By Alice Cook, She's Game Sports
Dorothy Hamill, Dick Button and Michelle Kwan were all in the house. I might say all of them look like they can lace them up and rip off a triple toe with their eyes closed. There is something about figure skaters, they age well. As my buddy Peter Carruthers once said, "well pickled." Must be all those years in cold air.
The skating elite came out tonight to watch the Ladies Final at the US Figure Skating Championships on Saturday. Let's put it this way- the NFL playoffs were not a priority for this bunch. This chance only comes once every four years, and we never know when figure skating's latest ice queen will be crowned. Hamill and Kwan were two of the best, and it's fitting they were on hand to see America's next figure skating sweetheart crowned.
Gracie Gold lived up to the hype and to her wonderful skating name.
After an evening that featured more spills than thrills, Gold nailed it under pressure. She is the real deal folks, and America's best hope for an Olympic medal. The performance was close to flawless and seemed to get stronger and better as it went on. Gold pumped her fist three times after landing her final jump- a double axel.
This is why Gold is better than good. She skates with speed and power. She matches her athleticism with grace. (Just like her name) She is dynamic. She is a performer. She is developing the one trait that so far alluded her career. Consistency. Gold takes charge and commands the ice. She is a special skater, and her new coach Frank Carroll has worked his magic.
NBC is going to have a field day in Sochi with Grace Gold.
Polina Edmunds, a 15 year old that came out of nowhere to finish second in the short, proved she is no fluke. She skated a lyrical program marked by one flaw on a triple flip. Edmunds only get better, and she is very good now. Much in the Tara Lipinski mode, Edmunds is a jumping bean. It will be see how well she develops and matures on the ice. Nobody would have predicted Polina Edmunds would finish second best in this competition. Without a doubt Edmunds is the biggest surprise of the US Championships.
Ashley Wagner, skating to Romeo and Juliet fell on her first combination, a triple triple. She recovered nicely, then fell again. It was a tough night for the defending United States Champion, and not the kind of performance someone wants to have to the a month before the Olympics. Wagner showed some nice grit, and the judges kept her in the running, but she would be outdone by several skaters who followed her. Wagner still can make the Olympic team if skating officials think she is a better bet in Sochi than either Edmunds or third place finisher Mirai Nagasu.
Nagasu, skating to the theme from James Bond- was bold and beautiful. She laid her jumps down better than any other skater. I would have had her in second place. The 2010 Olympian is skating better than ever. Solid, just so solid
For most of the night it seemed to me the pressure on the top female skaters was too much too handle. The three that held it together best, were rewarded with medals.
Now, who gets to go to Sochi? Stay tuned.
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.
Gracie 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.
Next week the nation's finest skaters will descend on Boston for the US Figure Skating Championships.. Every four years this competition determines who will make the United States Olympic Figure Skating Team. It will be the most important competition in figure skating since the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver.
There are always certain "givens" regarding who makes the team. When I competed in 1976, there was no doubt Dorothy Hamill would travel to Innsbruck, Austria as America's number one skater. The pair team of Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner were also locks. Then there were those "expected" to make it. Ice dancers Colleen O'Connor and Jim Milns were America's best hope for an Olympic medal in that event, and they came home with the bronze. Sixteen-year-old Linda Fratianne had something Dorothy didn't – triple jumps. She was in for sure.
Then there are the skaters that have a slim chance, like Cook and Fauver.
My partner Bill and I had only been skating as a pair team for less than two years. We were fifth at the US Nationals the year before and every team that placed ahead of us was coming back. On top of that, the United States was only sending two pair teams that year. Our chances were basically nil.
With the pressure off, Bill and I skated our best short program ever at The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs. Other teams made mistakes, which is killer in the short program, and we shockingly ended up in second place going into the final.
The point spread was tight enough for the teams in third and fourth place teams to catch us with a strong performance in the long.
For 24 hours Bill and I sat in second place, although we knew the chances were still slim that we would remain there.
We were the first to go in the final group and were happy to skate clean. Then we watched. Tai and Randy were next. The skated wonderfully and received marks that no one would surpass. Both teams chasing us did not have their best night. The scores came up after each team skated, although we wouldn't know the final results for what seemed an eternity.
Back in those days the results were not instant. There were actual accountants sitting in a room adding up the scores. It would take 20 minutes after the event ended for that scoreboard to light up.
And there it was.
The screaming, hugging, crying and laughing that followed will never be equaled in my life. My mom, my family, my friends were astonished. It was so unexpected, so thrilling and just so- yes, unbelievable.
We were going to the Olympics. The Olympics.
It happens every four years, and we will see it happen here in Boston. A skater will come out of nowhere and defy the odds. Anything can happen, and it will.
Dreams will come true – and a few will be completely unexpected.