Who knows what to make of the singles competition in the Grand Prix Final?
The women’s event beginning Friday in Nagoya, Japan, is missing the two-time reigning world champion and overwhelming favorite, Evgenia Medvedeva of Russia, sidelined by a broken foot, as well as the 3-4 finishers at last year’s worlds, Gabrielle Daleman of Canada and Karen Chen of the United States. Both Daleman and Chen wound up miles from Japan after finishing, 16th and 23rd, respectively, in the season standings, with only the top six earning places in the final.
The men’s event beginning Thursday does not have reigning world champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan (injury prevented him from a near certain qualification), Javier Fernandez of Spain (did not qualify) and Patrick Chan of Canada (skipped second Grand Prix event after a poor showing in his first.)
Those three have won the last seven world titles – three for Chan, two each for Hanyu and Fernandez. In those seven seasons, they have had a combined 17 appearances at the Grand Prix Final. That includes an aggregate 12 GPF medals, highlighted by Hanyu’s wins the past four years and Chan’s consecutive wins in the 2011 and 2012 seasons.
Also missing is China’s Jin Boyang (injury), world bronze medalist the past two years. Jin earned one of the six GPF places but withdrew with an ankle injury, opening a place for Jason Brown of the U.S.
The competition within the competition between Brown and teammate Adam Rippon now seems as consequential as the overall results, given its potential impact on Olympic team selection.
The same can be said of the women’s competition within the competition between Wakaba Higuchi and Satoko Miyahara of Japan, the latter getting her spot with Medvedeva's withdrawal. They were 6-7 in the season standings.
At least three other Japanese women also are contenders for its two singles spots at the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
The skater who prevails in those two battles will be making himself or herself a stronger case for being in the Winter Games.
Let’s look at Rippon and Brown, fifth and seventh in the season standings, both of whom rely on their spins, edge work and overall artistry to make up for inability to land quadruple jumps.
U.S. Figure Skating’s Olympic selection criteria include three tiers of events (in descending importance). The events in each tier are weighted equally.
Tier 1 includes the 2017 World Championships, the 2018 U.S. Championships and this Grand Prix Final. An injury ended Rippon’s 2017 season before nationals. Brown, third at those nationals, went to last season's worlds and finished seventh. Rippon had better results on this year’s Grand Prix circuit (Tier 2 category), with two second places and higher scores than Brown received in finishing second and fourth. Rippon also beat Brown head-to-head at the NHK Trophy.
The U.S. men have three Olympic spots. Only injury will prevent Nathan Chen from getting one, especially since Chen, sixth at the 2017 worlds, is the only men’s Grand Prix finalist this year to have won both his “regular season” events. That leaves Brown, Rippon, Max Aaron and Vincent Zhou to contest the other two.
Chen also is a co-favorite with Shoma Uno of Japan in the Grand Prix Final.
Rippon certainly has enhanced his Olympic chances with a strong comeback from last winter's foot injury. His free skate to music from the “Crimson Wing” soundtrack and “O” by Coldplay has a striking artistic cohesion, and he performed it at Skate America with sophistication, élan and near flawless execution.
The one flaw was a downgraded quadruple lutz with a botched landing on which Rippon dislocated his shoulder. Despite that, it still was the most attractive men's free skate I have seen all season.
Another strong performance by Rippon in the Grand Prix Final, and he should be able to book a flight for South Korea in February, sending him to the Olympics for the first time at age 28.