Skate America 2016 Ladies Recap: Sweet Dreams Are Made of This

By srasher
Oct. 24, 2016

Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Skate America was in the Chicago area this year, which was mostly a great deal for me. I didn't have to pay for air fare or a hotel room; I got to sleep in my own bed after a long day at the rink; I could give visiting friends valuable advice on where to sample the local cuisine (i.e. pizza and beef sandwiches). On the other hand, it was an hour drive each way - longer on the two nights when the geniuses at the Illinois Department of Transportation decided to close a bunch of lanes on I-90 - and while I technically had the four days off work, I still had to squeeze in time for a couple of job responsibilities. The end result is, I had less time to blog during the event than I did during Skate America 2015 or this year's World Championships. Fortunately, I tweeted nonstop from the arena, so I have good notes. Here's what stood out, focusing on highlights of the competition itself but working in some of my observations from practice sessions and the gala. To avoid an overwhelming level of TLDR, I'll focus this one on the ladies, cover pairs and dance in one post, and finish out with a lot of feelings about the men.

I had high hopes for the ladies' event, which included many notable up-and-comers and a deep, unpredictable field. First, let's get the disappointments out of the way. Angelina Kuchvalska of Latvia proved unable to match her surprise fourth-place finish at last season's European Championships, and she finished a dismal last in both segments. Rumor has it that numerous coaches have been courting her, and judging from her struggles this weekend, she'll be wise to take one of them up on the offer. Roberta Rodeghiero, who looked like the future of Italian skating after a win at the Lombardia Trophy and a Grand Prix bronze in France last season, followed up her so-so Challenger Series results with unsteady jumps and unmemorable programs. Similarly, Serafima Sakhanovich, who seemed poised for greatness after racking up the medals in juniors, appears to be one of the many promising Russian teens who peaks at 14 and never gets any further. It's too bad, not only because I'd liked her junior-level skating, but because she was getting close to landing a quadruple salchow in practice. 

Also much reduced from their glory days were the two Japanese veterans. Both Mao Asada and Kanako Murakami are former Skate America champions; I had to miss Asada's 2013 victory, but I was in the stands for Murakami's dark horse win in 2010. Neither much resembled the skaters they'd been when they won those events. Murakami was an outright disaster, taking heavy deductions for underrotation, including downgrades on two of her three short program jumping passes. She's always had trouble recovering from a shaky start, and it was rough to watch her get visibly frustrated as the mistakes piled up. 

Asada, on the other hand, was a pleasure despite the costly errors that kept her off the podium. Her programs this season, both with Latin themes, embrace her maturity with winking sexiness, although neither is as joyful or memorable as her short program from last season, which might be my favorite Mao program ever. Asada didn't attempt a triple Axel, and she had trouble getting enough rotational power for even a triple lutz or triple flip. Her finest moment was at the gala, with a mesmerizing performance to a cello suite by Bach that let her shine as an artist.

The standout Japanese lady was the third-stringer, the one who was just supposed to be having a development year. Mai Mihara broke out in 2015 with terrific performances at the Junior Grand Prix, then disappeared from view again after a rough outing at Nationals. After Mihara won the Nebelhorn Trophy last month, we all should have had an inkling that she was a medal contender here, but I scarcely heard her name from my fellow armchair experts - and frankly, I wouldn't have put money on her, either. But the second she landed her effortless triple lutz-triple toe loop in her short program, she made herself a star. She's an understated skater, but there's a natural shine to her in person, especially in the small moments, like the stop-turn-smile before her short program step sequence. During the practice sessions, Mihara looked like she was in over her head, but she'd shaken that in time for competition. I hope she'll maintain that focus at Cup of China, win another medal, and get people to stop confusing her with Satoko Miyahara once and for all.

Gabrielle Daleman did Canada proud with a 4th-place finish that reflected consistency as much as strong technical content. If you've been grumbling about junior ladies with tiny little jumps throughout the Junior Grand Prix, Daleman is the antidote. She gets extraordinary height, although she needs it to compensate for her loose, bent knees in the air. While she incurred a downgrade for the short landing on her triple lutz-triple toe loop, it's great to see her standing up at the end of that difficult combination, and the triple toe-triple toe in her free skate was a breeze in comparison. Both of her programs - an underused Massenet ballet, Herodiade, for her short; the warhorse-y but appealing Rhapsody in Blue for her free - suit her graceful and upbeat style. Unfortunately, she's the first Grand Prix casualty of my Weird Old Rock Test: her short program choreography works better with Simple Minds' All the Things She Said than with the Massenet. The judges noticed, too, placing her almost 10 points behind Ashley Wagner in free skate program components despite the second-highest technical score in the segment.

I mostly felt bad for Gracie Gold, who was supposed to be entering a head-to-head grudge match with Ashley Wagner but struggled with both her jumps and her overall focus. Even before the troubling comments about her weight and self-image that she made after her short program, something seemed amiss. Her entry technique on her hardest jumping pass was so uncertain that I mentioned a triple flip-triple toe on Twitter, only to have a follower ask if she'd switched from the lutz. She hadn't, and the triple lutz-triple toe loop in her short program was spectacular, a bright spot in a painful meet. Gold looked distracted and distraught throughout, to the point where she was hard to watch. If she's as troubled as she seems, I hope she treats her mental health as she would any other health problem.

Ashley Wagner, on the other hand, was in fine form, backing up her World Championships silver medal with a confident and snazzy victory. Her jump technique remains unreliable - the judges called her on a bunch of underrotations and a bad edge - but she executed them with such finesse that it was easy to excuse the errors. That's exactly how the judges approached both of Wagner's programs, rewarding her energy and the overall difficulty of her choreography with sky-high components marks. Generous as those components scores were, they felt right, a reminder that the second mark can be used for truth and justice. I'm not wildly in love with her free skate, to Muse's Exogenesis: Symphony, which I think is a bit ponderous and abstract for her. I suspect she'll grow into it as the season progresses, though, and find a way to make it her own. But her short program, to a remix of The Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)," is an instant classic, a little menacing and utterly unique.

Wagner might have been the leading lady of Skate America, but an ingenue nearly stole the show from her. At age 20, Mariah Bell isn't brand new, but she's reinvented herself this season, earning medals at two Challenger Series events before her triumphant silver medal at Skate America. She's a potent vehicle for Rohene Ward's tricky choreography, but it used to overwhelm her, getting in the way of powerful but inconsistent jumps. She struggled with her triple lutz-triple toe loop during her practice sessions, but she found her feet when it counted. The combination at the top of her free skate might have been the best triple-triple of her life, earning a grade of execution almost as high as Mihara's and setting her up for a program that built in charm and confidence as it went on. The most exciting thing about it is, Bell arrived as the ultimate underdog, a last-minute substitute for an injured teammate. She doesn't even have a second Grand Prix assignment yet. And she's delivered the first truly extraordinary performance of this season's Grand Prix.