Before the U.S. Championships began, few could have predicted the outcome of the ladies event. It was a night of great comebacks, redemption, disappointment, and of the birth of a new champion, perhaps signifying a changing of the guard in American ladies figure skating.
Karen Chen, 17, captured her first national title in front of a packed Kansas City crowd, winning with the second highest total U.S. Championships history.
She landed six triple jumps, including a triple Lutz-triple toe loop combination on the way to her overall total of 214.22 points.
“I’m just in complete shock,” Chen said after the competition. “All of this just came together for me. It was a rough season. I spent the first couple months working out my boot problems back home, and working with a new boot company trying to work out all the kinks. I’m happy with the progress, and I hope to keep pushing forward and getting better.”
Redeeming herself after a difficult outing at Cup of China in November, Ashley Wagner moved up from third to capture the silver medal. She received a downgrade on the triple flip-triple toe loop combination, but she received full credit for her triple loop-half loop-triple Salchow combination after the two-minute mark. In all, she was credited with six triple jumps. Wagner finished with 211.78 points.
“Oh my gosh, today was awesome,” Wagner said. “I’m so happy with (the free skate), especially coming off of a difficult Grand Prix season, this is just awesome.”
A pre-event medal favorite, 20 year-old Mariah Bell faltered in the short program, and finished in sixth place. But the free was a different story, as the Skate America silver medalist leapfrogged into third place with her best performance at the U.S. Championships to date. Bell finished with 197.92 points overall.
“I was so nervous for that program, I think probably the most nervous that I have ever been yet in my career,” Bell admitted. “I was so proud of how I was able to tune it all out and just work on one thing at a time.”
Having to deal with disappointment yet again, Mirai Nagasu struggled through her “The Winner Takes It All” free skate to finish just off the podium for the second consecutive year. She finished with 194.90 points. “This isn’t the way that I wanted it to go,” Nagasu said. “But I think people are defined by how they react to things.”
Gracie Gold faded to sixth place with the ninth best free skate of the night and a score of 179.62 points. Gold landed four triple jumps, but doubled three others, sealing her fate and likely closing the book on her competitive season.
“Obviously I’m just not processing any emotions yet,” she said. “I’m just choosing not to process any because again, it’s just more bad feelings, despite changes I made and improvements I made. Really, I just felt like a different skater on the practices. It still hurts because I was skating really well on the practices and the warm-ups. Again, another program I’m not pleased with. What I do now is go back home and do more triples until they get better.”
A GOLDEN POND
In the end, it was Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier who made the least mistakes, and waltzed off with their first national title on Saturday night with a score of 188.32 points.
After missing last season due to Denney’s knee injury, the duo won the silver medal at Skate America last fall, but subsequently struggled with consistency. In Kansas City they made mistakes on both the jumping passes and the throw triple Salchow.
“We’ve worked so hard to be at the point that we are right now,” Denney said. “We have so much more room to grow, so I’m happy that that was enough for today.”
Fourth after the short program, Marissa Castelli and Mervin Tran moved up to capture silver with 186.28 points — their best finish at a U.S. Championships. In addition to Tran falling on an under rotated triple Salchow, Castelli fell on a throw triple Lutz attempt.
“You know, we’re not done. We’re not ready to be done. Hopefully we’ll be selected for the Four Continents team and show an even better free skate,” Castelli said.
Twirling into third with 184.41 points were Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc, the leaders after the short program. Like the silver medalists, Cain also fell on a throw triple Lutz attempt, and the team received under-rotation and downgrade calls on their double Axel-half loop-triple Salchow attempt.
“This our first season together, and in only seven months we are on the podium,” LeDuc said. “It’s a fantastic accomplishment.”
Deanna Stellato-Dudek and Nathan Bartholomay slipped from third to fourth with a credible performance of their “Firebird” program. They earned 173.50 points.
“It’s been amazing being back, and it means so much,” Stellato-Dudek said. “Maybe some think I’m crazy and some think it’s cool.”`
As expected, it came down to the wire in the ice dance competition. Reigning champions Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani edged out 2015 champions Madison Chock and Evan Bates for the title with 200.05 points, just 0.15 points lower than the U.S. Championships record held by Olympic champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White.
“We’ve built so much confidence since a year ago when we won our first U.S. title, so really for us we feel that improvement and that growth, and the crowd was amazing,” Maia said.
Chock and Bates won the free dance with an inspired program to David Bowie’s “Under Pressure,” but placed second overall with 199.04 points — a mere 1.01 points behind the leaders. “I think this was our best competition probably to date,” Bates said.
Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue could have made it a three-team race for the title, but their hopes were dashed when Hubbell fell on a non-element early in the program. The four-time U.S. bronze medalists earned 191.42 points. “It was just a super strange fluke that caught me off guard,” Hubbell said.
Elliana Pogrebinsky and Alex Benoit, the 2016 U.S. junior bronze medalists, finished fourth with 170.29 points.