U.S. Figure Skating Championships: What we learned

Nathan Chen won a sixth national title and Mariah Bell captured her first. Here’s five things to know from the U.S. nationals ahead of next month’s Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics.

By Nick McCarvel
Picture by 2022 Getty Images

The 16-member American figure skating team for next month’s Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games has been set.

Three-time and reigning world champion Nathan Chen will lead the squad into his second Games off of the back of a sixth consecutive national men's title.

He’s joined by world medallist Vincent Zhou and perennial fan favourite Jason Brown.

First-time women’s champion Mariah Bell will make her Olympic debut alongside 16-year-old Alysa Liu as well as Karen Chen, who is headed to her second Games.

Read on for the full American squad for the Winter Olympics, and see what else we learned from a weekend of skating in Nashville at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

Chen, Bell headline U.S. Olympic team

While six skaters will go in singles, 10 more are headed to the Games in pairs skating and ice dance.

2021 U.S. champs in pairs Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier will join two-time winners Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, who secured their spot with the 2022 national title on Saturday (8 January).

In ice dance, both Madison Chock and Evan Bates, as well as Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, are three-time U.S. champs after Chock/Bates captured this year's crown. They’ll be joined by their training mates Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker.

Each of Bell, Liu, Frazier, Cain-Gribble/LeDuc, and Hawayek/Baker will be making their Olympic debuts.

Brown is making his first appearance since 2014, while both Nathan Chen and Karen Chen, as well as Zhou, Knierim, and Hubbell/Donohue are back for a second Games.

Chock is making her third appearance with Bates, who himself has set a U.S. record for most Olympic appearances by a figure skater: This will be his fourth Games.

Men: Chen stays the course; Malinin shines

Favourited from the start, Chen took the lead after the short program and maintained it into the free, though he had a fall on a quadruple flip and a fluke error mid-choreographic sequence in his re-visited "Rocketman" free, which he brought back from the 2019-20 season.

A sixth consecutive title means he’s the first American man to do so since Dick Button (who won seven straight from 1946 to 1952).

Fifth at the Games at PyeongChang 2018, Chen will now turn his attention to trying to land on the podium in Beijing having collected three world titles in the last Olympic cycle.

“I think this team is incredible; the amount of experience we have and the work that we've put in,” Chen, 22, said of the three-man team. “I think experience is so important. I've been to events for the first time and things haven't gone the way I've wanted to – at worlds and the Olympics. It can be really daunting. I have guys like these two who can back me up if I need it.”

While Zhou and Brown will join Chen in Beijing, it was 17-year-old Ilia Malinin who had the breakout performance of the weekend, skating lights out in both his short program and free skate and finishing with the silver medal in his senior debut at nationals.

Brown was equally as thrilling in his two programs, though he lacks a consistent quad in his repertoire (he fell in his quad Salchow attempt in the free skate). He swept the crowd along with him in both his “Sinnerman” short and “Schindler’s List” free and was the top-scoring man in both segments in the Program Component mark.

Women: Bell wins first title on ninth try

While Chen was winning his sixth title in six years, his training mate Bell won her first in nine tries, becoming the oldest U.S. female champ since 1927 by capturing the title at age 25.

She did so with two enthralling programs, including her “Hallelujah” free skate which she brought back from the 2019-20 season and received a standing ovation for from the Nashville crowd.

Women’s figure skating is dominated by teenagers on the global stage, but Bell will make her Olympic debut in her mid-20s, something she says is owed to her dedication and perseverance.

“I think [age] is just truly a state of mind,” she said. “Like if you fall into the trap of like, ‘Oh yeah, I'm too old or whatever,’ then you're just setting yourself up to feel that way. But if you choose not to think that way, that's not at all how it is.”

Karen Chen is on her second Olympic team at age 22, while Liu makes her debut along with Bell at 16. Liu was the U.S. champion at age 13 in 2019, the youngest ever. She repeated that feat in 2020, but withdrew midway through this event due to a positive Covid test.

Her petition to be put onto the team was successful.

“I'm really excited,” Liu said via video link from her hotel, where she is quarantining. “I basically was training forever for this moment, and I'm really happy with the decisions I've made to get here now.”

The surprise of the weekend on the women’s side was 14-year-old Isabeau Levito, who – like Malinin – stunned in her debut at a senior nationals and would wind up with bronze. She is not age eligible for the Olympics, but will be a name to watch when she makes her international senior debut next season.

(L-R) Chen, Bell, Levito and Gabriella Izzo
Picture by 2022 Getty Images

Pairs: Cain-Gribble/LeDuc strong in second title

The pairs event was rocked before it even began when Frazier’s positive test was revealed, stripping nationals of the defending champs and seemingly turning the event into a winner-takes-all competition.

That’s because of Knierim/Frazier’s strong international CV, meaning that Cain-Gribble/LeDuc and Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson (as well as Audrey Lu and Misha Mitrofanov) would do battle for gold – and seemingly a spot at the Games on the two-team Olympic pairs squad.

That would go to Cain-Gribble/LeDuc, in the end, who delivered two sterling performances with only a few errors sprinkled in. The duo opened up a two-point lead over Calalang/Johnson in the short program, then went from strength to strength in their W.E. free skate, which included difficult side-by-side triple loops and a throw triple Salchow that Cain-Gribble let out a roar on the ice upon landing.

“This is one goal accomplished,” LeDuc, 31, said after the victory. “And now our focus turns to what we want to accomplish at the Olympics. We’re ready to go; we’ve worked really hard all season building ourselves up. We feel like we have more room to grow to show our best programs at the Olympics. We’re amped up.”

LeDuc will also become the first out non-binary athlete to compete at the Winter Olympics.

Evan Bates (L) and Madison Chock
Picture by 2022 Getty Images

Dance: Chock/Bates edge out Hubbell/Donohue

Ice dance featured perhaps the fiercest competition out of the weekend, with reigning and three-time national champions Hubbell and Donohue making costly errors in the rhythm dance to leave the door ajar for Chock/Bates, winners in 2015 and 2020.

Chock/Bates skated right through that door, claiming a third title themselves.

Both teams will be favoured for the Olympic podium in Beijing.

It was also an emotional bronze medal for Hawayek/Baker after Hawayek had suffered a bad concussion in August.

All three teams train together at an academy in Montreal.

“This is the greatest honour we can achieve in our sport,” Bates, 32, said of qualifying for the Olympics. “It never gets old. It’s really special every time. I think the performances here were special and that bodes well for us heading into the Games.”

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