Hot Takes: US Nationals 2019

US nationals is usually a patriotic festival packed with elderly ladies wearing stars n’ stripes tracksuits and enough NBC fluff pieces to stuff a California King-sized mattress. All skating federations run their national championships as thinly-veiled hype campaigns. They are, after all, meant to send their skaters off to the final competitions of the season riding a swell of domestic support. But no one does it better than the U.S. of A.

That usual all-for-one atmosphere at nationals was undercut by allegations of sexual misconduct levelled at a coach, and that same coach’s subsequent suicide. It’s impossible to discuss this year’s US Nationals without acknowledging the shadow of the John Coughlin case. As is so often the case, many members of the community moved to defend the reputation of the accused while rejecting the possibility those allegations may have merit. That cultural assumption is part of what allows abusers to thrive. Ignoring or suppressing claims of abuse is negligent, particularly in a sport where young athletes are frequently under the care and supervision of coaches and trainers miles away from home. It’s precisely why an organization like SafeSport was created.

Whether or not there is a full investigation of the allegations made against Coughlin, this is a moment for figure skating to reflect on how it responds to claims of abuse and misconduct. USFS executive director David Raith made public statements in support of SafeSport continuing its investigation during pre-event press for Nationals. USFS president Anne Cammett also made the federation’s position clear: “Everyone in this room knows this but it bears repeating: There is just no place for abuse in sport. Just none. And when allegations of abuse are made, we need to make sure the process is fair and carried out to the fullest extent under the circumstances.” This is the message everyone should keep in mind as the investigation into the Coughlin allegations unfolds.

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Fire Up the Hype Machine

Given the circumstances, USFS desperately needed some good publicity out of Detroit this weekend and Nathan Chen delivered it. Chen skated the best back-to-back programs of his career and landed 6 clean quads between them. He also notched massive scores: 113.42 in the short, 228.80 in the free. That’s a combined event score of 342.22–a full 59.8 points higher than his previous high score this season.

Wait, what?

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Chen’s performances were objectively great, and both programs were an excellent return to form. He clearly took the time to polish the choreography back to its original shine, and the jumps were, as always, fabulous. Chen was clearly surprised (and delighted!) by that monster free skate score, but coach Rafael Arutyunyan started strategizing in the K&C before that score even went up: things to improve, polish to apply. I don’t think either Chen or Raf took that number at face value and neither should you.

The likelihood of anyone scoring close to 342 in international competition seems unlikely (for now). While it’s tricky to compare high scores from pre and post-GOE changes, remember that it took a very long time for senior men to clear 300. Hanyu holds the historic total event score record at 330.43, and technically holds the record under the new scoring system as well. You can bet that Chen and his team are well aware of the relative scores between him and the other top men this season and are keeping those numbers in mind heading into Worlds.

Toddler In A Tiara

If it was high numbers causing drama in the Men’s event, it was a low number fuelling excitement in the Ladies competition: 13, to be precise. The age of the new Senior Ladies US National Champion, Alysa Liu.

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When I was 13, I was reading Babysitters Club books and praying for my single axel to hold up on Test Day. Liu landed three triple axels and dethroned Tara Lipinski as the youngest US National Champion in history. She also joined Anna Shcherbakova, Alexandra Trusova, Alena Kostornaia, and Stephen Gogolev in the under-16 national medalists club. Liu’s success, and this year’s trend toward Junior High Champions adds fuel to the roaring debate about raising the age minimum for senior competition. That debate is more than I will write about here, but if that trend holds, Liu won’t be the last pint-sized champion we see landing big tricks with big question marks about her future development.

An Embarrassment of Lipstick Riches

It’s a great time to be an Ice Dance fan in the US when the top 3 teams are serious contenders for world medals and have killer lipstick game, too.

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Madison Chock and Evan Bates had a belated start to their season with a qualifying competition in December. You couldn’t tell that this team spent most of the fall in rebuilding mode as Chock recovered from ankle surgery. Of the many versions of Assassin’s Tango floating around this season theirs is indisputably the best, and their chemistry is combustive enough to sell me on the Elvis Medley free dance. I also think of all the Montreal dance teams their lifts are the most show stopping.

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Meanwhile, Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue defended their title and didn’t give up on the Romeo + Juliet concept, even if my patience with R&J programs is wearing thin at the 2/3rd mark of the season. I’m still not sold on that concept because this is a team that has thrived on being wiry and unusual, and Romeo and Juliet is a very traditional choice. This program has also been worked and reworked over the season, but not to its benefit. Left to my own devices I would have retained their original music cut from Skate Canada: their opening section using “O Verona” brought a pleasant funkiness to the whole enterprise, and it’s sorely missing from the current program edit.

We’re in the home stretch, everyone!

Just two competitions remain in the 2018-19 season: Four Continents, everybody’s favourite former B-tier event; and the moment we’ve all been waiting for, Worlds. If you thought this season was at it’s maximum drama capacity just wait until the skating world descends on Saitama, Japan.

Bring it on!

Anne Cammett’s full comments can be found here.

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