Detroit — The U.S. Figure Skating Championships are Nathan Chen’s show, with strong support from some dancers with roots in Michigan.
Both the defending men’s world champion and the United States’ great depth in ice dancing, established after Russian coaches encamped in southeastern Michigan in the 1990s, will be on display in the national championships Thursday through Sunday at Little Caesars Arena.
And, a sprite will provide some compelling moments.
In the depleted women’s event, still called “ladies” in figure skating, a 13-year-old mighty mite, Alysa Liu, the 4-foot, 7-inch national junior champion from California, could take a big step toward stardom.
Competing in August as a novice in the Asian Open Trophy in Thailand, Liu performed a clean triple axel.
She is the youngest skater in history to land the triple axel in international competition, and only the fourth United States woman to perform the difficult jump, which has a forward take-off requiring an extra half revolution to complete.
Liu is to skate in senior competition in Detroit, with some chance of winning.
Because she is not yet 15 years old, Liu is ineligible for the 2019 World Championships.
But, when the United States skates in the premier event of the season, March 18-24 in Japan, Chen will defend his title, and three of the ice dancing couples skating this week at Little Caesars Arena will vie for medals.
Chen is continuing a career transformation from great athlete to stylist, all while he attends Yale full time.
His considerable training in ballet is an advantage for a skater well-practiced in the pyrotechnics of quadruple jumps.
The king of the quads, Chen landed a historic half-dozen of them at the 2018 Winter Olympics, 30 years after Kurt Browning, of Canada, landed the first in competition.
Chen has dominated recent men’s events. But, his fall at PyeongChang on a combination quadruple lutz, triple toe loop resulted in 17th place after the short program.
His electrifyingly brilliant finale vaulted him 12 places, but left him off the podium.
In Detroit, Chen said, his focus will be on current affairs.
“Every competition, you come in fresh,” he said. “You’ve never done that competition.
“I learned a quite lot from last season, the Olympics, the worlds and all of that. But I definitely don’t want to carry my past mistakes and successes too much into the future.”
While a third consecutive U.S. Championship is almost assured, Chen’s performance will indicate how he is preparing for his defense of the World Championship.
“I think I do actually prefer being in sort the underdog position,” he said of the nationals. “But, at the same time, it is what it is. and I have to skate, basically, as well as I can and regardless of any of the external things.”
As he walked between undergraduate classes on campus in Ann Arbor last week, Charlie White marveled at Chen’s career.
White, who won the 2014 Olympic gold medal in ice dancing with Meryl Davis, will provide online commentary for NBC at the nationals.
“Headlining the excitement of it all is Nathan Chen,” he said. “He’s just proven himself to be such a dynamic person, in every sense.
“The fact that he is going to Yale full time while competing at the highest level and, indeed, pushing his level higher, is just such a spectacular story.
“And, he’s coming in as a heavy, heavy favorite.
“So, it will be about him preparing for the next competitions, the Four Continents and the worlds and how he does that, and how he uses these U.S. championships to grow and compete and mature,” White said.
Jackie Wong, an analyst who hosts the Ice Talk podcast on Ice Network, said Chen’s development is addressing the balance between technical strength and artistry.
“There’s the combination of the all-around basic skating, foundational skating, and then the artistic choreography, musicality, interpretations of music,” Wong said. “It’s the combination of those two, and he’s been working a lot on that.
“He inherently naturally has the knack for musical skating, and it hasn’t been that difficult for him to sort of redefine himself as an all-around skater rather than a jumper. But, obviously, he still has the jumps, and that’s what’s made him the kind of skater that he is.”
In ice dancing, while the influence of Michigan has begun to wane, skaters born or trained in the southeastern part of the state are competing.
Some of the top dancing couples have changed coaches and moved to Montreal, from where the wife-and-husband coaches Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon hold increasing influence in the sport.
And, this month, Marina Zueva, the coach who trained medal-winning Olympic ice dancers in 2006, 2010, 2014 and 2018 at the Arctic Edge in Canton, announced that she is moving to Florida.
Igor Shpilband, who once worked with Zueva to coach teams like Davis and White, the Canadian world and Olympic champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, continues to train skaters at the Novi Ice Arena.
Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, the defending national champions and winners of the silver medal at the 2018 World Championship are favored. They finished fourth, behind Maia and Alex Shibutani, of Ann Arbor, in PyeongChang.
The Shibutanis are not skating in the nationals.
Hubbell, 27, was born in Okemos, resides in Ann Arbor and trains in Montreal. She began ice dancing at age 8 with her brother, Keiffer, representing the Lansing Skating Club.
A decade later, she paired with Donohue and began training at the Detroit Skating Club, before heading to Montreal in April 2015.
“It’s been a great season for us; I can be difficult after such a whirlwind of a year, 2018 was very busy with lots of highs and lows,” Hubbell said. “And, I think we’ve been able to come out even stronger through this whole grand prix season, able to get our first grand prix final title.
“So, we’re really picking up our momentum and excited to perform in Detroit.
“I’ll have a lot of family at the arena, so it’s going to feel very nice to defend our title with all the support in the crowd.”
Madison Chock and Evan Bates rebounded from a fall at the Olympics to win the hearts of many with a heroic performance, despite a disappointing score.
The nationals are their first major competition after her recovery from surgery to remove bone chips from her ankle.
Chock lives in Novi and Bates in Ann Arbor, and they also have moved their training to Montreal, after several years in Novi and Canton.
“It felt really, really great to be back competing again,” Chock said after they participated recently in a lower-level event in Poland.
“We had a really good first outing, and we felt like we performed our program well, for the first time.
“We’re really excited about our material this season. Our main goal is to get people excited about our skating, as much as we are, because we feel such a newfound passion for skating and an excitement that we haven’t felt in a long time.”
Chock and Bates were the 2015 national champions.
The women’s event is affected by Ashley Wagner’s decision to pass on the season, so far, as the three-time national champion and world silver medalist contemplates her future.
Gracie Gold also withdrew. The two-time national champion and Olympic bronze medalist grapples with health issues.
Also, Olympians Nagasu and Karen Chen are not competing. Nagasu might be considering retirement and Chen is recovering from injuries.
While Bradie Tennell is likely to defend her national championship, many eyes are on Liu to see if she can be the next big thing, in the event that traditionally is point of interest for the United States.
“To me,” said Philip Hersh, an analyst for NBC Sports, “Alysa is the most intriguing story of the whole competition.”
U.S. Figure Skating Championships
When: Through Sunday
Where: Little Caesars Arena, Detroit
Tickets: Call (313) 471-7000 or visit 2019uschampionships.com
Wednesday: Junior pairs short program, 10:30 a.m.; junior rhythm dance, 2:45 p.m.; junior ladies and men’s free skate, 5:30 p.m.
Thursday: Junior pairs free skate, 11:45 a.m.; championship pairs short program, 4:30 p.m.; championship ladies short program, 8 p.m.
Friday: Junior free dance, noon; championship rhythm dance, 3:45 p.m.; opening ceremonies and championship ladies free skate, 6:30 p.m.
Saturday: Championship pairs free skate and championship men’s short program, 9:25 a.m. and 1:15 p.m.; championship free dance, 6:30 p.m.
Sunday: Championship men’s free skate, 2 p.m.; skating spectacular, 8 p.m.