’s just owning it.”
Nagasu probably has the best chance to challenge the Russians and Japanese of the three Americans; she is more polished and internationally known than U.S. champion Bradie Tennell, who will be 20 at the games, and 2017 American titlist Karen Chen.
One pair, no medals chance.
That’s simply the state of pairs in the U.S. It’s been that way for years as ice dance has powered its way past pairs in the duo events.
The Knierims have been around and their free skate, when done cleanly, can be spectacular. But the consistency and level of difficulty of their moves – except the quad twist that only they do among Americans – can’t compete with the top Europeans, Asians and Canadians.
From Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto through Meryl Davis and Charlie White, the United States has become a force in this discipline. Maia and Alex Shibutani have followed their dance steps and have a strong shot at a medal despite finishing second at nationals. Hubbell and Donohue won the U.S. crown by .19 points, a significant upset give the Shibutanis’ international record.
But that also stamps Hubbell/Donohue as medals threats. The third U.S. ice dance team, Chock and Bates, finished eighth at the Sochi Games. They won the free dance at nationals and were within one point of the top spot.
In front of the Americans are France’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron and Canada’s 2010 Olympic champions, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, both formidable couples.