Still no room at the top for U.S. singles skaters

I left for a long-planned vacation in New Zealand just as the figure skating Grand Prix was starting.

By the time I returned, two weeks later than planned, the season was mostly over, and I had other immediate priorities than trying to catch up.

Now that I have had the chance to take a closer look in time for this week’s Grand Prix Finals – junior and senior - in Marseille, France, it’s plain that most of what happened was pretty predictable – and that I didn’t miss much.

*Led by Evgenia Medvedeva, the wondrous reigning world champion who just turned 17 but has added an air of maturity to her soulful expressiveness, Russians are dominating women’s skating more than ever, producing four of the six senior GPF qualifiers for the second time in three years and the top three spots in this season’s standings.  More tellingly, there have been six different Russian women in those two sets of four.

*2015 U.S. champion Jason Brown, a week from turning 22, still hasn't landed a quad in competition, no matter that he somehow got full quad base value after his Zamboni imitations at the U.S. International Classic and Skate America.

*Gracie Gold is as underachieving as ever.  How does a skater with the talent to win two U.S. titles and win the short program at worlds get fifth and eighth in her two Grand Prix events?

*Three-time world champion Mao Asada of Japan, alas, picked up right where she left off with a dismal seventh place at the 2016 worlds, finishing sixth and ninth (ninth!) in her two Grand Prixs.  Her elegance on the ice remains a delight, but maybe it is time for Asada to move on.

*Neither of the top two U.S. women, veterans Gold and 2016 world silver medalist Ashley Wagner, made the final.  Neither did any other U.S. woman, the first time that has happened since 2008.

Wagner had made the previous four finals, winning medals in three.  She began the season with a win at Skate America before stumbling to sixth in her other appearance, at Cup of China. Wagner’s medal chances clearly depend in part on a friendly technical caller: she had nine jumps dinged for under rotation in her Grand Prix long programs – seven at Cup of China.

To the delight of a huge Boston crowd last March, Wagner’s competitive fire and artistic confidence had ended a nine-season medal drought for U.S. women at worlds, but it is hard to imagine her doing that again next March in Finland.

Moreover, Wagner is 25; Gold, 21.  They have dominated U.S. women’s skating since 2012, and, other than the injured Polina Edmunds, who hasn’t competed since an impressive second at the 2016 nationals, there are no U.S. women of any consequence on the immediate horizon after them.

(Please don’t tell me that Rafael Arutunian will do a silk purse makeover on Mariah Bell.  And we’re still waiting for Karen Chen to build on what she showed in 2015.  The boot problem excuse doesn’t fly after a while.)

*For the second straight year, there are three Russians and three Japanese among the six women (girls?) in the Junior Grand Prix Final.  Russians were 1-2-5-7-8-13-17 in this season’s standings; Japanese, 3-4-6-9-10-12-14-20.

That means 15 skaters from those two countries alone beat the leading U.S. finisher (Tessa Hong, 22nd), partly because the U.S. did not choose to have any skater do two JGP events.  Of course, Hong also finished behind three other non-U.S. skaters who did just one event.

This is the third straight season the U.S. has no female finalist in the Junior Grand Prix Final and the first time the U.S. will have no female skater in both the junior and senior Grand Prix finals.

*To say this owes only to a down cycle or the new dominance of Russia and Japan begs the question of the talent drought that has had the U.S. missing men’s podiums at Olympics and worlds since Evan Lysacek won the 2010 Olympic title and women’s podiums beginning in 2007 and going through 2015.

Since 2010, 10 men from seven countries have won medals at worlds; at the nine straight worlds with no U.S. medals until Wagner’s last year, 12 women from five countries had won medals.  Add 2016, and it is 14 women from those five countries.

*Ice dancers extraordinaire Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada also picked up right where they left off. . .two and one-half years ago.  Taking a competitive hiatus after their 2014 Olympic silver, the 2010 Olympic champions returned to win both their Grand Prix events, the first by a whisker, the second in a rout with an all-time record total score.

If only reigning Olympic dance champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White of the U.S. would come back to renew one of the best skating rivalries ever, one that pushed both couples to extraordinary levels of excellence.  But I don’t see that happening.

*In pairs, the world’s two most interesting teams, for personality and performance, (Sui Wenjing -Han Cong of China and Tatiana Volozoshar – Maxim Trankov of Russia ) both missed the Grand Prix season - Sui for injury, Volosozhar for pregnancy.  So did the ever-disappointing top U.S. team, Alexa Scimeca – Chris Knierim, as Scimeca was injured.  In the absence of the Russians and Chinese, Canadians Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford have reinforced their status as world No. 1.

*Good for the USA in getting three ice dance teams into the final for the second straight year.  Without dance, the future of U.S. skating would be almost completely gloomy, were it not for. . .

* . . .Nathan Chen.

At 16, Chen had been the sensation of last January’s U.S. Championships, where he landed six quadruple jumps – two in the short, four in the long, both records for a U.S. man.  But his 2016 season ended a day later, with a fall on an unnecessary quad in the exhibition leading to a hip injury that required surgery.

  Nathan Chen has the fire and guts to challenge the world's top men.

Nathan Chen has the fire and guts to challenge the world's top men.

Chen, who won the Junior Grand Prix Final last season, returned in time for an impressive debut on the senior Grand Prix, taking fourth and second in his two events, becoming (now 17) the youngest U.S. man to win a medal on the senior circuit and making the final.  With four different quads in his arsenal, Chen has the competitive cojones to go after the big guys in the sport.

His score at the NHK Trophy was the highest ever internationally by a U.S. man.  Now if he can stay healthy. . .

*In his ninth Grand Prix season, reigning U.S. champion Adam Rippon also had personal bests:  his highest international score and his first qualification for the final with third places in his two events.  But like Chen, his top scores are not in the same league as the best of Spain’s Javi Fernandez, Canada’s Patrick Chan and Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu and Shoma Uno.

Fernandez, the reigning world champion, is proving again and again that his first world title in 2015 was not a one-off, but Hanyu remains the man to beat if he skates flawlessly.

Chen has the time and the jumps to close the gap to those two.  At 27, Rippon now and always will lack the big-points jumps to complement his excellent spins, flow, edge work and overall high quality artistry.  If Rippon can make his first Olympic team in 2018, he will be able to look back with satisfaction at a competitive career in which his doggedness carried the day, even if he won few senior international medals.

Rippon might as well be the poster skater for the current state and long-term forecast of singles in the United States.  Good, with medals missing.  Down so long that there is no way Wagner’s medal can make it look like up.