U.S. Nationals 2016: Pairs Review

Recently, former U.S. pairs champion Kristi Yamaguchi called U.S. Nationals “the most terrifying event of the year” as a skater. Because U.S. Nationals is, in a way, a referendum/final judgment on an entire year—both for individual skaters and their disciplines. The last few U.S. Nationals (2014, 2015) saw U.S. pairs skaters generally on the upswing. This year’s Nationals, however, was frankly a discouraging year for the U.S. senior pairs.

Coming into the event, I wasn’t really expecting the highest level of skating. The U.S. senior pairs have had so many injuries and other issues this season. Looking at the 12 pairs from last year’s Nationals (2015) and their injury/split status this season, it’s not a pretty picture.

2015 finish

Pair

2016 injury/split status

1

Scimeca/Knierim

2

Denney/Frazier

Injury; missed entire season

3

Kayne/O’Shea

4

Aaron/Settlage

Injuries; missed 1st half of season

5

Calalang/Sidhu

Injuries; missed 1st half of season

6

Castelli/Tran

7

Donlan/Bartholomay

Illness; missed 2nd half of season

8

Leng/Shnapir

Split/injury

9

Davidovich/Reiss

Split

10

Shaughnessy/Morgan

11

Oltmanns/Santillan

Split

12

Fujimoto/Barsi-Rhyne

So from last year’s field, only 5 senior pairs returned and stayed healthy enough to compete the entire season this year. A few new pairs joined the field; however, it was pretty clear before Nationals even started that it wasn’t going to be a banner year for U.S. pairs.

Fortunately, Tarah Kayne/Danny O’Shea won their first U.S. title and elevated the whole event with two inspired, clean, career-best performances. There were also some good moments from several other pairs. But, as could have been predicted, many of the teams struggled and were not able to put out their best skating.

Let’s look at what happened.

Kayne/O’Shea

In their 4th appearance at U.S. Nationals, Kayne/O’Shea finally stood atop the podium. Their victory probably felt all the sweeter because it was unexpected. Hardly anyone had picked them to win; yet, they posted a 15-point victory over favorites Scimeca/Knierim. “I can’t think of a better feeling than landing a jump, or winning a medal,” Tarah Kayne said last fall. “Those are my favorite feelings ever.” Well, she and Danny landed a lot of jumps in St. Paul—and won the most important medal of their career.

Kayne-O'Shea-celebrate

Kayne/O’Shea:  The champions celebrate in the kiss-n-cry (Hannah Foslien/Getty Images North America)

Tarah/Danny came into Nationals with a brand-new short program to Hozier’s “Take Me to Church.” It was a gambleto change their program mid-season, but it completely paid off. “Take Me to Church” showed a new side to Tarah/Danny’s skating—darker, moodier, more intense. It’s big music, but Tarah/Danny skated up to it. I felt that the measured pacing helped them approach each element as it came, without rushing. (Their previous “Espana Cani” SP was almost too fast-paced.) Tarah/Danny put out a great short program and placed 1st, with a 2-point lead.

Their Phantom of the Opera LP was even better. The technical elements were all clean and beautifully woven into the choreography. Kayne/O’Shea’s version of Phantom emphasizes the tender, emotional side of the music, and Tarah/Danny delivered a lovely performance. The highlight was their dramatic flipover transition into throw 3 Lutz, which received mostly +2s. They won the long program by over 12 points to claim the title.

Tarah/Danny have improved a lot this season. Their lifts are faster and smoother, and they’ve successfully added the throw 3 Lz to their LP. They’ve also been practicing the throw quad Salchow and could potentially try it at 4CCs or Worlds.

Kayne-O'Shea-lift

Rising above a serious injury (Hannah Foslien/Getty Images North America)

I think it should also be noted that Tarah Kayne is perhaps the first skater to return from a hip labrum tear to win a major championship or national title. Tarah underwent surgery in July 2014. Who would have thought she’d be national champion just a year after her return to the ice? This girl has grit and courage–there’s no doubt about it. #Respect, to both her and Danny.

Scimeca/Knierim

Alexa/Chris were the clear favorites coming into Nationals. Not only were they defending champions, they also won 2 Grand Prix medals this season and qualified for the Grand Prix Final. However, they had some negative momentum as well, following their poor performances at the GPF. In the end, Nationals was consistent with their season so far: They skated well in many ways, but again made crucial mistakes on jumping elements.

Scimeca-Knierim-quad-twist

The quad twist looked strong (Hannah Foslien/Getty Images North America)

In my opinion, you can look at Alexa/Chris’s programs in St. Paul in two different ways.

If you look at just the elements, it was not a good event for them. Chris fell on the SBS 3S in the SP, and the triple twist was far from their best. In the LP, they landed their best quad twist since Skate America (9.57 points, highest-scoring element in the whole competition)–so that was a step forward. However, mistakes on the throws cost them about 4 points, and they both fell on the SBS 3Ts. Alexa/Chris’s attempt to upgrade last year’s 2A/2A sequence to a 3T combo/sequence has not been successful so far. They’ve missed the element in every competition and may need to rethink this strategy for next year.

Looking at Alexa/Chris’s programs from a performance viewpoint, I continue to see improvement. There is growing polish and sophistication to their presentation, and Alexa/Chris looked very well-trained. I think the decision to add a new slow section to the LP was good; there are some nice new choreographic moments. And having a contrast of tempos increases the impact of the dramatic closing section.

After losing their crown in St. Paul, I’m sure Alexa/Chris will be looking to skate better at 4CCs and Worlds.

Castelli/Tran

Marissa/Mervin finished third and did not make the team for Boston Worlds. No doubt this is a big disappointment for Marissa especially, as she is from the Greater Boston area and trained in Boston for years.

Castelli-Tran-throw

A bronze, but no World team  (Hannah Foslien/Getty Images North America)

Marissa/Mervin’s Summertime SP was excellent … except for Marissa doubling the SBS 3S!! Such a shame, because everything else in the program was very good. As always, the step sequence was the highlight, showing off Marissa/Mervin’s skating skills to great effect and earning +2s/+3s. They really attacked the program and, artistically, I thought it was their best SP of the season. They placed 3rd.

Their Journey LP started off so well. They hit their first set of SBS jumps and landed the throw 2A (slight 2-ft). Things were looking good. But then Mervin fell on the SBS 3T, and Marissa fell on the throw 3S (normally their money element). It was so disappointing because, again, the rest of the program was very strong. If you’re going to skate to rock music, you have to attack and skate fast, and that’s exactly what Marissa/Mervin did. They matched the pace of the music and kept it up effortlessly. Aside from the jumps, the elements were great–especially the lifts. Marissa/Mervin’s lifts go up so quickly and easily; their timing is excellent. They earned many +2/+3s for the lifts, and their reverse lasso lift, early in the program, earned 9.10 and was the highest-scoring lift in the whole competition. Their twist was also nice, with good height. Despite the mistakes on the jumps, the program was still a lot of fun to watch. They placed 3rd in the LP/overall.

Although they struggled on the jumps and didn’t make the World team, there are still positives for Marissa/Mervin to take from this event. They did hold on to win the bronze medal; they did make the 4CCs team. They got good GOE and PCS; they got a great response from the audience.

Castelli/Tran’s Nationals performance made me think back to Mervin and his previous partner, Narumi Takahashi, in their last season together. There was so much quality to Takahash/Tran’s skating in 2011-12. You could tell the judges were just waiting for them to stay vertical, and the scores would be there. (See their 2011 GPF LP.) Takahashi/Tran ended that season with a World bronze medal. I think it may be the same (not same result, but same trajectory) with Marissa/Mervin. Their partnership has gelled, there is terrific quality to their skating, the programs are good and will hopefully be even better next year. The judges are waiting. Now Mervissa need to deliver.

Aaron/Settlage

This was only the second competition of the season for Maddie/Max; they missed the first half of the season due to injury.

Aaron-Settlage

Growing maturity and elegance  (Hannah Foslien/Getty Images North America)

Maddie/Max started with an elegant performance of their “Hymne a l’Amour” SP. Max fell on the SBS 3S, and they got only basic level for the twist. But the other elements were good. Maddie’s position in the death spiral was really beautiful–one of the best I’ve seen this year–and they had almost straight +2s on that element. They placed a solid 4th, with a 3-point lead over the rest of the field.

Unfortunately, Maddie/Max had a rough skate in their LP. They made mistakes on all the jump elements and also struggled with their reverse lasso lift. The SBS spins were very nice, but that was one of the few bright spots, and their overall GOE was negative, meaning they lost points off their base value. Their La Boheme LP is polished and pleasant to watch, but they just seemed slow and cautious throughout, probably due to lack of training time. They placed only 6th in the LP, but held on to 4th overall due to that 3-point SP margin.

It’s really a shame that Maddie/Max missed so much of this season. Because of the lost time, they’re still in the same place technically that they were last year—i.e., they need to improve their lifts and twist and get them more consistent. But Maddie/Max did move forward artistically. Their new programs this season, by Julie Marcotte, present them in a more mature, elegant light. Hopefully they can stay healthy this coming year and work on improving the technical elements.

Calalang/Sidhu

Like Aaron/Settlage, Jessica/Zack came into Nationals off a major injury (hip labrum surgery for Zach). They missed the early part of the season as well; this was their third competition back. Considering how much time they lost, I thought Jessica/Zack had a fairly good showing in St. Paul.

Their short program to “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World” was going well until they made a silly mistake on the death spiral. Both of them fell, the element received no points, and the program ended flatly. They were only 7th in this segment.

Calalang-Sidhu-2

Zack after the death spiral mistake  (Aaron Lavinsky)

However, Jessica/Zack made up quite a bit of ground in their Romeo & Juliet LP. The program opened with mistakes on both SBS jump sets. However, Jessica/Zack did not let this distract them. They stayed sharp, kept going, and completed the rest of the program without further error. All three lifts were good, with nice ice coverage, and received positive GOE. The two throw jumps also were excellent, earning mostly +2s. I find this R&J program dull (especially now in year 2), but the fact is, Jessica/Zack skated it quite well in St. Paul. They placed 4th LP/5th overall.

I think Jessica/Zack should be pleased. Still lots to work on, but they managed to finish out this season without losing much ground competitively, despite the time off with injuries. Their lifts and throws are looking good—if anything, possibly even better than before. The SBS jumps are still an area of concern, but this was the case even before Zack’s injury.

Going into next year, I’d like to see C/S work on their skating skills and performance level. Jessica is expressive, has nice line, and presents their programs well, but Zack needs to grow as a performer. Also, I’m really hoping to see more sophisticated, unique programs next year. This is the second year in a row that C/S have placed just behind Aaron/Settlage at Nationals, and it’s kind of interesting to compare the two teams. I think Calalang/Sidhu have a clear lead technically, but Maddie/Max are much better performers, with more sophisticated programs. So, Jessica/Zack need to improve in that area.

Smith/Reiss

This is Erika/A.J.’s first year as a pair, and they made quite an impression in St. Paul. They have a nice look together and seem well-matched. They put out 2 decent programs to place 6th.

Smith-Reiss

Smith/Reiss enjoy their first Nationals  (Hannah Foslien/Getty Images North America)

Their Burlesque SP featured a smooth level 4 hand-to-hand lift and a nicely choreographed step sequence. They had some small errors on jumps, but no falls, and placed 6th.

Erika/A.J. started their Cleopatra LP with a nice set of SBS 3S. They did have several jump mistakes in the program—Erika singled the SBS 2A, two-footed the throw 3Lp, and fell on the throw 3Lz—yet they managed to keep up the momentum and performance level. Their lifts are quite good for such a new team, earning mostly positive marks, and they have pretty good unison, too. Their programs are simple in concept, but well done and enjoyable to watch. They placed 5th LP/6th overall.

Following their successful Nationals debut, Erika/A.J. have already been assigned to their first international event: Bavarian Open, Feb. 17-21. (Aaron/Settlage are also assigned.) This is why Nationals matters so much. 🙂

Pfund/Santillan

Jessica/Josh are also in their first year together, but got an earlier start to the season than Smith/Reiss and had already competed at Skate America and Autumn Classic. With their prior experience, I was expecting them to do well in St. Paul. However, P/S had a tough time in the free skate and could only manage 7th.

Pfund-Santillan

Problems in the long program  (Aaron Lavinsky)

Jessica/Josh started with a lovely performance of their Gravity SP. Their opening SBS 3S was really great—so close, so in sync. The throw 3 Lp was also very nice. The only problem element was the death spiral—they completed only 1 rotation and received negative GOE. Another thing to work on is getting their speed more consistent through the program—they started out quite fast, but seemed to lose momentum in the second half. All in all, though, I enjoyed their performance and thought they did a good job capturing the emotion of the music, especially Josh. He is one of the more expressive U.S. pairs men.

In the LP, Pfund/Santillan opened with two great sets of SBS jumps. Their SBS 3S/2A sequence is interesting—hardly any other elite pairs perform this sequence—and they really hit it in St. Paul, receiving almost straight +2s for a total of 7.46 (highest-scoring SBS jump element in the whole competition). Their SBS 3Ts were also very good. However, then things took a turn for the worse. Their first lasso lift failed on the entrance, and you could just see the dismay on Josh’s face. The next lift was a struggle; Jessica fell on the throw 3S (normally a strong element); and, at that point, the wheels pretty much fell off. Jessica/Josh managed only 79.59 points for the free skate (over 20 points off their Skate America LP score) and fell to 10th LP/7th overall. They were so disappointed in the kiss-n-cry.

Although their first Nationals didn’t work out the way they wanted, Jessica/Josh still had a good debut season, and there’s much reason for optimism. Their SBS jumping skills are the best among current U.S. pairs; they are well-matched; plus, they have interpretive ability and a nice look on the ice. Some of their pairs elements need work, as do speed and skating skills. But that’s not unexpected at this stage. I hope Jessica/Josh can secure more funding this year from the USFSA and other sources, so that they can focus on training and building their partnership this summer.

De la Mora/Kurdukov

Brianna and Maxim are another new senior pair. Prior to teaming with Brianna, Max skated for Russia; Kristina Astakhova is one of his former partners.

De la Mora-Kurdukov

8th at their first Nationals  (Hannah Foslien/Getty Images North America)

Brianna/Max are a strong-looking team, with good power to their skating. They managed to complete enough elements to place 9th in both segments/8th overall. They landed a good throw 3S in the SP and did a nice combo spin as well. However, there’s a lot they need to work on, especially speed—many of their elements, even spins, are slow and labored. And they need more spark and liveliness to their skating.

Shaughnessy/Morgan

Fan favorites Alex Shaughnessy/Jimmy Morgan had a tough SP, but came back with a heartfelt LP to pull up to 9th overall (improving on last year’s 10th place).

Shaughnessy-Morgan

They gave it everything in the long program  (Sarah Brannen)

Alex/Jimmy’s upbeat Grease SP was fun, as always. Alex/Jimmy rocked their black leather costumes and really sold the program. Technically, the highlight was their smooth, well-done hand-to-hand lift. However, Alex fell on the SBS 2S, and the throw 3S was flawed as well. They had to settle for 10th.

It was great to see Alex/Jimmy fight back with an emotional performance in the LP. They still struggled technically on quite a few elements; Alex fell on the SBS 3S, doubled the throw 3Lp, and two-footed the throw 3S. Also, the final lift was a bit shaky. However, they did hang on to the SBS 2A/2T combo, and the first two lifts were nicely done, with lovely positions by Alex. Most importantly, Alex/Jimmy never gave up on the performance; they stayed committed to the choreography, despite the mistakes. Alex/Jimmy always remember the audience when they’re skating; they’re always projecting outward. I like their range as performers—they’re good at interpreting different kinds of music, different rhythms. Comparatively good PCS in their LP helped them move up to 7th LP/9th overall.

Fujimoto/Barsi-Rhyne

This was Cali/Nicholas’s second year competing in senior pairs. This season, they switched coaches to join Jim Peterson’s pairs group in Florida.

Fujimoto-Barsi-Rhyne

Now training in Florida  (Hannah Foslien/Getty Images North America)

Cali/Nicholas had a rough short program. They singled their SBS flips and received no credit for that element; the throw 3S was also two-footed. They placed 11th. Like Alex/Jimmy, they also came back with a stronger long program, including 3 complex lifts, and pulled up to 8th LP/10th overall.

Cali/Nicholas are an elegant, appealing team, but their skating skills and speed lag quite a bit behind the top pairs. Also, they need to upgrade the difficulty and consistency of their jumps.

Fields/Stevens

Last year Caitlin/Ernie had a wonderful Nationals, convincingly winning the junior pairs title. This year, unfortunately, just didn’t work out for them. They had injuries during the off-season and did not start competition until late fall; those problems, combined with having to add difficult new senior elements, were too much to overcome.

Fields-Stevens-after-LP

It was that kind of event for Fields/Stevens  (Hannah Foslien/Getty Images North America)

I enjoyed Caitlin/Ernie’s short program. Set to a modern Hugues Le Bars medley and skated in matching unitards, this program is stylistically ambitious, unique, and quite fun to watch (to my taste, anyway). The throw triple twist was crashy, and Caitlin fell on the throw 3Lp. However, their step sequence was very good, earning +2s and even one +3. They were 8th.

Unfortunately, Caitlin/Ernie had one of those disastrous performances in the LP that you just hate to see. Pretty much everything went wrong. Caitlin stepped out of both throws, they doubled both SBS jump sets, their last lift failed, and even the death spiral was wonky. They looked devastated afterward, and I felt so bad for them. They dropped to 11th LP/overall. It was a performance to forget, and I hope that’s exactly what Caitlin/Ernie can do: Just forget it and move on.

I’m still excited about their partnership. As John Couglin pointed out on IceNetwork, Caitlin/Ernie’s basic skills are just so strong. And there’s a boldness and power to their skating that I appreciate. I hope they can get healthy this off-season and continue to develop their technical skills.

Usmantseva/Silecky

Usmantseva-Silecky

Going for the difficulty  (Hannah Foslien/Getty Images North America)

Elizaveta/Matej are another new senior team and went for quite a bit of difficult content in their programs at Nationals. All of their jump elements were triples (except for the twist); they also tried both a throw 3 Lz and a SBS 3T/3T combo in the LP. I like that they’re ambitious; however, at present, they’re just not seasoned enough to to pull off that level of difficulty. They need more time to develop as a team; plus, they need to work on their speed. They were 12th in both segments /overall.

McDougal/Schatz

It was Alyssa/Paul’s first year as seniors; they placed 7th in juniors last year. They too came to Nationals still recovering from an injury. Unfortunately, Alyssa/Paul just didn’t seem fully prepared for this competition. Their twist and jump elements were all doubles, and they also struggled on most of the lifts. They’re an attractive team with nice lines, but their skating skills need a lot more development. They placed 13th in both segments/overall.

So, How Bad Was It?

There was much talk on Twitter and forums about the poor performances in the pairs competition. We were also treated to several scathing articles about the event from Phil Hersh. (Sample quote: “Only a few hundred hardy souls were in the Xcel Energy Center [to see] … some of the worst pairs skating ever at Nationals.”)

With all the criticism, I want to look at some numbers to help evaluate what level the U.S. pairs were actually skating at in St. Paul, and how they compare to the international field.

Total LP score. In international competition, I feel that scoring 100 points in the LP is a benchmark for pairs. Scoring 100+ indicates that a team is fully technically/artistically competent at the international senior level. Of the 46 pairs LPs completed on the Grand Prix circuit this year, 40 LPs scored 100 points or more. Only 6 LPs fell below that mark.

So if you consider 100+ LP as a benchmark, how do the U.S. pairs fare? Last year at 2015 Nationals, the top 8 pairs all scored 105+ in the LP. This year, only the top 6 scored 100+ points. And two of those scores just barely nudged over 100. So, clearly, not as good as last year.

Twists. The triple twist is one of the elements that separates senior elite pairs from lower-ranked teams. It’s rare to see an elite international team without a triple twist. Again, if you look at this as a benchmark element, how are the U.S. pairs doing? Not well. Only 7 of 13 pairs at Nationals completed triple twists. And of that 7, only the top 3 teams achieved level 2 or better. Everyone else got only Level B (basic) or 1. Not good.

SBS jump content. Here again, the U.S. pairs fall short. The international standard for SBS jumps is basically one solo triple + one triple combo in the long program. A few top-level pairs (e.g., Yu/Jin) substitute a 2A/2A sequence. But most go for the solo triple + triple combo layout. Only 4 of 13 pairs at Nationals even attempted such a layout in the LP. Most of the teams instead went for solo triple + 2A/2A or 2A/2T. The U.S. pairs’ continued reliance on the double Axel versus a second triple jump is not ideal in terms of moving forward internationally.

SBS jump consistency. A depressing fact: Only 2 of 13 pairs at Nationals successfully landed both their SBS jump passes in the LP (Kayne/O’Shea, Pfund/Santillan). All the other pairs either had mistakes on one or both passes, or doubled both jumps.

Throws. A throw double jump is not something you typically see at the international level. The standard is two throw triples (or now, quads) per long program. Yet, 5 of 13 teams at Nationals went for throw doubles in their LPs. Again … not good.

When you look at these numbers, it’s pretty clear it was a rough year for the pairs at U.S. Nationals. And that’s just looking mostly at technical elements, and not even getting into issues of speed, PCS, or overall packaging. I am sorry to point out the areas where U.S. pairs are falling short, because I know how hard everyone is trying, and how many pairs have dealt with injuries this year.

But it is what it is. If U.S. pairs want to be competitive internationally, those numbers need to improve. We need more triple elements and more consistency, just to meet the baseline level internationally. There’s a lot of talent in U.S. pairs, but so much comes down to technical level and execution.

Now that 2016 Nationals is behind us, I’m hoping for a much healthier and stronger season next year for American pairs skating!

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