After turning life upside down, Nathan Chen landing on his feet

After turning life upside down, Nathan Chen landing on his feet

DETROIT – For the first two seasons after Nathan Chen moved up to the senior level of international skating competition, Chen’s life revolved around his commitments to the sport.

Chen’s high school studies were done through correspondence courses, allowing him to have a schedule that prioritized his time practicing at a southern California rink with coach Rafael Arutunian. He became an immediate success internationally, and in the second senior season, he won a world title, a Grand Prix title, finished fifth in the Olympics and dazzled the world with his quadruple jump exploits.

And he also was a runaway winner in the 2017 and 2018 U.S. Championships.

At 19, Chen was ready for new academic challenges.

But he still wanted to do more in skating, a sport with time and travel demands that few elite competitors have succeeded in combining with a full course load at college.

For Chen, that meant turning his life inside out.

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Knierims back on top in U.S., but world's best pairs far above them

Knierims back on top in U.S., but world's best pairs far above them

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Alexa Scimeca Knierim and her husband, Chris, had achieved the results they wanted.

The Knierims didn't merely back into the lone U.S. Olympic pairs spot all but conceded to them because of their unquestioned recent superiority over all their U.S. rivals: They made the selection committee's eventual decision a rubber stamp by winning a second national title Saturday afternoon at the SAP Center.

But, as evidenced by their downcast demeanor while waiting to hear the free skate scores, they were left with a hollow feeling.

"It wasn't our best skate," Chris said.

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For Abbott, a figure skating career of brilliance and tarnish

For Abbott, a figure skating career of brilliance and tarnish

What to make of Jeremy Abbott’s competitive figure skating career, now that he used a Thursday interview on the icenetwork podcast, “Ice Talk,” to bring it to an official end?

He was a blend of unquestionable brilliance and baffling mediocrity, the latter covering many of his scintillating moments in a dull finish.

With four senior titles, Abbott is among most decorated men’s skaters at the U.S. Championships.  In the past 65 years, only Todd Eldredge has won more national titles (six).  Abbott won all his in the International Judging System era; no other U.S. man has won more than two in that 12-season period, none more than one in the nine seasons since Abbott won his first.

Abbott skated like a world-beater at several of those U.S. Championships, none more so than 2010, when his performances were better than those of the medalists at the Vancouver Olympics a month later.

And he skated at various levels of back-in-the-pack inconsequence in all his global championships, none more so than those 2010 Olympics, when he was 15th (!) in the short program and ninth overall.

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Figure skating worlds could bring widespread medal count for USA

Can veteran Jason Brown, seen in a split jump, combine with phenom Nathan Chen to help the U.S. get three men's places in the 2018 Olympics?

Can veteran Jason Brown, seen in a split jump, combine with phenom Nathan Chen to help the U.S. get three men's places in the 2018 Olympics?

The 2017 U.S. Figure Skating Championships are now in the books, and after yet another successful affair -- which saw Nathan Chen shatter numerous records en route to the senior men's gold medal, and the Shibutanis continue their U.S. dance reign -- here are five thoughts I have about the event in Kansas City.

1. The United States has a chance to do something rare in its recent figure skating history at the world championships in March: win medals in three separate events.

Those medals, should U.S. skaters earn them, would come from singles -- with Ashley Wagner and Nathan Chen -- and dance -- with Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani and/or Madison Chock and Evan Bates.

That has not happened since 2006, when it did in the same events. Kimmie Meissner and Sasha Cohen won gold and bronze, respectively, while Evan Lysacek earned the men's bronze medal, and Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto received bronze in dance.

Considering the United States has won world medals in two events just once since 2006 (last year, with Wagner earning the silver, the Shibutanis winning silver and Chock and Bates picking up the bronze) and just one medal in singles since 2009, medals in three events would be quite impressive.

2. U.S. Figure Skating's international committee got it right on all the world team selections.

The committee had no choice but to bypass two-time U.S. champion Gracie Gold, notwithstanding her having ticked off higher marks in as many or more boxes on the selection criteria list than either new U.S. champion Karen Chen or bronze medalist Mariah Bell. Gold, who finished sixth at the U.S. championships, showed no signs all season of being able to perform remotely near her past excellence.

Would Mirai Nagasu, 10th at worlds last year, have been a better pick than Bell? Not based on Nagasu's uninspired free skate in Kansas City, with several under-rotations and negative Grades of Execution after a strong second in the short program. She had a world team place in her hands and let it slip away.

In men's, the choice of U.S. bronze medalist Jason Brown, a veteran with Olympic and world meet experience, over silver medalist Vincent Zhou was also justified if the goal is to get three Olympic spots for 2018. Zhou, 16, has yet to skate in a senior international event; as of now, he does not even have the technical minimums for worlds.

Granting the world team petition of Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim in pairs was also logical. Although they have been out of action all season because of Alexa's surgery, the Knierims are by far the most talented U.S. pair, and their record over the time period used in the selection criteria is far superior to that of any pair who competed in Kansas City.

The dance selection was easy. The three teams with the most noteworthy achievements, past and present, finished 1-2-3.

3. Odd as it seems, the U.S may have a greater chance at getting three Olympic singles spots in the men's event than the ladies.

To get three, the 2017 worlds placings of the top two finishers must add up to 13 or fewer: second and 11th, fifth and eighth, fourth and ninth, etc.

Although this is Chen's first senior worlds, he was second in the Grand Prix Final and should -- barring a few bad days in Helsinki -- finish no lower than fifth. Brown was fourth in the 2015 worlds and, even if he cannot manage a quad, has a good shot at eighth or better. After all, Adam Rippon finished sixth at worlds last year with no quads in the short program and an under-rotated one in the free skate.

Wagner, the reigning world silver medalist, probably needs to get another medal for the U.S. women to have a shot at three Olympic places. Senior worlds debutantes Chen and Bell have had completely unremarkable senior international careers so far, save for Bell's second-place finish at Skate America last October.

One of the aforementioned skaters will almost certainly have to break into the top 10 if the U.S. total is to stay under 14. With Wagner, three Russians, three Japanese skaters, two Canadians and Italy's Carolina Kostner favored (on paper) to finish ahead of Chen and Bell, that won't be easy.

4. Now that Gold and coach Frank Carroll have split, where will Gracie go next?

The best bet is back to Alex Ouriashev, who coached Gold until they suddenly split in September 2013. That would put Gold in the Chicago area, meaning it would be easy for her to also spend some time in Canton, Michigan, where artistry guru and ice dance coach Marina Zoueva attracts a rotating cavalcade of stars from all of figure skating's disciplines.

Big props to Gold for the way she publicly handled her disastrous season. She ducked no questions, offered no excuses and made no attempt to paint over the obvious holes in her performances this season.

Admitting problems is often a key step in solving them. One should be easy to overcome: Gold needs to get herself in better competitive condition before next season. Both Ouriashev and Carroll told me Gold was not in the same shape she had been in previous years. She clearly ran out of gas near the end of her free skate at the U.S. championships, and stumbled to a sixth-place finish because of it.

5. Over the past 37 years, I've had the good fortune of being a first-hand witness to several indelibly brilliant moments in figure skating, especially at the 32 United States championships I have covered.

The latest was being on hand to see what Nathan Chen did Friday and Sunday at the Sprint Center, especially from the stunning perspective provided by the Kansas City organizers and U.S. Figure Skating, who put the media in seats right next to the ice -- the closest-to-the-action seat I have ever had at the event.

Chen rolled off seven clean quads so effortlessly -- two in the short program, a history-making five in the free skate -- that the inclination was to think they were triples. At some point, as my jaw dropped to the floor, I found myself chuckling at just how easily he was doing what would be considered incredible by any standard of any sport you choose.

As Chen was first to admit, the program had lacunae on the presentation side, which he explained by saying, "Stuff happens when you're pushing the technical elements to the max."

It seems likely that he or others will reach that jumping max again -- or even top it. That will never lessen the awe and delight I had watching him do it for the first time, as witnessing greatness is unforgettable, a privilege and just plain fun.

(This article originally appeared on icenetwork.)

No quick fix, no world team for struggling Gracie Gold

Coach Frank Carroll (left, foreground) and Gracie Gold perplexed again by her subpar performance in Saturday's free skate at U.S. Championships (Getty Images)

Coach Frank Carroll (left, foreground) and Gracie Gold perplexed again by her subpar performance in Saturday's free skate at U.S. Championships (Getty Images)

Gracie Gold stood on a riser 10 yards from the ice surface at the Sprint Center, in an area where athletes who have just finished skating talk to the media. The music for the skater who followed threatened to drown out Gold's words, even as she spoke into a microphone.

Her upper lip trembled a few times, but Gold's voice never cracked as she faced the music again in a season when her skating has struck one sour note after another.

After winning two titles and finishing second twice at the U.S. championships the past four years, Gold had just done a free skate with mistakes on six of her seven jumping passes. She doubled planned triples, singled a planned double, landed one jump on two feet and threw an invalid jump onto the end of a combination.

"Obviously," she said, "I had a very terrible program at the national championships."

Gold was ninth in the free skate, fifth in the short program and sixth overall. She was 35 points from first, 18 from third.

She held her head high, graciously and honestly answering painful questions, but her spirits were low. For the fourth time in four competitions this season, she was trying to understand how the bottom fell out, how she had stumbled to the middle of the pack after being at or near the top of U.S. skating for five years.

"I'm glad this was not the Olympic year," Gold said.

It was too soon to discuss the future, to decide whether she should leave coach Frank Carroll in Los Angeles and return to her previous coach in Chicago or find a completely new environment. Skaters often rush quickly into change after a bad patch, but this slide has been so wide and a dramatic move would not look hasty. And now, with her competition calendar suddenly clear for several months, she has the needed time to weigh all options carefully.

"I'm just not processing the emotions yet," she said. "I'm just choosing not to process them because again there are more bad feelings despite the changes I made and the improvements I made."

Gold said she wouldn't let U.S. Figure Skating down if they chose to give her one of the three ladies spots on the world championships team. Yet, she knew how unlikely that sounded, and, indeed, the team announced Sunday morning included Karen Chen, Ashley Wagner and Mariah Bell, the top three finishers, respectively, at the 2017 U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

"This has been a rough season, but I think I'm still one of the best skaters in the United States and the world," Gold said.

She tried to salvage the season after what would be its lowest ebb, a sixth-place finish at a B-level event in Croatia last month, where Gold received her lowest international scores since 2012. Two weeks of repair work with Alex Ouriashev, the coach she had left before joining Carroll in 2013, had produced encouraging results, but the fixes clearly were short lived.

"It's just something about this year," she said. "I've just been in a funk."

Gold, 21, had been in that funk since last year's world championships, when she won the short program but came undone in the free skate and wound up fourth. She was mercilessly self-critical about that failure and said two weeks ago that it was only during her reunion with Ouriashev that she forgave herself for it.

Carroll suggested Saturday night that the negative effects still lingered.

"She has been in a deep, deep, deep depression," he said.

In a recent telephone conversation, Gold told me the problems were limited to her time on skates.

"I never felt I was in an actual depression and I needed a psychologist," she said. "I was fine out of the rink. It was just in the rink and in skating I wasn't myself.

"I was still a normal human being, regular by all standards," she continued. "I'm just trying to do something above and beyond, trying to be a national champion, a world champion, an Olympic medalist."

She won U.S. titles in 2014 and 2016, and finished fourth at the 2014 Olympics and at the previous two world championships. Yet there was always a feeling she never overcame the confidence issues that held her back until the 2012 season, when she emerged from nowhere to become U.S. junior champion and had people talking immediately of her medal chances at the 2014 Olympics.

The way Gold skated Saturday epitomized how little buffer she has when her confidence is wavering.

She opened with a strong triple lutz-triple toe combination, then had a two-footed landing on her next jump, a triple loop. That relatively minor mistake seemed to provoke a 'here-we-go-again' reaction that deflated her entirely.

A double axel became a single. A triple toe loop was a pop. Both a triple lutz and triple flip wound up as doubles. The switch Gold hoped had been reset to 'on' during the time with Ouriashev kept short-circuiting.

"Even when my switch was on, I just wasn't having the clarity and the confidence to do it," she said. "I opened up with the triple-triple, one of the best starts to a program you can have, and I still didn't do it."

That was the final thing she said before stepping off the riser and walking away. Chen and Wagner were about to skate their way to the top two places in the event and berths on the world team.

Gracie Gold will not skate in competition again until next season.

(This article originally appeared on icenetwork.)