A couple weeks ago, I had a chance to go to Lake Placid, NY, to cover the 2022 U.S. International Figure Skating Classic. The competition turned out to be pretty exciting, with Ilia Malinin making skating history by landing the first quad Axel.
It was my first time visiting Lake Placid–a small town that has played an outsized role in the history of U.S. winter sports. Lake Placid hosted both the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics, and will host the 2023 Winter Universiade event next year. It is also a center for events and training in other winter sports. I didn’t really know what to expect from the town, but I had a feeling it would be pretty cool, one way or the other. And it was.
Lake Placid lies in the Adirondack mountains, at 1800 feet above sea level. Although it’s not, of course, as high up as the Rocky Mountains out west, I did feel the altitude a bit while walking around town. You can see hills all around in the distance, and the village sits directly on the shoreline of small but lovely Mirror Lake. The whole area is super-scenic and a really nice place to visit for a skating competition.
It’s pretty cool being near a lot of sports history, too. Directly on the other side of the street from the arena is the speed skating oval where Eric Heiden won five gold medals in the 1980 Winter Olympics. And U.S. Classic itself took place in the same rink where the “Miracle on Ice” happened and the U.S. hockey team won Olympic gold in 1980. Not too many skating arenas can boast that kind of history!
The skating itself was pretty great. U.S. Classic is an early-season event, so you know going in that skaters aren’t going to be in the same kind of top condition as at Nationals or Worlds. However, the upside of the early-season timeframe is that you get to see a lot of new-program debuts and, sometimes, witness skaters trying out new things that they’d be hesitant to go for in a larger competition. I’ve attended this event three times now, and it always winds up being quite fun.
Here’s some news & notes from the unofficial mixed zone about each discipline.
The men’s competition was the marquee event at Lake Placid. There were four men entered from the top 12 at Worlds, plus a lot of other talented skaters. Of course, Ilia Malinin wound up dominating the event with his historic quad Axel. (See my article Malinin and the Evolution of the Axel for more on that.) But there were a lot of other great performances as well. (Unfortunately, Daniel Grassl of Italy had to withdraw after a very rough fall into the boards in the free skate.)
Kevin Aymoz won the short program and took the silver medal behind Malinin. When I spoke with him in the mixed zone, he couldn’t have been more pleased with his performance overall. It was a great step forward after a rough season for him last year.
“I came from a place that was so far away, mentally and physically. Last year, I was injured on everything. I was super-injured everywhere. I was down,” Aymoz said.
The French skater didn’t know if he had either the physical ability or motivation to come back for another four-year quad.
“I took a summer break–reading books and watching TV shows. And then I was like: Okay, I’m ready to go again,” Aymoz said. “So I healed, and I worked super-hard this summer. I never trained that much. Compared to last year, when I came to Skate America in October, falling on a flip and Lutz and Axel and doubles, and being dead …. This year, I’m not [totally] ready. But I’m prepared, and I feel so good. Yesterday [short program] was my best. Today [free skate] was not my best. But I fought. And I was just happy to be there. It was fun. It was not the best, but it was really fun, too.”
Aymoz said that he’s worked hard to develop a more constructive and healthy approach to his skating.
“I’m a person who tends to auto-sabotage myself,” he admitted. “When there’s a mistake, or I miss something, I’m like: Everything’s bad. This summer, I said: Okay, I did a mistake, but I keep training, I keep fighting every day. And I did not auto-sabotage. Mentally, that was a big step for me, to not auto-sabotage myself in training. So I was super-happy and I was super-confident. I grew up, and I’m ready for the future, and I’m going to take it year by year. I’m 25, I’m one of the oldest skaters in the world circuit. So I’m just enjoying the moment–be there, train, have fun, and that’s it.”
Camden Pulkinen won the bronze medal. It was his first competition since his breakthrough fifth-place finish at Worlds. Since then, he’s changed coaches and training locations and has started college at Columbia University in New York City (after previously completing several years at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs). Everything is new for Pulkinen right now, but he seems to be coping with it all and was reasonably satisfied with his performances in Lake Placid.
“I think I accomplished almost everything I wanted to, so I’d say the competition is 7 out of 10. I’d give it a solid C,” Pulkinen said after the free skate. “Speaking of which, classes [at Columbia] started last week, so I’m still adjusting to that. Becoming a full-time college athlete is definitely something I’m grappling with, but becoming a little more content with and accepting of. I think it’s interesting having Columbia–and not just that, but also the city–as my campus. It’s definitely a college experience that I don’t think many people could experience. So I’m happy to be able to do that and skate. Two of the things I love.”
Pulkinen’s choice of short program music–a version of “Fly Me to the Moon,” a Frank Sinatra song–was somewhat connected with his recent move. One of Sinatra’s most famous songs, of course, is “New York, New York.”
Pulkinen said of the music: “It’s a song that I’ve always wanted to skate to, but I never really thought I was mature enough or in the right place to skate to it. It’s a version of a Frank Sinatra song, so this year, moving to New York City, I felt like it was quite fitting. It was in this big album I have of potential program [music], and I was listening to it, and this was the one.”
He placed third in the short program.
“I’m happy with somewhat executing all the elements,” Pulkinen said afterward with a smile. “Definitely still need to go home and work on the composition and work more on the timing, so that I’m not five or six seconds late on the footwork. And allowing myself enough room so I don’t feel rushed [on jumps].”
Pulkinen said the program is developing well. “I’m happy with how it’s been training. I think today wasn’t a proper reflection, honestly, of how the artistry has been developing. So I’d like to go home and train that [part] harder, so I can really display that when I’m competing.”
In the long program, Pulkinen had to take the ice a little earlier than expected due to Grassl’s unfortunate fall.
Asked if the timing change affected his program, Pulkinen said: “I think maybe. But honestly, I’m seasoned and trained enough that I can bring myself back to the moment. I was a little bit in my head tonight. But I was happy with my fight overall. I played it safe a little at the end, but I’m happy I kept going. I never gave up. Those are all positives I can take from here. Obviously, [I need] some more mileage with the program under my belt. I think in comparison to previous seasons, this is a good place to start.”
Looking forward, Pulkinen said he wanted to focus on getting “repetitions of the program under my belt, and keep working my cardio.”
Jimmy Ma came back from an eighth-place short program in Lake Placid to finish third in the free skate and fifth overall.
Ma was amped about his new short program, choreographed by Benoit Richaud. The program is set to a cover of the Imagine Dragons song “Warriors,” by 2Wei. The song is part of the soundtrack for the League of Legends video game.
“It was very difficult to find something that was my style, which is me hitting the beats and having some performance, and also a mix of modern [and] contemporary,” Ma said of the music selection. “But when I heard the song, and I watched the music video, it gave me chills down the spine. I was bouncing [music] ideas with Benoit for weeks. Then I’m like, Maybe this? And Benoit was like: ‘We’re doing this. Nothing else.’ That’s where that came into fruition.”
When Richaud visited the Skating Club of Boston this summer, Ma approached him about choreographing a program.
“I thought it would be a really, really good fit,” Ma said of working with Richaud. “It’s way out of my comfort zone, but the way he moves, it’ll challenge me into moving in different ways. He’s got that creativity that I like. It just opens up new doors, and then I use that to pave my own way. New inspiration, new motivation.”
Ma’s free skate in Lake Placid was quite strong, with the only major error being a popped quad toe loop. Still, Ma had mixed feelings about the program.
“Simultaneously I’m proud of it, and not so proud of it. There was a hidden mistake in there. Aside from the glaring one–the pop [on the quad]. I did too many double toes. It was easily fixable. That’s something that, in a more inexperienced athlete, would have been like: Oh, it’s okay, next time. But with me, there’s no excuse.”
Aside from the popped quad, the rest of the jumps in Ma’s free skate went well.
“I’m happy about it,” Ma said. “At this point, all those other triples, at my experience level … You know, I’m an old dog right now. Those things, when I’m on, they come second nature to me. So that’s the basis. Doing it in competition, I’m very proud of myself for doing that. But that should be my basis. And I really want to build on that.”
Ma got some good advice before the free skate from his coach, Alexei Letov.
“Alexei, he just said one thing to me before I got on,” Ma shared. “He was like:
‘If you mess up, you move on. Forget about it.’ And that’s what I really did. Hopefully I can continue that in training and in future competitions.”
Ma said the first step in developing his free skate was choosing the song “Volcano” by Woodkid.
“That was the first foundation of it,” Ma said. “I took it to Nikolai Morozov in Florida, and I said: ‘This is the music I want. I want a breakdown at the end of the program.’ So the next step was to choreograph the footwork [step sequence]. Nikolai has been a longtime collaborator with me. We choreographed the footwork without music. And then we skated to a bunch of different pieces that we thought would match ‘Volcano.’”
Morozov suggested a version of “Clair de Lune,” used in the Godzilla soundtrack, as a companion piece. It became the opening section of the program, with “Volcano” in the second half. Adam Blake, a choreographer at Skating Club of Boston, also contributed to the choreography.
“I worked with Adam a lot in the offseason, just to mess around. We had fun, choreographed a couple show programs,” said Ma.
Artistically, Ma is trying to develop a bigger presence on the ice and refine his skating this season.
“After watching all those Japanese and Korean guys at Four Continents [last spring], I made it a goal this year to try and skate wider, make myself look taller,” Ma said. “Hopefully now, it’s the intricate details. I’m at that part in my career where it takes a lot to improve a little. But that’s what makes it really interesting for me. That’s what makes it fun, and worthwhile.”
Eric Sjoberg had a rough skate in the short program in Lake Placid, placing last. He said he felt “pretty awful” afterward.
However, Sjoberg came back with a much stronger free skate, in which he landed his first-ever quad jump (Salchow) in competition.
“I was happy with the way I performed,” Sjoberg said after the free skate. “I made a mistake on the triple flip/triple toe. But it was the first quad I did in competition. And obviously I’m very happy I was able to pull myself together after yesterday. I felt calm today. I just tried to keep peaceful, and calm. And just do my job.”
Sjoberg is reprising last year’s free skate to the movie Interstellar, choreographed by Misha Ge. He said the program echoes the storyline of the movie.
“Misha took elements of the clock from the movie, and put it in the program,” Sjoberg said. “In the beginning, I move like a clock. The whole program follows the story of the movie, pretty much. At the end, I return back to the beginning, to the clock.”
Sjoberg was both glad and relieved to achieve the goal of landing his first-ever quad in competition.
“It feels like I got it out of the way, and I’ll hopefully feel better [about doing] it at the next competitions,” he remarked.
Sjoberg said the quad still isn’t consistent in practice. “To be totally honest, it’s like 50/50. But in the program, it’s usually good. Hit or miss, but more hit than miss.”
Lilah Fear and Lewis Gibson won the ice dance event in Lake Placid with two upbeat, charismatic performances. Fear/Gibson skated their Latin rhythm dance with good energy and presence.
“I’m really proud of that performance,” Fear said afterward. “We competed a couple of weeks ago in Sheffield, and I already feel a big improvement. We really built upon our skating skills and some changes that we implemented within the last couple of weeks. So I’m proud of us for putting that out today.”
“It’s really satisfying when you can feel the progress, week on week, at the beginning of the season,” Gibson agreed. “There’s always so much changing and developing.”
Fear/Gibson’s music selections for the rhythm dance are a merengue, a rhumba, and a cha-cha to finish.
“It’s a style that we’ve been so excited to explore, and to try to improve upon every week off the ice and really challenge ourselves in that respect,” Fear said of the Latin theme.
“I love how Latin dance incorporates so many different styles and rhythms that are so detailed,” Gibson added.
During the off-season, the duo watched videos of Latin dance and studied the technique off-ice.
“It was so unnatural at first,” Fear admitted. “We immediately realized how easy they make it look, but how difficult it really is.”
It’s the second time that Fear/Gibson have done Latin in the rhythm dance, with the previous time being the 2017-18 season.
“That was our second season together. I like to think we’ve come a long way since then. And our Latin dance has, too. We weren’t moving those hips back then at all,” Fear said, laughing.
Fear/Gibson’s new free dance is set to music by Lady Gaga. They presented the dance very well in Lake Placid and were satisfied with the results.
“I’m once again really happy with this performance,” Fear said. “I feel like both performances are what we’ve been training. That consistency is very gratifying, because last season was a little rocky for us. We’ve really been intentional in our training and all of our prep; just being really focused on marginal improvements every day. I feel like that showed up at this competition.”
“It was a small crowd, but I could feel them getting into it toward the end, and that’s always amazing and what we love best,” Gibson commented.
“Yes, we really appreciate having a crowd, especially after not having one for so long,” Fear agreed.
The couple love their new Lady Gaga free dance.
“She is just such an inspiration to both of us, in terms of the artist that she is, the woman that she is, and everything that she stands for,” Fear declared. “Specifically, the message of ‘Born This Way.’ That’s something that we really wanted to promote this season, based on our individual stories and just the theme of: Whoever you are, you’re incredibly unique and beautiful and powerful in your own right. As skaters, we wanted to tap into our own power, and really get across that theme.”
The duo got a chance to see Lady Gaga in concert this summer.
“The amount of inspiration that we had from that, just seeing her and feeling that electricity and the command that she has over the audience, we had goosebumps,” Fear said. “We felt so excited to try to put some moves on the ice.”
Eva Pate and Logan Bye, who recently got engaged, won the silver medal in Lake Placid.
“These Challengers [Challenger Series events] are nice, because you get to get out there and it’s not as stressful,” Pate said.
The couple enjoyed skating to upbeat Latin music in the rhythm dance and placed third in that segment.
“I get to wear a dress with fringe. So much bling!” Pate joked, gesturing to her fringed, bedazzled magenta costume.
Pate/Bye said it’s a bit easier to skate the rhythm dance without the compulsory pattern that was required in previous years.
“With the pattern, it was more tiring, because you really had to focus on that a lot,” said Pate.
Pate/Bye’s Riverdance FD entertained the crowd and helped them pull up a spot to place second overall. The couple revealed that coach Igor Shpilband initially wasn’t a fan of the Riverdance concept.
“Pasquale [Camerlengo] actually came up with the idea,” Pate said. “This was at the end of January. We brought it up to Igor. And he was like: ‘Absolutely not, you’re not doing Riverdance.’ Then Igor goes away to the Olympics with one of our other teams. He wasn’t there for a month. And Pasquale said: ‘We’re going to choreograph it anyway.’ And then when Igor came back, he was like:’I love it.’”
Pate, in particular, connects with the program due to her Irish heritage.
“I’m very Irish,” she said of her background. “A lot of my relatives are Irish.” Bye has some Irish heritage as well.
The couple said it was challenging to learn the Irish step style of dance.
“One of our choreographers actually did Irish dance [professionally],” Pate said. “We had some off-ice lessons with her. Then we tried to put it on the ice, but there’s only so much you can do with toe picks. A lot of Irish dance is very down in your feet, and flat-footed, and obviously in skating you can’t do that, or you’d fall over.”
“The transition to go from off-ice to on-ice was a little challenging,” Bye agreed.
Another challenge is keeping up with the quick tempo.
“The first half tends to go rather quickly, which is funny, because it does hold about five elements out of the nine that we have,” Bye said. “The second half is where we put most of our energy, because that’s the fast part. We’re trying to really give everything. I think training that [section] is going to be our goal for the next couple of weeks.”.
“So far, I love this program,” Pate said. “I feel like I just get to smile the whole time and be myself.”
Lorraine McNamara and Anton Spiridonov took the bronze medal in Lake Placid.
The duo skated an impactful rhythm dance to “Careless Whisper” by Wham!, placing second in this segment. Although the song might not seem an obvious choice for Latin, McNamara/Spiridonov felt a strong affinity for it.
“We really wanted to skate to ‘Careless Whisper.’ That was one of our first music choices,” Spiridonov said.
“Our hearts were set on it,” McNamara agreed.
Hugo Chouinard, the well-known music editor, added Latin beats to the song to make it a rhumba rhythm, and chose a samba piece for the second half.
McNamara/Spiridonov’s coach Elena Novak choreographed the program, with McNamara and Spiridonov assisting.
“It was definitely a lot of fun,” McNamara said of their performance. “With the rhythm dance, the job is really to make yourself stand out from the other skaters, because everybody has to do the same genre. I think we did our best with that today, and it worked.”
This year’s rhythm dance requires a pattern step sequence for the first time, instead of the traditional compulsory dance section. McNamara/Spiridonov had mixed feelings about this change.
“It’s not what we’re used to,” Spiridonov stated. “When you start skating in ice dance, the first thing that you usually do is compulsory dances. Being at this level, and not having that in your rhythm dance … It’s different. There’s a lot of room for interpretation and feeling the music, and I think that’s exactly what dance is about. But, having said that, I think compulsory dance is still a really big part of ice dance. I hope that this [change] isn’t permanent. I hope we bring back compulsory dances, because I do enjoy them, personally.”
“I think the added challenge this year, with there not being a compulsory dance built in, is finding other ways to exhibit your technical strengths,” McNamara mused. “Because I think the pattern dances did a really great job of helping skaters show off their technical abilities. And, having that taken away, it then totally falls on the skater’s shoulders to exhibit their strengths technically, without a specific pattern.”
In the free dance, McNamara/Spiridonov had a problem with their opening stationary lift. However, they still received strong PCS marks for their modern dance to “Rain, In Your Black Eyes.”
“I don’t think it was our best skate,” Spridonov said candidly.
“But I’m still happy with how strong of a skate it was, regardless. It didn’t fall apart,” McNamara noted.
The couple said their free dance is abstract in style, yet also has a plotline.
“It contains a story within it, of a relationship between a man and a woman–a romantic one–where there’s obviously a lot of passion, but also struggle, and things don’t quite align, no matter how badly you want them to,” McNamara explained. “I think that’s a feeling that a lot of people can relate to. Drawing that feeling out of ourselves and out of the audience creates a lot of strong emotion.”
“Every time we skate it, it can be a little bit different,” Spiridonov said of the dance. “It keeps on evolving and morphing.”
The duo said that they worked a lot this summer on their connection and skating skills.
Canadian team Haley Sales and Nikolas Wamsteeker placed fifth. They opened with a sophisticated, classy rhythm dance. Adrian Diaz, a new coach on their team, was the creative force behind this dance.
“Adrian Diaz did our program for us. It was his vision. He did the whole thing,” Wamsteeker said.
“It took a long time for us to find [Latin] music that we really moved to well,” Hales added. “We went with Pink Martini. We really like her music; it has a jazzy feel to it. The jazzy feel of the rhumba and the cha-cha really resonates with us. And rhumba is a really fun rhythm, so we just figured, let’s put some big elements in the rhumba [i.e., pattern step sequence]. We felt like the stuff we’ve been doing in practice came out today. ”
The couple enjoy working with Diaz and his fiancee, Madison Hubbell, another new coach on their team.
“They’ve brought a new love of the ice for us,” said Sales.
Sales/Wamsteeker’s elegant new free dance is set to a skating
warhorse classic: Phantom of the Opera.
“Fun story there,” Wamsteeker said. “The coaches picked the music, and they kept mum about it. They wouldn’t tell us. We actually came to the same music choice independently.”
“Throughout the years, we’ve played around with [different] types of music,” Sales said.
“And we really resonate with the operas and the ballets. We decided Phantom of the Opera would be a good choice for us. It was a good run today. We definitely pulled some things through that we’ve been doing in practice, so we’re happy with that. But we do have some things that we’re eager to work on at home.”.
“It’s September; there’s all these competitions. The learning is the fun part,” Wamsteeker said philosophically.
Katarina Wolfkostin and Jeffrey Chen placed sixth in Lake Placid.
The duo presented a sassy and upbeat samba routine for their rhythm dance. Unfortunately, a fall affected their scores negatively. Nonetheless, they enjoyed performing the dynamic samba.
“One of the most important parts of a samba is to just show the joy of dancing,” said Wolfkostin. “Whenever you watch samba dancers, they’re all so super-happy and confident. It just emits from them. That’s something we want to portray. And of course, the technique. Moving hips, and getting a little more body movement in there, is important.”
Wolfkostin/Chen said they don’t mind doing a pattern step sequence, as opposed to a compulsory dance, in the RD. Chen said the pattern step sequence was “really fun.”
“Definitely more creativity can shine, since there’s no set steps,” Wolfkostin noted. “But the compulsories are really fun as well.”
“They both have their pros and cons,” Chen said.
Wolfkostin and Chen came back with a stronger free dance set to “The Dog Days are Over” by Florence and the Machine.
“It was good, but still, there were some rough parts. We’ll work on them when we get back,” Chen stated.
“Overall, it was an improvement from yesterday. I think we’re both proud of what we did out there today,” Wolfkostin commented. She said this free dance is different than anything the team has done before. “It’s a little bit more hopeful, more bright. A little bit more alternative music.”
Chen said that they’re still trying to build their competitive mindset and approach to competing.
“It’s something that we’re still developing–how to get the mindset going in, and how we prepare for all aspects of the competition. Because the smallest little thing can cause a mistake,” he said. “We’re trying to find our niche in this [discipline]. Everyone is working hard, everyone has amazing programs. We’re trying to find our own place.”
Over the summer, Wolfkostin/Chen moved to train at the new Michigan Ice Dance Academy (MIDA) with Charlie White, Tanith White, and Greg Zuerlein.
“We’re trying a lot of new things. We’re working on a bunch of stuff behind the scenes,” said Chen.
Charlie White accompanied the team to Lake Placid.
“We made a considerable amount of changes to the choreography and to the technical elements since the last time that we were here,” White said. (Wolfkostin/Chen competed in July at Lake Placid Ice Dance International.) “It takes time for it to settle in. This program has such an opportunity to be bright and joyful. Right now, it’s thinking through some stuff. The balance isn’t quite there yet. But I feel great about the way in which they approach the program and their training.”
The women’s event in Lake Placid featured an interesting field, with a few established stars and a larger group of up-and-coming skaters, many from smaller federations.
Yelim Kim of South Korea placed fifth in the short program, but came back to win the free skate and the gold medal.
“This is the first competition this season, so I think I can’t be all perfect [yet],” Kim said after the long program. “So I’m happy with my performance today.”
Kim said her goal this season is to get a medal on the Grand Prix. She spent most of the summer in Korea, but also visited Canada.
“I went to work with David Wilson for my programs,” Kim said. “David is so sweet and really funny. And I went to Kitchener, for Lee Barkell, the Canadian coach, for some jump technique. He’s really nice.”
Kim is now back at her regular U.S. training base in Colorado Springs.
Young You of South Korea won the short program, skating a powerful and dramatic tango routine. She revealed that she chose the music from a scrapbook of suggestions sent to her by fans. “The first feeling, it was really strong. I really liked the music for me,” You said.
She was a bit disappointed with her short program, as her combination was downgraded.
“It was not my best,” You said. “But I think it was a good start for this season. It’s a little disappointing that the triple Lutz/toe will be under. But still, I have more time in the future, so I can get improvement.”
You said that it was initially hard getting back into training after the Olympic season.
“I was burned out for a little bit, after the Olympics. It was kind of hard to come back. But when I came back, it started getting better and better. So it’s okay now.”
After the stress and strain of the Olympics, You is looking for a fresh start.
“I hope I can skate more happy on the ice. I want to bring back the happiness of skating that I used to [have],” she said. “And I’m trying to. Before [during Olympic season], it was more pressure, so I was not enjoying that much. But after the Olympics, I want to bring back my enjoyment of skating again. And just to have no injuries, and keep on skating well.”
When You took the ice for her long program, there was a very long wait until the previous skater’s scores were announced.
“I was like: When am I going to compete?” You said. “Finally, I was announced. It was okay. The program was not my best still, but I’m happy I can compete again after the Olympics. I thought I would do worse than this. But it was not that bad today. My Axel was still not 100% rotated; it was just landed. So I’m a little sad [about that]. I’ll keep practicing more and more for the next competitions.”
Audrey Shin placed fourth and presented a new free skate choreographed by Drew Meekins. She changed programs between her last competition and this event due to feedback at Champs Camp.
“The officials and my coaches thought it would be a good idea to try and make a new program. Just because the previous program wasn’t really my [usual] style, I would say,” Shin explained. “It’s a two-week-old program.”
Shin has been dealing with an nagging injury to her right ankle.
“Last year, it happened in the beginning of the season,” she said of the injury. “But I recovered after a month. Then it was very back and forth. It came back earlier this season, and then it disappeared, and then I had tendinitis.”
As a result, Shin is doing a triple toe/triple toe combination in her short program for now. She hopes to replace it with a triple Lutz/triple toe later in the season. Her goal this year is to skate clean in her Grand Prix events and make the podium at U.S. Nationals.
Sonja Hilmer, another American, finished fifth in Lake Placid and caught a lot of people’s attention. Hilmer is a brand-new face this year to all but the most dedicated skating fans. U.S. Classic was her first-ever official international assignment for Team USA, at age 23.
Yet, Hilmer is by no means a skating newcomer. She’s been competing in the U.S. regional and sectional ranks for over 10 years, since 2011. To date, Hilmer has yet to qualify for U.S. Nationals at any level. (Hopefully, that changes this year!) Many other–perhaps most–athletes in her shoes might have quit the sport long ago.
Yet Hilmer persisted, quietly developing her craft behind the scenes. Over the years, she became not just a skater but also a choreographer. She choreographs programs for both herself and other skaters. This personal touch made her programs arguably the most interesting, detailed, and expressive in the entire women’s event.
Hilmer herself was excited to compete in Lake Placid.
“It’s fantastic. I’m so happy to represent Team USA and to show what I’ve got,” she said.
Hilmer skated her short program to music from Christina Aguilera (“Beautiful” and “Fighter”).
She chose the songs after hearing them at competitions last season.
“I heard ‘Fighter’ as filler music in the National Qualifying Series [NQS],” Hilmer said. “After my event was done, they played it. And I was like: This would make an awesome step sequence. So I kind of bookmarked it in my mind. I do the choreography and music and steps [for my programs]. Then in my next NQS, they played ‘Beautiful’ as in-between music. And I was like, Perfect. I put those two [songs] together, and here we are.”
Hilmer debuted a new long program in Lake Placid, set to music from Arcane, an anime series based on League of Legends.
“It was a lot of fun. It was my first time doing this program in a competition. It’s brand-new, and I was really excited to see how it would feel,” Hilmer commented. “My goal, coming in, was definitely compartmentalizing. I like to think [about] one thing at a time, to perform to the top what one element can be. And breathing. Breathing’s always important.”
In the past, Hilmer said, she sometimes struggled with forgetting to breathe during performances.
“I remember going through some pattern dance tests and holding my breath for, like, all of preliminary and pre-bronze,” she said. “So now, I try to choreograph breathing spots in my choreography. As I learn new programs, I’ll run just the choreo, to find where my [breathing] spots are and then integrate that into normal training.”
Hilmer originally chose the music as an artistic piece to perform at the Peggy Fleming Trophy, then expanded it into a competitive long program.
“It’s from the series Arcane, which I absolutely love,” Hilmer said. “Their music team is fantastic. All the soundtracks are super-unique from that show. The emotion, and the choreographic feeling that I got from it, just made perfect sense.”
Hilmer was happy with her results in Lake Placid.
“I’m really pleased with my ability to stay calm and not get too jittery about all the newness here,” she said. “Because there’s a lot of newness for me. But at the end of the day, I’m just Sonja. I’m just doing my skating. So I should remember that and just go have fun.”
Jill Heiner, 20, also made her international competitive debut. Heiner–who is full of energy both on and off the ice–trains alongside Ilia Malinin in Reston, Virginia, with his parents Tatiana Malinina and Roman Skorniakov as coaches. She was thrilled to get her first international event.
“I keep saying all the time that it’s a dream,” Heiner mused. “It took me years to get here. And to be finally here, it’s so surreal.”
Heiner popped a flip jump in her short program to a single, explaining afterward that she “came way too fast” into the jump.
“I was telling Roman that I need a speed gun or something to calculate,” she joked. “I was going like 50 miles an hour, when I really need to go, like, 25 miles an hour in a school zone. I have tomorrow to fix it. I have two flip opportunities [in FS], so best believe your girl’s going to come through on the flips.”
Despite the popped jump, Heiner still enjoyed performing her short program to “Rainbow” and “Dime Store Cowgirl” by country singer Kacey Musgraves. She’s a big fan of Musgraves.
“Roman and Tatiana suggested [the music], because that’s the only thing I play at the rink. I play Kacey Musgraves nonstop. I went to her concert and almost cried multiple times. The next day, I completely lost my voice,” Heiner said. “Was it worth it? One hundred percent.”
Heiner skated to La La Land in the free skate. Although she had some mistakes at the start of her program, it got stronger as it went on. (And she did land her flip jumps! :-))
“It was really good,” Heiner said of her long program. “There are still things I can continue to work on. I was a little nervous at the beginning, but in the second half, I knew how to control my emotions and be like, Okay, do what we have to do. What I need to work on is trying to be more involved with the audience during those setups for the jumps, because that’ll help my presentation. But it was a good redemption from yesterday.”
Heiner said that, before the free skate, she talked with her personal trainer and best friend to help get her mindset in the right place.
“She’s like my older sister. I sometimes talk to her before competitions, so she can take all my hyper energy out, and [then] I can take it with calm energy and just smooth sailing,” Heiner said.
Overall, she was happy with her first international competition.
“It was pretty great. I’d love another opportunity,” Heiner said. “I’m really grateful to be here, and I feel like I fit in. I’m proud of myself, and I know that I have more to give. I want to continue to work and build upon this.”
The top four pairs in Lake Placid were all doing their second competition within one week, having previously competed at the John Nicks Pairs Challenge in New York City on Sept. 8-9.
Rebecca Ghilardi and Filippo Ambrosini of Italy won gold in both Lake Placid and New York City. It was a nice start for them after last season, which ended on a disappointing note when they had to withdraw from Worlds due to getting covid-19.
“The best point [last season] was the Olympics,” Ambrosini said. “After we did that, we [took time to] relax, and covid happened. It was hard. But we worked this summer to improve all of our elements.”
The team’s short program went well and entertained the crowd in Lake Placid.
“The public was fun. In the middle of the music, they start clapping,” Ambrosini said.
“We love it when we see that,” Ghilardi commented. “It’s not so easy to choose the music at the beginning of the season. You know that you did the right choice when you feel that the people are saying: Yes, we like it, we like what you are doing. When you feel the energy coming back to you, it’s the best feeling in the world.”.
“For the last year, it was nothing public,” Ambrosini added, referring to the many events held without audiences over the last year or two, due to covid. “So this year, when we skate–”
“–We want to do, like, a show program,” Ghilardi said.
Until this season, Ghilardi/Ambrosini had spent most of their career as the #2 Italian pair, behind longtime Italian champions Nicole Della Monica/Matteo Guarise. Now, with Della Monica’s retirement, it’s their turn to step into the spotlight. Although it’s exciting, it adds some pressure on the team.
“Everyone wants us to move up. Also for us, we want to go up,” said Ambrosini. “But it’s also stressful, a little bit.”
“Everything is open. We have a chance to reach our goals,” Ghilardi said. “And for sure, this [U.S. Classic victory] is one of our goals for the season.”
Ghilardi/Ambrosini presented a classical, but humorous, program in the free skate, centered around the character of Figaro in Italian opera. It’s the first time they’ve skated to opera.
“It was great,” Ambrosini said of their performance. “We really like this [program], because it’s classical, and the opera is from Italy, and we like [to] give some music for Italy. Also, the public enjoyed the program.”
Ghilardi said that it was hard competing for the second time in one week.
“But we tried to give our best, and we did it, so we are really happy about it,” she said.
The duo commented on the challenges of interpreting their operatic music, which was suggested by their coach, Franca Bianconi.
“Every time when we skate this program, we need to go inside of the part [role],” Ambrosini said.
“And feel the character. Especially with Figaro, the character is very important,” Ghilardi added. “We try to really give life to our character. We hope that people understand and that judges like the point of view. For sure, we need to work on this, because it’s very important for both programs this year.”
The duo said that they may compete at Finlandia Trophy in October before starting their Grand Prix events.
Emily Chan and Spencer Howe brought back their successful “Nyah” short program from last season, and placed second in that segment. In the free skate, they debuted a new program to Ghost and took the silver medal.
“It was our personal-best score [FS],” Howe noted. “So for us, it was a step in the right direction. We need to continue to train. This whole start of the season has been a little bit rough for us, so we were happy that we could come out here and do our thing and leave the ice feeling somewhat good about the performance.”
Chan said the team has had some “minor injuries that we’ve been managing and had to work into our training. Our goal right now is to take each competition as another opportunity to learn, so that ultimately at Nationals and later, we can put it all together.”
The team had been interested in skating to the music from Ghost for some time. This season seemed like the right time to try it.
“How we pick music is really interesting, because we play music and we skate to it, and just improv, and see how we feel,” Chan explained. “We like to really feel the music. It has to speak to us. When the right music comes on, we just know: This is it. We can feel it in our bones.”
“A fun fact is that my father helped cut the music,” Howe said. “The last piece is a different version of that song, and it was his idea to put that together.”
“He put the final touch on it,” Chan agreed.
“It changed the whole tone of that last part [of the program],” said Howe. “That’s thanks to my dad.”
Chan and Howe helped choreograph the program, along with their coach, Olga Ganicheva.
“Since the start of our partnership with Olga, we’ve always just all worked together to choreograph,” Howe said.
“We love being creative, and creating our own pieces to any music,” Chan added. “We look at it as a fun opportunity to express ourselves. In the past, we’d do little tiny sections [of choreography]. This season, we’ve been able to put together bigger pieces.”
Valentina Plazas and Maximiliano Fernandez won bronze medals at both John Nicks and U.S. Classic. Considering these were the team’s first-ever international competitions, they were happy with their results.
Their “Maria” short program went well, except for Plazas’s fall on their side-by-side triple toe loop.
“We’re using this as a stepping-stone,” Fernandez said afterward. “We competed last week at John Nicks and performed pretty well. And this was just another day of training for us, because we treat competition like training.”
“We’re a little bit tired, but it’s a good opportunity to do back-to-back competitions, just for our career and future events,” Plazas said. “At John Nicks, I popped to a single on my jump. So today, I wanted to rotate and put some points on the board. And I rotated, but I fell. One step at a time. Putting out our programs [and] getting what the judges think of our components, and our technical elements, is what we’re focusing on right now. They always tell us: Work on your crossovers. Now we know what we need to focus on during practice.”
Plazas/Fernandez’s long program had a few jump errors, but some nice pairs elements. Their highest-scoring element was their second lift, which is a reverse lift that their coach Amanda Evora performed during her pairs career with Mark Ladwig. Originally created by U.S. pair siblings Melissa and Mark Militano in the 1970s, the lift was updated by Evora/Ladwig in 2008, adding elements from rollerskating lifts. Evora has now passed the lift on to Plazas/Fernandez.
“It was an improvement and a learning experience for everybody,” Fernandez said of their long program. “We’ve only been together for so long. It’s a lot to take in.”
“I feel good about it. We had a rough warmup, and we were able to pull ourselves together and put some stuff out there,” Plazas declared. “Improvements here and there. It’s all good.”
The duo enjoy performing their long program, set to music from the Avengers movies. “It’s very inspiring to listen to the music and hear the big bass that just keeps you going,” Fernandez said.
Next up for Plazas/Fernandez is Finlandia Trophy and, then, Skate America.
“We got the [TBD] spot for Skate America, so we’re going to focus on getting ready for that and peaking,” Plazas said.
“And really trying to improve our speed and our second mark,” Fernandez added.
U.S. team Maria Mokhova, 16, and Ivan Mokhov, 23, launched their senior international career with fourth-place finishes at both John Nicks and U.S. Classic.
Like Sonja Hilmer in ladies, the Mokhov siblings have been skating in domestic U.S. competitions for a long time. And they’ve won three medals on the national level (intermediate/novice/junior). However, until this September, they had never been able to compete internationally, because their seven-year age gap caused them to miss out entirely on junior international competition. (By the time Maria became age-eligible for juniors, Ivan was already old.)
The Mokhovs were, therefore, very happy to finally make their international debut in New York City and Lake Placid. Their father Andrey Mokhov, who coaches them, along with their mother Oksana Yakusheva, accompanied them to Lake Placid and was thrilled to see his children compete.
“I’m proud of them. I love them,” Andrey said after the short program, grinning ear to ear and giving his kids a hug.
The Mokhovs impressed both fans and judges with two elegant, old-school-style programs to classic skating music (“Malaguena” and “Die Fledermaus”) that emphasized their strong unison and pairs elements.
Maria Mokhova said: “We’re really excited. It was our goal [to compete internationally]. And we’re proud to represent the United States.”
The duo said that they’ve been working on confidence, speed, and consistency of elements in preparation for this season..
“We started [pairs] when we were really, really little. About seven or eight years ago. We started building our potential, and working really hard,” Maria said.
“We get along really well. We’re best friends,” Ivan noted.
Their little brother Mikhail is also a competitive skater on the U.S. intermediate level.
Megan Wessenberg and Blake Eisenach, who were pewter medalists at U.S. Junior Nationals last year, rounded out the U.S. team in pairs in Lake Placid. They placed sixth.
Wessenberg/Eisenach had to deal with a long delay on the ice before starting their free skate.
“There were some technical difficulties with getting the panel started, so we were waiting around quite a bit, which is unusual for us,” Eisenach said. “But our coach [Todd Sand] kept us really calm, and we went out there with no hesitation. We’re ready to get home and train our butts off.”
“We’ve been focusing on building up all of our elements, moving from junior to senior,” Wessenberg said. “Over the summer, we had a few setbacks in training. We were a little limited in our preparation, coming here, but we really wanted to push ourselves to get as prepared as possible and get some experience under our belt.”
“I had a foot injury that took me off the ice for a little bit [this summer],” Eisenach revealed. “But luckily, I’m feeling a lot better and ready to hit the ground running.”
And that’s all from the mixed zone at U.S. Classic!
One thought on “U.S. Classic: A Look Back at Lake Placid”
Came across this when going through my reader, and am following the blog now! 🙂 And, please forgive the plug in a way, but my grandmother’s boyfriend worked at the 1932 Lake Placid Olympics. He was an excellent ice skater, he helped lay the flag under the ice, and he escorted Sonja Henie onto the ice. My story in this anthology (https://www.amazon.com/Phantom-Games-Dimensions-2020/dp/B08KQP53X2/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=) was inspired by him (very imaginatively, of course!). Looking forward to more from your site!