Sports

U.S. Figure Skating Championships Head South

Hoptman-and-FilchenkovWith Olympic gold medalist Evan Lysacek and three-time U.S. Men’s Champion Johnny Weir sitting out this competitive season, and five-time U.S. Ice Dance Champions Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto retired, one could think the upcoming 2011 U.S. Figure Skating Championships might be lacking star power. In fact, all four defending senior national champions from 2010 will be on hand when the skaters glide into action Jan. 22-30 in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Hoptman-and-FilchenkovWith Olympic gold medalist Evan Lysacek and three-time U.S. Men’s Champion Johnny Weir sitting out this competitive season, and five-time U.S. Ice Dance Champions Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto retired, one could think the upcoming 2011 U.S. Figure Skating Championships might be lacking star power. In fact, all four defending senior national champions from 2010 will be on hand when the skaters glide into action Jan. 22-30 in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Ladies

Defending Ladies Champion Rachael Flatt deferred admission to Stanford University for a year to focus on skating. She won two silver medals on the Grand Prix circuit last fall, NHK Trophy and Skate America, which qualified her for her first Grand Prix Final, where she finished sixth. Now 18, Flatt is focusing on delivering more mature presentation.

Former U.S. Champion Mirai Nagasu, 17, is personality-plus, but she’s been battling injury since her outstanding fourth-place finish at the Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver last February. Local girl Ashley Wagner, 19, from Alexandria, is hungry for a return trip to the World Championships. Although she took a bronze at one of her Grand Prix assignments, Cup of Russia, consistency remains an issue for her.

There are only two U.S. ladies berths available for the 2011 World Championships in Tokyo in March.

Pairs

The top two contenders for the pairs title are defending champions Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett and Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig. In a twist fit for a Lifetime movie, Barrett and Evora, a long-time couple, became engaged on Christmas Eve. The two pairs used to train together, but Denney and Barrett changed coaches last summer, and are now working with former U.S. Champion John Zimmerman.

Neither team appeared outstanding on the Grand Prix circuit, but Evora and Ladwig did win a bronze medal at Cup of Russia. Former two-time champion, Rockne Brubaker, returns with a new partner.

There are two berths for the World Championships on the line.

Men

After delivering spectacular performances to win the 2010 U.S. Championships, Jeremy Abbott faltered at the Olympics in Vancouver and finished ninth. He skated much better at the 2010 World Championships, and his fifth-place finish along with Adam Rippon’s sixth-place enabled the U.S. to retain three men’s berths for 2011 Worlds.

While Abbott, 25, and Rippon, 21, appear the likely candidates to battle it out for the title,

Alexandria native Armin Mahbanoozadeh, 19, hopes to challenge for a spot on the podium.

Mahbanoozadeh won a bronze medal at Skate America-finishing ahead of Rippon.

“I was thrilled to medal at Skate America,” said Mahbanoozadeh, who changed coaches a little over a year ago and now trains with Priscilla Hill in Delaware. “I’ve been working hard and I’ve stayed healthy, which is very important. I think I’m improving both technically and artistically. I’m looking forward to Nationals. I would love to be on the podium.”

When Mahbanoozadeh graduated from high school in 2009, he intended to combine skating with attending Dartmouth, a prestigious Ivy League institution. He deferred his admission a year and then gave up his spot after deciding it would be impossible to sustain an elite competitive level while going to such a demanding university. Instead, he’s been studying on his own as well as keeping up his piano skills.

“For my birthday in August, I got an electric piano that I brought to Delaware that I practice on almost every day,” he said. “I posted some videos on YouTube of me playing the piano that have been surprisingly popular.”

He lives on his own in Delaware and finds he has a lot more responsibilities-from grocery shopping to cleaning his apartment. It’s a maturation process all around.

“I feel now I’ve really made an entrance on the senior stage,” he said. “Like every Nationals, this year is going to be really exciting. There are a lot of good skaters. There might be a couple of front-runners, but nothing is set in stone. I feel anything can happen. There’s an unpredictability this year.”

Ice Dancing

With Olympic gold medalists and reigning World Champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada sidelined by injury during the autumn, two-time U.S. Ice Dance Champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White dominated the competition scene. They won gold at NHK Trophy, Skate America and the Grand Prix Final. With the second, third and fourth place teams from 2010 Nationals not competing in 2011, only injury or illness can keep Davis and White from defending their title.

The big question is whether Davis, 24, and White, 23, will win the World title in March, as Virtue and Moir are healthy and ready to get back in the game.

Vying for the silver and bronze medals and spots on the U.S. World team will be two NoVa natives, Ginna Hoptman of Vienna, who skates with Pavel Filchenkov, and Centreville native Kyle Herring, who is partnered with Meredith Zuber.

This will be a first trip to the U.S. Championships for Hoptman, 21, who teamed up with Filchenkov two and a half years ago, but just started competing this season after overcoming injuries. Hoptman and her twin sister, Ellie, used to skate in Fairfax and Reston. When she switched to ice dancing, she relocated to Aston, Pennsylvania to be coached by 1980 Olympic gold medalists Natalia Linichuk and Gennadi Karponosov. Her coaches arranged a tryout with Russian-born Filchenkov.

“We both said, ‘This isn’t going to work,’ but it worked,” said Hoptman with a laugh. “We are both really reserved until we get to know someone. After we started skating together, we realized we could really work well together.”

The duo won the Eastern Championships to qualify for Nationals.

“We worked really hard and we’re skating pretty well right now,” she said. “Winning Easterns was really exciting for us. We had some good feedback and we’re hoping to improve a lot more.”

Herring, 21, and Zuber, 20, who train in Newark, Delaware, just teamed up last April. Although he’s made five previous trips to the U.S. Championships, this is his first in seniors. Their second-place finish at Easterns was exciting and the new team is looking forward to their trip to Greensboro.

“We’re skating for the fun of it and looking for the best results we can get,” said Herring. “We’re hoping to get top eight…. We’re just going to put out two solid performances.”

Ice dance competition is a bit different this year. The compulsory dance and original dance are gone-replaced by the new short dance. For this phase of the competition Herring and Zuber will skate a waltz and a tango. Their free dance is set to “Tango Roxanne” from the film Moulin Rouge.

“I’ve been ice dancing since I was 10 years old,” said Herring. “It was fun to be part of the sport that all of a sudden exploded. Now everyone knows what it is. There really is an excitement around it. It’s cool to compete against people that are such a big deal in the sport.”

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