Skating world braces for quad fest in GangneungChen headlines group of skaters expected to deliver rousing jumps
U.S. skaters' spirits were high upon arriving in South Korea for the 2017 Four Continents Figure Skating Championships. The athletes sampled local cuisine, posed with Olympic mascots Soohorang (a white tiger) and Bandabi (a black bear), and hit the practice rink in Chuncheon, which U.S. Figure Skating reserved for a few days prior to these championships and for the 2018 Olympic Winter Games, to be held here a year from now in PyeongChang.
No one is happier to be at the Gangneung Ice Arena than Jason Brown, who fought through a stress fracture in his right fibula at the 2017 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Kansas City last month to claim the bronze medal.
"I am absolutely stronger than I was in Kansas City," Brown said shortly before leaving his training site in Monument, Colorado, for South Korea. "We didn't do anything in Kansas City to hurt me health-wise or take risks (that would) set me back. I was able to take two days off and then continue to move forward."
After being diagnosed in mid-December, Brown took more than two weeks to recover. He resumed practicing his most difficult triple jumps, including axel, just days before competing in Kansas City, where he wore a protective walking boot. He did not attempt a quad at the U.S. championships.
"I've been out of my walking boot now for a week, which is a huge step in the right direction," Brown said. "The leg is getting stronger again."
The skater sees Four Continents as an interim step. He wants to peak at the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships in Helsinki, Finland, next month.
"What I did in Kansas City is kind of Point A, and what I want to do at worlds is Point C," he said. "It's awesome to have that opportunity at Four Continents to kind of bridge the gap."
In recent days, Brown has resumed training his quads, and plans to show his quad toe loop in Gangneung.
"It's definitely something I want to be doing at Four Continents," he said. "I have the mindset to do it. I want to go to Four Continents with a more difficult program than I had in Kansas City, one step closer to what I want to be putting out at worlds."
There's pressure on the 2015 U.S. champion to regain his prior form, and then some, by Helsinki. To earn three U.S. men's spots at the 2018 Olympics, he and Nathan Chen's placements must total no more than 13. Brown was fourth in the world in 2015, helping to qualify three spots for the following season, but younger contenders with multiple quads have emerged since then.
"I think we have an amazing shot and we can really do it," Brown said. "When I was at worlds in 2015, it was definitely in the back of my mind, but when I got there, I had to put it aside and really focus the skate, not think about a score or placement. You don't have control over that. It's just going out there and skating in those moments and being you."
The men will battle with unprecedented firepower in Gangneung. Chen plans a repeat of the seven quads he hit in his two programs in Kansas City, where he won the U.S. title by more than 55 points by executing four different four-revolution jumps -- lutz, flip, toe and salchow -- and five total quads in his free skate. Grant Hochstein, fourth at the last two U.S. championships, hopes to hit three quad toes -- one in his short and two in his free -- at Four Continents.
Chinese press reports say Boyang Jin, the world bronze medalist, hopes to add a quad loop to his repertoire and equal Chen's five-quad free skate. After winning the Japanese title in December, Shoma Uno spent several weeks with Alex Ouriashev in the Chicago area, working to add a quad loop to his free skate, along with quad flip and toe.
In his first competition since winning the Grand Prix Final in December -- where he lost the free skate to Chen by 10 points -- Japan's Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu will bid to win his first Four Continents title with quad loop, quad toe and quad salchow in his programs. At age 26, three-time world and three-time Four Continents champion Patrick Chan has added a quad salchow to the quad toe already in his repertoire. In addition, Hanyu and Chan possess stronger program component scores (PCS) than their rivals.
U.S.-Canadian ice dance showdown
Last season, Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani claimed their first Four Continents title, defeating U.S. teammates Madison Chock and Evan Bates by seven points. The world silver medalists arrive in Gangneung fresh off their second U.S. title win, and, as always, they continue to perfect every detail of their programs.
"We have worked more on the free dance ("Evolution") -- not just the steps but the music," the siblings' coach, Marina Zoueva, said. "It is a little bit changed, to be more exciting."
Chock and Bates, who won the free dance in Kansas City but scored 2.5 points less than the Shibutanis in the short dance, are targeting all Level 4's for their hip hop and blues short dance in Gangneung.
"I sound like a broken record on this, but the biggest thing is footwork levels," Bates said. "In Kansas City, we had a Level 3 on our non touching midline, which cost about a point and a half. [Madison] Hubbell and [Zachary] Donohue had all Level 4's; the Shibs had one Level 3 on their blues (section). That made a lot of the difference."
After the U.S. championships, Rohene Ward visited the team's training home in Novi, Michigan, to tweak transition moves and steps in both their short dance, which Ward created last summer, and their free dance, originally choreographed by Christopher Dean to David Bowie's "Under Pressure."
"Rohene is so creative," Chock said. "He's a permanent member of our team now."
"Working with Rohene has really helped us explore new ways of movement," Bates said. "In a sense, we're still finding our style. We've been skating together for six years, but many of the teams we're competing against have been together since childhood. We teamed up when I was 22 and Madi was 19, so in that sense we're still at a bit of a disadvantage."
The Shibutanis, Chock and Bates, and U.S. bronze medalists Hubbell and Donohue will face 2010 Olympic champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who will look to bring their third Four Continents title back to Canada. Chock and Bates defeated Virtue and Moir in the free dance at Skate Canada, but since then, the Canadians posted a world record total score of 197.22 points en route to winning the Grand Prix Final title in December. Canadian silver medalists Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, and Canadian bronze medalists Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier will also contend.
Confidence key for U.S. ladies
When Karen Chen competed at Four Continents last season, she was a last-minute substitute for an injured Polina Edmunds and ended up 12th. This time around, as the newly crowned U.S. champion, she's in a far different position. The key difference: confidence.
"I did work with a sports psychologist, and I do think that helped me attack my programs more," Chen said. "My training is going well. My triple lutz-triple toe (combination) is consistent in practice. Hopefully, from now on, I'm going to carry that confidence into my competitions."
Chen's training hit one snag: A little more than two weeks before leaving for South Korea, she caught the flu.
"A bug has been going around, and she took a few days off the ice," said Tammy Gambill, who coaches Chen in Riverside, California. "In a way, it worked out OK, because she had a little rest and then time to work back up again."
Mariah Bell, who trains about an hour west of Chen in Lakewood, is also in good form. She and coach Rafael Arutunian have focused on exercises to improve her technique and consistency, particularly in her triple lutz-triple toe combination.
"My competitions this season, especially (the silver medal) at Skate America and being able to hold it together in the free skate at nationals, have given me a lot of confidence," Bell said. "It helps that I love skating my programs."
Mirai Nagasu, the third U.S. entrant, has had success at Four Continents in the past. The 23-year-old won bronze at the event in 2011 and silver last season, when she set a personal-best total score of 193.86 points.
Kaetlyn Osmond is bidding to become the first Canadian lady to win Four Continents gold. Osmond is having an outstanding season, winning silver medals at her Grand Prix events, placing fourth at the Grand Prix Final and claiming her third Canadian title. Japan's top lady, Satoko Miyahara, withdrew with a hip injury, but teammates Wakaba Higuchi, Mai Mihara and Rika Hongo will offer tough competition.
Knierims make competitive return
Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim return to competition in Gangneung after missing the Grand Prix season and the U.S. championships due to Scimeca Knierim's illness. The pair, who were ninth in the world last season, petitioned for a spot on the Four Continents and world teams, which was granted by U.S. Figure Skating's International Committee.
"Alexa's illness was GI-related, and for a long time, we didn't have a diagnosis," said Dalilah Sappenfield, who coaches the skaters in Colorado Springs. "From April to August, we didn't know what was going on. Her illness came and went. She had surgery in September and a second surgery in November. Fortunately, they found some great doctors, and everything is headed in the right direction again."
Cindy Stuart choreographed a short to "Come What May" from Moulin Rouge and free skate to selections from Ghost the Musical -- including "Unchained Melody" -- during brief periods of Alexa's relative good health.
"We really wanted romantic programs that would celebrate their marriage (on June 26) and their life story," Sappenfield said.
The team plans to do all of their big elements in Gangneung, including triple toe loops in the short program and two sets of triples in the free skate, with one major exception: the quad twist, which is not quite ready for competition.
"On the whole, Alexa's illness forced us to take time to work on the details -- not to relearn everything but to work on skating skills, union, a lot of mirror work," Sappenfield said. "Chris took the time Alexa was off the ice to develop his skating skills and his jumps."
Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier make their third trip to Four Continents, fresh off their title win in Kansas City. The competition is the biggest international assignment yet for Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc, who teamed up in May and placed third in Kansas City.
Canada's two-time world champions Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford are favored to win their third Four Continents crown but will have to fend off a strong Chinese contingent to do so.
Two-time world silver medalists Wenjing Sui and Cong Han will be competing for the first time this season after withdrawing from their fall events due to Sui's ankle and foot injuries. Xiaoyu Yu and Hao Zhang, who defeated the Canadians to win silver at the Grand Prix Final, and Cheng Peng and Yang Jin complete the talented Chinese field.