Several Locals Aim for Olympic Berths
What will be perhaps the longest U.S. Figure Skating Championships on record (11 days) gets underway Thursday in Spokane, Washington. Due to a request from NBC, the senior events will be divided over two weekends, with the men and pairs competing this weekend and the ladies and ice dancers competing next weekend.
“I think it’s so incredibly stupid that the national championships are spread over two weekends,” said three-time U.S. Men’s Champion Johnny Weir, who will be trying to regain a spot on the podium after finishing fifth last year.
“I definitely think not competing in the World Championships last year was a terrible thing for my career,” Weir said. “At the same time, I think it was very good for me. It kind of knocked me off the cloud I had been riding and made me pull myself back up again. That’s something that I’ve made a career out of.”
The men’s competition will be fierce as Weir and reigning World Men’s Champion Evan Lysacek attempt to earn return visits to the Olympic Winter Games. Lysacek finished fourth and Weir fifth at the Games in Torino in 2006. Their sights are set on the top step for the upcoming Games in Vancouver, B.C., Canada.
Other top contenders for the podium in Spokane and a trip to Vancouver include defending U.S. Champion Jeremy Abbott, last year’s silver medalist Brandon Mroz and veteran competitor Ryan Bradley.
There will also be two Northern Virginia residents in the senior men’s event, Tommy Steenberg of Annandale and Armin Mahbanoozadeh of Fairfax.
“My goal is to do my best short and long program of the year,” said Steenberg, 21, who has a new short program this season choreographed by 2008 World Men’s Champion Jeffrey Buttle of Canada. Steenberg is using music for “Don Quixote” again for his free program. “I expect myself to keep a steady, positive mentality while I am at the arena.”
Helping him live a balanced life, Steenberg is currently attending George Mason full-time in the honors program, pursuing a double major in business and dance. “I start my schedule of six classes the day after Nationals, so I better enjoy the vacation to Spokane,” he said with a laugh.
Mahbanoozadeh, 18, will be making his senior national debut in Spokane after competing in two senior Grand Prix events this past fall.
“Competing against the world’s top skaters certainly makes me want to work harder and push myself to improve. Being included as one of them tells me that my efforts through the years are certainly paying off,” he said.
As for his goals and expectations in Spokane, Mahbanoozadeh noted, “I don’t think I can hope for anything other than to be happy with my performances at Nationals. I want to show that I have improved year after year and can be a serious competitor on the national and international stage. I believe that if I end up happy with my skate at Nationals those things will follow.”
In the pairs, Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker are favored to win their third U.S. title and earn one of the two U.S. pairs berths. They have been training with legendary coach John Nicks since last year, and although somewhat inconsistent as of late, have shown signs of being the best U.S. team since Nicks’ former students Jenni Meno and Todd Sand.
Speaking of Meno and Sand, they will likely see their former coach at the boards, as they are now coaching former U.S. Champions and 2006 Olympians Rena Inoue and John Baldwin. Inoue and Baldwin made history four years ago becoming the first pair to successfully land the throw triple axel, but last year they lost their spot on the World team to newcomers Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett.
In what is a first since ice dancing became an Olympic sport in 1976, the U.S. has three Olympic berths in ice dance but only two in ladies. Both Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto, the reigning Olympic silver medalists and World silver medalists, and Meryl Davis and Charlie White, currently the top ranked team in the world and winners of the Grand Prix Final, are legitimate contenders to become America’s first Olympic ice dance gold medalists. First they have to establish who’s the best in the U.S. at Spokane.
The battle for third place will be equally tight between former World Junior Champions Emily Samuelson and Evan Bates, U.S. bronze medalists Kimberly Navarro and Brent Bommentre and reigning World Junior Champions Madison Chock and Greg Zuerlein. Virginian Lauren Corry and partner Alexander Lorello will also be competing.
In the ladies, the favorites for the top two spots are probably Rachael Flatt and Ashley Wagner from Alexandria, Va., whose younger brother Austin will be competing in novice men. Wagner qualified for the Grand Prix Final (Flatt did not), finishing fourth above World silver medalist Joannie Rochette of Canada.
“I think my consistency is an advantage, but at the same time I certainly have to prove myself and at Nationals,” said Flatt. “I’ve been training very well leading up to Nationals, so I’m confident in my training, but there are always exterior distractions when we arrive. I’m preparing myself for that.”
Joining them in the battle for the two U.S. berths are reigning U.S. Champion Alissa Czisny, former World Junior Champion Caroline Zhang, former U.S. Champion Mirai Nagasu and 2006 Olympian Emily Hughes, who took off the year from Harvard to focus on training. Former U.S. Champion, two-time Olympian Sasha Cohen, who announced her return to competition last summer, has said she will also be there.
“Sasha is an incredible skater,” Flatt said. “She certainly has incredible style when it comes to skating. I’m looking forward to competing against her.”