U.S. Figure Skating Championships mark start of new era

Ilia Malinin
Ilia Malinin

Before a single jump, throw or twizzle, the U.S. Figure Skating Championships that begin Thursday are already guaranteed to be unlike any nationals in the last three decades.

The post-Olympic season always brings changes, but a conveyor belt of athlete retirements and indefinite breaks accelerated a generational shift across disciplines. For the first time since 1993, the U.S. Championships bring back a reigning national champion in just one of the four events. (In 1999, just Michelle Kwan, plus pairs’ skater Kyoko Ina, with a different partner, returned.)

New leaders emerged this past fall.

Ilia Malinin, an 18-year-old left off the Olympic team due to inexperience despite a second-place finish at last January’s nationals, became the first skater to land a quadruple Axel. Then he landed it again and again and again.

Isabeau Levito, a 15-year-old who was third in her senior nationals debut last January, placed second at the most prestigious international competition so far this season, December’s Grand Prix Final. It was the best U.S. women’s singles finish at that event in a decade, though it of course came without any Russians in the field.

While veterans continued to pace the U.S. in pairs (world champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier) and ice dance (Madison Chock and Evan Bates), younger duos hit milestones on the fall Grand Prix circuit, too.

Opportunity hasn’t been this great since the professionalization of the sport in the early 1990s, which gave athletes more incentive to stick around for multiple Olympic cycles.

Openings abound because the U.S. qualified the maximum three entries in all four disciplines for the world championships for the first time since 1982. A committee chooses the roster for March’s worlds after nationals.

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Broadcast Schedule

The skaters who filled those spots in the recent past have, for the most part, left competitive ice. A timeline:

March 26, 2022: Ice dancers Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue follow their Olympic bronze with world championships silver in their long-planned final competition.

April 9: Alysa Liu, the top U.S. woman at the Olympics in seventh place, announces her retirement at age 16, two weeks after winning a world championships bronze medal.

June 13: U.S. pairs’ champions Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc announce they’re finished with competitive skating.

July 22: The International Skating Union publishes fields for the fall Grand Prix Series. None of the six U.S. Olympic singles skaters are on the list, indicating they do not plan to compete the rest of the year, at least. That includes Olympic gold medalist Nathan Chen, world bronze medalist Vincent Zhou and two-time Olympians Karen Chen and Jason Brown. Brown does plan to compete for the first time in 11 months at nationals this week.

Oct. 12: Mariah Bell, who in January became the oldest U.S. women’s figure skating champion in 95 years, announces her retirement at 25.

A week after Bell’s news, the figure skating season began in earnest at Skate America.

Malinin seized it by landing a quad Axel in his free skate, jumping from fourth place to become the youngest men’s champion in the event’s history. He succeeded Nathan Chen, who is not expected to compete again but has not ruled it out, as the face of U.S. figure skating, a role he seems comfortable with, noting his breakout at last year’s nationals.

“There was a lot of pressure,” said the son of Russian-born, Uzbek Olympic figure skaters who moved to Virginia in 1998. “But I was able to compete under pressure.”

Over the course of the six-event Grand Prix Series, other Americans had moments, too.

Starr Andrews performed the free skate of her international career to take runner-up at Skate Canada.

The U.S. had its best-ever results in pairs. Knierim and Frazier won both of their starts. Emily Chan and Spencer Howe, who ranked 24th in the world last season by best total score, placed second in their two events.

In ice dance, Chock and Bates earned their first Grand Prix title in seven years. Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, who finished between third and fifth at the last eight U.S. Championships, had their best Grand Prix Series with a pair of runners-up. (Hawayek and Baker are skipping nationals to prioritize mental health but plan to petition for a world team spot.)

Those roads led to December’s Grand Prix Final, where the U.S. was represented on all four podiums for the first time in competition history. Levito was the standout there, becoming the third-youngest American to win a Grand Prix Final medal after Tara Lipinski and Kwan  and cementing herself as the new leading U.S. woman.

Before the Final, Levito looked ahead to nationals with a thought that others can carry this week.

“I’m not concerned about the attention from being a favorite,” she said. “I’m just really excited to hopefully do better than last year.”

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U.S. Figure Skating Championships mark start of new era originally appeared on NBCSports.com