Sports

Skaters Head West for U.S. Championships

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Ginna Hoptman and Pavel Filchenkov perform their Latin short dance. (Photo: Daphne Backman)

It’s that icy time of year again involving a slick surface on which competitive skaters vie for medals. On Jan. 22, the best skaters in the country convene in San Jose, California for the 2012 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Titles are up for grabs and skaters from Northern Virginia will be in the mix. We’re breaking down the senior events.

Ladies

For the fourth year in a row, there are only two U.S. ladies berths available for the upcoming World Championships in Nice, France. Long the most dominant discipline in U.S. skating, the ladies have slid in the rankings since Kimmie Meissner won the World title in 2006. There are several skaters determined to change that scenario.

After about a decade living in Alexandria, Ashley Wagner’s parents have moved to Annapolis, Maryland, but she’s still a NoVa girl at heart. She’s also feeling renewed competitive energy since moving her training base to Southern California, where she now works with hall of fame coach John Nicks and choreographer Phillip Mills at the Aliso Viejo Ice Palace.

“I’m a military brat, so I’m used to moving all over the place, but I’m still completely an East Coast girl,” said Wagner, 20, whose father is a retired Army officer. The family moved repeatedly before settling in Alexandria.

Since moving west last June, Wagner has found a new approach to training-focusing on quality over quantity.

“Going into Nationals, I feel a lot more confident because I know that everything I’m practicing is coming together,” said Wagner, who has twice won bronze medals at the senior level (2008 and ’10). “I feel confident with the jumps that I’m doing. That was basically the biggest issue. They wanted me to feel confident when I competed.

“If I keep the mindset that I’ve had I think that Nationals is going to not be easy, but it will be more manageable for me mentally than it has been in the past.”

Wagner’s competition will come from defending champion Alissa Czisny, who is healing from an injury suffered at the Grand Prix Final. Also, look out for 2008 U.S. Champion Mirai Nagasu and 2010 Champion Rachael Flatt, who is seeking redemption after having dismal showings on the Grand Prix circuit last fall.

Pairs

The 2011 U.S. Pair Champions Caitlin Yankowskas and John Coughlin ended their partnership shortly after an impressive sixth-place debut at the World Championships. Coughlin returns in 2012 paired with 2010 U.S. Champion Caydee Denney, who ended her partnership with Jeremy Barrett shortly after 2011 Nationals. The emotional favorites are Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig, who have been partners for more than a decade.

Men

Skating fans will have to wait at least one more year before seeing a return of the Evan Lysacek/Johnny Weir rivalry. Lysacek, the reigning Olympic men’s gold medalist, has announced a return to competition, but declined to compete at Nationals. Weir, who married Victor Voronov on New Year’s Eve, said he’s resuming intense training and will then make a decision about his future.

Defending Men’s Champion Ryan Bradley has turned professional. In San Jose, two-time U.S. Men’s Champion Jeremy Abbott will try to reclaim the title he lost in 2011. Also eager to prove his mettle is Adam Rippon, who now trains alongside Abbott in Detroit with coaches Yuka Sato and Jason Dungjen. Both have been skating well, but they’ll have to battle last year’s surprise medalists Richard Dornbush and Ross Miner as well as Brandon Mroz, the first skater in history to land a quadruple Lutz. Armin Mahbanoozadeh from Great Falls-sixth last year-is hoping his coaching change in December will propel him onto the podium. There are only two Worlds berths up for grabs.

Ice Dancing

Odds are heavily in favor of reigning World Ice Dance Champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White making it four U.S. titles in a row. It’s also a good bet that World bronze medalists Maia and Alex Shibutani will place second. Then things get interesting. After years as the poor relation in American skating, ice dancing is now this country’s most dominant discipline and the only discipline to have three berths for 2012 Worlds. Battle for third place will be intense and two teams with roots in Northern Virginia hope to be in contention.

Last year Kyle Herring, 22, and partner Meredith Zuber, 21, went to the U.S. Championships just to see if they liked competing together. After finishing ninth, they decided they liked it a whole lot.

“After we skated Nationals, we both knew we wanted to do it another year because it went so well,” said Herring, whose parents own Willow Spring Towing in Fairfax County, which their family has run since 1941. Herring lives and trains in Newark, Delaware, but comes to NoVa almost every weekend to play recreational ice hockey with his brother, who lives in Alexandria.

Since the 2011 U.S. Championships, Herring and Zuber have competed several times and have found their competition groove.

“We’re much more on the same page with our skating and we know how to keep each other calm,” said Herring, a full-time student at the University of Delaware, majoring in American history and minoring in material cultures with an eye toward the museum field.

“The second year together it’s much more personal with our skating,” he continued. “We’re communicating better and showing that we’ve gained a comfort level with each other.”

Also back for another season are Ginna Hoptman of Vienna, 22, and partner Pavel Filchenkov, 25, who finished 10th in 2011 after an unfortunate fall in their free dance. Since then, they’ve won Challenge Cup in Ardmore, Penn., and Pikes Peak Classic in Colorado Springs, and placed third at the Eastern Sectional Championships.

“We are a much stronger team,” said Hoptman, who teamed with Filchenkov in 2008, but injuries stalled their competitive debut. The train at Ice Works in Aston, Penn. “This has been the first season that we’ve really been able to train as a team and get ready for competitions.”

Hoptman admitted the Latin rhythms of the short dance have not come naturally to her, but ballroom instructors Ilya and Amanda Reyzin have been extremely helpful. “My goal by Nationals is to look just a little bit Latin,” Hoptman said. Their free dance is a tango, and Hoptman said she loves the music and feel of the program.

With a year of competition experience, they have learned how they handle nerves. “We’re a little bit more nervous on practice ice, but once we go out to do the actual competition, we kind of settle into it,” Hoptman said. “We’re really hoping to go to Nationals and have performances we can be 100 percent happy with. We have no pressure on us, so I’m excited.”

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