‘The Best Crowd:’ Team USA Glides to Four Medals in Historic Lake Placid

By Mimi McKinnis, Sora Hwang, Lynn Rutherford, Troy Schwindt

2018 Jan mag

As the temperature dropped and the snow fell, skaters and fans from around the world celebrated Thanksgiving with 2017 Bridgestone Skate America, Nov. 23-26 in Lake Placid, New York. The festive atmosphere of the village, nestled in New York State’s stunning Adirondack Mountains, was augmented by Olympic Winter Games history, as the rinks adorning each complex reminded athletes the next Games were just two months away.

“No offense to any other Skate America crowds, but this one is definitely the best Skate America crowd we’ve ever skated in front of,” Alex Shibutani said. “And that’s saying something, because the American fans and all the fans that travel from around the world are always really supportive. There’s just really good energy here in Lake Placid. Two Olympic Games have been here and it’s the Olympic season, so we’re taking that energy with us.”

Despite the holiday weekend, more than 21,100 spectators passed through the doors of 1980 Herb Brooks Arena through three days of competition, putting it in the number four spot for attendance at Skate America. The event in Portland, Oregon in 2010 holds the record with 23,362 walking through the turnstiles.

“The crowd is great,” Bradie Tennell echoed after her short program. “You can feel the energy in the arena and it’s really easy to just kind of feed that into the performance.”

Typically the premier event of the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating Series, this season, Skate America, last held in Lake Placid in 2009, closed out the Grand Prix Series with Team USA bagging four medals and clinching six spots at December’s Grand Prix Final in Nagoya, Japan.

American Men Finish 1-2 After Rocky Competition

skam background2Whether he means to or not, Nathan Chen has a habit of making history every time he steps onto competitive ice. It was no different in Lake Placid.

This time, it was with three quad Lutzes. Chen became the first person to ever land two in the free skate and three in an entire event on his way to his second Grand Prix Series title of his young career.

The 18-year-old kicked off his campaign for the Skate America title with an astounding quad Lutz-triple toe combination in his “Nemesis” short program, tallying a new personal best by a full point, 104.12. A quad flip, triple Axel and two Level 4 spins later, Chen gave a subtle fist pump in his final pose – and rightfully so. The U.S. champion was on track to become the only man to remain undefeated for the entire 2017 Grand Prix Series.

“There’s a lot of points that I could have gotten last year and I’m making sure I take care of them this year,” Chen said. “The score is still not that close to some of the top men currently, but that’s something that I know is attainable and it’s something I’m going to work toward.”

The following night wasn’t perfect, as Chen dealt with a nick in his left blade by switching equipment before his free skate to music from Mao’s Last Dancer.

“I think that was actually a bad call,” he said. “[The new blade] was a little bit too sharp on the inside edge, so every time I pressed into it for Sal[chow], for toe, for flop even, it would catch into the ice a little harder than I was used to.”

“At Worlds, I had an extra pair of boots, but I didn’t try it because I didn’t want to risk it. I tried the risk here and it didn’t work, so it’s good to learn from.”

The change resulted in uncharacteristic mistakes, including two falls and a couple of popped jumps, but Chen’s 15.08-point lead after the short program was enough to secure gold with a total of 275.88 points.

Shibutanis Repeat as Champions

Marina Zoueva, who has coached Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani in Canton, Michigan, for a decade, made a telling comment just moments after the siblings won their second straight Skate America title with a personal best 194.25 points.

“Each competition they go up, up, up, and do exactly what they have to do,” Zoueva said. “I know it’s not the last personal best for them this season.”

The two-time U.S. champions and reigning World bronze medalists immersed themselves in every aspect of their programs, from music selection and editing to choreography and costume design, seeking input from ballroom and ballet experts, musicians and skating greats including three-time U.S. ice dance champion Renee Roca, five-time U.S. ice dance champion Peter Tchernyshev and two-time Swiss World champion Stephane Lambiel.

“We have so much more confidence when we’re out there, because we’re really a part of every second of the program,” Maia said.

“We really care about our craft and the way we deliver our material, not just about how much each element is worth,” Alex said.

It certainly worked at Skate America where the siblings performed an exuberant short dance to a classic Perez Prado medley, highlighted by a thrilling four-part twizzle sequence performed to “Mambo No. 8.” They gained four Level 4s en route to a personal best score of 79.18 points.

skam background3“The twizzles are one of the elements we are well known for, and the way we do it for this program is really unique,” Maia said. “It’s just exciting because we knew we did a good set here.”

Their captivating free dance, set to Coldplay’s “Paradise,” is the third part of a trilogy that began with “Fix You,” the program that brought them their first U.S. title in 2016.

“This season is about culminating this particular chapter of our skating,” Alex said. “We’re dreaming of paradise together. That’s the concept of the trilogy.”

The judges and technical panel in Lake Placid awarded the Shibutanis five Level 4 elements and all +2 and +3 GOEs (Grades of Execution) for 115.07 points, a considerable uptick from the 111.94 points the program gained at their first Grand Prix, Moscow’s Rostelecom Cup.

Triumphant Tennell

There’s a new name buzzing in U.S. ladies figure skating – and in the Olympic season, no less. In a field stacked with the likes of U.S. champion Karen Chen and three-time U.S. titlist Ashley Wagner, it was Bradie Tennell who earned the highest U.S. ladies finish, nabbing bronze in her Grand Prix Series debut.

The 2015 U.S. junior champion established career-best scores across the board for an overall total of 204.10 points, without collecting a single negative Grade of Execution – a feat no other U.S. lady matched this Grand Prix campaign. But turning in two clean performances was just business as usual for the teen from Carpentersville, Illinois.

“It was exactly what I’ve been practicing,” Tennell, coached by Denise Myers and Jeremy Allen in Buffalo Grove, Illinois, said. “I was just really happy I was able to put it out there. I feel like I did my job.”

Fourth after the short program, Tennell took the ice in the final warm-up group, dressed in elegant light blue to embody the title character of her performance to music from Cinderella. Four minutes and seven triple jumps later, Tennell had topped her season-best free skate score by nearly five points to take home a surprising medal.

“I just felt really prepared,” Tennell said. “I went out there knowing that in my mind I could do it, and I think that showed.”

Triple Salchow Falls Limit U.S. Pairs

Struggles with jumps put U.S. pairs at a distinct disadvantage at Skate America, where the powerhouse field included former two-time World champions, the current World silver medalists and last season’s Grand Prix Final silver medalists.

Jumping mistakes were particularly costly to Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim, whose fine pairs elements – including a stunning triple twist, big throws and exciting Level 4 lifts – are up there with the best in the world. But Alexa fell on a triple Salchow in their short program to “Come What May,” while Chris doubled the jump. It was the same story in their free skate, set to music from Ghost the Musical, and they also doubled intended side-by-side triple toe loops.

After the free skate, Chris revealed he had been struggling with a left knee injury since March.

“[Jumps] are my weakest element, so I need to train them hard and do a lot of reps, and I wasn’t able to,” Chris said. “I am getting over the injury, which is great, and now I feel like I can actually train the jumps going into nationals.”

“It’s tough, people assume you’re just not good enough, but we are good enough, we just haven’t been given the chance to train,” Alexa said.

Read the full Skate America recap in the cover story of the January issue of SKATING magazine.