Skate America 2016 Men's Recap: Loco, Loco, Loco

By srasher
Oct. 28, 2016

I'm sure it's no surprise that I have more to say about the men's event at Skate America than any of the others. Even when men's singles is dull and predictable, I have a ton of commentary. But this year at Skate America, it's like they knew I was coming. I got to see two of my three favorite current skaters, several guys who I find flawed but interesting, and a few third-stringers I'm sentimentally attached to. I watched clean quadruple flips and quadruple lutzes so close I could almost touch them. If that weren't enough, it was a high-flying and high-scoring event from top to bottom. The guy in last place landed a quad. The sixth-place score would have earned a medal at last year's Skate America, and the 2015 winner wouldn't have reached the podium this time. Plus, we got Spider-Man and pirates and a gay nightclub fantasy. Plenty of routines in the other three disciplines were skippable, but the men were so uniformly memorable that I want to embed everything. I'll show a little restraint - but not much.

Two last-minute withdrawals loomed over the men's event. Both Denis Ten and Daisuke Murakami bowed out so late that no substitutes could be named, and clips of their skating remained in the preview videos on the Jumbotron. If they'd been able to compete, the field would have been even deeper and harder to predict: neither is a reliable force, especially in October, but Ten is the reigning Olympic bronze medalist, while Murakami skated well enough last season to qualify for the Grand Prix Final. They left behind a diverse ten-man field, almost all of whom could have earned a medal on a good day.

The few who were out of the running for the podium were terrific fun. Brendan Kerry of Australia couldn't replicate his lights-out free skate from the U.S. Classic last month, and falls in both of his programs consigned him to the bottom of the rankings. Still, he wowed the arena with a powerful quad toe loop, and his Pirates of the Caribbean free skate is a crowd-pleasing hoot. Similarly, Belgium's Jorik Hendrickx wasn't as stellar as he'd been in his silver-medal performance at the Nebelhorn Trophy earlier in the autumn, and as the only man in the field without a quad, he wouldn't have had a prayer even with two perfect skates. A number of messy landings sealed his fate, although it was easy to overlook the errors during his elegant and emotional performances. 

One of the few wishes that didn't come true for me at Skate America was for Timothy Dolensky to land his quad salchow. When he doubled the crucial jump in his free skate, I knew he'd settle near the bottom of the rankings. He made a courageous play for it in the short program, though, earning a career-best score and placing himself in shooting range of a medal. A two-footed jump combination held him below 80 points, but his other two jumps were exceptional; the judges ruled his triple Axel the second best of the day, after Jason Brown's. His beautiful performance and fast, difficult spins were even more impressive than the jumps, though. Overall, Dolensky justified his berth as the USA host pick and Skating magazine cover boy. With a couple of quiet months to train before Nationals, he could crush some dreams when January rolls around.

A program that ends in tears is the kind of drama that skating fans live for. Kovtun had imploded in the short program, popping two of his jumping passes after a stunning quad salchow-triple toe loop combination. Sitting dead last, Kovtun had no hope of rallying for a medal, but he came painfully close to redeeming himself in the free skate. He made it the kind of competition where the first guy on the ice opens with a pair of textbook quads, a toe loop and a salchow. Everything looked clean and effortless until the final minute of the program, when a fatigued Kovtun fell on a relatively simple triple lutz. Clearly, it was an emotional performance for him, but his music doesn't give him a lot of opportunity for expression. It's the kind of droning pop song that made the free dance such rough going, and it emphasized how badly Kovtun needs rhythm and energy to showcase his abilities. 

Around this point in the post, you're going to notice a pattern: one spectacular program, one massive fail. For Nam Nguyen, the brilliance came in his short program. It included the best quad of the night, a salchow-toe loop combination so perfect that it made me want to rewind real life. He would have placed higher than 4th in the short if he hadn't received zero credit for a bungled sit spin; I'm not sure what invalidated it, although he clearly struggled through it. Unfortunately, Nguyen couldn't carry the momentum through his free skate. None of his elements were outright bad, but they were uniformly so-so. The little cuts to his grades of execution - and a harsh assessment of his program components, especially in the Transitions column - pulled him down to 8th in the free skate and 6th overall. Nguyen's decision to skate to a pair of jazzy programs suits his personality, but they leave him nowhere to hide when his stamina starts to flag. 

The biggest surprise at Skate America was Boyang Jin, in both positive and negative ways. The prevailing assumption was that Jin, as reigning World bronze medalist, was the safest bet for gold, and that one of the main stories of the event would be his rivalry with Shoma Uno. But Jin did something smart over the summer - something that backfired last weekend but is likely to extend his future in the sport. He worked extensively with Lori Nichol, not just on his choreography, but on honing his performance style. One of the things that drove me crazy about Jin last season was that he showed so little personality on the ice, a giant contrast with his gregariousness around fans and competitors. He's never going to be a subtle, sensitive performer, so Nichol took him down the Javier Fernandez path, giving him characters to play and stories to tell. When I attended the Thursday morning practice, I became one of the first fans to see Jin's new Spider-Man short program, and I probably saw a better version of it than in competition. He skated through his quads and just did the choreography, and he lit up the rink. I was waiting for him to quip like Peter Parker in the middle of the routine. Unfortunately, his jumps failed him in competition; he fell on both his quad lutz and his quad toe loop, and he barely saved his triple Axel. On a day with lots of strong short programs, the errors sank him down to 8th place.

Even with Jin's low score, it was reasonable to think he might fight his way back to a medal. With four planned quads, his base value was high enough to blow through even a 13-point deficit. The clean quad lutz in his free skate was superhuman, launching him several feet above a nearby TV camera and reminding me why I always finagle to sit at the foot of the rink. But he was very good on a day when he needed to be excellent, falling on one of his quad toe loops and struggling with several other landings. He kept placing his triple Axels very close to the boards - he crashed a couple of times in practice, in fact - which he and his coaches might need to rethink, since it's robbing him of a clear check-out. Jin had the highest technical base value, but his grades of execution added up lower than the base value would predict. And despite a pair of engaging performances and much improved edges and transitions, the judges evaluated his program components distantly below those of the top finishers. Jin definitely has room for growth in his PCS, but his "La Strada" free skate was still a joy, drawing on Daisuke Takahashi's iconic rendition of the music but also making it his own. Jin brings a rare, natural sense of humor to his performances, and in the long run, that might be the way he gets the judges to take him seriously as a performer.

Boyang has skated away with Sergei Voronov's column inches, and that's fine with me. Voronov pulled off a fourth-place finish out of sheer consistency. He skated clean in the free skate, save for an edge call on a triple flip, and he opened with a beauty of a quad toe loop. But I can't remember much about either of his performances beyond the solid jump technique. Apparently, I'd blocked out the fact that he skated to the same music that Ashley Wagner had won with the night before, and with many repeat judges on the panel, I suspect he suffered in comparison, if only on a subconscious level. He got passed over for the gala in favor of Jin and Nguyen, which says it all: he earned enough points for fourth, but he made less of a statement than most of the guys he beat.

When I saw Adam Rippon's new free skate during the Friday morning practice, it reminded me of getting excited about new downloadable content for a favorite video game, only to discover that it's the same old monsters in a different color. It's adorned with a clearer story than the free skate he competed at the US Classic, but the layout is the same. He's traded one slow, static piece of music for another, and there are too many long stretches without transitional content. Rippon has made one smart change, swapping his ill-fated quad lutz for a more promising quad toe loop. He fell on the attempt, but he got full credit for rotation. I'm more optimistic about that jump than I am about his non-jump elements and program components. A skater like Rippon, who relies on well-roundedness to bolster less difficult jumps, can't afford level 3 step sequences or a 5-point PCS deficit behind Jason Brown. 

On the other hand, his short program is damned entertaining, and you've got to respect a guy who can get 87 points in autumn without a quad. The mesh tank top is even more see-through in person. All the baby skaters are doing fancy arm variations these days, but it's still something special when Rippon lutzes with both (bare) arms over his head.

Throughout the weekend, Jason Brown was very excited about the Chicago Cubs. Of course, Brown seems excited about everything, all the time, so it's hard to say whether his enthusiasm about baseball was a PR move. He gave his fans a reason to catch his good vibes this weekend, though, despite two of the most emotionally restrained programs I've seen him skate. Together, they should put an end to the criticism that Brown's performance style lacks maturity. Even his gala program, in which he cut loose to Jamiroquai's "Canned Heat," went for reduced mugging and increased musicality. His short program, to the already overused "Writing's on the Wall," even brings a little sex appeal. Brown doesn't have much James Bond in him, but it's not Austin Powers, either. Instead, there's a vulnerability to his performance, like he's trying to seduce you but hasn't convinced himself that he's worth your time. Technically, it was typical Jason, with a gorgeous triple Axel and a fall on the quad toe loop. What really got him in trouble, though, was missing the catch foot position on his camel spin, an uncharacteristic mistake that invalidated the whole element. Without that error, he would have been hot on Shoma's heels.

I loved Brown's free skate when he premiered it last year, and I love it more now that he's grown into the concept. The music itself is minimalist, but the choreography is as dense with flourishes as a Rococo painting. That contradiction gets under some people's skin, but I think it's brilliant. Brown seems to pull the simple music along with him, twisting hidden nuances out of it. He matched his artistic accomplishments with a huge technical breakthrough: for the first time in competition, he landed a quadruple jump. The judges slapped it with an underrotation call, and I suppose they weren't wrong, although it looked close enough in the slow motion replays that they could have given him the benefit of the doubt. The rest of his jumping passes were either flawless or nearly so, and he pulled in big bonuses by executing six of the eight after the program's halfway mark, including a triple lutz-half loop-triple salchow with a gorgeous exit edge in the program's final seconds. And the spin he botched in the short? Perfect grade of execution in the free skate.

Shoma Uno still has a falling problem. In the short program, he bravely hung onto a quadruple flip so high that he could have slam dunked a basketball on the way down, only to crumble on his quad toe-triple toe combination. In the free skate, he was three minutes down the road to perfection before his tired legs failed him on a triple Axel. Even so, he recorded a career best overall score on his way to Skate America gold. Uno got revenge for his narrow loss to Max Aaron last year and reclaimed the Skate America crown for Team Japan (Japanese men have won the event seven times in the last ten years). He's also joined a small, elite club of men's skaters who can amass giant point totals even with major errors. In the past, when Uno fell, he'd often tumble right off the podium, resulting in disappointing finishes at both Four Continents and Worlds last season. Now, the grades of execution he earns for his successful jumps are enough to absorb a goof or two, and then some - he broke 100 points in his free skate technical score and eclipsed even Brown in components.

That components score deserves a paragraph of its own, because it's what sets Uno apart from the multitude of teenagers with through-the-roof jumps. Compared to rivals like Jin, Nathan Chen, and Daniel Samohin, Uno's jump content is restrained: three quads, two of them toe loops. But while the men he's most often compared to live and die by their jumps, Uno is an artistic prodigy as well. Hampered by conservative choreography and themes in the past, not to mention a natural shyness, he didn't always have the opportunity to put on a show. When he announced that his free skate this season would be a tango, I expected something sexless and awkward. Instead, he gelled his hair into bed head curls, donned a mesh midriff that gave Rippon a run for his money, and whipped himself into the rawest teen-gone-wild number imaginable. Throughout the frenzy, he maintained control of his blades, showing off intricate turns and deep edges as the music built. It was aggressive, sensual, and sweet at the same time, and it all felt organic, like he was born on a dance floor in Buenos Aires. I have to believe his performance quality will only get better from here.