May. 11, 2016
16 Best Men's Performances of the 2015-16 Figure Skating Season
It's a rocky road for the fan of men's figure skating. The high-risk elements mean a lot of falls and popped jumps, and on top of that, the discipline is full of fragile artists and mercurial headcases who crumble under the pressure, skate into the boards, or forget how to count. As much as we joke about holding our breath through an entire free skate or fixing cocktails during the scoring breaks, the fails are part of the fun. One of the big questions before any men's event is, Who's going to melt down this time?
But the other big question is, Who's going to break a record today? The current generation of men's skaters are pushing the technical limits of the sport forward at an incredible rate. For the first time, skaters earned over 110 in the short program, 200 in the free skate, and 300 overall - scores so high that the ISU is considering a recalibration of the program components to keep the scoring fair. Many of those game-changing jumps are not just huge but beautiful, with strong take-off and in-air technique, clean landings, and challenging transitions. Jumps can only get a skater so far, though: many of the top technicians are also brilliant performers, sensitive to the music and attuned to the crowd. And while there weren't many surprises at the top of the podium, it's been a great year for charismatic underdogs. Hard work and a positive attitude don't always get you far in figure skating, but this year, they were often the recipe for unexpectedly high placements and enthusiastic fan attention.
I found myself leaving off some of the big names from my other best of season lists, but for the men, I didn't have to. All of the athletes at the top of the sport gave at least one unforgettable performance, and in some cases, it was hard to pick just one. The trade-off is, a lot of these performances aren't technically perfect, although I steered clear of any skates with a fall. Also, I gave up on nice round numbers when I realized I'd counted wrong and didn't want to leave any of these off the list. Anyway, here they are, in (mostly) alphabetical order:
Max Aaron (USA), Skate America short program
I've written about this performance so many times that I tried to convince myself to put it to bed. Nonetheless, Aaron's was the first great skate of the season, and it set the tone for every other athlete on this list. It turned out to be the most emotional and musical performance Aaron gave this season, with a commitment to the building energy of "Nessun Dorma" that showed an personal connection to the character he was portraying. Every "vincero" seemed to intensify his determination to win. Aaron would be swiftly outscored, as well as overshadowed artistically, but we seldom see an athlete set the bar at such a terrific level in the first Grand Prix event of the season. And few could match his triple axel, launched high into the air and finished on a smooth, deep running edge.
Florent Amodio (France), European Championships free skate
When Amodio announced that he'd retire from competition after Euros, the fan response was somber, not only because we'd all miss Amodio's fun performances, but because his tendency to wipe out in high-pressure competitions meant his career might end on a tragic note. After a missed jump in his short program, things were moving in that direction. But Amodio found his groove one last time, landing the quad salchow of his life. After that, all that mattered to him - or his audience - was the dance. The jumps stayed solid, but they were only accents to the hip-wiggling joy of his step sequences. Although he finished just off the podium overall, Amodio's was the second-best free skate of the day. And it was the "I'm not crying, you're crying" moment of the season.
Patrick Chan (Canada), Canadian National Championships short program
Chan struggled with this short program so many times that it became a joke - all the more so because of what a triumph of choreography and style it was the one time he got every move right. He seemed to surprise himself with the smooth, fast landing on his quadruple toe loop, taking a moment to collect himself before adding the second jump in the combination. He also performed a beauty of a triple axel, with so much speed out of the landing that he might have cut out a planned step or two and launched directly into a spin. Chan's step sequences are the fastest in the world, with such control over his blades that he glides silently through his turns. And he was never faster than at Nationals, proud of every element, watching the crowd bounce in anticipation of a standing ovation.
Javier Fernandez (Spain), World Championships free skate
The most satisfying victories are the ones that leave no doubt. Fernandez came to Boston to defend his title, but he nonetheless had plenty to prove: he'd taken gold in 2015 despite a fall, and mistakes had blemished his accomplishments at Euros and the Grand Prix Final. In the short program this time, he fell on his quadruple salchow, placing himself 12 points behind Yuzuru Hanyu in a season when Hanyu had constantly seemed a few steps ahead. But Fernandez had saved his best for the Worlds free skate. The jumps were beyond flawless, and by the end, you could practically hear the judges throwing up their hands and saying, "Let's just give him all the points and call it a season." He received perfect grades of execution on two of his quadruple jumps, and six of his eight jumping passes earned 10 points or more apiece. But Fernandez's technical achievements aren't what stand out as you watch. Fernandez jumped with a shrug and a wink, totally in character until his final pose. If ever a program was designed to make the impossible look effortless, it was this one.
Yuzuru Hanyu (Japan), Grand Prix Final free skate
What do you do when you've just set a new world record score and become the first man to earn over 300 total points in a competition? Come back two weeks later and bust your own record. Hanyu couldn't put a foot wrong in Barcelona, and his performances there made him look like the unrivaled king of figure skating. The jumps were insanely difficult in their own right - three quads, two triple axels in combination, almost everything saved for the second-half bonus - but they were all the more amazing because they seemed to spring out of nowhere, launching from no speed or out of tricky footwork. His choreographic step sequence was basically a victory lap, hydroblading to work the crowd into a frenzy before they rained celebratory Pooh Bear toys down on their hero. The season was only at its halfway point, but no one would skate better than this.
Tomoki Hiwatashi (USA), World Junior Championships free skate
Hiwatashi's season played out like a sports movie. He spent all season overshadowed by two other Americans his age, Nathan Chen and Vincent Zhou. At Nationals, he stayed Junior while those two moved up to the top level, and even so, he wasn't favored to win. But win he did, landing his first triple axel in competition - only to see Chen and Zhou named to the Junior World team. Hiwatashi was in the wings when Chen injured himself during the Nationals gala and punched Hiwatashi's ticket to Junior Worlds. In Debrecen, Hiwatashi went 3 for 3 on that triple axel, won all our hearts with his Charlie Chaplin routine, and snagged a bronze medal ahead of Zhou and the entire Russian team. It's time to take this graceful, well-rounded skater seriously, because once he grows into a quad or two, he'll be tough to beat.
Grant Hochstein (USA), World Championships free skate
While we're on the subject of improbable and heartwarming underdog stories, let us consider the curious case of Grant Hochstein. Sent to Grand Prix as replacement for injured skater; comes in fourth. Gets second assignment; comes in fourth again. Nationals? Also fourth. Gets called up from the alternate list again for Worlds; almost destroyed by nerves in the short program. Lands a gorgeous quad toe loop in his free skate. Lands everything else in his free skate. The standing ovation starts before his music stops. He's 25 years old, this is his first Worlds, and he's made the top 10 in his home country. Others might have won more medals, but Grant Hochstein had the best year ever.
Boyang Jin (China), Four Continents Championships short program
Of all the incredible facts about Boyang Jin, the most incredible might be that he didn't win an international competition all year. Lots of silver and a history-making bronze at Worlds, but all those quads couldn't buy him gold. Everywhere else, he was clearly outclassed by skaters with greater consistency and more sophisticated artistry, but at Four Continents, I thought he had it. With secure landings on all four quadruple jumps, he certainly had the technical side squared away. And those jumps aren't just big, they're powerfully executed: straight and centered in the air, with fast running edges at the end. For the first time this season, Jin looked relaxed and confident, and that brought expression into his face and spring into his footwork. If Jin can harness that jauntiness and turn it into personal style, he'll be well nigh unstoppable in a few years. For now, it's enough to enjoy the jumps.
Mikhail Kolyada (Russia), World Championships short program
Kolyada skated so early in the Worlds short program lineup that I'm pretty sure the sun was still out. With little past support from the Russian Federation, his international rank was so low that he was stuck skating in the first group despite a breakout performance at Nationals and a solid outing at Euros. Anybody who'd managed to get through TD Garden security in time to see him, or fired up their live stream early, became an instant fan. While the other Russian men were busy trying to out-quad each other, Kolyada had quietly built up his consistency and artistry. His quad toe loop-triple toe loop was tremendous at Worlds, but his real weapons are always his speed and his musicality. No matter how wacky his choreography, every step was controlled and self-aware; he showed off perfect comic timing. The punchline is that 89.66 points are no joke, and every time he winked and grinned at the judges, they took him a little more seriously.
Ivan Righini (Italy), European Championships free skate
No tribute to the fan-favorite underdogs of 2015-16 would be complete without Righini. In a Euros free skate plagued with falls, pops, and miscellaneous ugliness, Righini made the strategic decision to shelve his unreliable quad and deliver a clean performance. The gambit didn't win him a medal - a couple of doubled jumps hurt his technical score - but it made him one of the stars of the night. With intricate spins, clever choreography, and an indefatigable smile, he sold every moment of his Pink Floyd medley. Even his jumps were artsy, timed to the rhythm of the music and often embellished with arm variations. On a night when many other skaters looked nervous, fatigued, or disconnected, Righini looked thrilled to be on the ice, and that made him thrilling to watch.
Adam Rippon (USA), World Championships free skate
Every time Rippon performed this program, it seemed to evolve into something more complex, creative, and magical. Sure, that quadruple lutz didn't come close to full rotation, and he lacked the speed and momentum of the skaters at the very top. But this choreography was a marathon, full of intricate turns and emotional range, and it's hard to imagine many other skaters getting to the end of it without dying on their feet. His best jumps - his signature triple lutz with arms aloft, a buttery triple axel at the halfway mark - were so secure that he checked out of them with a nonchalant smile. Many skaters work a crowd, but none feed on the audience more ravenously than Rippon; in Boston, he practically demanded that everyone rise to their feet. Let's not talk about his placement in the standings, because he won all the hearts in the arena that night.
Daniel Samohin (Israel), World Junior Championships free skate
Three clean quads in a Junior free skate when it matters most - that's how you become the first Israeli skater to win a major international title. But there's a lot more to Samohin than those quads: one of the most impressive jumps in the program was a triple lutz-half loop-triple salchow late in the skate, and his speed and edge control set him apart from the other Juniors as well. Even so, this program is only half as exciting by itself as it was in context. After a messy short program and some bad luck in the draw, Samohin skated first in the second-to-last warm-up group, which left him to sit backstage and watch eleven skaters fail to measure up. It would be almost two hours before he'd know for sure that he'd destroyed the competition and given the performance of his career. But that smile was on his face right away.
Keiji Tanaka (Japan), Japanese National Championships free skate
The men at this season's Japanese Nationals were a stumbly, fumbly mess - except for Tanaka, who challenged his reputation for inconsistency by landing every jump. He didn't just land them: with the exception of a shaky quadruple salchow at the very beginning, Tanaka was so light on his feet that he seemed to fly out of most of his landings. He also sold the hell out of his music and choreography. Maybe it was the hair, but there was something refreshingly rock 'n' roll about his La Traviata. Like so many of this season's surprise overachievers, it seemed like he started out having fun, and the rest just fell into place.
Julian Zhi Jie Yee (Malaysia), World Championships short program
I sometimes feel bad for the skaters near the bottom of the ranks at the World Championships. They've accomplished enough during the season to qualify for the big stage, and in most cases, they're first class within their home countries. A few, like Yee, are history-makers, establishing a development program and a competitive presence for a country not exactly known for figure skating. It might have been enough for Yee to fly the Malaysian flag over Boston, but he went the extra mile. His jump technique didn't fully stand up to the judges' scrutiny, but the jumps looked great to the naked eye, not just landed but powerful and confident. And while most of his competitors in the early groups struggled just to get to the end of their programs without embarrassing themselves, Yee revved up the audience with jazzy footwork and a gravity-defying cantilever. When the Boston crowd saw his scores, it booed at how low they were. If figure skating were a democracy, Yee might have spoiled for a medal.
Vincent Zhou (USA), Midwestern Sectional Championships free skate
Some skaters feed on the crowd, but many do their best skating when no one is watching. Zhou had an audience and a judging panel at Midwesterns, but the stakes were so low that it was more like an open practice for him. He'd already earned a bye to Nationals but skated at the sectional qualifier in order to fine-tune his Senior-level programs and gain confidence. Of course, he looked spectacular in comparison to the other men on the roster, many of whom struggled to land triple jumps. But jumps have never been Zhou's obstacle. Even when he has trouble with his quad salchow - which he didn't here, not one bit - the triple-triple combinations in the second half are easy as walking. Instead, he's had a hard time finding himself as a performer. For the first couple of minutes of this skate, he seemed stuck in his head as usual, but something kicked in here as it never had before. By his final pose, I half believed he was a long-lost Corleone.
Shoma Uno (Japan), Team Challenge Cup free skate
I've violated the rules of the alphabet to put this one last, partially because it was the last great performance of the season, but mostly because it's bonkers. It wasn't the cleanest skate: half the jump landings were dodgy, including one quadruple toe loop that ended in a lunge so low that it almost looked like an intentional choreographic feature. It wasn't the most artistically polished or crowd-pleasing. It was just plain crazy, the kind of skating an athlete can only get away with at a competition that doesn't really count when he's already become the first in the world to land a ratified quadruple flip. The one in his short program was far more secure, but this one was a beast, almost overrotated. Things didn't really go off the rails - in the best possible way - until the second half. After the saving lunge on his quad toe, Uno's eyes lit with rebellious glee. With about a minute remaining, Uno rearranged his program on the fly, adding a second quad toe and breaking into laughter when he squeaked it out. A few seconds later, he improvised again, busting out a gorgeous triple axel-half loop-triple flip. By this point, the crowd was on their feet and Uno had lost all pretense of keeping a straight face. The commentators claimed that Uno was trying to earn extra points for his team, but Team Asia had no chance of making up their deficit. Anyone with a lick of sense could tell that Uno was just plain having fun out there. What more reason could he need?