U.S. Classic 2017: Highlights from Ladies, Men, Ice Dance & Pairs

I had a great time last weekend attending the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic in Salt Lake City! I covered the event for Figure Skaters Online. It was my first time going to U.S. Classic, and my first time attending any Challenger Series event. 

U.S. Classic takes place in a small 2-rink facility in Salt Lake City, which is customarily used for public skating, freestyle, and hockey. The building also houses a community swimming pool and workout areas. Overall, the facility feels more like a YMCA than an arena.

However, once I walked into the main rink on Wednesday afternoon, it was clear I was at an international skating competition. I quickly recognized familiar faces–well-known skaters & coaches in the stands, up on the concourse, and on the ice.

Although its venue is casual, U.S. Classic feels similar to Skate America as an event. It’s a high-level competition, with an international slate of competitors. But, like Skate America, it has a relaxed, almost cozy, atmosphere, unlike big competitions such as U.S. Nationals and Worlds. And, partly because this is an Olympic year, the caliber of competition was quite high.

The biggest headliners were in the singles events: Marin Honda and Nathan Chen both opened their competitive seasons in Salt Lake City. It was my first time seeing either of these phenoms live. There were also some other big names: Karen Chen, Mirai Nagasu, Max Aaron, and Takahito Mura. The dance and pairs fields were highlighted by Hubbell/Donohue, Scimeca Knierim/Knierim, and Moore-Towers/Marinaro.

I didn’t have time to write full reviews of the events. But here are some personal observations, based on seeing the competition live.


One reason I was drawn to U.S. Classic is that it featured some of my favorite current ladies competitors. They did not disappoint live!

The official ladies’ practice on Wednesday was fun to watch. Amid the usual black practice outfits, Marin Honda stood out in a lacy sea green top. Her skating was swift and flowing over the ice; her jumps were light, easy, and consistent. Marin’s jumps aren’t as big or explosive as some of the other ladies’; but she has nice, soft landings, with great knee bend and good flow out. Marin is smaller and slighter in person than I had imagined after seeing her on TV. She’s a tiny thing (no wonder, having just turned 16).

The other standout in practice was American champion Karen Chen. It’s been a couple years since I last saw Karen live, and I was immediately struck by how much her presence on the ice has grown. She just commands your attention, looking so mature and strong. Although Karen is tiny as well–just 5 feet–her presence on the ice is far greater than you would expect. When she starts to build speed, it’s almost like the rink shrinks around her. 🙂 She covers the ice very quickly and with authority. Karen skated sections of her Carmen free skate on Wednesday. I found it captivating to watch.

Kaori Sakamoto seemed to have a bottomless supply of high, strong, eye-popping triple jumps in practice and warm-ups. Every time I saw her, it seemed, Kaori was doing another amazing jump. I think there are very few women skaters in the world who can match the quality of Kaori’s jumps. They are just so high and straight and smooth and fast on the exits/entrances. Nothing else about Kaori’s skating is yet on the same level as her jumps. But the jumps are so good that they’re actually quite aesthetically pleasing to watch.

Of course, Mirai Nagasu also drew my attention at practice. Mirai looked to be in top form, landing many strong triples. The crowd gasped audibly every time she went for her triple Axel!

The ladies’ short program was full of drama. It was a thrill to see Mirai Nagasu land her first fully rotated triple Axel in competition! The jump wasn’t perfect, but it was exciting, and the rest of her program was well done, too.

Marin Honda: A magical Smile SP  (Melissa Majchrzak)

But for me, the biggest highlights of the short program were Marin Honda and Karen Chen. Marin’s “Smile” SP is one of my favorite ladies’ programs of the last few years. The joy and happiness that Marin exudes in this program just feels so natural, so real. And the choreography is charming and so well-suited to her. Marin’s jumps were perfect, too; everything was perfect. It’s a program I’ll remember for a long time.

Then Karen Chen skated her “Tango de Roxanne” SP; and what a contrast in styles! Where Marin was youthful and joyous, Karen was mature and powerful. Marin has flow; Karen has strength. They are such different skaters; almost opposites; but both bring meaning and intent to all their movement. There was a darkness to this short program from Karen that matched the raw vocals, and I loved it. The judges gave the artistic nod to Karen in the short program (she had a 1.6-point PCS lead on Marin), and I couldn’t argue with that.

In the ladies’ long program, Marin Honda put out a fine performance of her new Turandot routine, making only one mistake (doubled Salchow). Her jumps were terrific, and her spins good. But although Marin skated beautifully, the program didn’t quite wow me like her short program had. “Smile” brought, well, a huge smile to my face–and even a little tear to my eye! Turandot didn’t have the same effect. I think this music is not the most natural fit for Marin’s style at this point. In a few years, she’ll have the fire and drama to do a great Turandot. Right now, it’s a perfectly fine program, yet somehow doesn’t feel quite right for her.

Whad did feel right was Mirai Nagasu’s program to Miss Saigon. I really like this program for Mirai, and the dramatic music highlighted the suspense as Mirai went for her second triple Axel attempt! This one was clean, and the crowd exploded! What a moment! Yet for Mirai, there was still the entire rest of the program to skate, and she struggled to maintain her focus, looking a bit tight out there. Mirai received a bunch of underrotation calls for her jumps, but I did enjoy this program a lot, especially the interesting transitions toward the end. For me, Mirai is one of the skaters who is most different live versus on video. Seeing her in person, I’m always struck by her power and command, her elegance and clarity in small movements. Somehow on video, that tends to get lost.

Karen Chen’s Carmen program started off very well, with a big 3Lz/3T combo. Unfortunately, she fell on her other big combo, SBS 2A/half loop/3S. After that, a bunch of minor mistakes crept into the program, somewhat spoiling its effect. It’s too bad, because I really do love this Carmen free skate for Karen. Many skaters lack the power and intensity to effectively portray Carmen, but Karen has these qualities in spades. For me, she’s quite bewitching in the role. Watching it even gives me a few chills–and brings up memories of Katarina Witt’s Carmen at the 1988 Olympics. (Could Karen have a similar moment in Pyeongchang?)


What I’ll remember about the men’s event is seeing Nathan Chen‘s Olympic programs for the first time. Last season, I admired Nathan’s quads, like everyone else. But I couldn’t get into his programs; they were perfectly fine, yet unoriginal.

A whole new look for Nathan Chen  (Rick Bowmer/AP)

What a contrast to this season’s unexpected music choices! Nathan’s new short program to Benjamin Clementine’s “Nemesis” showed off more musicality and sharpness than we’ve ever seen from him, in my opinion. And the long program was equally good. Again, the music choice (from Mao’s Last Dancer) was intriguing and different; the choreography detailed and interesting. And the jumps! Nathan landed his new quad loop directly in front of me. It was a complete surprise—and quite thrilling. Nathan’s unpredictability as a competitor makes him very exciting to watch. (And, what a shame that the incentive for such defining moments could be lost, should the ISU move forward with its ill-advised reduction in quad jump values.)

Other big highlights in the men’s event included the free skates of Sean Rabbitt and Kazuki Tomono. I had never even heard of Tomono before, but thoroughly enjoyed his West Side Story LP. West Side Story can be difficult to skate well to–the songs convey so many moods that it’s hard to interpret them all, plus some have a very fast tempo and big sound that many skaters are unable to skate up to. Not so Tomono. He brought all the different pieces to life, maintained great speed throughout, and, most importantly, seemed to be enjoying the performance himself. A delight to watch.

And Sean Rabbitt? His long program was just flat-out fun. It’s not often you can say that about a competitive free skate these days. I just really appreciate the entertainment value and commitment Sean brings to all his programs. He totally goes for it in his mambo free skate, not holding back at all. And because he’s into it, the audience gets into it, too! You could say Sean is a bit of a ham …. or, better yet, you could just sit back and enjoy the show. 🙂

Tim Dolensky didn’t have the best competition in Salt Lake, with many jump mistakes in his free skate. However, I still enjoyed his programs. The stretch and extension that Tim has makes his skating very special and great to watch. And his programs are beautifully choreographed.

It was great to see the event end on a high note with Liam Firus‘s terrific skate to La La Land. I have to confess this was the first time I had watched Liam since Sochi. My loss, obviously. What a pleasant surprise his free skate was! 🙂

Ice Dance

I love great skating skills and artistry … so I always enjoy watching the ice dancers. I don’t pretend to understand the scoring in the dance event; but that’s okay. For me, it’s all about the performances.

At this event, I was blown away by the power, beauty, and skill of Hubbell/Donohue. It was the first time I’d seen Madi/Zach live in a year; and they’ve really grown as a team since then. Their charisma, power, and polish was evident from the moment they took the ice. They looked amazing and smooth and better-prepared than I’ve ever seen them in the fall.

Gorgeous short dance for Hubbell/Donohue  (Rick Bowmer/AP)

I particularly liked their Latin SD. With Madi/Zach’s natural heat and chemistry, they could have gone all-out sexy in the Latin SD. Instead they chose subtle, restrained Latin music, creating a very intimate, mellow, yet sensual dance. I thought they looked fantastic. And I liked how well their three music selections blended together. A lot of the short dances I’ve seen this year are really discordant, with stark shifts between music selections that make me feel like I’m watching 1970s programs again. But Madi/Zach’s music pieces blend together smoothly, producing one of the most coherent short dances I’ve seen so far this season.

Hubbell/Donohue’s blues free dance was compelling to watch as well. It’s a great showcase for Madi/Zach’s musicality and emotional connection. And it looked very polished and smooth for so early in the season.

My other favorite team in this event was Muramoto/Reed of Japan. Kana/Chris skated two very different programs in this competition, and I loved them both! Their “I Like It Like That” SD was so fun. They had just the right combination of flirtatious sass & showiness in this routine. The music was great, their dancing was on point, and it just all worked. There is something very spontaneous about Kana Muramoto’s skating, which makes her so interesting to watch. Her expression feels real, not trained or practiced. And I admire how Chris simply lets her shine–never stealing the spotlight that clearly belongs on her. Muramoto/Reed’s sakura (cherry blossom) free dance was completely different in character from the short dance and simply beautiful to watch. I look forward to seeing more of these programs this season!

It was also nice to see Hawayek/Baker‘s new Sean Paul SD. This dance has such a different look than most Latin dances. I like how spare and modern and hard-edged it is. Kaitlyn’s bright-orange dress adds another modernist touch, bringing the whole package together. Too bad about their twizzle fall!

Fournier-Beaudry/Sorenson presented a dramatic, intense flamenco free dance. I felt that this style really suited the Danish team. They had very good attack and flair throughout. And their deep burgundy costumes were great–very flattering to their dark coloring. Laurence/Nikolaj have always been a team that I enjoyed watching, yet they seemed to lack a distinctive style of their own. I feel like this program can help them stand out and define themselves.

Smart/Diaz also caught my eye with their “It’s a Man’s World” FD. The music for this dance is just so easy to listen to; and I felt like Olivia/Adria really captured the mellow mood of the songs. Their black-and-white costumes were straightforward & flattering and worked well with the unfussy music. It was a good package, and definitely a big improvement over last year’s free dance.

Americans Biechler/Dodge also put out a modern free dance to rock songs. I found their program enjoyable to watch and very well-skated. But I feel like they could benefit from just a touch more sophistication in the choreography and/or costumes.


This was very much an early-season competition for the pairs skaters, with many teams still easing into their new programs and new elements.

Great event for Moore-Towers/Marinaro  (Rick Bowmer/AP)

Moore-Towers/Marinaro of Canada definitely looked like the best-prepared team at the official practice on Wednesday. I was really impressed with their speed, unison, and sharpness. They also had nice extension and polish, finishing off their moves well. In general, they looked very confident; and their jumps and lifts were solid. In the actual competition, Kirsten/Mike skated well in both programs to win the gold medal. Seeing them in such good condition, so early in the season, I feel certain that they’ll be strong contenders for the Canadian Olympic team in January.

Scimeca Knierim/Knierim also looked good in practice, although their jumps were a bit up and down. In the competition, they were tentative in their “Paint It Black” SP—to be expected, as it was their first time performing the program. But then they stole the show with their Ghost LP. Although it wasn’t a perfect skate technically, the program was very attractive to watch and drew great applause from the audience. Alexa/Chris’s charisma and connection make the sweeping romanticism of this program work. As I watched the Knierims skate, the sensations I had were of “bigness” and “lightness.” Everything Alexa/Chris do is big—their twist is much higher than most teams’, their lifts are also higher and seem to cover more ice; their throws are big, too. They really fill the ice with their presence. But there’s also a light, almost delicate, feel to a lot of their movement. This bigness & lightness in Alexa/Chris’s skating is a really interesting combination of qualities that I’m not sure any other pairs team in the world possesses, in quite the same way.

Denney/Frazier after the free skate

U.S. champions Denney/Frazier didn’t have the strongest competition in Salt Lake City, but they actually showed some very interesting new things in their programs. They have 2 new, difficult lifts, new entrances to their throw jumps, and some ambitious & effective transitions. They’re really challenging themselves with this difficulty, and I think their material is promising. I look forward to seeing the programs again at Skate Canada. I think that, with another month’s practice, Haven/Brandon will be able to show off the programs with more confidence in Regina.

Young American team Liu/Johnson were really fun to watch in the short program! This team has struggled with their jumps in the past, so it was great to see them skate clean in the SP. Not only that, their Gary Moore blues program was quite entertaining. I also enjoyed their Spartacus LP, although they had a few mistakes in that program. Chelsea/Brian can work on improving their unison, their proximity to each other on the ice, and the crispness of their lifts. But they have a great triple twist, and they’re definitely on the right track as they start their first full senior season.

Stellato/Bartholomay struggled with their jumps, both in practice and in the competition. But I like this team’s maturity, and they have some beautiful lifts. I would say their programs felt a bit more developed and expressive than some of the other teams’. There were moments when I felt a strong connection between them, the music, and the audience.

Israeli team Connors/Krasnopolski were pretty clean with their technical elements at this event, and the crowd seemed to respond well to their Schindler’s List free skate. But for me, personally, I feel like this team’s lack of experience as a pair is very obvious. Their lines don’t match when skating together, and they basically look like 2 singles skaters together. However, that said, their jump elements are consistent enough that they could very well earn one of the four Olympics pairs slots available at Nebelhorn.

New Canadian team Kolodziej/Deschamps looked better in practice than I expected. Although their throw jumps were hit-and-miss, with heavy, scrapey landings, their lifts looked pretty good (especially for such a new team). Side-by-side jumps weren’t bad, either. Kolodziej/Deschamps did well in the actual competition, putting out two solid programs and landing all of their jump passes. Nothing they do is at a high quality level yet, but they held their own at this event.

Suto/Boudreau Audet of Japan struggled quite a bit in practice, especially with their twist (which was short of rotation), and, more surprisingly, with their lifts (particularly the reverse lasso). I was a bit worried for them. But they pulled it together and skated better in the actual competition than in practice. Nonetheless, they appear to have lost ground since Worlds last year. Not sure what the outlook is for them at Nebelhorn next week. Motivationally, I feel like Nebelhorn could be a challenge. The Japanese federation will be looking for them to qualify a spot for the Olympics; but Sumire/Francis cannot take that spot themselves, should they earn it. It’s an odd situation.


Perhaps my only real complaint about U.S. Classic is that I wish there were more official practices! There was only one official practice for each discipline in Salt Lake; I would have liked to see at least two practices for each. It must also be said that the bench seating in the arena leaves something to be desired, comfortwise. (But a stadium seat helps with that.)

Overall, it was a great event that I’d be happy to attend again, in the future. It was interesting to see the skaters at such an early point in the season; and fun to see many new-program debuts. Plus, Salt Lake City is a great place to visit, with gorgeous mountain views. A fun weekend!

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