The 2018 National Figure Skating Championships were recently held in San Jose, California. It was the third time that Nationals had been held in San Jose, with previous events hosted in 1996 and 2012. For Bay Area figure skaters and fans this Nationals had special significance since, promptly after the conclusion of each of the top-level events (ladies, men, pairs, and dance), the 2018 Winter Olympic team would be announced. These elite skaters would shortly be doing their final preparations and traveling to the PyongChang Winter Olympic Games.
National champion medals were contested in the 4 categories just mentioned at five levels: Juvenile, Intermediate, Novice, Junior, and Senior/Championship. I had purchased an all-event ticket almost as soon as they were available, so that I would be able to attend whichever sessions I was most interested in and that fit my schedule. In practice, this meant that I spent the better part of 10 days at the championships. Between official practices and competition sessions, up to 3 ice surfaces were in use at two different facilities.
In addition I decided to be a volunteer, in part reprising a role I was able to fill in 2012. Specifically, several of my volunteer shifts involved accreditation, which is a fancy term for generating official badges for competitors, coaches, chaperones, judges, media folks, and other skating officials. It is an interesting and fun way to interact directly with people that I don’t normally get so close to. And when you’re on duty – and in uniform – you’re expected to treat everyone the same, even if you’re tempted to tell your favorite skater you hope they crush the competition! I have to admit I was flattered by a brief encounter with a skater parent/chaperone for whom I had also made a badge in 2012: as I smiled and said “welcome to San Jose” as he approached my station he looked at me, smiled, and said “I remember you (from 2012).” Moments like these, being able to help people get a good start to the championships, illustrate why it’s rewarding to be a volunteer.
There were numerous memorable moments throughout the skating events, largely concentrated on skaters, their performances, and their stories. As usual I intended to take pictures, but it is famously difficult to get good action shots of skaters: they are relatively far away and they are generally moving fast! I ended up getting most of my pictures by photographing the Jumbotron at the SAP Center, venue for the Junior finals and Senior events. However, I managed a nice shot of Maia and Alex Shibutani, a sister-brother championship-level dance couple, as they took their initial position prior to a run-through of their Short Dance at an official practice session.
Maia and Alex Shibutani preparing to practice their Short Dance program
One of the joys of watching the so-called lower-level events is the knowledge that some of the skaters will progress to the higher levels and perhaps to international competitions. Though I am quite an amateur, it is interesting to note which skaters seem to show that special promise and fire, even at the Juvenile level. Of course, even though I have been a recreational ice skater for longer than any of the competitors in the entire championships (except perhaps for one…), I would be more than thrilled if I could skate 10% as well as any of the Juvenile-level competitors.
There is an interesting story behind the 2018 Junior Dance champions. As it turns out, there is a local connection, and I was a little embarrassed that I did not recognize the young man as I checked him in to receive his badge, though I was quite familiar with his name. Anthony Ponomarenko is the younger son of Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko, who earned Olympic medals (bronze, silver, and gold in 1984, 1988, and 1992 respectively) representing the Soviet Union and the Unified Team in ice dance. They live in the Bay Area and coach locally, and several of my skating friends have trained with them and/or taken classes. It is especially interesting to see this next generation of ice dancer – one of my friends insists that Anthony was born with skates on. Here are the Junior Dance medalists during the medal ceremony.
Junior Dance medalists
As a volunteer, in addition to several shifts in accreditation, I did some shifts as “shuttle concierge”. The competition ran shuttle busses between the two main hotels in downtown San Jose and the two main rink facilities where practice sessions and competition events were held. My job was to make sure potential riders knew the schedule, the exact arrival and departure location, had the appropriate credential available for the shuttle driver to check, and got on the correct shuttle (by the end of the week there were 3 separate routes). One morning shift started at 7:00am, even though the first shuttle would arrive at 7:30 without any passengers and the next one would not arrive until 8:30. (I brought reading materials and located a chair outside, so I could sit down in relative warmth when there wasn’t much else to do.) Because of the early hour, I was able to enjoy a dramatic cloudy sunrise from the back entrance to the practice facility.
Dramatic cloudy sunrise during a volunteer shift
Of the senior/championship level events, the first to be contested was Ladies. As is often the case, there were a few ladies who had just moved up from juniors and were completing their first season as seniors. These are the young women most likely to be the next stars to emerge on the national stage. In my opinion – and I’m hardly alone – one of the next stars will be Starr Andrews. In addition to exceptional skating skills she has that special something that draws in her audience and makes them take notice. She is pictured here, via the Jumbotron, in the Kiss and Cry area at the moment that her score is posted. She hasn’t yet realized that she is (temporarily) in first place. She ended up in 6th place, which is more than respectable for her first year as a senior. She was later named to the World Junior Championship team.
Starr Andrews views her score, a moment before it truly registered
As a side note, Junior and Senior are skating skill levels, but there are age requirements for the corresponding world championships. The 2018 junior ladies champion, Alysa Liu, is another skater to watch in the future. She was not named to the 2018 Junior Worlds team because, at just 12 years of age, she is too young to qualify.
Later in the ladies competition the top ladies skated; the current practice is for the warmup groups for the long program to be seeded according to the results from the short program, with the top skaters in the last group. Mirai Nagasu moved up to seniors ten years ago, won the national championship, and has placed up and down, between 2nd and 10th, in the years since. She is one of only two American women to land the triple Axel jump in international competition (a third American woman has landed this jump at Nationals). In a warmup session just prior to the Senior Ladies event I watched her land 4 out of 5 triple Axel attempts. In her competition she was unable to land cleanly, but otherwise she skated extremely well and was overcome by emotion at the end of her program. (She was famously, and controversially, not included on the 2014 Olympic team and was doing her very best to unequivocally earn a spot on the 2018 Olympic team.) Here she waits for her score in the Kiss and Cry area. I thought it was interesting that the staff running the Jumbotron were being fed – in real time – tweets with the hashtag shown. Mirai placed second and was subsequently named to the 2018 Olympic team.
Mirai Nagasu waits for her score
Next to skate was Karen Chen, the 2017 national ladies champion and a local Bay Area skater. She had a few technical issues in her program (note that her scores are almost the reverse of Starr’s) but overcame the pressure of defending her title with a bronze medal and selection to the Olympic team. At times the wait in Kiss and Cry seems awfully long – this can be due to commercials during the live TV coverage, review of jumps by the technical specialists, or both. I was amused and somewhat in awe to note that Karen and her coach had the presence of mind to pose nicely for one of the TV cameras just after her score was finally posted.
Karen Chen posing for TV cameras with her coach
Bradie Tennell was the leader after the short program and drew the final position to skate her long program. She had been considered something of a dark horse, so it was both expected that she would do well but a bit unexpected to lead after the short program. She skated her Cinderella long program very well and, like the other top women, was emotionally happy as she finished her skate – and then again when her first place score was posted. It was nice that she had the presence of mind to acknowledge the audience’s support.
Bradie Tennell, new national ladies champion, waves to the crowd
Immediately after the long program of each event (20 in all: 5 levels in 4 disciplines) there was a medal ceremony. The 4 medal winners were introduced and there was a formal protocol of presentation of medals, Radix pins, special awards, flowers, congratulations by event officials, official photographs, and finally unofficial photographs. For the junior- and senior-level events the medal ceremonies were in the big arena with television lights and professional photographers. For the so-called lower level events the medal ceremonies were in the smaller rink where those competitions were held. For some reason I am amused by the row of official photographers in a row with their big cameras and long lenses pointed at the medalists, and I think of them – in a gentle way – as paparazzi. For the lower level events the photographers seem to be mostly parents and friends with cell phones. This was the lineup at the side of the rink for the Juvenile Pairs event, the first medal ceremony of the Nationals.
Paparazzi (unofficial photographers) for the Juvenile Pairs event
The second senior/championship level event was pairs. In certain respects this is the most dramatic event, due to the inherent drama and risks associated with overhead lifts, throw lifts, and throw jumps. The lady has to have an immense amount of trust in her partner’s ability to throw and catch her safely. The ladies tend to be tiny and the men taller and extremely strong. One pair was especially interesting since the lady, Deanna Stellato-Dudek, is 34 years old and, I believe, the oldest skater in the entire competition. She has only been skating pairs for 2 seasons, having returned to skating after a 16-year hiatus. At 4’11” tall she is particularly petite, and her enthusiasm radiates over the ice and into the seats in the arena. She and her partner, Nathan Bartholomay, shown here as their scores were posted, won the bronze medal. They have been named to the 2018 Four Continents Championship and are first alternates for the 2018 World Championships.
Deanna Stellato-Dudek and Nathan Bartholomay receive their scores in the Senior Pairs event
The gold medal performance in pairs was clearly delivered by Alexa Scimeca-Knierim and Christopher Knierem. They also have an interesting story, as they missed almost the entire previous season due to illness/injury after being 2016 national champions, and were thrilled to be able to be at Nationals this year. They had been able to revive their signature move, the quadruple twist lift (actually, a lift into a throw), only at the end of November. And they performed it admirably in their long program, as shown here. (Note: photo is credited to US Figure Skating and appeared in a social media post.) This is a great example of the trust that the lady has to have in her partner’s ability to throw her properly and catch her safely!
Alexa Scimeca-Knierem and Christopher Knierem performing a quadruple twist
As noted above, the skaters, their coaches, and sometimes their choreographers wait in the Kiss and Cry area for their scores to be posted. In the concourse of the main arena there was a mock Kiss and Cry area where spectators could pose for photos. During one of the ice cuts, while making my rounds of the concourse, I ran into a friend near the Kiss and Cry and suggested that we have our pictures taken together. She was game, and even suggested that we should try to make hearts with our fingers like some of the skaters do. We recruited a random nearby person to take the photos. It was fun, though our efforts demonstrate that we both could use a little more practice.
Posing with a friend in the spectators’ Kiss and Cry area
Next up were the men. And there was more drama as well as controversy. The Olympic team selection criteria included not only these national championships but also the skaters’ international and national competitive record over the past year-plus. For these reasons, and his competition record, Adam Rippon was one of the three men named to the Olympic team, even though he placed 4th at Nationals. (The men generally try riskier jumps than the ladies, and there were many falls throughout the programs.) This made him the first openly gay US athlete to be named to a Winter Olympic team. Although it is widely known that there are many gay male figure skaters, it is more common for them to come out as gay after their competitive career is finished. Adam came out two years ago. He has a great fan base, and there was a lot of support in the audience at Nationals.
Audience support for Adam Rippon
Jason Brown is another hugely popular skater. Unfortunately he did not skate his best at this competition, ending up in sixth place. I am impressed that, no matter how well he skates, he seems to genuinely appreciate the crowd’s response. Here he waits for his scores with his coach and choreographer. If I remember correctly, the heart is a reaction to one of the tweets that had just been displayed on the Jumbotron. Jason was later named as first alternate on the 2018 Olympic and World teams and to compete at the upcoming Four Continents Championship.
Jason Brown appreciates his huge fan base
The men’s gold medalist was Nathan Chen, whose extraordinary skating skills have made the skating world take notice. At the 2017 national championships he essentially ran away from the rest of the competitors by landing 7 quadruple jumps in his short and long programs and by winning the event by an unprecedented 55 points. He had a couple of technical errors near the end of his long program, but to a certain extent they were compensated by improved artistic scores compared to 2017. In the Kiss and Cry area he almost looked nonchalant as his scores were posted, but until the last two seasons a total score of 300 points was too crazy to comprehend. This time he “only” won by 40 points. If the top men all skate well at the Olympics the final placements will be much closer!
Nathan Chen’s final score was over 300 for the second time at Nationals
For a number of years it has been a custom for fans to throw gifts onto the ice at the end of a favorite skater’s program. Clearly it’s dangerous for the next skater if there is any debris associated with the gifts – flowers used to be common, but are no longer allowed, even if fully enclosed/wrapped. Instead, stuffed toys are popular. Also, large fabric flowers were available for sale in the arena concourse area. For events at which there is an expectation for toys to be thrown on the ice, sweepers are in place to collect them. Young skaters are very excited to be chosen as sweepers. For the senior/championship finals there were 6 sweepers for each event. For popular competitors, the sweepers had to be very efficient to clear the ice before the scores were announced and the next skater would be introduced.
Here is an example of sweepers working hard to clear the ice: Vincent Zhou, a local Bay Area skater who eventually placed second in the men’s event, received a shower of gifts after his long program. There were just as many toys at the far end of the rink, as well as all along the sides. The small red fist-sized toys were strawberries provided by Smucker’s, a long-time Nationals event sponsor. I learned later that the strawberries were segregated from the other toys and sent back up to the concourse to be recycled as handouts for later events.
Some skaters (here, Vincent Zhou) receive many stuffed toys from their fans
You might notice that one of the sweepers is holding a basket into which toys could be placed, allowing for improved efficiency. At the ice entrance adult sweeper chaperone volunteers (in white jackets) wait with plastic bags for the larger toys. After the cleanup from Vincent’s skate, the chaperones more or less dispensed with the baskets and sent the sweepers out with plastic bags so they could be even more efficient about clearing the ice. Never mind proper appearance, it was more important to keep the competition moving on schedule!
I am not sure what was done with the bags-ful of toys that were collected for some skaters. Jason Brown has donated many of his to children in local hospitals where he skates. I read that, for Nationals, many would be donated to families affected by the recent North Bay fires. Here a sweeper brings an armload and basketful of colorful items that had been thrown for Jason Brown.
Sweeper carrying an armload and basketful of stuffed toys thrown for Jason Brown
The final championship-level event was dance. The technical requirements are less restrictive than for the other disciplines and, as a result, there is more creativity. The biggest emphasis is on edge quality and step sequences, both of which are more challenging for the general public to assess than jumps or throws. Dance lifts, compared to pairs lifts, are lower (not above the man’s shoulder height) and with less duration, but with more turns (sometimes the couple practically spins) and with much more variety.
I was particularly taken with one element performed by Elicia and Stephen Reynolds, a brother-sister team. I think it must be called a choreographic element, since it seems too close to the ice to be a lift. In any case, I saw them do this move in one of the practice sessions and was looking forward to see it in their long program. I was at a very bad angle to capture it live on my camera, but I was able to photograph the Jumbotron during the replay after their skate. Surely this is their signature move! – and it was quite interesting to see the entrance and exit.
Elicia and Stephen Reynolds perform their signature move
Another dramatic element for dance couples is the synchronized twizzle sequence. Basically these are like very controlled traveling one-foot spins with perfect synchronization of both partners’ rotations. In the sequence the couples rotate in one direction, then in the opposite direction on the other foot, and typically change back, for three sections, each with different free leg and arm positions. For each section there is a minimum of 4 rotations. Maia and Alex Shibutani added some difficulty and risk to the twizzles in their short dance, with 4 sections and a total of 20 rotations – and they were excellently synchronized.
For the last few seasons the top three US dance couples have been fairly close to each other in their scores. At the 2017 Grand Prix Final, held in December, their scores were separated by only 0.85 point. At these nationals, their scores were even closer, separated by just 0.52 point. It is entirely possible that these three couples will be the main contenders for the bronze medal at the Olympics – if so, it will be an especially exciting competition. Here are the Senior Dance medalists preparing for the official photographs at the end of the medal ceremony.
Championship/senior dance medalists
Typically it is several years, if not longer, before the National Figure Skating Championships return to a given host city. Of course, it’s not known yet when Nationals might return to San Jose. In the meantime, there are many memories to cherish of an event that had the extra sparkle of an Olympic Team selection event.