Breathtaking Olympic performances highlighted figure skating season

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Some random observations on the competitive figure skating season that ended last week at the World Championships in Milan:

1.  The enduring memory will be of the overall excellence at the 2018 Olympics in South Korea – the best skating over all four disciplines at the 11 Winter Games I have covered.

The full flowering of the quad revolution led to boggling feats in the men’s event, where Japan’s peerless Yuzuru Hanyu won a second straight Olympic title with a balance between extraordinary athleticism and extraordinary artistry unmatched by any man during the 14-seasons the IJS has been used at global championships.

Russians Alina Zagitova and Evgenia Medvedeva were flawlessly stunning in taking gold and silver, respectively, in the women’s event, and Canada’s Kaetlyn Osmond won bronze with her huge jumps, expressiveness and sense of choreographic purpose erasing one relatively minor mistake.

Evgenia Medvedeva (left) and Alina Zagitova after their stunning Olympic performances.

Evgenia Medvedeva (left) and Alina Zagitova after their stunning Olympic performances.

The ice dance competition between the unrestrained energy and power of Canadian gold medalists Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and the understated, flowing lyricism of French silver medalists Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron produced a stunning contrast of two different and wonderfully executed approaches.

The level of skating in the pairs short program was off the charts.  And then Germans Aljona Savchenko, the ageless wonder, and Bruno Massot rallied from his big mistake in the short to win gold with a free skate performance for the ages.  It left Savchenko rolling on the ice in an unforgettable picture of exhausted joy.

U.S. skaters had their moments, too: Mirai Nagasu’s triple axel; Nathan Chen’s winning the individual free skate with an unprecedented display of quad mastery after his awful short programs in the team and individual events; the ShibSibs, Maia and Alex Shibutani, doing their best free dance ever when it counted most, then tearfully describing how much it meant to win bronze as a brother-sister team; the wit, irreverence and willingness to stand up for human rights that allowed Adam Rippon to win (and keep winning) extremely high marks from fans if not the skating judges.

A month later, writing about it again still leaves me as breathless as I had been watching in Gangneung.

And then came the Rhett Butler post-Olympic worlds (“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,”) with only five of the 12 Olympic medalists showing up.  But two 2018 world champions, Savchenko-Massot and Papadakis-Cizeron, skated even better overall than they had in South Korea, and a third, Osmond, was nearly as good.

2.  Going forward, becoming the first U.S. man in nine years to win the singles world title was not the most important thing Nathan Chen did in Milan.

It was, instead, skating two outstanding programs for the first time in his three senior global championships (one Olympics, two worlds).

It has been clear since the 2016 Grand Prix Final that Chen would be a title contender in the biggest events if he could minimize his mistakes.  That is what he did in Milan.

Nathan Chen with Old Glory and new glory - his gold medal at the World Championships.

Nathan Chen with Old Glory and new glory - his gold medal at the World Championships.

Chen, 18, the sixth youngest men’s world champion, followed his landmark five-clean-quad-in-six-attempts free skate at the Olympics with another at worlds (a negative grade of execution on one element with a quad owed to the latter jump in a combination, not the quad.)  In both those free skates, Chen got full base value on every quad.

Chen, who said he was aware “relatively” of how poorly the other top men had done before he took the ice as the last to perform in the event, could have chosen to water down his free skate. Chen said he decided to go for six because the others’ mistakes gave him more margin for error.

It still took guts.  It brought him glory.

3. Blaming the worlds free skate splat fest by the final group of men (other than Chen, the lone skater to stay on his feet) in Milan on excessive quadruple jumps and then reacting to it with a rules change limiting quads would be too simplistic and knee-jerk a move.

In Milan, the six men in the final group fell on 10 of the 23 attempts listed as quads on the official protocol, getting positive GOEs on just seven and full base value on just 12.  (If you subtract Chen, that is 10 falls on 17 quads, just two positive GOEs and full base value on just six.)

Shoma Uno fell three times on quads at worlds.  (Video capture.) 

Shoma Uno fell three times on quads at worlds.  (Video capture.) 

At the Olympics, the six men in the final group had only three falls on 17 quad attempts, got positive GOEs on 12 and full base value on 16.  Add Chen, who won the free skate but was not in the final group, and it was just three falls on 24 attempts, with positive GOEs on 17 and full base value on 22.

The problem at worlds likely was fatigue at the end of a long season.  In the cases of Olympic and now two-time world silver medalist Shoma Uno of Japan (three falls on four quad attempts) and Vincent Zhou of the United States (two falls on six), injuries also clearly played a part.

There already is a rules change for next season eliminating one jumping pass (and 30 seconds) from the men's free skate.  Uno’s response to a question on how he planned to adapt to that change was instructive: he intends to take out a low-scoring triple salchow, not a high-scoring quad.

4.  It was too bad Mirai Nagasu did not feel up to attempting a triple axel at worlds in either of what could be the final competitive skates in her 11-season career as senior.  After promising in September to put the jump into her arsenal, she had done one in every other program this season except the Olympic free skate, where she aborted the attempt.

Nagasu will be most remembered for the one triple axel in 10 attempts this season she landed cleanly, since it came at just the right moment: in the Olympic team event free skate, making her the first U.S. woman and third woman overall to land one in the Olympics.  (She also became the first woman to land eight triple jumps in an Olympic free skate.)  That triple axel was huge and secure, with a +1.57 GOE.

The reaction to it was also huge.  The best response came from Canadian pairs skater Meagan Duhamel, who jumped almost as high out of her seat in the Canadian team box to celebrate the achievement as Nagasu had while executing it.

Nagasu wound up 10th in Milan, matching the finish at her previous worlds in 2016.  She was seventh at her other worlds, in 2010.

Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue added to the U.S. medal haul in ice dance.

Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue added to the U.S. medal haul in ice dance.

5.  The 2018 world silver by Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue meant three different U.S. ice dance teams won world medals in the four-year Olympic cycle that just ended.  The last time one country could claim that was the 93-96 cycle (or the 91-94 cycle depending on how one wants to look it given the shift in Winter Olympic cycle after 1992), when four different Russian teams did it by sweeping the podiums in 1992 and 1993.

Three different U.S. dance teams also won world junior medals during this Olympic cycle, providing depth of talent that should perpetuate U.S. success in the discipline for years to come.

6.  Aljona Savchenko’s first pairs world title with Bruno Massot means she has won six world titles (and 11 world medals) and three Olympic medals with two different partners.

Germany’s Savchenko, 34,  is one of the greatest pairs skater in history.  But she is not the only one to have won world titles (and Olympic medals) with different partners.

Irina Rodnina of the Soviet Union won four world titles with Aleksei Ulanov and six with Alexander Zaitsev, plus one Olympic gold with Ulanov and two with Zaitsev.  Artur Dmitriev of Russia won one Olympic title with Natalia Mishkuteniok (plus a silver) and one with Oksana Kazakova.

7.  Memo to Yuzuru Hanyu:  Please keep going, even if that means taking a year off to let the foot problem fully heal.

As overwhelmingly brilliant as you were in this Olympic cycle, you have so much more upside both artistically and technically.  Everyone hopes the 2018 Olympics were not the end of your competitive career.  Your skating, charisma – and Winnie the Pooh – all would be sorely missed.

8.  And, to end, big props to Max Aaron.

Aaron, 26, the 2013 U.S. champion, had been home in Arizona when U.S. Figure Skating called in early March to ask him to go to worlds because the first two alternates, Jason Brown and Ross Miner, had declined the spot opened by Rippon’s withdrawal.  Aaron agreed, even though he had not been training for nearly a month and was getting ready to start a new job.

Ave atque vale to Max Aaron, who stepped in and helped Team USA keep a third men's spot for the 2019 World Championships in what likely was the final competition of his career.

Ave atque vale to Max Aaron, who stepped in and helped Team USA keep a third men's spot for the 2019 World Championships in what likely was the final competition of his career.

“I wasn’t really expecting Jason Brown to turn down the invitation, but I have a job to do, so I stepped up and prepared,” Aaron said.

He did a couple weeks of intense work in Colorado Springs and flew to Milan.

“I’m really just here to support the boys, Nate and Vincent, in case anything goes wrong, and I can sneak in there and help them secure three spots,” Aaron said after finishing 15th in the short program, won by Chen with Zhou third.

Something did go wrong.  Zhou fell three times in a disastrous, 19th-place free skate and wound up 14th overall, meaning his finish combined with Chen’s win added up to 15 - above the 13 or fewer needed to earn three spots for U.S. men at the 2019 worlds.

But Aaron took 10th in what likely was the last free skate of his career, moving up to 11th overall and, thereby, saving the third spot for Team USA.

It undoubtedly isn’t Aaron’s career highlight, but he can take great pride in having used his fourth world meet appearance to help enhance the near future of U.S. men’s skating on the world scene.  That is a fitting valedictory for one of the nicest and most accommodating people in the sport.