Figure skating: Olympic hopefuls compete to make Team USA

By Emily Pacenti  |  Jan. 3, 2018 at 9:19 AM
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Jan. 3 (UPI) -- After a competitive beginning to the season, America's best figure skaters will compete for scarce spots on the 2018 Olympic team at the Figure Skating National Championships this week in San Jose, Calif.

The competition is fierce and the pool of talent is deep. Here's what to watch for.


Team USA has three spaces to fill for men's singles, ladies' singles and ice dance, with one space for pair skating. Slots are determined by performance at the 2017 World Championships and 2017 Nebelhorn Trophy. Nationals are an important part of whether an athlete will be chosen for the Olympics, but here's how the U.S. International Figure Skating Committee breaks it down.

Qualification will be determined, in descending order of importance by:

2018 U.S. Championships 2017 Grand Prix Final 2017 World Championships 2017 Grand Prix Series 2017 Four Continents Championships 2017 Challenger Series 2017 U.S. Championships 2017 World Junior Championships 2017 Junior Grand Prix Final

A large pool of competitors will take to the ice in San Jose to try and land one of those coveted few spots per discipline.


In a near lock for national gold and the Olympic team, Nathan Chen has gotten the most consistently high results in the men's field this season with four straight gold medals. Chen won his opening event, the U.S. Figure Skating Classic, both his Grand Prix assignments and the Grand Prix Final earlier this season. He's on track to make the Olympic podium. And after a full three months competing without them, he will be debuting this season's program costumes at Nationals, designed by Vera Wang.

Two other American favorites are strong contenders. Adam Rippon, 28, and Jason Brown, 23.

Chen, Brown and Rippon competed in this year's Grand Prix Finals, where Rippon took fifth place and Brown took sixth. The last time three American men qualified for the final, all three went to the Olympics.

Rippon is a fan favorite, known for unique choices in program music, and an outside-the-box personality best showcased earlier this season when he took to social media to confirm that yes, his butt is indeed real. Brown, no stranger to captivating music choices, has set this year's short program to music from the musical Hamilton. Known for incredible flexibility and musicality, he's a strong competitor for Pyeongchang, although he lacks a consistent quadruple jump.

Vincent Zhou, a rising senior skater, and the more experienced Max Aaron are competing for a spot, as well.


In a much more unpredictable field, many fresh faces emerge to challenge returning Olympic competitors. Ashley Wagner, who competed at the Sochi Olympics in 2014, is certainly high on the list, but had a rough Grand Prix season after an ankle infection caused her to forfeit Skate America mid-free skate.

Karen Chen, 18, last year's national champion, finished seventh and eighth at her two Grand Prix assignments. But sould she repeat last year's performance at nationals, Chen could still be on Olympic ice in February.

Mirai Nagasu is a seasoned competitor who won fourth place at the 2010 Olympics, but did not qualify for the 2014's Winter Games. She's one of the few female skaters currently competing with a triple axel and while technical panels have a tendency to watch her with a closer eye than others, she's a powerful contender for Team USA and a fan favorite.

The predicted dark horse for this season is the up-and-coming Bradie Tennell, who took the bronze medal at this season's Skate America, her only Grand Prix competition.

Ice dance

For ice dance, the choices are fairly clear.

First is the obvious lock: the Shibutani siblings. Taking third place at the Grand Prix Final after winning both assignments, the duo were Worlds bronze medalists last year and Four Continents silver medalists. With some of the highest consistency by far, Maia, 23, and Alex, 26, are sure to be on the ice in Pyeongchang.

Previous Four Continents champions Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue have medaled at three out of four events this year, including both Grand Prix assignments. The two are one-third of the American ice dance powerhouse that frequents high levels of international competition and are likely to make the Olympic team.

Next come Madison Chock and Evan Bates, heavy-hitting competitors at this year's nationals. While they took fifth at the finals, they won silver at both Grand Prix assignments and third at last year's Four Continents. Their free dance this year is set to a mix of John Lennon's "Imagine," and they hope to take it to their second Olympics in February.


A less competitive pool, the likely choice for the single Team USA Olympic pair is Alexa and Chris Knierim. The married couple competed in this year's Grand Prix Series at Skate America and NHK Trophy, where they placed fifth both times.

While it's possible that the pair could be beaten at finals, they have been the top scoring U.S. pair for the past four seasons and an evaluation of their body of work will likely send the duo to Pyeongchang.

Senior competition at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships begins Wednesday night with the ladies short program.

The Olympics run Feb. 9-25 in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

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