Worlds three-peat for U.S. men skaters? It doesn't figure

After two busy weeks on the figure skating scene, including the U.S., Canadian and European Championships and the news of a season-ending injury for U.S. phenom Nathan Chen, let’s catch our breath for a look of what it all means to U.S. singles skaters as they look toward the 2016 World Championships.

Today, a look at the men’s situation.  Tomorrow, the women.

*The loss of Chen to a hip avulsion fracture that required surgery will have minimal impact on the United States’ slim-to-no chance of keeping its three men’s spots for the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships.

Here’s the deal: the top two U.S. men at the Mar. 30-April 2 worlds in Boston must have overall placements adding up to no more than 13.

None of the three U.S. men scheduled to skate in Boston – Adam Rippon, Max Aaron and Grant Hochstein - has a world finish higher than Rippon’s sixth in 2010, when the post-Olympic field was missing five of the top seven Olympic finishers.

Rippon’s world finishes are 6, 13, 8.  Aaron’s are 7, 8.  This will be Hochstein’s senior world debut.

One of them must finish sixth or better to give the U.S. a shot at holding the third spot.

Let’s do the prediction math:

 Javier Fernandez at the European Championships (ISU photo)

Javier Fernandez at the European Championships (ISU photo)

It’s a good bet that reigning Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan, reigning world champion Javier Fernandez of Spain, and three-time world champion Patrick Chan of Canada, who took a year off after the Olympics, will be among the top four at worlds.

Denis Ten of Kazakhstan, the two-time world medalist who lately has struggled through the fall portion of seasons but come up big when it counts most, and Shoma Uno of Japan figure to be somewhere in the top five.  And Jin Boyang of China had a better Grand Prix season than that of any U.S. man.

That makes six, not including the (unlikely) possibility of a strong worlds performance by one of the men who all finished light years behind Fernandez at last week’s European Championships.

Which adds up to losing the third spot.

*Would a healthy Jason Brown make a difference?  After all, last year, Brown’s fourth in his senior worlds debut saved the third spot the U.S. had regained for 2014 after three years of earning just two.

But Brown’s lack of a quadruple jump and his inconsistent triple axel mean he seemed to be losing traction against the best in the world even before he went to the sidelines in November with a back injury that forced him out of nationals.  That undoubtedly factored into U.S. Figure Skating’s rejection of his petition for a place on the world team.

*And what might Chen, third behind Rippon and Aaron at the U.S. Championships, have done in his senior world debut?

At 16, he is a younger (and more artistically developed) version of Jin, 18.  Both have received credit for four quadruple jumps in a free skate.

Two flawless performances could have put Chen in the top six, but such skating is rare in the sport’s go-big-or-go-home quadruple jump era.  Hanyu skated that way in his final two Grand Prix events, then had two falls in his free skate at the Japanese Championships.

*Rippon likely is the key to keeping the third place, because he can get high component scores, but he will need the international skates of his career.  His past international performances suggest that is a lot to hope for.

He never has qualified for a Grand Prix Final, has made the podium just once in 10 Grand Prix event appearances since the 2010 season and has finished 5, 4, 8, 10 in his last four appearances at the Four Continents Championships.

He is also the second straight man to win the U.S. title without a credited quad, not a distinction for this country’s skating officials to take pride in.

Rippon does deserve props for having gone big on quads the past couple seasons by trying a quad lutz, even if he never has landed one.  It is unclear why he has not returned to a quad toe loop, a jump for which he has received full base credit in the past.  Rippon told me that is a question even his mother asks.

While it should be noted that Brown got fourth at worlds last year without attempting a quad, the necessity to do one has increased dramatically this season.  The six men at the Grand Prix Final did an aggregate 20 credited quads (some with imperfections) – five excellent ones by Hanyu, the winner.

“Just because you can’t do one element that your other competitors can do more proficiently that you, it doesn’t mean you should hang up your skates,” Rippon insisted.  “You should always try to better yourself in every aspect of your skating.”

It took Rippon until age 26 to win his first U.S. title; in the last 77 years, only Ryan Bradley (27) and Rudy Galindo (a slightly older 26 when he won than Rippon was) have been older first-time champions.

 China's Jin Boyang at the Grand Prix Final. (ISU photp)

China's Jin Boyang at the Grand Prix Final. (ISU photp)

Even though finally becoming U.S. champion was a lifetime goal, Rippon swore that will not make him think he can waltz into worlds hoping programs with success only on triple jumps can work.

“My coach (Rafael Arutunian, who also coaches Chen) is going to drill me into the ground so I will have the best quads of my life by the time we get to Boston,” Rippon said.

*Whatever increased risk of injury has developed from skaters trying multiple quads in a program is a risk that cannot be avoided under the current International Skating Union scoring system.

Until the ISU imposes a limit on quads, which seems unlikely given the desire to push the sport forward athletically, skaters who seek medals in major competitions know they have no choice but to do as many as they feel capable of.

For some, that means doing multiples of the multiples in practice, although Chen said he rarely has worked on quads the past two years, concentrating on getting more power and height on triple jumps so that a fourth rotation is no big deal.

The old saw about the need for a well-rounded program still is valid, but the bar keeps going up on the jump segment of well-rounded because of how many points quads can bring.

Plus, skaters like Hanyu, Chan, Fernandez, Ten and Uno are, at their best, also beautiful to watch at all the moments when they aren’t tossing off quads.