SAN JOSE — Imagine working for years, targeting one of the most elusive goals in sports.
Then recognizing that all of those practices and training and competitions lead to four minutes or so when you must be at your best. Or else the dream collapses.
That’s how American figure skaters approach this week’s national championships, which serve as the United States’ qualifier for the Pyeongchang Olympics in February and begin Wednesday.
Nervous time? Sure.
Maybe it’s appropriate that nationals will take place at the Shark Tank. Competitors need to be as relentless as a great white.
“I definitely think there is additional pressure,” defending men’s champion Nathan Chen said. “But it is reassuring. I am happy with the way things have gone, happy I am in this position. This is what I wanted for a long time. I personally remind myself to embrace it.”
America could embrace Chen, who comes off a Grand Prix Final victory and, with his five quadruple jumps in his free skate, has ratcheted up the technical level for all men. He’ll be a heavy favorite to make the Olympic squad, and a strong contender for a medal in South Korea.
“Every competition is different, regardless of how you prepare yourself or how you look at it, it always will be a little bit different,” said the 18-year-old from Salt Lake City who trains in Lakewood, California. “Through all the experiences I have had so far, I kind of know what to expect from a pressure standpoint, and the pressure is always pretty similar. And it really helps me approach the competition from a skating aspect better; I know how to get myself physically ready. So when the competition happens, I can turn to more mental things.
“Honestly, I have not done any major changes, just kind of rely on that when I get to the competition my training will come through.”
Jason Brown, a 2014 bronze medalist in the team competition at the Sochi Games, Adam Rippon and Vincent Zhou figure to be the main contenders for the other two U.S. spots in Pyeongchang.
There’s no overwhelming favorite in the women’s event, which could come down to the experience of three-time national champion Ashley Wagner, also a Sochi bronze winner in the team event, and 2010 Olympian Mirai Nagasu. Defending champion Karen Chen has had a difficult season.
There’s no Michelle Kwan or Tara Lipinski around who could push aside the Russians or Japanese who form the strength of the women’s division.
“The constant struggle in our sport always is finding the balance between artistry and the technical side, the athletic side of the sport,” Lipinski said, adding she doesn’t see any of the American women being on the same level as the Russians, in particular. “But I think that’s what makes skating so magical is because everyone does have their own different preferences and opinions. It’s definitely a bit more interesting than a sport that has a finish line.”
The finish line in ice dance could include an American couple on the Olympic podium. Maia and Alex Shibutani have followed in the skate steps of Sochi champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White. The sister-brother combo is a strong choice to win a third U.S. title; the Shibutanis also own three world medals.
While the teams of Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue, and Madison Chock and Evan Bates are formidable and should also make the U.S. squad for Pyeongchang, the “Shib Sibs” are the main challengers to French and Canadian ice dancers who have owned most of the international gold recently.
“This is definitely a different role, we were learning when we went to Sochi,” Alex Shibutani said. “We were very lucky that when we entered the senior ranks, we were traveling with Charlie and Meryl and they were our training mates and friends. They were at a different stage of their career than we were. That sort of prepared us for the stage we are at now.
“Definitely we’re in a leadership position similar to what they were in going into the 2014 Games. We’re proud to have won the only world medal at the past world championships from the U.S.”
The United States gets three Olympic spots in everything but pairs, where it has struggled and will have only one berth in South Korea.