Saturday, December 19, 2009

2010 U.S. Figure Skating Championships Ladies Preview

Two years ago at this very competition, the talent pool for U.S. ladies figure skating appeared limitless. There was Mirai Nagasu, the winner of the event who scored an eye-popping 70.23 points for her short program. Then there was silver medalist Rachael Flatt, who landed ten triples throughout the course of the competition, bronze medalist Ashley Wagner, who displayed a rare triple lutz-triple loop combination in both programs, and 4th place finisher Caroline Zhang, who skated an excellent long program while still finishing outside of the top three. Unfortunately, an age rule preventing Nagasu, Flatt, and Zhang from competing at Worlds meant that U.S. Figure Skating would be represented by the then immature Wagner, the interminably error-prone Beatrisa Liang, and the confidence-stricken Kimmie Meissner. Not surprisingly, the U.S. ladies failed to earn three berths for the following year's World Championships. The ladies' prospects for the 2009 World Championships hardly looked better, and the result was no different. Alissa Czisny managed to splat her way to win the 2009 U.S. title in controversial fashion, and she would splat once again, twice in fact, in her short program at the 2009 World Championships. Czisny would eventually finish 11th, while compatriot Rachael Flatt fared better to finish 5th; however, no U.S. lady had proven to have the technical and artistic gifts to realistically vie for a medal, and certainly not a gold, on a premier international stage.

Enter Sasha Cohen. The 2006 Olympic silver medalist was supposed to save the day; she was supposed to be the solution to win a medal at the Winter Games, or, at the very least, to ignite increased exposure for the Olympics that would not be existent otherwise. Fans around the world, perhaps delusionally, thought that this comeback effort would be brilliant. Cohen was looking fit on tour. Cohen was supposedly practicing triple-triples. Cohen was going to be coached by task master Rafael Artunian. Cohen was going to rearrange her "Moonlight Sonata" program that was so lauded on tour. Now, Cohen is merely attempting to save her own comeback from amounting to nothing. Cohen is on her third strike now, having withdrawn from TEB and Skate America, but it is still debatable over whether Cohen will even attempt to step up to bat in January.

While Cohen has been out of it, several of the U.S. ladies have been faring much better. Rachael Flatt beat current World Champion Yu-Na Kim in the free skate at this season's Skate America, and Flatt didn't even receive credit for her final spin combination. Ashley Wagner pulled off an impressive 4th place finish at the 2009 Grand Prix Final. Alissa Czisny has even managed to skate several clean short programs this year, and she won a silver medal at this season's Skate Canada. Mirai Nagasu's season has not been brilliant, but even she won the short program at the 2009 Cup of China. Cohen certainly has an uphill climb to make the Olympic team while planning to compete for the first time in nearly four years, but it is still not out of the question for her to do so if she is to miraculously become fit, healthy, and peaked for nationals. Despite what the selection procedure states about Olympic team results being decided on multiple events, all does come down to the results of the 2010 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. The training has been arduous; the pressure, intense; but the rewards of earning the right to compete at the Olympics speak for themselves. After January 23rd, 2010, two women will be able to call those rewards their own.

Skaters Featured in Post

Sasha Cohen
Alissa Czisny
Rachael Flatt
Christina Gao
Alexe Gilles

Emily Hughes
Beatrisa Liang
Mirai Nagasu
Ashley Wagner
Caroline Zhang

Red indicates commentary of skater is featured in part one of preview
Blue indicates commentary of skater is featured in part two of preview

Sasha Cohen

Expectations Going In: Cohen enters this event as the true enigma of the championship. The 25-year-old Laguna Niguel, California native’s programs have yet to be shown in their entirety, fans haven’t even seen her jump since a show at the beginning of October, and her injury - tendinitis in her calf - was first thought to be a sham. Cohen's injury was serious enough to keep her out of Skate America, which was host to a very weak ladies field (with the exception of Kim and Flatt). The blog "Aunt Joyce's Ice Cream Stand" reports that Cohen is continuing to struggle in training. Hence, few of Cohen's fans are so hopeful any longer, and it would be surprise to many just to see Cohen board a flight to Spokane in January.

Pros: Cohen's artistry far surpasses that of any of the U.S. women competing today. The two-time Olympian has supreme musicality and interpretation, qualities which were the prime reason why she won the 2006 Olympic silver medal and World Championship medals in 2004, 2005, and 2006. Armed with legs that extend to tomorrow, beautifully shaped feet, and a supple back, Cohen is one of the most limber athletes to ever compete in figure skating, with such flexibility allowing her spin and spiral positions to be nothing short of brilliant. Cohen has long been scored favorably both domestically and abroad, and the judges marked Cohen well at the 2006 Olympic Games, despite her having two major mistakes in her long program. ISU head Ottavio Cinquanta commented upon the announcement of Cohen's return that "Now we can have the Sasha Cohen era as a strong skater with more experience," and that "It is a good decision for the ISU and her." Statements such as those suggest that Cohen is still favored politically even after having not competed for years. U.S. Figure Skating, void of having a star in the ladies event since Cohen's departure from the sport, should feel no differently toward Cohen if she is to skate well in Spokane.

Cons: Cohen is a habitual flutz offender and will likely receive wrong-edge deductions for that jump that she did not receive during and before 2006. Cohen has yet to skate a clean long program at a U.S. Championships, World Championships, or Olympic Games. Cohen's injury situation is obviously dire- or at least it was a month ago - because her old form would have had no issue medaling at Skate America. Recent returns to competition after injury from Patrick Chan, Stephane Lambiel, and Daisuke Takahashi haven't exactly been smooth, and they weren't away from competition as long as Cohen, nor were they making their return to events with as much pressure as what Cohen will face in Spokane. Debuting programs and testing out jumps for the first time with an Olympic team berth on the line will be a daunting task for the 2006 U.S. Champion, who has never been an especially brilliant competitor or jumper, even while at her athletic peak. The other U.S. ladies have had time to test out their programs, get feedback on them, and to rearrange jump layouts if necessary; Cohen, however, has none of those luxuries entering this event.

Outlook: Even though Cohen is planning on making her return to a competition that is essentially an Olympic trials, she really has little to lose if she is to perform poorly here, provided she doesn't risk further injury. Cohen has already competed at two Olympics and won a medal, and a failed comeback won't be the first thing that defines Sasha Cohen to people in the skating community after all of this is said and done. After all, Cohen has commented that she misses the fire and intensity associated with competition, and what better way to experience that than at a national championship in an Olympic year. It is unknown how much or how little Cohen will factor in at this event, or if she will even make an attempt to factor in at all. Cohen would be the first lady in 74 years to make a third U.S. Olympic team, but the 2006 Olympic silver medalist's efforts to make that happen have likely been too little, too late.

Alissa Czisny

Expectations Going In: At last year's U.S. Championships, Czisny was one of four athletes (Flatt, Wagner, and Zhang being the other three) favored to make the world team. Out of the four, Czisny was chosen as the judges' favorite and she became national title in an extremely controversial result. Czisny only managed to land three clean triples in her long program, yet she placed above Caroline Zhang, who landed six triples, in that portion of the competition. USFSA's tactless and peculiar propping up of Czisny backfired when the reigning U.S. Champion continued upon her head case ways, as she fell twice in the short program at the World Championships en route to an 11th place finish. A disappointing outing in L.A., however, didn't seem to hinder Czisny's confidence badly in the least. Czisny won a silver medal at Skate Canada, and while she has met with trouble in several of her long programs this year, her short program has been successful competition after competition. Czisny is not favored to repeat as champion, but she does still make a strong case for the second Olympic berth.

Pros: Czisny is one of the world's most exemplary spinners, spinning faster than a tornado while maintaining immaculate positions. The two-time world team member has always been noted for her artistry and maturity on the ice, and she has two great programs to showcase that this year: a short program to Mask of Zorro and an improved revival of last year's long program to Dr. Zhivago. Her current programs have been well received by the international judges, as evidenced by Czisny having the highest average PCS score in the long program among all of the U.S. women this season. Czisny is one of the few U.S. ladies consistently capable of taking off of an outside edge whilst attempting a lutz jump, and she is also one of just a handful of skaters to ever perform a Charlotte spiral. Czisny has skated near-clean short programs at every competition she has skated in since the 2009 Worlds, and her SP score of 63.52 at Skate Canada has only been bested by current world medalists Yu-Na Kim, Joannie Rochette, and Miki Ando so far this season.

Cons: Czisny was coming into the 2006 U.S. Championships as one of the favorites to claim an Olympic berth after she had qualified to the Grand Prix Final. Instead, Czisny would fall five times throughout the course of the event and finish the event in 7th place. Czisny has taken much effort to improve her jump technique and her consistency in competition, whether it be attending numerous competitions throughout the summer or working on her jumps with Brian Boitano and his former coach, Linda Leaver. Czisny has improved, but her nerves are still bound to fail her at inopportune times. Czisny fell once in her long program at the Rostelecom Cup and twice in her long at Skate Canada, and she had nine triples downgraded between Nebelhorn and her two Grand Prixs this season. Czisny has not received full credit for a triple loop at an ISU event this season, and she does not attempt a triple salchow jump. She also has a tendency to take off of her triple flip from an outside edge, thus incurring an additional penalty.

Outlook: One shouldn't expect the judges to prop up Czisny like they did last year - particularly if Cohen competes - but she has been marked well internationally this season and her always favorable marks at the U.S. Championships should continue to come. The two-time U.S. medalist has been upgrading her jump content, as she has added both a double axel-double axel sequence and a second triple loop to her long program jump layout. She would be wise to scale back her second loop to a double axel, as her triple loop consistency from last season has vanished. Czisny should go for a safer jump layout because her PCS, spins, and spirals will be enough to cushion her over Ashley Wagner, who lacks Czisny's finesse and doesn't have as high a scoring potential in the short program. Czisny's consistency with short programs has been impressive this year, and continued solidity there should allow her to be ranked first or second after that phase. However, Wagner can surpass her in the long program if Czisny's downgrade woes continue. Czisny's chances for actually repeating as champion of the United States are low, as Rachael Flatt certainly has picked up much momentum after Skate America. Czisny should still have an advantage over Flatt with PCS, but likely not as much as before, and Flatt's jumps should have no issue making up any ground on the second mark. Czisny's case for making the team via the second spot is by no means assured; however, she is a strong enough skater to control her own destiny toward securing that ticket.

Rachael Flatt

Expectations Going In: The 17-year-old native of Del Mar, California, won the U.S. silver medal in 2008 and 2009, both competitions of which some felt she should have won. Too young to qualify in 2008, Flatt made her first trip to the senior worlds in 2009, where she took full advantage of others' mistakes to finish in the top five. Her 2009/2010 season started off abruptly with a weak showing at the Cup of China, where she finished 4th, but the disappointment of that event was erased with a strong second place finish at Skate America, where she landed seven triples in her long program and beat Yu-Na Kim in that phase. Although Flatt narrowly missed qualifying to the Grand Prix Final, she does enter her fourth U.S. Championships at the senior level as the favorite.

Pros: Flatt marked a personal best score of 116.11 for her long at Skate America, which is the highest long program mark attained by any American lady this season by over seven points. Flatt attained the score even though her final spin combination did not count, and her long program and overall segment scores from that competition have only been bested by five women thus far this season. The reigning U.S. silver medalist has improved several aspects of her skating for this Olympic season, including her presentation to the audience (best evidenced in her short program to "Sing, Sing, Sing") and her lutz, which received no edge call at Skate America or Cup of China. Flatt has skated cleanly (minus a downgrade on her triple-triple last year) at the last two U.S. Championships and is easily the most consistent jumper among the top American women.

Cons: Flatt has a very awkwardly proportioned body and it hinders parts of her skating such as flexibility and posture. Flatt is routinely criticized for her lack of speed and this weakness continues to be very much on display during her long program to "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini," where Flatt gets little power in her stroking during the later part of the program. Flatt's posture is considerably hunched over, and she thus doesn't have great usage of her upper body as she skates. To top that off, several of Flatt’s spin positions are less than desirable, with her catch-foot spin being particularly poor. In regards to political favor, Flatt has not received the benefit of the doubt at the last two U.S. Championships. In 2008, Flatt went to skate a clean short that contained a triple-triple, but she only finished third in that phase and was over seven points behind Nagasu. In 2009, Czisny's short program scored over five points higher than Flatt's short (with both skating programs with similar content and execution) and Czisny's three-triple long program only placed a little over a point below Flatt's six triple long program at that event. Flatt's PCS score during her long at those U.S. Championships was also only the 5th highest of the night for a basically clean skate, and she scored over seven points back of Czisny on that mark.

Outlook: Flatt was nearly 18 points away from the bronze medal at the World Championships, but the international judges are warming up to her and with Cohen's comeback woes, Czisny's jump issues, and Wagner's inconsistency, Flatt looks to be the only American woman with even a remote shot of contending for an Olympic medal. The judges can arrange the marks how they want to, but Flatt has marked over 116 for a long program when Wagner's best is under 109 and Czisny and Nagasu are struggling just to break 100. Slow, mundane, boring, flat, whatever you want to call her, Flatt is more and more looking like the top American woman and the U.S. judges ought to recognize that and favor her instead of favoring someone else who will diminish the need for a Zamboni. With the results of the 2009 Worlds and Skate America, Flatt's PCS should increase for the U.S. Championships, and she should be looking at a first U.S. title and a ticket to Vancouver if she arrives as fit to Spokane as she has for the past two years at this event.

Christina Gao

Expectations Going In: Gao is not a contender for the Olympic team, but she could make a case for either the Four Continents team or the Junior Worlds team if she continues her rapid improvement under the tutelage of Brian Orser. Gao will be entering her first U.S. Championships on the senior level after finishing third last year on the junior level. She bested Canadian Cynthia Phaneuf during the long program at a competition in Quebec last summer, and she won three bronze medals this year on the Junior Grand Prix circuit, including one of them that was attained at the Junior Grand Prix Final.

Pros: Gao scored personal bests in both phases of competition at the Junior Grand Prix Final, and she completed all of her planned triple jumps successfully. Gao has both a high jump and a quick head spot, which enable her to rotate her triples consistently. Brian Orser's magic as a coach is clearly rubbing off on Gao, who has gone from being the third ranked junior skater at U.S nationals last year to becoming the top U.S. finisher at the Junior Grand Prix Final. Gao has the 7th highest seasons best among the U.S. ladies, and she was credited with landing six triple jumps at the Junior Grand Prix Final, something that Czisny, Nagasu, Wagner, and Zhang have yet to do in an ISU competition this season. Gao can also be lauded for her ability to go outside the box with different music choices: she skates her short program to "Morning Passages" from the film soundtrack of The Hours and her long program is to the music of the ballet "La Fille Mal Gardee."

Cons: Gao is in desperate need of extension in her sit spins, spirals, and choreography. Gao lacks stylistic maturity and is not one to project and express herself to the audience. Her personal best score of 151.47 achieved at JGPF is solid, but even when adding in 3-4 points for a missing spiral sequence (as the juniors aren't currently allowed to have a spiral in their LP) and a possible score inflation, Gao would still have been 10-15 points back of placing in the top three at last year's U.S. Championships with clean skates. It is also worth mentioning that Gao's scores at her opening two Junior Grand Prixs were over 16 points lower than what she attained in Tokyo at the Final. Gao has an egregious flutz, and she doesn't appear to have enough speed coming out of her triple lutz or a strong enough toe-pick assistance on her double toe to upgrade that combination to a triple-triple. Gao will not only need to speed up to challenge the top U.S. women, but she will also need to augment her currently rudimentary choreography.

Outlook: Gao should be extremely proud of her improvement, as she went from scoring a 128.69 at last year's U.S. Championships to a 151.47 at JGPF in less than a year. Gao should have no issue breaking the top ten in Spokane and solid performances like those she produced in Tokyo could even break her into the top six. A strong showing at nationals should get Gao either a Four Continents assignment or a Junior Worlds assignment, the latter of which being more likely. Gao turns 16 in July 2010 and has a bright future ahead of her. She still has much room to grow and improve, but she has come a long way in the last year and should continue to do under the eyes of Brian Orser. Gao is blessed with a very ideal body for a figure skater, and she will hopefully fine tune her technique and artistry in the coming future to let her skating reach its fullest potential.

Alexe Gilles

Expectations Going In: Gilles appeared to be a possible dark horse for an Olympic team after winning the bronze medal at the Junior Grand Prix Final last season and placing 5th at Trophee Eric Bompard this year. Unfortunately, a 10th place finish at Skate America won't do well for Gilles's nerves, nor will it serve her in good stead in the eyes of the judges in Spokane. Gilles has a reasonable chance for a Four Continents or Junior Worlds assignment, but her prospects of making an Olympic or World Championship team are far darker than even a dark horse's.

Pros: Gilles has a charming, elegant presence on the ice, which she best shows off in her beautiful short program to Strauss's Cinderella. Gilles placed 2nd in TES and 4th overall during the short program phase of this year’s Trophee Eric Bompard. Gilles would go on to beat Carolina Kostner, Kiira Korpi, and Elene Gedevanishvilli to finish 5th, and Gilles was just 1.24 points away from taking 4th ahead of compatriot Caroline Zhang. Gilles is one of the only U.S. skaters who are consistently capable of taking off from the correct edge on her lutz, and she did not receive any downgrades for her triple jumps at TEB. Gilles gets nice height on her triples and is also solid in the other elements of her skating, as evidenced by her receiving level threes and fours for all of her non-jump elements (except one) throughout her two Grand Prix events.

Cons: Gilles doesn't have much of a reputation domestically or internationally, and her scores at both TEB and last year's U.S. Championships were both thought to be too low by many fans. Gilles has somewhat erratic jumps and it will be difficult with her 5'7" frame to be able to gain that consistency (just ask Carolina Kostner). Tara Lipinski also commented at Skate America that part of the problem that tends to give Gilles issues on her jumps is her lack of speed going into them. A lack of speed throughout Gilles's stroking and non-jump elements does impede her overall scoring potential sizably. Gilles is somewhat prone to lipping, as she received an "!" edge call for all three of her triple flip attempts at Skate America. Also, Gilles has relatively weak flexibility and has a particularly unflattering Biellmann position (if one could even call it that). The choreography in Gilles's programs is fairly elementary, as are her transitions preceding major elements.

Outlook: Gilles is a talented skater with a creditable sense of musicality and pretty jumps when they are on. However, she has quite a bit of room for improvement and will need to fill that if she is to ever make a World Championship or Olympic team. Gilles is actually fairly consistent with rotating jumps despite being so tall, but her timing has to be 100% precise to land the difficult triples considering her height. Gilles will need to skate faster in all of her elements: stroking, spins, spirals among them. Gilles also needs to add more difficult choreography and a triple loop entering her jump repertoire couldn't hurt either. Despite these weaknesses, Gilles's basics are there. Her edges are decent, she has nice square hips while approaching her flip and lutz jumps, and she does have an innate sense of musicality. Gilles is 17 and should thus have the next quadrennial to make these improvements if she chooses to continue skating. While Gilles may not be in Vancouver, it is very possible that she will be skating at several major competitions to come.

Part two to come shortly.


Rachel said...

I'm torn on whether I think Sasha will actually compete or not. After talking about coming back for so long, it will look bad to back out now.

Once again, thanks for a great commentary!

jumping clapping man said...

Wow, what a thorough preview. Thanks for the intelligent, and well balanced outlook on these skaters. This is the first I've heard much about Gao. I always appreciate being introduced to a new skater.

Anonymous said...

WHERE IS THE SECOND PART OF YOUR BLOG POST. :( It features the skaters that I follow closely...