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US Figure Skating Championships – an insider's look

Posted by She's Game Sports  January 5, 2014 06:33 PM

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Handicapping this week's United States Figure Skating Championships in Boston is kind of like being tossed into the air for a triple twist for the first time. It's a pretty exciting flight, but you never really know how it's going to end up.

The only skaters who are a lock to win their event are ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White. They are the reigning world champions, and the couple can literally "waltz" their way to to Sochi, Russia, where the Winter Olympics will be held next month. When they get there, they still will be favored for gold against the best in the world.

We have seen big changes in the skating world over the past ten years. Recent champions are not household names. We remember Dorothy Hamill, Kristi Yamaguchi, and Michelle Kwan for the women and Scott Hamilton, and Brian Boitano for the men.

My Olympic teammates, Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner, ruled the pairs event in the day. Kitty and Peter Carruthers would follow in their footsteps. But these days there are very few "repeat" national champions who are a known quantity by the time they arrive at the Olympics.

For many years, the American favorites did not have to "sweat it out" at the US Championships, (then called Nationals) in an Olympic year. Dorothy Hamill was a lock back at The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs when I was her teammate. So were Tai and Randy, Terry Kubica and the ice dance team of Colleen O'Connor and Jim Milns.

Then there were skaters like Alice Cook and Bill Fauver, who were supposed to finish 4th and ended up second. Off to the Olympics in a blink of an eye. I thought I would be going skiing the week after Nationals - instead we were scurrying for tickets for our families, breaking in new skates, and accepting keys to the city before we left for Innsbruck, Austria.

The world of figure skating has changed largely because of a new scoring system that practically eliminates the "subjective" factor in judging. The 6.0 went away after two judges played footsie during the Winter Games in Salt Lake City in 2004. If you need a reminder, a French judge told a Russian judge 'I will vote for your pair skaters if you do the same for our ice dancers.'

It was a scandal the sport of figure skating would not overcome without some serious rule changes.

I won't attempt in this column to explain the figure skating judging system in detail. Let's just say that today there is little room for personal preference at the scoring table. Every jump, spin, and piece of footwork, (now called steps) have an assigned a value. The judging comes on how the element is executed. I suggest anyone watching this week who is a casual skating fan try not to get caught up in this. If you don't know the difference between a triple lutz and a triple flip by now, you never will.

My own mother watched me skate competitively for 12 years and could never figure out the difference. It has to do with an inside edge on the flip takeoff versus the outside edge on the lutz. Sometimes lutzes turn into flips, which are worth fewer points – but I digress. Let's get to the skaters.

This week at TD Garden will be the equivalent of a figure skating free-for-all. Anything goes for the ladies, men's, and pairs.

Ladies first. The top three are going to Sochi. Here are my picks.

Ashley Wagner is the reigning two-time national champion in this event, which makes her the favorite. This 22-year-old missed the Olympic team by one place in 2010, and is primed to make her mark this year. Wagner had a terrific season on the international circuit last fall, finishing second in the Grand Prix final. Her short program – set to Pink Floyd's 'Shine on You Crazy Diamond' – is edgy, sexy, and fun. She skates like a woman, not a little girl, and this will help her.

607graciegold.jpgGracie Gold is flash and dash, and has by far the best skating name ever. She jumps big and is spectacular when she is "on." Lack of consistency has been a problem. If she stays on her feet, Gold will take the silver.

The third and final spot for the Olympic team can go several ways. I am going with Christina Gao. The 19-year-old moved to Boston from Cincinnati in 2012 to attend Harvard. After spending some time at the Skating Club of Boston, she was convinced to put her studies on hold and go for the Olympics. She has the goods, and obviously, the smarts.

In the men's division, only the top two are going to Sochi, and there are at least 6 legitimate contenders. In my mind, this event is impossible to handicap.

Ross Miner will be the Boston favorite. His long program depicts the events of the Boston Marathon bombing, the week that followed, and the resiliency of our city. Miner lives in Watertown, and was locked down in his home the day of the manhunt. He chose his music and this theme because of the personal and emotional impact of those events on him and his family.

Max Aaron is the defending national champion, and he is called the "king of quad." Aaron is athletic, tough, and a former hockey player. He needs to hit his jumps.

Jeremy Abbott is looking to become a two time Olympian. He was 9th in Vancouver.

Keep an eye on Adam Rippon. This guy does a triple lutz with both arms over his head. He is also has a classic style, great spins, and of course, the quad.

Steve Carriere is worthy of mention. He is from Wakefield, is a former world junior champion, and is attending Boston College while training at the Skating Club of Boston. Carriere can connect with the audience, and like Miner will have the home crowd behind him.

Again, the men's division is anyone's battle to win. Staying upright on the quads will be key.

And finally, my personal favorite event – the pairs. Any one of five teams can end up on the podium. Of the 12 teams competing, three are from Boston. Kudos to coach Bobby Martin, who has helped make Boston a pairs training mecca. (In my day, it was Wilmington, Del.)

Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir are the defending champs. Castelli is from Cranston, R.I., and Shnapir, an Emerson College student, is from Sudbury. They have quite the bag of tricks, including a throw triple axel.

Caydee Denny and John Coughlin missed last year's championships due to injury. However, the 2012 US champs looked good on the Grand Prix circuit and should contend.

Gretchen Donlan of Hingham and partner Andrew Speroff train side--by-side with Castelli and Shnapir here in Boston, and this could be their year. Their chemistry makes them special, along with a more classic pair style similar to Russian pairs greats Gordeeva and Grinkov.

Alexandria Shaughnessy of Duxbury and her partner Jimmy Morgan are new to the senior ranks. This competition will be a prelude to what they hope are bigger things to come down the road in 2018.

If you love figure skating, I suggest you try to attend some of the novice and junior competitions at the Boston Convention Center this week. It's truly special to see the younger skaters who will be tomorrow's stars. They still have the triple jumps, and are wonderful to watch.

The dream has to start somewhere, and for many young skaters it will be right here in Boston.

For the Olympic contenders, this could be the biggest week of their skating lives.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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