Aerial Challenge With a Twist

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Since its inception in 1997, the Broadmoor Open, in Colorado Springs, Colorado, has marked the start of the season for countless national and international skaters. For the past three years, however, the main draw has not been the star-studded junior and senior entry lists at the Broadmoor Open, but the Aerial Figure Skating Challenge (“Aerial Challenge”), a jump-only competition.

The brainchild of coach Tom Zakrajsek, Aerial Challenge was conceived in early 2015 and the inaugural competition was held that same year in conjunction with the Broadmoor Open. “The event was created to improve the technical aspect of skating for our American skaters, who sometimes have been behind the rest of the world in terms of their technical content, whether it is a Lutz performed on the correct edge, triple-triple combinations, or triple Axels and quads,” Zakrajsek explained.

While the event has been tweaked and streamlined since its inception, the main objective of increasing the technical arsenal of U.S. skaters’ has not changed. During what Zakrajsek refers to as the singles event, individual skaters must complete certain elements, such as three-jump combinations with two different triples or triple Axel combinations in order to advance to the next round.

This year’s competition attracted several U.S. Olympians and current and former U.S. national champions and medalists, which included Jason Brown, Max Aaron, Mirai Nagasu, Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim, Angela Wang, Jordan Moeller, Courtney Hicks, Alexei Krasnozhon, Timothy Dolensky, and Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc. Some skaters debuted their new programs at the Broadmoor Open, and others came especially for the Aerial Challenge.

Max Aaron, the 2013 national champion and novice competitor, Audrey Shin, 13, were this year’s Aerial Challenge victors.

With the support of U.S. Figure Skating, Zakrajsek expanded the Aerial Challenge with a team challenge that debuted this year. Three teams — Abbott’s All-Stars, Bradley’s Brawlers and Dolensky’s Dynamos — were led by team captains, Jeremy Abbott, Ryan Bradley and Timothy Dolensky, all of whom were chosen for their ability to execute backflips. Bradley’s Brawlers won the inaugural team event.

Wang was one such skater who chose to open her competitive season at the Broadmoor Open. While her programs are not yet perfected, the 20-year-old said she is pleased with how her off-season training has been going. “I have been traveling a bit this off-season. I just got back about three weeks ago from getting my long program choreographed in Detroit by Tanith White and after this event I am going to go to Sun Valley, Idaho for about six weeks.” Wang has decided to keep her “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” short program from last year.

Her main goals for the 2017-2018 season are to increase her consistency and confidence and enjoy her time competing. In addition to skating, Wang is a student at University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, majoring in exercise science and minoring in psychology. She hopes to eventually become a physical therapist. “Managing skating and school at the same time has really helped me learn how to manage my time well. Every single minute is very precious,” she said.

Another skater who chose to unveil new programs was Jordan Moeller. He debuted his short to “Tribal Gathering” by Vanessa Mae and the free set to Debussy’s iconic “Clair de Lune,” both choreographed by Rohene Ward. “The off-season has been great so far,” Moeller said. “We have been working on the quad Salchow and quad toe and trying to incorporate them into my programs, which is challenging. But, for June, I feel like things are going along pretty well. I am really trying to make sure I stay healthy after my injury.” Moeller suffered a broken leg in December 2015.

In addition to maintaining his health this season, Moeller also wants to set himself up for the next Olympic cycle. By placing third in the Aerial Challenge, he earned himself a wild card spot on the Bradley Brawlers team. “This was my second time doing the Aerial Challenge. I had to miss last year because at this time last year I was just starting to do single jumps again. It is an awesome event and I am just happy and thankful that I got to be part of it again this year.”

Unlike Wang and Moeller, Courtney Hicks came only for the Aerial Challenge. Hicks has competed in the event every year, and was excited to also take part in the team challenge as a member of Dolensky’s Dynamos. “At Aerial Challenge we get the chance to try some elements that we don’t necessarily do in competition, so it is a lot of fun to go out and try these things. It is really high energy and the crowd is really supportive,” said Hicks.

Though she has yet to announce her short program music, Hicks did reveal that Ward would be choreographing the routine. Jonathan Cassar choreographed her free program, which is set to “Amazing Grace.”

“My off-season is going really well so far. I have been working a lot on new combinations and trying to improve the technical side of my skating We are really working to clean everything up and make sure that everything is as good as it can be,” Hicks said.

Like so many other skaters she is focusing on consistency this season. “I don’t want to go out anymore and have a great short and then an awful long, or vice versa. I want to put out two solid programs at every competition. I want to have consistency from event to event and I want to improve on each performance.”

Making his senior level debut at the Broadmoor Open, 2017 U.S. junior champion Alexei Krasnozhon chose to perform only his new short program set to “Korobushka” by Bond, which was choreographed by Scott Brown. “Technically, the jumps being performed by the top junior men in the world are very similar to what the senior men are doing. The biggest difference between junior and senior is the quality of the performance,” Krasnozhon said.

In addition to trying to improve his components during the off-season, he is also working on adding some new combinations and adding a second quad — a Salchow — to his technical arsenal. While Krasnozhon was unable to defend his Aerial Challenge title, he still enjoyed the experience. “It is such a fun event. I love playing to the crowd and getting them engaged.”

Nagasu also took part in the Aerial Challenge and was on Abbott’s All-Stars for the team challenge. She has not settled on any specific pieces of music for either program this season, but is planning on going with a more classical style for the Olympic season. Her main focus thus far has been refining her technical elements. “I feel like we are just tweaking things and getting things in order so that I am well prepared for this upcoming season,” Nagasu said.

After the disappointment of not making the U.S. Olympic team in 2014, her approach to the 2018 Olympic season is very different Nagasu said. “I know that if I focus only on the Olympics, things will not work out well for me. I plan on treating this season kind of like an extended job interview. Last Olympic cycle I think that I just put everything into nationals. Since then, I have learned that you have to be a strong competitor throughout the season and put together a strong portfolio of competitions and performances.”

As with the other competitors, Nagasu enjoyed the Aerial Challenge, especially the team aspect. “It is very different from competing a program. I just had this huge adrenaline rush for a good hour or so,” the 24-year-old said.

Dolensky got a head start to the season when he competed his short program at the Atlanta Open two weeks before the Broadmoor Open. He will keep his Mumford and Sons “Awake My Soul” short program from last season, but debuted a new long program in Colorado Springs set to “Faux” by Novo Amor. Ryan Jahnke choreographed both programs.

“This season I am really focused on my consistency. I am very aware that I need a quad to be more competitive, so I have been really working on my quad Salchow and I am planning on doing it in both programs this season,” said Dolensky.

In addition to leading his team to a third place finish in the team challenge, Dolensky was also the recipient of The Jenkins Trophy, which the Broadmoor Skating Club awards for an outstanding senior long program performance. “I am so appreciative to have received this award, and I really loved getting to perform my new long program in front of such a supportive audience at Broadmoor,” the 24-year-old Alabama native said.

Aaron was the big winner at this year’s Aerial Challenge. Not only did he take the singles title, he was also part of Bradley’s winning team. His success helped buoy his spirits and confirmed to him that he is on the right path, after what he described as a frustrating season. Aaron’s main focus this off-season has been cleaning up the technique of his quads and the triple Axel. “I really want to give this season everything I have because coming in ninth place at nationals the year before an Olympic year isn’t something I liked or enjoyed,” he said.

“I have really taken time to go through my technique and focus on what I need to fix and address it. I have waited four years for the opportunity to make an Olympic team again, and I feel like nothing is going to get in my way. I am going to throw everything I have at it and hopefully my dreams will come true.”

Aaron said the Aerial Challenge was a great chance to practice a quad toe loop and Salchow back-to-back in a high-pressure situation. “Obviously, what I did was nowhere near a full program but it was something that I was really looking forward to testing myself with. I feel like it went pretty well. After this, I am feeling pretty confident and I am looking forward to the steps ahead that will lead to my fall events and eventually to nationals.”

Undeniably, the biggest star to grace the ice at the Aerial Challenge was Jason Brown, who participated in the team challenge as a member of Dolensky’s Dynamos. Although Brown struggled with injuries this past season he ended the year with a seventh place finish at the 2017 World Championships. “We work super, super hard during the skating season, so I really make sure to get some R&R during the off-season. I took two weeks after World Team Trophy to just travel. My sister and I backpacked through the Philippines, which was amazing,” Brown said. “The Philippines is a beautiful country and we had so much fun. Then my parents and I went to Hawaii. It was honestly just great to get some down time and spend some time with my family.”

After his time off Brown was back on the ice and has been working on improving the consistency of the triple Axel and quad jumps, as well as creating new programs with Ward, his longtime choreographer.

While making the 2018 U.S. Olympic Team is one of Brown’s primary goals this season, what he is really focused on is maintaining his health. “The past two seasons I have dealt with injuries so I am doing the most that I can to stay healthy and strong. Now that I am healthy, I really think that the sky is the limit in terms of what I can do. At the end of the day, it is the Olympic season and anything can happen.”

The addition of the team challenge to the Aerial Challenge program meant that pair teams were able to compete for the first time.

And staying healthy this season is also the main goal for the pairs team of Scimeca Knierim and Knierim. The 2016-2017 season was filled with uncertainty as Scimeca Knierim recovered from surgery and worked to regain her competitive form. However, the duo ended their season on a strong note with a 10th place finish at Worlds. “We really would like to participate in a full season this year and not have any setbacks come about,” she said. “Chris and I have been taking advantage of some of the down time that the off-season gives us. We have both been breaking in new skates, working on our new choreography and just looking forward to a fresh start with the new season ahead.”

The duo turned to Ward to create a short program to Ciara’s version of “Paint It Black.” Christopher Dean crafted their Charlie Chaplin long program.

Both enjoyed participating in the team challenge as members of Abbott’s All-Stars. “It was fun to be in a team atmosphere. I think that it is a bit more entertaining for the crowd. It is fun to just watch the kids go for different elements and as athletes we can get into the spirit of the event a little bit more,” Knierim said.

“I’d like to see something similar to this be part of an Olympic event. I think it would be really cool for the audience to see different tricks from skaters from all over the world,” added Scimeca Knierim.

Cain and LeDuc were happy to take part in the event and used the opportunity to showcase some of the work they have been doing on their throws and triple twist. The pair had a solid debut season, closing it out with a ninth place finish in their Four Continents debut in South Korea.

Their goal is to return there next February as part of the U.S. Olympic Team. “This coming season we would like to compete on the Grand Prix circuit and medal at our Senior B events,” LeDuc said. “Those are our main goals in terms of results, and obviously we want to be national champions and represent Team USA at Worlds and Olympics.”

Though their 2016-2017 season was much longer than either Cain or LeDuc expected, they are grateful for all the opportunities they were given. However, their downtime at the end of last season was not as long as they had anticipated. “We had about a week off where our bodies were completely shot and we were not able to do anything. I think I barely moved,” Cain said with a laugh. Since then, Cain and LeDuc have been working non-stop to perfect new, more technically challenging lifts and twists, as well as master their new programs.

“We are really working to push ourselves to a new level artistically and technically. This off-season we have taken on a massive undertaking with all our elements and choreography, but we are really excited to put the work in and we are hoping that the hard work pays off,” LeDuc explained.

Zakrajsek said there had been a buzz all week about the Aerial Challenge events during the Broadmoor Open. “The two jump events were the most attended of the competition and I think that really says something,” he said.

The Aerial Challenge and team challenge are currently only open to skaters who represent the U.S., but there has been talk about expanding it to include international skaters.

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