The American Girls of Summer

By srasher
Aug. 12, 2015

Lintao Zhang - ISU/ISU via Getty Images

More and more every year, top-level North American figure skaters are starting their competitive seasons in July and August. For the most part, I approve of this trend, because it allows fans to pretend we can predict anything at all about the Grand Prix series, let alone Nationals and Worlds, based on how a skater looks before she's memorized her choreography or fully upgraded her jumps. Making baseless predictions is fun, which is good, because this whole post is about analyzing the state of senior-level U.S. ladies' singles while everyone still has three months to get hurt, fix their technique, and/or chuck their program concepts and go back to the thing they did last year. On top of that, I can't analyze Ashley Wagner, who has Instagrammed but opted to earn money touring rather than slum it at club comps.

But most of the other top U. S. ladies' new competitive programs have made it to the internet. IceNetwork has posted the Glacier Falls Summer Classic and  in their entirety (the men and juniors are up there too). High-quality fan videos of Glacier Falls have shown up on YouTube as well, as has a fan cam of Mirai Nagasu's winning free skate from the Collegiate Championships. Skate Detroit provided a free live stream (of which I watched way too much and then failed to blog about because I'd live tweeted all my relevant feelings), and a few fans with good screen capture software recorded the bigger names. 

I did catch two notable skaters on the Skate Detroit live stream whose performances have not made it to YouTube. Reigning junior national champion Bradie Tennell disappointed me: she hasn't made the artistic transition from junior to senior yet, and it looks like she's in the midst of adjusting her jump technique and flexibility moves to her changing body. Like many skaters her age, she needs some dance lessons and a Pilates trainer, as well as some emotional space to figure out who she is on the ice. My favorite unknown competitor at Skate Detroit was Livvy Shilling, who had jump troubles here and there but skates way prettier than I expect from a Tom Zakrajsek student and performed a lovely program to Indian music that I'd enjoy seeing at Nationals. [ETA: I'm told that Shilling now trains with Christy Krall and Damon Allen, which makes sense - she definitely skates more like one of their students.]

Here are my thoughts on the rest, in alphabetical order. For skaters who can only be seen in the full IceNetwork video of Glacier Falls, I've provided a time stamp for their free skate.

Mariah Bell

The first rule of watching Kori Ade's skaters in the summer is, ignore the jumps, because they're not ready yet. So it says something about Bell, and her coaches' confidence in her, that she puts down a big triple-triple combination at the top of this program. The choreography is so intricate that Bell trips over her feet and falls during footwork, and there are places where she loses control of her connection with the music. Any other skater would approach a bombastic John Williams score with dreadful heaviness, but Bell wrings optimism from Born on the Fourth of July, and oddly enough, it works. Still, it's tough to tell how this is going to turn out, because she's still far from grasping the choreography and has a bad habit of grinning when she lands a difficult jump. I hope she'll have her muscle memory in place in time for the Grand Prix, because there are some very cool moves in this program - I love the spiral sequence - and it suits her bubbly disposition and long lines well.

Karen Chen

Strange as it is to say this about the reigning national bronze medalist, I feel like Chen needs another year in juniors. There are some spectacular moments in her Glacier Falls short program (she didn't compete in the free skate): her first jumping pass is powerful even if she wobbles out of her second jump, her positions in her combination spin are beautiful, and the transition from her double axel to layback spin will make a showstopping finish when she doesn't faceplant in the middle. But the transitions and artistic intricacies are the aspects giving her the most grief, a sign that she needs time to mature. She spends much of this program trying to regain speed, and I wish she'd learn to stand up straighter. On the Junior Grand Prix circuit, she'd have another year to gain confidence in these areas. As it stands, she seems destined for a rough senior-level international debut, especially if she snags the TBA spot at Skate America.

Christina Cleveland 

Not really a top-tier skater, although she did make it to Nationals last year. But I'm including her because boy, does she bring the sass. She's skating with Ade and Ward now, which bodes well but also means she performed nothing but double jumps. Her brassy, butt-shaking free skate is 8 minutes into the IceNetwork Glacier Falls video, and of the lower-ranked skaters, she's the one worth watching.

Polina Edmunds

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Since the 2014 Olympics, I've been on the verge of becoming a Polina Edmunds fan, and this might be the season that pushes me over the edge. She's still developing her Gone with the Wind free skate (first two minutes ; the whole thing around 1:22:00 on IceNetwork) and did mostly single jumps to focus on the choreography. And boy, does she work that choreo, transitioning from sweet Southern belle to tough survivor in four minutes of soundtrack. She also performs a stunning camel spin with unusual position variations and tons of speed. Her short program is the real revelation, though, interpreting every beat of the "Moonlight Sonata" with maturity and intensity. The program brings out her long, graceful limbs - and the occasional posture issue. There's nowhere to hide in this simple, elegant program, and yet somehow, she maintains the mood even when small elements go wrong. Her jumps don't look organic yet, but once she's incorporating them more smoothly, this is likely to become a modern classic. I can't wait to see it develop during the season.

Gracie Gold

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The thing I adore most about Gold is her ability to rock a bright red lip and a blonde up-do. Her jumps are phenomenal, too, when they're on point, as they mostly are here, although her triple-triple takes her too close to the boards and she doubles her most interesting jumping pass, an illusion spiral into a planned triple flip. The choreography does her every favor in the world, and the step sequence toward the beginning of the program includes some moves I haven't seen elsewhere. What worries me is her lack of connection to the music, which stands out all the more starkly after watching the Glacier Falls free skate in full. She skated right after technically flawed but artistically committed performances by Edmunds and Bell, and in comparison, it seems like Gold doesn't care if she's interpreting the music effectively. She looks stern and focused as she enters each jump, and the rest of the time, her face goes blank. There's plenty of time for her to address this before the international season begins, but I don't trust her to - and that's a big letdown, because Gold is almost unquestionably the most technically gifted American skater right now.

Courtney Hicks

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Someone called me out in the comments of my wishlist post for not mentioning Hicks as a major US contender. I wish that Hicks's performance at Glacier Falls made me reassess my belief that she is never going to accomplish much internationally. There's no denying that her jumps are fantastic - powerful, with a ton of height - and she's contextualizing them with tougher transitions, like the spiral to double axel to catch-foot twizzle that she nailed in her short program. But she has stamina trouble in her free skate, and it's hard to tell whether she's overcome that, since it looks like she intentionally doubled many of her jumps in her Glacier Falls performance. I worry even more about her lack of momentum, limited flexibility, and tendency to look like she's just smelled something disgusting. It's clear that artistry doesn't come naturally to Hicks, and as she gains experience, it seems less and less likely that she'll be able to overcome that deficiency. Which is a shame, because those jumps are great.

Hannah Miller

Before Skate Detroit, I questioned why Hannah Miller had landed a Grand Prix assignment. Her struggles in the early rounds of the competition intensified my doubt, especially in comparison with the top contenders in that field, Canada's Kaetlyn Osmond and Kazakhstan's Elizabet Tursynbaeva. But Miller brought everything she had to Skate Detroit's final free skate round. Jump-wise, her arsenal is first-rate: a triple lutz-half loop-triple salchow and double axel-triple toe loop that look effortless, if a bit telegraphed. Once she gets those jumping passes out of the way, she finds her artistic groove, breathing some life into Turandot and showing off the elegant arch of her back. Miller will have to demonstrate consistency and improve her transitions to break out from the pack of talented American ladies, but for the first time, I see real hope of that happening.

Mirai Nagasu

If Nagasu skates like this when it counts, she will have one hell of a season. At this point in her career, she's a Frankenskater in the best way. She still has the cheerful on-ice presence and fast, flexible spins that earned her a senior national title at age fourteen, but she's since added the poise and grace that Frank Carroll drilled into her and the strong, reliable jumping technique that Tom Zakrajsek has belatedly instilled. I'm not sure what to make of the music; I love the soaring "Young and Beautiful" section but find the cuts distracting elsewhere. At times, Nagasu scrambles to keep up with the tempo changes. But she's staying on her feet, and those jumps look rotated, although international judges might squint harder at her landings than the panel at the Collegiate Championships. Here's hoping.

Tyler Pierce

I really like a few things about Pierce technically. She's more of a leaper than a jumper - lots of horizontal ice coverage, especially on her edge jumps - which gives her extra room to complete her rotations. She also has lovely knee flexibility and a beautiful broken leg sit spin. Her jumps were sloppy at Glacier Falls, but that doesn't mean anything because she skates with Kori Ade. I'm more concerned about the content of her free skate, which begins around the 1:02:00 mark in the IceNetwork video. Pierce's music, from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker, is way too big for her, and she's skating through it rather than committing to the stately bombast of it. She connected well to her lighter, more playful "Dance of the Hours" free skate music last year, but she needs to explore the aggressive diva within if she's going to sell this one.

The most exciting thing about the U. S. ladies, as well as the most exhausting thing, is the depth of the bench. In addition to the dozen skaters mentioned above, Angela Wang and Maria Yang both acquitted themselves well at Collegiates - Yang beat both Nagasu and Wang in the short program. Amber Glenn and Olivia Serafini are struggling with injuries, but they have a lot of time to shape up before Nationals. Leah Keiser hasn't competed yet, but apparently she killed it, charisma-wise, at the Evening With Champions gala. That adds up to seventeen senior-level American ladies worth watching this year, and I've probably forgotten someone. And despite that, it's unlikely we'll see an American lady on the World podium next spring - albeit more possible than it's been in a long time.