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U.S. Team Seeks to Maximize Team Entries for 2018 Olympics

by Liz Leamy


(28 March 2017)  These 2017 Championships are about more than just personal achievement.  They are doubly important for each country because the majority of the Olympic country spots for Pyeongchang in 2018 will be decided according to the Helsinki results; 24 ladies spots, 24 spots for men, 19 for ice dancing and 16 for pairs will be fixed.  In addition, the number of entries a country may send will be determined by their skater's results.  The pressure is on the U.S. team to come home next week with three permitted entries in each discipline in 2018.  To earn three, the combined placement of the two best in an event must total no more than 13.

Ladies

The top three U.S. ladies, Karen Chen, Ashley Wagner and Mariah Bell seem as ready as ever to bring out their A game to the World Championships.

This talented trio of top National athletes, all of who train in California, are prepped and determined to knock out strong performances to lock in three positions for the 2018 Olympic Winter Games next year in Pyeongchang, Korea.

“This Worlds is very important [so that we] get those three spots for the U.S. ladies team,” said Wagner, the three-time U.S. ladies champion in 2012, 2013 and 2015, 2016 World silver medalist and 2017 U.S. second-place finisher.

Leading this year’s U.S. ladies World team is Karen Chen, 17, the reigning U.S. champion and 2015 U.S. bronze medalist from Fremont, California, who catapulted into the sport’s center spotlight after clinching the U.S. National title last January in Kansas City, Missouri.

Chen, who is coached by Tammy Gambill in Riverside, is known for her soaring triples, breathtaking spins and engaging programs and certainly ought to do the U.S. proud as she takes on the top skaters in the world.

“At Nationals, the biggest reason for my success was [due to the fact] that I focused on myself, didn’t have any expectations and went [into it] attacking,” Chen said in a teleconference call with reporters last week. “I want to go into Worlds with the same mindset.”

By all accounts, Chen ought to rack up high scores with her riveting short program to the ‘On Golden Pond’ film score by Dave Grusin and dynamic free skate to Jacob Gade’s ‘Jalousie Tango Tzigane,’ of both which were huge hits with the crowd and officials in Kansas City.

Chen, who was 12th at the Four Continents Championships in February, is as optimistic as ever going into this event, especially based upon the fact that all areas seem to be covered going into this competition.

During the Four Continents competition, Chen had been dealing with broken-down boots that affected her efficiency and performance quality, an issue that has since been remedied as she will be competing with rebuilt boots this week.

“I have new boots and should be good [to go] now,” said Chen. “Things are going really well.”

Chen also said she is also good after having had a minor collision with another skater in a practice session several few weeks ago in which she was kneed in the back of her leg.

“It was a bit of a scary moment for me, but I’m just glad everything worked out okay,” said Chen. “We’re both doing fine.”

Chen also got some inspiration from Kristi Yamaguchi, the 1992 U.S. Olympic champion since Four Continents to give her a boost as well.

Several weeks ago, the two met for coffee and Yamaguchi gave her some wise and practical advice.
“She told me your body knows what to do,” said Chen, adding, “it’s really great to have her guide me in the right direction.”

Ashley Wagner, the electric 25-year old U.S. ladies contender who trains in Lakewood, California with Rafael Arutyunyan ought to put up some big numbers this week with her short program to the Eurythmics 80s hit, “Sweet Dreams” and free skate to “Exogenesis Symphony Part 3: Redemption.”

Going into this event, Wagner said she is focused on putting out big jumps and showing clarity and movement in all of her elements and connecting steps.
“I just [want to] tend to my own job,” said Wagner, who lives in Aliso Viejo.

Mariah Bell, the effervescent 20 year-old Westminster, Colorado native who claimed bronze at Nationals this past January, will be another contender to watch.

Bell, whose programs to ‘Chicago’ and the ‘East of Eden’ film score by Lee Holdridge at Nationals earlier this year, has been training diligently ever since then to insure that she puts out two more memorable performances.

“I’ve been pushing really hard,” said Bell, who, like Wagner, also trains in Lakewood, California with Rafael Arutyunyan. “I’m so excited to get out there and put out some good performances.”

Men

Nathan Chen, the 2017 U.S. Champion, 2016 U.S. bronze medalist and 2017 Four Continents winner, along with Jason Brown, the 2015 U.S. titlist, 2017 U.S. bronze medalist and 2014 U.S. silver medalist, are gung ho to get in the ring at Worlds in Helsinki.

Chen, the accomplished and driven 17 year-old Salt Lake City native who has taken the skating world by storm this year with his astonishing arsenal of quads, seems to be in optimal position to face off against some of the sport’s top international skaters, including Javier Fernandez, the 2016 Spanish World champion and Yuzuru Hanyu, the 2014 Japanese Olympic gold medalist.

No doubt, this competition ought to be a main event since Chen, who trailed Hanyu at the 2016/17 International Skating Union Grand Prix Finals by a narrow margin where he wound up second, is considered to be a lead contender who potentially has a shot at clinching the World title.

For Chen, however, his focus is just to do his best and put out two strong programs.

“I want to skate the very best programs that I can,” said Chen in a teleconference with reporters last week. “This is my first Worlds and it’s pitting everyone together at one event.”

Chen, who trains with Rafael Arutyunyan in Lakewood, California and Marina Zoueva and Oleg Epstein in Canton, Michigan, has been on an amazing upward trajectory this season, which is remarkable considering he had to sit out of last year’s Worlds in Boston due to a hip injury he sustained in January during the Nationals exhibition.

This season, however, the driven and determined Chen made up his mind to come back bigger, better and stronger than ever and has emerged as perhaps one of the greatest comeback stories in the history of figure skating.

In addition to getting his game back up to its incredible speed, Chen has also gone on to set new records in the sport, including being the first skater to ever perform seven quads in competition (at the 2017 U.S. Championships.)

For Chen, though, it’s just a matter of being his best and raising his own bar.

“To technically put myself out there, that’ll make it happen,” said Chen, who started competing at age four. “I have my own goals and like to eliminate any distractions.”

Rounding out this year’s U.S. men’s World contingent is Jason Brown, the electric and talented Chicago-area native who trains in Monument, Colorado with Kori Ade.

Said to be one of the sport’s purist skaters, Brown, 22, brought the crowd to their feet at Nationals in Kansas City, Missouri last January with his short program to Sam Smith’s ‘Writing’s on the Wall’ and ‘Apassionata’ from the Secret Garden film soundtrack and free skate to ‘The Scent of Love’ by Michael Nyman.

Last year, Brown had withdrawn from Nationals due to a back injury, but like Chen, seems to be back and better than ever.

At competitions this year, Brown racked up big points with his lightning-quick triples, beautifully formed spins and arresting programs, designed by the talented former U.S. men’s contender, Rohene Ward. Moreover, he has also added a quad to his jump arsenal.

Known to be one of the most candid, funniest and friendliest members of the U.S. World team, Brown is also a fierce competitor who is consistently steps up to the plate under pressure, which will ought to make this event a most memorable one.

Pairs

Haven Denney & Brandon Frazier, the 2017 U.S. Champions and 2015 U.S. silver medalists and Alexa Scimeca Knierim  & Chris Knierim, the 2015 U.S. titlists and two-time U.S. second-place finishers in 2013 and 2016, are looking to do the U.S. proud at Worlds this week.

These two teams, known for their astounding energy and attack, should be good for putting out strong performances as they go up against the top teams from all around the globe representing countries such as Canada, China and Russia.

Denney, 21, and Frazier, 24, are geared up to get in the ring, especially in considering they are still said to reeling from their resounding victory at the U.S. Nationals in Kansas City, Missouri last January.

The duo, who trains in Geneva, Illinois with Rockne Brubaker, the two-time U.S. pair titlist with Keauna McLaughlin and Stefania Burton are skating to ‘Don Juan’ for their short program and the ‘Somewhere in Time’ film score by John Barry for their free skate.

Alexa Scimeca Knierim  & Chris Knierim, the electric U.S. duo who missed this year’s U.S. Nationals due to the fact that Alexa had been recovering from a series of surgeries to fix abdominal injuries, also seem poised to put out first-rate programs this week.

This husband-wife team, who placed sixth at the 2017 Four Continents Championships making them the highest-finishing American pair at that event, petitioned for a spot on the U.S. World team and were granted a position largely based upon their placement there.

Scimeca Knierim, 25, an Addison, Illinois native, said in a teleconference call with reporters last week that she has a renewed faith and appreciation for her life and skating since her surgeries and that training the past few months “has been going great.”

“We’re excited to go, we’re prepared and there are only good things to come,” said Scimeca-Knierim, an Addison, Illinois native. “We are incredibly grateful to be at the World Championships and I think after what we’ve been through, our priority is to remain humble and grateful.”

Scimeca-Knierim, who trains with her husband, Chris, 29, a Tucson, Arizona native, in Colorado Springs with Delilah Sappenfield and Larry Ibarra, said she had to relearn everything after the surgeries, but then “things started to get better.”

“I’ve shifted my focus on my faith and not myself,” she said. “There’s a bit more joy in our skating.”

This season, the Knierims, who also placed ninth at the 2016 Worlds, are skating to ‘Come What May’ from the Moulin Rouge film soundtrack for their short and ‘Ghost: The Musical’ for their long program.

Dance

Maia and Alex Shibutani, the 2016 World silver medalists and 2017 and 2016 U.S. Champions, and Madison Chock  & Evan Bates, the 2015 World silver and 2016 World bronze medalists and 2015 U.S. first-place finishers, seem primed, eager and proud to represent the American dance contingent at the World Championships this week.

These top U.S. teams will be be joined by Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, the third American dance duo who are four-time U.S. bronze medalists.

Leading this formidable contingent are Maia and Alex Shibutani, who are the 2011 World bronze medalists and 2017 International Skating Union Grand Prix Final third-place finishers. (They placed behind Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the Canadian 2010 Olympic champions and 2014 Olympic silver medalists and Gabriella Papadakis  & Guillaume Cizeron, the 2016 French World victors at that event.)

This brother and sister duo, who grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut and have been training in Canton, Michigan with Marina Zoueva for more than 10 years, seem to be in optimal position going into this event, as they have been experiencing a terrific upward trajectory with their results over the past few years that has locked in their reputation as a premiere world dance team.

For Maia, 22, and Alex, 25, it’s just all about being their best.

“The goal for us to compete is to always show growth,” said Maia.

Alex agreed.  “We’re always paying attention to the big picture, [particurlarly] from an emotional standpoint,” he said. “We want to engage our audience.”

This year, they have engaged audiences in the U.S. and around the globe and have also earned some big results with their short dance to the classic hit, ‘That’s Life,’ covered by the iconic Frank Sinatra that features a hip-hop version of the song and for their riveting free dance titled ‘Evolution.’

This week, they should be a big audience hit and also generate some high scores yet again.

Chock, 24, and Bates, 28, should also be good for putting out some top-level programs.

This talented and accomplished team, who trains in Novi, Michigan with Igor Shpilband, are skating to George Thorogood’s ‘Bad to the Bone’ and Mark Ronson’s ‘Uptown Funk’ for their short and David Bowie’s ‘Under Pressure’ for their free dance.

Madison Hubbell, 26,  & Zachary Donohue, 26, who train with Marie France Dubriel and Patrice Lauzon in Montreal, are skating to ‘The Addams Family’ film score for their short and ‘Ocean Club,’ ‘Jungle Bill’ and ‘Moments in Love’ for their free dance.

This duo, who placed sixth at the 2016 World Championships, said their primary goal is to just be in the moment when they’re skating.

“I think we want to allow ourselves to be in the moment and to just let it happen,” said Hubbell, a Michigan native. “We found a new confidence in ourselves and our abilities and we want that confidence to really show through as to who we are and add a new spark and layer to our skating.”