What we learned: Skate America 2021 jumpstarts Olympic figure skating season

Vincent Zhou created the biggest headline of the weekend from Las Vegas, as the Grand Prix Series got underway. Here are five takeaways from the on-ice action, as we approach the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics.

By Nick McCarvel
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

With just 101 days until the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games begin, the figure skating season that will crescendo in February inside China's Capital Indoor Stadium has begun, too.

The sport’s coveted Grand Prix Series got underway this past weekend (22-24 October) at Skate America in Las Vegas, USA, and heads north next for Skate Canada in Vancouver, Canada (29 & 30 October).

The surprise of the weekend belonged to birthday boy Vincent Zhou, who turns 21 on Monday (25 October) and gave himself a golden gift by winning his first ever Grand Prix, topping PyeongChang 2018 silver medallist Uno Shoma (2nd) and three-time and reigning world champion Nathan Chen (3rd) to do so.

“This is the result of countless days of head down and setting goals and working toward them,” Zhou said after his win. "For the last few years, I haven't been as good as the top guys... I think that there definitely is the potential to break out a little this season."

MORE: Zhou stuns for first GP gold | Trusova soars in women's field

Here, five things we learned in Vegas and how they’ll shape the season to come with Beijing 2022 on the horizon.

1: Victorious Vincent; Chen streak snapped

Zhou, who last month secured a third quota spot for the U.S. men at the coming Olympics, skated first in the opening group of the men’s short program – and ended up in first.

He nearly didn’t put a blade wrong all weekend, completing seven quads across two programs and – skating last – delivering under pressure in the free skate to win both the short and the long programs, claiming his maiden Grand Prix gold – and beating Uno and Chen in the process.

He took in the moment centre ice, on his knees and with his head in his hands.

For Chen, it was his first loss of any kind (a streak of 10 international events) since winning the 2018 world title after finishing fifth at the 2018 Games. He said he’s not pushing the panic button after his bronze-medal finish, and will see how he can rebound this coming weekend at Skate Canada.

“All I can try to do is move forward, try to learn from this competition and go from there,” said Chen, 22. He added, of his streak being snapped: “It’s not devastating. It was inevitably going to end. As any streak has to... at some point in time. I’m really proud of [Zhou and Uno]."

2: ‘Only one quad’ - Trusova aims high

Clearly below her best, Alexandra Trusova still rose to the occasion. The 17-year-old Russia star skipped Friday practice and showed up minutes late on Saturday, dealing with a previously undisclosed foot injury that limited her to no triple Axel and just one quad – the quadruple Lutz – on the weekend.

But the teen prevailed in a strong women’s field, winning the short and free in powerful display buoyed by an improved expression on the ice. Now she wants to get fully healthy for the season to come.

“I want to add difficulty [back],” she said via an interpreter, in reference to the multiple-quad free skates and triple Axel she has competed with prior. “I’m going to be working on everything before [NHK Trophy]. I want to get into good shape again.”

Daria Usacheva, Trusova’s training mate under coach Eteri Tutberidze, made her senior international debut, confirming her spot as one of as many as six or seven women – along with Trusova – who could contend for the three ROC women’s singles spots in Beijing.

Lausanne 2020 Youth Olympic champion You Young was brilliant in the free skate, nailing her triple Axel and jumping from fifth to third, while 2018 Olympians Sakamoto Kaori and Miyahara Satoko showed flashes of brilliance as they begin their quest to make a second Games.

Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov of Russia.

3: Pairs: Tarasova/ Morozov back on top of GP podium

Rostelecom 2018 was the last time that Russian athletes Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov had won a Grand Prix, but the three-time world medallists kicked off the Olympic season right by winning the pairs going away (by 14 points total).

“It was not perfect, but it was a good step for us,” the 28-year-old Morozov said. “We need to show better performances on the ice for our next Grand Prix.”

They’re set to head to NHK Trophy 12-14 November.

Japan’s Miura Riku and Ryuichi Kihara were the surprise of the weekend, the duo showing a marked improvement and going from third in the short to second in the free.

Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitrii Kozlovskii, the world bronze medallists, had a couple hiccups in the free to drop to the bronze medal position, while Americans Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier saved their best for last, finishing in fourth.

4: Dance: Hubbell/ Donohue edge ahead in U.S. race

Speaking of Team USA, it’ll be a fierce battle especially between the top two American ice dance teams in Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue vs. Madison Chock and Evan Bates, the duos also training mates in Montreal.

Hubbell/Donohue squeaked out an early-season advantage, winning their fourth consecutive title here in what they said will be their final Skate America. Chock/Bates were just 1.31 points behind.

"We've certainly had a lot of inspiration and motivation to get ourselves in gear and it's no different this year. It's usually very close and we know that when [Chock and Bates] skate their best, we also have to skate our best," said Madison Hubbell of the two teams going head-to-head but also knowing one another well and training side-by-side.

"They didn't make it easy and we expect it to be close until we retire."

Canada’s Laurence Fournier-Beaudry and Nikolaj Sorensen captured bronze.

5: The Olympic season: Expect the unexpected

"Expect the unexpected" is a well known phrase in sport, and Skate America confirmed its truth for the forthcoming figure skating season.

Zhou’s win and Chen’s subsequent loss was perhaps the most surprising – namely that the five-time U.S. champ couldn’t come back the way that he did at worlds earlier this year to capture gold - as he's done many times in his career. But he isn't scrambling.

Trusova kept fans on their toes with her foot injury, skipping Friday’s practice and sending whispers of “Where is Sasha... ?" around the arena. A fully healthy Trusova will be even more dangerous.

Injuries... no one likes them, but they play a role: Most namely for American champ Bradie Tennell, who pulled out prior to the event (also a foot injury); as well as Kevin Aymoz, the 2019 Grand Prix Final bronze medallist, who was clearly far from his best in an emotional short program having spent three months off-ice this summer due to an upper leg/groin injury.

And also for Sato Shun, the Japanese teen making his debut at a Grand Prix outside of Japan, who had a shoulder and collarbone issue after a bad fall in practice, but still competed and finished fourth.

It was other Japanese skaters – Miura and Kihara in pairs – who were perhaps the most unexpected result of the weekend. A team that could shake up the pairs scene this season, having finished in 10th place at the world championships last season. It was their first Grand Prix medal.

What happens in Vegas... well, this weekend that was tremendous skating. Now, onto Vancouver.

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